The Divine and the Dead: An Analysis of the Śava-Vāhana through images of Cāmundā and Kāli

This paper attempts to trace the historicity of the śava-vāhana (corpse as seat) represented under deities in Hinduism, primarily in the Tantric context. It focusses on two particular goddesses Cāmundā and Kāli to trace the evolution and change in the representation of the corpse, and to understand the philosophy behind its existence. As visual evidence, the archival material from the National Museum, New Delhi, has been used along with reference images from secondary literature consulted for this paper. Cāmundā and Kāli are deities found in Ancient Hindu literature of the Indian subcontinent, and both have occupied positions of importance as part of the Saptamatŗkā pantheon (in case of Cāmundā) and in the Daśa Mahāvidyā pantheon (in case of Kāli). They have been depicted in religious art both as part of the mentioned groups, or individually. However, by the early 18th century, Kali undertakes an even more popular form – that of being represented with Siva under her – a form known as Dakşiņā Kāli, eventually becoming extremely popular in Bengal and other parts of Eastern India.

By an image-to-image iconographical investigation, the paper attempts to understand whether there was a gradual evolution of the ‘Kāli-above-Śiva’ motif from ‘Cāmundā-above-Śava’ format, or whether they were two individual but related goddesses, having their separate trajectories of iconographical evolution.

The paper would begin with an iconographical description of Cāmundā and Kāli individually, borrowing from literary references as well as visual material. It would then go on to look at the motif of the ‘śava’ in particular and it’s various manifestations. The paper would conclude by an analysis of this component across images of Cāmundā and Kāli to understand the iconographical trajectory of the same.


The earliest description of Cāmundā comes from the Agni Purāņa, where eight varieties of the Goddess are enumerated. She is mentioned in Puranic literature as part of the Saptamatŗkā pantheon, who are called upon various occasions to perform protective functions on behalf of the Goddess. They aid Śiva in his battle against Andhakāsura and Śakti in her battle against Raktabīja. In both cases they prevent the blood of the demon to fall on the ground, which would otherwise lead to the multiplication of the asura. The seven mothers are said to be emanations of the Śaktis of the male gods, Cāmundā being the Śakti of Yama. But in later mythology, she becomes a manifestation of the Goddess. In the longest episode of the Devi Mahātmya, she is said to have emanated from the Great Goddess in order to defeat Canda and Munda. A detailed iconographic description is given of her:

From the knitted brows of her forehead’s surface immediately
Came forth Kāli, with her dreadful face,
Carrying sword and noose
She carried a strange skull topped staff,
And wore a garland of human head;
She was shrouded in a tiger skin, and
Looked utterly gruesome with her emaciated skin,
Her widely gaping mouth,
Terrifying with its lolling tongue,
With sunken, reddened eyes and a mouth
That filled the directions with roars. (7.5 – 7.8)1 

 Along with this, the Viśnudharmottara Purāņa mentions that Cāmundā’s seat is a dead body, and she carries a kapāla filled with lumps of flesh. She is skeletal in appearance and her hair is standing up on ends. Her abode is the funeral ground and she sits under a banyan tree, sometimes holding an elephant skin behind her2. This iconographic similarity could be a possible means of associating her with Śaivism, since she is depicted with Śiva in Tripurāntaka Murti as well. There are singular depictions of this goddess, where these iconographic conditions are met word-to-word, such as the one at National Museum, New Delhi (Figure 1). As part of the Saptamatŗkā panel, she is often depicted with an emaciated body, carrying a skull-bowl and staff, and sitting on a dead body (Figure 2).

Cāmundā sitting on a Cosmic Lotus
Figure 1: Cāmundā sitting on a Cosmic Lotus, supported by a corpse. Her top arms hold aloft the elephant skin, perhaps a means to connect her to Saivism. Sena Dynasty, 11th century. Collection of National Museum, New Delhi
Saptamatŗkā Panel, Collection of National Museum, New Delhi
Figure 2: Saptamatŗkā Panel, Collection of National Museum, New Delhi

 Figure 2: Cāmundā is depicted on the extreme right identified by her skeletal features, staff and the corpse on which she sits.

As far as her seat is concerned, all textual references point to it being just a corpse and not any manifestation of the ‘puruśa’ or ‘śiva’. In the Varāha Purāna, Śiva praises Cāmundā thus: “Thou dost remain in the vehicle of corpses. O auspicious goddess thou has a seat of corpses”. In the Kālikā Purāna, she sits upon a kabandha, and in the Sritattvanidhi, the matŗka Cāmundā has the dead body of a human being (pretāngna) as her mount3.

Moreover, the surrounding of a crematorium is enhanced in these depictions by the presence of an owl, or jackal along with cremation fires. In many cases the owl and jackal are depicted licking the corpse or nibbling at it. In other instances, figures are depicted chopping off body parts of the corpse, or attacking it with weapons (Figures 3). The reasons for such depictions are unknown, but it could be just a mere devise to heighten the atmosphere of the cremation ground. Such depictions make it clear that the mount of Cāmundā is intended to be just a corpse/ghost/preta, capable of being licked at or attacked, and capable of supporting the goddess. However, in the case of Kāli, the corpse evolves into the symbolic depiction of Puruśa and eventually to Mahākāla/Śiva.

Cāmundā, 12th century, Madhya Pradesh. Collection of National Museum, New Delhi
Figure 3: Cāmundā, 12th century, Madhya Pradesh. Collection of National Museum, New Delhi

Figure 3: Cāmundā isn’t shown with an emaciated body here, and is given multiple weapons. With her front arms, she mixes wine in a bowl and is also given an attendant. The only way to recognize her as Cāmundā is through the corpse on which she stands. Here the corpse is shown being attacked by a chisel and hammer of sorts.


The development of Kāli from perhaps a generic term meaning ‘dark’, to a tribal goddess worshipped by bandits on the fringes of society, to one of the most important Mahāvidyās has been long and eventful. Scholar David Console, however, believes that this growth and acceptance of the goddess in mainstream Hinduism was not smooth, but rather ‘reluctant and grudging’4. The earliest references to Kāli dates to literature of around the 6th century CE. They usually place her on the periphery of society or on the battlefield. The Agni and Garuda Purānas invoke Kāli for success in war and other such victories. She is said to have an awful appearance: she is gaunt, has fangs, laughs loudly, dances madly, wears a garland of corpses, sits on the back of a ghost (preta) and lives in the cremation ground. When compared with the iconography, this description seems very close to Cāmundā. It is also possible that initially, the terms ‘Cāmundā’ and ‘Kāli’ were used interchangeably, since both were assimilated into the Hindu pantheon from tribal goddesses with similar iconographic traits.

Kāli’s most famous appearance in the battle-field is found in the Devi Mahātmya, where she ‘comes on her own’ as an individual Śākta goddess. It is the same episode as mentioned in the case of Cāmundā – the Goddess creates Kāli who is then renamed Cāmundā after she vanquishes the demons Canda and Munda. Here too, the form is the one that iconographically corresponds to Cāmundā. It may be surmised that at least till the time of the Devi Mahātmya, the two goddesses ‘Kāli’ and ‘Cāmundā’ were one and the same, both in turn being manifestations of the Great Goddess – Devi.

Etymologically her name may be traced to the Vedic and later Vedic texts, but perhaps, as a generic word for ‘dark-skinned’. The word Kāli has been used in early texts generically like ‘Devi’, in order to bring together various regional goddesses under one name. Pratapaditya Pal contends that the iconography of Kāli borrows much from these various regional goddess as well as the Vajrayāna pantheon. Since Vajrayāna Buddhism was losing ground in Bengal after the 12th century CE, many Buddhist deities were absorbed in the Hindu fold ( A more prominent example of this process being the goddess Tara)5.

By the 14th century, Kāli begins to occupy a more prominent position in the Tantra traditions of Bengal. It is now that a distinct iconographic form of her develops, popularized across the country mostly through miniature paintings and later popular prints. Though still naked and dark, she acquires a fuller, even sensuous bodily form, highly distinct from the emaciated and terrifying Cāmundā. As David Kinsley remarks in his work, this Kāli is terrifying, awe-inspiring, humbling, yet at the same time arousing. Many texts written in Eastern India at this time include manuals for her worship, describe her appearance, mantra, and give hymns in her praise. In texts like the Tantrasāra, Kāli Tantra, Śākta Pramoda, she plays a central role and is said to have many forms.

 In the earlier texts like Garuda and Agni Purāna, she was said to be a resident of cremation ground, riding on a ‘preta’ and garlanded by dead bodies. By the time of the composition of Kāli Tantra and Svatantra Tantra in the late medieval period, Kāli manifests into various forms and an elaborate iconography develops around each one of them. By the time the Tantrasāra is composed in the 17th century CE, one of these manifestations, called Dakşiņā Kāli, becomes a pre-eminent goddess in Eastern India, primarily Bengal. She is also the Ādi Mahāvidyā in the Daśa Mahāvidyā pantheon, and is the only one among all ten to have an individual cultic following and a well-developed mythology.

 Pratapaditya Pal, in his work Hindu Religion and Iconology according to the Tantrasāra describes her in great detail. She is black in color, has four arms, she holds a sword and a decapitated head on the left hands, and is bestowing Varada and Abhaya mudra with her right. She wears a garland of severed heads dripping blood, and a girdle of severed arms, along with corpses of dead infants as her earrings. She is said to be seated on Śiva as a corpse but at the same time is said to be copulating with Mahakāla in ‘viparita rati’6. Represented in the image illustrated here from the collection of National Museum, Delhi, and in reference to the literary evidence, it might be argued that the corpse/ghost (preta) mentioned as seat under Kali in the Purāna has evolved into Śiva by the time of the Tantrasāra. There are also images where Siva is shown erect, with Kali seated above him, keeping it absolutely in relation to the iconographic description (Figures 4, 5 and 6).

Dakşiņā Kāli, Orissa, 17th century, Bronze. Collection of National Museum, Delhi
Figure 4: Dakşiņā Kāli, Orissa, 17th century, Bronze. Collection of National Museum, Delhi

Figure 4: Here the iconography corresponds exactly with that given in the Tantrsāra – Kāli being shown with four arms, wearing corpses as earrings, holding the head and the sword and involved in sexual copulation with Śiva lying as a corpse.

Dakşiņā Kāli, Mandi School, 16th century. Collection of National Museum, New Delhi.
Figure 5: Dakşiņā Kāli, Mandi School, 16th century. Collection of National Museum, New Delhi.

Figure 5: Although everything else matches with the iconographic canon from the Tantrasāra, the figure under Kāli is not depicted as Siva, but rather a human with a yantra drawn on his chest. In Tatric practices, the practitioner often identifies himself as the ‘Puruśa’, and carries out rituals towards his individual Goddess. This could be an instance of that where the Tantric practitioner has identified himself with Śiva lying under his chosen Goddess Kāli.

Dakşiņā Kāli, Punjab Hills, Kangra, 19th century. Collection of the Walters Art Museum, Maryland.
Figure-6: Dakşiņā Kāli, Punjab Hills, Kangra, 19th century. Collection of the Walters Art Museum, Maryland.

Figure 6:  Dakşiņā Kāli standing on the erect Śiva, who in turn is lying on a cremation pyre. Other Gods are seen paying obeisance to her in the far distance, on the right corner of the painting.

It is probable that over time the image was ‘sanitized’ to depict Śiva lying like a corpse with Kali just standing above. There are also images of Śiva lying on top of another corpse, thus perhaps, illustrating the point mentioned in Tantrasāra – that of Kāli seated on top of Śiva as corpse and at the same time copulating with Mahākāla. (Figure 7).

The overwhelming presence of death imagery in all depictions of Kāli may also be interpreted as symbolizing the transformative nature of the goddess, and hence her association with ultimate knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment.

The philosophical and symbolical meaning of the corpse and of the pun used between the terms

‘Śiva’ and ‘Śava’ would be explained in the following section.

Śava to Śiva?

Thomas Donaldson has analysed the śava-vāhan in temples of Orissa extensively, and has come up with various modes of its depiction. Of particular interest to this paper is the depiction of the corpse under a cosmic lotus, on which the deity is seated. In such cases, the Cosmic Lotus (Viśva-padma) is shown emerging from the navel of the corpse (Figures 9, 10), the stalk of the lotus being connected to the torso of the corpse. Although the cosmic lotus is shown as a seat for most Brahmanical and Buddhist deities, there is at least one textual source that prescribes it for Cāmundā– the Amsumadbhedāgama7. As in the case of Viśnu supporting Brahmā on a similar lotus emerging from his navel, the corpse here is considered to be the Nirguna-Brāhmana8. Just as the setting of the cremation ground for the deity is metaphorical, so is the corpse: it is not a mere body, but the inactive Puruśa, while the goddess as Prakŗtī is the primordial Śakti.

It is not quite clear when the transformation of Śava to Śiva occurs, but the Kālikā Purāna refers to the corpse as Śiva in the description of Mahāmāyā Kāmākhyā (60.52 – 70), where her mounts are a white ghost (Mahādeva), Red Lotus (Brahmā) and Lion (Hari)9. By the 14th century, as evident in the Bŗhaddharma Purāna (25.12 – 17), a new concept of Kāli emerges and the iconography is firmly established. As noted above, she is described as seated on a corpse identified as Mahādeva. Once this form of Kāli was accepted in the Hindu pantheon myths were created around her, to given the icon the Brahmanical ‘legitimation’ as such. The Dakşiņā Kāli form thus emerges, and the corpse in this case signifies the corpse of the ruined universe. In the mahāpralaya, after Kāli swallows everything that exists in the universe, she stands upon ‘non-existence’. As A. Danieloue suggests, this lifeless body of Śiva is whatever is left of the manifested universe when it reverts back to the sole control of eternal time10.

 Śiva as corpse, as indicated, represents Puruśa, while Kāli represents the Prkŗtī. According to Sānkhya philosophy, Puruśa is neither producer nor produced, but passive, and a looker upon the actions of Prkŗtī. In tantric texts the ‘corpse-like’ (Śava-Rupa) body of Śiva is white because:

He is the illuminating transcendental aspect of consciousness. He is inert, because he is the changeless aspect of the Supreme, and She, the apparently changing aspect of the same.11

In some cases, two figures are represented below Kāli (Figure 7). Woodroffe, in his work Śakti and Śākta says that “the upper figure is Śiva (Sakala) who is awake, because he is associated with his Power as efficient and material cause…His Śakti being now creative. He lies inert, for He is Immutable Being. He is white because he is Consciousness and Illumination (Prakāśa)…Under him is another male figure, darker in color, to represent the colorless (vivarna) with closed eyes. This mysterious figure (Niśkala Śiva) is called Sava or the Corpse. It illustrates the doctrine that Śiva without his Śakti can do and is, so far as the manifest is concerned, nothing.”12


Although textual sources do not identify the corpse under Cāmundā and it mostly remains anonymous, at some point in time, the corpse begins to be identified as Puruśa. It is represented by the change in visual imagery from just a corpse whose body is being nibbled at by jackals, to a corpse who issues the Viśva-padma for the Goddess to sit on. With the late medieval period and the effective entry of Kāli into the Brahmanic pantheon, the corpse under Cāmundā inspires the icon of Śiva under Kāli. An appropriate philosophy is also constructed around this shift that explains how Śiva without his Śakti/Kāli is nothing more than a Śava. The depictions of inverse sexual congress between Kāli and Śiva is another way of illustrating the same point. As Dakşiņā Kāli gained prominence and popularity in Eastern India, this image of Śiva and Kāli was ‘sanitised’ as evident in popular lithographed prints to depict Kāli just standing on Śiva.


Kāli, Palur, Orissa, 18th century.
Figure 7:Kāli, Palur, Orissa, 18th century.

Kāli here is show involved in reverse-copulation with the figure on top, supposed to be Mahākāla. Mahākāla, in turn, is lying on another figure, probably representing the dormant Puruśa.

Kāli on Śiva, Lithograph from Ravi Varma Press, 19th century.
Figure 8: Kāli on Śiva, Lithograph from Ravi Varma Press, 19th century.

A ‘sanitised’ version of Dakşiņā Kāli where she is depicted just standing on Siva removing all sexual connotations. In popular Bengali culture, a new myth was woven around this iconography that explained the posture and why her tongue was shown out.

Cosmic Lotus arising from the navel of the corpse/Śava as Puruśa. Kapotesvara Temple, Orissa, 10th century.
Figure 9: Cosmic Lotus arising from the navel of the corpse/Śava as Puruśa. Kapotesvara Temple, Orissa, 10th century.


Śava as Puruśa depicted under the Goddess.  Devgram, Orissa. 11th century.
Figure 10:Śava as Puruśa depicted under the Goddess. Devgram, Orissa. 11th century.


1 Jackie Menzies, Goddess Divine Energy. Catalogue of Exhibition in the Australian Institute of Asian Culture and Visual Arts (Michigan: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2006), 109. 
2 Bhattashali, Iconography of Buddhist and Brahmanical Deities in the Dacca Museum, 54.
3 Donaldson, The Sava-Vahana as Purusa in Orissan Images, 131.
4 David Console, The Sword and The Flute, 231.
5 Pratapaditya Pal, Hindu Religion and Iconology according to the Tantrasara, 66-66.
6 Ibid.
7 Donaldson, Sava Vahana As Purusa in Orissan Images, 124.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Alain Danieloue, Hindu Polytheism, 271-71.
11 Woodroffe, Sakti and Sakta, 331.
12 Ibid, 267.


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