Why pillars in South Indian temples are not only structures but carriers of cultural codes
Thiruvithancodu is a nondescript village temple even by the standards of our tiny district. Only on Maha Shivaratri does it get considerable attention because it is one of the 12 Shiva temples in an 80-kilometre spiritual marathon circuit which devotees cover on that one day. It is also home to some exquisite sculptures. The most astounding of them are the lamp maidens who stand as part of the pillar sculptures adorning the corridors of circumambulation. They stand there as one with the pillars, with the traditional lamps in their hands.
While in a row all the girls hold the lamps in their right hands, one girl holds the lamp in her left. What could be the possible reason? Right next to her in the pillar stands Hanuman and his tail protrudes into this side of the pillar. If the woman holds the lamp in the right hand, then there is every possibility it might light up the tail of Hanuman and the results may well be similar to what happened in Lanka. So the sculptor avoided ascribing that fate to this little village by having the girl hold the lamp away from Hanuman’s tail, an elderly man explains.
In the entire group of maidens, there are a few who are holding the lamps in their left hands, each for a reason of her own. However, in this context, the imagination, either that of the sculptor or of the observer, is indeed interesting.
It is not uncommon to see such maidens as part of the pillar sculptures in many corridors of South Indian temples. But what distinguishes these pillar sculptures is that while in most temples, the women are all sculpted almost uniformly, here there is a veritable celebration of all forms of womanhood. There are women from almost all stages of a human life; and from all walks of it. Regal, the seductress and the seduced, a woman holding an infant to her breast and another holding her lover to her’s; a woman wooed by a mortal and a woman courted by the Gods. Even women who look similar have differences in their head styles and clothing and ornaments. There is an explosion of variety at all levels. There is no taboo, no Victorian mindset of looking at the female body as obscene. More importantly, there is no tying down of the concept of beauty to any one particular feminine form or social class.
But then there is the unifying factor – they all carry lamps.
We do not know if the unknown sculptor intended it. But we do have a Twentieth century exposition of the woman with the lamp from one of the greatest scientists of humanity, and one who happened to be an Indian. Jagadish Chandra Bose had a bas-relief of a ‘Woman Carrying Light to the Temple’. About her, Bose wrote, ‘Without her no light can be kindled in the sanctuary. She is the true light-bearer, and no plaything of man.’ It is fascinating to think that perhaps the sculptor too wanted to convey that message – that the woman, despite all categorisation we attempt at her, in all her infinite variety and variations, is essentially the bearer of light.
Hanuman and his adventures have definitely been a great source of ingenious inspiration to local sculptors. Many temple pillar sculptures show the scenes from Sundara Kanda – believed to have an auspicious effect when read. But in southern Tamil Nadu, the sculptors have a variation of one of his adventures.
As Hanuman crosses the sea to find Sita, Surasa, the mother of the serpents rises from the waters and demands that Hanuman enter her mouth. Hanuman plays a trick on her by enlarging his body. Surasa also grows accordingly. Then in a flash Hanuman becomes so tiny and enters her mouth and comes out quickly fulfilling her condition that he should enter her mouth. However, here in the temple pillars of Kanyakumari district, one finds an interesting variation. Hanuman becomes tiny before the gigantic form of Surasa, enters her mouth and exits through her ear!
Another one of the favourite stories for the sculptors is the penance of Arjuna. It is interesting that when it comes to choosing a scene from Mahabharata, the penance of Arjuna for the Pasupatha – the secret knowledge of the most potent weapon of Shiva- became the more frequently depicted scene than the Gita sermon. In most of the depictions, Arjuna is shown immersed in penance to Shiva with the wild boar, which in tradition is considered as the Asura ‘Muka’, charging across. Shiva came there along with his consort in the form of a tribal chieftain. Disturbed by the boar, Arjuna kills the boar with his arrow while the tribal also shoots his own arrow at the boar. As both quarrel over whose arrow killed the boar, a verbal fight soon becomes a physical combat at the end of which Shiva reveals himself to Arjuna and imparts him the knowledge he sought. That in the sixth century the Sanskrit poet Bharavi wrote a Sanskrit epic Kiratarjuniya, shows the appeal of the episode to the psyche of Indian people.
The popularity of these scenes shows the continuity between the tribal and so-called non-tribal elements in Hinduism. Further, it is also a powerful reminder to the urban and rural communities that the crucial knowledge for survival was obtained from, and resides with, the forest dwelling communities.
An equally powerful reminder to the people that real devotion is neither linked to outward forms nor is birth-based is the history of Kannappa Nayanar – the hunter tribal who offered his own eye to Shiva. When the eye of the Shiva Linga bled, the tribal hunter took his arrow, quelled his eye and applied it on the Linga. When the other eye of the Linga bled, he unhesitatingly plucked his other eye but in order to correctly locate where he had to keep the eye he put his own leg on the Linga. Then a hand appeared from the Linga and Shiva himself requested him to stop and then gave liberation to the hunter-devotee.
Another pillar sculpture that can be found in many of the temples of South India shows a cow lovingly licking the Shiva Linga which is directly under her udder. In many of the Sthala-Puranas of Shiva temples, a story related is of how a cow owner finds one of the cow’s udder empty of milk and doubts the cowherd. So the cowherd watches the particular cow. This cow separates herself from the herd and goes to a lonely spot where there is a Shiva Linga or a termite mound like structure. She secretes her milk on the Shiva Linga or onto the mound. When the mound is cleared, the cowherd discovers the Linga. Interestingly, Saint Manichavachagar (probably Seventh century), the great Saivaite Tamil saint in one of his hymns asks Shiva for the tearful love that shall melt the being, like the love a cow has for her calf.
This love of the cow for the calf is an imagery that comes to us from the Vedic times. Dr Koenraad Elst links the origin of Aum to the Vedic verse of Dirghatamas, which speaks of the love filled bellowing of the cow for her calves. Aum, the supreme sound symbol of consciousness as described in the Mandukya Upanishad, has its origin in the very Indic imagery of yearning for love. And the imagery of a cow yearning for her calf continues to be sung across the space and time in the Indic cultural-spiritual matrix to express the selfless and all-consuming love we have for the Divine. Here, the devotee becomes the caring mother and the Divine takes the place of the calf. And now looking at this sculpture, the love of the cow, the way her udder showers the milk, her very essence, spontaneously on the Shiva Linga and her tongue lovingly moving over the Divine with motherly affection, one realies that it is a moment when all that which is Universe becomes a child we can care for and nourish within us with all our pouring love.
But as one can see, these pillar sculptures which code so much information and knowledge within them, and which can act as springboards for the flight of imagination and contemplation of not only the devotee in the temple visitor but also artists and meditators, are slowly being destroyed by our own ignorance. Often, overzealous devotees paint them with chemical pigment. Or the culturally illiterate Hindu Endowment board recklessly pours concrete and builds structures inside the temple.
Worse, they even have used the technique of sand blasting to ‘clean’ the pillars, which actually damage them forever. Sometimes they are simply thrown away, without caring for the treasure they contain.