The fabulous beast 'Makara' isn't just an adornment; it apparently symbolises chaos (and how chaotic can an animal get?) out of which order and creation arise. The height of order is depicted by the fearsome kirtimukha, and then creation descends once more into chaos.

Today is Pongal, also known as Makara Sankranti; the sun has moved from Dhanus (Sanskrit for Sagittarius) to Makara (Capricorn), marking the end of the winter solstice. Makara means ‘sea monster’ in Sanskrit, and is the origin of the word ‘mugger’, both in Hindi and English. In Hindu iconography, makara is also represented as the vahana (‘vehicle’) of Ganga, the river goddess.

Master sculptor Ganapati Sthapati describes makara as a mythical animal with the body of a fish, trunk of an elephant, feet of a lion, eyes of a monkey, ears of a pig, and the tail of a peacock. Although it seems improbable, these disparate elements come together to form one of the commonest leitmotifs in Indian temple iconography. A line of makara may run along the length of a temple wall, or form the hand rail of a staircase. But most prominently, this beast acts as structural bookend of a thoranam or archway behind a deity. The arch issues forth from the jaws of one makara, rises to a pinnacle, the kirtimukha (the ‘Face of Glory'), and descends into the yawning gape of another makara.

The fabulous beast isn't just an adornment; it apparently symbolises chaos (and how chaotic can an animal get?) out of which order and creation arise. The height of order is depicted by the fearsome kirtimukha, and then creation descends once more into chaos. The deity sitting in front of the archway presides over the eternal cycle of creation and destruction.

Folk artists of old didn't buy into this metaphysical symbolism; instead they depicted the makara as a real animal. They found gharial in the thousands basking along the banks of the Ganges and other north Indian rivers, and appropriated it as Ganga's vehicle. The mythical creature's elephant trunk does resemble a stylised gharial snout.

Kirtimukha, at the top of the arch, has a lion's snarling face with fearsome bulging eyes, tongue hanging out, bared teeth, and occasionally a pair of horns. In the legend, when a vainglorious king had the temerity to lay claim on Siva's beautiful wife, a terrible demon issued fully-formed from the wrathful god's third eye. The petrified messenger of the king fell at Siva's feet begging for mercy and the god forgave him. But, the ogre had been born with a raging hunger that had to be appeased. On the god's orders, it ate its own body until only the head remained (similar in theme to the Ouroboros, the symbol of a snake swallowing its tail). Impressed by this obedient self-cannibalism, Siva proclaimed that henceforth the demon-head would be known as kirtimukha and worshipped in all his temples.

Joseph Campbell, the late eminent mythologist, opined that the story of kirtimukha reveals the fundamental truth: life lives off death. Every day we see folksy versions painted on construction sites, on ash gourds, on the backs of trucks and as masks for scarecrows to ward off the ‘evil eye'.

Today, the last 200 breeding gharial try to bask and nest on river banks gouged by rampant sand mining and farming. The Yamuna and the Ganga may be holy rivers, but they are also among the most polluted in the world; more than 100 gharial died in the winter of 2007-08 from toxin-caused kidney failure in the Chambal, a Yamuna tributary.

At least kirtimukha was divinely directed to self-destruction; what compels us humans to gobble and destroy our way through Earth's resources until there is no tomorrow? Are we hell-bent on sending this unique life-sustaining planet to Saturn, the haunted house of Hindu astrology? In the story, kirtimukha may be a parable of life, but in reality wouldn't you say that it holds a mirror to the grotesque face of our rapaciousness?

A couple of weeks ago, in a bid to give the gharial a fighting chance of survival, Jairam Ramesh pledged his Ministry's support for this crocodilian's conservation. Happy Makara Sankranthi!

(The author can be reached at janaki@gmail.com)

Keywords: PongalMakaracrocodile