Origins and Iconographical Developments of the Shiva-Ekapada-murti

A god being divine is envisaged as one having superior qualities over humans and therefore he is depicted with distinguishable attributes such as multiple arms, legs, limbs, and holding supernatural powers or celestial weapons. A god is imagined either as a nishkala (non-manifest) or sakala (manifest) and sometimes a combination of both. In Hindu traditions, a nishkala image is generally conceived by the yogis and mendicants while a sakala image is usually appropriate for the commoners.  Mahesha-murti is the sakala-murti of Lord Shiva. From this sakala-murti, the Lord manifests himself into his various forms representing different lilas (divine play) in saumya (pacific) or raudra (terrific) character. The Vatulasuddhagama1 provides a list of twenty-five manifestations of the Mahesha-murti and the Ekapada-murti (god with a single leg) among these stand out as a very interesting and unique icon.

The origins of the Ekapada-murti are much obscured. There have been suggestions to connect it with Aja-Ekapada of the Rigveda and Atharvaveda periods. Aja-Ekapada may be translated as “the unborn with one foot” or “one-footed with goat’s head”. However, it is very seldom that we find Ekapada-murti depicted with a goat’s head (aja). Aja-Ekapada is mentioned in the Rigveda six times, five times he is mentioned with another deity Ahirbudhnya (Ahi Budhnya), and the sixth time alone.2 Ahirbudhnya is the serpent of the Deep and is considered as an atmospheric deity residing in the bottom of the air. As Aja-Ekapada is mostly coupled with Ahirbudhnya, these two deities are taken closely associated and V S Agrawala3 suggests these two as the twin aspects of the same deity. He takes Aja Ekapada as a representation of a form of Agni. In one hymn of the Rigveda4, Aja Ekapada is mentioned with various other aerial deities such as Svaitr, Trita, Agni, etc. This may suggest that he was an aerial deity.

Atharvaveda5 mentions Aja-Ekapada as the supporter of the sky explaining that when Surya (Rohita) established the Earth and the Heaven and the Prajapati extended his creation in these two worlds, Aja-Ekapada took his position to support and stabilize the two worlds. While we may require two or more legs to make a balance, we only need one fixed leg in case of supporting something above. This one leg represents the non-movement and permanent character which is essential in case of supporting something. In this role, Aja-Ekapada may be envisioned as a cosmic pillar (axis mundi), deeply rooted into the Earth to support the Sky above and thus keeping both these worlds at a constant distance apart. Various Vedic scholars have interpreted Aja-Ekapada with different deities, Roth takes “aja” as “driver” and attaches him with the storm, Bergaigne takes “aja” as “unborn” suggesting him as a mysterious deity of the isolated world, Hardy takes him as the Moon, Victor Henry, Bloomfield & Dumont take him as the Sun, Oldenberg as a mythical figure of a goat that holds apart the worlds, and Macdonnell and Keith take him as Agni in his lightning form where the goat denotes his swift coming and the one foot his solitary streak which smites the earth.6

Later during the Purana and Epic period, Aja-Ekapada started getting closely associated with Shiva and Rudra. The Mahabharata includes Aja-Ekapada and Ahirbudhnya in the list of the eleven Rudras born from the six sage sons of Brahma.7 The Vishnu Purana mentions Aja-Ekapada and Ahirbudhnya among the sons of Vishvakarma, the other two sons were Tvasta and Rudra.8 At the same time, the Vishnu Purana does not include Aja-Ekapada among the eleven Rudras. This close association with Shiva started defining the iconography of the Ekapada icon. We observe two different traits in the iconographic development of the Ekapada icon, one development trait was prevalent in the Tamil Nadu region while the other in the Odisha region (including the places in the present Andhra Pradesh state which were earlier part of Kalinga region).

Trimurti-Ekapada-murti from Tiruvottiyur, Tamil Nadu | KP Ravichandran
Trimurti-Ekapada-murti from Thiruvanaikaval, Tamil Nadu | KP Ravichandran

The iconography of Ekapada-murti in Tamil Nadu, defined as Trimurti-Ekapada-murti in the Uttara-Karanagama, is centered around the idea of Shiva as the supreme deity. As per the agama, Ekapada-Trimurti should be standing on his single leg over a padmapitha (lotus pedestal). He should have three eyes and four arms. His forearms should be in varada-mudra (boon giving) and abhaya-mudra (gesture of fearlessness) while his rear arms should be holding a tanka and a trishula (trident)/mriga (deer). Vishnu and Brahma should be shown emerging from Shiva’s left and right sides respectively. This specific iconography is centered around the concept of Shiva as the principal deity responsible for the production, preservation, and destruction of the world. He is the beginning and end of all the means, all coming out of Shiva and dissolving into him at the end. Though the concept of stability associated with the Aja-Ekapada concept may be deduced in the case of Trimurti-Ekapada also however the main theme remains Shiva’s supreme authority. Sometimes this icon is also called Tripada-Trimurti, as one leg each of the three deities are visible in the sculpture. However, it is only one leg of Shiva which is firmly placed over the ground.

Ekapada-Bhairava, Talesvara Temple, Bhubaneswar, 8th century CE

The iconography of Ekapada in Odisha is very different from that of Tamil Nadu.  In Odisha, Ekapada is conceived as Ekapada-Bhairava reflecting the raudra (terrific) character of Shiva. Tantric influence is very evident in the evolution of this icon as the tantric activities were prevalent in the Odisha region during the early medieval period and Bhairava plays a very important role in the tantric sadhana. Ekapada-Bhairava is mostly shown with four arms except in a few rare examples of two armed images. He sports a short beard, mustache, bulging eyes, open mouth with protruding teeth, and uradha-linga (ithyphallic). In later period images, he is made more fearsome wearing a garland of skulls or standing over a corpse, etc. The tantric pantheon had been evolved by various transformations created by their yogis for their precise needs to achieve consciousness. The amalgamation of Ekapada and Bhairava appears to be a part of this evolution. For a yogi, whether tantric or not, non-movement or stillness is an essential requirement for his sadhana in order to get his focus over his desired goal. In Ekapada-Bhairava, a sadhaka finds the stillness and stability allowing him to focus on his goal.

Ekapada-Bhairava, Markandesvara Temple, Bhubaneswar, 8th century CE
Ekapada-Bhairava, Mahamaya Yogini Temple, Hirapur, 9th century CE

The early period Ekapada-Bhairava images in Odisha show Bhairava with four arms carrying trishula (trident), ashkamala (rosary) in his forearms, a water vessel in his one rear arm while another rear arm in varada-mudra. The later images show him carrying a skull bowl, wearing a skull garland, and standing over a corpse. While we find Ekapada-Bhairava in many temples however it remained a subsidiary deity but never got the status as the main deity of a temple. In many cases, the icon was placed over the secondary niches on the temple walls rather than on the main niches.

Ekapada-Bhairava on the top panel of a hero stone in the Odisha State Museum, 11th century CE

While the earliest Ekapada-Bhairava image in Odisha is from the 8th century CE, these images continue to the temples of the 15th century CE. The early period temples of Odisha were highly influenced by the Pashupata-sect, as evident from the presence of the images of Lakulisa, and this may be the reason behind the propagation of this specific icon as a secondary or the guardian deity of the matrikas or goddess Mahishasuramardini. With the emergence of tantric influence, Pashupata affiliation saw a steady decline however Ekapada-Bhairava contained to be revered and worshipped. With the decline of tantric practices, images of Ekapada-Bhairava started seeing a downturn however it did not go into oblivion as we continue finding this icon in the temples belonging to the last Hindu dynasties of Odisha.

It is interesting to find references to one-footed people in classical Greek (Ionian) literature. To the classical Greek ethnographers, India was a land of fabulous peoples and other marvels. Pliny the Elder (24-79 CE), a Roman naturalist, describes quoting Ctesias (5th-4th BCE) that a tribe of men called the Monocoli is found in India. They have only one leg and jump with surprising speed. They are also called Sciapodes (umbrella-foot) because in the hotter weather they lie on their backs on the ground and protect themselves from the shadow of their feet.9 John Tzetzes (1110-1180 CE) in his Chiliades quotes Scylax of Caryanda (6th-5th BCE) and mentions that Sciapodes had very broad feet, and at midday, they drop to the ground stretching their feet out above them giving themselves a shade10. This suggests that Sciapodes of Scylax did not have one leg but two. Hecataeus (550-476 BCE) places sciapodes in Ethiopia11. Philostratus (170-250 CE), a Greek sophist, in Life of Apollonius of Tyana mentions skiapodes (Σκιαποδες), “shadow-footed men”, as a tribe in Ethiopia.12 He also mentions asking the whereabouts of the skiapodes to an Indian sage (Iarchas), the latter replied that they didn’t live anywhere on the earth, and least of all in India.13 All these above references are mostly quoted from the accounts of Scylax, Ctesias, and a few others. It is very evident that Ctesias and Scylax wrote based upon what they heard from the natives and merchants however they did not see or witness all the fabulous peoples they wrote about. Though from these accounts we understand how India was seen or known to the early Greeks however we can simply ignore these as non-historical or of very little historical value.

1 Gopinath Rao, T A (1916). Elements of Hindu Iconography vol. II part II. The Law Printing House. Madras (now Chennai). pp 369-370
2 Macdonnel, A A (1897). Vedic Mythology. Verlag Von Karl J. Trubner. Strassburg. pp 72-74
3 Sontakke, Prachi Virag (2015). Single Footed Deities: Glimpses from Art and Literature published in Heritage: Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies in Archaeology, 3. The University of Kerala. p 610
4 उत वः शंसमुशिजामिव शमस्यहिर्बुध्न्यो.अज एकपादुत |
तरित रभुक्षाः सविता चनो दधे.अपां नपादाशुहेमा धिया शमि || RV 2.31.6
5 रोहितो द्यापृथिवि जजान तत्र तन्तुं परमेष्ठी ततान ।
तत्र शिश्रियेSज एक पादोSद्रुंहद् द्यापृथिवि बलेन ।। AV 13.1.6
6 Keith, A B (1925). The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads vol. I. Motilal Banarsidass. New Delhi. p 137 | Dumont, P E (1933). The Indic God Aja Ekapad, the One-legged Goat published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 53, No. 4. pp 326-335
7 The Mahabharata, Adi Parva, chapter 66
8 Vishnu Purana, Part I, chapter 15
9 Rackham, H (1942). Pliny – Natural History, Vol. II. Harvard University Press. p 521
10 Nichols, Andrew G (2011). Ctesias on India. Bloomsbury. New York. ISBN 9781853997426. p 80
11 Karttunen, Klaus (1989). Indian in Early Greek Literature. Finnish Oriental Society. Helsinki. p 136
12 Conybeare, F C (1912). Philostratus – The Life of Apollonius of Tyana vol. II. William Heinemann. London. p 103
13 Conybeare, F C (1912). Philostratus – The Life of Apollonius of Tyana vol. I. William Heinemann. London. p 331

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