Tamil concept of Bhairava

In Tamil tradition, Bhairava had not only suppressed the haughtiness of Brahma by plucking off his head, but also suppressed the insolent Nrsimha­-Visnu who became proud, out of his action of having killed demon Hiranyakasipu in the enumeration of Nrsimha incarnation of Visnu (Narayaniya section, Mahabharata; Bhagavata, Agni, Matsyapuranas). Sirkalisthalapuranam (v.5) of Arunachala Kavirayar (AD 1634-1700) states that Bhairava killed Nrsimha and wore the hide as his garment or overcoat It is also referred to that he destroyed the vanity of Vamana, who in his later expansive form as Trivikrama measured the three worlds by his two feet, and hence killed him and used his bones as his mace. Laksmi, the consort of Visnu, prayed to the Lord for the restoration of the life of Visnu and Bhairava granted her request. Bhavanikudarpuranam v.11 refers to the Lord who plucked off one of the five heads, Bhairava thrusted the sula into the body of Tirumal ‘Visnu’. Mayurapuranam (v.11) mentions that the sula and nails of Bhairava, one sharp enough over which the five great armies of Visnu trembled, and the blood was caught into the skull of brahma. Kadambavanapuranam (v.6) quotes him as Ksetrapala, the possessor of Brahmakapala, tore the body of Nrsimha and wore the hide around the waist. Vayiravan koil sthalamanmiyam refers to that Vayiraran thrusted the sula into the demons like Matamirttinan, Manimallan and Atiyarai Tiruvotturpuranam refers to Bhairava as Muttan (Kavirayar 1990:38).

In Tamil nomenclature, Bhairava is therefore called Cattainathan “Wearer of overcoat” because he tore the body of Nrsimha and wore the hide as his garment. The puranic accounts of Saiva mythology specifically states that Siva in his wild-form of Sarabha, assuming two-headed, two-winged and eight-legged leonine form, caught hold of Nrsimha and tore him up. Therefore, it is understood that Siva had destroyed the pride of Nrsimha in his Sarabha form. (Sastri 1916: 148). But, from the Tamil sthalapurana accounts, it is also known that Nrsimha was killed by Bhairava who wore his garment and came to be widely called as Cattainathar. It is clear that the two episodic matters are simultaneously current in art and thought among the people of Tamilnadu. There is also a temple dedicated to Vayiravan recalling such a function in Mattakilappu district in Sri Lanka which is now known as Maha Nrsinga Vayiravarsvami Alayam in a place, Vayiravankadu (Kandayyya 1983:207).

It is conceptually held by the people that Siva assumed or absorbed himself all the souls of beings when the great deluge menaced the world. It is stated that Siva maintains, protects and creats the entire world seated himself along with Parvati in a large boat, hence he is termed as Toniappar (Sirkalisthalapuranam). When there was a great deluge submerging the whole world, he absorbed himself all souls, tiny and huge alike and sixty four arts, and Varuna, the god of water and ocean offered his submission adoring the Lord. (Sivaparakramam 1895; Marudavanapuranam V.No.8). The wearing of garment is analogous to the absorption of the souls within his body-universe. The Tamil terms, Karonam, Karohanam and Kayarohanam signifies the symbolic attitude of the Lord who at the end of Kalpa (aeons) or pralaya (deluge) absorbs (arohanam, a symbolic synonym of grahanam) all souls. Here Kayam in Tamil implies the body, which means the soul only. Having swallowed up and consumed Time, Bhairava had taken into himself “the agonies of all time, the death pangs of creatures, the hollow horrors of life” (Kramrisch 1981:285).

Kumbhakonapuranam mentions that Sri Rama who, after crossing Dandaka forest in. search of Sita, reached Kumbakonam, worshipped Siva therein and requested the Lord to part with his Rudramsa ‘quality or body of Rudra”, into his own self in order to fight against the demons. The Puranic verse mentions; adienan Kayattul Ni-amaya Arokanam sey. Hence, it is stated that Rudra-Siva entered into the body of Rama. It intends to imply the pervasiveness of Rudra-Siva, who consumes all bodies or souls within himself, an equivalent of Papabhaksana “swallower of sins”.

fig 1(Curtesy:

It has been traditionally held that the philosophy behind Kayarohana was first enunciated by Lakulisa, the founder of a type of Pasupata sect, who is said to have lived around 1st century AD in the ancient Kayarohana (Karvan, Baroda district, Gujarat) (Banerjea 1974 450; Shah 1984:96). The followers of Lakulisa must have founded centres of faith at various places. In Tamilnadu, the Saiva sects like Pasupatas and Kalamukhas were popular from the time of the Pallavas. Mahendravarma (AD 600-630) Pallava’s Mattavilasaprahasanam contain references to the Kalamukhas and they are occasionally considered the same as Pasupatas (Bhandarkar 1965-171). The sculptural carvings depicting Kalamukhas are found in the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchipuram- Kalamukhas or Pasupatas adored the ugra forms of Siva especially the Bhairava forms and carvings of sectarian nature, glorifying Saiva forms and belittling Vaisnava forms, began to be carved in sculptural production for which immense puranas and literature sprang forth. The Sarabha and Bhairava-Cattainathasvami are intended to explain the concept of Pasupata sect and the sectarian ideology of the Kalamukhas.

In Tamilnadu, three Karonasthalas are found probably founded by the Pasupata sects and they are in Nagapattinam, Kumbhakonam and Kanchipuram. The Brahmapurisvara temple at Sirkali is now dedicated to Cattainathasvami.

Canonical descriptions

It is prescribed in the Sarasvatiya Citrakarma Sastram (ch.35) that the forms of Bhairava or Ksetrapala are broadly and qualitatively classified into three classes of sattvika, rajas and tamasa5. The first class should have two or four hands, the second six hands and the third eight hands (Mayamata 36, 178 – 179 a). He carries trisula in right hand, kapa1a in left hand if he is two-armed: khadga, or sula in right hand, ghanta or sula in left hand, varada and abhaya in front hands if he is four-armed; trisula, khadga, ghanta, khetaka, kapala and nagapasa if he is six-armed; dhanus and bana and the same weapons given for six-armed types if he is eight armed. (Rao 1971:II.II: 496). Mayamata (36.179 -185) mentions that he carries the kapala and trisula or khatvanga and parasu if he is two armed; back hands carry any set of weapons given above and the front hands are in abhaya and varada poses if he is four armed; trisula, ghanta and khadga in right hands and khetaka, kapala and sarpapasa in left hands if he is six-armed; dhanus and astra plus all weapons of six-armed variety if he is eight-armed. Sritatvanidhi mentions of Svarnakarsana Bhairava having four arms carrying ratnapatras, and sula and chamara resting upon the shoulder. It mentions of Vatuka Bhairava carrying sula, kapala, pasa and damaru surrounded by Paisacha and Bhutas accompanied by his dog vehicle reminding of Rudra’s terrible wide mouthed dogs. The hair is arranged in disheveled condition or horripilating hair or jvalakesa reminding of his association with Agni and Rudra (Sivaramamurti 1979: Intr. 11). He has three eyes, four hands carrying vajra and parasu in right hands, the skull and sula in left. He wears patrakundala and nakrakundala in right and left ears respectively. Visnudharmottarapurana (Ch.59) states that he should be made round and tawny eyes, wide nostrils and side tusks (damsta). He has hanging belly wearing a garland of skulls and snake ornaments and possessed of sharp and beautiful nails. He should be shown as frightening Parvati with a snake. In Tamil tradition, his vehicle is called namaliyurti “dog-vehicle”. The dog represents four Vedas and Dharma2. He is therefore called Svasva. Bhairava “whose horse is a dog sunavahana (Murthi Dhyanam Bhairava Dhyanam V. 103″) svan or vrka, sometime his vehicle is mrtaka (corpse) and nara (man) (Liebert 1986:36). He is stark naked and surrounded by his female counterparts like Tadrigai and Gaurigai, Rsis, Gandharvas and Kinnaras.

Sculptures known as Beki Bhairava are found in the temples of Karnataka and the motifs have two human heads placed in juxtaposition having pleasing expression (Prasad 1978:23). Vatuka Bhairavakalpa mentions that he has three eyes with ruddy physiognomy. He carries sula, pasa, damaru and kapala riding upon a dog, surrounded by a host of fiends. He should be stark naked. He is occasionally depicted in art with three-heads ithyphallic during his dance (Gaston 1982: pl. 17b). Ajaikapada Bhairava, having only one leg with ithyphallic carving, is found in the Yogini temple (10th century A.D.) at Hirapur, Orissa.

To be continued…

Dr. T. Chandrakumar
Department of Sculpture
Tamil University, Thanjavur

Source: Journal of Indian History and Culture, September 1996.

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