My fascination for Liminal beings is well known in my circle as I prefer to believe in Gods (Like Lord Narasimha) who are both or many rather than just one. Thankfully for me, Hindu mythology is replete with Liminal beings – mythical creatures, chimeras and sometimes, monsters. Some creatures like the Uchchaihshravas (the 7 headed horse that emerged during Samudra Manthan), Gandaberunda (2 headed bird possessing immense strength) are multi-headed, others like the Yazhi, makara and Navagunjara are a chimera of sorts. Hindu temples serve as a record of these fascinating creatures preserving their form, texture, embellishments, and in the process keeping their memory alive.
During Christmas this year, I took my parents on an impromptu Temple tour of Kanchipuram – the city of silks and temples visiting 15 temples in a 20 hour time period. My first stop was the famous Kailasanathar temple, a prototype temple showcasing the spectacular nature of Pallava architecture. It is said that king Rajasimha (Narasimhavarman II) in addition to being the patron of this temple, was also its designer. Historians note that he drew sketches of the entire temple panel by panel on large screens in order to show the sculptors and builders exactly how he wanted the temple to be built. The temple overflows with statues of lions and majestic Yazhis. So this time, instead of being just a mute spectator, I made up my mind to document as many yazhi forms as possible (on this temple trip) and write about them.
What is a Yazhi?
A Yazhi or Yali (Pronounced yA lee and unrelated to the Navajo name) is a mythical animal that is a chimera of a lion, elephant and a snake. They could have a lion face, its paws (and claws) and tail, fangs of a snake, body, hind legs and trunk of an elephant. Sometimes referred to as Vyalas, they are known for their ferociousness, speed, and strength. It possesses the male aggression and masculinity of the Lion, grace of the snake and intelligence of an elephant. As a transmutated animal, a yazhi is said to be stronger than a lion or an elephant combined and for this reason it was used as a mount during wars. In this era of gene modification, it makes me wonder if the yazhis were created as a fighting force or did such creatures naturally exist? And more importantly, did they actually exist and over a period of time become extinct.
Types of Yazhis and their form
Though there are many forms of Yazhis ( The base animal that they were created from), three are very common. Simma or Lion yazhi (சிம்ம யாளி), Makara or Capricorn (மகர யாளி) ( as seen in the above image) and finally Yannai or Elephant Yazhi( யானை யாளி). Some texts point to the presence of Horse headed, Human-headed or Dog headed yazhis in temples, but I have not seen them personally.
My learned colleague (while discussing this article) told me about the fascinating Yazhi pillars of the Nellaiappar temple in Tirunelveli which are said to be inspired by the majestic bamboo shoots of the Venu vanam (bamboo grove) that was originally present at the location surrounding the Swayambhu (self created) Linga of Lord Shiva.
Some sculptures depict yazhis as wild animals in a standing (ready to charge) or a sitting (resting) pose while others depict them as tamed animals wearing ornamental fabrics and jewelry. Could they have been once decorated with bells, necklaces, and laces just like how horse and elephants were decorated in the recent past and even at present during ceremonies or (temple) festival celebrations? I was amazed to see the bells and leg ornaments on the standing Yazhis (picture above) which were decorative forms used as embellishments on a rounded outer structure of the Kailasnathar temple’s main shrine. I also saw sculptures that offer proof of the intimate
I also saw sculptures that offer proof of the intimate relationship between the ancient south Indian kingdoms and those of Cambodia and other countries that form the present-day south-east Asia. In fact, I saw lion/dragon statutes in Bangkok that were very similar to the two yazhi statutes in the image above. Note how they are very different in terms of aesthetics – yet they both belong to the same time period, the same style of architecture and are from the same temple. Could this have been an example of the Trickle across trend theory that encourages fusion styling and design?
Above: Gold coin of Gupta era, depicting Gupta king Kumaragupta holding a bow (Source Wikipedia Commons). Is that a yazhi that he is trying to hunt?
Functions of Yazhis
Sculptures of the Yazhi are positioned on both sides of the entrance way to temples, shrines, and temple cars (chariots) to drive away evil. They are sometimes referred to as the protectors of the temple and its lands. The above image shows yazhis in various forms being used as vahanams or procession rides of the utsava murthi of Vishnu (metal idols) at the Ulagalantha perumal temple in Kanchipuram. In the Ancient times, a yazhi was the mount or vehicle (vahanam) of the Budh (the planet mercury) is supposedly genderless. for I remember using a Ganifa cards image indicative of this in my Navagraha necklace (find below) from my Chitra Katha collection in 2014.
A Yazhi head can also be found on Veena (Saraswati veena – Veena played by Goddess Saraswati), A stringed musical instrument made of wood, used in both Carnatic and Hindustani music settings. It signifies the greatness of Veena as a complex musical instrument. Traditionally in a single piece veena, the yazhi was used as an identifying marker to identify the maker or master craftsman who made the instrument. However, presently the heads are mass produced and only the assembling and painting is done by the craftsman who makes the veena. Most Yazhi heads seen on veenas face downwards but it seems that there exists a veena belonging to Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar, (Of the musical trinity of Carnatic music) where the head faces upwards.
Due to its fascinating form, yazhi as a motif, has often found its way to textiles in the form of silk saree borders and in jewellery where it is prized for its uniqueness.
Meaning and metaphors
Yazhis are also carved in pillars in temple halls one as a decorative element, two to showcase man’s struggle with nature (in case of sculptures where a man is how riding a yazhi) and three to initiate discussion on creativity, imagination, and open-mindedness. A Yazhi is neither this nor that, it showcases the constantly changing evolving behaviour of nature. It also personifies victory and greatness. Recently, I came to know of a legend connecting yazhis and Saraswati veena which talks about how Goddess Saraswati subdued a menacing dragonlike creature with her music and the creature enraptured by the music pleaded to always be in close contact with the musical notes and the musicians who create them. It is said that to honour the creature’s eagerness to seek out the divinity via music, the creature (yazhi’s head) became a part of the Veena’s design.
Well, that brings me to the end of this long post and I couldn’t have done it without motivation. Just on the day before this temple trip, a student came to talk to me about Kemp jewellery as she was working on a collection inspired by the mythical yazhi. She seemed well-informed so I asked her what her secondary resource sources were. She grinned sheepishly and said, “Ma’am, it’s you, I mean your blog”. After being momentarily taken aback, I realised that I do have a duty as a designer and teacher to research and document the precious cultural heritage of my country and thus was born this post.
I would like to state that I am not an expert on this topic and what I have expressed here are my own personal impressions collected through years of temple visits, listening to stories and yes secondary research. So I request readers to add to post in the way of their comments and also to correct my mistakes if I have made any.
Some South Indian Temples where Yazhi pillars can be seen
Tamil Nadu -Nellaiappar temple Tirunelveli, Srivilliputhur Andal Temple, Kaliasanathat, vaikunta perumal, ulagalantha perumal, Varadharajar perumal temples in Kanchipuram, Thiruvanamalai temple. Karnataka – Ranganatha and Bhoganandishvara temples in Chikkaballapur, Vitalla Temple Hampi. Mukteshvara Temple in Bhubaneshwar
References: Most web references have been linked to in the body of the text itself. Here are more links for additional reading
I hope you found it interesting