The Religion and Philosophy of Tevaram (Thevaram)

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

This page describes “gajaha-murti (the story of killing gajasura)” 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 3.4 - Gajaha-murti (the story of killing Gajasura)


In Cilappatikaram, there is a description of Durga, whom the hunters worship in the deserts. That is curious inasmuch as the description seems to be that of Shiva, tranferred wholesale to Durga, the Sakti of Shiva, evidently because of the identity of Shiva and Sakti, roughly the static and the dynamic aspects of God-head:

Matiyin ventotu cutum cenni
Nutal kilittu vilitta imaiya nattattu-p
Pavala vaycci tavalaval nakaicci
Nancuntu karutta kanti vencinattu
Aravunan putti netumalai valaittol
Tulaieyir rurakak kaccutai mulaicci
Valaiyutaik kaiyir cula menti
Kariyin urivai porttanan kakiya
Ariyin urivai mekalai yatti

(Cilampun kalalum pulampum cirati
Valampatu korrattu vayval korravai
Irantu veruruvil tirantatol avunan
Talaimicai ninra taiyal)”.

“On her crown she adorns herself with the white blade of the moon. Tearing the forehead as it were, looks out for once, the never opening eye. The mouth is the very coral. Her smile is of white radiance. Her throat has become black with the poison drunk. Fitting up the furious snake as the bow-string, she bends the huge mountain of a bow. She wears the serpents as her breast band. She holds up the trident in her bangled hand. She covers herself with the skin of the elephant; the lion-skin is her girdle thereon. (The anklets, and the victorious and heroic sign of a leg-ring, jingle on her feet. She is Korravai (or Durga) of the never failing sword and victorious courage. She stands on the head of the demon of two forms.)


It is the line underlined that is important for the present. It refers to the flaying of an elephant and wearing its skin as a shawl. The story is thus seen to be popular even among the hunters of the age of the epic. Apart from the heroic deed of flaying the elephant, there is also the greatness involved in wearing the skin. The ancients believed the very touch of the flayed skin of an elephant will bring death; to escape this death is itself a divine act. The Kurmapurana states that when a demon assumed the form of an elephant for interfering with and frightening the Saints in contemplation near the Krttivasesvara linga in Benares, Shiva came out and killed him.

The Puranas including the Suprabhedagama describe how the Rsis of Dandakaranya, enraged at Shiva’s sport with their wives as Biksatana, performed a destructive sacrifice for killing Shiva, when from the sacrificial fire came many fatal objects, including an elephant, which, along with the other objects were neutralized. Shiva wore the flayed skin of the elephant in this case. This is probably what Arurar refers to. This will be described and discussed later on.

The third story occurs in the Varahapurana. A great demon Gajasura by name, was like the other demons of the Puranas giving endless trouble to Devas; and Shiva fought and flayed him. The heroic act according to the Tamilian tradition, took place in Valuvur in the Tanjore District.


The important point is killing the elephant and wearing its skin. The form of the Lord is called Gajasurasamhara murti or if it is merely the killing of the elephant sent by the Rsis, Gajahamurti. The Agamas describe this form. Shiva appears with either four or eight arms holding in the former case, the noose and the skin of the elephant with the right hands, and the tusk and skin with the left, whilst holding in the latter case of eight arms, the trident, the drum, the noose and the elephant’s skin with the right hands and the skull, the tusk, the skin and the vismaya pose with the left. Shiva’s left leg is planted straight on the elephant’s head; His bent up right leg is lifted above to the left thigh. The tail of the animal is seen as coming over Shiva’s crown, whilst the skin appears like a halo round the image of Shiva with legs hanging as artistically arranged. Devi stands by, terrified, holding Subrahmanya in her hands. It appears that the Perur image answers to this description, and not the image of Valuvur, the place famous for this heroic act, because here the legs take a contrary position.

Another description of the Agama, places the trident, the sword, the tusk and the skin in the right hands and a skull, a shield, a ball and the skin in the left; the right leg is bent and held as in utkutikasana. Karanagama gives tanka, deer and suci pose as in Tirutturaippundi image, which however has ten arms and not the Agamic eight or four hands.


Coming to the sculpture of the age of Tevaram, Rea describes the panel of the back of the last but one ratha on the north, among the eight rathas at the entrance of Kailasanatha Temple. “The group has Shiva on an elephant; the death noose is in His left hand; His right foot is uplifted on the elephant’s head; He holds in the lower right hand a trident and in the lower left a naga. He is represented as stripping the elephant’s skin which he waves aloft in his two upper hands. At His sides are a standing figure of a devotee on the left, and two gandharvas on the right. The panelled back of the seventh (going to the South) ratha is similar to that just described but in this case Shiva has six hands”. Rea described Fig. 1 in his plate CXXIII as follows: “Shiva with the usual weapons sits on the back of an elephant. A woman is in front”. A reference to the figure leaves no doubt that it is the Gajahamurti. Shiva is standing on the elephant with His straight right leg, whilst the left leg is lifted and bent, straight above its head. The trident of the'right hand is piercing the elephant. The front left hand and the back right hand are holding up the skin. Perhaps, there are eight hands.

Parvati, is frightened and this fright is very well expressed by her bends of the legs and body—so frightened as almost to run away without seeing the cruel act. In plate LVII, the top panel gives the representation of the Gajahamurti. Shiva has six hands. The elephant is being pierced by the trident held in the right midale arm. The back right arm and the front left arm are holding up the elephant’s skin, high above the jatamakuta, which is in a peculiar form of three semi circles. The right leg is on the ground with a slight bent; the left is raised up to the thigh, the feet resting on the head of the elephant—a talasamsphotita mode of dance. The curves and bends express the victorious fight. Parvati as in the previous figure expresses fear. These sculptures show that the Agamic rules have not as yet become crystallized.


The frequent representation of this story may be better understood and appreciated with reference to the following: In the Pannmalai Temple inscription, Rajasimha, describes himself as ‘the Rajasimha, the vanquisher of the elephants’. The Pallava kings of the Simhavisnu line specialized in the lion pillars. Rajasimha portrays therein lions standing on their hind legs in the act of springing forward. “Under the feet of lions”, says Longhurst in describing the Pannmalai temple, “are the heads of small recumbent elephants portrayed as being crushed by the lions. Thus the rampant lions appear to symbolize Rajasimha as the lion and the vanquisher of the elephants. The latter refers to the enemy princes as according to tradition, the lion is the natural enemy of the elephant”. Perhaps it is because of this, that this king came to be known as merely “Cinkan or Kalarcinkan’. This explains the idea of the elephants being placed in the lower panels whilst Shiva is represented in various forms in the panels above, suggesting the crushing down of the elephant. Rajasimhesvara is the name of the God of Kailasanatha temple in Conjivaram and these particular panels visualize this significance. The Gajasura Samhara is a more concrete and a more orthodox representation of this idea of a vanquisher of elephants by which term Rajasimha probably liked his God also to be praised.


In that age of divine right of Kings, certain amount of identity between the king and God came also to be emphasized. We know that in the Eastern Archipelago, lingas were not only named after the patron kings, but forms of God were sculptured to represent the faces of the patron kings. Pallipatai temples in Tamil land were those built on the places where the kings were burnt. Aditteccuram was one such built, where Aditya Cola died. There might have been, however, such temples of the Pallava age. An inscription of the 8th year of Kampavarman, speaks of a temple built by one Rajaditya at the place where his father was burnt. The Matangan Palli Temple of Satyavedu is considered to be a temple as the tomb of one Matanga. But this interpretation of the Palli is wrong, for that will make Tiricirappalli, Mayendirappalli etc., tomb temples which is against what we know of the Pattis as the original temples of the Jains converted into Shaivite temples. But though pallis are not Pallipatai temples, there were the latter kind in the Tamil country. The king is used to be called as Peruman Adigal. Katavur Mayanam as the name itself suggests must have been originally a burning ghat. The name of the God there, is Peruman Adigal as seen from the poems of Campantar, Appar and Arurar. It may not be a far fetched inference to hold that it was a Pallipatai temple of a king.

Appar living in the reign of Narasimhavarma Pallava I, who extended the use of the pillars with squatting base who was himself called Smhha, addresses God as ‘Cinkame’,

The Gajasura samhara murti as suggesting the idea of ‘Shnha’ the title of the king, explains the beautiful and original phrase or compound which Arurar coined and applied to God so lovingly “Tevar cinkame”— “Lion of Devas”, a phrase, “One better than Rajasimha”.


Arurar refers to the elephant 57 times in his hymns; Arurar is looked upon as a great poet. His rich active vocabulary is evident in his poems. Without any conscious effort, he has used nearly a dozen familiar words perhaps with different shades of meaning, to denote an elephant: ‘Atti’, connoting the idea of the Tamil term, ‘Kaimma used by him, and ‘Kuncaram’ (that which has a tusk) are the two Sanskrit words used in their Tamil form. Perhaps ‘Kari’, also may be traced to Sanskrit if it does not mean a black or huge animal, bringing out the same idea as the Tamil “Karuman”, or ‘Maimma’, which also Arurar has used. The other terms are ‘Yanai’ with its variant later form ‘Anai’, ‘Velam’, ‘Kaliru’ from ‘kali’ which means, ‘must’, and ‘Pakatu’ ® (from which probably ‘pakattu’ has come).

As a poet, he describes the elephant. Some of the descriptions explain the nature of the elephant species, whilst others specifically glorify the elephant destroyed by Shiva. Arurar refers to “Mata yanai” — the elephant of the oozing must. “Karunkatak kaliru”, gives the black colour of the oozing must; “Katama kali yanai” refers to the intoxication and pride of the elephant, thanks to this oozing. This animal is blessed with a crown as big as a ‘kumpam’ or a round vessel, “Kumpa ma kaliru’' It is tethered to a post, “Kampamarunkari” and it is always moving its body, “Kampa mal kaliru”, (kampam is shaking or post). Its feet are big, “Karuntala matak kaliru”. Its food is given as huge balls of food, “Kavala-k kalirrin” It is hard and firm like a mountain and therefore mighty, “Vanpakatu” Its trunk is serving as its hand, its chief characteristic, “Kaimma” As a hand, it is like a pipe with a hollow, “Tulai-k Rank kari It lives on the mountain, “Malai mel yanai”

Gajasura is an elephant, par excellence, an embodiment of evil. It has conquered—perhaps uprooted—the mountains with extensive slopes with its very trunk—so fierce and cruel—conscious of its unyielding honour and pride, “Talvaraikkai venra vemmana matakari”. It is monstrous, fierce and big, “Veyya mcL kari” Its eyes are fierce; it is fearless, “Venkanyanai”, Its must does not ooze but flow like a river, “Mat am arupata-p poliyum or, it pours down while it is in the fighting mood. Its very trunk is death, “Kolaikkai yanai”. It rules death, “Kot aliya kuncaram” Its fame has spread slowly but steadily, “Perurum mata kari”. Nobody could prevent its onslaught on the universe, “Tatukka vonnatator velam”. It is also victory for it, “Venri matakari”.

It is this demon of an elephant that Lord Shiva conquered. This ruler of death was made to die. Perhaps piercing it with the trident was not enough; perhaps it continued its monstrous acts. The Lord had to flay it. He caught hold of it from the front and flayed its skin for becoming His cloth. The hot blood "was then pouring down, “Kuruti cora”. It was an act, giving great exercise to His body, “Varunta anru uritta” or, rather it is the suffering of the elephant that is referred to. Every act of the so called destruction is an act of His Grace. The elephant’s skin became His favourite shawl. The cow relishes all the dirts on the new born calf and Shiva relishes all the refuses of the body of this demon. He has covered Himself with it full of relish, ‘Ittamaka-p porttir” “Kuruti cor a” — with its oozing blood, still wet, “Iruri”, full of the festering odour of the carcass, “Pulal nara”. It covers His whole body, perhaps as a halo round His body. It forms the aureola of his head, “Tol konta kular cataiyan” The poet himself revelling in the act of Shiva’s Grace, visualizes the beauty of this skin, “Kolamar kaliru,”. Anybody, seeing the representation of this in sculpture, will readily agree with this aesthetic judgment of our poet.


In the description of the sculptures of this form, Parvati is found frightened. This is referred to by Arurar. He views it from a few poetic points of view. God was desirous of seeing the beautiful fright of Parvati and flayed the elephant to kindle this expression of terror in her, “Natukkam kantar”. In another place, he says that Parvati became frightened at seeing the demon and therefore Shiva flayed him. There is a third graphic and poetic idea suggested. Parvati became terrified at this heroic fight with the elephant and at His terrific form; and therefore, Shiva flayed the elephant and covered His terrific form till it cooled down. The poet brings out the loving fright of the woman and the terrific cruelty of the man, as also the tenderness of love in the form of Parvati and the rank materialism of the mass of flesh in the form of the elephant, “Pavala-k kanivay”, and “Kavala-k kalirrin”? where he contrasts the tender and beautiful lips of Parvati, tender like the fruit and beautifully red like the coral, or tender and frightful like the deer, or, beautiful with the tender waist of a serpent, with mountain of food of the mountain of an elephant.


These stories are not mere objective experiences as far as Arurar is concerned. He very often correlates them with his own autobiographical experiences. It is again a glorification of the Grace of Shiva. The story is that an elephant was sent to carry Arurar to Kailas on his last pilgrimage. With a feeling of loving and respectful gratitude, he refers to this in his last hymn that is said to have been delivered to the sea, “He has flayed the elephant and this age long enmity of His against the elephant is dissolved along with me. Is it for this He has blessed me with this elephant, for me to ride on?”. Some, it must be added, hold this hymn as apocryphal.

The whole story of the elephant has like other stories a mystical significance. Arurar asks, “What is the import of this flaying of the elephant?” Tiruvalluvar speaks of conquering the elephants of senses with the goad of knowledge. The black elephant of a deceitful world, becomes in the end the white elephant of knowledge, as experienced in the last episode of Arurar, true to the message of “Unmai vilakkam” that the three ‘malas’ themselves become the Sat, Cit and Ananda aspects of Moksa.

Tirumular gives his own mystic interpretation of this story:

Muttik koluvi mulankeri velviyul
Atti yuriyara nava tarikilar
Catti karutiya tam pala tevarum

Attiyin ullelun tanru kolaiye”.

“The three sacrificial fires were kindled. They did not know, that the skin of the elephant is Shiva, the numerous Devas who thought of power. Murder was born out of fire”. Is this, a reference to the sacrifice of the Rsis of Darukavana?

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: