Ekapada, The Single-footed Divinity
In many temples in Odisha, north-coastal Andhra and Tamil Nadu, and also in Nepal, various images of Ekapada Siva have been placed in one of the external niches of the central shrine
It may appear strange and surprising, but nearly every religion and culture in the world has an unusual motif of a supernatural single-footed being, all associated with a unique myth and symbolism. In India, such an image is known as eka-paada (single-footed). The Rig Veda, the earliest known text of India, frequently mentions Aja Ekapada along with Ahi Budhnya (serpent of the deep). Aja Ekapada could be translated either as ‘the one-footed goat’ or as ‘the unborn single-footed one’. During the first half of the 20th century, many Western scholars had written about Aja Ekapada, identifying the deity with the sun, moon, thunderbolt, storm, waterspout, etc. In 1933, Jean Przyluski, a French Indologist, had interpreted the single leg of the figure as the axis mundi; and in 1961, art historian Stella Kramrisch had stated that the leg represents the polar axis.
Way back in 1918, an unidentified terracotta relief figure (c. 400 CE, Gupta period) from Rajasthan’s Rang Mahal, now in the Bikaner Museum, was published in an archaeological report. In 1959, the figure was wrongly identified as ‘a monster’ in another report. However in 1960, V S Agrawala rightly identified the relief as Aja Ekapada. The relief shows the figure in standing posture, slightly inclined to the left, having a goat’s head and a pair of horns, a human torso with a pair of human hands, and a massive leg with the foot of an elephant.
The Vedic hymns, to the best of my knowledge, make no mention of any part of the elephant in the context of Aja Ekpada; and hence, scholars had pondered upon the issue and expressed different opinions, which remain unsatisfactory. Incidentally, many animals take a leap into the air; whereas, the elephant would never jump up from the ground because of its mammoth size and bone structure. Most likely for the same reason, in ancient Indian literature, the elephant has been mentioned frequently as a symbol of the Earth’s stability. Hence, in my opinion, the elephant’s foot in the unique Rang Mahal relief of Aja Ekapada seems to be a poetic/artistic mode of indicating the firmness and the stability with which the deity stands on the Earth on his single leg.
In the Vedic literature, Aja Ekapada has also been associated with a few other divinities, including Agni (God of Fire) who possesses the ram/goat as his vehicle. In the Puranas as well as in Indian art, the Ekapada concept has been fixed firmly with Rudra-Siva. From about the 8th century onwards, in many temples in Odisha, north-coastal Andhra and Tamil Nadu, and also in Nepal, various images of Ekapada Siva have been placed in one of the external niches of the central shrine. They include Ekapada-Siva, Rudra and Bhairava and Siva Ekapada Trimurti.
Though no temple seems to have been exclusively dedicated to Ekapada Siva, a memorial stone in the Bhubaneswar Museum shows the single-footed Siva as the central deity at the top of the panel. This unique representation might suggest that Ekapada Siva was also revered as the Supreme One. The Atharva Veda (13. 1. 6) hails Aja Ekapada as the ‘One who had stabilised both Earth and Heaven with His might’. The same idea of bringing stability to two different realms in one step, in my opinion, has been suggested in visual art by means of the single leg of the divinity.
Associate Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam