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One bird, two heads

You saw the wedding pictures. Now read the mythical story of the two-headed bird on Deepika Padukone’s wedding sari

India’s architectural history is rife with innovative and ornate decorative motifs. The spillover of such motifs on to the subcontinent’s textiles was a happy happenstance. So the lotus medallion, amalaka (decorative stone disc on top of a temple shikhara), kalgi/kalanga (paisley) all found their way onto saris.

The Gandabherunda (mythical two-headed bird) is one such motif and was recently spotted on Bollywood star Deepika Padukone’s wedding sari designed by Bengaluru atelier Angadi Galleria. Featuring on Deepika’s attire might be the highlight of the motif’s popularity trajectory but the Gandabherunda has a long and fascinating history.

Like several temple architectural motifs, the Gandabherunda (literally, the warrior bird from ganda (warrior) and bherunda (fierce/species of birds) also had Buddhist origins. John Marshall, a colonial archaeologist, found a two-headed bird motif on the base of a stupa in Taxila, with one head looking ahead and one looking behind.

A similar motif, with Hamsa (swan/goose) heads, was found etched on a railing of a stupa in Bodh Gaya. Given its passant (walking with front foot raised) iconography, Marshall largely attributed its origins to the two-headed eagle motif of the Near-Eastern region. Yet, closer to home, the mythology is full of the bherunda bird.

Valentina Stache-Rosen, a German indologist, relates its origins to a Buddhist oral lore that narrates: One of the heads of the bherunda bird was Garuda and the other Upagaruda. When one slept, the other kept awake. Once Upagaruda was sleeping and Garuda came upon a delicious flower, which he ate without informing Upagaruda. When the sleeping brother awoke, he realised what had happened and was furious. In vengeance, Upagaruda ate a poisonous flower and both of them died.

Perhaps this is why the Panchatantra regards it as a symbol of unity, where the disunited are warned that they will “perish just like the Bherunda bird.” In the Mahabharata, they appear on the battlefield with spirits and demons, while in the Jaina texts they are watchful, set ships afloat by flapping their powerful wings and know of remedies for grievous afflictions.

Interestingly, Stache-Rosen informs us that Bherunda is also the name of a Shakta deity and this might also be the reason why there is an anthropomorphic form of the Gandabherunda, with the body of a man and two bird heads.

It is this anthropomorphic Ganda-bherunda that makes its first known appearance on the monuments of South India in the Jagadekamallasvara temple in Karnataka’s Shimoga district. Patronised by the Chalukya rulers of Kalyani, the Gandaherunda is etched on a tall pillar fronting the temple. Colonial surveyors record the figure as crushing an elephant in its talons, an iconography that matches with the legend in the adjoining fields, that the Gandabherunda protects the farmers’ fields from getting ravaged by wild elephants.

Its fierceness therefore lent the Gandabherunda apotropaic functions and this is why it mostly figures in liminal spaces in temples. The promise of powerful protection made Gandabherunda a title fit for the kings. The Hoysala (feudatories of the Chalukyas) ruler Vira Ballala Deva II, had Gandabherunda as one of his many titles.

The popularity of the motif can be attested by this well-known South Indian legend which states that in order to control Vishnu in his Narasimha avatar (half man, half lion), Shiva assumed the avatar of another mythical beast, Sarabha (part lion part bird). The fight ended when Vishnu assumed the form of a Gandabherunda and conquered the Sarabha. This legend led to the depiction of the motif on Hoysala temples, at times crushing a Sarabha, which in turn is devouring a lion, who is in turn destroying an elephant.


The Sangamas, feudatories of the Hoysalas and founders of the Vijayanagara kingdom, were more biased towards the zoomorphic Gandabherunda, with wings and mostly crushing an elephant. Interestingly, the Vijayanagara king, Devaraya II was called Gajagandabherunda (hunter of elephants) in his coins. It is possible that the elephant analogy referred to Vijayanagara’s rival kingdom, the Gajapatis of Orissa.

The Vijayanagara kings put the winged Gandabherunda on their coins, ornaments and on temple columns, ceilings, and gopurams (gateways). Vanquished by the combined forces of the Deccan sultanates, the Vijayanagara kingdom’s successor Nayakas inherited not only its administrative ethos but also the Gandabherunda. The Mysore Nayaka, Chikkadeva Raja was awarded the title of Gandabherunda by the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb. The motif became an emblem of the Mysore state and now also adorns the emblem of the state of Karnataka.

Both these emblems have a heraldic Gandabherunda, with wings aflutter, a feature that is unmistakeably Vijayanagara-esque. The kingdom’s closeness to the Portuguese traders possibly brought them in contact with the emblem of the Habsburg Empire, sporting the heraldic two headed eagle. The heraldic Gandabherunda apart from being depicted on the Virabhadra temple can also be seen on the textiles (especially saris) possibly woven by Mysore state artisans for the royal family.

Brigette Khan Majlis informs us that another set of textiles found in Indonesia, preserved as an heirloom by the descendants of a noble family, features the Gandabherunda head on at least four drapes. These textiles were carbon dated to the 15th-16th century and have been stylistically linked to South India. The Gandabherundas depicted here have ferocious teeth and are devouring an elephant each.

Imbued with a sense of the sacred and powers to avert the evil eye, the Gandabherunda could have possibly been a choice wear for women in royal weddings. Given its earlier popularity, the motif is now rarely a design of choice for wedding attire. However, with Deepika Padukone making Gandabherundas fashionable, the motif might just get back in vogue.