The word mukha in Sanskrit refers to the face while kīrti means “fame, glory”. The story of Kirtimukha begins when a great king Jalandhara, who “by virtue of extraordinary austerities … accumulated to himself irresistible powers.” In a burst of pride, he sent forth his messenger, the monster Rahu, whose main task is eclipsing the moon, to challenge Shiva. “The challenge … was that Shiva should give up his shining jewel of a bride [Parvati].” Shiva’s immediate answer was to explode a tremendous burst of power from his third eye, which created a horrendous, emaciated, ravenous lion. A terrified Rahu sought Shiva’s mercy, which Shiva agreed to. But how then were they to feed the ravenous demon lion? “Shiva suggested that the monster should feed on the flesh of its own feet and hands.” So Kirtimukha willingly ate his body starting with its tail as per Lord Shiva’s order, stopping only when his face remained. Shiva, who was pleased with the result gave it the name Face of Glory and declared that it should always be at the door of his temples. Thus Kirtimukha is a symbol of Shiva himself.
The Kirtimukha is often used as a motif surmounting the pinnacle of a temple or the image of a deity, especially in South Indian architecture. As Zimmer writes, “Kirtimukha serves primarily as an apotropaic demon-mask, a gruesome, awe-inspiring guardian of the threshold.”
This face is sometimes confused with another sculptural element, the lion face (Simhamukha). However, in order to be a Kirtimukha it has to be engaged in swallowing, for the Kirtimukha is the figure of the “all consuming”
This monstrous face with bulging eyes sits also as an embellishment over the lintel of the gate to the inner sanctum in many Hindu temples signifying the reabsorption that marks the entry into the temple. In Dravidian architecture and elsewhere it tops gavaksha (kudu, nasi) motifs. Mostly it is only a face, indeed very often only the upper jaw and top of the face is visible, although in some places its arms are portrayed as well. The motif can also sometimes be found in Shiva’s matted hair.