South India is full of ancient heritage sites. The south of the Vindhyas saw a steady growth of all the three sects of Hindu religious followers; the Vaishnavites, the Shaivites and the Shaktas. If one goes on a spree to keep dating their antiquity, it can be an exasperating process. Shiva worshipping cults and sects have existed forever here. From mythology we know that atleast two out of the famous twelve Jyotir Linga Kshetrams are in the south. Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu and Sri Sailam in Telangana. Through literature, poetry, architecture and history, we know of several prominent spaces dedicated to the worship of Shiva. One of the most important sources has been Sanskrit religious poetry. Philosopher saint Adi Shankara who traveled extensively in the region also composed a number of hymns, songs and chants inspired by several of these spaces. This Shivaratri, I thought it would be interesting to take a trip to some of the most exciting Shiva sculptures across south India. If not out of any intense religiosity or devotion, just as a curious student of art, it is interesting to see and study a wide variety of architecture related to Shiva iconography. I am not going into the details of which kings built which of these temples in what dates. That is a piece of information that is available everywhere for those of you interested in South India’s history. Great scholars like Neelakanta Sastry and Nagasamy have written about that in great detail. This is a selection of some of the finest sculptures and icons connected to Shiva you can find across some of the ancient sites in the south.
Shiva as 'Soma Skanda' in the shore temple at Mahabalipuram
I start my trip from the ancient Pallava seashore town of Mahabalipuram. At the seashore temple is the exquisitely carved image of Shiva as ‘Soma Skanda’. The main monolithic attraction of Mahabalipuram is the rock famous as ‘Arjuna’s Penance’. Right in the middle of this massive boulder is a carving of Arjuna. Beside him is a different kind of Shiva, ready to bestow upon his devotee the famous Pashupati weapon. Arjuna can be seen, performing his penance. Standing on one foot, his starving body has become worn out, exposed to the elements. Shiva is pleased with his penance and blesses him with the mighty Pashupati weapon. The monolith is filled with various tales from mythology. But the central story is that of Arjuna.
Shiva as Pashupati in 'Arjuna's Penance' rock in Mahabalipuram
From Mahabalipuram to the other Pallava capital of Kanchipuram. In one of the walls of the Kailasanatha temple at Kanchi, Shiva is seen as the great god of the south or ‘Dakshina Murty’. ‘Dakshina Murty’ is the embodiment of knowledge and wisdom. Shiva is seen here with his dreadlocks neatly put together. He is seated under a tree and seems to be giving a sermon. So much so, even the snake that adorns his neck has crawled down to sit and listen to him. There are two antelopes below Shiva. They are a metaphor for a quick thinking human mind. They have been tamed and are now listening to Shiva. This is also an unusual statue as it shows how casually Shiva is sitting. With his left foot crossed over his right knee, it feels as if he was looking elsewhere and preaching and the sculptor caught him turning towards us.
Shiva as Dakshinamurty in Kanchi
The central shrine in the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Thanjavur, built by the great Raja Raja Chola has a massive Shiva Lingam. But it is outside the temple that you can find some of the most exquisite sculptures of Shiva. However my interest was in the small version of this temple in Gangaikondachola Puram. Here you will find a beautiful sculpture of Shiva celebrating his Ardhanareeshwara form. A combination of both the male and female energies, this statue has some great detailing of this form. Shiva’s masculine body merges effortlessly with the feminine half of Parvati. This concept of the union of male and female energies is ancient. A modern understanding of it would be that of gender equality. That each individual has within them both these forms of energy, understanding and perspective is a fact stated through these sculptures, centuries ago!
Shiva as Ardhanareeshwara in Gangaikondachola Puram
From there, to the Ramappa temple in Warangal. Ramappa is not Rama but Shiva worshipped as Ramalingeshwara. The temple, built in 1213 AD has some of the finest samples of Kakatiya architecture. It was this temple that inspired Jayappa, one of the army commanders to write the ‘Nritta Ratnavali’, a seminal work on understanding classical dance. In this temple you can find a lovely sculpture of Shiva as ‘Gajasamhara Murthy’. Unlike several other versions of this same sculpture found in other temples, here Shiva is seen dancing with joy after slaying Gajasura. With ten hands holding various weapons, you can see him dancing in abandon. On either sides of him are heavenly damsels and gods offering prayers. This sculpture could easily be missed in the temple if you don’t look for it properly. On the outer walls of the temple are five hundred and twenty sculptures of elephants. No two are alike! But that is a different story and I will write about them another time.
Shiva Parvati Kalyanam in the ceiling of Alampur Navabrahma temple
Another wonderful sculpture is in the Navabrahma temple in Alampur. Here is a cluster of smaller temples dedicated to Shiva. While the architecture looks rather simple from the outside, the temples are built with great precision and follow the ancient guidelines of the seminal texts of architectural precision. In the ceilings are some fine sculptures dedicated to Shiva. A panel depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvathi, very different from that at Madurai and elsewhere, can be seen. A better way to see these sculptures is to lie down flat on the ground. The Alampur temples are an expedition on their own.
Shiva as 'Gajasamhara Murty' in Ramappa Temple in Warangal
From there to Hampi, the capital of what was once the largest Hindu kingdom; the Vijayanagara Empire. Under the rule of Krishnadeva Raya, performing and visual arts flourished. Scores of temples with rich sculptural legacy can still be found. The main temple of Shiva is that of Virupaksha. It was to this temple that the poet saint Vidyaranya came on one of his journeys and established his order of monasteries. In the Virupaksha temple are several sculptures inspired by Shivite mythology. I particularly enjoyed a Shiva Panchayat, an assortment of exquisite sculptures of Shiva and his family. On Shiva’s left lap is seated Parvathi. If you notice how Parvathi’s Saree is draped, it could be a reading into the popular dressing habits of that era. On the right side of the couple is their son Ganesha and to their left is Kartikeya leaning against his peacock. For a second these sculptures look like they could be carved out of marble. The softness with which the sculpture has created these make it feel so. But this is soft sandstone and gives more or less the same finish.
Shiva Panchayat in Virupaksha temple in Hampi
Further into what is today’s Karnataka are the famous caves of Badami. In one of the caves is the majestic Shiva as Nataraja. Full bloom in all his glory with his many arms holding various instruments and weapons; this is a very interesting sculpture. If you studied the positioning of his arms, you will know how the movements of the Natyashastra have been carved into this piece. Yoga masters have also studied the same sculpture and written about how a lot of these movements co-relate to physical Yoga exercises. This is one of the finest portrayals of Shiva as Nataraja that you can find anywhere in India.
Dancing Nataraja of Badami
There are hundreds of ancient temples dedicated to Shiva across the geography of South India. Be it the Rameshwaram or Avinashi near Coimbatore or even the Kapalishwara in Chennai, the list is endless. One could go on and on about each of them and their history, glory and much more. If you are a devotee who believes in Shiva, then you are in for a feast. If you are not religious and don’t care about Shiva, just a sympathetic sensitive art lover, the sculptures of Shiva in ancient south Indian temples is enough to fulfill your curiosity for a lifetime.
Photographs by– Krishnamurthy, Sachitanandan, Pallavi, Veejay Sai
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)