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Chapter 32 of the Shiva-Maha Purana narrates the legend of Shiva producing from the lock of his hair two ganas Virabhadra and Bhadrakali for destroying the yajna of Daksha Prajapati, Brahma’s son. However, this part of the text does not elaborate Bhadrakali episode beyond her emergence and keeps it centred on Virabhadra, and perhaps this is the reason why the artist has painted just Virabhadra with Shiva, not Bhadrakali. Besides chapter 32, the Shiva Maha Purana talks of Virabhadra’s form, personality and exploits also in its other parts. Many other Puranas too allude to him, and accordingly, he emerges in these texts as one of Shiva’s foremost generals and most trusted guards, and as the protector of sages and destroyer of many demons. In South, Virabhadra is immensely popular among Shaivite devotees.
As is the legend in Shiva Maha Purana, Brahma’s son Daksha desired that he had a daughter as accomplished as Mahamaya. He hence devoted himself to severe penance after hundred years of which Mahamaya appeared in his vision and as desired assured to take birth as his daughter. In due course Daksha’s wife Asikni bore him a daughter, the most beautiful of all maids on the earth. She was named Sati. When of age, Sati married Shiva. For his lie Shiva had earlier decapitated Brahma, Daksha’s father; hence, Daksha was against his daughter marrying Shiva. In the course of time Daksha held a great yajna. For insulting Shiva and Sati he neither allocated Shiva’s share in the ‘havya’ – offering, nor invited them to it. Shiva was indifferent but deeply hurt Sati was determined to go to attend it and give her father a piece of her mind. However, she was not only ignored when she reached there but was also slighted. Humiliated and enraged Sati jumped into the yajna-fire and immolated herself.
The news of the death of Sati, Shiva madly loved, overwhelmed him with wrath and grief. In fury he plucked a lock of his hair and dashed it on a hill whereby it split into two halves, which instantly transformed into Shiva’s two ferocious ganas, Virabhadra who emerged from its upper half, and Bhadrakali, from its lower. Virabhadra had two thousand arms, all equipped with as many weapons, a huge form and a ferocious face. He wore a skull-garland and a lion’s skin and had his forehands folded as if seeking his Master’s command. Shiva commanded him to destroy Daksha, his yajna and whoever of gods meddled in it. With a huge army of Shiva’s ganas, ghosts, fiends and various types of fevers and maladies, and with Matrikas, Nava-Durgas and other powers, Virabhadra marched towards Daksha’s yajna and after a ferocious battle defeated all gods with Vishnu and Indra among others, destroyed Daksha’s yajna and severed his head.
Except the number of arms, sixteen, not two thousand, Virabhadra has in the painting largely the same form as described in the Shiva Maha Purana. On his right is the figure of his blue-bodied four-armed Master, Lord Shiva, in Tandava depicting his ferocious mood and determination to destroy. Characteristic to the iconography of his Tandava form, he has flames of fire emitting from every part of his body, locks of hair unfurling on either side, and venomous vipers shooting in all directions. Held in his upper right hand his double drum warrants destruction, and a lock of hair held in upper left, denotes creation of the instruments that would inflict such destruction. The hill in the background is the venue of the divine drama as according to the Shiva Maha Purana it was on a hill that Shiva had dashed his lock of hair. The sky is in fire-like tint, for certain depicting the overall mood of the painting.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.