A Kushan-period Skanda Nativity Panel


Indian Sculptures Series – Puzzling and Remarkable 

No 2 – A Kushan-period Skanda Nativity Panel

The cult of Skanda is imbibed with hues of various different cults such that of folk-deities, mother-goddesses, child afflicting grahas, yaksha and spirits and the divide between the north and south India aspects of the God. It can be safely said that no other Hindu god is as controversial and vexed as Skanda. The god is also referred as Guha, Kartikeya, Kumara, Senapati and Mahasena in its northern version and as Subramanya and Murugan in its southern versions.

Kartikeya Panel, Kusana period, Lucknow Museum, panel no D-250 | AIIS

The panel in question is presently housed in the State Museum at Lucknow with identification number bearing D-250. It was excavated in Mathura and has been dated to the Kushan period of 1st-3rd century CE. On the extreme left of the panel are shown four devotees, probably female, in anjali-mudra (folded hands). Next to them is placed jar, middle of which is seen coils of a serpent or a rope tied around the jar. An animal head is seen on the top of the jar, identified as a head of a ram/goat by majority of scholars. However, few also take it as a hood of a serpent. Next to this jar is standing a male figure, holding a large spear (shakti) in his left hand while his right hand is in abhaya-mudra. Next to him is an animal-headed lady, holding a baby in her left arm while her right arm is in abhaya-mudra. Scholars are divided on the identification of the animal-head, few taking it as a goat, few as a bird and few as a cat or a lion.

The earliest reference of Skanda’s birth is found in the Vana Parva of Mahabharata. The story starts with chapter 213, part of Markandeya-samasya section and goes till chapter 221. The story goes that once Agni, in form of Adbhuta fire, got smitten by the wives of saptarishis (seven sires). When he failed to get his desire fulfilled, he repaired to a forest in order to destroy himself. Svaha, the daughter of Daksha, had bestowed her love on Agni. In order to win Agni, Swaha took form of wives of saptarishis and made love to Agni in the forest. Svaha was able to take form of six wives, except of Arundhati of Vashishtha due to her chastised character. After taking form of each wife, and making love to Agni and collecting his semen, Svaha took form of a bird (garudi) and reached the Shveta mountain guarded by a seven-hooded serpent. There she dropped the semen into a golden vessel /picher(kanchana kunda). She did this activity six times, one for the each wife of saptarishis.

The semen produced a male child, named Skanda, endowed with great power, having six faces, twelve ears, as many eyes, hands and feet, one neck and one stomach. The child grew into a boy by the fifth day of his birth and demonstrated activities bringing in fear around the whole world. “When that powerful, high-souled, and mighty being was born, various kinds of fearful phenomena occurred. And the nature of males and females, of heat and cold, and of such other pairs of contraries, was reversed. And the planets, the cardinal points and the firmaments became radiant with light and the earth began to rumble very much. And the Rishis even, seeking the welfare of the world, while they observed all these terrific prodigies on all sides, began with anxious hearts to restore tranquility in the universe.”

Rishi Visvamitra, knowing the truth behind the birth of Kartikeya, seek protection of the child and performed all the thirteen auspicious rites appertaining to childhood. “And for the good of the world he promulgated the virtues of the six-faced Skanda, and performed ceremonies in honor of the cock, the goddess Sakti, and the first followers of Skanda.”

All the celestials, afraid of Skanda, went to Indra asking him to exterminate the child. When Indra did not agree, the celestials invoked the Great Mothers of the Universe (lokasya mataraḥ) for their cause. But on beholding the great might of the child, the mothers sought his protection and requested him to become their adopted son. Hearing this, Skanda desirous of sucking their breasts, acceded to their request. Agni also approached Skanda and was duly honored by the child in company of the mothers. “And that lady amongst the Mothers who was born of Anger  with a spike in hand kept watch over Skanda even like a mother guarding her own offspring, and that irascible red-coloured daughter of the Sea, who lived herself on blood, hugged Mahasena in her breast and nursed him like a mother. And Agni transforming himself into a trader with a goat’s mouth (naigameyas) and followed by numerous children began to gratify that child of his with toys in that mountain abode of his.” After this, Indra with his army attacked over Kartikeya. In the battle, Indra hurled his vajra on Kartikeya. Being struck with the vajra, there arose from Skanda’s body another being, a youth with a club in hand, named Vishakha. Seeing this, Indra also besought protection of Skanda and left to his region.

Chapter 217 describes the followers of Skanda in detail. It is told that a number of male children came out into being when Skanda was struck with the vajra. These terrific creatures that steal (spirit away) little children, whether born, or in the womb and a number of female children too of great strength were born to him. Those children adopted Visakha as their father. “That adorable and dexterous Bhadrasakha, having a face like that of a goat (छाग मुखस) was at the time (of the battle), surrounded by all his sons and daughters whom he guarded carefully in the presence of the great mothers. And for this reason the inhabitants of this earth call Skanda the father of Kumaras (little children).”

Then the daughters of Tapa went to Skanda asking to be set as the good and respected mothers (matragana) of all the world. They were granted this wish by Skanda and were divided into Siva and Asiva. The names of seven mothers is provided as Kaki, Halima, Malini, Vrinhila, Arya, Palala and Vaimitra. A powerful, red-eyed, terrific, and very turbulent son named Sisu was born to them by blessings of Skanda. “He was reputed as the eighth hero, born of the mothers of Skanda. But he is also known as the ninth, when that being with the face of a goat, is included. Know that the sixth face of Skanda was like that of a goat. That face, O king, is situated in the middle of the six, and is regarded constantly by the mother. That head by which Bhadrasakha created the divine energy, is reputed to be the best of all his heads O ruler of men, these virtuous wonderful events happened on the fifth day of the bright half of the lunar month, and on the sixth, a very fierce and terrific battle was fought at that place.”

After this the goddess Sri rendered her allegiance to Skanda making him possessed of good fortune. After this he was requested by the Maharishis to replace Indra. However, Skanda did not agree for the same and in turn he was anointed as the general of the celestial army. “This child had his being by the action of Rudra entering into the constitution of the Fire-god, and for this reason, Skanda came to be known as the son of Rudra. And, O Bharata, as Rudra, the Fire-god, Swaha, and the six wives (of the seven Rishis) were instrumental to the birth of the great god Skanda, he was for that reason reputed as the son of Rudra. And the red cock given to him by the Fire-god, formed his ensign; and when perched on the top of his chariot, it looked like the image of the all-destroying fire.”

After this he was married to Devasena, who is also referred as Shashthi, Lakshmi, Asa, Sukhaprada, Sinivali, Kuhu, Saivritti, and Aparajita. Then the six wives of the Maharishis went to Skanda and he took them as his mothers. Then Skanda installed Krittika as star in place of Abhijit as the latter was repaired to a forest carrying out austerities. Krittika was presided over by Agni and the star shines as if with seven heads. Then the great mothers (lokasya matr) requested Skanda to install them at the place of past mothers (matr). Skanda told that this cannot be done.  “’We desire that living with thee and assuming different shapes we be able to eat up the progeny of those mothers and their guardians. Do thou grant us this favour.’ Skanda said, ‘I can grant you progeny, but this topic on which ye have just now dilated is a very painful one. May ye be prosperous! All honour to you, ladies, do ye vouchsafe to them your protecting care.’ Skanda replied, ‘So long as children of the human kind do not attain the youthful state in the sixteenth year of their age, ye shall afflict them with your various forms, and I too shall confer on you a fierce inexhaustible spirit. And with that ye shall live happily, worshipped by all.'”

After this comes the episode of various grahas and spirits arising from Skanda’s body. Those are said to be the spirit of evil and they destroy the foetus in the womb. They (the Kumaras) are known as the husbands of those very ladies, and children are seized unawares by these cruel spirits. These evil spirits presiding over the destinies of young children, and until children attain their sixteenth year, these spirits exercise their influence for evil, and after that, for good. This whole body of male and female spirits are always denominated by men as the spirits of Skanda. They are propitiated with burnt offerings, ablutions, unguents, sacrifices and other offerings, and particularly by the worship of Skanda. The details of these different beings is provided as below:

  1. Skandapasmara – a fiery powerful being came out of the body of Skanda for the purpose of devouring the progeny of mortal beings. He fell down upon the ground, senseless and hungry. And bidden by Skanda, that genius of evil assumed a terrific form. He is known as Skandapasmara among good Brahmanas.
  2. Vinata – she is called the terrific Sakuni graha (spirit of evil).
  3. Putana – She who is known as Putana Rakshasi by the learned is the graha called Putana
  4. Sita Putana – that fierce and terrible looking Rakshasa of a hideous appearance is also called the pisacha, that fierce-looking spirit is the cause of abortion in women
  5. Aditi – she is also known by the name of Revati; her evil spirit is called Raivata, and that terrible graha also afflicts children.
  6. Diti –  the mother of the Daityas (Asuras), is also called Muhkamandika, and that terrible creature is very fond of the flesh of little children.
  7. Surabhi – she is called the mother of bovine kind by the wise is best ridden by the evil spirit Sakuni, who in company with her, devours children on this earth.
  8. Sarama –  the mother of dogs, also habitually kills human beings while still in the womb.
  9. Karanjanilaya – She who is the mother of all trees has her abode in a karanja tree. She grants boons and has a placid countenance and is always favorably disposed towards all creatures. Those persons who desire to have children, bow down to her, who is seated in a karanja tree.
  10. Kadru – she introduces herself in a subtle form into the body of a pregnant woman and there she causes the destruction of the foetus, and the mother is made to give birth to a Naga (serpent).
  11. Mother of the Gandharvas – she takes away the foetus, and for this reason, conception in woman turns out to be abortive.
  12. Mother of the Apsaras – she removes the foetus from the womb, and for this reason such conceptions are said to be stationary by the learned.
  13. Lohitayani – she is said to have nursed Skanda, she is worshipped under the name of Lohitayani on Kadamva trees.
  14. Arya – she acts the same part among female beings, as Rudra does among male ones. She is the mother of all children and is distinctly worshipped for their welfare.

Once children attains the age of sixteen, they are afflicted by various grahas resulting into mental disorder. These grahas are Devagraha, Pitrgaraha, Siddhagraha, Rakshasagraha, Gandharvagaraha, Yakshagraha and Paisachagrha. One can be cured of these if one follows the the rules of righteousness as laid down by scriptures.

The story of Skanda as narrated in the Vana Parva of Mahabharata, with brief account provided above, does not appear coherent as it tries to amalgamate many divergent and parallel threads building a narrative on top. What we understand is that Skanda was born as a cast-off in an isolated and inauspicious environment of Sveta mountain inhabited by rakshasas, male and female pisachas and terrible spirits. He was anointed as a chief and master of all terrible beings, such as matrs, grahas, spirits etc., all credited with afflicting children and pregnant women. Sushruta Samhita mentions nine grahas, namely Skanda, Skandapamara, Sakuni, Revati, Putana, Andhaputana, Sitaputana, Mukhamandika and Naigamesha1. Many of these grahas are mentioned in the Mahabharata as the followers of Skanda. Scholars have taken this as an account of Brahmanization of a folk or local deity2. It is also interesting to note that the Buddhist cult of Panchika and Hariti is also associated with babies and subsequent protection as Hariti represents a demon grasper of babies and later converted by Buddha as the protector of babies.

This is not the right space and time to discuss on the origins and development of Skanda and his cult. The idea of introducing his birth and his association with various malevolent beings is to utilize the same in iconographic styles of the Kusana period. From the above, we understand that Skanda is associated with balagrahas, matrs (mothers) and Devasena. The idea we are exploring here is to study different panels where we see the theme of mother or matr and balagraha-female deity shown alone or in company.

Goat-headed Matr goddess, Mathura Museum

Various sculptural panels have come down to us, belonging to the Kusana age, showing a woman, sometimes depicted with a head of a bird or an animal, holding a baby in her arms or lap. Usually such women are shown either in a group or with a mail deity. Presence of a baby suggests their identification with matr or balagraha representing local or folk myths and cults. One such representation is provided above, showing a goat-headed mother goddess (matr).

Panchika (Kubera) and Hariti, Mathura Museum, 3rd-4th century CE | AIIS

Another set of images represent a couple, male with protruding belly holding a spear and the female holding a baby on her thighs or lap. These images are identified Panchika (or Kubera) and Hariti of the Buddhist pantheon.

Skanda, Shashthi and Vishakha, Mathura Museum

There are also many representations of Skanda (Kartikeya) from Mathura. In few panels, he is shown in company of matrganas, where the latter is shown sometimes with babies and sometimes without. In another interesting image are shown Skanda and Vishakha with Shashthi in the middle. Shashthi is shown with a canopy, similar to a serpent hood, over which are embedded five heads, thus Shashthi is shown with total six heads in this panel3.

Now we return to our panel, and above is shown another photo of the same. R C Agrawala4 explains the panel as four females in anjali pose at the extreme left, followed by a jar with a figure of ram (mesha) at the top, followed by Skanda and finally a goat-headed matrka. He suggests that she may be Hariti or the female counterpart of the goat-headed god Naigamesa. He followed N P Joshi5 in suggesting the jar may represent the suvarna-kunda from which Skanda was born.

With the male figure holding a long spear/lance (shakti), it can be safely said that he represents Skanda. His one hand is abhaya-mudra defines his divine character. In that case, the jar on his right would be the golden pitcher (kanchana-kunda) and it being topped with a ram-head suggests its association with Agni. This all fits well as it was Agni’s semen inside the pitcher and thus Agni is taken as the father of Skanda. There are opinions that the animal head above the jar is not that of a ram but of a serpent. However, if we closely inspect, it would be clear that it is of a ram. Mann6 suggests that pot may represents a matr figure or some form of fertility motif as pot and pot-shaped females were used in south Asian art to invoke an idea of fertility. The four devotees on the extreme left, whether male or female, can be taken as devotees witnessing the birth of Skanda.

Now we come to the last figure in the panel, the lady with an animal head and holding a baby in her arms. First point is which animal head it is. Mann agrees that this panel certainly represents Skanda-Kartikeya and his association with some form of horrific female associated with children. Though Agrawala and Joshi identify it as goat-head, it does not seem proper. David Gordon White7 suggests that it could be a lion’s head, however he keeps his options open stating that it may be a goat or bird head also. When observed properly, it appears that the head is that of a cat or a lion.

Provided that the head is of a cat or lion, who could be this female divinity? I call it as divinity as she has one of her hand raised in abhaya-mudra. She can either be a matr or a graha (balagraha) as these two beings are associated with the cult of Skanda as explained in Mahabharata. Do we have a specific matr or graha bearing the face of a cat, it is Revati whom we will discuss later. However, it is also very probable that the artist chose a cat’s face representing matr or graha as their iconography was flexible and fluid. Apart from matr or graha, she may also represent Devasena, the wife of Skanda.

Mahabharata tells that Devasena was also known as Shashthi. Cult of Shashthi is also an age old folk cult being followed in present times. Wilkins8 describes Shashthi as a goddess of married women, as she is the giver of children, assists at childbirth, and is the guardian of young children. She is depicted as a golden-complexioned woman with a child in her arms and riding upon a cat. White9 writes that Shashthi is closely identified with her cat (sometimes she bears its face, rather than that of bird), a trait that closely links her to another important Kushan, if not Maurya-age goddess, Hariti, the “kidnapper” of infants.

Revati-kalpa of Kasyapa-samhita provides information on the worship of Skanda and the cult of Revati.  Revati was said to be jataharini, “one who afflicts the children (jata)”. Due to her presence, the flowers of young plants wither away, she causes abortion of foetus, she brings about the mortality of infants after birth, she also destroys those who are in the course of being born and also those who will take birth in the future. She was also known as Shashthi among many other names of her10. Samkara, the commentator on Bana mentions that the Jatamatrika goddess had the face of a cat11. It appears that there was a thought where cat is associated with Shashthi.

Provided Devasena and Revati are also known as Shashthi, the lady in the panel may represent Shashthi in her dual role, as Devasena, the wife of Skanda, as well as Revati, a graha. I will leave the viewers with another puzzling image which resembles very much with the panel under discussion. This suggests that there was line of thought in creating such panels during the Kushan period.

Found in Yamuna riverbed, now in Mathura Museum | AIIS

1 Mann, Richard D (2003). The Early Cult of Skanda in North India: From Demon to Divine Son. A PhD thesis submitted to the School of Graduate Studies, McMaster University.  p 41
2 Bedekar, V M (1975). Kartikeya (Skanda) in Sanskrit Literature, with special reference to the Mahabharata: From a Folk Spirit to the Chief War-god in Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute vol. 46, No 1/4. pp 141-177
3 Agrawala, P K (1971). Identification of the so-called Nagi figures as Goddess Sasthi published in East and West vol. 21 No 3/4. pp 325-329
4 R C Agrawala (1971). Matrka reliefs in Early Indian Art published in East and West vol. 21. pp 79-89
5 Joshi, N P (1968). Two Matrka Plaques in the State Museum, Lucknow published in Bulletin of Museums & Archaeology in UP. p 19
6 Mann, Richard D (2003). The Early Cult of Skanda in North India: From Demon to Divine Son. A PhD thesis submitted to the School of Graduate Studies, McMaster University.  pp 196-197
7 White, David Gordon (2003). Kiss of the Yogini. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. p 37
8 Wilkins, W J (1882). Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic. Thacker Spink & Co. Calcutta. P 477
9 White, David Gordon (2003). Kiss of the Yogini. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago. p 43
10 Agrawala, V S (1970). Ancient Indian Folk Cults. Prithivi Prakashan. Varanasi. pp 81-82
11 Agrawala, V S (1970). Ancient Indian Folk Cults. Prithivi Prakashan. Varanasi. p 94