This magnificent sculpture depicts Karttikeya in his six-faced, twelve-armed form known as Shanmukha. He is the son of Shiva and Parvati and is known by several names, including Skanda, Kumara, Subrahmanya and Murugan. Shanmukha is seated on an enormous peacock named Parvani, who has large tail feathers and holds the tail of a snake in his beak while the serpent's head supports Shanmukha's pendant foot. The flaming aureole that rises up around them deliberately recalls that of his father, Shiva Nataraja, when he dances the world in and out of existence.
While the story of Karttikeya's birth varies slightly depending on the text, it is agreed that he was born from six seeds or sparks that radiated from Shiva's third eye. These sparks were given to the fire god, Agni, to carry to Saravan Lake. There on a lotus he is born with six faces - eesanam, sathpurusham, vamadevam, agoram, sathyojatham, and adhomugam. Shiva and Parvati charge the six Krittika sisters with nursing him, who represent six of the Seven Sisters of the constellation Pleiades. Hence, he is known as Karttikeya.
As he comes of age, Karttikeya is appointed by his father as the commander-in-chief of the army of the Devas. Coincidentally, he is married to Indra's daughter, Devasena, giving rise to two interpretations of Karttikeya's other name, Devasenapati, either as Devasena's husband (Devasena-pati) or as the Devas' general (Deva-senapati).
As the Hindu God of War, Shanmukha holds various attributes in his ten secondary arms, including the Vel, his divine spear given by his mother Parvati, and which symbolizes his far-reaching protection. He also holds a chakra (symbolizing knowledge of truth), mace (representing strength), bow (represents his ability to defeat all), arrow, sword, lotus bud, thunderbolt, and shield.
In this powerfully carved masterpiece, the artist has successfully rendered all of Shanmukha's characteristics, his attributes, and his mount with grace and beauty, making the figure's multiple messages abundantly clear to the viewer. A slightly larger work from Andhra Pradesh is at the Art Institute of Chicago, comparable in iconography though not as finely carved; see P. Pal, "Sculptures from South India in The Art Institute of Chicago," in Asian Art at The Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Studies, vol. 22, no. 1, pp. 20-25.