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How Yama Lost His Good Looks

- June 4, 2021

By Komal Narwani

A deity with fiery eyes, dark skin, and a huge moustache. The description involuntarily creates the image of the god of death in the minds of most readers. Yama, also referred to as Kala, is the guardian of the south, which is the region of death. Although he has a frightening appearance now, he wasn’t always like this. The Vedas describe him as a cheerful and handsome deity, but the Puranas show him as a fearsome god riding a buffalo and carrying a mace and a noose. There is an interesting legend behind Yama’s makeover. 

In the beginning, Yama had very attractive physical features. He was so handsome that even the apsaras contended for his attention. He was too proud of his good looks and admired himself all day. He was responsible to free the souls from mortal bodies and escort them to heaven or hell. Haughty Yama got too busy idolising himself and ignored his duties as the god of death. 

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The people on earth were overjoyed when they realised that they could live happily for eternity. But soon, things started getting difficult. People grew in number and the basic resources started depleting. There was not enough food and water for all. The burden on mother earth increased, causing havoc and chaos. The situation troubled Shiva as he was responsible for the cycle of life. Enraged with Yama’s arrogance and disregard for his work, Shiva decided to teach him a lesson.  

Illustration: Ram Waeerkar

Shiva summoned Yama to his icy abode, Kailash. When Yama reached Kailash, Shiva smiled and gave him a warm welcome, quite opposite to Yama’s expectations. Yama got suspicious but Shiva asked him to take a seat. After exchanging greetings with him, Shiva requested,

“Yama, could you please get me some water from the nearby pond?”

Yama obliged. As he bent over the pond to fetch water in a pot, he was startled. He saw a demon-like creature in the pond. Terrified of the demon’s appearance, he started trembling. He quickly ran towards Shiva.

“Mahadeva, there is a daunting demon in the pond! It has fearsome red eyes, an unusually huge moustache and two large, curved horns on his head.”

Smiling at Yama’s dismay, Shiva said,

“Touch your head, Yama. What you saw in the pond was your own reflection.”

Yama immediately touched his head and panicked.

“No, this cannot happen!” he thought to himself.

He pleaded with Shiva to fix his appearance. In response, Shiva closed his eyes and went back to his meditative state. 

Yama realised that Shiva was in no mood for mercy. He turned to Brahma for help but when he reached Brahma’s abode, Brahmaloka, he found the lord engrossed in scripting a manuscript. Disheartened, Yama now headed to seek aid from Vishnu and Lakshmi. The celestial couple were in a deep discussion about some cosmic issue and Yama could not talk to them. Giving up all hope, Yama decided to do severe penance to please Vishnu and get his attention. 

After years, his prayers were finally answered when Vishnu appeared in front of him and asked,

“What do you wish for, Yama?”

Bowing before Vishnu, Yama said,

“O Lord, please make me as handsome as I was.”

Vishnu shook his head and replied,

“I cannot do that, Yama. You would become lax and futile once again.”

Yama begged for forgiveness. Vishnu took pity,

“I can remove your horns and transfer them to an animal who will serve you as your vehicle.”

Realising that Vishnu was right, Yama accepted his fate. 

Illustration: Ram Waeerkar

Yama looked glumly at the buffalo, his new vehicle, standing right next to him. Shiva had finally made him look like the fearsome god of death. 

Before Yama left, he requested Vishnu to reside beside him at Azhagar Kovil near Tiruchirappalli so that people would appease him. Vishnu willingly resided there. Later, Lakshmi came in search of Vishnu and Yama appealed to her to stay with Vishnu. Lakshmi agreed. The place where the divine deities reside is known as the Kallazhagar temple. As Vishnu is considered to be very beautiful he is also called Sunderraja Perumal. It is believed that every year Yama visits this temple to offer prayers to the beloved deity.

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