February 2022

Nataraja is also an incarnation of Shiva and was created by Shiva for a special purpose.While writing this sentence, suddenly a thought flashed through my mind; why did Shiva create His special incarnation for subduing or annihiliating different types of negative and harmful forces? Why He in His well known Avatara i.e. in one form obliterated all the negative forces? Do our mythological stories are structured like this to impart certain lesson? Yes, I think it is so. Perhaps they want to convey that we all have multiple facets to our being and to face different type of obstacles, we need to work on a particular facet of our personality. We have to sharpen different skills to overcome different type of peoblems. All types of battles can not be fought by a single type of weapon. Well, that is my interpretation, what do you have to say on the matter?

Anyway, so here you see Nataraja, the dancing Shiva. But upon whom is He dancing? Who is the figure under His feet? He is Apasmara.

Apasmara is a demon dwarf and as per our mythology it represents ignorance. Infact Apsmara is also said to represent memory loss, Apa means negation, samara is smriti; memory. In Ayurvada Apasmara refers to epilapsy.In epilapsy too the person tends to forget oneself when under its attack.

Apasmara is a symbol of ignorance and laziness, and Nataraja, a symbol of cosmic motion dances keeping it under His feet. Like all other demons Apasmara is not killed but crushed, kept under control.Ignorance has to co-exist with wisdom. Ignorance can never be obliterated, ended completely, be it on individual level or all of us as a universal community, but we definitely need to keep it in check.Apasmara is immortal. To me Nataraja gives an impression of dancing in complete abundance, a swirling, energetic motion. Does it suggest if ignorance and laziness is kept under control life is full of joy and motion?

This ignorance can have another dimension too. Ignorance about presence of divinity, goodness within us, or say spiritual ignorance. If we keep the negation within us under check, we get to experience that abundance of joy flowing through our being. It rushes through every artery to spread the purity and we feel in harmony with the symphony vibrating through every iota around us.  Trample the Apasmara and awaken Shiva within, says Nataraja.

story of Nataraja
Natraja, dancing Shiva

Picture by Sunder Iyer.


Look at this relief on the wall. Who could he be?  That wreath on his head and beautiful, serene face, doesn’t he look like a Greek God? But that wreath is not of flowers. Zoom in and you find skulls roped in like beads. Interesting, isn’t it? What a fabulous fusion the sculptor’s imagination has created! Neck and beneath till the feet, is it some Jain Muni? Hoyasalas followed Jainism. In fact Queen Shantala the most popular and dynamic queen of the dynasty followed Jainism till her death. There are many Jain basadis and temples spread across Hoyasala kingdom. But he can never be representing anyone even remotely linked to Jainism. Those skulls, snakes, and bhoot, pishach kind of figures in the side towards bottom, the dog licking the blood tells otherwise. Even though the face reflects serenity of the munis, this sculptor surely did not have any Jain muni in his mind. Then who he could be?

It is the most mysterious and enigmatic God of Hindus, The Bhairava.Bhairava is an incarnation of Shiva. Yes, the tridents, the snake around neck, the bhoot pisachs all confirm the association with Shiva. If you come to think of it even the serenity on face is that of Siva. Surrounded by all kinds very unusual companions, His Ganas, even in midst of chaos, decked up in His strange adornments Shiva sits perfectly still, calm and sublime. So yes, this is Bhairava, who was created by Shiva Himself.

Do you know what the skull in his hand and the begging bowl represent? The story goes like this; once Brahma and Shiva had an argument over the issue of supremacy. Enraged by Brahma’s continuous atrocious behaviour Shiva created Bhairava. That is why Bhairava is known as Raudra roop of Shiva. As it happened Bhairava immediately after taking shape decapitated Brahma’s fifth head, which actually was creating the entire problem. But this fifth head of Brahma stuck in Bhairava’s hand and could not be dislodged. The head in Bhairava’s hand in this relief is that fifth head of Brahma. How so ever angry Shiva was with Brahma’s unethical behaviour and He Himself had created Bhairava but justice is a highly valued ethic in our religion, hence Shiva punished Bhairava for the sin of Brahmahatya. He ordered Bhairava to roam around the earth with a begging bowl like a mendicant. That is why we see the bowl in his hand and Bhairava is shown naked or say in tattered rags.

So in this relief the sculptor has etched Bhairava as a mendicant walking on earth with skull and bowl. In this avatara dog is said to be vahana of Bhairava. Otherwise too just imagine Bhairava walking on streets in rags with a bowl and skull in hand, his flaming hair waving and,  dogs following him flashes as a natural reaction.

The mythological story further progresses like this. Shiva while ordering Bhairava thus had told that when the skull would automatically dislodge from his hands, he should understand that he had been absolved off his sin and then he had to stay at that place and this happened when Bhairava entered Kashi. Since then Bhairava is stationed there in the famous Kal Bhairava temple.

There is another story about Bhairava which says that during His punishment tenure   wandering once Bhairava came to dense Deodara forest where many Rishis used to reside. Bhairva’s mysterious enigmatic naked presence with a God like aura attracted the women in Ashramas. They were not able to resist His charm.  This infuriated rishis and they casterated Bhairava. The fallen Linga immediately turned into an endless column of fire and Rishis understood the miracle of God and started worshipping Linga. Some what similar story I heard at Jageshwar in Uttarakhand where the famous Bal Jageshwar temple of Shiva is located. Jageshwar is surrounded by dense Devdar trees. It made me wonder how our mythological stories spread so far. Did pilgrims covered such long distances from one part of nation to other? That too when fast modes of transportation were not available.

Another question which popped up in my mind while going through these stories is why our Gods, Devtas are depicted to behave so human like. They represent Supreme Being yet they are shown to have weaknesses, human weaknesses. Do these tales want to convey that it’s ok to have weaknesses but if we work upon the positive and just forces inside us, we too can develop certain traits which could produce miraculous results? One very popular thought propagated in our religion is that we carry a part of God within us. May be that is what it means. Ah! Thoughts would go on churning, let us move forward and enjoy the dazzling testimonies of art and sculptures.

Many mythological stories, episodes are engraved on the exterior walls of the temple. Most of us are aware of those stories. We would have seen them depicted in different art forms at some or other time. Besides the fineness of the art what I enjoyed most about the depiction there, is the way the artists have let their imagination take shape of their own.

Mahishasur Mardini

The story of annihilation of Mahishasur by Goddess Durga is well known. Mahishasur was born out of union of a Mahish (buffalo) and an Asur i.e. demon (did our people at that time conceptualized about mutation between two different species? Well, let us leave the question for another time.) Another remarkable feature about our mythology is that here the Asuras, the bad and negative forces have been depicted to be very strong willed and capable in performing arduous and difficult penance to get boons of various kinds. For getting the boons most of them worshipped Brahma or Shiva. Though both of them were on the side of Suras [ Devtas], i.e. those representing good forces, they never shied away from granting boons to Asuras if the arduous penances were done rigorously. Good deeds deserve reward, is the message here, I think.

So like many other powerful Asuras in our mythological stories Mahishasur also got boon by appeasing Brahma. He asked for a boon that no one other than a woman could kill him. In fact he first asked for a boon of immortality but Brahma said this boon could not be granted as every living organism has to die at some or other time, hence Mahishasur asked for the above boon and thought him to be as good as immortal. He was very powerful, strong and capable of changing many forms. Obviously he thought a woman could never overpower him. Well as the story goes after acquiring the boon Mahishasur started his reign of terror. He conquered Bhooloka, i.e. earth and then set Devaloka as his target.

Now Devas approached Brahma for seeking help as they knew all of them together also could not do any harm to Mahishasur. Finally all the three entities of Trinity came together and created a woman by vesting best of their powers. She was manifestation of Shakti. At some places I have read that this manifestation of Shakti had ten hands while others describe her as having eight hands. However in this particular sculpture, the sculptor has depicted her as having ten hands. So, Vishnu gave Her His Sudarshan Chakra, Shiva His Trishul, Brahmna His Kamandal, Indra His Vajra, thunderbolt and other Devatas too gave Her their weapons.

When the final battle between Devi and Mahishasur took place it is said that the Asura took form of buffalo. When Devi overpowered this mighty beast and cut its head, the Asura in human form started to emerge, but Durga’s lion pounced upon him and pinned him to the ground and at that moment Durga raised the trident, piercing his chest and slayed him. This exact moment has been sculpted by the artist to the precision — the buffalo, the asura coming out of it in human form, pinned by lion to the ground and Durga with the trident piercing his chest. All other hands of Devi are armed with different weapons. Just pay a little attention to the expressions of Devi and the lion. Devi’s expression clearly reflects the emotion of executing the final act for accomplishing a task, while lion is kind of in a joyful mood, satisfied with himself for pinning down asura to the ground, happy for being of assistance to goddess. Whatever it might be but creating emotions on stones! These Hoyasala sculptors did wonders and we compare a deadpan face with stony expression.

Picture@Sunder Iyer