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Nandi in Indian Tradition

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The bull also known as Vrishabha in Sanskrit and Basava in Kannada has a hoary antiquity and tradition in India. With the introduction of mythology, he was elevated to the position of Nandi, the vehicle or the vahana of Shiva. There is a unique story regarding his birth. Actually he was found when the sage Silada was digging the ground for sacrifice. Siva was pleased by his penance and gave him Nandi and made him the chief of the ganas. Thus he was obliged by Shiva by making him his Vahana.

It is said, he was the gift of Kamadhenu and hence she is considered as his mother. There is no temple of Shiva without Nandi in it. In later period mandapas were built exclusively for Nandi called Nandi Mandapa to house the image of Nandi. On many sculptures Shiva is shown as riding bull.
The earliest historical evidence to the worship of bull is found in the Indus valley culture. The artistic quality of the bulls represented in Indus seals is never surpassed in Indian art. With a strong body, notable hump, tall horns and drooping chin, the animal looks dignified and evokes respect. In another seal the bull is protected by a cobra; still another shows bull protecting a tree. It is worth remembering that Pashupati seal and Shivalingas have been found at Indus cities. Thus the cult of Nandi goes back to 5000 years.

The Bull by its exalted position in Hindu tradition influenced Buddhism also. The Saranath capital of Ashoka (which is our national emblem) has on its abacus a bull along with other animals between dharmachakra. Ashoka also erected a tall pillar of stone at a place called Rampurva on which is found a fine sculpture of bull. Bull is also found in other places in Buddhist art.

With the development of Siva temples, sculptures of Nandi became quite popular. Adorning Siva temples with huge bulls became a practice. A Vijayanagara temple at Lepakshi in Ananthapur district of Andhra Pradesh has a Virabhadra temple built in 1538 AD. In the Nandi Mandapa of this temple is a huge Nandi 15 ft tall and 22 ft long and is considered to be the biggest image of Nandi in South India. The Nandi image (1659 AD) at Chamundi Hill is 16ft in height and hence taller than the image at Lepakshi. Nandi image at Srikanteshwara temple is 5 ft tall and was erected in 1644 AD.

Smaller Nandi images are found in Siva temples at many places such as Kalahasti, Srishaila, Tanjore, Banavasi, Halebid etc. Nandi crossed our borders along with Shiva and is found in temples of South East Asia like Kambuja, Java etc.

Nandi was chosen as a symbol on the punch-marked coins of 400 BC which were in circulation throughout the country. The Maharathi rulers of Banavasi, Chitradurga and Karwar minted coins with Nandi on them. The Kushanas minted gold coins with Shiva and Nandi on them. The Satavahana and Pallavas coins also show the portrait of Nandi on them. The Nolamba coins show a highly artistic Nandi on them. Many Vijayanagara Kings (Harihara II, Devaraya I, Krishnadevaraya) minted copper coins with Nandi on them. Shivappa Nayaka of Keladi also issued similar coins. Mughal emperor Jahagir's Zodiac gold coin representing Vrishabha rashi has Nandi on it.

Among the Zodiac signs, bull is represented in the second rasi namely Vrishabha. This constellation appears like the front portion of a charging bull and pictorially the eyes of the bull are represented by a reddish star (Rohini).

Because of the exalted position of Nandi in our tradition, people were eager to associate the place - names with Nandi. Nandi, a village in Chikkaballapur, is famous for Bhoganandishvara temple. Nandidurga is a famous hill station and a historical place. Mahatma Gandhi stayed here to recuperate his health. It has many bungalows built by the British officers like Cubbon, Cunningham. Nanditavare is another famous village in Harihara taluk. Nandihalli is another famous village. Mythologically Nandigrama is a place where Bharata is said to have worshipped the sacred sandals of Sri Rama. Nandighosha refers to the chariot of Arjuna.

Nandivarma, Nandideva and Nandisena are popular names of kings of many Indian dynasties. Nandikeshvara was the name of a great musicologist of Karnataka. Nandinatha was a poet of Karnataka (1745 AD). Other personal names are Nandimatha, Nandiyanna, Nandiyakka, Nandishwara etc. Related names like Virshabhendrappa or Vrishabhendra Swamy are also popular. However, the personal names associated with Basava are highly popular. Basavanna or Basaveshwara, the founder of Veerasaivism, is a celebrated name. Basappa, Basanna, Basamma with additions like Vira, Dodda, Chikka are quite popular in Karnataka.

In our own city, Basappa Memorial Hospital is on the lips of everybody. Basavanagudi in Bangalore is a famous locality where there is a temple of Basava almost as big as Chamundi Hill Nandi, which was established during the time to Kempe Gowda. The road adjacent to it is referred to as Bull Temple road even now. Nandini is the name of a stream which flows near Kigga (Sringeri). Karnataka Milk Federation has aptly given the name Nandini to its milk and milk products. Actually Nandini refers to Homadhenu of the sage Vasistha. Nandibattalu is the name of a flower. Nandi is the name of a tree, the wood of which is used for construction of houses, boats etc.

Nandi dhwaja is an important folk form in which importance is given to the dhwaja or the flag. Basically this is a religious dance symbolizing Nandi, the Vahana of Siva. It has a tall shaft or a stick on the top of which flutters the flag which shows the superiority of Shaivism. The devotees dance with this shaft tied to their body or head. It is believed that Nandikesvara took this form and came down to earth to punish the wicked and to protect the good. It is also referred to as Nandi Kamba or Nandi Kolu. Even today Nandi dhwaja will be at the forefront of the Dasara procession in Mysore.

Prof. A.V. Narasimha Murthy,
Former Head,
Department of Ancient History & Archaeology,
University of Mysore.

Courtesy: Star of Mysore

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