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Varuna and his decline – Part Four


Continued from Part Three

Varuna’s association with waters

Varuna’s associations with waters are explained at two levels. The two are extremes; so extreme that one is far removed from the other like the rarified deep space from the dark underground. The one is pure metaphysics and high symbolism, while the other is mundane and vulgar. The differences between the two levels cannot be bridged. There is no common ground for reconciliation. The two sets of associations cannot also be rationalized and bound into one. It is best that each is viewed separately, each in its own context–for whatever.

The philosophical explanations and suggestions on the nature of  Varuna’s association with waters have bred numerous debates, theories and speculations. Scholars have come up with varied interesting and intricate explanations which at times sound too abstract; hard to grasp. It is not easy to present them either. We shall briefly see a couple of such explanations and theories.

N. Creation- the process


Apah – Dark, deep and unfathomable waters

47.1. The terms Salilam and Apah which denote waters in the Rig Veda are said to be highly significant. Dr. Usha Choudhuri (in her scholarly thesis Indra and Varuna) explains these terms as implying more than just the water-element.   In the most celebrated hymn of creation – Nasadiya Sutktha which occurs in the Tenth Book of Rig Veda, as also in the Vak Suktha (RV.10.8.125) and  in the Hiranya-garbha Suktha  (RV. 10.121 ) the terms Salila and Apah represent Great Waters  or the primeval waters or the primeval matter of creation. They stand for the manifest as also for the un-manifest primeval matter: Prakrti or Vak or Aditi or Viraj.

47.2. Apah or Salilam is conceived as the threshold prior to which there was no distinction between existence and non-existence; between form and formlessness. Whatever that was there prior to it was neither sat nor a-sat; neither being nor non-being. That is; Apah or Salilam represents the crosses-over stage at which the unformed primordial universe transforms into existence. It could be regarded as the first stage of creation. Thus, Apah is Prakrti   as in Samkhya; and it is the primary source of all possibilities of manifestation in the world.

47.3. Apah is twofold: as the undifferentiated, un-manifest and formless (a-vyakta or apraketa or a-murta); and as the manifest with forms (vyakta or praketa or murta). It is said; Apah and Salilam denote Prakrti or the creative power (Shakthi) of the Purusha the Absolute principle. It also suggests movement (gati) and action (karma). Thus, Apah or Salilam signifies the state of Becoming; while Purusha signifies the state of Being.

47.4. To explain it in another way; these dark, deep and unfathomable waters (gahanam ghabhiram – RV. 10.129.1) hold in their womb the un-manifest universe. And, it is from these dark waters the manifest world springs forth. Nasadiya Suktha mentions “the un-manifest conceals within itself the formless manifestation. The universe was then undifferentiated in the primeval waters” (RV  agre ‘praketaṃ salilaṃ sarvam ā idam– RV.10.129.3). That is; these Great waters (mahat-salilam)   represent the immense potential of Prakrti in its un-manifest (a-vyakta) state. It has that potential to give expression to infinite possibilities as forms (vyakta).

RV_10,129.01a nāsad āsīn no sad āsīt tadānīṃ nāsīd rajo no vyomā paro yat |
RV_10,129.01c kim āvarīvaḥ kuha kasya śarmann ambhaḥ kim āsīd gahanaṃ gabhīram 
RV_10,129.02a na mṛtyur āsīd amṛtaṃ na tarhi na rātryā ahna āsīt praketaḥ |
RV_10,129.02c ānīd avātaṃ svadhayā tad ekaṃ tasmād dhānyan na paraḥ kiṃ canāsa ||
RV_10,129.03a tama āsīt tamasā gūḷham agre ‘praketaṃ salilaṃ sarvam ā idam |
RV_10,129.03c tucchyenābhv apihitaṃ yad āsīt tapasas tan mahinājāyataikam ||
RV_10,129.04a kāmas tad agre sam avartatādhi manaso retaḥ prathamaṃ yad āsīt |
RV_10,129.04c sato bandhum asati nir avindan hṛdi pratīṣyā kavayo manīṣā ||
RV_10,129.05a tiraścīno vitato raśmir eṣām adhaḥ svid āsī3d upari svid āsī3t |
RV_10,129.05c retodhā āsan mahimāna āsan svadhā avastāt prayatiḥ parastāt ||
RV_10,129.06a ko addhā veda ka iha pra vocat kuta ājātā kuta iyaṃ visṛṣṭiḥ |
RV_10,129.06c arvāg devā asya visarjanenāthā ko veda yata ābabhūva ||
RV_10,129.07a iyaṃ visṛṣṭir yata ābabhūva yadi vā dadhe yadi vā na |
RV_10,129.07c yo asyādhyakṣaḥ parame vyoman so aṅga veda yadi vā na veda ||


The Śatapatha Brāhmaa, which belongs to the Śukla-yajur Veda refers to water as the first creation. “In the be-ginning there was only a creator from whom the water formed, from it, the foam was formed- Prajāpatirvā idamagra āsīt / tasmāt puruāttaptāpo jāyante , apā taptānā pheno jāyate ( (VI-1.3) 

Varuna symbolizes Prakrti

48.1. The essential character of these primeval waters is Avarana – to cover or to encompass (var). Varuna is the encompasser; he pervades (var) everything; he presides over the visible and the invisible worlds. Varuna is the mythical symbol of primeval matter. And, he is the presiding deity of Apah and salilam. Varuna the lord of these waters, the primeval matter, thus symbolizes Prakrti.

48.2. It is by the will or the desire of Varuna, and through his wisdom-extraordinary (Maya) the forms of the visible world (Murtha) emerge from out of the formless (a-Murtha). Varuna in this sense is the creator; the world is born out of his mind (manas); and thus, he symbolizes kaarana –Brahman, the Brahman with a desire to create.

48.3. Shri Ananda Coomaraswamy too (in his Yakshas) explains Varuna as denoting Prakrti. He states that the term Samudra originally meant the sky; and the sky did not merely signify the physical sky but the all encompassing desire of the Purusha. Varuna is that will of Purusha. Varuna who is described as Rta-Samudra or Rta-sadana   is indeed the Prakrti.

Aditi is Apah and Prakrti

Aditi mother of gods

49.1. Aditi, the Mother – principle, Deva matri  the mother of all gods . Therefore , all the Devas , the solar deities who represent light and who reside in the heavenly regions are Adityas – the children of Aditi.  Thus , Aditi , the mother of   all existence is described as the mighty mother,’ lofty like a mountain, swelling with sweet milk’, the celestial light (jyothihmati RV .1.115.5), the queen or the guardian of Rta (rtavari), ever expanding and never decaying, gracious guide and great protector (YV. 21.5). She denotes freedom from bondage. She gives birth to manifest world. She is the Mother of all creation. Because the nourishing Mother Aditi is the source of all manifested reality – the past, the present and the future; of “all that has been and will be born” she is   regarded as Prakrti the creative principle, the desire of the Supreme to create (YV.10.7).

49.2. As mentioned earlier, Apah or Maha-salilam the great waters denote primeval matter or the primal cause of creation from which the manifest is born. Thus, Apah, the waters too are mothers (apah asmin matarah) – ‘The waters are our mother (ambayah), womb of the universe’ (RV.1.23.10). Aditi the great mother (mahi mata) who gives give birth to the manifest world is thus equated with Apah, among other things.

49.3. As Apah, Aditi is the creative energy which is active and moving (gati). Since Apah suggested movement (gati), it is said, the life-giving(jiva-nadi) , flowing rivers and streams are deemed feminine (Prakrti) ; while the stagnant Samudra the ocean into which all beings go and from which all beings emerge acquired a masculine identity (Purusha).

49.4. Aditi (Apah and Prakrti) is the forerunner of the Mother –Goddesses of the later texts and lore who symbolize the power (shakthi) of Prakrti in all its aspects.

In the daily prayers (Sandhya-vandana) , the Apah , the divine-mother-principle is worshiped as : O, water!  The source of all happiness; the affectionate Mother, please grant us energy-giving food; and, an insight to enjoy your divine splendor.

Āpohiṣṭā mayobhuvah stāna-ūrje dadhātana Mahe-raāyacakase / Yo va śivatamo rasastasya bhājayate ha na uśatīrivamātara/ tasmā aragamāya vo yasya kayāya jinvatha āpo  jan-ayathā ca na-/

Vak is Apah and Prakrti

50.1. In the Vak Suktha or Devi Suktha    of Rig Veda (RV.10. 10.125), Apah is conceived as the birth place of Vak or Vac   who is the creator, sustainer and destroyer. In an intense and highly charged superb piece of inspired poetry She declares “I sprang from waters there from I permeate the infinite expanse. It is I who blows like the wind creating all the worlds “.

Vak the primal energy the Great Goddess Mother is described in various ways : Vak is the eternal being; the first-born of the eternal waters.   Vak is the Mother who gives form to the formless; gives birth to existence and lends identity to things by naming them. Vak is the faculty which gives expression to ideas. She is the mysterious presence that enables one to hear, see, grasp and express in words or otherwise the true nature of things. She is the navel of energy

50.2. Vak who springs forth from waters, touches all the worlds with her flowering body and gives birth to all existence is indeed the Prakrti. Vac is also Apah and an attribute of Varuna.

I sprang from the waters,
And from there I spread throughout the universe,
I touch that heaven with a flowering body.

I move with Rudras and Vasus,
I walk with the Sun and other Gods,
I esteem Mitra, Varuna
And Indra, Agni and the Asvins.

[Please click here for the rendering of Devi Sukta]

50.3. Eventually; Apah, Aditi, Vak and Varuna all represent the same principle: Prakrti the creative principle.

O. Lotus and the inverted tree

Lotus symbolizes waters and life

51.1. The Lotus symbolizes waters; and earth is a leaf thereof. The lotus-leaf is called the back of the waters (Tai.sam. The earth lies spread on water just as the lotus-leaf does. The noted scholar Ananada K Coomaraswamy (in his Yakshas) too relates lotus to waters. He explains the concept of earth resting on waters in the context of the full-blown lotus flower that supports a divinity in the Indian iconography: ”where it seems to be implied that the figure is supported by a widely extended lotus flower rising out of the waters; and in the last analysis the deity is supported by the waters”.

51.2. He also mentions that lotus symbolizes life. The imagery of creation springing forth from the all-encompassing creator was initially related to Varuna. That is because Varuna in the early phases of Rig Veda was the Creator who brought forth all existence. But, since the virtues and powers of Varuna merged into Vishnu, in the later mythologies lotus came to be depicted as rising from the navel of Narayana resting on celestial waters bearing Brahma the abjaja –born of water or born of lotuses.

51.3. In any case, that imagery pictures the principle that all life and existence is born out of the waters.

Inverted tree of life – Varuna

tree with roots

Urdhvamulo ’vaśakha eso ’aśvatthah  sanatanah  / tad eva śukram  tad brahma tad eva amrtam ucyate  / tasmi  lokah  śritah , sarve tad u naty eti kaś cana
This permanent fig tree has its roots upwards and its branches downwards. It is bright, it is the  Brahman  ; that is it which is called immortality. In it all the worlds have their support and nobody goes beyond it (KaU_6.1)

52.1. Dr. Ananada K Coomaraswamy  referring to the concept of  “The roots of the inverted tree are in the sky and its branches are spread downwards “, says : Varuna called the unborn in Rig Veda symbolizes the root of that tree of life; the source of all creation. That cosmic tree is originally said to have sprung from the navel of Varuna the sky- god blue like the waters reflecting the sky.” – abudhne rājā varuṇo vanasyordhvaṃ stūpaṃ dadate pūtadakṣaḥRV.1.24.7)

52.2. Tracing the myth of the world tree from Varuna to Narayana, Ananada K Coomaraswamy refers to the remarkable resemblances in the ethical character of Varuna and Vishnu. According to him, ’the cosmic-tree myths of various forms and their relation to the lotus symbol verily owe their origin to Varuna. He says the concept of the cosmic functioning originally represented Varuna.   That concept did not undergo any change; but it only acquired new names and new symbols.

Thus, Varuna is Kaarana Brahman by whose desire the manifest world materializes.

 abudhne rājā varuṇo vanasyordhvaṃ stūpaṃ dadate pūtadakṣaḥ |
 nīcīnā sthur upari budhna eṣām asme antar nihitāḥ ketavaḥ syuḥ |
 uruṃ hi rājā varuṇaś cakāra sūryāya panthām anvetavā u |
 apade pādā pratidhātave ‘kar utāpavaktā hṛdayāvidhaś cit ||

Varuna the king of pure intelligence / Sits atop the tree with its roots/ in his un-supported and absolute realm; Its branches spread downwards. 

Varuņa of hallowed understanding,/ Holds aloft a mass of life-giving radiance, which streams down; May these rays sink deep and set within us. (RV. 1.24.7- 8)


P. Some other explanations for Varuna’s association with waters

Waters, Darkness and Varuna – Prakrti

53.1. Varuna’s association with darkness (tama) metaphorically called night (rathri), as also with waters (Apah) has given rise to number of other highly interesting philosophical speculations.

Nasadiya Suktha says, “In the beginning, darkness was hidden by darkness. All this was unmarked formless waters. ..”. That image of primordial waters was perhaps meant to convey the absence or the sense of absence of all sorts of distinctions in the pre-creation universe. And, similarly, darkness implied a state where day or night was not marked. Here, darkness and waters both seem to mean the same principle -– the all enveloping unformed state before the world of things (sat) arose out of its matrix.

“All this was produced from the dark waters (Taittiriya Aranyaka of the Krishna Yajurveda – 1.23)”.

Àpo va idamasanth-salilam-eva | sa prajapatirekaÏ puÍkaraparÉe samabhavat |
tasyÀntarmanasi kÀmassamavartata | idaÙ sÃjeyamiti | tasmÀdyatpuruÍo manasÀ’bhigacchati | tadvÀcÀ vadati | tatkarmaÉÀ karoti | tadeÍÀ’bhyanÂktÀ |
kÀmastadagre samavartatÀdhi | manaso retaÏ prathamaÎ yadÀsÁt

53.2 As said earlier, Varuna symbolizes un-manifest (a-vyakta or a-praketa or a-sat) as well as manifest (vyakta or praketa or sat) state of existence.

53.3. It is also explained; Rathri the darkness is Varuna (Ait Brh. 4.10); Rathri the starlit night belongs to Varuna (Tai .B 1.7.10); and, Varuna is waters (Apah) as it pervades (var) everything. Thus, both – darkness and waters- become associated with Varuna.

53.4. For these reasons, it is said that Varuna, Rathri and Apah all represent Prakrti.

Water- purifier – joy of life


54.1. Water is glorified as the nectar or honey (madhu) and the joy of life; and it is also the elixir of immortality. Water is the symbol of creation, life (jeevanam), strength and energy. Water is thus the nourishing mother of all life and existence. Water is as essential to life as is the vital-air (prana– aphomaya pranah. Water is the source of all existence; it   sustains, heals and purifies life.

Water is regarded as an extraordinary and omnipresent element in Rig Veda. It is the support of all lives; and, the savior of everything living or dead on earth. The world moves along  with the pure and simple movement of the water. It washes away the impurities and also cleans the inconsistencies of human behavior. Water is a great medicine. It does away with the diseases and is the benefactor of health, strength, long-life, wealth and immortality.

Yasam Raja Varuno Yati Madhyai Satyanrite Avapashyanje yajnanam| Madhushchutah Shuchaye yah pavakah ta Apao devirih mamvantu|| VII.49.3

The water dwells where gods dwell. The water in which the king of waters Varuna dwells, the water in which Soma lives, in whom all gods drink exhilarating strength, the waters in which the leader of all–Agni enters, who are full of divine values, help me in the world.

He, whose destination is the ocean, who purifies the world, is always flowing, such water lives in the middle of the Universe. Indra, who possesses ‘Vajra‘ and rains the desires, broke opened a path for these divine waters. May these waters help me and be received by me.

Samudrajyestha Salilasya Madhyapunana Yantyanivishmanah | Indrah ya vajri vrishabho rarad TaApoa devirih mamvantu ||

54.2. Shatapatha Brahmana (SB. makes an interesting remark: when Agni burns brightly, he then indeed becomes Varuna the purifier (paavaka). There is therefore a belief that the purifying waters cleanses sins, betrayals (abhidudroha)  and falsehood (anŗtam duritam) – (RV. 1.23.22). The one that has been purified shouts in ecstasy: “I have become one with the essence of the celestial energy, rasena”. Water represents that faith (shraddha) in life.

54.3. Though the waters are celebrated by various metaphors, the physical aspect of water is not lost sight. The Chandogya Upanishad describes Waters as the source of all plants and herbs Oshadhis; the giver of good health and destroyer of   diseases. It is the source of joy of healthy living. The mountains, the earth, the atmosphere and the heavenly bodies too derive their form through water (Chandogya Upanishad – 7.10.10) .It is said; even the gods are waters – as they are the foundation and source of the universe and everything is contained in them.(SB. 10.5) .

And again , it is said; the water which is created in the universe; which is pure and full of light; which is full of divine characteristics; the water which flows in the form of river; the water which comes from the digging of the wells, canals; the water which is self-created in the form of waterfalls; and, that which enters into the ocean, help me in this world and thereafter.

Ya Apaodivya Ut Va Sravanti Khanitrima ut va yah swayamjah | Samudrartha Yah Shuchayah pavakasta Apao Devirih Mamvantu || VII.49.2

Varuna too is water.

The term Varuna is said to be derived from the root Vrs (to rain) and the suffix –Una . The root Vrs, is also connected with words like Var and Vari,  which indicate water. This seems to suggest that Varuna, originally, meant ‘one who covers with water’. And, the lexicon Amara-kosha, mentions Ap-pathi (lord of the waters) and Yadasyam-pathi (lord of the aquatic beings) as among the names of Varuna; and, Varunalaya as a synonym for ocean.

In the Bhagavad-gita , Krishna declares; Varuno yadasyadam aham (BG.10.29) – ‘of the dwellers in waters, I am Varuna); and, it is commented upon by Madhusudana, as: yādasām jala-carāā madhye teā rājā varuo ‘ham asmi; to mean , I Varuna , am the King of those who dwell in water.


“Verily all this is water. All the created beings are water. The vital breaths (prana) in the body are water. Quadrupeds are water. Herbs and crops are water. Madhu the nectar is water. Samrat[perpetually shining] is water. Virat [shining] is water. Svarat [self-luminous] is water. The metres (pankti) are water. The Devas are water. Vedic formulas are water. Truth is water. All deities are water. The three worlds denoted by BhuhBhuvah and Suvah are water. The source of all these is the Supreme denoted by the syllable ‘Om”. (Mahanarayana Upanishad- 29.1)

54.4. Since Varuna is waters, Apah, all its virtues and attributes are imbibed in him.

Apah and Sathya

55.1. Varuna who is the lord of waters (Apah) is also related with the order in world and to the laws in nature (Rta), and the Truth (satya). It is said ‘waters are the Truth…where waters flow there the Truth resides …. It is the waters indeed that were made first of this universe, hence when waters flow then everything whatever that exists in the universe is brought forth’ (Sathapatha Brahmana).Water is thus the universal mother –principle in the Rig Veda. Waters are Prakrti.

55.2. The Brihadāranyaka Upaniad (1.2.2.) states that in the beginning water alone existed; and later from it truth (Satya); from truth Brahman; and from him Prajāpati were born.  Prajāpati produced the gods and these gods worship truth alone – Āpā-evedamagra āstu tā āpaḥ .

55.3. Thus Waters, Truth and Varuna symbolize Prakrti.

The child of waters

56.1. Varuna the son of Aditi resides among primal waters. He is described also as Apam-shishuh ‘the child of waters, in the best of the mothers – Aditi’

56.2. It is also said; since Varuna dwells in waters he is Apam Napat, “Son of the Waters’ (RV.1.2.35). Apam Napat is also referred to as the embryo (garbha) of the waters (RV.7.9.3). It is said; the sun when he sinks into waters – to quench his thirst- becomes Varuna the fire in the waters (Apam Napat).

[But, Varuna soon lost this ancient title; and it came to be applied more and more to Agni born of a spark from water and to other solar deities such as Savitr.]

Varuna and the moon

56.7. Another explanation offered to reason Varuna’s association with waters seems to me rather flat. It is said; as the god of the night sky Varuna is related with the celestial bodies that shine in the night sky: the stars and the moon. And, the moon  who  is related to Varuna influences the tides of the ocean and movement of terrestrial waters. Therefore, Varuna is connected with water and the aquatic realm.

Q. Varuna the water-god

This is the other-side of Varuna’s association with waters.

57.1. The status and the attributes of Varuna changed drastically, for worse, in the Puranas and the epics. Varuna lost the authority of kingship and the moral superiority that he once enjoyed in the Rig Veda and in the other Samhitas.   He is relegated as the regent of the west and demigod of waters; and practically nothing more.  It was as if the once mighty Varuna had been pensioned off and assigned a minor rank.

57.2. The waters that Varuna is now made in – charge are just waters on earth – plain and simple; they have no symbolic interpretations or philosophical connotations. Varuna is Salilesvara the king of terrestrial waters like lakes, rivers and oceans. Samudra the vast urukşhaya (1.2.9) is his abode. There he resides in his magnificent underwater palace (saagaro varunalayah) a den of sensual delights, surrounded by nymphs, snakes and all types of aquatic creatures.

57.3. His underworld too has gone radical reimaging; it is no longer the sedate and welcoming abode of the Pitris, but it is now tainted by the fearful pollution of death. Varuna has now turned sensuous and cruel; and developed dark and sinister associations.  He has also lost his good looks. Varuna in this phase does not command much respect. He is often chastened by other gods. Stories are told of his misadventures and humiliations. It appears he abducted and seduced Urvasi a nymph of Indra’s court and fathered a son from her. On another occasion, it is said, Varuna kidnapped Bhadra, daughter of Soma and wife of Uthahya.

57.4. Varuna who once was: the nearest approximation to the Supreme Being, the sovereign of all earth and heavens, the creator and sustainer of life in all three regions, the lord who presided over order in the physical and moral realms, the judge who dispensed justice and handed down punishments, is now turned into the regent of the west and god of seas; and eventually a demigod of local water- bodies; a god of not much consequence… a god of small things….what a fall….!!

In the next section let’s look at the explanations offered for Varuna’s decline and fall.


58.1. His association with waters  however earned Varuna number of descriptive epithets, such as: Prachetas, apam-pathi , ambu-raja, jaleshwara, jalaadhipa, vaaripa, udakapathi, salileshwara, Jala-pati, Kesa  ( lord of water) ; Sindhu pathi , Nadi-pathi ( lord of the seas or rivers ); sarit-pathi (lord of all that flows);  VIloma, Vari-loma ( watery hair) ; Yudh pathi ( king of aquatic animals) ; Uddama ( the surrounder) ; bharti  (the nourisher); and, Pashi ,  Pasha bhrit, (bearer of the noose) .


Continued in Part Five

References and Sources

1. Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology by Dr. UshChoudhuri; Nag Publishers, Delhi, 1981

2. The Indian Theogony by Dr.Sukumari Bhattarcharji, Cambridge University Press, 1970

3. Asura in early Vedic religion by WE Hale; Motilal Banarsidass; Delhi, 1986

4. Goddesses in ancient India by PK Agrawala; Abhinav Publications, New Delhi,1984

5. The Hymns of Atharvan Zarathustra by JM Chatterji; the Parsi Zoroastrian Association, Calcutta, 1967;

6. Outlines of Indian Philosophy –Prof M Hiriyanna; Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 2005

7.Original Sanskrit texts on the 0rigin and history of the people of India, their region and institution By J. Muir;Trubner & co., London, 1870.

8. A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature byJohn Dowson; Turner & co, Ludgate hill. 1879.

9. Vaidika Sahitya Charitre by Dr. NS Anantharangachar; DVK Murthy, Mysore, 1968

10. Sri Brahmiya Chitra Karma sastram by Dr. G. Gnanananda

11. Zarathustra Chapters 1-6 by Ardeshir Mehta; February 1999

All images are by courtesy of Internet


Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Varuna


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The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Four -Sittannavasal

[This is the fourth article in the series.

This article and its companion posts may be treated as an extension of the series I posted on Art of Painting in Ancient India 

The present article is about the Jain murals (ninth-century) at Sittanvaasal caves in Tamil Nadu. These are perhaps the earliest surviving Jain murals

In the sections to follow we shall look at   Paintings at Panamalai and Kailasanathar of Kancipuram]

Continued from  : The Legacy of Chitrasutra – Three – Badami


12. 1. As Benoy. K. Behl  (the well known art-historian, filmmaker and photographer who has written extensively on Ajanta ) remarked “If Badami and Ajanta represent the earliest surviving Hindu and Buddhist murals, Sittannavasal caves are the earliest surviving Jain murals”.

12.2. Sittanavasal, near Pudukkottai in Tamilnadu is renowned primarily for its rock-cut cave temple with its rare Jaina mural paintings. The name indicates abode of the Siddha (the monk or monks).The first century Tamil-Brahmi inscription names the place as ‘ChiRu-posil’.  It records that Chirupochil Ilayar made the Atitnam (Adhittana, abode or a dwelling place) for Kavuti Itan who was born at Kumuthur in Eorumi-nadu. The territorial division of Eorumi-nadu is   identified with the present-day Mysore region.

The cave floor, in fact, provides slightly elevated beds and pillows carved out of rock, for use of the monks.  There are about seventeen beds, rectangular even-spaces; each with a sort of stone pillow. It is likely that on these rock beds the Jain ascetics performed austerities such as kayotsarga and sallekhana (voluntary starvation leading to death).

An inscription of 7th century AD,written in Tamil Brahmi, in 7 lines, mentions some names (perhaps of Jain monk residents): Kadavulan Tirunilan of Tolakkunram, Tiruppuranan, Tittaichchanan, Tiruchchattan, Sripurnachandiran, Niyatakaran Pattakkali and Kadavulan.

[There is mention of another inscription written in vattelettu script dated 5th – 6th centuries AD, found in another natural cavern in the same hill.]

[Sittannavasal has the distinction of being the only monument where one can find, in one place, Tamil inscriptions dating back from 1st century BC to the 10th century AD. It is virtually a stone library in time].

It is likely that the Sittannavasal cave temple dated around first or second  century (based on the Tamil-Brahmi inscription found on the cave floor) belonged to a period when Jainism flourished in Southern India. And, it  served as a shelter for Jain monks till about 8th century when Jainism began to fade away in the Tamil region.

12.3. Sittannavasal, a natural cave, located on top of a modest granite hill, called Eladipattam, served in the ancient times, as residence for the Jain monks. The cave temple is quite spacious and has a low roof. But, Sittannavasal is rather small in size in comparison to Ajanta with which its paintings are often compared.

13.1. The importance accorded to Sittanavasal is not because of its size or grandeur, but because of its significance in the history of development of Indian art and also because of its exquisite style of depiction, as evidenced by the fragments of its remnant murals. The Sittanavasal paintings are regarded as a surviving link between the Ajanta paintings (c.6th century) and the Chola paintings of Thanjavur (11th century). They are also classified with the Sigiriya (Srigiri) frescoes of Sri Lanka (fifth century) and the Bagh frescoes in Madhya Pradesh (sixth and seventh centuries).

Sigiriya-Sri Lanka                Bagh caves- Madhya Pradesh

13.2. Sittanavasal is the earliest example of Jaina paintings. These paintings gathered attention of western world after an inscription was published during the year 1904.Though the cave and its interior carvings are dated to around 2nd century, the surviving remnants of the beautiful paintings on the ceiling of the sanctum and the ardha-mantapa (front pavilion) are dated around seventh century, as they appear to be based in the classical Ajanta style. Some scholars say, the pillars and cave paintings belong to the period of the  Pallava king Mahendra-varmanI (580-630 CE).

13.3. Another reason for dating the Sittannavasal murals around 6th -7th century is that they exhibit some Pallava features. Further, the temple in its architectural style resembles the cave temples built by the Pallava king, Mahendra-varman.

As regards the wall-surface and its preparation, they closely resemble that of Ajanta. The base of Sittannavasal paintings is well consolidated, firm yet thin with lime plaster used as binding agent. The painted plaster is made up of three layers: rough plaster, fine plaster and a covering layer of paint, as in Ajanta.

The paintings 

14.1. The paintings that were on the temple walls have almost completely perished. Only the fragments of the paintings that were on the   ceilings, the beams and the upper regions of the pillars have partially survived.

I understand, these remnants too are eroding fast clouded by the fine granite dust emanating from the nearby quarries. And, this ongoing disaster might eventually emaciate the rock-hill, weaken the ancient temple structure and bring the whole of it crumbling down.

14.2. Of the remaining fragments of paintings, those on the pillars and the lotus pool scene on the ceiling of the ardha-mandapa (pavilion) and the carpet canopy on the ceiling of the inner shrine are the most important.

14.3. Among the pictures painted on the pillars, the figures of the dancers adorned with ornaments and distinctive hair styles; and displaying graceful dance postures are very attractive. They closely resemble the Apsaras (celestial maidens) of the Ajanta. 


There are two dancers painted on western face of the two pillars, greeting those who enter the cave. However, the images are much weathered now; and, only upper the portions of the dancers remain. Apsara’s hair is tied together and is adorned with varieties of flowers. She wears necklaces around her neck. Her upper body is bare (as in the classical style of depicting the aristocracy) . It is likely that the full figure was depicted   with elaborate clothes below her waist.

14.4. A painting on the southern pillar of perhaps the king and his queen has somehow survived. The benign looking male figure is adorned with an elaborate crown, ear-rings set in gems (patra-kundala and makara kundala). The female figure behind him is rather simple.

14.5. Canopies of vivid patterns are painted on the ceiling over the images of Thirthankara Parshvanatha a Jain Acharya (preceptor) employing the lotus motif.

15.1. The most important mural of Sittannavasal is the exquisite composition depicting the delightful Jain heaven. The painting depicts Sama-vasaranathe adorable heavenly pavilion with theBhvyas, the eligible souls fortunate to receive divine discourse in the Samava-sarana.

The termSamavasarana (Sama avasarana) means an assembly which provides equal opportunities for all who gather there. Samavasarana, in Jain literature denotes an assembly of Thirthankara.  At this assembly different beings – humans, animals and gods – are also present to behold the Thirthankara and hear his discourses. The common assembly, at which different beings are gathered for one purpose, treats all alike overriding the differences that might exist among them. A  Samavasarana is thus, a tirth, a revered place.

According to Jaina faith, the Bhavyas have to pass through seven bhumis or regions before they gain eligibility to listen to the divine discourse. Among these bhumis, the second bhumi is the khatika-bhumi (region-of-the-tank).

The Sittannavasal mural depicts the joyous scenes at this divine lotus tank.  It pictures bhavyas amusing themselves in the delightful lotus tank full of lotus flowers, fishes, birds and animals.

It is a picture of sublime happiness, where the Bhavyas happily gather, with tender care, lotus flowers larger than themselves, while elephants appear to smile; and the bulls, birds and fishes are in playful mood. The figure of the bhavya is made with a lilting grace, like the stalks of the lotuses he gathers. It is a gracious world.

Line drawing

the detail

15.2. The lotus with their stalks and leaves, and the birds, fishes, bulls and elephants are utterly simple and beautiful in their natural charm. Some art critiques have remarked, this might be one of the most beautiful depictions of flowers in ancient Indian art.

These flowers attract viewer’s attention due to their sheer size and bright colours. This bright colour fades gradually towards inside of flower. These flowers are depicted in various stages of development, from a bud to a well blown flower. The bright red lotus with green leaves and thin stem presents a very pleasant sight.

There are three buffalos in this lake, one totally submerged and two in state of getting out of the lake as men approach. There are three men in the lake who are shown collecting flowers. Elephants are shown carrying lotus stems and in process of handing those to nearby men. One of them is holding a basket to place flowers into it. These men probably represent Jaina monks who are getting flowers for offerings to their teachers. Smile on their faces suggest that they are happy and content.

15.2. The unique features of the Indian art are seen here, where humans share the joy of life with the animals, birds and plants. It is a celebration of life, even in after-life. It echoes the spirit of life immortalized in an inscription at Ajanta: “The joy of giving filled him so much that it left no space for the feeling of pain.”

It seemed to convey “Every leaf, every flower, every ant, deer, elephant and human form is filled with the same joyous spirit that flows through and connects all that there is in the world”.

Please see reproductions of some of the ancient paintings of Sittanvasal





The Panamalai temple of the Pallava times

Resources and References

All pictures are from Internet


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