Iconography of Bhairava-Cattainathasvami

A general form of Bhairava in art is essential in this connection in order to understand the other form and explainable with the help of an artistic specimen that come from Hoysalesvara temple at Halebidu.

01He is nude carrying terrible weapons of attributes like the severed head and cup; long trisula, serpent, khatvanga (bone) in front right hands, khadga, ghanta, damaru, cakra, in the corresponding left arms. He wears ghantamala around the prominent waist which look feminine in nature recalling the Hoyala school of art. He has frowned look, ovoid eyes and wide nostrils. The trnetra is beautifully carved. He wears kanthis (necklets), long necklaces, bhujangavalayas, anklets and nupuras. which are intended to suggest the dancing attitude. He is surrounded by goblins who are seen playing on instruments. He stands on a fallen demon. The intricate workmanship, and the waist pattern are suggestive of the icon being carved out during 12th – 13th centuries A.D.

A relief – carving of Bhairava in Cattainatha aspect is found carved on a pillar of the mukhamandapa in front of the Siva temple at Devikapuram (N.A.Dt).

02He is standing erect (samapadasthanaka) and dressed himself up with garment (of hide)6 covering the whole body descending upto the knee, thus the nakedness of Bhairava is done away with. The full-sleeved shirt looks like a pyjama much stylised and appears to have been a stitched garment, because the borders are shown double-lined with the knot-tassel over the chest. He looks terrific with round bulging eyes with arched eyebrows. The fangs at the end of the mouth offer a more roudric form which is further heightened in the depiction of flaming hairstyle and the end of the hairs is coiled. He has two arms reminding the typology of sattvika carrying damara and trisula which is planted at the pedestal. We get a staff suspended over the shoulder level, a stylised one with artistic mouldings and it represents the khatvanga bone of Vamana-Trivikrama whom he annihilated, a synonymous attribute of Lakuta.

03The ornaments are sparsely depicted wearing kanthis long necklace made probably made of rudraksa, patrakundalas in the ears, anklets and vastrayajnapavita worn across the chest. A diminutive female figure at the right side of the image is depicted and her hands are held in anjalimudra and it represents the image of Laksmi who is in the act of beseaching for the revival of the life of the Visnu.

Another type of Bhairava-Cattainathasvami in dancing attitude is found carved in the Visnu temple at Tirukkurunkudi. Though he wears full-sleeved garment, he is shown in naked appearance. He wears sandals, and he has big moustache. He holds damaru and trisula in (broken condition). He has the urdhvakesa headgear suggesting horripilation.


The Bhairava cult was a popular and widespread one throughout the Indian sub-continent. The exclusive cult of Bhairava in Cattainathasvami aspect centers around the Arokanasthalas like Kanchipuram, Kumbhakonam and Nagapattinam. The relief carving from Devikapurarn throws light upon the dimension of the cult and belief, the concept of Kayarohana is closely aligned to the popular belief of Cattainathasvami as exampled in the Sthalapuranas. The concept of Bhairava killing Brahma is itself an act aimed at magnifying the supremacy of Siva, hollowed by the Saiva Nayanmars during 7th – 8th centuries A.D. The concept of glorifying the supremacy of Siva was not only restricted to Brahma but also extended to Visnu. The concept of Cattainathasvami, annihilating both Nrsimha and Vamana-Trivikrama, incarnations of Visnu evidently shows the sectarian attitude. Innumerable compositions of Saiva sthalapuranas are sung by ardent devotees during the later medieval period and expression of their thought finds its convergence in artistic specimens in temple. Bhairava’s mantrabhijams and yantras in connection with esoteric method of worship originated in the later medieval period. (Balasubramanyam 1988:241).


  1. Lalitasahasranama occurs in the Lalitopakhyana section of Brahmandapuranam which was imparted by Hayagriva to sage Agastya. (Mahadevan. 1986:22).
  2. The carvings illustrating the samhara forms of Siva, such as Gajasamhara, Tripurantaka and Virabhadra and Durga killing Mahisasuramardini as described in the Devimahatmya are found in the temples throughout the Indian Subcontinent. But the specific portrayal delineating the decapitation is rarely depicted in the art-motifs. Only the second stage after the incident, i.e., Bhairava holding the skull of Brahma is shown and the first scene is uniquely absent in the sculptural art.
  3. Apastamba Grhyasutra. Pracanam 10:29 and I: 9:24 and Manudharmasasttram (11:79 and 86) refers to Brahmahatya and mentions that one who killed a Brahmin should live on begging for twelve years carrying the decapitated head of the Brahmin and hold a khatvanga. He should lead a life away from the pale of urbanite surrounding i.e., must live in forest by building a hut constructed by his own hands. He should wear the hide of a horse or donkey and must beg at one time in seven houses only and if he does not get any food from the seven houses, he should starve throughout the day. He should look after the kin of the villages and rear them.
  4. Bhairava is occasionally depicted in art as dancing frantically. He performs his dance at Benaras. Kurmapurana describes him dancing while carrying the body of Visvaksena. The dance is Bhairava’s medium for expressing his mercurial nature impelled by excessive joy or anger (Gaston 1982:164). Ananda Coomaraswami says in Siddhanta Dipika (1912 VoL 13) that his dance reflects the tamasic character of Bhairava and Virabhadra as quoted by Minakshi (1977:315). Saudhikagama states that he should be a Nrttamurti. Cilappatikaram calls this dance as (Gaston 1982:235n).
  5. Sattvika, rajas and tamasa represent three human qualities such as goodness or purity, passion and ignorance illusion and lust respectively. The qualities are iconographically explained in the representation of yogasana holding the hand in Varadamudra for sattvika type; as seated upon the vahana holding weapons and also in varadamudra for rajasa and as fighting against demons for
  6. An image of Siva wearing overcoat is found in one of the pillars of the Kalyanamandapa of Jalakanthesvara temple at Vellore. He is shown engaged in pacifying Parvati for her anger, evidently indicating the Gangadhara form.


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

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

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