Bhikshatanar refers to Lord Siva in the form of a mendicant. There are various legends associated with Bhikshatanar, and we look at three of them below. (Note: Different puranas tell these below stories with some variations.)
1. Brahma’s ego is destroyed
Lord Siva has five faces – Sadyojata, Vamadeva, Aghora, Tatpurusha and Isaana, representing the five classical elements (space, ether, air, earth and water), the five directions (east, south, west, north and the zenith above), the five senses and the five aspects of the body. However, a little known aspect is that Lord Brahma too had five faces earlier, and was proud that he was therefore equal to Siva.
Once when he went to see Lord Siva to Kailasam, Parvathi assumed that the person coming with five faces was her husband, and began paada puja. Due to his pride, Brahma kept quiet. Siva came to know about this soon after.
Angered by Brahma’s conduct, Lord Siva plucked the upward-facing head of Brahma to punish him. However, that head stuck to his hand, and resulted in Brahma Hathi dosham attaching to Lord Siva.
Siva undertook a pilgrimage to various places and begged for food using Brahma’s skull as a begging bowl, but could not get rid of this dosham – every time the bowl was filled with food, it would immediately vanish.
Finally at Tirukarambanur (Uttamar Koil), also known as Bhikshandar Koil since Lord Siva was begging for his food – bhiksha), Goddess Lakshmi filled the vessel, ending Siva’s hunger. However, the skull continued to be attached to his hand.
Uttamar Koil is usually the name given to the temple, while the place it is located is called Bhikshandarkoil even today.
Ultimately, on reaching Kandiyur and worshipping Lord Vishnu here, the curse was removed.
Since Perumal aided the removal of Siva’s curse, he is known as Hara Saabha Vimochana Perumal. The Hara Saaba Vimochana Perumal temple is also one of the Divya Desam temples.
2. Humbling of the sages of Darukavanam
Darukavanam (Thillai vanam or Mangrove forest) was a place where some sages lived with their families. Being purva-mimamsakas, these sages were led by the belief that performing Vedic rites alone was key, as opposed to Bhakti towards God. After a point, they began to think of themselves as gods. Lord Siva therefore took it upon himself to teach them a lesson.
(Thillai is also the ancient name of Chidambaram – the Lord is still referred to as Thillai Natarajar. So this legend could have originated there.)
He arrived as Bhikshatana, a handsome wandering naked mendicant, along with Mohini (which is Parvati’s form in some stories, and Vishnu’s form in some others) into the forest. The sages’ wives saw the mendicant and were drawn to him with devotion, having recognised him as the Lord. One of the women even attained mukti on the spot. However, the sages thought this to be the result of their wives being enamoured of the naked mendicant. So they issued various curses upon the Lord.
First, they cursed his erect phallus to fall off. It did, and became a Pillar of Light. Next, they performed the abhichari yagam (black magic sacrifice), producing a serpent, a tiger, a rogue elephant, and a dwarf. Lord Siva defeated each of them and…
…wore the serpent around his neck,
…stripped the tiger off its skin and wore it as clothing,
…ripped apart the rogue elephant from the inside (Gajasamharamurti, which is the theme of the Vazhuvur Veeratteswarar temple), and
…danced His cosmic dance on the dwarf (apasmara purusha), thereby teaching the world. The apasmara purusha is also considered to be the embodiment of ignorance, and is often seen present at the feet of Dakshinamurti.
Close to Trichy is the Paraithurainathar temple at Tiruparaithurai (Parai is another Tamil word for mangroves or Daruka), where one of the names of the Lord is Darukavaneswarar. This is a Paadal Petra Sthalam, and could be the origin of this story.
3. Lord Siva as Kapaleeswara
At a sacrifice hosted by Brahma, Lord Siva appeared in his Bhikshatana form, begging for food. Those performing the sacrifice attempt to drive him away, because of his “inauspicious” form and presence.
In anger, Bhikshatana threw his begging bowl – a skull – on the floor of the hall where the sacrifice was being undertaken. The brahmins threw out the bowl, but instantly another appeared in Siva’s hand. Further, hundreds more appeared, thereby polluting the sacrifice.
Brahma and the brahmins realised their mistake, and Brahma promised that no sacrifice will be complete without invoking Kapaleeswara.
This is also one of the sthala puranams of the Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, Chennai.