Reflecting a rich heritage
Temples were in ancient times regarded as symbols of royal authority and political power. To elaborate on this, historian and author R. Champakalakshmi recently addressed a gathering at Amethyst.
The Brihadeeswara temple (left) and the Kailasanatha temple (top).
TEMPLES ARE symbols of the country's rich cultural heritage. Some of these architectural marvels have stood the test of time to tell us about the great periods in history, be it the glory of the Cholas or the aesthetic of the Hoysalas or the splendour of the Guptas.
However, there is more to temples than architecture and religious connotation. These structures were considered socio-economic institutions and symbols of royal authority and political power. But, there were some aspects such as architecture that historians have not fully explored to reconstruct the past in a more meaningful way. It was to elaborate this aspect that R. Champakalakshmi, historian and author, spoke to a gathering at Amethyst on Saturday on "Pantheons of Power: Iconography of the royal temples in South India".
During the enlightening talk, the former Jawaharlal Nehru University professor traced the history and development of South Indian architecture, which goes back to the 7th Century. The temples she chose to illustrate her talk with were the Rajasimheswara (Kailasanatha) temple at Kanchipuram, the largest and most important one built by the Pallava king, Rajasimha, and the majestic 11th Century Rajarajeswara (Brihadeeswara) at Thanjavur, which speaks volumes about the Cholas.
According to the professor, there were neither temples nor icons during the Vedic period. It was with the advent of the Puranic Age that deities gained prominence; the concept of bhakti emerged, and became an ideological constant during the reign of the Cholas.
A new institutional force was created where the temple became the focus, and it was designed to reflect the cosmic structure. The Puranas became the basis for religious texts, especially in South India. And temples began to reflect the ruling dynasty's ideas; they became royal projects.
During the Pallava period, cave (rock cut) temples were popular, with large bas-reliefs designed to accommodate narratives, episodic or continuous. The main sites where one can see the unique style of the Pallavas are Kanchi and Mamallapuram. In all Pallava temples, the predominant motif is that of Somaskanda (Siva, Uma and Skanda), found on the rear wall of the sanctum sanctorum. In fact, these temples are veritable architectural sources for the emergence of Siva as a major Agama deity.
Yet another aspect of Siva that was a favourite with the Pallavas was that of Gangadhara. The rock cut temple at Tiruchi shows Siva with Ganga. Here, there seems to an allusion to Siva and Ganga as the King and the Cauvery, which flows by the temple.
When the Cholas arrived on the scene, temples became a product of imperial vision and suggested royal authority. The grand temples, be it the Rajarajeswara or Gangaikondacholapuram, were political statements about the greatness and authority of the kings who built them. And architecture was an expression of the growing power of the Cholas. Of course, it goes without saying that their technology was far superior.
Again, different icons gained prominence. Like Tripurantaka, who was worshipped for the defeat and death of the enemy and has found reference in Bhakti hymns; Chandeswara, guardian of the Siva shrine; and Trivikrama, the Vamana avatar of Vishnu.
Champakalakshmi illustrated her talk with some slides of the sculptures that adorn the walls of these temples. As one watched these poems in stone, one could but only admire the aesthetic and artistic sensibilities of the Chola kings. Like the well known scholar Nilakanta Sastri writes, the temples "proclaimed the might and majesty of the greatest empire of the Cholas." The Tamil saint-poet Manickavasagar wrote "god is king, king is god". And some of the royal temples of South India bear testimony to that thought.
Those interested in learning more about the connection between royal ambition and temple construction can read R. Champakalakshmi's "The Hindu Temple" (Roli Books).
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