The Religion and Philosophy of Tevaram (Thevaram)

by M. A. Dorai Rangaswamy | 1958 | 410,072 words

This page describes “rishabharudha-murti (depiction of the brahmani bull)” from the part dealing with Nampi Arurar (Sundarar) and Mythology, viz. Puranic stories and philosophy. The 7th-century Thevaram (or Tevaram) contains devotional poems sung in praise of Shiva. These hymns form an important part of the Tamil tradition of Shaivism

Chapter 1.4 - Rishabharudha-murti (depiction of the Brahmani bull)


The Brahmani bull is sacred to the Indian from the times of Mohenjadaro and Harappa civilization. Shiva is seen to ride on the sacred bull. Perhaps the term, “Pacuvukanten,” implies that He is the Lord of the sacrifice. His flag also is the sacred bull. Arurar mentions at least in seven places the sacred bull which has by his time become the sacred flag of the Imperial Pallavas. In all, there are 102 references to the Brahmani bull in Arurar’s hymns.


From the age of the Cankam onwards, the sacred bull has become endearing to the Shaivite poets.

Karaikkal Ammaiyar sings the mighty prowess of this bull and in her Tiruvirattai Manimalai, she jocularly asks, “Is there nothing else to ride upon for this God?” Arurar himself speaks of the bridegroom on the bull which is prattling like a child thus emphasising its childish innocence—“Malalai erru manalan”. It will be seen that it forms the very foundation and support of God-head. Sometimes, it is looked upon as the pure white Dharma. In other places it is the pure white knowledge represented by the Vedas. Again the Omnipresent Visnu, the personal aspect of the Absolute inasmuch as the incarnation of the impersonal Shiva, is looked upon as this very bull—“Mai vitai”.

The form of Shiva as riding on the bull is so sacred to the Shaivite worshippers that among the ten days’ festivals in any Shiva temple, the festival usually on the fifth day, when the image of Shiva, seated upon the bull and carried round the street in procession, is held the most sacred.

Periapuranam tells us that God Shiva appeared to many of the Saints as riding on this bull.


In this form of Rishabharudha murti, Shiva with three eyes and jatamakuta stands on His straight right leg whilst the left is slightly bent. He has four arms: in the back arms, he carries the hatchet on the right and the deer on the left; the front right arm holds a ‘vakra danda’—a crooked stick. The front left fore-arm rests on the head of the bull in ihe pataka hasta pose. On the left, stands Gowri. The bull stands behind Shiva as high as the chest or the thigh, the navel or the fore-leg.

Rishabharudha murti is what Arurar calls “Eruteru murti”.

Queen Soramahadevi set up an image of Rishabhavahanadeva with the goddess Umaparamesvari and a bull. The Epigraphist writes as follows: “The God Ganapati appears to have been a member of the group though he is not found in the usual representation of Rishabharudha murti.

“According to one of the Shaiva legends, it was the God Visnu himself that became a bull (rishabha) for Shiva to ride upon when the latter had to fight against the demon Tripura. In one of the sculptures of the Seven Pagodas, there is a representation of Rishabhavahanadeva. Here Shiva and Parvati are seated on a couch each of them resting one of the legs on the back of a bull which is lying down. Parvati has Subrahmanya on her knee. Behind them is seen a figure of the God Visnu to the right and one of Brahma to the left. Behind the bull is seated a woman. A parasol is held over the head of Parvati. It is not impossible that this group represents the usual Somaskanda in which, as the name denotes, the images of Shiva, Uma (Parvati) and Skanda appear. The bull, however, is not generally seen in representations of Somaskanda”.


The poet has used almost all the synonyms of the word bull in Tamil. It is only an analysis of his poems that reveals this truth, showing no conscious effort on his part. The exigencies of versification alone cannot explain this; the imaginative effort at choosing the correct poetic word for the context is also there, a choice made possible by his command of the Tamil Language.

In 10 places, he uses the phrase “Mat vitai” for, according to the puranas, at the time of the burning of the three castles, Visnu, as Shiva’s Rishabha vahana came to support the chariot which was giving way under the weight of Shiva. The Tamil Upadeca Kantam also gives this story. ‘Mal’, therefore, may be taken to be used in the sense of Visnu, though the sense of big or huge may be there as a secondary meaning. Visnu is famous as ‘Pundarikaksa’— ‘the lord of the red lotus eyes’ and the reference to ‘cenkan’ or the ruddy eye in nine places in relation to the bull, further confirms this interpretation, though it has a secondary meaning of being natural to the fighting bull. If Vispu is interpreted, by natural association, his blue colour will be suggested; but the Rishabha is pure white, the very incarnation of Dharma. Before Visnu assumed the bull-form, Dharma it was, which was carrying Shiva in the form of the white bull. Therefore, even Visnu had to assume the white colour when he became a bull—“Velai mal vitai”.

Arurar speaks of “Veda mal vital”. The Vedic song comparing the sabda to the cow is wellknown and Arurar makes Vedas themselves the bull.

‘Vitai’, another word for the bull, used by Arurar, is traced to the Sanskritvrsa’ by the Tamil Lexicon. But there are others, who will trace it to the root ‘vitu’. “Kata vitutal” is one of the operations of cultivation, where the bulls are allowed to go round and round the heaped up paddy for separating the straw. There is also the root ‘vitai’ implying the majestic and angry gait of the buff.

Eru’, is another word used by Arurar and this suggests the overpowering, almost the arrogant posture suggesting its masculine virility. The pouncing attitude is alluded to by Arurar—“Payum vitai” The majestic gait of heroes is often compared in Tamil with that of the bull. Arurar refers to the majestic walk—“Natai utai nal erutu”. “Eru erum war" therefore, is not only beautiful as a ‘pinvaru nilai ani’ but full of significance as revealing the divine majesty and Omnipotence of God. This angry and proud majestic form is, therefore, emphasised for suggesting by contrast the higher divinity of Shiva. It is a murderous bull, killing perhaps the Raksasas. It is warlike—“Poru vel vitai” it is cruel—“kotu ma vitai” and teasing—‘alaitta’. It is a murderous bull roaring in anger,—“Cilaikum kolaicce”.

The word ‘Ce’ denotes the bull but the secondary sense of ‘Cemmai’ or uprightness is there to suggest that it is all in the path of righteousness. It has green eyes—‘Painkan’ Its eyes fume with anger, the red becomes almost green as explained by Parimelalakar.

It takes the offensive part in war and it is so strong—“Atal eru” It takes the offensive even before the other side thinks of it—“Munti-p poru vitai”. It runs with all its speed—“Vekam kontoti”

This poet uses a very suggestive phrase—‘Patti vel eru’ full of very rich meanings. ‘Patti’ means a cattle-pound or cow stall; it means the unbridled person, from which significance has come the idea of the straying bull. The same idea of unruly mischievous disposition towards the enemies is emphasised by the phrase—“Cillai velleru” used by Arurar. The idea of “patti mantapam” or the hall of scholars is familiar to the Tamilians and, therefore, the idea of a learned bull is also suggested. The bull is Nandi, the Master of Shaiva Siddhanta, praised as such by Tirumular. Arurar also refers to the bull as the very embodiment of Vedas—“Veda vitai All these shades of secondary meanings enrich the conception of the bull on which Shiva sits.

The poet also emphasises its youth—its eternal youth. It is “Malavitai”. It shoots or leaps up in rage or in joy or in pride—‘Ponku’. He speaks of its chilalike lispings—‘Malalai velleru , “Malalai eru”. This may be suggestive of the chilal ike innocence and divine upadesa of Nandi or the sound of the Veda, for both of them are represented by the form of a bull. “Kurunkattin eru”, suggests the youth through the horns described as short. The horn is said to be rich—‘Celunkotu’ "Kulai eru , is a dwarfish or young bull. ‘Kulai’ as connected with ‘kulamai suggests duty, and fondling. This idea of fondling and chilalike attachment is well brought out by the phrase “Mucitu mal vitai”, the bull sniffing its lord or swarming round Him, as the bee, its honey. Connected with this is the idea of beauty expressed by the phrase—“Pukar eru”.

Itavam’, another word for the bull, is used by Arurar. It comes from the Sanskrit ‘Vrishabha . It has secondary associations. Pinkalantai gives the meaning of, the covering bull, explaining one of the shades of the meaning of the word ‘eru’. The same lexicon gives also the meaning ‘Nandi . In the verse in which it is used in the “Murukan (Murugan) Poondi” hymn, the poet seems to be punning. He is accusing God of doing some thing inappropriate. Therefore, ‘ilavam’ may suggest the left handed inferior path or a lump of earth, on which He gets up.

The word ‘Pacu also is used, by Arurar. In a place, where he wants to speak ill of God in a jocular vein, this word is used: The poet says, ‘I shall not slander you, if you ride on the pacu’, which has probably an under-ground suggestion of a cow. ‘Pacu’ is a word very important in Shaiva Philosophy. Pasupati is the Shaivites’ beloved term and the particular word ‘pasu’ suggests the idea of ‘Pasupati'™

Muri’ is another name for the bull, because of its strength and greatness. It means also the hump which is the special characteristic feature of the Brdhmani bull. The word also has the underground suggestion of antiquity in Arurar’s “Muri vellai erutu”.

The word ‘Erutu’ is also used. Perhaps it is connected with ‘er’, the plough, meaning the beast of plough. This is the bull which according to Arurar, the cultivator cannot get “Uluvark-kariya vitai”. Again, the poet lovingly calls it “Nal erutu”—good bull; probably the “Nataiyutai nal erutu” —emphasises not only its majestic gait, but also its good behaviour suggesting that the bull in effect is an embodiment of goodness.

The word ‘Ce’ also is being in use for the bull from the days of Tolkappiyam. The Tamil Lexicon derives it from the red colour, probably under the impression that this colour is more predominant among the bulls. It may be derived also from ‘Cettal’ which means ‘to be lying down at rest’—the characteristic couchant posture of the bull whilst it chews its cud. As already suggested, this word ‘Ce suggests straightforward righteous act. “Cevin met varum" is the phrase used by Arurar, where the great wealth of divinity is suggested to consist of increasing righteousness and impartiality. The direct meaning is that his wealth is the bull He rides. The bull is the sign of divinity—“Cenkan cevutai-c civalokan’'.

There is one other word for the bull used by Arurar, ‘Perram’ with its variant form ‘Perru’. If it is to be derived from the root ‘Peru’, it may mean the best gift in a pastoral economy, where the cattle forms the real wealth, which is another idea of “Cevin mel varu celvan"™ Arurar calls the Lord, ‘Perrar’, as one in possession of the bull.

The common word is ‘A’ [Ā], with its variant form with the ‘n’ [] suffix, thus forming ‘An’ [Āṉ]. It is traced to the root ‘A’ [Ā] in the sense of ‘to prosper’, belonging to the same cattle economy of the pastoral age. In “A nal veller” [Ā nal veḷḷēṟu] and ‘Avinir ce’ [Āviṉiṟ cē] ‘A’ [Ā] is used by the poet to denote the genus. The poet makes this reference to the pastoral tract is clear. In Tamil Literary tradition, the bull belongs to ‘Mullai’ or pastoral tract. Arurar speaks of “Kollaic cillai vel?ru” and ‘'Cempunan cer kotipatu nmri” —‘the oxen in the pastoral area in the rich fields full of creepers.’

Kd' is another word derived from the Sanskrit ‘Go’ or related according to a few to the Tamil word ‘Kon the name of the pastoral chief. The poet calls God, “Kovin mel varum Ko” —‘the lord of the bull’, using the same word ‘ko’ in two different meanings, the bull and the Lord. The bull is thus suggested to be the sign of divinity.


This reminds us of the Pallava age in which Arurar lived. The bull was the emblem of the Pallavas. Like Shiva they had die bull flag—“vital vol koti”. Their coins bear this emblem. Their seals with a few exceptions bore this symbol of a couchant oull—"Vital man porl olai'S' When we see in the Kasakuti plates and elsewhere the linga surmounted on the recumbent bull, we have to recognize that it is not the ordinary bull but Shiva’s bull that is represented, thereby making the seal not only a seal of the Government but also that of the state religion of Shaivism.

In the light of these seals, the descriptions of Rajasimha in his inscription, of Kailasanatha Temple as not only “the Rishabhalancana”—‘He whose emblem is the bull’, but also as “Sri Rishabha darpah”—‘He who is proud of the bull (as his sign)’ becomes very significant. Just in front of the Kailasanatha Temple is the Nandi mantapa with the bull, as in other Shiva temples of modern times. In the age of the Adi Dravida Saint, Nandanar, these must have been in front of the temples, because tradition tells us that at Tiruppupkur, where this untouchable Saint was standing outside the temple precincts, he felt miserable that the couchant bull was hiding the view of God, whereupon God ordered the bull to move a little away, for giving the Saint a darsana. In ancient times, these bulls must have been built in brick.


In the temples of the period of Mahendravarma, these bulls are found only in Bhairava konda Temples, but the other temples also must have had them. Coming to the period of Narasimha, the Mamalla, we have in Arjuna Ratha on the Southern side in the central panel, a figure of Shiva leaning on the bull. Near the Arjuna’s Ratha is the couchant bull. In the Krishna Mandapa, the sculptor has carved out a beautiful bull in the form in which it is found in Shaivite temples, perhaps because of the artist’s interest in the Pallava lanchana. The shore temple at Mamallapuram belongs to the period of Rajasimha. The smaller Shiva shrine has the domical cell crowned by a stone image of the sacred bull. Nandis were placed on the ground at each corner and face of the larger shrine. The same scheme is found in the Kailasanatha Temple Here near the base at each corner and face, between the projecting shrines, a large ‘nandi’ is placed on the ground.

The Kailasanatha Temple must have been very imposing. “The architectural effect is accomplished by the true principle of design in the grouping of a number of minor features round about and leading the eye up to the central and crowning object of the structure; in these cases, this is the vimana tower. The central object is the greater tower over the shrine with lesser towers over the shrines at each of its corners and at the centre of each face. The view outside would originally be extremely effective, for, in the peculiar arrangement of cells grouped along each side of the courtyard, each shrine has a small tower over it which stands clear of the courtyard wall head,” presenting a varied skyline, reminding us of the temples of the Eastern Archipelago.

The main outlines are marked of as it were by the bulls. On the ground are the bulls; on the wall heads are the bulls about which more shall be mentioned. On the top of the tower, below the dome are, supporting as it were, the bulls in the four corners. This last is a new feature of the Kailasanatha temple. This is the description of the ‘inmaW: “The general elevation of this superstructure is a small tower over each of the exterior shrines at the corners and facades. Above this is a storey. Over this is a double cornice; the storeys above are successively stepped back forming a slight platform between each. Over this is a square portion with cornice, a ‘nandi’ at each corner and a finial over it. The tower cap is capped by an octagonal sikharam These ‘nandis’ in the ‘vimana’ form a new feature. At the Mamallapuram shore temple, there are only ganas playing on conches. This is replaced by ‘nandi' in the Kailasanatha temple and in all the temples of Conjivaram.”

A word has to be said about the bulls near the cells: “On each side of the large court is ranged a continuous series of cells each with a small tower and ‘sikhara’ over it. These ‘sikharas’ have originally stood with their summits appearing above the wall, the head of the court with ‘nandis’ and elephants placed alternately on the wall head between them. This would form a most effective grouping as a whole, from the outside”. These bulls and elephants remain to be explained. Appar speaks of ‘Airavanam’ the elephant of Shiva: “Ayiravanam eratu anereri” —‘You ride on the bull without riding on the elephant’. Therefore, we have this alteration of the elephant and the bull. If this idea is grasped, the full meaning of Arurar’s interrogation may be grasped: “Vital eruvaten, mata yanai nirka?" ‘Whilst the elephant stands, why are you riding on the bull?’


The Lord loves the bull—‘Ukantu’. He rides on it ‘Merkolum’, “Eruterraiyum merkontan”; “Vitaiyin in el varuvan’: “Varuvar vitaimel”; ‘He comes to us on it’. The bull is harnessed and He rides, Puttikkontu errinai eruvar and comes to us along with Parvati—“Variwar vitai met matotu." We usually find God riding on the bull even as women ride on the horse with both the legs hanging on one and the same side. Postures of God riding on the bull even as one rides on the horse are found in the Kailasanatha Temple, and Airavatesvara Temple.

There is a beautiful description of this murta by Arurar:

Maruvar konrai maticuti manik kaltin malaipola
Varuvar vitaimel matdtu makilntupiltap pataiculai
Tirumal piraman intirarkum tevar nakar tanavarkkum
Peruman Katavur mayanattup periya peruman atikale

‘The Lord, who is known as Periya peruman Adigal at Katavur, win; is the Lord of Visnu, Brahma, Indra, the Devas. Nagas and Raksasas, comes on the bull with Parvati surrounded by the Pittas adorned with ‘konrai” flower and the crescent moon on His head like a ruby mountain'.


This form of riding on the bull has its own esoteric significance. The poet asks of God, “what is this liking of yours—this riding on the beautiful bull?”—“Pukar eru ukanteral purinta tenne?” He repeats this rhetorical interrogation: “Vitai eruvalen? “Vitai erit tiriva terne?” Arurar speaks of the Lord riding on the bull of the form of ‘O’ or Pranava. In another place he speaks of the Universe being in the form of ‘Oinkara or Pranava Vedas are, but the elaboration of this Pranava and therefore the bull is said to be the Vedas. Dharma is that which supports everything; the very basis of everything and Pranava is its symbol. The Lord is there in this form, the very ruler of the Universe. The conception of Pasupati or the Lord of the souls receives concrete representation in this form.

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