Kāla in Candi Kidal, Java

The Kirtimukha or ‘Face of Glory’, is a ferocious monster face with protruding eye-balls, huge fangs and gaping mouth found in temple architecture allover Asia. The Kirthimukha is a protector deity, a guardian warding the edifices off all evils.

Kirti is derived from the Sanskrit root krit, meaning ‘celebrating, praising’. Mukha means ‘face’. Kirti in Sanskrit also means ‘temple’.

The motif is often found on the lintels of the gates, at the corners of the pillars, surmounting the pinnacle of a temple tower or in the iconography of a deity. It is present in all forms of Asian art:

• In India the Kirtimukha is generally a lion form, sometimes known as Simha-mukha. In Orissa, they are called Rahur-Mukher-Mala. In Gujarat, the Kirtimukha is often called Graspati.

• In China it is a dragon form with a python’s body and a demon head, known as taotie (‘Monster of Greed’).

• In Tibetan Buddhism, the Kirtimukha are the Buddha’s guardians.

In its more esoteric meaning, it is also an effigy of the god Kāla himself. Kāla in Sanskrit means both “black” and “time” and refers to both concepts of Space and Time simultaneously.

• In Java, Sumatra and Cambodia, it is called Kāla or sometimes Banaspati (‘King of the Woods’). The Kāla with the Makara-Torana sprouting from it is found in Java and Sumatra as the Kalamakara Torana. Many gates in Javanese traditional buildings feature Kāla. In Borobodur, the gate to the stairs is adorned with a giant head, making the gate look like the open mouth of the giant.

• In Bali, the motif is today called Bhoma and has has the same function as the Javanese Kāla as a guardian spirit of the temple.

• In Javanese mysticism, Kāla is the cause of the solar and lunar eclipses and is the consort of Durga.

The motif is especially present in Shiva temples. It is placed at the entrance doors so as to  attract the attention of the devotees. Sometimes it is to be found on the pillars  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 most holy courts is only possible through the open mouth of the Kāla. This step is meant as symbolic death and as cleansing 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 sacred padmasana, Karang Bhoma is a guardian spirit of the shrine, which also symbolizes the forest at the foot of the mountain.

Kirtimukha is described in the Skanda Purana, where Shiva ordered it to be represented at the lintel of the sanctum. It is thus prescribed in famous manuals of architecture such as the Manasara.

Kirtimukha is also found above sculptures of deities, forming an arch of vegetation erupting from his mouth and from his crown chakra. It is then interpreted as the deity of vegetation and of 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, 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 ‘glory’ aka pride, arrogance, in short, ego. The kirtimukha serves as a reminder to everybody that ego is essentially self destructive. Ego sustains itself by consuming everything in the person it whom it resides. Kirtimukha is thus a threshold guardian to maturity, to the deepening of wisdom.

In Dharmic cosmology, the asuras (demons) are cousins of the gods, and are created from the same cosmic material. They are demonic however, because they identify the Self with the body. All their power is perverted in finding ways to satisfy their material consciousness.

“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. […]

“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 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.

“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