Varna Sutra - Yalis: Divine Defenders
As most of the world is in lockdown, and we all navigate this uncertain and rapidly evolving climate, Kanakavalli turns to the ornamentation of the kanjivaram to find a symbol for the times. In this special edition of Varna Sutra, we delve into the exquisite and fierce beauty of the yali—a mythical creature, a beloved motif of the kanjivaram, and a powerful symbol of protection.
The traditional arts of South India, from architecture and sculpture to textile and painting, are extraordinarily rich in symbolism, and the kanjivaram is no exception. The ornamentation within each of these artistic creations is never coincidental, and rarely a purely aesthetic effort. In fact, the representation of a pattern or a motif almost always has a two-fold function—decorative and symbolic. And the symbolism runs deep: drawing on ancient forms and sacred meanings.
Nature has long been a source of inspiration for the arts, and nowhere is this more evident than in the verses of Sangam poetry, the earliest known literature of South India. In the works of this period, the natural world in all its beauty becomes the vehicle of expression for themes of love and longing, heroism and war. The poets paint exquisite pictures with words, drawing on the rich diversity of landscapes and life; describing earth and sky, flowers and birds, seasons and sunsets. Even today, nature continues to be an important anchor for Tamil culture and its art forms.
The kanjivaram craft brings nature to life in fine silk, while also drawing on the history, culture and mythology of South India. Here too, the motif goes beyond aesthetic ornamentation, and is woven onto the sari’s drape with intention—guarding the weaver against the evil eye, or lending a sense of the sacred to ritual occasions. And one of the most powerful symbols of protection found on the kanjivaram is the yali, a mythical creature that is most often depicted as part-lion, part-elephant and part-horse. In this time of uncertainty, we find solace in the beauty of the kanjivaram, through the rich symbolism of the yali.
The magnificent Kailasanthar temple in Kanchipuram, with guardian yalis sculpted into the pillars. Image credit here.
The yali, also called vyala, is a ubiquitous motif in the medieval temples of India, particularly in the South. Some early appearances date back to the Pallava dynasty—in the rock caves and monolithic structures of Mamallapuram, and the temples of Kanchipuram. In the world famous Meenakshi Amman Temple of Madurai, the thousand-pillar hall is richly carved with yalis.
Above: The Yali Mandapam at Mammalapuram, South India. Image credit here.
The yali travelled west to the Vijayanagara Empire in the 14th century, and became a key motif in the exquisite temple architecture of the region, particularly visible in present-day Hampi. From there it spread beyond, and is found in temples across Karnataka, as well as in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.
Temple architecture combines structural function with aesthetic detail. The yali defines spaces, carved into pillars and marking entryways, where it acts as a ferocious guard, protecting the temple from threats, both real and imagined.
The yali, most commonly depicted with the graceful, cat-like body of a lion, the head of a horse and tusks of an elephant, is a composite leonine creature, considered more powerful than a lion or elephant. It is the personification of natural forces, stylistically rendered in art, architecture and textile. It resembles the hippogryph and sphinx of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. Its European counterparts are fantastic medieval creatures such as the griffin with the head and wings of an eagle, and the body and tail of a lion. Like these other divine creatures of myth, the yali is a symbol of strength and vigilance.
In its iconography, the yali takes on numerous forms and personalities. Often depicted on a floral pedestal in temple architecture, it is rendered in dynamic detail—galloping, swirling, prancing, or poised to leap in attack. Depicted with the heads and bodies of different animals and in different positions, the varied portrayals of the yali range from the terrifying to the more whimsical. On the kanjivaram drape, the most commonly occurring forms are the lion-headed simha yali, and the gaja yaali, with the head of an elephant.
Above: Examples of the Simha Yali (sari on left), and the Gaja Yali (sari on right) motifs woven on on the kanjivaram in striking relief in gold zari
These yalis are woven into the silk as a form of protection for the weaver—the simha yali brings its role as defender of the temple to the drape, while the gaja yali has connotations of power and intelligence. The yali is woven in intricate detail in rich zari and silken yarn on the border and pallu of the kanjivaram, occasionally dotting the body or enclosed within chakarams and paisleys. Often, it is paired with the more delicate motif of the peacock or annam, the two balancing each other in form and symbolism.
In every interpretation, the yali remains a protector. In this uncertain climate, as the world faces an unprecedented crisis, it is a symbol that inspires strength and faith.
Here, we bring you 12 forms of the yali, drawn from temple sculpture references from around India, and illustrated in intricate, stylised pen and ink beauty by artist V. Senthilkumaran -
Simha Yali: The Fierce Protector
This ferocious creature with the head of a lion is depicted standing upon a crouching elephant. One of the most recognisable forms, the Simha Yali is the protector of the temple. It is also one of the motifs woven onto the the kanjivaram drape, lending protection to the wearer.
Gaja Yali: Intelligence and Power
With the head of an elephant and body of a lion, this is the most commonly occurring yali motif; a symbol of power and intelligence. On the kanjivaram, it is intricately woven, with its tusk and trunk prominent atop the graceful, cat-like lion's body.
Nara Yali: The Face of Knowledge
The protector of dharma and knowledge, the Nara Yali, has a smiling human face on a lion’s body, and stands upon a defeated warrior or demon. The yali wears an expression of victory, representing its strength over forces of evil.
Mrga Yali: Power, Speed, Wisdom
The Mrga Yali has the horns of a deer and the body of a lion, signifying speed and wisdom. This form combines the graceful agility of the deer, with the might of the lion, and is depicted with its upper body bending and turning in a snakelike manner.
Svana Yali: Loyalty and Protection
Standing atop the figure of an elephant, the Svana Yali has the body of a lion and the head of a dog, poised to attack as it protects the sacred. The dog has connotations of loyalty and ferocity, and this form is a powerful defender.
Sardula Yali: Beauty in Ferocity
The magnificent and fierce Sardula Yali has the head of a tiger. Feared and revered, the tiger is a symbol of great power and beauty, and this form of the yali is depicted standing upon an elephant or prostrate body.
Mesha Yali: The Unifying Force
Portrayed with strings of pearls in its mouth, and a rider on its back, the Mesha Yali has the head of a sheep. It symbolises purity, strength and sacrifice; the unifying power of the divine.
Asva Yali: The Courage of the Warrior
The Asva Yali is composed of a lion’s body with a horse’s head, standing on an elephant’s back, poised to leap into the air. As the vehicle of the warrior, the horse has long been associated with raw power and vitality, making this yali a strong motif of protection.
Gandaki Yali: Freedom, Peace, Solitude
With the head of a female rhinoceros and a lion’s body, the Gandaki Yali is a terrifying force protecting against evil. In sculpture, this yali tramples upon an elephant, turning to observe its plight.
Marjara Yali: The Face of Guile
With connotations of deception and cunning, the Marjala Yali has the head of a cat and the body of a lion, at once ferocious and agile. The feline form of this yali symbolises a crafty intellect combined with the strength of a protector.
Vrika Yali: A Predator’s Nature
The Vrika Yali has the head of a wolf and the body of a lion, signifying danger and destruction through its predatory expression. This yali has the appearance of a wild, fierce warrior, in lone battle against the forces of evil
Sarpa Yali: A Symbol of Mortality
A powerful mythical creature, the Sarpa Yali has the head of a snake on the body of a lion. The snake is associated with guardianship and revenge, and this terrifying form of the yali is a symbol of immense strength.
Encompassing a gamut of emotions and qualities, the range of these fantastical guardians offer protection and safety. We hope you enjoyed this article, and our exploration of the yali - do browse through the accompanying curation of kanjivarams featuring the motif on our online store!
- For The Kanakavalli Journal, by Aneesha Bangera. Illustrations by V.Senthilkumaran
About the artist :
V. Senthilkumaran is from Tiruvannamalai, but grew up in Chennai. His first brush with art came when he discovered a collection of comics at his neighbour's house. The first time he saw a comic book, he fell in love with the line drawings and the stories told in pictures. He is still an avid reader and collector of comics.