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Innovation and continuity: a new temple for Kala Bhairava at Adichunchanagiri, Karnataka.


With an elaborate inauguration ceremony, held from February 11 to 29, 2008, the newly constructed Shri Kalabhairaveshvara Temple at Adichunchanagiri (figure 1) opened its doors to worshippers. It bears witness to the thriving art of Hindu temple construction, which today can be traced in many countries of the world. A rare feature of this particular house of God, which forms a veritable temple complex and replaces a modest earlier shrine, is the fact that it is centred on a wrathful aspect of Shiva, Kala Bhairava, the "Terrible (Lord) of Time-Death".


The temple is situated on the hill Adichunchanagiri in the town of Bellur, some 110 km west of Bangalore, in the Nagamangalam taluka of Mandya district. It boasts a naturally scenic setting, the lower part of the hill being covered by lush green woods, and at the top a rocky mass forming an impressive jagged silhouette against the sky. The approach to the temple is from the western side by a series of steps. A huge square tank has been dug at the foot of the steps. Halfway uphill, after passing through several large archways (toranas), one finds the ashram buildings flanking the temple, which rests on a massive stone platform stabilized by buttresses.

The place is said to have been inhabited originally by members of the widespread Natha sect. Testimonies to earlier cult activity remain in the form of various temples--both cave and structural. An account of 1939 refers to the place as a rapidly developing spiritual centre and makes particular mention of the temple dedicated to Shiva Balagangadhara, which is extant.

Facts and Figures

Construction work on the new temple has been continuous since 1993, with certain parts, particularly the facade of the "royal" eastern entrance tower (rajagopura), still awaiting completion at the time of the inauguration.

The temple faces east. Its east-west extension measures 84 m and the north-south extension is shorter at 53 m. The rajagopura, facing the rocky slopes of the hill, is impressive with its height of 30 m, while the other three gopuras which form the entrances towards the south, west, and north are each 17 m high. The number of carved pillars inside has been given as 172. Mtogether 1200 people have been involved in the project.

The three main shrines of the temple are fashioned from black stone, krishnashila, which was reportedly brought from Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. These shrines house the deities Kala Bhairava (central) (figure 2), Goddess Stambhambika (northwest), and Nagalingeshvarasvami (southwest). Together with Ganapati (Ganesha) and Subrahmanya (Karttikeya) they constitute the temple's Five Deities. All other parts of the building except for the superstructure of the gopuras have been carved from a shining greyish-white stone which is available locally. The layout and decorative elements are based on south Indian medieval texts, (1) while their individual implementation and the shaping of some details, e.g. providing the faces of the outer enclosure with windows, reveal an innovative attitude and a careful adaptation to modern taste.

The construction of this magnificent building recalls the Vijayanagara-Nayaka temple style, which was prevalent in south India from the 16th through 18th centuries. A sthapati from Tamil Nadu was appointed as the master architect. The tradition of temple construction flourishes in Tamil Nadu, particularly at Mamallapuram (also known as Mahabalipuram), an ancient seaport and site of early temple architecture in stone. Here, the most important seat of learning is the Government College of Architecture and Sculpture. (2)

Presiding Authority

Since 1974, Sri Balagangadharanatha Swamiji has been the 71st Head (pithadhipati) of the Sri Adichunchanagiri Mahasamsthana Math. He is both a religious leader and generous supporter of education and development. As part of the temple inauguration, the special honour of wearing a golden crown and circumambulating the temple in a decorated palanquin was granted to him.

Mythology of Bhairava

Among the fierce forms of Shiva, Bhairava is particularly widespread and popular. In south India, Kshetrapala Bhairava (Bhairava as protector of the soil) frequently occupies the northeastern position in Shiva temple complexes, sometimes housed in a separate shrine. From Vedic texts, the northeast is known as the noblest, the "invincible" direction, and it belonged to Rudra-Shiva-Ishana from an early period onwards. (3) The hieratic image of Bhairava, standing in front of his dog vehicle, thus guards the temple's entrance from a particularly strong position. Some sources describe a group of Eight Bhairavas, among which Kala Bhairava is counted. Other texts list even more Bhairava aspects. As many as 88 of them are depicted at Adichunchanagiri, with their black images being affixed to the whitish colonnade pillars, which constitutes another innovative artistic element.

In Hindu mythology, Kala Bhairava made his appearance when Brahma claimed superiority over Shiva in the presence of Vishnu. (4) Kala Bhairava is the embodiment of Shiva's fury. He cut off the then existing fifth head of Brahma, whose mouth had uttered those offensive words. Consequently guilty of brahmahatya, the offence of slaying a brahman, Kala Bhairava became a restless wanderer, doing penance in order to be absolved of his sin. Finally, he arrived at Varanasi, where the calvarium or skull-cup (kapala), which had stuck firmly to his hand, fell off at last. This happened at the revered site of Kapalamochana. Kala Bhairava has subsequently functioned as the Local Guardian, the Chief of Police (kotval) of Varanasi, preventing those from entering whose sins exceed what can be tolerated in this holy city.

"The cult of Bhairava clearly has directional implications, which account for his all-encompassing guardianship of the eight directions as well as his "limited" installation in a particular corner. Knowledge of his secret power is transmitted by esoteric lineages. It is noteworthy that the temple at Adichunchanagiri bears reference to an ancient cosmogonic concept of a pillar and a well. (5) At Varanasi, this symbolism is encoded in the Lat (pillar) Bhairava and the Kapalamochana well. The female element likewise can assume the pillar (stambha) aspect in this connection, which at Adichunchanagiri is manifest in the Goddess Ambika taking the form of Stambhambika.

The Images

The Adichunchanagiri image of Kala Bhairava has been worshipped for several centuries. (6) It exhibits a number of rare features. It radiates both charm and controlled power (see figure 2). The child-like proportions of the figure recall the "bala-rupa" injunction attached to Kshetrapala Bhairava in the Mayamata (36.183). (7) Since, in fact, there are no specific textual injunctions for the iconography of Kala Bhairava, the definition of such images exclusively rests with those who are responsible for making and worshipping them. (8)




The god is shown as four-armed, holding a sword (khadga) in his proper right lower hand, a trident (trishula) in his proper right upper hand, an hourglass drum (damaru) with a cobra serving as its handle in his proper left upper hand and a skull-cup (kapala) as well as a severed head (munda) in his lower left hand. It is towards the latter attribute that a small dog (shvan), Bhairava's vehicle, jumps in order to lick the drops of blood issuing from it. The dog itself plants his hindlegs on a severed head, which represents a rather rare feature. Skull-cup and severed head are both visual signs of Kala Bhairava's act of mutilating Brahma.

Kala Bhairava wears a belt into which a dagger is tucked--another rare characteristic. Conforming to the usual mode of depiction, the deity's body is nude. His matted locks are here combed back and appear as neatly undulating at the back of his head. His eyes are large and somewhat bulging and fangs protrude from his mouth. He is adorned by large disc-shaped earrings, a long pearl necklace, and a longer serpent mala. His footwear consists of remarkably high sandals, referred to as paduha.

Flanking the access to the central shrine (garbhagriha), huge black-stone images of powerful deities, circa 3 m high, attract the visitor's attention. Among these are Ganapati, Subrahmanya (figure 3), and Bhadrakali (figure 4). In order to protect them from the spontaneous anointment of some worshippers, these have been recently encased in glass cabinets. A charming sculpture of Kala Bhairava's dog vehicle is placed on a high socle behind the temple's flag mast (dhvajastambha), facing his master (see figure 3).

Bhairava is known as the supreme deity in Shaiva tantrism. He figures regularly on the hypaethral Yogini temples and at Shakti Pithas, where the bodily parts of Shiva's first wife Sati fell to the ground. The well-known temples of Kala Bhairava in India are at Ujjain and Varanasi. (9) Adichunchanagiri now stands on a par with these.

The Rituals

The construction as well as the maintenance of a Hindu temple necessarily involve a number of rituals. During the very first, which is carried out right after choosing a suitable site, the Vastupurusha, a kind of demonic personification of the site, along with the Earth (bhumi) is invoked. This ritual, which is today commonly referred to as Bhumi Puja, is performed for the site's appeasement (vastu shanti) and ritual purification (sthala shuddhi). Offerings are made to the eight guardians of the directions (ashta-dikpala) in their respective places. At the outset of the actual construction, the rituals of laying the first bricks (prathameshtaka) followed by the placing of the consecration deposit (garbha-nyasa) are performed. These rituals are prescribed for every architectural component of a temple complex, thus resulting in a large number of ceremonies.

Finally, the inauguration of the building is marked by the installation and anointment of the pot-shaped finials upon the roof (kumbhabhisheka). Originally, emphasis had been laid on placing the topmost bricks (murdheshtaka), but a shift in emphasis must have occurred in favour of the placing of the conspicuous, exposed finials (figures 5 and 8), a ceremony which is periodically repeated. Such anointments also generally mark the completion of renovation work. A mahakumbhabhisheka, a highly auspicious event, always attracts a large number of worshippers. It may be viewed as a kind of "life cycle ritual" for the temple organism, an instalment, and subsequently a reinstalment, of its sacred potency. All these ceremonies are preceded by the erection of a temporary hall for sacrifice (yajna shala, structurally a mandapa), in which the necessary spiritual energy or divine presence is invoked through oblations to fire (pratishtha yajna).


At Adichunchanagiri, the happy occasion of the Mahakumbhabhisheka Mahotsava (Great Pot Anointment Festival) started on February 16, 2008, with the necessary rituals carried out by a large gathering of brahman priests of all ages. The air was filled with smoke issuing from the many fire pits (agni kunda), each one of a distinct shape as prescribed by the pertinent scriptures (figure 6). Brightly coloured decorations and flags fluttering in the wind embellished the arched ritual shed, where colourful temporary images of Ganesha, Subrahmanya, and Shiva-Parvati were also placed. On the centrally aligned altars, copper vessels were kept, filled with water to be infused with divine energy through the summoning (avahana) of deities. In the typical manner, each of these roughly globular pots was topped by a coconut surrounded by mango leaves, wrapped in a colourful shawl and placed on a bed of rice. Threads were neatly tied around them to represent their "blood vessels". (10) The perfumed water they contained would be used for the anointment to be performed on the following day.



A metal image of the main deity, Kala Bhairava, heavily adorned with flowers, could also be identified at the sacrificial hall. This very image was charged with energy and brought into the sanctum sanctorum on the following day, where it could be seen vigorously swaying to and fro in the hands of two attendants. Thus, both the liquid element as well as solid images were there to absorb the beneficial, power-generating effects of the oblations and mantras.

On February 17, the main ritual vessels, pradhana kalashas, were carried to the temple amidst cheering crowds (figure 7). Their contents served for the anointment and thus the divine embodiment (pranapratishtha) of the Five Deities (11) as well as the other major foci of worship: the nine finials of the rajagopura, the five finials on each of the three lower gopuras, and the single finials of the three shrines (vimanas). Priests and dignitaries climbed the bamboo scaffolding erected for the purpose of installing the finials (see figure 8). A green flag bearing the sacred syllable "Om" was hoisted over the central shrine. A further noteworthy part of the inauguration rituals on this day was the Silver Chariot Procession of Kala Bhairava (figure 9). The major steps of the inauguration process were thus successfully completed.



The newly constructed temple complex at Adichunchanagiri is marked by innovation and at the same time embodies the continuity of cult practices at an ancient holy site.


I wish to thank Dr Karine Ladrech, Paris, for discussing some of the issues of this article, Dr Gudrun Melzer, Vienna, for making available her photographie material, Mr Russell Radzinski, Berlin, for his critical reading of the manuscript, and HM Jewellers, Coimbatore, for sharing a rare photograph of Kala Bhairava.


(1) Cf. Anna A. Slaczka, Temple Consecration Rituals in Ancient India: Text and Archaeology, Leiden/Boston, Brill's Indological Library 26, 2007, pp. 387-89. The bulk of these would belong to the Shaivagama category.

(2) For a digression on modern temple construction in the south Indian style, see Crispin Branfoot, Gods on the Move: Architecture and Ritual in the South Indian Temple, London, The Society for South Asian Sudies/The British Academy, 2007, pp. 247-49.

(3) Corinna Wessels-Mevissen, The Gods of the Directions in Ancient India: Origin and Early Development in Art and Literature (until c. 1000 A.D.), Monographien zur Indischen Archaologie, Kunst und Philologie Bd. 14, Berlin, Dietrich Reimer Verlag, 2001, p. 10, table VI; p. 15, table X.

(4) An analytic account of this mythological story is provided in Elizabeth Chalier-Visuvalingam, "Bhairava's Royal Brahminicide: The Problem of the Mahabrahmana", in Alf Hiltebeitel, ed., Criminal Gods and Demon Devotees: Essays on the Guardians of Popular Hinduism, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1989, pp. 157-229.

(5) Elizabeth Chalier-Visuvalingam, "Siva und seine Manifestationen als Bhairava", in Cornelia Mallebrein, ed., Die anderen Goetter, Koeln, Edition Braus, 1993 (pp. 70-89), p. 77.

(6) Since this is an image under worship, I prefer to respect the sentiments of the devotees and refrain from assigning any particular date to it.

(7) Mayamata, Edition Critique, Traduction et Notes par Bruno Dagens, Pondicherry, Institut Francais de Pondichery, 1976, pp. 432-35. This treatise on architecture and iconography has been dated to the 9th through 12th centuries.

(8) Cf. Karine Ladrech, Le crane et le glaive: Representations de Bhairava en Inde du Sud (VIIIe-XIIIe siecles), Pondicherry/ Paris, Institut Francais de Pondichery/Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, 2009 (in press).

(9) See Niels Gutschow, Benares: The Sacred Landscape of Varanasi, Stuttgart/London, Edition Axel Menges, 2006, pp. 401-06.

(10) Francoise UHernault/Marie-Louise Reiniche, Tiruvannamalai, Rites et fetes (Vol. 3), Paris, Publications de l'Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient 156-3, 1999, p. 85.

(11) For a description of the typical "eye opening ceremony" for deities, see Diana L. Eck, Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India, third edition, New York, Columbia University Press, 1998, pp. 85-92. It may be assumed that this was also carried out for the main deities at Adichunchanagiri.
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Author:Wessels-Mevissen, Corinna
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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