Sphinx of India, purushamriga, in the Chidambaram Nataraja temple
Sphinx of India

The purushamriga (Indian sphinx) plays a role in many ancient stories and in the Mythology of several temples. Most frequently the purushamriga is found in one version of the great Indian epic the Mahabharata. The Mahabharata recounts of the conflict between two branches of an ancient royal family. But it is especially an allegory of the struggle between good and evil.

5 brothers, the sons of king Pandu, and collectively called the Pandavas, are the heroes of this epic. The oldest brother is Yudhistira, also called Dharmaraja, king of justice, because of his strict adherence to truth and justice. The other brothers were Arjuna, Bhima, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva.

Bhima, the third brother, was known for his great strength. The episode of the Mahabharata which involves the purushamriga recounts of a challenge and a race between the purushamriga and Bhima.

Although this episode is not found in the conventionally accepted edition of the Mahabharata, and is now almost forgotten, it was once a well-known and popular episode in India. Many depictions all across India of the purushamriga show incidents of this legend. And many temple traditions include this story in their Mythology and in the oral tradition. The purushamriga is also found in the tradition of dance and drama, in astr, and as the banner symbol of a group of people.

There exists even a yearly pilgrimage involving 12 special Shiva temples which commemorates this event from the Mahabharata.

A more detailed account of this episode, and some of the variations found among the traditions of several temples can be found in the chapter on the Mahabharata and the sphinx-purushamriga.


The other great Indian epic, the Ramayana, also includes an episode involving the purushamriga. When the sons of Lord Rama and Sita leave the ashram of Vasishtha to go in search of their father, they meet the purushamriga on the way. This story from the Ramayana has come to me through the oral tradition. I have not as yet discovered any textual source.


One legend recounts the role of the purushamriga in the events surrounding the birth of Tamasa Manu, one of the earlier Manus or human ancestors.


The sphinx plays a significant role in the traditions of several temples. In the Nataraja tempe in Chidambaram devotees who enter the temple will look at the purushamriga before continuing towards the central shrine. According to the tradition they remove sins and impurities. The same is said of purushamriga placed at the entrances of the Shiva temples of Kalahasti and Tiruvatavur. In all three temples the purushamriga is said to have come there after it attended the Rajasuya yajña of the Pandava kings. The Shiva temple of the village of Tirumazhapadi is according to its tradition founded by the purushamriga. Also the origin of the 12 Shiva temples that belong to the tradition of the run for the Shivaratri festival is connected to the purushamriga.