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

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!".


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