Shore temple - a never ending saga.

When there is a convergence of two sciences, a truth is revealed.
When there is a merger of two resonating sounds the reverberation is felt.
When there is a culmination of thoughts between two minds a realization engulfs you.

Shore temple Mahabalipuram: Such was the state when i revisited Mahabalipuram yesterday. There was knowledge in the air, realization in the mind and excitement in the heart! I have visited Mahabalipuram too many times, and i have most often been the guide, telling people what to look for.

This time I went with my Guru since he had not visited the place. I thought i was an expert when it came to the Art History of Mahabalipuram. Strangely this time i maintained silence. There was this long moment of truth when two siences met, when i spoke on the basis of temple architecture and iconography and my Guru spoke on the basis of ritual. Ritual covers all the loop holes that art history misses out. This was clearly evident during our visit.

Art history helps to locate artifacts, and sculptures and gives the logical approach, ritual helps to explain them through subtle reality. This time the Shore temple had added a lot more meaning to my quest. It felt more like the jigsaw puzzle of truth was hidden all around it and prominently exhibited itself at the same time to all those who cared to take a deeper look.

Now let me explain. When you visit the Shore temple or any other old temple for the first time, the thrill has just begun. The first stage is of discovery. A visual display to the imagination you held about that place is now guided by the experience.

The subsequent few visits, display the most prominent facts to you, in the case of the Shore temple it would be two temples, assimetrically placed. Life size Nandis around the main wall and yalis along the walls of the temple. The temple has a platform, on which is the bhiti(wall), with niches and capitals with statues within them. A shrine chamber(garbha griha), with a path of circumambulation and maybe a vestible(antarala in larger temples). A strange reclining Vishnu on Ananta is sandwiched between the two Shiva shrines.

If the intrigue has lasted long enough and has made you look into books to look for what all this is about, then slowly more is visible. Built around 6th to 7th century AD, under the Pallavas, it was patronized by Narasimhavarman and Mahendravarman. The temple still follows the canons of architecture very strictly. It reveals a three tired roof and a five tired roof with strange architectural elements. Small heads called Kudu(tamil term, not sanskrit) figures lace the kapota (the base on which the roof stands). At this point all eyes are on the walls, which are profusely sculpted and the Vimana(roof) which is imposing and magneficent. You will realistically spend the next three years wondering about all the sculptures, their names, who they are and what are the stories behind them. You will find forms of Shiva you never heard of.

Lets assume you got the right books and stuck to them. The Pallavas were initially vaishnavite followers and later turned to Shaivism. Hence the sandwiched Vishnu is carved onto the bedrock and existed well before the temple took shape. Soon the attention shifts to the dwarapalas who are resting their body weight on the walls. Lions and elephants hold up the temple on thier backs and ganas are found every where. The linga is a three part stone of which the third part is embedded within the yoni and cannot be seen. What remains here is the depression in the floor. The panel inside the Garbha griha is Somaskanda panel. Mahishasuramardhini is found carved into the heart of a Lion on the side of the temple.
Conclusions: tolerance to different faiths, enough to leave two deities within the temple complex even if that was not precribed in the canons. Acceptance of the mother goddess cult as another equally potent cult by all faiths( that believed in male deities). Lesser gods like gandharvas and nagas suddenly appear on the walls and how did you miss them all along when they were so prominent!!

Then comes the next enlightenment! You just read about the Chalukyas who were contemporary to the Pallavas and therefore there is a sharing of ideas. The plinth is in chalukyan style and so is the science of carving dwarapalas though the style is pallava. How do we know that? One name strikes out of chalukyan guilds that coexisted with pallavas. Baladeva was a well known sculptor who specialized in carving dwarapalas and autographed his sculptures in pattadakkal. The same style is visible here.
Conclusion: an exchange of ideas and technique between the art worlds though there was war between Pulakesi(Chalukyas) and Mahendravarman(Pallava).

If this was not enough, well you have just about scratched the surface. You start looking at the ground plan, and the evolution of the temple. Judging by all the elements of architecture and going back into ancient architecture, the truth hits you that this was originally Buddhist architecture. The same elements take a functional position in Buddhist monastried in Ajanta and Bedsa. Meanwhile you might learn about the true nature of the Shiva Linga as being a part of Phallic worship and that you are actually worshipping the miracle of Procreation, no not the grose act but the subtle reality that governes it. Now the SomaSkanda panel suddenly makes more sense.

So now there is more to it, Phallic worship was a tradition as old as the Indus valley and there rose several subsects of Shaivism like Ligayats, tantriks and Pashupatas among others who had subtle differences in their rituals. The mother goddess cannot be eliminated and her form can be seen as Parvati, durga and Kali. It is also interesting that Somaskanda is another name for Muruga. And yes, Muruga was originally a dravidian war God before he got christened into the Shiva pantheon while Ganesha is a demi God who has now been elevated to God status with popular belief. None of them were born from the union of Shiva and Parvati.

There are many parallel thoughts running in your mind by now. One would be the connection of the Shiva Parvati icons with the philosophy of Kundalini yoga depicted through the Somaskanda panel. The meaning of life as we see it through the Mahishasuramardhini panel. The undying presence of Shiva and Parvati whose origins cannot be dated. And finally the presence of copulation scenes on some temple walls. Why is sex depicted too blatantly when our mindsets are against nudity.

It takes a long while for this one, the hidden presence of yantras all over the place which has ever so remained a secret. That the scenes on the Khajuraho temples were to hide this truth so that we, the uninitiated never get to see what is behind them(works brilliantly). The presence of a mandala that is at the ground plan of the temple. The presence of forms of Lord Shiva selectively places in various niches.

Every thing had a reason... and then my Guru spoke.


Temple characterestics and iconography for Indian deities.

The backbone of temple architecture is the presence of Guilds across various kingdoms in India. Their orders come from the royal architects and funds come in from the ruling patronage. Architecture and sculpture sustained their expression on temple stone walls and pillars by the Guilds. Kings didn't define the kind of temples to be built but patronized them, but the Guilds gave the temples and monasteries their form and structure by following the canon's of architecture laid down by the ancients, with respect to their faiths.

Therefore if a King wanted a shaivite, vaishnavite,
devi, buddhist, or Jain shrine, they just had to give the orders for it, the rest was taken care of by the Guilds. Hence the characteristic features of each of these temples would be as follows:

Shiva temple (before the Cholas):
  • The deities to look for in a Shiva temple would be, the Shiva linga stone within the Garbha griha, which is strictly the aniconic symbol. Shiva in human form is never found within the garbha griha.
  • The wall behind the Garbha griha will always have the Lingodhbhavamurti (depicting Shiva's supremacy over Vishnu and Brahma).
  • The Vahana is Nandi
  • The south wall will always have devi/ Mahishasuramardhini. She was later replaced by Parvati.
  • The north wall depicts either Ganesha and Karthikeya or other forms of shiva like Dakshnamurti, Trimurti or Harihara(this order changes from temple to temple). Older temples depict only Shiva on all walls. The devi in the form of Parvati is depicted standing with him (Kalyanasundaramurti) or ardhanarishwara, else she is depicted as Durga/Kali dancing with Nataraja.
  • The others: Saptamatrika only in ancient temples, Bhringi on some walls but not in a niche, Chandikeshwara, Rudra, Ganesha, and Karthikeya in separate shrines if they are not on the niches of the main sanctum.
  • If there are depictions of Vishnu and Brahma, they would be in praise of Shiva or in submission. The only exception with any reference to the Ramayana is Ravana Anugrahamurti where Ravana is depicted shaking mount Kailasa.
  • Nayanars take their place on the precinct.
  • 108 lingas are placed in a single location or around the main shrine.
Post the Chola period; Devi got a seperate equally large shrine next to Shiva and Vishnu shrines within the main temple. (eg: Brihadeshwara temple under Rajaraja Chola originally had only the shiva temple, the sub shrines were added later by Sembian mahadevi, a Chola queen and then later by Vijayanagar and Nayaka rulers.)

Vishnu temples:
  • The dashavatara is found on all the exterior walls of a Vishnu temple, as well as on the pillars.
  • Large depictions in older temples would include Trivikrama/Vamana, Narasimha, Vishnu seated on Ananta.
  • Vishnu within the shrine chamber(garbha griha) is depicted lying on Ananta in the cosmic sea, else he is depicted standing in Samabhanga pose (standing straight backed with hand resting on mace).
  • Vahana is Garuda
  • Devi is often depicted with him in the Varaha form.
  • Krishna is very rarely depicted, if at all as Krishna Govardhana and krishna stealing butter.
  • Scenes of the Ramayana adorn the outer walls, but do not occupy the niches. Exception is for the Ravana Anugrahamurti where Ravana is depicted shaking mount Kailasa.
  • Icons of Shankha and chakra can be seen around the temple.
  • Garuda and nagas are often depicted, nagas specifically are in submission.
  • Hanuman is sometimes depicted in Vishnu temples.
  • Alvars are depicted on the temple walls and pillars.
Devi temples:
  • Mostly depict various forms of the Devi, in soumya(soft) rupa and krodha(fierce) rupa.
  • The central shrine is either Bhuvaneshwari (soumya rupa) or Durga/ Kali(fierce form)
  • All devis in shrines mostly face south, be it from garbha griha, or in niches of shiva temples.
  • Very prominent scenes in ancient temples would be the scene of decapitation where a devotee is seen chopping his own head and sacrificing his life to the Mother. (Orissa, Mamallapuram)
  • Copulation scenes on the outside of temples, or alternatively Kanyas in seductive poses. (Konark and khajuraho)
  • Very rare depictions of Shiva lingas, which is almost close to negligible.
  • Vahana is a lion.
  • Walls are adorned by worshippers, both royal and common folk.
Buddhist shrine - cave temples:
  • Buddha depicted in certain mythological events like Miracle of Sravasti(buddha multiplies himself a 1000 times to beat his religious rivals including Mahavira), Parinirvana(Buddha in the state of Nirvana), Temptation of Mara(Buddha attacked by the three damsels and a whole demon army sent by Mara), Buddha begging alms from his wife. Most often depicted are Buddha giving a sermon or standing.
  • Profusely painted on walls are the Jataka tales of Buddha's past incarnations.
  • Padmapani and Maitreya come in later.
  • There are no vahanas.
  • Older Hinayana phase elements to look for are stupas, pair of slippers, pair of feet, and a bodhi tree with a pair of feet beneath it.
  • Hariti and Panchika, where hariti has a child on her lap. She is the Goddess of smallpox, a child eating ogress whom Buddha converted into a protector. Panchika is her consort and also very well known as Kubera yaksha.
Jaina temples and caves:
  • Jain tirtankaras and more tirtankaras.
  • Gomateshwara and parshvanatha are a vew well known tirtankaras who can be seen in the Garbha Griha and on the walls of the cave temples.
  • Sculptures are mostly nude.
Nagas are found everywhere, and so are river Goddesses, mithuna couples and gandharvas.


Shrines within Girivalam

Girivalam, in silence: On a full moon night Thiruvannamallai has a charm of its own. On one end it hosts a million pilgrims who walk the sacred path of Girivalam, and on the other nothing stirs in its silence. Every experience revolves round the sacred hill that hosts far more shrines than whats found scattered around the sacred road. We find all the Gods here, starting with Ganesha, leading the way to the Mother Goddess to Shiva Lingas scattered all over, popularly called the Ashta Dikapala Lingas. Krishna occupies a special seat near a temple tank along the road.

So what makes Girivalam so interesting! A walk down the paths that lead towards the hill off the main road, covered with trees and forests have more shrines than what we would imagine. One such mud road stands silent, with a lot of thorny bushes blocking the pathway with a forbidding picture a Kali at the entrance.The first though is that there could be a shrine for the Goddess further inside, maybe with a stone altar in front of it for animal sacrifice. But interestingly it is quite a different story. We decided to walk into the forests surrounding the hill and debated on what we would do should we encounter some wild animals or snakes in the early evening. Our heated discussion came to an abrupt end when we came upon a silent pond, bathed in traquility far away from all mankind right in the middle of nowhere!

A silent square pond with lots of fish and frogs, green with life with low branches of trees almost kissing its surface brimming with life... we could have almost taken a dive into its cool waters. The pond looked deep and clean as the sun's rays penetrated through the green canopy of leaves. Along the side were large stones with arrows pointing in a direction that indicated this was the ancient path of Girivalam around the main hill. This peaceful setting, the ancient path that disappeared into the forest, shielded from all the noise against the hill, also had a dilapidated house next door with a gaping hope to the side. As we explored the place, we found that the gaping hole led down a stairway to rooms under the earth right next to the pond. Too close i thought. Filled with rubble with the cieling almost falling in, we decided not to get too adventurous and came out of it hoping not to meet any lizards of snakes on the way out.

Once outside, this tranquil little place, spoke of an underground chamber right beneath our feet. We were just left to wonder what it could have been used for! Excited about the find but a little disappointed since we did not find any shrine for the Goddess, we walked back to civilization promising to come back here surely some day.

We drifted through the evening as we saw the full moon slowly climb up the sky from behind the great hill lighting up the whole forest again after the sunlight dimmed out. The night was silent with a cool breeze drifting through the trees. Clouds scattered around the sky drifted over the peak of the hill almost giving it a natural halo that revolved around it for a long while. It was a fantastic sight!

We walked to the Kannappa nayanar shrine embedded deep within the forest, our path now lit up brightly by the moonlight. Kannappa nayanar shrine stood silently ahead, with a stairway leading up to the small sanctum. We walked up slowly, after our conversation merged into the silence. None of us spoke, for what we experienced was true beauty and tranquility at its best.

We sat back on the stony floor, each to himself, bathed in the streaming moonlight, looking over the canopy of trees. The gentle breeze brushed over us leaving behind a cool comfort. The magestic hill stood behind, as my eyes rolled over from the floating clouds outside to the chamber within. A silent Kannappa Nayanar looked
straight at me through the small shrine where a small oil lamp lit up his face and his silver plated eyes. It was simply awesome! Kannappa Nayanar stood there, reminding us of lost potency in spiritualism that once rules these lands.

Girivalam will live forever reminding us of every saint who made a mark in our history! Walking the same path is a choice we make.