What three forts did Shiva destroy? And why is this slated as one of Shiva’s great feats in a hymn known as Dasha-Puranam or “Ten Myths,” composed by the 7th century nayanmar saint Appar? We learn that three great demonic forces threatened the stability of the world from their three forts, one of gold, a second of silver, and a third of iron. These forts were set up variously, in the sky, in mid-air, and on earth in such a manner that in order to destroy all three forts, it was necessary to use only one single arrow. And Shiva did this. Appar sang thus of this dramatic feat:
When the three citadels, unmoored,
flew about wrecking destruction
in heaven and on earth,
Oppressed by their assault,
the frightened gods, led by Ari [Vishnu] himself
sought his protection.
Then, moved by compassion, the gracious savior
kindled his deadly arrow with fire,
shot fire from the snake that was his bowstring,
bent his mountain-bow to its fullest,
and reduced the citadels to ashes …
Appar [trans. Indira Peterson]
During the first century and a half of Chola rule, prior to the emergence of emperor Rajaraja, when war was a constant and recurring fact of life, Shiva’s manifestation as Victor of Three Forts held special significance. The third Chola monarch, Parantaka, ruled for all of fifty years, but his eldest son was killed in action on the battlefield in the year AD 949. Chola control over a vulnerable kingdom, centered in the Kaveri river delta, was far from assured. During this perilous period, Shiva’s warrior-like manifestation as Victor of Three Forts, holding a bow in his upraised left hand and an arrow in his lowered right hand, proved to be an inspiration for the families of the chieftains and officials who gifted bronzes to temples. An inscription on a temple along the Kaveri river tells us of that Parantaka’s queen dedicated such an image and made provisions for its appropriate worship:
In the year twenty of Parantaka, queen Kokkilanadigal, who installed the processional image of the Lord who Burned the Three Forts [Tripura-dahanam] in the temple at Tiru-turutti, gifted paddy to make food offerings to this Beauteous Lord of the Three Worlds [Tripura-Sundarar], and gold to burn a perpetual lamp in front of him.
Poonturutti temple inscription
The queen described her image as “Handsome One of the Three Worlds;” in case there should be any doubt on the exact form of her image, she clarified that the dedication was a metal processional image of the “Lord who Burned the Three Forts.” Clearly, she was motivated by the desire for an exemplary deity who would serve as an archetypal model for victorious warfare and the defeat of Chola enemies.
This tall, slender, but grounded bronze of Shiva, cast in the mid-eleventh century, would have held the bow and arrow in his front hands; these were routinely cast separately and placed in Shiva’s hands, and are generally missing today in all but a few images still in worship in temples. Shiva stands gracefully poised, resting his weight on his right foot, while his left leg is lightly bent at the knee and placed on the back of the dwarf demon Mushalagan, who holds a serpent in one hand and looks out helplessly at the viewer. In an unusual strategy, the artist placed a lotus below Shiva’s right foot so that the image would look appropriately balanced. Shiva and the little demonic figure were cast together on an oval plate that was then inserted into a rectangular pedestal. The metal rods that rise up on each side were intended to hold a tiruvatchi or flaming aureole that would frame the god and add to his grandeur. Poles would have been threaded through the lugs along the bottom of the pedestal and used to facilitate carrying the god during processions.
Shiva’s jatas or dreadlocks are piled elegantly upon his head, with the crescent moon and the trumpet-flower adorning one side, while a fully-open blossom crowns the upswept locks. As is the norm, a diadem frames his face, and he wears a ring in one ear only – an eccentricity associated with Shiva. A short dhoti is held in place by a series of belts with a large central lion-head clasp and, as is customary, he is adorned with rich jewelry. A ninth-century Tamil poem, Tirukayilaya Ula, or “Procession of the Lord of Kailasa” [Shiva], tells us of the many items of jewelry that Uma places on Shiva prior to his emergence in procession, and makes it clear that adornment was an essential element of dress.
She adorned him with a garland fashioned by the irrepressible god of love …
and tied golden anklets about his feet,
she placed a crown set with a radiant crest-jewel on his head
and on his forehead a shining plate
sparkling with gems.
She ornamented his ears with fish-shaped earrings made of unpierced ruby
and taking up a beautiful diamond necklace, a strand of gold,
a well-crafted necklace of enormous pearls and a shining garland of victory,
she wreathed his holy chest
and it shimmered in their light.
She fastened brassards around his eight mighty biceps
and tied on a belt which delights all who see
she bound a waist-cord about him
placed bracelets on his hands
and adorned his body with elegant designs.
[trans. Blake Wentworth]
Two features speak to the continued temple worship of this image. The first is the worn condition of the short dhoti and the blurred details of the lion-head clasp that is the result of continued handling of the image by priests during daily puja. Additionally, bronzes undergo ritual cleansing after they have been taken in procession outside the temple. Priests place them in an exterior hall within the temple grounds and rub them down, using boondi kottai or the olive of the palm tree that, when soaked in water rapidly turns it sudsy. It is this regular application of the pulp and seed of the palm-olive [from which the brand name of Palmolive derives] that produces the coppery sheen that temples mandate for the worship of sacred bronzes. Also speaking to continued worship of the image is the re-cutting of the eyes and eyebrows, done at the behest of temple authorities to renew the image for ritual worship. Puja involves devotees gazing intently at the sacred image that looks back at them and thereby transfers grace. The eyes of an image were thus of great importance and since years of worship tend to blur the outlines - a feature not acceptable to temple priests – the eyes were recut when necessary to sharpen the god’s glance.
Dr. Vidya Dehejia
Barbara Stoler Miller Professor of Indian and South Asian Art