SHAIVA Connections between Tamil Nadu and Bengal, Central India

  • By Dr Ketu Ramachandrasekhar
  • January 5, 2023
  • Article tells about the deep connect between the Saivas of Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Central India in earlier times and their influence including on temple architecture.

A few months back, there was a hashtag on Twitter #TamilsAreNotHindus and people uninformed and untrained in rigours of logic came up with all kinds of fancied explanation about the Cholas being followers of Native Shaivam. Many experts answered such malicious and unaccounted claims from different perspectives. This article adds weight to the factual rebuttals. 

In Kamikagama, one amongst the twenty eight Mulagamas of Shaiva canonical literature, whose tenets are followed even currently in most of the Shiva Temples in Tamil Nadu, we come across a very peculiar reference-

tadurdhvaṃ gauḍabhaṣadyair-ganaṃ dhupantam acaret |

urdhvaṃ draviḍabhaṣaṅkaṃ ganaṃ nṛttayutaṃ tuva ||(KA.Purvabhaga 6.437c-438b)

Translation: ‘Thereafter (the singer) should engage in singing in the Gauḍa or (related) languages until the burning of incense is finished, or sing in the Draviḍa language, together with dancing.’

The practice of singing Tamil devotional songs in the Siva temples as a regular part of worship, which continues to the present day by the ‘Oduvars’  (tiruppatiyam paṭuvar), finds its first epigraphical attestation in an inscription of the Pallava Nandivarman III of 863 CE at the Bilvanathesvara temple of Tiruvallam.

But the prescription of song in Gauḍabhaṣa or Bengali in temples in Tamil Nadu implies a deep connect that the two regions had.

On further inspection, one can see that there were many Shaivacharyas from Vanga and Madhyadesha who have had deep impact on the religious life of the Tamil region. 

Enquiring further we find that there are other earlier references to Bengal for e.g.   Saint Thirunavukkarasar (Appar) mentions a temple called Mahasthana, which is in modern Bangladesh. Saint-poet Thirugnanasambandar, who is considered to be verily the son of Lord Shiva by the devout, mentions about the Brahmins from the Gangetic delta, who had settled in Sirkali, near Chidambaram.

Upon historical scrutiny, we find the Shaivacharyas from the region of Gauda and Malwa region served as the Rajagurus of many great Chola emperors, throughout the Chola rule. Isanashiva and Sarvashiva are mentioned in inscriptions of Rajaraja I (985-1014 CE) and Rajendra Chola (1012-1044 CE) as the Gurus who initiated the kings in Shaivasamaya. We even get to know that the Shaiva Diksha name of Rajaraja-I was Shivapadashekhara. There is epigraphic evidence to show their considerable influence in the Chola courts during the periods of Kulottunga I- Kulottunga-III (1070- 1216 CE).

In the Karma-kriya-kanda and the Paddhati composed by Somashambhu, the lineage of Ishanashiva is mentioned. He was succeeded by Vimalashiva whose disciple was Sarvashiva. It is stated that Rajendra-I supplied a large quantity of grains as acharyabhoga (gift to one’s teacher) to Sarvashiva and his disciples in the Aryadesha, Madhyadesha and Gaudadesha. Somashambhu was Vimalashiva’s disciple and he had composed several Shaiva works.

Siddhanta-saravali of Trilochanashiva records that Rajendra Chola saw the best of the Shaivacharyas during his campaign in Bengal, when he came to take a bath in the Ganga, and he invited them to settle in Kanchi and elsewhere in the Chola kingdom.

rajendracol̤a ityakhyaḥ col̤abhupo mahiṃ vasan.

gaṃgasnanartham agatya dṛṣṭva saivanvaran tada.

Snatva pratinivṛttassan tan samadaya saivakan.

Svarajyasthapayamasa saivacaryavaraṃstada .

kaṃcimadhye caul̤abhumau sarvatraiva pravistaraḥ.

One may also remember that King Bhojadeva, the Paramara king of Malwa, the contemporary and ally of Rajendra Chola, was himself as great scholar of Shaivasiddhanta and the author of Tattvaprakashika, Siddhantasarapaddhati amongst several other texts. Tattvaprakashika is considered to be one of the eight main texts for study (ashta-prabandhas) which were commented upon by the polemic Aghora-Shivacharya of Chidambaram.

Vikrama Chola had Srikathashiva and Kulottunga II had Dhyanashiva also of Gaudadesa as Rajagurus. Dhyanashiva also wrote commentaries on 28 Mula-agamas.

Inscriptions in Chidambaram tell that Naralokavira, a commander in Vikrama Chola’s army, consecrated images of Sri Gnanasambandar and a ‘Bhattacharya’, arranged for singing the Tevaram verses of Gnanasambandar. 

bhaṭṭacarya iti srutaṃ bhuvi sivaṃmurtisivaṃ yovahan

saṃvadaṃ kila vedabahyasamayaṅaghatasya cakrepura.

The name Bhattacharya, suggests a Gauda Shivacharya. We also come to know from the same reference that Bhattacharya defeated the scholars of other systems to establish Shaivasiddhanta.

There is also mention of another Shivacharya by name Umapati Gangoli in a Kanchipuram inscription dated CE 1172.

According to Dr Nagaswamy, these references to Gangoli and Bhattaacharya, two popular surnames in use in Bengal, are the earliest references in inscription, anywhere in India.

We shall see the significance of Thiruvarur in the process of Shaiva influence later.  

East facing gopuram, TyagarajaswamyMandir, Thiruvarur

In the main Gopura facing east of the Tyagarajaswamy temple at Thiruvarur, considered to be the Adipitha of the Shaivas, there are many koshthas (niches), and in the inner part on the adhishthnavarga just above the upapitha, we see two interesting sculptures. One on the left and the other on the right with inscriptions on the pitha.

The one on the left is that of Kulottunga-III depicted with a tied bun, long trimmed beard and hands folded in respect. While the one on the right depicts a Shaivacharya with mated locks arranged like a Jatamakuta, long beard, rudraksha chain around the neck, yajnopavita, wearing a long lower garment with beautiful folds. The hands of the sculpture is damaged. This is the Someshvara-Shambhu,the guru of Kulottunga-III.

To see Thiruvarur temple album

The inscription in the Kampahareshvara temple at Tribhuvanam, constructed by Kulottunga III, tells us about Isvara-Shambhu thus-

srikaṇṭhasambhu-tanayedampatirnṛpaṇaṃ paṇḍyari...

somesvareṇa guruṇa bhuvanasya pitroḥ

sreṣṭham akarayatasau sivayoḥ pratiṣṭhaṃ

Translation: The consecration of the divine couple, Parvati and Parameshvara was effected by Sri Someshvara, the son of Srikantha, and the preceptor of the enemies of the Pandyas (Kulottunga-III).

A partially damaged inscription, below the images, gives us a fair idea about the genius of the Someshvara Shambhu-

Vidya yena maniṣina nigadita vispṛṣṭamaṣṭadasam

sthaṇor-yena viviktamopaniṣadam visvasakatvaṃ ..

vedakara ca saivadarsana-dṛsa siddhantaratnakaro….

We come to know that Someshvara Shambhu was from Dakshina Radha region of Gaudadesha and author of the Siddhanta manual by name Siddhantaratnakara.

An inscription dated 1262 AD in Chidambaram Nataraja temple mentions Dakshina Radha, as place of origin of Ishvara Shiva thus-

“uttarapatattu takṣiṇaraṭattu kaṅkoli tirucciṟṟampalauṭaiyar aṉa uṭaiyar icuvaracivar”

Translation: Ishvara-Shiva, who hailed from southern Radha country of the north, served the Lord of Chidambaram.

Dr Nagaswamy opines that Udayiyar Isvar Shiva mentioned in an inscription in Tribhuvanam temple, built by Kulottunga-III in 1210 AD, was Someshvara Shambhu, the Acharya, to the Kulottunga-III and also Rajaguru to Kulottunga’s successor Rajaraja III. 

Shivacharyas in Darasuram Temple, Kumbakonam. Pic by author.  

Interestingly, one can see the series of more than ninety-five labelled images of Saiddhantika Shivacharyas in the Iravateshvara temple at Darasuram constructed by Rajaraja III.

Close up of Shivacharyas in Darasuram Temple, Kumbakonam. Pic by author.  

To see album of Darasurammandir

Another important aspect to be looked into while studying the cross-geographical influence in the spread of Shaivasiddhanta is the textual tradition.

Shaiva texts can be classified broadly under Core texts which were the Mula Agamas and Upagamas, Commentaries on these Agamas and Compendiums or paddhatisgranthas.

On one hand we have the Kashmiri Abhinavagupt Acharya calling Gurjaradeshiya Lakulisha and Madhyadeshiya Srikantha as the two sole authorities on Shaivism.

Whilst on the other we have the Srikaṇṭhabhaṣya, a Saiva commentary on the Brahmasutra composed by Nilakaṇṭha, also called Shrikantha from Dakshinadesha expounding a Vedantic Shaiva non-dualism in which Siva is qualified by his power of consciousness (cicchaktivisiṣṭasivadvaitam), in keeping with Vedantic orthodoxy, to be both the efficient and the material cause of the world. He draws not only from the usual Vedic sources for this purpose but also on the works of the Kashmiri Shakta Shaivas, quoting the Isvarapratyabhijnakarika of Utpaladeva and the Bodhapancadasika and Tantraloka of Abhinavagupta.

Aghora Shivacharya, a profound scholar who was active in Chidambaram around the middle of the twelfth century, perpetuated the Siddhanta tradition of Kashmiri Bhatta Narayanakantha and Bhatta Ramakantha apart from composing his commentaries on the various other texts.

During the period under discussion, the Shaiva Siddhanta was very active and vibrant in Madhyadesha, with established centers such as Amardaka (Aundah in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra), Golaki (Gurgi, Madhya Pradesh), Radha (West Bengal), Gopakshetra (Gwalior, MP), Kadambaguha (Chambal, MP), Somapuri (Bangladesh), etc. apart from Varanasi.

There was a constant movement of scholars between the regions for study and sharing the doctrine. 

Here are two instances. In Balabodhini, a commentary on select portions of Kiraṇagama, in a single South-Indian manuscript, the author identifies himself in the colophon as Siṃharaja, son of Kamarupesa and pupil of Nilakaṇṭha, the pupil of a pupil of a Guru at Amardakapura, This indicates the travel of students from the south to be in the presence of Shaivacharyas from Amardaka was in vogue.

In Jnanaratnavali of Gnanashiva, a contemporary of Aghora Shivacharya, we find explicit mention of him being originally from Chidambaram but living in Banaras when he wrote this work. He tells us that he, though residing in Varanasi, is a devotee of the Lord of the Dabhrasabha i.e. Nataraja in Chidambaram, indicating his southern origin.

Srimad dabhrasabhesvar-anghri-kamala-dvandva-lina-dhimata |

Srimad-vijnanasivena vedaviduṣa varaṇasivasina | |

Golaki Matha, a Saiddhantika monastery at Golagi (Gurgi), about 12 miles to the east of Rewa, (Madhya Pradesh- a town in the north of the Kalacuri kingdom) was the site of once vast Saiva monasteries and temples and the stronghold of Shaiva schools which produced some brilliant Acharyas whose contributions were recognised by most of the rulers during the medieval period.

Many had even dedicated their kingdoms at the feet of these Shaivacharyas. The Kriyakaṇḍa-kramavali written by Somashambhuthe mathadhisha of Golaki, composed in1048 CE is most popular and used in most Shaiva temples in Tamil Nadu till date. 

See album of Siddhanath Temple, Omkareshwar Island in MP

Saiddhantikas were invited by rulers from all parts of Bharatavarsha for the propagation of the Saiddhantika tradition. Their activities in Tamil Nadu too were a result of such an invitation by the ruling monarchs. Centres of Golakimatha were established in Tiruvarur and Thiruvenkadu. 

Study of the Naṭarajapaddhati composed by Ramanatha of the ‘Southern Golaki Matha’ founded at Tiruvarur, throws more light on the origins of the institution. That Ramanatha himself was attached to the Tiruvarur branch of Golaki is clear from the textual reference where he says- 

goḷakimaṭhaniṣṭhana …. vidhayinim | 

paddhatim naṭarajakhyam akarot sukhabodhitam | |

Translation: The Guru of the Golokimatha has composed this Naṭarajapaddhati in the Saka year 980 to guide the practice of the ascetics of the Golaki monastery.

In the concluding verses, Ramanatha tells us, that the establishment in Tiruvarur (Kamalapuri/Kamalalaya), was known as ‘the Southern Golaki Matha’, having been founded by Brahmashiva, a resident of Gudadesha and a Shaivacharya from the main Golakimaṭha far to the north:

teṣveko gauḍadesiyaḥ praptavan kamalalayam |

idṛsiṃ murtimadaya dakṣiṇatyottitirṣaya ||

siva evayamiti lokanumoditaḥ |

pada-vakya-pramaṇajnaḥ sriman brahmasivaḥ ||

tatra puṣkariṇi-tire dakṣiṇe golagimaṭhe |

vidvadbhiravasat sarddham agnikalpais-tapodhanaiḥ …

Translation: ‘Among those Acharyas of the Golakimaṭha was the venerable Brahmashiva, a native of the Gauḍa region, learned in grammar, hermeneutics, and epistemology, who came to Tiruvarur and lived amongst the resplendent learned ascetics and established the Southern Golakimaṭha on the bank of the Pushkarini (Kamalalayam tank), applauded by the people as Siva himself who had come to them after assuming this form in order to rescue the them.

Temple Tank, Thiruvarur temple. 

From another reference in the Siddhantasamuccaya and Siddhantarahasyasara of Trilocanashiva, we are informed that the author was an ascetic at the Golakimatha in Svetaraṇya (Thiruvenkadu).

From the Malkapuram inscription of Kakatiya Rudradeva, we know that Visvesvara-shiva who was an inhabitant of Gaudadesa and belonged to the Golaki.

Apart from Golaki Matha, others Shaiva mathas like Mattamayura, Kolla too had considerable presence over the thought and lives of Shaivas in Tamil Nadu. A Chola inscription mentions Jnanasiva of the Lakshadyaya-santana of the Kolla-matha at Varanasi and another mentions ascetics of the line of Bhiksha-matha at Varanasi who were supported by the Chola administration.

The presence of Gauda and Madhyadesha Acharyas had considerable impact on various aspects of Temple architecture in Tamil Nadu. 

Martanda Bhairava, Darasuram Temple, Kumbakonam, TN. Pic by author. 

In Melkadambur, we have a Nataraja in worship, which is a Pala Bronze. The presence of four headed, eight armed Martanadabhairava (commonly mistaken as Ardhanarishvara due to androgonymous form) in Darasuram temple is also a concept brought in by the Shakta-Shaiva Acharyas of Gaudadesha. We find a similar representation in Pala style in Rajshahi museum, Bangladesh.

A more careful study would reveal similar patterns of influence of other Shaiva schools from other parts. Our society did not believe in the idea of exclusivism. Rather they were open for noble thoughts from all directions as stated in a Rig Veda verse.


The growth of any great idea or structure cannot be attributed to a small geography. In keeping up with the great tradition of assimilation of common thoughts, it can be said that the most effective work on Shaiva studies or for that matter any other study will be that which not only transcends the long prevalent limitation of focusing on one artificially constructed territory such as ‘Kashmir Shaivism’ or ‘South Indian Shaivism’ to the exclusion of others, not to mention neglect of the position of these coexisting and often co-functioning traditions in the broader picture. 

Also the studies in theoretical literature of traditions should be complimented by attention on epigraphic material and ethnographic data. Only by a collective analysis we can hope to escape to some extent from the limitations set forth by people and academia with vested interests.

Author Dr Ketu Ramachandrasekhar is the Program Manager at Bharatiya Samskriti Trust, a Non-Profitable Organisation dedicated towards the dissemination of Indic Knowledge Systems and resurgence of the Oldest Living Cultural way of life i.e. Sanatana Dharma. He has his Doctorate in Indian Epistemology and was selected as a Fellow from hundred young scholars across India for Studies in Neuro Aesthetics and Indian Rhetoric by Ministry of Culture, GOI. He was a part of Academic Team of scholars across Europe on discussion of Natya Texts. His expertise in Shaiva Pratyabhijna School is well recognised by scholars of Kashmir Shaivism and he has been a regular contributor to their Journals on the works and contributions of Acharya Abhinavagupta. He has several research articles and books to his credit which includes a detailed study of Abhinayadarpana of Nandikeshvara, Devi Mahatmya and others.


To read all articles by author

Also read

1. Were Cholas Hindus

2. Kashi Tamil Sangam

3. Creating the Saiva Vaishnav Divide in Tamil Nadu

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