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Re: Kirtimukha

From: M.K. Krishnaswamy (
Date: Sat Jan 20 2001 - 15:03:48 PST

This is in continuation of my last posting on Sri Narayanan's query relating to Yali.
To add to the record relating to the Kirtimukha legend, I am reproducing below extracts from a web-site.
MK Krishnaswamy 
Extracts taken from the web-site:

DECORATIVE MOTIFS IN VIJAYNAGAR SCULPTURES by Rajaram Hegde, Department of History and Archaeology, Kuvempu University, Karnataka 

Foliage motifs provided a greater scope for artists imagination. The motif was rendered into different shapes according to the requirement of the space. Foliage is often shown, issuing from the mouths of mythical creatures like Makara, yali and kirtimukha.

A variety of animal forms which are usually denoted as yali or vyala are to be seen prominently in Vijayanagara decorative motifs. They are usually leonine in their physical features. Their face is usually depicted either as elephantine (Fig. 34,37) or as a stylised lion's head (Fig. 39, 41) 13(Dhakey: op. cit:16). Vijayanagara sculptures represent the following varieties of vyalas: (1) Elephant faced (gaja-vyala) (2) Lion or kirtimukha faced (simha-vyala) (3) Horse faced (asva-vyala) (4) Human faced (nr-vyala). (5) Dog faced (svana-vyala).

Perhaps, no other motif is so widely used as the kirtimukha (Fig. 11, 12, 22, 47). Kirtimukhas are shown at the top of aureole, kapotas, dormer arches etc. They are used in any decoration where the artist wants to show strings, foliage or festoons issuing from its mouth. Kirtimukha is represented as a face personifying ferocity with protruding eye-balls, stout horns, wide opened mouth suggesting a roar and canine teeth protruding out of it. This particular treatment was almost common to any ferocious face as we see similar faces on Nrsimha's icons, leographs, etc 14(Dhavalikar 1982:86). 

'The kirtimukhas, literally the face of 'glory' or 'fame' became an integral part of the Indian decorative tradition in the early historic period itself 26. Coomaraswamy traces their probable origin in the Greek heads 27(Coomaraswamy 1971:49, Dhavalikar op.cit.,90). The myth of kirtimukha suggests it was symbolic of the destructive force of Siva, used to devour the demons28(Zimmer: 1946:322-31, 1990:175-184). Thus in Medieval canonic tradition, kirtimukha heralded the glory of divine power which was the source of creation and destruction 29(Agrawala 1956-57:94).

14. Davalikar M.K., (1982:86) Kirtimukha was also known as Simha-mukha in literature. During the medieval period, Kirtimukhas invariably assume the form of a stylised lion's face in Indian art. Such stylised lion's face can be traced back to the Persian lion-faces which for the first time in India appear on the Mayryan pillar capitals. During the medieval period, this face commonly appears on the ferocious animal figures.

26. Kirtimukha is also known as Grasamukha in Western India, Rahumukha in Eastern India, 'Kala' in South East Asian Countries. It is also known as Makara Vakstra, Simha-mukha etc. These terms signify the historical development of its symbolism.

27. Coomaraswamy A.K. (1971:49) notices the presence of similar decorative motifs in Scythian, Helenic, Chinese art traditions. Gorgons heads were the terrific faces to ward off the enemy and such faces were carved on the Greek forts, palaces, temples and such edifices. Earliest Kirtimukhas in India are demonic in forms. Thus a Hellenic origin is possible (See. Dhavalikar M.K. op. cit., 90).

28. Zimmer Heinrich. (1990: 175-184) opines that Kirtimukha was Rahu who had no body. Stella Kramrisch also identifies Kirtimukha with Rahu who devours sun, and Rahu had no body according to myths (1946: 322-31).

29. Traditionally Kirtimukhas are believed to be warding the edifices off the evil and destroyers. V.S. Agrawala concludes that the term Kirti: denotes an excavated chamber, Kirtimukha being its fašade. (1956-57; p.94). Whatever might be the etymological derivations, Kirtimukha assumed a magical significance of warding off the evil, thus an auspicious motif in architecture

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