Worship of Lord Brahma, Part 53

BY: SUN STAFF - 7.3 2018


Thirukandiyur Thirumurthy deity

A serial exploration of places of Lord Brahma's worship.


Lord Brahma at Thirukandiyur

In today's segment, we delve deeper into the phenomenon of the progressive minimization of Lord Brahma's worship. As noted yesterday, we have clearly identified a trend in our research for this series, and essentially all of the supporting evidence has come from the temples, local villagers and pilgrims, and Indian historical accounts. Today, however, the horizon widens as we look at the role of Indian and western academics and art historians, who are further propagating confusion on the matter.

Our next stop on the journey takes us to Thirukandiyur, Tamil Nadu located 10 kilometers from Tanjore. Like the temple at Thiruvaiyaru, featured in our last segment, Thirukandiyur is one of the Saptha Sthanams. It is also one of the 108 Divyadesams of the Vaishnava Sampradaya. It is home to a Brahma deity with an interesting history. In fact, how this Brahmadeva has been defined in academic circles is quite fascinating.

Thirukandiyur Sthalam is associated with one of the pastimes of Brahma losing one of his heads. The temple is known by many names:

Because the temple is associated with Lord Brahma, it is known as Adi Mahapuram temple, referring to Brahma as Adi purusha;

it is called Uttamar koil (temple) because the name of Perumal (Visnu) here is Purushottaman, which in Tamil translates to 'Uttamar';

it is known as Bikshandar koil because Kailasapathi is found here in his Bikshatana murthi, or his digambara form as a beggar seeking alms with his biksha pathram;

it is called Kadamba kshetram, because God appeared before Kadamba Maharishi;

it's known as Neepa kshetram, because it was once populated with Kadamba (Neepa) trees;

it is known as Tirumurthi kshetram, because the Trimurti are here in the personalities of Siva, Brahma and Perumal.

it is called Brighunathar or Balinathar, because Lord Hara Saabavimochana Perumal presides here in his standing pose; and it is known as Pancha Kamala Kshetram.

Sri Hara Saabha Vimocchana Perumal

Today, the temple is known as a Shiva temple to some, as a Perumal (Visnu) temple to others, as a Brahma temple, and as a Trimurti temple – depending on one's point of view. Likewise, there is some conflicting opinion as to who the presiding deity is here.

Most agree that the moolavar (presiding deity) here is Purushottaman Visnu, or Perumal, who is found in a bhujanga sayanam, facing the east. (Bhujanga sayanam is the Lord's reclined position, with one hand under his head.) Purushottaman's consort is Poorva Devi and Porna Valli (Bhu and Sri Devis), and the pair is known as Kamalanathan and Kamalavalli.


Sanctum Sanctorum Entrance

The main shrines in the temple are for Perumal and his consorts, Lord Brahma and Saraswati Devi, and Lord Shiva and Parvati Devi. Brahma and Saraswati's shrine in the sanctum is to the left of the Shivalinga, facing it. There is also a Trimurti deity.

On the eastern side of the temple is the Brahma Sira Kandeeswarar shrine, in which the main Shiva deity resides. Some consider him the presiding deity. He is also known as Veerattaneshwarar, with consort Mangala Nayagi (Mangalambigai). Brahma Sira Kandeeswarar is actually Shiva. The name 'Brahma sira' refers to a missile-like weapon of Lord Brahma's, which Shiva used in his conquests. We have seen one reference to a temple inscription that refers to Vaageesar (Shiva), but no details are available.

On the western side is Hara Saaba Vimochana Perumal with Kamalanathan, in standing posture, facing east; the Brahma shrine is also on the west side. As of 2009, it was under renovation.

Visnu also has a separate shrine, as do Durga, Nrsimha, Garuda, and Andal. Sri Laksmi-Nrsimha and Sudarshan (Chakkratalwar) are combined in a two-sided murti. Unfortunately, Lord Nrsimhadev's side is facing the wall, and can't be seen at the present time.

The Navagrahas at Kandiyur temple are placed in a rather odd. Here, Lord Surya stands at the center accompanied by his consorts, Prathyusha and Chaaya, and all the grahas face him. This atypical configuration of Navagrahas is found in several temples in the area.

The prathyakshams here (personalities to whom the Lord became directly visible) include Brahma, Shiva, Kadamba Muni, Tirumangai Azhvar, Uparisravasu, and Sanaka and Sanatana Kumarars.


Lord Brahma, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 
Chola period, late 10th c., Granulite, green schist


Identity of the Brahma Deity

Unfortunately, we are unable to find an image of the Brahmadeva deity from Thirukandiyur, but with the following explanation, we can be quite certain of the deity's appearance. It is agreed by most that the Brahma deity at Thirukandiyur Sthalam was originally installed in a nearby Brahma temple, located in the same general area. Some say that the temple became dilapidated with time and was eventually torn down, while others say that it was purposefully torn down because it was determined that 'Brahma worship is not proper'. And here is where the plot thickens.

In the March 2007 issue of Tamil Arts, Dr. R. Nagaswamy states that the Brahma deity who moved into residence at the Kandiyur Sthalam is not actually Lord Brahma, but rather Lord Shiva in his form as Vagisuara (Vageesa). His article follows:

"A group of stone sculptures with four heads and four arms seated on a lotus pedestal are known to Indologists. All the sculptures come from Tamilnadu, three of them are in Tanjore and the others are now in American Museums. Of the three in Tanjore one is in Tanjore Art Gallery, but said to come from Karandai, a nearby village. Another is in the collector's office Tanjore and the third is in the temple at Kandiyur still under worship. Of the three in America one is in Albright Knox Art Gallery, the second is in Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the third is in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the last having been discussed by Ananda Coomaraswamy in 1942.

All the sculptures are about four feet in height and have been identified by scholars as Brahma. The Albright Gallery sculpture was on display in the exhibition "Manifestation of Siva" organised by Stella Kramrisch at Pennsylvania in 1981. The catalogue of the exhibition describing the image states "nothing but the third eye placed vertically in the middle of the face distinguishes the image from that of Brahma the creator." Though the presence of the third eye and difference in the emblems held in the hands have posed problems, scholars have identified the image as Brahma. Suggestions were made that "these were the main images of a temple or more likely of a secondary temple or shrine devoted to Brahma."

The sculptures do not represent Brahma but an aspect of Siva. They are shown seated on a lotus seat with four heads and four arms, The front right arm holds a lotus and the rear abhaya; the rear left arm holds an akshamala and front left varada. In Brahma sculptures of the same periods and regions the rear carry akshamala and kundika; they do not exhibit the third eye as well. Further they wear the same ear ornaments in both the ears whereas in the sculpture under discussion the right ear wears a patrakundala and in the left simha kundala. Also the anklets are different, the right wearing a silambu and the left an anklet of pearls. Further in the Brahma sculptures the lower garments reach up to the ankle while in the sculpture under discussion they end at the middle of the thigh, as in the case of Siva.

In the daily worship of Siva particularly while performing the fire offering, (agnikarya) the agamas stipulate the worship of the god Vagisvara and Vagisvari; Vagisvara is Mahesvara and Vagisvari is Gauri. They are said to be the parents of fire, Agni.

The Saivite ritual text, Karanagama refers to the same deity as having three eyes, five heads and four arms, jatamakuta, and bearing sula and Kapala, abhaya and varada in the four arms. The five names of Sadasiva are invoked in the ritual agnikunda samskara. The emblems held in the hands are given diffently in various texts. The Karanagama mentions kapala and sula, while the Ajitagama gives pasa and sula. Just as the Chaturmukhalinga represent Sadasiva with five heads so also this figure with four heads is also called Pancavaktra. The group of sculptures, evidently represent Vagisvara Siva and not Brahma, both their manifestations and functions being different.

All the sculptures so far known belong to the period from 850 to 950 CE. Particularly the sculpture in the Tanjore art gallery seems to belong to the last phase of the Pallava art and the rest to the early part of the 10th cent. A.D. It suggests a cult orientation which needs a separate study."

There are several interesting points to be made with respect to Dr. Nagaswamy's article. The first is timing: This article was published in March 2007, which happens to be the very same time at which one of the four-headed, four-armed deity forms referred to in the article went on the auction block at Sothebys. The deity was being de-accessioned (removed from the collection) at the Albright-Knox Gallery in New York, and it was purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

It seems quite to safe to assume that Dr. Nagaswamy's interest in the piece was sparked by the news of this sale, which was proliferated throughout the art world, due to the fact that the piece sold for an astounding $4 million USD. Even the financial analysts at Bloomberg reported on this sale.

The second issue is that of authority: While Dr. Nagaswamy speaks very authoritatively about the iconography and derivation of the Thirukandiyur Sthalam deity, and other Indian academics subsequently repeated his conclusions, western Indologists and Indian art history experts have come to a somewhat different conclusion. For example, another of the six examples of the deity form discussed in Nagaswamy's article is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (Your Sampradaya Sun author had the pleasure of getting darshan of this beautiful deity several years ago.) In the Metropolitan Museum's website, an interesting curatorial description is given of the piece:

"Images such as this one have long been identified as Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, because four heads are considered his primary iconographic feature. The heads refer to his cosmic role as creator and symbolize the four great ages of Hindu mythology. More recently, noting the third eye and the different earrings of the central face, standard attributes of Shiva, scholars have proposed that the sculpture may represent one of his manifestations. In some Hindu scripture, Shiva, traditionally god of destruction, is also associated with the energy of life, and can be understood, like Brahma, to represent creation.

Two forms of Shiva are possible: Sadashiva, one of his more philosophical aspects, and Mahesha, at times described as the penultimate materialization of the transcendent god. There is literary evidence that worship of Sadashiva was prevalent during the rule of the Chola kings in South India. Other scholars suggest that images showing the god in bust form with four or five heads are representations of Sadashiva, whereas figures in which he is fully formed represent Mahesha. According to this theory, Mahesha is the ultimate material form of the god who manifests himself partially in the form of Sadashiva, as well as in more transcendental forms such as the linga."

The Metropolitan acquired this piece in 1927, but as their description states, scholars only recently noted the third eye and earrings, thus guessing that the piece might actually be Shiva, not Brahma. They affirm that images like this have long been identified as Brahma. And while they point out some of the general similarities one might see between Brahma and Shiva, their only real indication that this may be a Shiva deity is the third eye and earrings. They go on to speculate about which form of Shiva this might be. In reference to the Shivalinga, they don't mention that Brahma himself is embodied in the linga form, along with Visnu. So all in all, the Metropolitan's own curatorial staff are, at best, speculative in their views – which are only recently developed – that this deity form is not Brahma. Dr. Nagaswamy, on the other hand, appears quite absolute in his statements.

In a press release announcing the acquisition, the Cleveland Museum described the piece as being "Shiva as Brahma". This is an interesting amalgamation, and one for which we know of no sastric evidence. The general confusion around the deity's identity is further reflected in their press release:

"Carved and polished in dark gray granite, the life-size sculpture depicts the Hindu deity Shiva, known as "the Destroyer," as he shares identity with the deity Brahma, known as "the Creator." The sculpture combines the attributes of Shiva as the destroyer and Brahma as the creator to encapsulate the Hindu belief in death, reincarnation and progress toward perfection, Czuma said. In the sculpture, Shiva is sitting on a double lotus blossom. He has a third eye and four heads, each looking in one of the cardinal directions, Czuma said. The deity's four arms indicate his special powers. Two of his hands hold a lotus and a rosary. The other two hands are positioned in gestures of blessing and teaching."

As we reconsider Dr. Nagaswamy's comments, we note that his primary evidence is taken from the Karanagama, one of the Saivite tantric texts, the Rudra and Siva Tantras comprising the Shaiva Siddhanta Agamas. He mentions the museum and temple locations of the six examples of this deity form, one of which was included in an exhibition entitled "Manifestation of Siva", organised by Stella Kramrisch in Pennsylvania during 1981. Of course, Ms. Kramrisch, while an esteemed academic and Indologist, clearly states throughout her works that the Vedic pastimes from sastra, and the divine personalities enacting them, are "mythical". So we cannot take her as an authority in the matter, beyond a mundane level of scholarship.

That said, her catalog description of the piece states: "…nothing but the third eye placed vertically in the middle of the face distinguishes the image from that of Brahma the creator." Dr. Nagaswamy, on the other hand, suggests various issues with the deity's paraphernalia and dress, but none of these elements is a clear indicator that the deity is not Brahma. Essentially we are left to either accept the long-held historical opinions, which comes from anecdotal reports by the devotees who have worshipped Lord Brahma in this form, as well as the historical references to the deity being Brahma – or, we can accept the speculations of the academics who, in the case of the Tamil Arts author, may be predisposed to consider the matter from the angle of Saivite sentiment.

Ours is only a devotee's opinion on the matter, but obviously, we accept this deity to be Lord Brahma himself. And, we suggest that the academic approach to this matter is indicative of the sort of speculative, mundane, and culturally slanted opinion that generally goes to form conclusions on such things. Clearly, there is an inclination, especially in South India, to give over to Shiva that worship which was intended for Brahmadeva. At the end of the day, it seems that we are much safer to simply trust the knowledge provided by Vaisnava sastra on these divine personalities, and to be inclined in the direction of our own devotional intuition.

Thirukandiyur Divyadesam

The Temple Complex

Thirukandiyur Temple, which predates Srirangam, belongs to the Chozha period and is a nice example of Dravidian architecture. The same was true of the Brahma Temple nearby, now in a dilapidated condition. The current temple was rebuilt at one time, and some of the materials from other temple ruins in the area, including Rettaikoil and the Brahma temple, are said to have been used in the construction.

The Thirukkandiyur temple complex is situated on a one-acre site, between the Kudamurutti and Vennar Rivers. The temple is quite simple, with two prakaras extending over an acre, with a west facing entrance. There is a three-tier raja-gopuram facing east, and udyoga vimanam. After passing through Garuda-mandapam and Maha-mandapam, devotees get darshan of Harasapavimochana Perumal.

The temple was built at such a latitude that the sun's rays illuminate the sanctum sanctorum on the 13th, 14th and 15th days of Maasi, when they fall directly on the Shivalingam.

The temple theerthams are Kapala Moksha Pushkarani on the western side of the temple; just opposite is Padma theertham (or Mahabali theertham), and there is Brahma theertham. The Sthala Vriksha is the sacred Vilva tree.

Temple Porch

Temple Legends and Festivals

There are a number of legends associated with this temple involving Brahma and Shiva. Due to the length of this segment, we won't go into detail on them here. One, the pastime of Shiva getting Brahmaharthi dosham after plucking Brahma's fifth head, was discussed in a previous segment, as Shiva visited several sites in the area while performing austerities for that activity. The temple name Bikshandar koil refers to this pastime, as well.

The main festival at Thirukandiyur is Brahmotsavam, which is celebrated in the month of Vaikasi, when the punishment of Brahma is enacted. The Sapthasthaana festival is also very popular, as are Shivarathri, Thiruvadhirai and Pradhoshams.

Purushottaman, Poorva Devi and Porna Valli