One of the most intriguing and a common feature among the Hindu temple adornments is the Face of Glory or Kirtimukha. The half human – half animal face, swollen with the intake of breath, is most prominently seen on the sukhanasa, in the centre of the arches of littles niches or shrines, the apex of windows, in front of the threshold of the garbhagriha on either side of the lotus stalk in the centre, on cornices, pillars, and also walls. Kirtimukha is also frequently seen in a row on the temple bases or socle, and is termed as Grasa-pattika (Gujarat) and Rahurmukhamala (eastern India). In south Indian temples it is seen on two sides of the steps at the base of the temple. Thus, this face of glory with its dark grin is seen looking out from both the apex and base points of temples.
What is kirtimukha and what does it look like
The kirtimukha most often has the face of a lion and is also known as simha mukha or the lion faced. It has two horns, with a third or middle horn in the forehead centre, just above the two bulging eye globes that protrude out of their deep sockets. The entire face with its carvings gives the impression of deep inspiration through the nostrils, and the breath restrained between inspiration and expiration across the bridge below the eyes and over nose.
Lion is the vahana of Rahu as per the Matsyapurana. As per the Brhatsamhita, (V. 1-3) Rahu is the son of Simhika, the Lioness, who is Nirrti or Destruction, and is the daughter of Diti. Simhika with rishi Kashyapa begets a son who is as cruel as Death (Yama) and Kala (Time), and was known as Rahu . It is Rahu who gives both good and bad luck to man.
While kirtimukhas were present in Indian art and iconography from the times of classical antiquity (beginning of Common Era or perhaps even before that, as for example horned kirtimukhas from Sirkap in Taxila), its most developed form is seen from 10th century onwards when it became a fixture on the sukhanasa gavaksa. If observed closely it will be seen that the kirtimukha is an incomplete face with no lower jaw, and from below its protruding teeth emerge the arch of the gavaksha and the other forms seen around it. The entire arch formed around or below the kirtimukha is often filled with ganas and other airy forms seen flying towards the centre of the archivolt, where in Odisha temples we find a bell hanging.
The outside edge of the gavaksha arch is filled with curvy carvings denoting foams, waves, and wings. All these are an extension of the makaras that lie at the arch base forming the two ends; and often these makaras are seen protruding from beneath the puffed up cheeks of the kirtimukha. When makaras form the base ends , the kirtmukha is known as Kala-makara. The inner circle of the gavaksha is open and in the lower part is generally is seen an aspect of the main deity of the temple, or it has a lotus in it, and this lotus corresponds to the lotus at the apex of a prabhatorana (seen in many murtis from eastern India) giving it the same meaning as a kirtimukha, where both symbolise the threshold.
Kirtimukha is also known as Grasamukha (western India) or Rahurmukha (eastern India). It also represents time or Kala. The word Grasa, which means to devour, can be seen at parity with Rahu who devoured the sun and moon, symbolising the Solar and Lunar eclipses. Kala is also a devourer, the greatest one, which devours everything at the end. Thus, the three names frequently associated with the face of the Kirtimukha are synonymous. The kirtimukha or the Face of Glory as we see depicted on temples contains in it three parts : a Lion’s face, the head of Rahu (also loosely referred to as dragon’s head, as some believe Rahu has the shape of a serpent), and the head of Death (Kala). The Lion, which is the solar animal, symbolises Yasas- tejas (Splendour) and the Destroyer of all evil. As per the Upanishads/Vedanta, Paramveswara or the Supreme God is represented by the Lion; and we see this in the Narasimha avtar, where the Lion is Vishnu- Narayana and Nara is the body or jiva (the creature). It is also Vishnu Narayana who cuts off Rahu’s head, and with this death gesture restores life to the Eternal, the immortal Head, now released from the ties of the worldly body of strife and deceit. In the mask of the Kirtimukha, the breath that gives power and splendor belongs to the simha mukha with its blazing eyes. Behind this visible face is the sun or the Eye of the All (as per Rig Veda), where “behind the Death’s head, the mask is inflated with breath, the outbreathing of the Supreme which is and makes the world.” The triple horns, which are rays, denote the three aspects of the Lion, Rahu, and Kal; and also represent the three aspects of time- Past, Present and Future (Shiva’s trident).
The three aspects that make up the kirtimukha are:
1. it is the Death head of Kala or Time, the Devourer or Grasa of Rahu;
2. The Death’s head has in it the essence of Ahi Vrtra (the Purusha) who himself holds splendor, all wealth, knowledge, and gods; who has no hand or foot, is the source of solar power, and the creature that envelopes the Universe and also emits it; and
3. from the Lion’s open mouthed out-breathing Supreme Brahman is emitted and sent out, thus giving life to the world.
Mahabharata (XXX.47.17) says that the 3 bodies of the Kirtimukha are also that of the Shiva’s : Kala, Purusha, and Brahman.
The Kirtimukhas reveal that the world is a result of the outbreathing of the Supreme Brahman, and this is shown as the waves and curls that emerge out of the mouth. It moves along the curve and arch of the gavaksha (which is an imagery depiction of the Sun and manifestation). The breath moves around and often takes multiple shapes, such as foam of the celestial waters, feathers of the sunbirds, flames (Agni was the first to emerge from the Breath of heaven – RV. V. 45. I) and makara bodies. Thus, the rhythmic pattern of the creepers depict the movement of the breath, and is the symbol of Nature or Prakriti that manifests itself as the curve of the gavaksha in which the rays of splendor have their circumference. All the carvings and depictions seen along with Kirtimukha are imagery depiction or bringing forth to life the lines from Taittriya Aranyaka: ” O waters whose steeds are the winds, whose lords are the rays of the sun, whose body is formed of shining rays… May the heavenly waters and herbs be auspicious to us and may they bring happiness…”
The various Puranic stories and other legends associated with kirtimukha
As per Skandapurana and Padmapurana, just when Shiva was about to marry Parvati, Rahu as the messenger of Jalandhara came asking for Parvati. Shiva in his anger produced a monstrous being from his third eye that had the face of a lion with lolling tongue, standing hair, and with eyes like lightning (looking like Narasimha), which rushed to kill Rahu; however Shiva stopped it and instead ordered it to devour itself. This it did as an act of self sacrifice, leaving only the head, which is the Kirtimukha. Thus, kirtimukha is a part of Shiva’s Consciousness, where we find Shiva in his terrific aspect of Mahakaal sharing the features of Kirtimukha as Kaal. Kirtimukha is also similar to the head of Vishnu avtar of Narasimha.
The two Puranas (Skandapurana and Padmapurana) further add that kirtimukhas must be seen at the entrance of temples dedicated to Shiva, and they must be worshipped first before the devotee enters the sanctum. That is why it is found on front of the threshold of the shrine, where devotees sprinkle water on it and take care not to step on it.
A Lingayat legend tells us that after killing Hiranyakasipu (Simhika’s brother; hence Rahu’s uncle) Narsimha had turned arrogant. To stop him for causing further destruction, Shiva killed Narasimha, and out of the severed head of Narasimha, Shiva made the kirtimukha.
For reference, check
Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu temple.