The Religion and Philosophy of Tevaram (Thevaram)

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

This page describes “gangadhara-murti (depiction of the descent of ganga)” 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 2.2 - Gangadhara-murti (depiction of the descent of Ganga)


Generally Shiva is described as having a matlock which is described as having the Ganga (the Ganges) in it. He is, therefore, called the Gangadhara murti.


The description of the blue neck of Shiva has suggested to some that the form of Shiva represents a natural phenomenon of the mountain. The Satarudriya speaks of Girisa lying on a mountain, because of his thunderbolt springing from a mountain of cloud and creeping along his blue neck and red complexion. Perhaps this is the vision of God as seen in the black cloud tinged red by the glow of lightning. The matted hair, the crescent moon, the Ganges and His connection with the Himalayas suggest the personification of the very form of the Himalayas awful and beautiful. Oldenberg has pointed out this similarity of the nature of Rudra’s in its essence to Mountain God.

Whatever that be, in the later ages when the Ganges came to be looked upon as the sacred river almost divine, stories were invented regarding enterprises about its coming down from the Heavens to this world. It was easier for Shaivites who have thought of their God as the husband of the daughter of Himavan to connect Him with the holy Ganges.


One of the kings of the Solar family Bhagiratha becomes famous in the Puranas and the Itihasas as a great king who brought this holy river, to save his cursed ancestors after a great penance of thousands of years. The Ramayana and the puranas narrate this story. When the cult of pilgrimage and bathing in the holy waters of the rivers became popular, this story assumed a greater importance. By the time of Appar this cult of pilgrimage has become well established, “Kankai atilen, Kaviri atilen?”—‘What is the use of bathing in the Ganges or what is the use of bathing in the Kaviri?’ Here it will be seen that Appar is combining the Ganges and Kaviri on the same level. Kulasekhara Alvar goes a step further and speaks of the Kaviri of the Tamil land as of greater holiness, “Kankaiyir punitamaya Kaviri”. All this implies the admitted sacredness of the Ganges and the Tamil epic poet Kampan narrates the story of the coming of the Ganges by the Grace of Shiva, thanks to the penance of Bhagiratha.

That this story has been very popular in the age of Tevaram especially in the age of Nanacampantar and Appar of the 7th century A.D. is made clear by the various representation of this story by the sculptures of the age responsible for the Pallava monuments of that age. It is Tiruccirappalli which first revealed by its Inscriptions the truth of Appar’s influence over Mahendra, otherwise called Gunabhara.

In this Tiruccirappalli cave temple excavated by him, halfway up the Tiruccirappalli rock, there is carved in the western wall of the hall facing the shrine in a large panel of seven feet square, a fine image of Shiva in the form of Gangadhara.

“In this sculpture, Shiva is portrayed with four arms, the right upper arm holding the Ganges issuing from His hair. The left upper arm perhaps holds a rosary, whereas, the left lower arm rests on the left hip. The right lower arm holds a hooded serpent. The raised right foot rests on the head of an ugly dwarf. On the right side of Shiva’s head is the head and bust of a little human figure with the hand raised in prayer; evidently it is the Ganges”:

This is the description given by Longhurst. This will make the figure that of Gangavisarjana Murti where Shiva crushing the pride of Ganga by making her disappear within His matted hair, allowed her to flow out as a tiny rivulet.


The Gangadhara-murti represents the figure where Shiva allows Ganga to come down with all her force only to disappear within His locks. The Tiruccirappalli representation is interpreted by Krishna Sastry, as Gangadhara-murti holding with His right hand a lock of hair in order to receive Ganga descending from the clouds. Bhagiratha is not represented in this panel unless we take one of the faded out Rsi’s form as representing him.

It is the temple of Kailasanatha built by Rajasimha, that magic casement which brings before our eyes the Shaivite spirit making it alive through its representations of Shaivite mythology, in illustrating them, following the descriptions of the Shaivite poets. In this temple, several panels represent the story of the descent of Ganga. Plate No. 44, fig. 2 (Rea) represents Shiva standing on a pedestal. Ganga is descending on His left side of the head. Parvati is standing with her body forming two curves. Bhagiratha is standing on the right with folded hands in a mood of penance. Plate LIX (Rea) gives a bigger representation. There is no Bhagiratha here. Shiva has eight hands, instead of four, as in the previous panel. Mr. Rea is wrong in saying that there are only six arms. The lower left arm is embracing Parvati. Plate LVII is also said to be a representation of Ganga Avatara. Parvati and Shiva alone are found here. But the form of Ganga is absent. Shiva is holding what appears to be a portion of a curve bent upwards. In other places Rea has interpreted this as the skin of the elephant flayed. The topmost panel represents Shiva killing an elephant which had terrified Parvati. The lower-most panel also represents an elephant and the midale panel, therefore, may be taken as the representation of Shiva holding up the flayed skin of the elephant as His shawl or cover.

Plate CIV, fig. 2 gives the very story of the descent of Ganga. There are three hands on the right, but only two on the left, the lower arm, embracing Parvati, has been destroyed. The form of Ganga is there descending on to the left side of Shiva. Plate CXXIII, fig. 2 gives more or less the same figure. Plate XCVH, fig. 2 is from Matangesvara temple of Conjivaram. Shiva and Parvati have a conical crown. Shiva has two hands on the right but only one is visible on the left. Ganga is seen descending from the left side.

The Amsumadbhedagama, the Kamikagama and the Karanagama describe the figure of Gangadhara Murti.. Shiva should stand with His right leg remaining straight while the left leg should be slightly bent. The front right hand should be placed towards the chin of Parvati. His left front arm should be embracing her. The back right arm lifted up to his crown should be holding a jata and the back left hand should carry a mrga. Ganga should be placed on this. Parvati should be on the left with her right leg somewhat bent on the left remaining straight. Her right hand should be hanging down freely or holding up a few folds of her cloth, whilst the left one should be carrying in it a flower. Her face should express a state of mental uneasiness perhaps due to a feeling of jealousy. Sometimes Shiva’s front right hand should be in the ‘abhaya pose and the front left in the ‘kataka pose. He should carry the hatchet and the deer in the other two hands. Bhagiratha should be coming to the height of Shiva’s navel, chest or neck on the left of Shiva. He should be draped with a garment of barks. His matted hair should be flowing down. His two arms should be held in ‘anjali pose on his chest or over his head. It will be seen that most of the rules are not followed by the sculptures of the Tevaram period when probably no rigidity or convention had been achieved.


The most wonderful representation of the descent of Ganga is found represented at Mahabalipuram on the open side of a mountain which stands almost like a wall. This is wrongly called as the figure of Arjuna’s penance which is really the descent of Ganga from the Himalayas’ tops and the figure represented as doing penance can be no other than Bhagiratha. This great rock sculpture is unique and unlike any other ancient monument in India. Appar compares God to a fully filled irrigation tank, “Eri niraintanaiya celvan kantay”. It is almost the divine feeling for the waters felt by the people of Tontamantalam that is embodied in this remarkable scene sculptured here. ‘This rock-cut drama’ as Percy Brown remarks, ‘is an allegorical representation of the holy river Ganges issuing from its source in the distant Himalayas, the water fed from a receptacle above cascading down a natural cleft in the rock in the centre of the magnificent picture in relief’. Perhaps the whole figure representing Gangavisarjana has brought forth the real feeling of the Tamilians for the water, for irrigating their fields. Shiva is here represented as being nude whereas in the other images of Gangadhara, He is portrayed fully clothed and decorated. The importance of his sculpture may be realized from the other attempts to visualize the same scene on another part of a mountain (rock). It is almost a duplicate representation of the so-called Arjuna’s penance but unfortunately not finished, perhaps because there were cracks in the mountain (rock) or it may be, as Longhurst points out, a kind of experimental mode for the great finished work at the other end of the hill. Plates 29, 30, and 31 in Longhurst’s Pallava Architecture, Part II give us this sculpture from various points of view.

That idea has captured the minds of the artists of Rajasimha’s age as may be seen from the scene portrayed in the Shore temple—a first copy of the idea which reached its final form in the sculpture of the so-called Arjuna’s penance. Percy Brown explains the Shore Temple in such a way as to bring out the importance of the sculpture: “In the first place it seems evident that portions of the ground plan of the enclosure consisted of a system of shallow cisterns which could be flooded on occasions so that it resolves itself into a type of water temple. Some of the conduits or receptacles may still be traced and it is clear that they constituted an essential part of the lay out. The water to feed this system was brought by a canal and conveyed by sluices throughout the building any overflow being carried down a rocky cascade in the rear of the shrine and into the sea. The name of Jalasayana temple seems to be appropriate”.


Arurar has in all 72 references to Ganga in his hymns. He uses the form ‘kanku’ instead of ‘Kankai’ (Gangai) or ‘Kanka’ (Ganga) at least in two places. In the famous ‘Thiruppungur’ hymn where the poet says he has refuge in Lord because of the various acts of Grace narrated of olden times, he refers to this story of God acceding to the request of Bhagiratha and making Ganga rushing down with an uproar (almost destroying the whole world) to disappear within His matted hair. The Ganges of the famous holy bathing ghat—“Turai-k kankai” was coming down from the heights of the twilight sky—“Cekkar van nir”, in whirling high floods—“Kankai vellam” “Katunkalulik-kankai ntr vellam”, almost like a sea throwing up the rolling waves—“Tiraikal vantu purala vlcum Kankai”. Proud Ganges was sent to disappear at the bottom of the braided hair. The water increased and swelled but lo! the matted hair swallowed up and the water was nowhere. The full river is in His towering braid of hair.

In one poem he speaks of Shiva adorning Himself with the crescent moon and the Ganges and dancing with the ever increasing fire in His hand whilst the serpents whirled and the jingling anklets began to resound. In another place, Arurar speaks of the waters of Shiva’s crown which can be no other than the Ganges along with the matted hair whirling around in a dance. Plate XLIV, fig. 2 already referred to (Rea) shows eight parted projections proceeding from the crown of Shiva. If they are not to be representations of the cobra hood, they may be taken as whirling eight-fold matted hair of Shiva. In many places Arurar is very much impressed with the beauty of this form, “Aru tankiya Alakan”, “Aru cuta vallar avare alakiyare”.

Ganga is looked upon as the woman, “Penpati cencataiyan’ and this suggests the idea of Ganga being the consort of Shiva. Arurar speaks of Shiva as “Ganga nayakan” He speaks of the love of Ganga—“Katal cer mataral KankaiyaV’ and he refers to Ganga as Shiva’s wife, ‘Taram’ She is described as the beautiful lady of the waters with the flowing tresses conversing with the Lord like a koel so happy in His company that the fishes in the river danced up in joy.

In a few places the poet speaks of Shiva being in the company of both the wives Ganga and Parvati. He speaks of the special consideration and love shown to Ganga. In another poem, the poet jocularly remarks that he cannot serve the Lord because there is nobody in the Lord’s household, who would take care of the servants; for, Ganga will not open her mouth; Ganapati is immobile with his belly; Subrahmanya is a child and Parvati will not supply the daily batta; or, according to another reading she is always playing on the strings of the ‘Vina’ (Vinai) without caring to feed the servants.


Arurar refers to this form in another autobiographical episode of his. Arurar once got a heap of paddy but no servant could be found for transporting it to his house. He prays to God for help. Therein he states: “In half of your body you have placed a woman; in the spreading matted hair you have placed Ganga. You know the sufferings of good women. Please order the transport”.

Arurar had experienced the torture of being the husband of two wives. He has been punished according to the tradition for this double marriage. In one place in a moment of utter dejection, he pleads, perhaps in a lighter vein, that he can accuse Shiva himself with the same charge; he is treading on a very dangerous ground: “You embraced the maid of the mountain; without considering this you adorned yourself on your crown with that lady of the thousand faces—Ganga Devi. (The mountain and the thousand faces—“Kankai ayiram mukam utaiyal”— suggest the mountainous passer expressing in thousand ways). If I have forgotten Paravai and married Cankili, you did so. It is possible to retort”—so says the poet.


He brings out the seeming inappropriateness of the whole show: “The Lord is a yogi himself burning to ashes Kama as already known to all. This austerity and renunciation is shown by the matted hair, ‘cataf. On one part of His body is Uma, the daughter of the Mountain and in what form? She is performing great austerities bubbling up with victory—“Ma tavam cey malai mankai”. As though it were not enough, another woman is allowed to sit at rest on the matted hair. Is she an expression of Love? No. She radiates anger—“Calam kilar Kankai” (There is a pun on the word ‘calam’ which means also water). What a wonderful effusion of Love! Perhaps these descriptions suggest that there is no mean animal passion but a conquest of passions and a communion of souls”. A beautiful conceit explains this truth: “God burnt to ashes Kama with his fiery eye of His forehead; This fire of His skill shoots up through varied flowers and blossoms. It is the ‘konrai’ flower up above His ruddy matted hair, where shines crystal clear the flower Ganges” —“Kannutalar Kdmanaiyum kaynta tiral Kankai malar tennilavu cencatai met tl malamta konraiyinan’,

In another place he weaves an interesting drama out of this kind of mythology: “Parvati has taken a portion of Shiva’s body and Ganga also has become attached to His body. There is no other place for a third wife and, therefore, Shiva has ‘Kapukilal’ by His side at ‘Tirukkoti’


We had referred to the beauty of this form as experienced by Arurar. Apart from the beauty of the womanly form, the poet suggests another source of beauty. It is the beauty of a harmonious combination of contradictory and conflicting things—a beautiful symbol of the Absolute where all contradictions are dissolved and harmonised in its wonderful unity with no ‘sajatiya’, ‘vijatiya’ or ‘svagatabheda. It is said Mandhata and other great kings made the cruel tiger and the meek lamb drink side by side at one and the same stream. Some such wonderful divine peace is suggested by the beauty of Shiva’s matted hair, where reside the moon, and the serpent wont to swallow it, along with the woman accustomed to shiver at its very sight. In addition, there are the flowers and leaves of the trees. The word ‘viravukinra’ — combining—offers the key to the beauty of the form and its mystic significance.

There is the harmony of the cool deep river arid the white clear moon, of the river and the shining crescent with probably its reflections on thousand waves. This harmony of God is sweet like the sugarcane and its quintessence sweet, like the candy. There is a community of spirit of beauty, light and refreshing coolness suggested by the description of the ‘kuravu flower and ‘kuvila’ leaves glistening amidst the ruddy braids of His hair along with the cool moon and the Ganges and again by the description of the crescent moon, the ‘Zconrai’ flower of the sylvan tract and the river—“Polum matiyam punak konrai punal cer cenni-p punniya” There is also the harmony of the waters and the flowers and the serpents and the braids of hair.

The Lord raises up a new ideal happy family of love: “The lady of love, Ganga— He adorns His braids of hair with this beauty coming in the form of water •—is the heroine of this ideal household. The crescent refuses to grow perhaps because of fear of the serpents—the poisonous serpents with their pattern of lines. But God here makes them sleep together fearless. Our father (of this universe, of us all, of both the moon and the serpent) rules with Grace that way”. This happy family is again and again described. ‘Konrai’ with the humming bees, as though somebody has injected the honey there, the Ganges, the moon—these He adorns on His braided hair; the Heroine, here is the daughter of the Mountain, into which enter the darkness and cloud, for rest—He keeps her reside in one part of the body. The same higher harmony is described in hymn 43, verse 4. This is the crown and glory of god-head. Arurar speaks of the Ganges and the crescent as the crown of the Lord.

This story of the Ganges has also a mystic significance. And, as usual the poet asks of the Lord, “What is the significance of your adorning yourself with the Ganges on your head?” “What is the significance of your crowning yourself with Ganga along with the embracing Lady of the Mountain”?

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