Worship of Lord Brahma, Part 22


BY: SUN STAFF - 28.12 2017


Lord Brahma mural, Kailasanathaswamin Temple

A serial exploration of places of Lord Brahma's worship.

Lord Brahma at Kailasanathaswamin

Today we visit another temple in Kanchipuram, this one dedicated to Shiva-Somaskanda, but also home to a magnificent mural of Lord Brahma. Brahmadeva is also present here in murti form and by historical antecedent, represented in the many Somaskanda murtis found on the temple grounds.

There are said to be as many as 16,000 temples in Kanchipuram (Conjivaram) alone. Known as the 'Golden City of Temples', Kanchi is considered to be one of the seven primary sacred dhamas in India, along with Varanasi, Haridwar, Ujjain, Mathura, Ayodhya and Dvaraka. Kanchi was mentioned in the Mahabhasya of Patanjali in the 2nd century BC.

The name 'Kanchi' comes from 'ka' (Brahma) and 'anchi' (worshipped), which refers to the fact that Brahmadeva worshipped the Lord here. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Nityananda Prabhu, and Madhvacharya all visited Kanchipuram, and Lord Varadaraja, the presiding deity of Kanchipuram, gave the Vishishtadvaita siddhanta here. Ramanujacarya lived in Kanchipuram during his youth.

Kanchipuram is divided into two main sections: Shiva-kanchi in the north, and Vishnu-kanchi in the east. To the south is a cluster of Jain temples. Among the many prominent temples is Kailasanathaswami, today's featured site, along with several Vaikuntha Perumal Temples. There are 13 Vaisnava Divya Desam temples in the area.

Kailasanathaswamin Temple, Kanchipuram

The Kailasanathaswami Temple

Kailasanathaswamin is a Pallava temple dating back to the 7th century, and inscriptions indicate it was built by Pallava king Rajasimha (Narasimhavarman II) at around the same time as the stone-cut rathas at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram). In the late 1800's it was considered a Vaisnava shrine but at the time it was built, it was dedicated to Shiva. At present, it is the oldest structure in Kanchipuram. Being well sheltered by other buildings, there temple exterior has remained in surprisingly good condition.

The four-story temple was built of sandstone blocks on a granite foundation, and is an example of sandharaprasada, containing two walls and a path between for circumambulating the main shrine. This pradakshina is quite difficult to navigate, being very narrow, with a low ceiling.

Kailasanathaswamin Temple, Kanchipuram

There is a great deal of beautiful design work carved throughout the temple, inside and out, with kutas, kostas, panjaras, and other ornaments. Niches are cut into the temple walls, with makara-torana decoration on top, the makaras having floriated tails spreading out alongside them. The pillars are decorated with beautiful lions, elephants, nagas and bhulas. There is even an unusual depiction of a visiting Chinese pilgrim, possibly the monk Xuanzang, who visited Kanchi during the reign of Narasimhavarman. He reported that there were 100 Buddhist monasteries and 80 temples in Kanchipuram at that time.

This temple, like other early Pallava temples, does not have a gopuram. Like the Shore Temple, there are subtle gopuradhvara designs, which later evolved into towers. The outer temple walls are covered in deity sculptures, many from Calukyan influence.

 Somaskana-lingam, presiding deity at Kailasanathaswamin
(Somaskanda with Brahma and Visnu in background)

The main sanctum of Kailasanathaswamin faces the east. Along the rear wall of the main shrine is a sculpture of Somaskanda, the family of Shiva, Uma, and Murugan, typical of the Pallava age. There is a large sixteen-sided Shivalinga in front of it, made of polished granite and standing eight feet in height. The Somaskanda panel is the original presiding deity here, and the linga was placed before it at a later date. This linga shrine is situated just before the main entranceway to the temple, which is an unusual configuration for Tamil temples, given that it blocks the view of the main sanctum sanctorum. The shrine was built as an addition by Mahendravarman III, the son of Rajasimha, who named it after his father, Mahendravarmeshvara griham.

All along the four sides of the courtyard, which faces the main temple, is a row of fifty-eight small shrines. Each of these square shrines, or devakoshtas, was carved from the sandstone, and contains beautiful murti sculptures. They are carved in such a way as to be extensions, or sub-temples of the main sanctum. Numerous depictions similar to the presiding Somaskanda panel are found in these outer niches.


Somaskanda panel with Brahma and Visnu

Among the many murtis inside and out are various forms of Lord Shiva, Brahma, Visnu, Dakshinamurti, Lingodhbhavamurti, Ardhanariswara, Gajasamharamurti, and many others. The Dakshinamurti here at Sri Kailasanathar is quite unusual. There is no kalalam, or tree canopy over the deity's head, and it sits on an elaborate panchasanam base ornamented with lions, nagas, elephants, dvarapalakas, and a tortoise. There is also a panchaloka deity for Dakshinamurti, who is seated on Mount Kailash.

A large stone Nandi sits on a square platform just east of the temple. Nandi is ornamented with carved bells and jewels, and the four corners are held by four pillars with the Vali motif. The roof is gone from the pavilion.

One of the best loved aspects of Kailasanathaswamin Temple's ornamentation are the remains of fresco paintings on the inner walls of the shrine. One of these is a beautiful image of Lord Brahma. Painted in organic compounds, most the frescoes of this type have long since deteriorated and disappeared. Fortunately, some have survived, at least in part, and add a brilliant element of devotional sentiment to the temple. Brahmadeva was originally featured in many of the frescoes, but unfortunately in most he has been obliterated by time.


Somaskanda panel: Shiva, Uma and Skanda are sculpted, while
Brahma and Visnu were painted in background (but now deteriorated)

In this fresco we see that only a portion of Lord Brahma's form has survived. Brahmadeva has been given almost the entire wall in this spot, indicating his prominence in the temple.

While the murals of Lord Brahma here at Kailasanathaswamin are very wonderful (even the remnants), the real importance of Lord Brahma at this temple is reflected in his presence – and his absence – in the various Somaskanda panels. As we mentioned in previous segments, Lord Brahma's inclusion in these Pallava era Somaskanda panels marks an important phase of his disappearance from temple worship in India.

In a segment to come on the Atiranachanda rock-cut mandapam at Mahabalipuram, we will see an example of Lord Brahma and Visnu in the background of a Somaskanda panel that is the presiding deity there. Here at Kailasanathaswamin Temple, we find that the presiding Somaskanda panel in the sanctum also includes Brahma and Visnu, and the two panels are quite similar. Some of the panels in subsidiary shrines at Kailasanathaswamin also feature Brahma and Visnu, but many do not.

There is also some variation in the mood of worship depicted. In some panels, Brahma and Visnu hold their hands in anjali pose (hands clasped), while in others they offer flowers in puja to Shiva. Given the count and the interesting content of these panels, Kailasanathaswamin Temple stands as an example of the growing worship of Somaskanda, including his prominence as a stand-alone deity, without the presence of Brahma or Visnu.

In the presiding Somaskanda murti pictured above we see Brahma and Visnu in the background, although somewhat indistinctly carved in the bas-relief panel. Visnu is easier to see, sitting between Shiva and Uma (Parvati), and wearing a headpiece shaped much like Shiva's. Lord Brahma's features are harder to distinguish. He is on the other side of Shiva, and his headpiece appears to be more conical in shape, like other examples we've seen in Mahendra's temple constructions.

There are other indications that Kailasanathaswamin Temple represents an important mark in the progression of Shiva- Somaskanda worship, and therefore away from Lord Brahma. That is, Kailasanathaswamin is said to be home to the only Pallava painting of Somaskanda. This is a typical Rajasimha-type depiction of Somaskanda, except the ganas are depicted on one side at Shiva's feet, and an attendant stands beside Uma.

Somaskanda's influence in the region got even greater momentum in nearby Tiruvarur, in the Thanjavur district, which is home to the Tyagaraja cult of Tamil Nadu. The Tyagaraja's became the center of Saiva and Sakta worship. Tyagaraja, whom they worship, was not a presiding deity, but rather a processional icon of Somaskanda – Shiva, Uma and Skanda as a family, as depicted in the Pallava Somaskanda panels we have been discussing.

Another indicator that Kailasanathaswamin Temple stands as an important example of the segue from Brahma worship to Shiva/Somaskanda worship is found in the number of murtis residing there. While the following list is by no means exhaustive, it is a good indicator of the prominence Somaskanda received in these Pallava era temples:

there are six Somaskanda panels in the rock-cut temples at Mahabalipuram 

there are five Somaskanda panels in the structural temples at Mahabalipuram 

there are five more panels found in other Kanchipuram temples 

there are three more in the surrounding area, at Vedagirisvara and Talagirisvara temples; and at the Kailasanatha temple, there are 29 Somaskanda panels!

Just as the Pallava influence was not restricted to South India, likewise their influence in shifting the focus of worship away from Lord Brahma and over to Shiva was felt beyond the southern region. While they dominated the South for about six hundred years, until the end of the 9th century, their presence was also felt in Andhra Pradesh, from where they had migrated to the south. During the 13th and 14th centuries the Kadava dynasty came into brief prominence, helping to bring about the demise of the Cholas. They claimed to be descendants of the Pallavas, and helped to extend the influence of the kingdom.


Lord Brahma in devakoshta shrine

Many historical sources say that Bodhidharma, who founded the Zen school of Buddhism in China, was actually a prince of the Pallava dynasty. Clearly Lord Brahma's influence was also felt in China, but whether or not the Pallava influence minimizing Brahmadeva's worship also traveled there, we do not know.