Sacred spaces

Print edition : July 18, 2008

The Meenakshi temple. It is as if the entire cosmos is represented on the many walls of the temple structures. -

One of the greatest achievements of the Nayaka period was the making of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu.

THE essence of the philosophic quest in India is the ways and means to lose the ego and attachments to the illusory material world. The journey on the path to enlightenment is often assailed by confusions, created by the Lila, or the dynamic play, of the illusions perceived through ones limited and subjective sensibilities. These illusions, termed Maya or Mithya, keep one bound by ones desires to the ephemeral world. The constant aim of the great teachers has been to devise a means and a path to true understanding. This path is sometimes itself diverted and becomes enmeshed in illusions.

The earliest rock-cut shrines in India took one into the heart of the mountain, which had a symbol of enlightenment in the deep and dark interior. In other shrines a mark, or linga, represented the formless one. Leaving behind the cares and confusions of the material world, the seeker was to meditate upon these and be born again in realisation of the oneness of creation.

In time, simple structural shrines came to be made. On the walls around the garbha-griha, or womb chamber, representations of the formless Divine were made in ways that the worshipper could relate to. The texts of the Puranas, which were compiled in their present form in the first half of the first millennium A.D., described a large pantheon of deities. The deity was accorded a spouse and children, who were also worshipped as divine. Stories that explained and brought alive ethical concepts of life and the victory of knowledge over confusion were woven around these divine families.

The Dravidian, or South Indian, style of structural temples was established by the 8th century in the temples of Mamallapuram (Mahab- alipuram) and Kancheepuram. Above the shrine is a storeyed, pyramidical tower. Pillared mandapas, or halls, came to be added to the temple to accommodate worshippers. The position of wall niches with deities, their orientation and other details were set out in the texts called the Agamas. By the time of the Cholas in Tamil Nadu, the temple walls had become repositories of a pantheon of deities.

The shrine with the golden cupola is deep within the great temple, guarded by the majestic entrance towers.-

The grand Brihadisvara temples at Thanjavur and at Gangaikondacholapuram, built in the 11th century, mark the height of the development of temples under the Cholas. Besides the tower and the mandapa, high gopurams, or entrance gateways, were added to temples. These were the models for the largest temples of South India, which followed in later centuries.

In the meantime, the role of the temple was also expanded to make it a major cultural and social institution. Inscriptions at the Thanjavur temple record the innumerable grants and gifts made to the temple. Arrangements were made and housing colonies were created to accommodate the 400 dancers, musicians and others who were employed for the daily temple ceremonies. Naturally, the architecture of the temple grew in keeping with its expanding role in the life of the community.

The soaring gopurams of the temple, which are visible from afar, proclaim the sacred space within.-

Further developments of the temple complex occurred under the Vijayanagar kings, who ruled from their capital at Hampi, in present-day Karnataka. In the 16th century, monumental temples were constructed under them in a style that became characteristic of Vijayanagar.

There were imposing gateway towers, much taller than those above the shrines. These were visible from afar and reflected imperial magnificence as well as the grandeur of the Divine. It was through these portals that the worshipper entered the exalted world of the spirit, leaving the mundane behind. The temple complex expanded horizontally as well to accommodate larger numbers of people. Large and elaborate pillared halls with impressive sculptures reflected the power of the kingdom.

Siva is believed to have performed his cosmic dance as Nataraja at the Siva temple at Chidambaram, one of the most revered in Tamil Nadu. The great Tamil saints, whose hymns comprise the Tevaram, write of their raptures upon seeing the dance of Siva here. The earliest parts of the Chidambaram temple belong to Chola times. The Cholas made the Nataraja their family deity, and several kings had their coronations at the temple. Under the Cholas, the roof of the sanctum was gilded. A mural of the beginning of the 11th century at the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur shows the golden canopy of the Chidambaram temple.

The Ramanathaswamy temple at Rameswaram. The corridors on the four sides of the great temple are totally about one kilometre in length. These are the longest corridors of any structure in the country. By this period, the kings in Tamil country spared no effort or expense to create temples that demonstrated the glory of the Divine and of their own rule.-

The temple houses the most sacred of all the Siva Lingas in Tamil Nadu, the Aakash Linga. This is formless, an empty space in the sanctum. It is believed to best embody the wisdom of the Upanishads.

Between the 12th and the 16th centuries, the modest-sized temple was extended to cover 40 acres (16 hectares) of land. The inner four gopurams would have been made in the 13th century. The outer walls and gateways were added in the last phase of expansion, in the 16th century.

Since ancient times, the purpose of philosophic thought in India was to provide a path towards knowledge, towards a personal experience of the fact of the oneness of all creation. The aim was to lose the ego and the perception of oneself and ones importance as a separate entity. There were no depictions of the kings who patronised the shrines and the art, for personalities were only ephemeral.

With the passage of time, there was a change in emphasis. The grandeur of rulers began to be displayed at great temples along with the glory of the deity. Even portraits of kings began to be seen in the art from the 8th century onwards. At the Chidambaram temple, the motivation for the expansion was to transform the sacred but small shrine into a vast and impressive temple, one that would convey the majesty of the deity and of the kings who built it. The formless Divine enshrined deep inside was now made visible from afar.

A beautiful sculpted corridor of the Kudumianmalai temple.-

The grandeur of temples was further enhanced under the Nayakas by the making of prakaras, or enclosed corridors. These connect various parts of the temple and create a most dramatic and impressive effect as the devotee walks through them on the way to worship. The most famous of these is at the Siva temple at Rameswaram. The temples corridors, whose breadths range from five to six metres, run for approximately one kilometre. The ceilings are more than 7 m high. Each of the several hundreds of pillars is elaborately sculpted.

One of the greatest achievements of the Nayaka period was the making of the Meenakshi temple in Madurai. It is one of the largest temples ever made and was created during the reign of Tirumalai Nayaka, in the mid-17th century. The complex is built around two shrines: one dedicated to Siva as Sundaresvara, the Beautiful Lord, and the other to Parvati, his consort, as Meenakshi, the Fish-Eyed One. The vast temple has eight impressive gateways, one rising to almost 200 feet (60 m). Each gateway is covered with several hundreds of sculptures. The temple authorities estimate that there are 33 million sculptures in the Meenakshi complex. Even if that number is not based upon an actual count, the temple does convey such an impression. By the end of the first millennium, a significant change had come into the worship at South Indian temples.

The Chidambaram Temple. The devotee passes through the silent majesty of long corridors with massive stone pillars.-

The final grace was still to be discovered in the dark interior of the garbha-griha. However, the deity had also been given forms in bronze images. These came out of the shrine, and even out of the temple complex, to grant darshan to the people. Darshan, or the receiving of grace through the act of looking upon the Divine, is one of the earliest continuing concepts in all Indic philosophies. Recognition of the Divine, who pervades all that there is around one, awakens ones divinity.

The bronze images were taken out of their shrines in procession, both as a part of daily rituals and to celebrate festivals. This made the deities more accessible and created a more direct contact with devotees. These were deities made in the image of the people themselves, with spouses and children, which made possible a very personal devotion to the Divine.

In the thousand-pillared hall of the Meenakshi temple. The rearing leogryphs on the pillars remind devotees of the majesty of the spirit and the vigour within themselves with which they may pursue true knowledge.-

Temple architecture was expanded to serve the needs of these festivities for which large numbers of worshippers gathered. Every evening at the Madurai temple, the deity Meenakshi is placed in a bed chamber for the night. Siva, symbolised by the image of his feet, is then carried to her. In the morning, they are awakened by the singing of devotional songs.

In the Nayaka period, large tanks were made within temple complexes for the ritual cleansing of devotees. At the Meenakshi temple, after their evening prayers, people spend time relaxing around the tank within the temple compound. Indeed, besides being a place to meditate and to gain knowledge, the temple had grown to accommodate all aspects of life. Thereby, the temple also serves to remind one of the divinity that pervades all existence.

Spectacular halls, with numerous sculpted pillars, were made in the Nayaka period. The Meenakshi temples 16th century Hall of a Thousand Pillars has almost exactly that number of massive sculpted columns. Carved out of a large slab of granite, each pillar is a monumental work of art. Once in 12 years, the temple is reconsecrated to maintain its sacred nature. At that time, the thousands of sculptures on the great gopurams are repaired, repainted and even replaced. This is a living and evolving tradition carried out to this day.

Perhaps the greatest example of the temple as the focus of life in South India is the Vishnu temple at Srirangam, in the delta of the Cauvery river. There was a temple there in the 7th or 8th century. The 12 Vaishnava saints, the Alvars, sang more in praise of this temple than of any other. The present structures date from its reconstruction in A.D. 1371 onwards. The temple reached its final shape in the 17th century, when Srirangam became the capital of the Nayakas. In 1987, the unfinished southern gopuram was completed by a wealthy family. Today, it stands 236 feet (70.8 m) tall.

At a height of 73 metres, the main gopuram of the Ranganathaswamy temple at Srirangam is one of the tallest religious structures in India.-

The temple complex measures 878 m by 755 m and is the largest in India. It has 21 gopurams, not all of which were completed. The temple has seven walled enclosures surrounding the sacred shrine. From the time of the early stupas, boundary walls were made around shrines to separate the mundane world outside from the ordered space within.

The concentric arrangement of walls around the sacred centre is a mandala, which expresses the essential structure of the world. From the innermost point, where the Divine is seen as all-pervasive, he/she expands outwards in his/her many manifestations in the world of forms. All that there is, in ones life and in the world, is seen as emanating from the still centre of the cosmos. One is able to see here the sacred structure and essential meaning of all existence.

Painted ceiling of the Sivakami Mandapa at the Chidambaram temple. These are among the finest paintings of the late 17th century to survive in Tamil Nadu.-

Temple processions, which regularly take place in all southern India, express the radiating presence of the deity. They confirm, in ritual terms, the essential unity of the sacred space with the urban space around. The architecture and layout of the town were made accordingly, emanating from the temple at its centre.

The Srirangam temple has many magnificent pillared halls. A hall near the east gate of the fourth enclosure has impressive carvings of rampant horses with riders. Made on a grand scale, they continue a theme that had become popular under the Vijayanagar rulers.

The Ramanathaswamy temple with its gopuram soaring into the sky.-

In this period the emphasis shifted away from the importance of individual sculptures. Earlier temples were much smaller structures and their sculptures were very important. It was a very personal contact with the Divine. Devotees were to be moved and transported through their response to the beauty and grace of the art. In this period, it is the architecture that, in its size and magnificence, reminds devotees of the grandeur of the Divine. Sculptures are often repetitive and act as decorations.

In the great temple cities of South India, the revered space expanded to display clearly the sacred nature of the universe. The search is still for the peace that can only be found within. However, the grandeur of the deity is celebrated in all aspects of life.

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