Kāla in Candi Kidal, Java

the Kirtimukha or the ‘Face of Glory’, is a ferocious monster face with protruding eye-balls, huge fangs and gaping mouth found in temple architecture in all Asia.

The Kirthimukha is a protector deity, a threshold guardian belonging to one of the two oldest groups of Earth deities: the Yakshas and the Nagas. Kirtimukhas are believed to be warding the edifices off all evils.

The motif often find its place on the lintels of the gate of the inner sanctum, at the corners of the pillars and pilasters, surmounting the pinnacle of a temple tower or in the iconography of a deity. It is an ever persistent element in all forms of Asian art:

• In India the Kirtimukha is a composite lion form, which is known as Simha-mukha in some areas. In Orissa, they are called Rahur-Mukher-Mala. In Gujarat, the Kirtimukha is often called Graspati. In South Indian styles too, it is called Simha-mugam, or lion’s face.

• In China and many other countries it is composed of a dragon form – a python’s body and a demon head, and known as the taotie, (‘Monster of Greed’).

• In Tibetan Buddhism, the Kirtimukha looking like fierce deities are revered as the Buddha’s guardians.

It is also an effigy of the god Kāla himself. Kāla is a Sanskrit word meaning both “black” and “time”. It refers to the concept of Space and Time, which is traditionally referred to as one word rather than two separate concepts of Space (darkness) and Time.

• In Java, Sumatra, Cambodia, etc, it is called Kāla or sometimes Banaspati (‘King of the Woods’). The Kirtimukha with the Makara-Torana sprouting from it, is found in Java and Sumatra as the Kalamakara Torana. In Bali, the motif is today called Bhoma.

• In Borobodur, the gate to the stairs is adorned with a giant head, making the gate look like the open mouth of the giant. Many gates in Javanese traditional buildings have this kind of ornament. Perhaps the most detailed Kāla face in Java is on the south side of Candi Kalasan.

• In Bali, the Kirtimukha is called Bhoma and has has the same function as the Javanese Kala which act as a guardian spirit of the temple complex.

• In Javanese mysticism, the god Kāla is the cause of the solar and lunar eclipses and the husband of Durga. He is represented as a giant, born of Batara Guru, the King of the gods.

The words kirti and kirtan are derived from the Sanskrit root, krit, meaning ‘celebrating, praising’. The latter half of the compound, mukha, means literally a face. Is is also sometimes called Kirtivaktra, as mukha and vaktra are synonyms. The word kirti in Sanskrit has the meaning of ‘temple’ too.

The motif was originally employed in Shiva temples. It was later used both as an ornament and also as a sign to distinguish Siva temples from others. But when the rivalry between the Shaivites and the Vaishnavites increased, the Shaivite architects used it as an emblem to distinguish their temples and buildings from those of the Vaishnavites.

It is generally placed at the entrance doors in the center of the lintels so as to easily attract the attention of the devotees. Sometimes it is to be found on the pilasters and the corners of the ceilings of the roofs or on the head-dresses of the images of deities.

In temples, the passage to the last and most holy court for all prayers is only possible through the open mouth of the Kirtimukha. This step is meant as symbolic death and as cleansing supposition for anyone wishing to get closer to the gods and to Shiva.

In Bali, the head of Bhoma is carved both at the temple gate which marks the entrance to the holiest part of the shrine (paduraksa) and at the base of the padmasana, the holiest and most central shrine in Balinese temples.

When located at the bottom of the padmasana, Karang Bhoma is a guardian spirit of the sacred padmasana which also symbolizes the forest at the foot of the mountain.

Kirtimukha is described in the Skanda Purana, where Shiva ordained to represent it at the lintel of the sanctum of the Lord and noted that whosoever worship the Kirtimukha would acquire the benevolent grace of the Lord. Most famous manuals of architecture such as the Manasara have prescribed it.

Kirtimukha is also found above sculptures of gods, forming an arch of vegetation, which erupt from his mouth and flow from his Crown chakra. It is then interpreted as the ‘king of the jungle’ and equated as vegetation or forest (vanaspati) which grows in the soil (earth) and obtaining water (rain). Europe knows him as the Green Man.

In Java and Bali, Banaspati (Vanaspati) is the king of the plant kingdom. The name Bhoma came from the Sanskrit word bhauma, which means “something that grows” or “is born from earth”.

The significance of the Kirtimukha is described in the 17 th chapter of the Skanda Purana:

“There was a very powerful king of the Daityas named Jalandara. He had conquered all the three worlds. At that time, the great Lord, Siva, had intended to wed Parvati, the daughter of the king of the Himalayas. Jalandara, incensed with pride, sent a messenger to Siva and contemptuously commanded the latter to give up his claims for Parvati’s hand.

For, the beggar-Siva, so thought Jalandara, was not a proper match for the lovely princess who could but be a spouse of such a great king as himself. When the courier, Rahu, delivered the message to Siva, the great god became so angry that a terrible being shot forth from between the eye-brows of the Lord.

The being was roaring like thunder, and had a face like that of a lion, a protruding tongue, eyes burning with fire and its hair raised upwards. Though it had an emaciated body, it seemed like another Narasimha, the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu, in strength. The terrible being ran up to eat Rahu, whereupon the latter prayed to Lord Siva to save him.

Siva dissuaded the being from eating up Rahu, but the being complained to Siva of intense hunger and begged him for food. Siva ordered the being to appease its hunger by eating its own flesh; and the being forthwith did the same, leaving only its face intact.

This pleased the Lord Siva, very much; and he addressed the terrible face which had saved his honour that thenceforth it would be known as ‘Kirtimukha.’ Further, it was ordained that the ‘Kirtimukha’ should always remain at the doorways of Siva temples, and that whosoever failed to worship the ‘Kirtimukha’ would never acquire Siva’s grace. That is the reason why the ‘Kirtimukha’ has had a permanent place on the doorways of Siva temples.”

Esoteric meaning

The Kirtimukha is symbolic of our thoughtless pursuit of worldly possessions and pleasures, even at the risk of damaging and destroying ourselves and has been placed prominently in places of worship to remind us: “Until you recognize the existence of this avaricious nature in you and conquer over it, your spiritual quest can not even begin.”

The Kirtimukha is a personification of the attribute called ‘Glory’ aka pride, arrogance, in short, ego. The kirtimukha serves as a reminder to everybody that sees it, that ego, is essentially self destructive. Ego, eats itself, sustains upon its own self. Ego sustains itself by consuming everything in the person it whom it resides, the person’s sense, intellect, discretion, everything.

In Jungian terms, Kirtimukha is a personification of the Shadow (or some aspects of it). Kirtimukha is thus a threshold guardian to maturity, to the deepening of wisdom.

In the Dharmic cosmology, the asuras (demons) are cousins of the gods, and indeed are created from the same cosmic material. They are demonic however, because they identify the Self with the body.

All their cosmic power is perverted in finding ever fresher ways to satisfy the material consciousness. That gets them in self-destructive trouble over the long term, though in the short term they create some trouble of their own.

“One such asura suddenly got it into his mind that since he was the strongest being in the universe, he deserved the most beautiful woman existing. This sort of logic is typical asura, but for them to think is to act. He turned up at the abode of Siva the great God himself, and peremptorily demanded possession of Siva’s wife Parvati. Now Parvati is the Great Goddess, and this was stupidity on a scale that even the asura should have quailed at.

“Siva being pure consciousness, merely projected back at the asura a crystallization of his own insatiable desires. This new entity was far worse than anything the asura had seen. It was the living manifestation of a raw hunger, a world devouring flame that needed more, ever more, and was still left empty. The immensity of his own endless desire was now in front, and the asura turned and ran.

The new demon chased him, intent on eating him up, devastating and devouring all that was between him and his prey. Peril breeds perspective, and the asura realised that his only hope was Siva. According to Indian mythology, you cannot refuse to grant quarter and protection if it is asked for. So now Siva had one suitably chastened asura on his hands – as well as an enormous problem that seemed determined to eat up the universe.

“The Hunger was accepting of Siva’s mercy, but he had a problem. ’What do I eat now?‘ He was brought into being to solve a crisis, and now his own existence was jeopardised – which reflected poorly on the God. Siva came up with the sort of Trickster solution so beloved of India – ‘Why don’t you eat yourself?’

“A god’s word is worth following, even if it seems senseless and destructive, and with faith in the Lord the demon did just that. He began to chomp and champ away, beginning with his toes and working upward in a grim straight line that never wavered, never doubted and never ceased to masticate. Finally he came to the neck and that was it – he could no longer contort himself to provide any room to bite.

“Siva laughed, the earth shaking peal of pure joy the attahasam that Kalidasa said was the Himalayas – the frozen laughter of Siva.This episode was a grimly humorous illumination on the nature of life. Life feeds on life, no matter how monstrous that may seem at first glance.

Desire forms a perfect feedback loop that ends up eating even what is desired. This concept was known to the Sumerians as Ourobouros, the serpent eating its tail. Life feeds on Life. It is wildly exhilerating and liberating to realise and accept this concept, but it seems monstrous to those who have not had the experience.

“Shiva named the Hunger Kirtimukha, the immortal face of glory. Shiva, who is Constant Awareness, wants you to be aware of the real nature of the universe, to accept it. To live in the world, is to be aware of that constant hunger, and as always, Shiva or Awakended Consciousness is the only way in which you can transcend it.”

Lord Krishna warns us in the Bhagavad Gita of the dangers of succumbing to the Kirtimukha mentality:

“Learn to canalize well your mental and physical energies and guard against wastage of your inner strength in mere sense-pleasures.” Gita Ch. 3, sloka 34:

The Kirtimukha mask, similarly hiding Reality, is present in all of us. Spiritual aspirants are reminded of this stark reality and warned about its hidden power by the Kirtimukha image present everywhere in the temples.

In his book Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell narrates the story about Kirtimukha from the Shiva Purana, that is highly symbolic of the self-destructive nature of the unbridled ego-self in us.

“Let me recount now a really marvelous legend to this point, from the infinitely rich mythology of the god Shiva and his glorious world-goddess Parvati. The occasion was of a time when there came before this great divinity an audacious demon who had just overthrown the ruling gods of the world and now came to confront the highest of all with a non-negotiable demand, namely, that the god should hand over his goddess to the demon.

Well, what Shiva did in reply was simply to open that mystic third eye in the middle of his forehead, and puff! a lightning bolt hit the earth, and there was suddenly there a second demon, even larger than the first. He was a great lean thing with a lion-like head, hair waving to the quarters of the world, and his nature was sheer hunger. He had been brought into being to eat up the first, and was clearly fit to do so. The first thought: “So what do I do now?” and with a very fortunate decision threw himself upon Shiva’s mercy.

Now it is a well-known theological rule that when you throw yourself on a god’s mercy the god cannot refuse to protect you; and so Shiva had now to guard and protect the first demon from the second. And to that sun-like mask, which was now all that was left of that lion-like vision of hunger, Shiva said, exulting, “I shall call you Face of Glory, ‘Kirttimukha’, and you shall shine above the doors to all my temples. No one who refuses to honor and worship you will come ever to knowledge of me.”

Gold kirtimukha armband, Java (Majapahit era)

That is the meaning of the Kirtimukha over the entrances to the Shiva temples. The terrifying face of Kirtimukha stares at us everywhere. It is symbolic of our vain pursuit of power and pleasures, reminding us constantly:

“You know this face very well; it is the likeness of your own mind with its unbridled passions and aggressive desires. Like this demon, you too have a voracious, unlimited appetite for wealth, power, glory and the pursuit of pleasure.

You have become acquisitive, arrogant and mindless even like the demon’s nature. You have to be truly aware of this and of the raging fire residing in you which is consuming you. Put out this fire before it is too late. Only then can you really see the Lord in the idol whom you have come to worship, and realize true happiness and Bliss.”

The warning that Kirtimukha is active in us and deluding us is implied in one of Bhartruhari‘s famous shatakas:

Be Aware:

The pleasures of life are not consumed by us;
it is we that are consumed by the pleasures.

A penance is not performed by us;
we merely suffer the pain of the penance.

Time has not gone by ;
We have been carried away by time
(without our consent and away from our goal).

Our longings have not been fulfilled or exhausted;
we have been wasted by our longings