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

Friday, January 31, 2014

A Pageant of Divinities

I just discovered a quaint volume: 'South Indian Images of Gods and Goddesses' by H. Krishna Sastri. Despite the staid title, grainy pictures and old-style descriptive passages (year of publication: 1916), the book is a treasure trove of curious information on how ancient and medieval India visualized and moulded its divinities. I quote some short passages (with minimal editing and a few paranthetical remarks) - a tiny fraction of Sastry's package.


Vaikuntha Narayana: Vishnu comfortably enthroned on the serpent couch is named Vaikuntha Narayana. His left leg is stretched down and the right is bent at the knee.; the left hand rests on his knee and the right rests carelessly thrown back upon the snake. ... (the hood of the snake forms a regal parasol for the God. This fits quite closely, the main idol of the Tripunithura temple. Sastry shows us an image from Namakkal, Tamil Nadu).

Yogeswara Vishnu: Vishnu, four-armed, seated in a meditative posture. (This form is echoed by the main idol at Badrinath - and I once saw another specimen at Koothattukulam).

Sastry goes on to describe "another image of probably Yogeswara again - but seated on a snake couch (with the hood-parasol) and bathed by two goddesses with pots in their hands" (this latter image is a wall sculpture from Kumbakonam. Indeed, this image looks more like a variant on the Vaikuntha Narayana).

Bhringi was a fervent devotee of Siva. He was so exclusive in his devotion that he ignored goddess Shakti, Siva's consort - Bhringi would do a pradakshina of only the Lord (leaving out Shakti). To accommodate Shakti's sentiments, Siva assumed the half-female 'Ardhanari' form. But the fanatical Bhringi turned himself into a bee, bored into Ardhanari's body along its medial line and continued to go around only the Siva half. Enraged, Shakti cursed him with loss of flesh and blood and Bhringi collapsed in a sad heap of skin and bones. Siva generously granted him a third leg so he could support himself (Note: As I just discovered online, Bhringi is often shown as an attendant figure in sculptures. For example, he appears as a tiny three-legged dancer in one corner of the magnificent Nataraja group on the wall of the Gangaikondacholapuram temple).

Viswakarma is, along with Surya and Dattatreya, a divinity that combines the attributes of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Viswakarma has 10 hands - since he has to hold the weapons etc. of all three. In keeping with his status as the divine architect, he also carries a measuring rod. Viswakarma rides an elephant and his body is besmeared with ashes.

Agni, the fire god, appears in icons as an old man - he is the oldest of the gods. Agni has a red body, two heads, six eyes, seven arms, seven tongues, four horns and three legs, .... braided hair, red garments and a big belly(*)... and rides a ram (for good measure, Sastry reproduces a sculptural image of Agni from Chidambaram!).

Jwaradeva of the Saiva myths is supposed to have destroyed Bhasmasura. He has three legs, three heads, six arms, nine eyes, and (!) a dejected appearance (Sastry shows us an image from Bhavani, Coimbatore which answers to this description and also puts this picture on the cover of the volume).

Ekapada Trimurti: Vishnu and Brahma, with worshipfully folded hands, emerge from the body of Siva at his waist. The three deities share three legs @ one leg per deity with Siva's leg acting as the sole support (Sastry shows an image from Tiruvanaikkaval and tells us this unique form might be a variant on 'Ajaikapada', another one-legged Saiva deity - I remember seeing a specimen at the Indian Museum, Calcutta).

Sastry has some very esoteric information on the planets (grahas) - for example, Surya may be represented with three heads or one. And planets have caste - Brihaspati(Jupiter) and Sukra(Venus) are Brahmin, Kuja(Mars) is Kshatriya (so is Earth, his mother), Chandra (Moon) and Budha (Mercury) are Vaisyas and Saturn(Shani), Rahu and Ketu are Sudra. As for Surya, texts are not unanimous - some say he is Brahmin, some say Kshatriya!

Even more remarkable than all those gods are the Goddesses. Some are are hideous and fearsome (for example, Twarita (wears a garment of sewn leaves and a garland of ganja seeds), Vajraprastarini (sits on a lotus in a boat of blood afloat in a sea of blood), Surapriya (accompanied by a paunchy fat man named Madhukara, she has a pot of wine and staff placed next to her), (!)Srividyadevi (has fierce fangs, sits on a serpent couch and wears necklaces of human bones).....). Some are benign and benevolent - Annapurna holds a jewelled vessel with food and a ladle to distribute the same, Bhuvaneswari has a simling face and bears a pot of gems and a red lotus, and Kurukulla (what a name!) rides a boat of gems and holds a gem-studded paddle - and is joyfully drunk on wine...(**)

The piece de resistance:

Varuni: accompanied by a troop of Saktis, this kindly goddess rides a gem-studded boat. Varuni is bright as the Sun .... decorates her tresses with parijata flowers and holds a pitcher of wine, a lotus and a piece of cooked meat(***). And.... she is also referred to as the "goddess of boats" and among her other names are 'Sudhamalini' and 'Amriteswari'!

Tailpiece: At least as great a surprise as any gathered from the book awaited me today at office. I triumphantly asked a colleague "heard of the mythological character Bhringi?", only to be kayoed by the counterquestion: "You mean that three legged fellow who drilled a hole thru Ardhanariswara's belly?"


(*)MacDonnel's 'Vedic Reader'says: "(In RigVeda,) Agni's anthropomorphism is only rudimentary and mainly connected with the sacrificial aspect of fire. He is butter-backed, flame-haired and has a tawny beard, sharp jaws and golden teeth. With his tongue, the gods eat the oblation. With a burning head, he faces all directions..."

(**)Sastry makes a broad judgmental remark about these Sakti-Goddesses: "The characteristic feature of the worship of Saktis is the association with them of mystical charms, or geometrical figures called chakras, yantras or pithas with conventional and often mystic incantations and solemn ceremonials, which make no appeal to the gentler feelings of human nature."

(***)A traditional(?) Malayalam couplet laments the sunset: "Dallying with Varuni brought about the decline and fall of Surya!" - Varuni is no goddess in this context but can mean any of the direction West, Wine or Woman.