Understanding iconography of Shiva-Ekapada-murti

Mahesha-murti is the sakala image of Lord Shiva and the Lord manifests from it in his various forms representing different lilas in saumya or raudra character.

Published: 04th April 2022 01:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th April 2022 01:05 AM   |  A+A-

Tripada-Trimuti in Thyagaraja Temple, Tiruvottiyur, where the main theme is Shiva’s supreme authority (L) and Ekapada-Bhairava in Taleshvara Temple, Bhubaneswar (R)

Tripada-Trimuti in Thyagaraja Temple, Tiruvottiyur, where the main theme is Shiva’s supreme authority (L) and Ekapada-Bhairava in Taleshvara Temple, Bhubaneswar (R)

An image of a god is conceptualised either as nishkala (non-manifest) or sakala (manifest) and sometimes a combined form. While a nishkala image is generally appropriate for yogis, allowing them to meditate with closed eyes, a sakala image is suitable for commoners. Mahesha-murti is the sakala image of Lord Shiva and the Lord manifests from it in his various forms representing different lilas (divine play) in saumya (pacific) or raudra (terrific) character. The Vatulasuddhagama provides a list of 25 manifestations of the Mahesha-murti. Shiva-Ekapada-murti (single leg image) is one such manifestation that stands out as an interesting and unique icon. The origins of the Shiva-Ekapada-murti are much obscured.

There have been suggestions connecting it with the Aja-Ekapada of the Vedic period. Aja-Ekapada, translated as “the unborn with one foot” or “one-footed with goat’s head”, is mentioned in the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda. However, it is very rare to see the Ekapada-murti depicted with a goat’s head. Resemblances of the single foot of the Ekapada-murti with a pillar-like structure have also been suggested as a connection with the yupa (sacrificial altar) of Vedic rites, skambha (eternal pillar or axis mundi), linga, etc. While these connections take the antiquity of the icon to the Vedic period, there have been no clear details about it in the later texts such as epics, Puranas, etc.

Images of Shiva-Ekapada-murti are concentrated in the temples distributed across the states of Odisha (including the parts of present-day Andhra Pradesh traditionally included within the Kalinga region) and Tamil Nadu. This icon is otherwise absent elsewhere except for a few stray cases. We observe two different traits in the development of the iconography of the Ekapada-murti; one trait is found in Tamil Nadu and another in Odisha. The iconography of Ekapada-murti in Tamil Nadu, defined as Trimurti-Ekapada-murti in the Uttara-Karanagama, is centred around the idea of Shiva as the supreme deity. As per the agama, Ekapada-Trimurti should be standing on his single leg over a padmapitha (lotus pedestal). He should have three eyes and four arms. His forearms should be in varada-mudra (boon giving) and abhaya-mudra (gesture of fearlessness) while his rear arms should be holding a tanka and a trishula (trident)/mriga (deer). Vishnu and Brahma should be shown emerging from Shiva’s left and right sides respectively. This specific iconography is centred around the concept of Shiva as the principal deity responsible for the production, preservation and destruction of the world. He is the beginning and end of all means, everything emerging out of Shiva and dissolving into him at the end. Though the concept of stability associated with the yupa or axis mundi may be applied in the case of Trimurti-Ekapada, the main theme remains Shiva’s supreme authority. Sometimes this icon is also called Tripada-Trimurti, as one leg of each of the three deities is visible in the sculpture. However, it is only the one leg of Shiva that is firmly placed over the ground.

The iconography of Ekapada in Odisha is very different from that of Tamil Nadu. In Odisha, Ekapada is conceived as Ekapada-Bhairava reflecting the raudra (terrific) character of Shiva. Tantric influence is very evident in the evolution of this icon as these activities were prevalent in the Odisha region during the early medieval period and Bhairava plays a very important role in the tantric sadhana. Ekapada-Bhairava is mostly shown with four arms except in a few rare examples of two-armed images. He sports a short beard, moustache, bulging eyes, open mouth with protruding side teeth, and uradha-linga (ithyphallic). In later period images, he is made more fearsome by wearing a garland of skulls, standing over a corpse, etc. The tantric pantheon had been evolved by various transformations created by their yogis for their precise needs to achieve consciousness. The amalgamation of Ekapada and Bhairava appears to be a part of this evolution. For a yogi, whether tantric or otherwise, non-movement or stillness is an essential requirement for his sadhana to get his focus on his desired goal. In Ekapada-Bhairava, a sadhaka finds stillness and stability, allowing him to focus on his goal.

While the earliest Ekapada-Bhairava image in Odisha is from the 8th century CE, these images continue to appear in temples of the 15th century CE. The early period temples of Odisha were greatly influenced by the Pashupata sect and this may be a reason behind the propagation of the Ekapada-Bhairava images as a secondary or guardian deity of the matrikas (mother goddesses) or goddess Mahishasuramardini. When the tantric influence started overshadowing the Pashupata influence in the region, Ekapada-Bhairava continued to be revered and worshipped, keeping his status as a secondary deity. With the decline of the tantric practices, images of Ekapada-Bhairava also started seeing a downturn. However, it did not go into oblivion as we continue finding the icon in temples belonging to the last Hindu dynasties of Odisha till the 15th century CE.

Saurabh Saxena

Founder of Puratattva, a documentation of heritage sites



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