Travel is understanding the world: interpreting is traveling, again and further , to loved places
I have been lucky enough to travel to fabulous places in India and see outstanding temples. One gets dazzled, attracted, happily disoriented in a riot of beauty, art and incense aroused feelings over slippery butter on the ground. What a great experience and yet I felt there was more: since I started to travel I started to understand what I was seeing. I feel that one has words to describe things, those things become more enjoyable more valuable. I decided to talk about the little I learned over the year, from this point of view that I have now.
Here in Malaysia, where I am living now, there is a fairly big Indian community and there are some temples to visit. Most of them have been built in the last 150 years at best, most of the times making use of the hideous ciment instead of the amazing stone work that characterized so many Indian wonders. Yet eventhough maybe not interesting esthetically many of them share some features from the most famous indian temples and surely they way they function.
Before going into comparison, let’s see what is an Indian temple.
If you travelled there, you know that there are incredible magnificent examples for all tastes, some carved out of rocks and caves, some adorned with refined rich luxuriant sculptures, some recreating mountain chains with their numerous peaks rushing to heaven.
Let’s start to see where it all started, (or at least our knoweledge of Indian temple starts, since there could have been earlier examples with more perishable materials). Here is an interesting picture of what has been defined one of the first Hindu free standing temples. It is a fairly simple structure with a porch and a square room. It is located in Sanchi and it goes back to Gupta times.
Do you think how many people could fit inside? Not many I suppose, but that is not a problem because Hinduism is not a congregational religion. It seems a fairly simple, dark room: maybe we could squeeze inside there the statue of a god or a priest doing a blessing.
Does it look familiar to other foreigner visiting Hindu temples? Well most of you that like me have visited the most famous temples,for example Khajurao Lakshmana Temple , or Konark in Orissa, Ellora Kailasa Temple in Maharashtra or Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu should have seen a bit of this in all of them. For sure when you go to see those links above you may twist your nose in disagreement, soaring gopurams (towers) and spires stay impressed in one’s mind and digital pictures admirably.
Yet if you try to remember when you were there, and if you were lucky enough to be admitted , when you travel across the temple you reach a small square dark chamber: this the innermost, most sacred place of a temple, where the deity resides. And this is the place where, after having visited the whole temple, eventually the believer and the God meets: here a believer has to appeal to his or her capacity of abstraction and see the most simple and yet powerful image of the God. Many scholars compare this place to a womb, I personally find almost archaic the association of a mysterious dark place with a womb where something possibly strange may happen, however it is a very popular metaphor to define this place.
This inner chamber is known as garbagriha and it is the real core of the temple. One believer to get there has to circumambulate first through the external rings, that often have related statues to the temple celebrated god. It is like approaching the most difficult act of faith by familiarizing first with other aspects of the God, the God’s acts , feats are usually shown through the preceding galleries by statues.
Many have written better than me about the importance of this sacred interior room. You can flip through (or scroll through ) Stella Kramrisch books or George Michell, whose “The Indian Temple, Approaching His Form and Meaning” is very readable and very informative. Other more general books that give excellent insights on Indian Art under all aspects are Partha Mitter’s Indian Art and Vidya Dehejia’s Indian Art.
Again one of the oldest example of temples in India in Deogarh shows how complex were the ambitions of temple makers, already back then in the sixth century. The sculptures are indeed stunning for their beauty, but they are not only beautiful, there is a complex philosophical meaning behind linked to the Pancharatra school of thought. This school of thought dedicated uniquely to Vishnu believed that the supreme form of Vishnu Vasudeva would emanate three aspects or three Vishnu forms, the creative one, the preservation one and the destructive one. These three aspects are depicted on the temple walls by showing Vishnu throwing a discus of destruction to protect an elephant, two sages meditating and the Vishnu sleeping on his snake related to the creation of the cosmos.
So why is that and how a sculptural programme was chosen for this and that temple? I suppose that in part the sculptures were aiming at teaching people visiting the place the feats of that particular deity, but above all they had the role of mediating that leap of faith that would eventually take place into the innermost chamber: the believer would immerse itself in the God starting through the most accessible visual depictions, meditating on the complex nature of the God, on his aspects and deeds, and so eventually the believer would get ready to meet the God in his /her absolute form, that is the shapeless form inside the sanctuary. In Hinduism the dialectic of the “with qualities” and “without qualities” is very recurring, but it is far beyond my knowledge and my explanation skills to approach it here.
Anyway to conclude this first step into the Hindu Temple, I would like to step back and look at Deogarh exterior sculpture: the one where Vishnu floats on his snake and Brahma exits from his navel on a lotus. This reminds me of a story from the Kurma Purana ( 500 to 800 CE) ,that I read in Wendy Doniger’s translation: “When the three worlds were in darkness, Vishnu slept in the middle of the cosmic ocean. A lotus grew out of his navel. Brahma came to him and said, “Tell me who are you?” Vishnu replied, ” I am Vishnu the creator of the universe. All the worlds, and you yourself, are inside me. And who are you?” Brahma replied” I am the creator, self-created, and everything is inside me.” Vishnu then entered Brahma’s body and saw all the three worlds in his belly. Astonished, he came out of Brahma’s mouth and said, “Now you must enter my belly un the same way and see the worlds.” And so Brahma entered Vishnu’s belly and saw the worlds. Then since Vishnu had shut all the openings, Brahma came out of Vishnu’s navel and rested on the lotus.” Beautiful stories, isn’t it ? So that old going that Brahma was the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer?? Well that was the way the British had figured it to make it closer to their point of view, to the Christian religion etc etc. Yes deceitful, indeed… There is not much point of one going out to meet another when he reads the other as a projection of himself, in my humble opinion, yet abandoning one’s point of view is one of the hardest things.