Kapalika and Kalamukha

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A Hindu Sadhu drinking from a human skull.

In medieval Hinduism, the Kāpālikas ("skull bearers)" and Kālāmukhas ("black faced") were small Shaivite sects scattered throughout India who were notorious for their allegedly extreme practices, including meat-eating, intoxication, ritual orgies, and in some cases cannibalism. Each of these religious groups engaged in unconventional sexual rituals, which may be connected to Tantra. These groups flourished between the fifth and thirteenth centuries C.E.

Little conclusive evidence has been gathered pertaining to either sect, since no actual texts produced by the groups are still extant. What information does exist about the Kapalikas and Kalamukhas has been gleaned from the philosophical and dramatic works of a variety of medieval Hindu authors, in which members of the sects sometimes appear. Because of their geographical commonality and comparable obscurity, these groups have often been connected in scholarship. However, epigraphical data reveals that the Kalamukhas were organized in monastic orders and seem to have actually adhered to many societal and religious strictures, unlike the Kapalikas.



The Kapalikas ("skull-bearers") most likely originated in South India or the Deccan plateau in the fifth or sixth century C.E. when the corpus of tantric literature was just beginning to develop.[1] The Kapalikas were distributed throughout most of the Deccan plateau as early as the eighth century, most commonly found in Kanci, Mysore, western and central Maharashtra, Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. Later sources record their presence in Gujarat, Bundelkhand, and the Vindhya Hills. Post ninth-century sources affirm that the Kapalikas were even present in Northern regions, such as Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajastan, Punjab, West Pakistan and Kashmir.[2] The Kapalikas seem to have died out by the fourteenth century, having perhaps been absorbed by other tantric orders, though some tales claim that Kapalikas still inhabit the jungles of northern Bengal and parts of Assam.[3]

A mythological origin for the Kapalikas is given in the Goraksa-siddhanta-samgraha, which tells of an occassion upon which the 24 avatars of Vishnu became intoxicated with wine. Varaha and Narasimha, among other powerful avatars began destroying the earth, frightening its inhabitants; Krishna, meanwhile, was filled with adulterous emotions, while Parasurama destroyed a number of Kshatriyas. Shiva became angered by the actions of the gods and assumed the form of 24 Kapalikas in order to battle the avatars. Each Kapalika cut off the head of one avatar, stripped it of its flesh and carried the skull around with them from that point on. With their pride of the avatars dispelled, their heads were returned. This myth probably speaks to the prevalent tension between Tantric schools and the Brahmanic orthodoxy.[4]


The Kapalikas left no texts of their own, and so the major source of information about them comes from philosophical and dramatic writings produced by others, which include Kapalika characters. Most stories containing references to Kapalikas describe them as peripatetic ascetics, sometimes accompanied by a single female disciple, displaced from the caste system and society at large.[5] The typical Kapalika is described as carrying a skull bowl and sometimes a trident, his body smeared with ashes gleaned from funeral pyres. Often they appear as comical villains, criminal mavericks, or less severely as philosophical opponents of the author. The foremost sources of information on the Kapalikas are the biographies of Shankara, the famous Advaitan philosopher, most importantly the Shankara-divijaya. Here, Shankara's descriptions of various Kapalikas allow for the elaboration of his own teachings, which exists in contrast to the antinomian values of the skull-bearers. In one such meeting, Ugra Bhairava, an apparent Kapalika, explains to Shankara that he is on a quest to sacrifice the head of a sage or a king in order to please Shiva.[6] This willingness to kill a sage struck Shankara as a threat to monism, since it suggested a marked differentiation between subject (the murderer) and object (the victim).

An additional source of information about the Kapalikas includes dramatic writings in which the Kapalikas are important characters. The Mattavilasa by the Pallava king Mahendravarman, the Malati-Madhava by Bhavabhuti, the Candakausika by Ksemisvara and the Prabodhacandrodaya by Krsnamisra are among these dramas, which express disgust with the hedonism and sadism of the Kapalikas. The Kapalika lifestyle also finds its way into poetry, most notably a number of Bengali songs (or caryapadas) composed by the Buddhist saint Kanhapada of the Sahajayana school, who identifies himself as a Kapali, perhaps in the symbolic sense.[7]

Thou art the Dombi and I am the Kapali without aversions...for thee have I put on a garland of bones. The Dombi destroys the lake and eats up the lotus stalk. I shall kill thee, and take thy life.

In this particularly obscene song, Kanhapada describes the apparent rape and murder of a dombi (or a woman of low caste), which is possibly an allegorical description of an internal yogic process and an external tantric ritual under the guise of this ribald poem.[8] Here, it has been suggested that the obtuse language culminating in the murder of the woman at the end of the song refers to the mastery of such bodily fetters as breath, semen and thought.[9] In this way, the Kapalin serves the poet as a symbol of the yogin: by transcending this act of murder, the Kapalin has dissolved opposites such as good and evil.

Major Beliefs

The religious activity of the Kapalikas was centered around bhakti, or devotion to a personal god, which is usually identified by this group as Bhairava, Shiva in his terrifying form. Bhairava was considered by Kapalikas to be the creator, preserver and destroyer of the world, and king of the gods. This deity was propitiated by human or animal sacrifice, an act not uncommon in ancient India, and a specialty of the Kapalikas according to their critics. Humans chosen for sacrifice were to be morally pure, serving as a scapegoat for the accumulated transgressions of the sacrificers.[10] The god further was honoured with liquor and offerings of human heads, all in an effort to appease his blood-thirstiness. Self-sacrifice was also held at a premium for the Kapalikas, who allegedly inflicted mutilations and other physical penances upon their bodies, including self-immolation, in some instances. The aim of the Kapalika rituals was to come into a mystical identification with Shiva. This allegedly allowed the practicitioner magical powers on the worldly plane and liberation from reincarnation on the soteriological plane. For the Kapalika, moksha was fittingly described as an eternity of ceaseless sexual bliss.[11]

The Kapalikas have also been connected to an extremely austere practice known as the Mahavrata or "Great vow." This ritual is essentially a penance that is to be performed for the forgiveness of the murder of a brahmin. Rules for this penance are given in the Visnu-smrti and command the: 1) building and living in a forest hut, 2) bathing three times a day, 3) collecting alms by wandering from village to village in order to beg, 4) sleeping on grass, and 5) carrying the skull of the person who was slain, all for a term of 12 years. This skull became a trademark of the Kapalika order, as is obvious in their name alone, although commentators vary in their descriptions as to the actual purpose of the skull. Some suggest it was used for the collection of alms, or alternatively as a drinking vessel.[12] Sometimes, the skull was carried on a staff. Other prescriptions of the Mahavrata suggest that the Mahavratin must wear the skin of a dog or donkey. Altogether, the conditions set for this form of penance bear a striking resemblance to the prototypical Kapalika, who is described as having lived in forests, wearing animal skins and carrying skulls. It has been suggested that the Kapalikas adopted the Mahavrata because it represents the penance for the most heinous of all crimes, which markedly contrasts their status as the holiest ascetics. [13] Further, Kapalikas innocent of the crime would accumulate much religious merit and subsequently magical power from their great penance, rather than mere forgiveness.

The Mahavrata models the penance that Shiva was forced to perform for beheading Brahma, the creator god. The Kapalikas hold this incarnation of Shiva, known as Shiva-Kapalin (or Kapalesvara), in high regard, and by performing the Mahavrata, Kapalikas recapitulate the penitential actions of the deity. The begging skull, for example, was often identified by Kapalikas as the skull of Brahma. By repeating Shiva's performance of the Mahavrata, the ascetics believed they could gain some of Shiva's divine attributes, including the eight magical powers or siddhis.[14] The Kapalikas also identified with Shiva by reenacting various other aspects of his mythology in communion rituals, where the worshipper became united with the god by way of food, intoxication, or sexual intercourse, and even the consumption human flesh. Ritual sex was carried out with the goal that the male and female participants identified themselves with Shiva and his consort Parvati (or Shakti) respectively.[15] From this union, the pair hoped to experience a measure of the bliss experienced by god and goddess; that is, the perpetual bliss of liberation.


The Kalamukhas (from the Sanskrit "Black faced"), perhaps referring to the practice of marking the forehead with a black streak, an indication of renunciation,[16] were most prominent in the Karnataka region between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries C.E. [17] However, some Kalamukha inscriptions have been found dating back as early as the eighth century in this region.[18] Two major divisions of Kalamukhas existed: the Shakti-parisad, located in the Dharwar and Shimoga districts of Mysore, and the Simha-parisad, also located in Mysore but stretching as far as Andra Pradesh. More is known about the Shakti-parisad, as a number of their temples survived, including the Kedaresvara temple at Belagave, now a protected monument.[19] The Simha-parisad, meanwhile, was less influential, probably receiving little or no support from local governments and rulers.

Like the Kapalika sect, the Kalamukha also wore the clothing typical of Saivite ascetics. Unlike the Kapalikas, however, the Kalamukhas established themselves in mathas, monastic organizations centered around a temple. Consequently, information about their existence can be derived from epigraphs that record donations to these temples and mathas. These epigraphs show that monks were responsible for managing and caretaking at the temples, under the supervision of government officials. The Kalamukhas were also often connected with the company of devadasis, women who resided in the temple for purposes of attending to the patron diety, as well as temple prostitution.[20] At least some of the Kalamukha priests openly embraced their status as Brahmins, as many of their names ended in pandita-deva ("divine wise man").[21]

The Kalamukhas were closely tied with the Pasupatas, one of the oldest Shaivite schools, and shared many of their traditions. Many Kalamukha sages were identified with Lakulisa, a famous Pasupata saint and author of the Pasupata-sutra, and as such, the two sects shared a number of traditions.[22] The Kalamukhas were apparently influenced by the Pasupata's high regard for logical analysis as the paramount means of investigation. Ramanuja contrasted his own system of thought with what he described as dualism on the part of the Kalamukhas, whom he claimed worshipped Shiva as the instrumental but not the material cause of reality, a Pasupata ideal.[23] In this way, the Kalamukhas seem to have been much less counter-culture than the Kapalikas, as their doctrines did not seem to deviate significantly from typical Vedic standards.

In addition to these philosophical positions, the Kalamukhas, much like the Kapalikas, also seem to have acknowledged a magical element in their worldview. The Kalamukhas practiced a number of yoga-like rituals, stressing the yogic attainments of Patanjali's Yogasutras. The Kalamukhas have also been related to the Mahavrata. For this sect, however, the ritual was based upon Patanjali's Yogasutra ii. 30-31, which prescribes that one must follow that five yamas or "restraints": non-violence, chastity, truthfulness, non-theft, and rejection of anything more than what is required for bodily subsistence. However, their tantric connection has yet to be proven. Despite the connection to Devadasis, and the fact that the Tripurantaka temple at Belagave depicts many erotic scenes, there is little other concrete evidence linking the Kalamukhas to tantra, suggesting these sexual aspects were merely secular in nature.[24]

As with other southern Saivite groups, the Kalamukhas partook in worship of the linga, the phallic representation of Shiva. The Virasivas of Karnataka (or Lingayats), who came to prominence in the twelfth century as the Kalamukhas were fading out, continued to hold this practice as central in their worship. Basava, the acknowledged founder of Virasaivism, may have spearheaded his new movement in order to reform the Kalamukha doctrine. In accordance with this theory, many temples formerly run by Kalamukhas are now run by the Virasaivas.[25]


Although the Kapalikas and Kalamukhas are often paired together in scholarly writing, they are not as similar as may have originally been thought. While the Kapalikas embraced all things macabre and anti-social, the Kalamukhas seem to have been a less extreme religious sect. Nonetheless, both groups embodied some very unorthodox beliefs in the context of religious activity. In each Shavite sect, particularly the Kapalikas, the body and its sexual functions, became a symbol for the highest spiritual attainment. While the body was widely underappreciated in many other religious faiths, the Kapalikas and Kalamukhas seem to have identified it as a means to a spiritual end.


  1. Lorenzen, 53.
  2. Lorenzen, 52.
  3. Lorenzen, 52-53.
  4. Lorenzen, 38.
  5. Lorenzen, 44.
  6. Samkara-digvijaya, xi 9-12.
  7. Lorenzen, 69.
  8. Siegel, 52.
  9. Siegel, 54.
  10. Lorenzen, 85.
  11. Lorenzen, 90.
  12. Lorenzen, 74-75.
  13. Lorenzen, 77.
  14. Lorenzen, 80.
  15. Lorenzen, 90.
  16. Kalamukha Retrieved May 5, 2008.
  17. Lorenzen, 97.
  18. Lorenzen, 160.
  19. Lorenzen, 98.
  20. Lorenzen, 115.
  21. Lorenzen, 149.
  22. Lorenzen, 107.
  23. Lorenzen, 134.
  24. Lorenzen, 139.
  25. Lorenzen, 167-168.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dasgupta, S.B. Obscure Religious Cults, 2nd Ed. Calcutta: Firma K.L. Mukhopadhay, 1962.
  • Lorenzen, David. The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Saivite Sects. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1972. ISBN 81-208-0708-1
  • Siegel, Lee. "Bengal Blackie and the Sacred Slut: A Sahajayana Buddhist Song." Buddhist-Christian Studies 1, 1980. 51-58.


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