'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Delhi, Once More

It is just past 7 am on a chilly November morning. I get off the overnight train from Allahabad at the New Delhi station. I have the day to myself, no one to meet, no appointments to keep; I can walk as much as my dozen kilo luggage (laptop and everything) would permit me.

I check Google maps and decide to walk in the general direction of Old Delhi. Very soon, I am among its narrow gallies and mohallas of Muslim dominance. The place is already buzzing; carts, autos and rickshaws are active, shops and eateries just opening, people setting out for the day's work...

A chai shop looks inviting. I take my time over a single chai then another (tea is served in a glass tumbler kept inside a porcelain mug with a handle; I have never seen anything like this before) and check Maps again; and a label catches the eye: 'Razia Sultan Tomb' - well within a kilometer away.

I could recall the story of Razia from Amar Chitra Katha - a young princess chosen as successor by her father, the 'Slave Sultan' Altmash, from among many children, she defies opposition from siblings and influential nobles to ascend the throne of Delhi and rules a very turbulent kingdom for nearly 4 years. Caught up in a nasty civil war, she meets a soldier's end along with her newly married husband - who was until a short while previously, leader of a faction opposed to her being in power! Quite a tragic story of love, hate and violence. Questions rise within: the slave dynasty had their citadel near the Qutub Minar, nearly 20 kilometers from this place; and Razia was killed somewhere in Haryana. So, why was she buried near here? And considering her terrible end, how did she get a proper tomb burial at all?

I ask the chai guy for directions to the tomb. He has no real idea!

I set off in the direction indicated by Maps, run into a zone with exceptionally narrow and tangled gallies and ask again, picking a manifestly Muslim guy. "Yes, it isn't far from here but not easy to find. You will have to..." he proceeds to give some complex instructions. I follow his directions for a while... and ask another similarly turned out guy...

The process goes on for over 30 minutes and as per Maps, I have been walking all around the site without quite getting there. ... a young chap finally says: "I live near the tomb. I will take you there; else you will search all day!". Within 3-4 minutes, he has guided me to what looks like a small 'clearing' among extremely close-built and characterless blocks of housing and disappeared into one of them.

The place turns out to be a small and mostly roofless - but functioning - mosque; in front are two graves with only sky above. The graves look very old and eroded and have no inscriptions or anything decorative about them. There is a board nearby claiming this to be Sultana Razia's resting place but I can't make out which of the two graves is supposed to be hers and who rests in the other. A young man appears with a bucket to collect water from a tap in the mosque compound; he has no answers to my queries...


Later in the afternoon, I ended up having to sit in a 'Dominoes' outlet in Daryaganj for an hour to charge up my cellphone. There I took one more look in Maps at the area around and saw the phrase 'Ghalib Haveli'. Faded memories of a slow and mellow TV serial on the poet, laden with poorly understood but heart-felt ghazals, flooded in. Soon, I find these lines on a web page..

"Ballimaran ke mahalle ki woh pechida daleelon ki see galiyan
Saamne taal ke nukkad pe bateron ke posheede
Gud-gudaati hui paan pi peekon mein wo daad wo wah-wah
Chand darwaaze par latke huye boshida se kuch taat ke parde
Ek bakri ke mamiyaane ki awaaz
Aur dhoondhlaayi huyi shaam ke be-noor andhere
Aise deewaron se mooh jod kar chalte hain yahan
Chudi-waalan unke katri ke badi bee jaise
Apni boojhti hui aankhon se darwaaze tatole
Isee be-noor andheri see gali qaasim se
Ek tarteeb chiragon kee shuru hoti hai
Ek quran-e-sukhan ka safa khulta hai
Asadallah Khan Ghalib ka pata milta hai."

That was the ibteda (opening) of a song from 'Mirza Ghalib', directed by Gulzar and starring Naseeruddin Shah. An online source comments:

"Even if you dont understand the meaning of some of the words, it beautifully captures the sentiments you would experience when you visit Ghalib’s Haveli in Gali Qaasim Jaan in Old Delhi, even today. It is no easy task finding the Haveli in the narrow lanes of Ballimaran, but ask a few locals and find an enthusiastic rickshaw-wala and you will find yourself there.. "

Admittedly, the above passage is in somewhat dense Urdu; but it is also undeniably atmospheric - I could imagine being gently transported along narrow gallies lined with carved havelis and a few trees here and there - it is a mildly foggy winter evening, with lamps just getting lit and the chirping of homecoming birds mixing with poems being recited to appreciative "wah, Wah!" sounds...

But 21st century reality is different. Ballimaran is now a well-known area of Old Delhi; it has hardly any haveli left and no trees (and no chirping of birds or bleating of lambs) and overflows with all kinds of trade and traffic. And Ghalib's residence is quite easy to find... and it is a serous disappointment. Some of his poetry and manuscripts and personal articles and portraits are on display but restoration (or whatever) has turned the interior into something like a dimly lit 'ethnic' restaurant.

Still, it was quite nostalgic, after so many years, to revisit some much-loved music, especially the ghazal 'Aah ko chahiye ek umr', in Jagjit Singh's soulful rendition.


During the rest of the day, I checked some usual boxes, tramping around the Jama Masjid and Red Fort (here, a cloak room gave my shoulders a welcome breather) even managing a peep into the bookshops of Daryaganj where Mills and Boon novels are sold at "100 rupees a kilo"...

And I managed a quick dekko of Purana Qila ('Old Fort'; actually, it is only the 'Second Newest' among the many forts that dot Delhi) and found in Sher Shah's mosques and fortifications - and the octagonal library from where Humayun had his fatal fall - a solid and understated grandeur, rather removed from the experience of watching Shah Jahan's ornate marble and sandstone creations in the Red Fort.

Back home, I figured out that I had missed out on the 'kotla' (citadel) of Firoz Shah. This quite long-lived and very enigmatic(*) medieval sultan performed arguably the first genuine act of Desi archeology by bringing "2 Ashokan Pillars from Meerut and Topra, carefully uprooted and wrapped in silk, to Delhi on bullock cart trains - one of which he re-erected in his palace"; I recall reading in Charles Allen's 'Ashoka', the Brahmi inscriptions on the still very much standing Kotla pillar was among the principal sources for James Princep's ground breaking work in Indian epigraphy.

The gateway of Purana Qila:

(*) - I need to explain the word 'enigmatic'. Admittedly, I only quote from Western sources.

The Readers Digest Library of Modern Knowledge says: "Firoz Shah abandoned the policy of launching wasteful raids on neighboring states. Instead he developed commerce and agriculture, building mosques, hospitals and canals for irrigation. His reign was later regarded as a golden age... Although benevolent, he did not allow Hinduism to be practised or temples to be built."
Britannica says: "Firoz was the son of a Rajput princess whose rule has been depicted by medieval chroniclers as one of peace and prosperity... (He) rewarded Sufis and other religious leaders generously and listened to their counsel. He was indeed a pious ruler from the Muslim viewpoint; he created charities to aid poor Muslims, built many colleges and mosques... and made largely unsuccessful attempts to convert his Hindu subjects and sometimes persecuted them... His weakness as a ruler was politically more significant than was his piety... He was justly famous as a builder... he constructed five canals for irrigation, the most important of which ran for 150 miles and a number of reservoirs and wells for that purpose.".
And Will Durant asserts quite succinctly that "Firoz Shah offered a reward for every Hindu head brought to him and paid for 180000 of them".

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Pictures from the Chola Country

Having spent a lot of energy 'researching' and documenting Darasuram (last post here), I can only manage an extended picture essay on the rest of the recent tour of Thanjavur and its environs... These pictures record but a tiny fraction of what we saw. I can only assure my Readers that there is a helluva lot more out there for you to go and discover (and as for general information, many and much better people have written libraries about this wonderful realm)!
Note: In what follows, passages from the 2005 post on the 'Cola Realm' occasionally resurface - in italics...


Tanjavur is a biggish town with more than its share of civic mess; we pick our way thru the conjested lanes and suddenly the pyramidal vimana of the 'Big Temple' (built by Rajaraja, the greatest Chola around 1000 AD) appears, thrusting over the ramshackle skyline of the town. This colossal tower, sparsely carved, severely geometric, dominates everything in the vicinity ...A vast open space surrounds the core temple and is in turn enclosed by fortress-like walls and a moat.

Here is the ultimate Showpiece of Indian temple architecture - the Thanjavur Brihadeesvara temple (note: the word showpiece is intentional. The temple was built purely as an expression of Rajaraja's regal splendor, not to mark a previously holy site):

Rajaraja Chola who built Brihadeeswara, also called himself 'Keralantaka', the 'finisher' of Kerala. Did he conquer the whole of Kerala or only the southern tip? Was Kerala so important in those days? Did 'Kerala' in those days mean the western coastal strip at all? I am not sure. Anyways, here is the 'Keralantaka Gopuram', outer gateway to Brihadeeswara (a lot of it certainly appears to postdate the main temple, not sure by how much; and similar is the feeling given by the inner gateway, the Rajaraja Gopuram!).

Entry is free and hassle-free, even for these canines, basking in the balmy December weather right in front of the immense central shrine...

The lower storeys of the central shrine viewed side-on... Pilgrims bound for the Melmaruvathur temple, in their blood red saris spike up the sober elegance of granite...

The immense walls of this temple are densely inscribed; in my estimate, if they are all copied and printed, the inscriptions here could run to over 100 pages. And since experts have published volumes upon volumes on Chola epigraphy (a particularly interesting example seems to be the work of Daud Ali whom I got to know about but yesterday), I shall just present a couple of pictures...

Another picture of devotion from this very actively functioning temple...

The principal object of worship in the temple is a dozen foot shivalingam. The 'paal abhishekam' is a spectacle - pots and pots of milk are poured from above and explode on the massive and starkly black granite lingam.
An over six foot granite 'sarcophagus' lying in the outer parikrama pathway:

A rusting cannon rests beside the central shrine - presumably it dates back to c 1700-1800 when this part of the country was intensely fought over by the Marathas, the Nawabs of Arcot, the Nizam, Hyder and Tipu, the Brits and the French. The last mentioned are said to have converted the temple into a garrison and dug the moat that still surrounds it.

Note: History lovers often tend to be totally insensitive to long periods in the trajectories of even historically significant places during which they evolved without intervention from 'glamorous' actors. For example, even for most serious-minded students, the story of Rome from about 500 AD to around 1500 would be a blank; similar would be the case of the story of Athens between the times of Alexander and Byron. In the same way, that Thanjavur actually had a history between the waning of the Chola power in the 13th century and the time of Sarfoji (19th century) is seldom acknowledged. This cannon is a poignant reminder of this very basic truth.
Despite its overwhelming structural grandeur and elegance, decorative sculpture at Brihadeeswara seems muted and undistinguished (especially compared to other Chola temples). Nevertheless, here is a Lingodbhava and a Harihara side by side, a classic illustration of what to me is the Saiva ambivalence vis-a-vis Vishnu.

The outer parikrama pathway is over 700 meters long and on its walls are several dozen paintings, most probably done during the Nayaka period (16th century) - or during the subsequent Maratha period. Here are some.

First up, Saraswati flanked by a bearded Narada and the horse-headed Tumburu:

An unidentifiable regal figure appears to be harpooning for fish...

A giant (again not really identifiable) appears to be drinking up an entire river...

A remarkably color-coordinated deity-devotee pair...

We conclude the Thanjavur leg of this post with a puzzle. Three Chola bronzes kept side by side; two of Krishna and one of Saiva saint Sambandar as an infant. How does one make out which represents who?

Note: Just a short while ago, I noted with some surprise that it is even trickier to distinguish between the Tripurantaka(cosmic archer) and Vinadhara(veena player) forms of Siva as they are they appear in Chola bronzes. And searching online, I came upon an article by eminent archeologist and Chola bronze expert R. Nagaswami on this very subject!

And as one leaves, memories go back once again to 2004...
The temple maintains an aged female elephant and we pay the handler 10 bucks and get snapped standing next to it, the elephant 'salutes' as the camera flashes and one feels sorry for it.


We take the Chennai highway; a misty dawn. The road is decent, the terrain flat, we cross the Kollidam river over two very long bridges and by 8 reach Gangaikondacholapuram, named after Rajendra, Rajaraja's son, who brought water from ganga to consecrate a newly built temple here. The temple itself is huge - the central vimana tower is only slightly smaller than the tanjavur one but unlike the hard angular profile of the latter, is smoothly curvaceous and as the cliche goes, the female counterpart to it (though its unique bell-curve profile is also vaguely phallic)....

There is much well-above-life-size sculpture on the temple walls - often overpoweringly 'present'.

A pair of monolithic Dwarapalas - towering, glowering celestial bouncers:

Venturing a little closer to one of them...

Harihara, again.

Forget all those famous bronzes, here is the very finest Nataraja, no arguments!

Chandesa was one of the most zealous of Nayanars. He killed his own father as the latter interrupted a puja to Siva. The lord rewarded the devotee by decorating his hair with a flower garland (as shown in the sculpture below) and taking him along to Kailasa; and yes, the old man was brought back to life. Historians say Rajendra used to feel a strong identification with Chandesa for his fiery devotion... (a scandalous question) did he also commit parricide?

Note: Today morning I woke up with a strange regretful thought - that I ought to have touched the sculpture and found out how the texture of flower petals has been captured in granite; of course, such a thought hadn't crossed my mind at all when I was in its presence.
Here is what looks like an added-on brick wall with almost totally lost murals. When were they painted?

A detail of the superstructure and what look like stucco sculptures. These are decidedly inferior in workmanship to the lower granite masterpieces. Were they also (comparatively) recent add-ons?

A stone bull lies, half-buried, on the lawns...

A dark gallery surrounds the inner sanctum containing the main Linga. The walls are utterly plain and blank except for some yalis carved on the ceiling. Note: The book says the Thanjavur Brihadeeswara temple has a similar passage embellished with Chola murals and sculptures of dance 'karanas' (we couldn't get permission to get in there).

On the plain outer walls of the antechamber leading on to the main shrine have been incised these uncannily Mayan-looking (thus said Rekesh, I can't but concur!) vyalis...

Around Kumbakonam

We paused at the Nageswara temple in the heart of Kumbakonam for a brief dekko. The granite walls of the sanctum are of 9th century make - profusely inscribed and with splendidly crafted near life size human figures. Above is a garishly colored superstructure which could fit any modern roadside shrine; this overlay of unabashed kitsch on authentic antiquity makes for a strangely interesting spectacle.

A couple more pictures of the portrait statues - these two are among the most graceful human figures known to me.

Indians are second to none in balancing the ethereal with the ersatz. On the ceiling of the gopuram of the same Nageswara temple are these drawings which seem to be imitations of ... how about the Pompeii murals?

And here is a fantastic serpent - it has five hoods, each looking like a dog's head, each sporting swathes of holy ash:

And an odd sculptural group that cannot be seen and admired in totality from any viewpoint - due to those silly pillars. Even videographing it in its totality in a single shot is near-impossible!

The entrance to 'Ganitha Medhai' (Mathematical Genius) Ramanujan's home - now a museum. Photography is freely allowed; videography isn't. The house has a quaint plan: just about a dozen feet wide, it recedes about 10 times as much from the road. There is a front room, a narrow inner quadrangle, a narrower kitchen, a thin backyard and finally another gateway that opens onto another street.

In the dark interior of the nearby Sarangapani temple are these wooden horses, all looking down at an odd angle...

The Chidambaram temple marks the spot where Siva performed his Nataraja dance originally - an immensity of gopurams, walls, shrines, subshrines, pillared halls, corridors, holy ponds, quadrangles.... At the very core of all this buildup is the sheer void of the 'Ether Lingam' - the subtle (non-)essence of the mystery, 'rahasyam' of Chidambaram.

Vytheeswarankoil has yet another Siva temple. We found the place quite crowded even on a working day mid-morning. What brings in the people is not the deity himself but the reputation of the place as a hub for astrology - every other shop in this village seems the office of some astrologer or other. And the temple mirrors all that with its quaint subshrines for all those planets and dense marketplace feel with rows of shops selling all sorts of things; it also has some of the darkest and smelliest corners of any temple I can remember. Electric lights burn thru the day and the air is thick with the smell of camphor, vibhuti, bat droppings and what not...

The small town of Vadalur is where Vallalar, a 19th century Master, established the 'Satya Jnana Sabha'. We saw a troop of Melmaruvathur pilgrims sitting around the holy site:

The not very far from here village of Maruthur was Vallalar's birthplace. Facing a humble shrine that marks the place where he was born is this more modern-looking object. The rearing lions that flank the gateway leave me bereft of words!

To conclude this tour, let me say a silent 'Guro, Swasti!' to the young Master who, a century and a bit ago, used to sit on this cot, look out through that narrow window onto the street outside and dream up entire worlds of patterns among numbers and symbols


Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Amazing Darasuram

"It is said that Men might not be the dreams of Gods but rather, that the Gods themselves may be the dreams of Men"

- Carl Sagan in 'Cosmos'
Let us begin with summaries of two episodes from the ancient Tamil Saiva classic 'Periyapuranam':

1. The saint Nandanar came from the marginalized Pulaya caste. Right from a young age he was profoundly devoted to Siva and with the aid of Divine Grace, could perform miracles like converting an elevated tableland overnight into a vast tank.... Later in life, Nandanar developed a deep desire to have darshan of the lord at the holy Chidambaram temple. Not allowed to enter the temple enclosure by caste restrictions, he would walk around the walls, crazed with hopeless fervor...
Lord Siva was moved by his devotee's plight. One night, he visited Nandanar in a dream and told him to light a bonfire and plunge in - the only way to extinguish all karma acquired over many births being to set oneself alight. The same night, the Brahmin trustees of the temple too received a divine commandment - to assist Nandanar in his final mission. The next day, a pyre was arranged and lit and the saint rose from the miseries of earthly life to eternal union with his Lord.

2. A stone sivalinga once appeared on its own ('swayambhu') beside a jungle stream. A wild elephant, no doubt guided by memories of previous incarnations, would everyday bathe the linga with water from the stream and strew flowers around it. A big and venomous spider who lived on a tree nearby also grew devoted to the linga and started building a canopy over it. The elephant, insensitive to the spider's intentions, viewed the cobweb as a nuisance and defilement and wiped it off. Everyday, the spider would begin building the web and the elephant would destroy it until finally, the spider lost patience and stung the elephant on a vulnerable point in its trunk. Even as it was dying of the venom, the elephant squashed the spider with one final blow of its trunk.

Siva, who had watched everything, decided that both animals had gained great karmic merit with their devotional acts. The elephant was directly given Moksha and the lowly spider, a deferred one - it had to go through one more earthly life but an exalted one as a devout Saiva saint.


Back in 2004, fresh from a trip to the 'Chola Realm', I wrote the following brief passage - it appeared in a post here in 2005:

The 'Airavateswara' Siva temple at Darasuram (12th century AD) has an unfortunate, construction site feel. Restoration is in progress, workers toil, cement dust in the air... The temple is rich in sculpture (mostly miniatures on pillars and running friezes on the 'base' of the edifice). A grand pyramidal vimana caps the sannidhi. An elderly priest shows us some more, larger sculpture - the statue of Kannapa Nayanar, a devout hunter who offered his eyes to the lord ("look at his smart sandals!"), a sensuous goddess image (" note her manicured nails!") and more. Another goddess image on the ruddy stone sannidhi wall is draped in a bright green silk sari and actively worshiped.

Last week - many thanks to Rekesh! - I was able to revisit Darasuram. Restoration is over and the area around the main temple is a nice park now (*). The old priest wasn't to be seen but there are a few younger ones who are just as enthusiastic in showing interested visitors around - apart from the nails and sandals, they also showed us some 'microcarvings' of deities with each divine figure just about an inch tall.

Our principal guide to the place was the slim volume 'Chola Temples' written by C Sivaramamurti and published by the Archeological survey of India. Among other things, this book alerted us to the existence "on the walls of the main shrine (of) carvings of the stories of Saiva saints, some of which have labels in Tamil"; albeit with some effort, we could spot and take pics of most of these (they are carved on panels barely a foot high).

On returning, I dusted off my old copy of a Malayalam translation of the Tamil classic 'Periyapuranam' - a collection of stories of Saiva saints compiled around the 11th century. Reading it along with Sivaramamurti's guide and trying to link them to our pictures has been a very interesting exercise....

Note: There are many folks who have documented Darasuram online - in affectionate detail and with scholarly rigor. For example, a certain J R Marr has written what *seems to be* a very definitive essay titled 'The Pěriya purāṇam frieze at Tārācuram: episodes in the lives of the Tamil śaiva saints' but access to it is restricted.

Periyapuranam is a very interesting work. In many ways, it is the Desi equivalent of Old Testament; at least it has both the essential ingredients - a line of fanatically zealous believers and a solitary God with a simple smite/bless approach. Periya presents Jains as very intolerant and devious people who invariably come second best to Siva and his devotees (echoes of Egyptians or Philistines there?). Buddhists too feature and in negative roles but are much less prominent than the Jains. To my knowledge, Periyapuranam is silent on the Saiva-Vaishnava schism; indeed, it simply seems to ignore Vishnu....Anyways, for now, let me offer a selection of the Darasuram friezes, with both Sivaramamurti and the holy Book for guidance:


Here is what seems to be the self-immolation of Nandanar:

Here is the story of Kotpuli, a martial saint:

Sivaramamurti: a warrior kills a child with his sword, while some women shout in fear and crouch away. He then adores Siva and Parvati on Nandi. This is the story of the commander of a Chola king who killed all his people, including babies for having consumed paddy intended for Siva during a famine while he was away fighting battles.

Periyapuranam adds: A guard pleaded that the life of an infant be spared, saying it had had only its mother's milk and none of the rice. But Kotpuli was adament: "His mother's milk came from the rice meant for Siva so he too should perish!" ... Once the massacre was complete, the lord appeared, brought everyone killed back to life and gave Moksha to Kotpuli.
Here is Sakti Nayanar, who has a simple story: he would tear off the tongue of anyone speaking ill of Siva or his devotees; at the end of his earthly life, a grateful Siva raised him to divinity.

Adipatta was a fisherman. Everyday, from among his catch, he would free one of the biggest fish and and throw it back into sea, declaring "this is for Siva!". He eventually started to struggle with poor returns; on most days, he would get only a few fish but never stopped his offering to the lord. One day, there were no fish at all and towards sunset, a single very big and fat fish got caught in his net. Although faced with starvation, Adipatta said his prayers and freed that one fish. And then, the lord appeared before him and gave him salvation. Here is the story:


Kalikkamba was as devoted to other Siva devotees as he was to Siva and had made a habit of offering food to devotees everyday - and before serving his guests, he would wash their feet. One day, among the devotees that came calling was a man who had been a servant at the household and Kalikkamba's wife hesitated to serve him. The incensed Kalikkamba promptly chopped off his wife's hands and served his former servant himself. And seeing this act of 'devotion', the lord appeared...


The Lingam worshipped at the Tiruppanandal temple developed a pronounced tilt. Here is how: a devout woman once bent forward to anoint the linga when her garment slipped. She instinctively caught the garment with her elbows but was now unable to stretch her arms fully forward. Seeing her difficulty, the lord caused the linga to lean towards her so she could perform her devotions, arms bent.

The lingam remained tilted even after the woman left. Seeing this, people tried all sorts of tricks to pull it back to verticality; having failed, they brought trained elephants but again, to no awail.

And then, Kalaya Nayanar appeared on the scene, tied one end of a flower garland around the lingam and the other end to his neck and with the slightest of tugs, lifted the lingam and set it straight. Observation: in the illustration that follows, the object being pulled up looks more R2-D2 than proper lingam!

Note: Sivaramamurti, though an eminent scholar, appears to have got it wrong when he wrote that the above pic shows Markandeya with the noose of Yama surrounding not only Mark's neck but also the linga.

Aside: In a legendary episode from Kerala history (1653), a troop of devout Christians once took a pledge by holding on to and tugging at a rope fastened to a stone cross in Cochin. The cross bent and came be called 'koonan kurishu' (hunched cross). As far as I could gather, there is no such cross now in existence and the shrine that now marks the site of the pledge has a proper cross - maybe a replacement, maybe the original itself straightened out (maybe this straightening out happened by some miraculous intervention; maybe it was a routine procedure - there is no obvious reason for the cross to be as particular as the linga as to who would steady it and how).


To my knowledge, Cheraman Perumal, who is also known to have been some sort of emperor of Kerala, is not listed in Periyapuranam among the 63 Nayanar saints. But if I understood Sivaramamurti right, this is him, going to Kailasa, Siva's abode, on an elephant ( I don't know what for).


Sambandar was one of the greatest of Saiva Nayanars. While still a young boy, he once took on a bunch of Jain adepts in a miracle-working contest. Sambandar won hands down and as was previously agreed upon, the losers were impaled. Here is the episode:

Note: Wikipedia, quoting various modern experts, says that this story of extreme religious intolerance probably does not refer to a real historical event but was only a propaganda stunt invented by the Saivas (of course, that it would show the Saivas themselves to future generations in very unflattering light would not have concerned them much) or maybe just an 'unpleasant myth'.


But Darasuram is a lot more then Periyapuranam so let us now leave the book and get back to the temple and look around a bit more. Let us first see how this Siva temple treats the other great god Vishnu. As we shall see, while Jains and perhaps with less virulence, Buddhists were viewed as proper enemies by the Saivas, their dealings with Vishnu and his devotees were considerably more ambivalent. ....

In other temples, one often sees sculptures of Siva blessing Vishnu or Siva in his terrible Sarabha form subduing the Narasimha (man-lion) form of Vishnu. But perhaps the most telling display of Siva's supremacy is 'lingodbhava' as in this Darasuram sculpture.

See how abjectly lowly Vishnu is, as he assumes the form of a boar to dig deep into the earth to find the base of the infinite linga that the stalwart Siva has manifested himself as.

But then, Darasuram is by no means exclusively focused on Vishnu's inferiority. It has at least a couple of carvings of Ramayana episodes (for example, Rama intervening in the Bali-Sugriva duel).

Note that Rama appears here as a proper prince, not a jungle dweller. This is one characteristic I recall seeing in the much later (15th-16th centuries) Hampi carvings and Kerala murals.

The temple also has a prominent and much worshipped Durga idol with Vaishnava rather than Saiva attributes. Here it is:

I don't recall seeing the well-balanced Hari-Hara image of Siva and Vishnu fused together at Darasuram. But there may well be one.


Here are some further details ...

That was the placid and beatific Dakshinamurti form of Siva. Curiously, just below this idol to the left has been carved the grisly Jaina mass impalement.

Note that in the above pic, neither the wheel nor the elephant is a monolith. As I just checked with an expert, assembling such structural sculptures is a lot more complicated than working a monolith.

An elephant-bull double sculpture, one that has been reworked many times in many other places including at the Pazhoor temple in Kerala (in wood).

A musician, presumably divine, possibly even Vishnu, playing what looks like the Keralan Mizhavu:

Note: in Kerala murals of the Nataraja, it is indeed Vishnu who is usually shown playing the Mizhavu.
Chubby dwarfs engaged in divers activities:

A giant bites the dust (not really sure what is going on!):

Yet another of the sculptures that I cannot decipher:

Some of the yalis (or vyalis) which have been carved all around the walls of the main sanctum. These beasts appear in many many temples, the most spectacular ones known to me are at the Airanikulam Siva temple in Kerala. These Darasuram ones may be called 'woolly vyalis'.

On the upper levels of the Vimana are sculptures which seem stucco rather than proper stone. This is a feature of all classical Chola temples starting with the Brihadeeswara at Thanjavur. I am not sure if these decorative elements date all the way back to when the temple was built - does stucco last as long as granite? (one can also note here that some of the bigger sculptures and idols kept in the wall niches - examples are the Lingodbhava and Dakshinamurti seen above - are carved from a darker and smoother kind of stone than the granite with which most of the temple is built).

A mural painting done perhaps during the Nayaka era (16th-17th century):

A monkey fooling around with a hooded cobra - this is a theme I recall seeing carved somewhere in Hampi...

Darasuram abounds in in sculptures of dancers, musicians and acrobats (they embody the 'Nitya Vinoda' (perpetual entertainment) nature of the deity, says the book). Here is my personal favorite - a bejeweled dwarf plays what unmistakably is the Keralan 'Idakka':

And bringing the Nitya Vinoda mood to the present, here is a 'live' Dakshinamurti and his cohorts:

Here is a still from an episode of Carl Sagan's iconic 'Cosmos' filmed nearly 4 decades ago in this very temple. With Dakshinamurti watching, Professor Sagan ponders the origin of the Universe and its ultimate fate - and wonders whether the two are actually One ....

I sense parallels between Darasuram and the barely one century younger temple at Somnathpur near Mysore. I am sure experts would have probed these matters but I am now too tired to dig around further.

Let me sign off with a question: Darasuram (12th century) has no erotica. Neither have its predecessors at Thanjavur and Gangaikondacholapuram. However, Tamil Nadu temples from the Vijayanagar and Nayaka period onwards (16th century) - examples include the Gopurams of the Nageswara and Sarangapani temples, both barely a few kilometers from Darasuram - invariably have very explicitly erotic sculptures; and indeed, some are so explicit that my admittedly Victorian-influenced sensibility cannot even photograph them. Somnathpur, which falls in between (13th century) actually has a few small erotic carvings hidden discreetly among the 'usual' ones. So, where and how did this practice begin? Was it an import from the North?


Update (27th December 2018):

Thanks to Vimal, I have just managed to get and read Marr's document on the Periyapuranam friezes. He has described all the friezes and even corrected some mistakes made in Sivaramamurti's guide - including the Markandeya one that we mentioned above. I am now compelled to add a few more pictures to this post in the light of what Marr tells us.

1. I didn't identify the elephant riding Cheraman Perumal correctly. Here he is, as per Marr:

2. The lady saint Karaikkal Matha went on a pilgrimage to Kailas. She thought it sacrilegious to set foot on holy ground so walked upside down on her head and hands. Here is how(as per Keralan tradition, Karaikkal Katha was sister to crazy Master Naranath Bhranthan!):

3. During a severe famine, Pukaltunaiyar was left with no money to perform his religious duties so the lord told him in a dream that he would find a coin everyday at the base of the linga he worshipped.

Note: These two stories echo episodes from the life of St. Peter - him asking to be crucified upside down and managing to pay up the tribute money...

Question: If the elephant rider I identified as Cheraman was someone else, who is he?

Marr says: The Pandya kind of Madurai, who was a follower of Jainism, denied sandalpaste for Saiva rites to Murti Nayanar. This king died without issue and the royal elephant, let out blindfolded as per divine injunction, chose Murti Nayanar as the new king.

But the elephant in the false Cheraman frieze (let me copy it below) does not look blindfolded - although he is being goaded on...

A bit more on the Siva-Vishnu balance: Rival mythologies have both Gods performing very similar feats, seemingly in competition with or imitation of one another. Vishnu saving the king-elephant Gajendra from a crocodile is a celebrated and much loved Bhagavatam episode but at the top of this page we have Siva doing something similar for another elephant.... on a rather different note, Siva once exerted an irresistible attractive force on the wives of Rishis and elsewhere, Vishnu achieves quite an equal repulsive effect on Saraswati by doing pretty much what Siva had done.

One of the Periyapuranam friezes shows this:

Marr's description of it goes: "While grazing his cattle, Anayan saw the cassia tree blooming. Thinking of them as adorning the locks of Siva, he blew the pancaksara on his flute. §iva took pity on him, and revealed himself and Uma seated on Nandi."

Of course, Anayan is shown just like Krishna, in his flute-playing form, pose and everything. Is Siva there silently telling Vishnu: "What your own incarnation does, I can get done with a devotee!"

Jokes apart, when and where did the Venugopala (flute player) form of Krishna first appear in sculpture? Somnathpur (13th century) and other Hoysala temples have several specimens. There seem to be no Chola Venugopalas - their bronzes often show Krishna as an infant or playful kid but not as a flute-playing lad. Indeed, I know of no Venugopala image that predates the Darasuram Anayan; but I won't venture further with speculations in this matter as yet!
And here is one more bit of detail. Around the central shrine are arranged several dozen granite bulls. This is but one. All of them have had their heads chopped off. Why??


(*)The Darasuram temple faces an apparently serious threat from water - it seeps in from somewhere and collects in troublesome puddles all around the central shrine and even outside the main gopuram. Restoration has not been able to do much about it and one has to walk over a rickety wooden bridge to get into the temple enclosure. An NRI looking tourist angrily asked me: "What is the ****ing government doing about this nonsense? Damn it, this is a world heritage site!".