Published in Speaking Tree, October 09, 2011


After the great war at Kurukshetra, the Pandavas were haunted by dreams of dying warriors. To help them heal and sleep well, they were advised to pour sesame oil on the image of Kartikeya that is now enshrined in the city of Pahowa in Kurukshetra district of Haryana.

Kartikeya or Kumara was once a popular god especially during the Gupta period. He was the god of warriors, resplendent on his peacock, bearing a lance in his hand and a flag displaying the image of a rooster. He was associated with the planet Mars and qualities of agressiveness. He was the patron of warrior communities. He was handsome, athletic and virile. So virile that to create him, Shiva’s seed had to be incubated in several wombs: those of fire, wind, and water, before being nurtured by the stars of the Krittika constellation, hence the name. He was six men rolled into one, hence often called the six-headed one, Shanmukha. According to some, his name Skanda linked him with Sikander, Alexander, whose love for war and blood brought him to India.

But then his popularity waned, perhaps because of the rise of monastic orders and pacifist movements. They say he shunned the company of women, and women shunned him. He was the warlord and widow-maker. In fact, one legend says, he wanted to stay away from women completely and so renounced his flesh and blood, parts of the body that come from the mother, which is why the image in Pehowa is said to be Kankal, made of bones alone.

In Maharashtra, the women worship him only on the full moon day of the month of Kartik following the Diwali-Dassera festival season. He is seen as a monk-warrior, a fierce ascetic god, who became so when his parents, Shiva and Shakti, allowed his brother Ganesha to get married before him.

So he moved south, away from his parents. And in the south, especially on the hills of Tamil Nadu, such as those in Palni, he was adored very differently. He was the boy god, the cherubic child-warrior, who was also the romantic youth, Murugan, dark and beautiful and seductive and powerful, who danced with peacocks and local tribes. He participated in epic battles against demons, accompanied by Kottravai, the local more fierece version of his warrior-mother, Durga.

In Tamil Nadu, he was associated with chastity as well as marriage. Images of the celibate warrior who held his spear in his hand were given to merchants making their sea voyages to South East Asia so that they did not lose their character on foreign shores, like common sailors. But atop the hills, in the mainland, he was seen with two wives: Sena and Valli.

Sena was the daugher of Indra, king of the gods. Indra made Kartikeya his son-in-law in gratitude for leading his armies into many a successsful battle against demons such as Taraka and Surpadman, the latter referred to only in Tamil chronciles. But the wife who fired the imagination of the local people was Valli. Tales of how the god seduced the spirited tribal lass in her father’s millet field is the stuff of many ballads.

In time, Kartikeya-Murugan became the most popular Hindu deity in Tamil Nadu, rivalling Krishna as well as his father, Shiva. He was the perfect child to mothers, a strong upright friend for men, a noble chaste warrior to married women, and the romantic youth from the north to unmarried girls. He was Subramanya, the perfect jewel, much loved by all.