The study and evolution of Skanda-Kartikeya forms

Ancient icons of the Indian sub-continent invariably catch the fancy of art historians across the world for their creativity and intricate craftsmanship. Studying their origin and evolution and coordinating them with the available texts in different languages is a real intellectual challenge. Diligent search will reveal that the theology of the Vedas metamorphosed into many branches in the form of Puranas and Agamas. They also speak of several deities and contain myths surrounding their origin that were current in many societies in different parts of the sub-continent. What rendered the task of understanding the spiritual reality behind the icons even more complex is that a bewildering variety of images are associated with one and the same god.

The first such diligent search was made by T.A. Gopinatha Rao in the beginning of 20{+t}{+h} century and the outcome was the publication, Elements of Hindu Iconography. Since then plenty of materials have been unearthed, warranting a revised approach.

In the Hindu Pantheon, Siva and Skanda occupy a unique place. A study of the evolution of Kumara, the son of Agni — as mentioned in the Vedas — into Skanda-Kartikeya itself is a complex exercise. Further, the syncretism of these forms with Tamil ‘Muruga’ — a concept that is deep-rooted in the socio-ecological framework of the five Thinais of the Sangam literature, with possible roots in the tribal religion that preceded the Sangam period — is altogether a different dimension. The author of this book has endeavoured to unravel the complex phenomenon and succeeded in establishing that the ‘War God’ of North India synchronised with Muruga, one of the five early deities of the Tamil country.


Haripriya Rangarajan begins her exploration of the Skanda-Murugan cult by looking at the etymology of several terms denoting the god in the Rig Veda and in the later works, particularly the Puranas. In elucidating the mythological evolution of different forms, as mentioned in the Puranas and epics, she presents all the published versions. She draws evidential support from the coins of Kushana king, Huvishka and others while discussing Skanda-Kartikeya from a historical perspective.

No less significant is the evidence available in the Nagarjuna valley (Andhra Pradesh) in the form of a temple dedicated to Kartikeya and the images depicting him with his distinctive ‘cock’ banner. Until the end of the Gupta period, Kartikeya was adored as the ‘god of war’ since the legend speaks of him as the generalissimo of the forces of the celestials (devas). No doubt, he was the tutelary god of the dynasties like Chalukyas.

From this, she moves on to discuss the more complex evolution of the cult of Murugan-Skanda in the south. The cult of Skanda struck roots and came to be patronised more in Tamil Nadu and its adjoining areas than in northern India. In fact, the passion for the cult is often reflected in the violent forms of worship adopted by devotees of this region. She explains the esoteric significance of the birth of Skanda by alluding to the ‘Vel’ being regarded as the symbol of ‘True Knowledge’.

The lucidity of Haripriya Rangarajan’s account of the cult in the Sangam age and the way she has brought out the significance of the six faces of Skanda testify to the depth of her knowledge in socio-cultural history of early Tamil culture.

She provides a wealth of information about many of the abodes of Muruga-Skanda in the South, along with their mythological background. However, one felt the recently unearthed temple in Saluvankuppam (near Mamallapuram) could have been included. The chapter giving a synoptical account of the contents, the appendices, and the illustrations are thoughtful additions and serve to enhance the value of the work. Researchers are sure to find it a valuable resource.

In a sense, the author makes an attempt at placing the Skanda-Muruga cult, which is hugely popular in the South and widely seen as a typically southern cult, in a pan-Indian context. This indeed is the strong point of her work, for the other scholars who have written on the subject either rooted themselves exclusively in the Puranic traditions or dissected only the Muruga cult.


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