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An early inscribed sculpture of Murukan (ca. 7th cent. AD) Kilperumpakkam,
Viluppuram district. Courtesy: French Institute, Pondicherry

This paper is a brief report of the recent discovery by the author of a rare early sculpture of Murukan with unique features and bearing an inscription in early Tamil script.1

Even though Murukan is the pre-eminent deity of the Tamils celebrated in literature from the Cankam Age,2 he is conspicuous by his absence from early Tamil inscription.3 Free-standing iconographic representation of Murukan are also rare in Tamilnadu before the 9th century AD.4 The earlier representations of the deity are mostly confined to the Somaskanda panels and niche figures in the Pallava temples and rock-cut shrines.

The sculpture reported here is found in the open, outside a modern temple of Ayyappan in Kilperumpakkam village, about two kilometres southeast of Villupuram town (headquarters of the district of the same name), about 160 kilometres south of Chennai. Along with this sculpture are found another Jyeshetha and a Sivalingam, leading to the surmise that there was an ancient Siva temple here to which the present sculpture belonged.

Karttikeya: Vardhana, 7th cent. AD, North India. height: 47 cm. Red sandstone.
Chicago Museum of Art

The sculpture is a bas-relief carved on an upright granite stele with a semi-circular top and straight edges on the other sides. The height of the stele is 108 cms, width 62 cms and thickness 20 cms. The image is encased with in a broad raised rim running along the edges of the slab. The figure is finely carved and still in an excellent state of preservation.

Gupta Age coins bearing peacock image

The deity is seated on a lotus with his right leg folded and left leg hanging down. Seated figures6 of Subrahmanya on a lotus are rare, the present sculpture being probably the earliest.7

The deity is shown wearing a short conical basket-like head-gear (karanda-makuta) with a thick giralet of flowers (kannl) around the base. According to ancient Tamil tradition, kannl was the attribute of the warrior.8 The deity also wears the double shoulder-string (channavira), another attribute of the warrior. Both the attributes, found mostly in the earlier sculpture of the Pallava period, emphasise the fact that Murukan was essentially a warrior-god.

The deity is also adorned with large ear-rings (makara-kundala), a close-fitting necklace (kantikai), bracelets (kataka) around arms are wrists and anklets (kalal). He is also wearing a waist-band (udarabandha) with the knot in front. The folds of the dhoti are realistically depicted.

The deity is shown with four arms. The upper right hand holds a weapon with a short handle, the thunderbolt (vajra or sakti) inherited from Indra when Subrahmanya became the warrior-god par excellence.

The upper left hand holds a rosary (aksamala) and the lower right hand a lotus bud. The lower left hand is shown resting on the left thigh. The rosary and the lotus bud are the attributes of Brahma shared by Murukan in his capacity as the god of knowledge (su-brahmanya). The rosary is usually hold in the right hand, though instances of its being held in the upper left hand as in the present case are also known.9 All the three attributes, viz., rosary and the lotus bud, are known to Tamil literary tradition.10 It is however significant that three other important attributes in Tamil tradition viz., ceval koti and mayil murti are not depicted.11 These features begin to appear in the iconography of Murukan in the Tamil country only from a later period.

A unique feature of the sculpture is the brief inscription appearing on the also forming the background to the sculpture in the narrow space below the armpits and above the thighs. With the exception of hero stones and Jain rock carvings, inscribed sculptures especially of the BrahmAnical deities are rare in Tamilnadu.12

The inscription is in four lines. The first two lines are engraved below the right armpit of the deity and the next two lines below the left. Two letters in the first line are lost due to flaking of the rock surface. The rest of the inscription is well-preserved and legible. The inscription is in Tamil written in the Tamil script of the early Pallava period, but with an admixture of few vatteluttu letters. The inscription can be assigned on palaeographical grounds to ca. 7th century AD.13 The iconographical features belong to the same period.


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