Stories in Stone is all about sculptures — either standalone or entire narrative panels. Each post in this series showcases one such sculpture, looks beyond its iconography and deconstructs the details in an attempt to understand the idea and/or the story it conveys.
The sculpture under discussion in this post has a bit of an identity crisis. The temple it is located in refers to it by one name; I refer to it by another name based on its iconographical details; and a book that I highly respect and refer to frequently refers to it by a third name. What’s in a name, you may ask? Plenty, I say, for in this case, with change in identity, the story and the context changes as well.
The sculpture in question is that of Shiva and Parvati and is located in one of the external niches of a shrine in the outer praharam or circumambulatory path of the Lalithambigai (also spelled as Lalithambikai) Temple at Thirumeeyachur (or Thirumiyachur) in Tamil Nadu. At this temple, Shiva is known here as Meghanathar and though He is the main deity here, the shrine to Devi or Lalithambigai is more popular
Like most temples, the Lalithambigai Temple too has a sthala puranam or legend associated it. There’s a long version and a short version and since this post is about a particular sculpture and not the temple, I’m going to share the short version with you.
Once upon a time Surya, the Sun God, misbehaved with his charioteer, Arun, a devotee of Shiva. Angry with Surya for doing so, Shiva cursed him to lose his brightness leading to his golden skin turning black. A remorseful Surya did penance for a long time at this temple, but Shiva remained unmoved. One night, Surya screamed out in anguish disturbing the Goddess Parvati (Lalithambigai). She was roused to anger and would have cursed Surya to oblivion if Shiva hadn’t intervened in time and calmed Her down. Eventually, Shiva also forgave Surya and restored his brightness and golden skin.
According to one of the priests I met at the Lalithambigai Temple, as well as the several accounts I came across on the internet, the sculpture being discussed in this post depicts Shiva calming Parvati when she was angry with Surya and wanted to curse him.
While I agree Shiva is definitely calming Parvati, I don’t think it has anything with the sthala puranam of the Lalithambigai Temple and instead represents another form of Shiva — as Gangadhara — and therefore another story. Before I narrate that story let me draw your attention to three things in the sculpture — (i) Shiva extending a lock of his hair with one of his right hands, (ii) Ganga in Shiva’s locks being held up in his hand (see photo below), and (iii) Parvati and her body language.
According to legend, King Bhagiratha wanted to bring Ganga, who was a celestial river, to earth so that the souls of his ancestors could be liberated. After a long penance, Ganga agreed but warned that the force of her descent from heaven could destroy the earth. Bhagiratha then prayed to Lord Shiva who stepped in to help — first by breaking the force of the Ganga’s descent from heaven by capturing her in His hair, and second, by reducing it to a manageable and non-destructive flow and only then allowing Ganga to touch the earth. Because Shiva captured Ganga in his locks and holds her there, He got the name Gangadhara.
At one level, this sculpture is the depiction of that story. But this story is not just about Shiva and Ganga; there is another part to the story that involves Shiva’s wife, Parvati. She was none to happy or pleased to have Ganga in Her husband’s hair. Literally. And that is why most depictions of Shiva as Gangadhara will show an annoyed or petulant Parvati with a body language that conveys Her strong disapproval of the whole ‘arrangement’ of Shiva and Ganga.
At the Gangadhara panel at Elephanta Caves, Parvati’s body is curved away from Shiva, even as He reaches out to touch her shoulder reassuringly. Similarly, the Gangadhara panel at the Kailasanathar Temple in Kanchipuram not only has Parvati curved away from Shiva but with a bored and disinterested expression to match. Here, too, Shiva’s hands reach out to touch her shoulder reassuringly.
Let us look at our sculpture again and examine the details. Based on the iconography, I feel and have no doubt in declaring this to be a Gangadhara sculpture.
Click on any image to enlarge it, after which you can use the left or right arrow keys to navigate through the photographs. Once done, do come back to read the rest of the post.
I now come to the third identity of this sculpture, which I got from the Silpa-Sahasdradala, a book that I trust and refer to a lot. The authors have included a similar sculpture from the Nataraja Temple at Chidambaram (about 50 km from the Lalithambigai temple) in the book and say that this is a depiction of Gangadhara. But they also go one step further and call this particular representation of Gangadhara as the Ganga-visarjana-murti. An extract of the text accompanying the relevant illustrations in the book is given below:
Siva – Gangadhara: Ganga-visarjana-murti
In south, sometimes Siva is shown with Ganga on one of his loosened locks (jata), obviously relieving a part of her in favour of Bhagiratha… This part of the story, namely Siva letting loose his jata-bandha and relieving Ganga for Bhagiratha finds mention in Mahabhagavata-upapurana…
When I saw the illustrations and read this description in the book, I was elated. I also had a re-look of the photographs, particularly the small figure behind Shiva — partially hidden here because of Shiva’s panchakachham or dhoti. Initially, when I saw this figure, I had assumed it was the sage Bhringi, a great devotee of Shiva. But in the light of the above lines, and also that Bhringi is usually depicted between Shiva and Parvati, I wondered if it could not be Bhagiratha himself, waiting for Ganga to be released from Shiva’s locks.
I saw this sculpture when I visited the Lalithambigai Temple last August. It was the culmination of a desire to see the sculpture ever since Radha a.k.a. Hip Asian Traveller sent me a photo of it. I had seen nothing like it before and was mesmerised. Since the sculpture was clothed, I couldn’t see the details and though I could guess at its identity, I had to wait till I actually saw it for myself. If the photograph had me mesmerised, I was smitten when I saw the granite sculpture. The form, the lines, the bhava, Shiva’s elaborate jatamukuta, Shiva trying to make up with a sulking Parvati and her rigid body language, and Bhagiratha (?) waiting for the descent of Ganga — a stone sculpture reveals so much. I could have stayed there for a long time just gazing at the sculpture, but reality intervened in the form of a priest asking me to leave as it was time for the temple to close.
In the months that followed, I thought about this sculpture often how I would write it about it here on this blog. That I would feature it in the “Stories in Stone” section was a given, but still. How I envisioned writing about it initially and how it has finally turned out are very different. My initial research was frustrating as all the websites that threw up information on this sculpture/Lalithambigai Temple said the same thing without any variation — that this was a sculpture of Shiva calming down Parvati after Surya had angered Her. It didn’t help that the sculpture is labelled as Kshetra Puraaneswarar at the Temple. I was equally sure that this was Gangadhara and there reached a point where I started doubting myself. I almost dropped the idea of writing about this sculpture and it wasn’t until I saw the reference in the Silpa-Sahasradrala last month that I got a sense of validation
But now, all that is past and as I write the closing lines to this post, I feel a sense of amazement at various levels — at how a sculpture has lent itself so beautifully and so convincingly to three, or rather two, narratives — one a local legend and the other a larger, pan-Indian story. Amazement also at how a local narrative has been neatly fitted into an artistic depiction that is anything, but local. And most of all amazement at the beauty and versatility of a stone sculpture conveying such myriad emotions and narratives.
Tell me, what do you think the sculpture represents?
Thank you very much, Radha. I would not have visited the Lalithambigai Temple if not for your Twitter DM that day and of course, this post wouldn’t have happened either. 🙂
- Thirumeeyachur Lalithambigai Temple by N. Saikrishnan. This blog post has the detailed sthala puranam and also talks about the other legends associated with the temple.
- Silpa-Sahasradala: Directory of Unique, Rare and Uncommon Brahmanical Sculptures (Vol. I), N.P. Joshi And A.L. Srivastava, Varanasi: Jnana-Pravaha, (2012: pp.280-281)