Matsyendranātha is considered the first Gurū of the Nātha
sampradāya. According to the tradition, he had encompassed the knowledge revealed
by Ādinātha (Śiva) during his conversation with Girijā, disguised as a fish. Therefore,
all the names of Matsyendranātha are piscine-related. Matsyendranātha has
numerous names such as Macchanda in Tantrāloka (written at the end of
the 10th century by the Great Abhinavagupta); also, Macchaghnapāda,
Macchendrapāda, Matsyendrapāda, Mīnapāda, Mīnanātha, Macchendapāda, Matsyendra,
Ādinātha, Girijā, and Matsyendranātha, cave 29 at Panhale-Kaji
Matsyendra is also associated with many other sects and
beliefs. He is one of the most prominent siddhas in the list of 84 siddhas,
which is prevalent among both Śaiva and the Buddhist tradition of siddhas. He
is considered to be the progenitor of the Kaula Yoginī sect. According to
tradition, he is the gurū of Gorakṣanātha. In Nepali legends, he is an
incarnation of Avalokiteśvara, a Buddhist deity, while in the later texts he is
considered as an incarnation of Viṣṇu.2 Hundreds of popular fables feature his
name throughout India. It is said that his disciple, Gorakṣanātha, rescued
Matsyendranātha from various antinomian tantric practices and helped steer him
to the more ascetic practice of haṭha yoga. Matsyendranātha is also credited
with composing tantric and yogic texts which include the Kaulajñānanirṇaya,
Akulavīratantra, Matsyendrasaṃhitā, Candrāvalokana, and Yogaviṣaya.
Images of Matsyendranātha are mainly depicted on Śaiva,
Śākta, and Vaiṣṇava temples, caves, and puṣkaraṇī (step-wells). These images can
be found all across India but more so in Maharashtra, which indicates how
universal his recognition was in the area. Images have considerable variation
in size, shape, postures, and mudras. Early ones are relatively small, while in
the later period, they became larger. He is always shown with two hands and mounted
on a fish. He is often shown in siddhāsana, padmāsana, and paryaṅkāsana and in
jñāna and dhyānamudrā. Fish is a common iconographical symbol of
Matsyendranāth in Mahudi Gate, Dabhoi, Gujarat
Several early images of Matsyendranātha are also noticed
from Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat (the above image is that of Matsyendranāth in
Mahudi Gate, Dabhoi, Gujarat). Three images of Matsyandranātha are shown on the
rājasenaka row of the Surya and Viṣṇu Devī Jagadaṁbā temples at Khajuraho
(constructed 1000-1025 C.E.).4 A
sandstone image from Div in Saurashtra dating to the 11th century
C.E has been identified as belonging to Matsyendranātha.5
Matsyendranātha is shown with a fish, yajñopavita, keyūra,
valaya, hāra, kaupina, karṇakuṇḍala, śṛṅgī, headgear, and elongated jaṭās—all
of these being unique iconographic elements usually associated with siddhas and
Nātha yogīs in archaeological sources. Some of the earliest images of
Matsyendranātha in Maharashtra are carved on temples such as the Māṇakeśvara
temple at Jhodge, the Kaṅkāleśvara temple at Beed, the Mahādeva temple at
Mankeshvar, and the Nāganātha temple at Aundha (images are shown below). As these
temples are all assigned to the 12th century, the images are some of
the earliest representations of Matsyendranātha. Here are some of these earliest-known
images of Matsyendranātha.
Matsyendranatha in Māṇakeśvara temple at Jhodge:Matsyendranātha
is depicted on the devakoṣṭha, which shows his significance. The image is
small, fragile, and defaced. He is depicted with karṇakuṇḍala. He places his
right foot on the ground, and his left hand is on the knee. He is shown seated
in a beautiful decorative toraṇa.
Matsyendranāth in Nāganātha temple at Aundha: This is
a small image of Matsyendranātha sitting in Padmāsana with a fish carved below.
As can be seen, the image has suffered a lot of wear and tear.
Matsyendranātha in Mahādeva temple at Mankeshvar:Matsyendranātha is shown seated on a fish with yogapaṭṭa tied around his left
leg. His right hand is shown in bhūmisparśamudrā.
Matsyendranātha in Kaṅkāleśvara temple at Beed: Two
images of Matsyendranātha have been carved on this temple. In the first image, he
is shown in a seated posture with a fish carved below his seat, a symbol that confirms
this image as that of Matsyendranātha.
The image's face has been mutilated, but the karṇakuṇḍala are visible and
hanging over the shoulder. His right hand is placed near the chest holding an
unknown object while another hand is placed on the knee of the left leg holding
a śṛṅgī. He is shown with keyūra and hairdress. In the second image, he is also
shown with a fish as a mound. In this image, He is seated in dhyāna mudrā (most of the images of all the
temples including Matsyendranātha were defaced by the invaders in the later
Matsyendranātha in Someśvara temple at Pimpri Dumala:There is a frontal representation of Matsyendranātha seated in padmāsana on the
western side of the outer wall of guḍhamaṇḍapa. His right hand is in
vyākhyānamudrā and his left hand is above his soles to support the right hand.
He has probably a kaupina tied by mekhalā perhaps made of woollen strings. He
has a yajñopavita placed across his left shoulder and around the waist. He has
his hair falling on either side. His ear ornaments are clearly depicted and his
large pierced ear lobes almost reach his shoulder. There is a small depiction
of a fish on the pedestal.
This is just a small sample of Matsyendranātha iconography. In the later centuries, Matsyendranātha’s archaeological presence is found all across the Indian sub-continent, turning more ornate as the Nātha sampradāya becomes one of the most dominant Śaiva yogī tradition in India.