Ganda-Bherunda in Konkan (3)

Part 3 of 4

We looked at the brief history of the two-headed bird motif in western India and some examples from Konkan in the previous posts. Let us delve deeper into the metanarrative connections!

The multiplicity of heads and names

Multiple heads for deities and divine beings indicate more power and potential for activity, as indicated through past studies in Indian iconography (Srinivasan 1997: 74, 309, 312). Ganda-Bherunda, in its avian form, appears as a metaphor for philosophical treatises and symbolic representations for cultic imagery. The multiplicity of heads appears as a mainstay through various descriptions. A story from Buddhist texts mentioning Garuda-Upagaruda as two heads of a bird is held by some scholars to indicate Ganda-Bherunda (Naidu 1997: 6). The narrative of Garuda-Upagaruda further develops as one of the heads eating a poisoned fruit leading to the death of the bird. It may be for this narrative, that the Bherunda birds were considered as an epitome of fight and bickering as appears in anecdotal use in narrative literature.  Brahmapurana (164.3) adds to the plethora of narratives on two-headed birds by introducing the king of birds, Chicchuka, seen lamenting the sin of killing Brahmins (Maruvada 2020: 34). The bird reports the two-headed avian form as a punishment for committing sins in his human form. Chiccuka further mentions bathing in holy Gadadhar stream (in modern Bihar state) for ritual cleansing.

A Bherunda pole, was traditionally used to measure land (Rosen-Stache 1976: 5) and as a sacrificial post at some sites. Some individuals in Konkan consider the Berunda pole to be a seat of the Ganda-Bherunda in its invisible form. On other occasions, the Berunda poles made of wood were used to mark boundaries between two farmlands. Three landowners in Ratnagiri district and two from Sindhudurg district mention the use of Bherunda pole adopted from Karnataka after the introduction of cash-crops plantation in the 19th century CE. Only one extant wooden pole in the village of Vetore (Sindhudurg district) was documented as a Bherunda pole. The aspect of watchfulness associated with Bherunda bird through the practice of erecting a pole is seen in the Jaina parable of equating Mahavira with the watchfulness of the Bherunda bird (Tawney 1884: 306).  

Jaina texts Kathakosha and Kalpasutra mention two-headed birds as Bharunda. Bharunda bird is watchful, vigilant, and prompt in acts of benevolence. The Bharunda or Berunda bird carries a hero to the city of Champa and cures a princess (Tawney, 1884: 210) as mentioned in the text Kathasaritsagara. In another story, a prince learns of a cure for blindness on hearing a conversation between the two heads of a Berunda bird (Rosen-Stache, 1976: 4). A range of nomenclature is used for the double-headed bird suggests a widespread familiarity with the Bherunda representation. The depiction of a two-headed bird at stupas in Taxila and Sarnath (Gowda 2019: 408) may indicate shared narrative lore from the incipient stages, across various sectarian traditions on the double-headed bird. No substantive arguments can be made on the cultural diffusion that led to the rich imagery of double-headed birds in the south-western part of the subcontinent.

The trajectory of the double-headed bird motif in narratives as a consequence of ill-deed to a protector figure is noteworthy. The development of the motif as symbol of evil and disunity to the metaphor for virtue and courage in a span of six centuries (from 11th to 17th century CE) charts intriguing turns of narrative associations that need a closer examination. It is with this view that the critical examination of Ganda-Bherunda occurrences in Konkan may indicate a further underlying implication. A solitary occurrence of triple-headed swan appears on the temple ruins in Kasba (Sangmeshwar). The rendering is stylistically similar to the double-headed bird at Santebennur (Karnataka). The case of three heads appears as a curious case, corroborated by a much later Ganda-Bherunda figure at Kunkeshwara temple (Sindhudurg). The adoption of the Ganda-Bherunda motif by Chalukyas[i] may hold some clues for the Bherunda in iconography at a Chalukyan temple at Kasba. The bird motif is probably a decorative piece from the c. 11th-century temple ruins in the village. Owing to insufficient data, the role of this Berunda bird at Kasba cannot be further analyzed.

Multi-headed bord at Sangameshwara
The site – and the researcher 😉

The bird motif at Kunkeshwara

Ganda-Bherunda in Konkan: A Tantric connection?

The role of protection, placement on particular areas within and outside Konkani temples, and the regional associations suggest a further need for interpreting the iconographic use of Ganda-Bherunda. In all three instances in Konkan discussed above, the motif does not occupy a prominent place in the temple. The examples of Ganda-Bherunda from Karnataka command prominence – as the principal deity, on the lentil, or the façade of the temple. The appearance of Ganda-Bherunda on ceiling panels at Keladi (Naidu 1997), highlights the role of an overseer. On the other hand, the ones in Konkan seem to occupy the corners or sidewalls of the temple and are generally positioned at eye level for a devotee. The visual demotion of the motif brings the bird and its allied narrative into the domain of the public.

Furthermore, if one recalls the power struggle in the narrative of Ganda-Bherunda and Sharabha, the clear Vaishnavite association is unmistakable. In the case of Konkan examples discussed here, two of the three Ganda-Bherunda appear in connection with Shiva. The other two specimens out of three (ones at Kasba and Kunkeshwara) not considered for this paper also belong to Shiva temples with a documented history of ancient Shaivite roots.

The association of a big bird in Shaivism comes from the association with Garuda of the Garuda Tantra texts shared across Shaivism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Avian form as a rival to snakes and snakebites reappears through Puranic and Tantric texts in western India[ii]. Tantra, in the case of Konkan, needs to be assessed for its more comprehensive practices.  The jaundiced view of an esoteric cult with sex-enthused devotees has hitherto clouded the inclusion of Tantric elements in the discussion of public rituals. Tantric tapestry in Konkan stretches from the movement of the Nath yogis, Vajrayana practitioners, and philosophers in the tradition of Kashmir Shaivism (see, Mallinson 2019). Garuda, with its independent solar associations, perpetuates a battery of poison-drawing, snake-bite-curing deities through the textual tradition (see, Slouber 2017).

One of the Nitya deities[iii] from the Tantra texts is named Bherundā. Bherundā appears as an attendant to the deities Tvarita and Kurukulla in the Tantra texts[iv]. Most of these textual traditions found their way into Konkan by 11th century CE through cultural interactions across the sub-continent. Bherundā, a female deity in these texts, is described as bird-like, or with avian form. Of many attributes, feathers and a beak are recurring descriptors. Slouber (2017: 103) adds a note, distinguishing Bherunda (the motif in discussion) and the deity Bherundā, as also appearing as separate entities in Hemachandra’s Anekārthasamgraha. Vishwaprakasha, a text dating to c. 15th century CE also alludes to the distinction between Bherunda birds and Bherunda deities (c.f. Rosen-Stache 1976). Rosen-Stache takes this distinction to mean Bherunda in two forms of representation viz. the man-bird and the bird motif. This distinction may hold for the widely studied Ganda-Bherunda examples from erstwhile Mysore state. In the case of Konkan, however, the boundaries between Bherunda and Bherundā bleed into each other. Bherunda continues as a relic, simultaneously perpetuating the function of a syncretic and tantric totem.


[i] Chalukya ruled the area of the modern states of Karnataka and Maharashtra from c. 957 – 1190 CE Belgami inscription of Chalukyas dated to 1047 CE indicates high regard for Ganda-Bherunda.

[ii] Panchatantra text folios, Garuda Tantra texts, Yogaratnavali by Shri Kantha Shambhu (c. 1056 CE), Ishanshivagurudevapaddhati by Ishanshivagurudevamishra (c. 1078 CE) from Kerala, Kriyakalagunottara text of 1103 CE.

[iii] The Nitya deities can be defined as the ones worshiped on a regular basis, or routinely. Most of the deities are worshiped on specific days of the month or follow a seasonal cycle. Most of the Nitya deities are shared across religious sects and pertain to secular boons comprising disease alleviation, boons for fertility, etc.

[iv] The Saṃhitāsāra, Haramekhalā, and Ḍalhaṇa’s commentary to several Suśrutasaṃhitā passages refer to Bherunda as an independent goddess, in the company of Tvarita and Kurukulla. Bherunda as a deity with poison control is evident in Rasaratnākara’s toxicology (viṣacikitsā) section, Yogaratnāvalī 122, Vidyānuśāsana 10, and Bhairavapadmāvatīkalpa 10.12.

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