Gateway to the Gods; Sermons in Stone and Images in Bronze

By Nagaswamy, R. | UNESCO Courier, March 1984 | Go to article overview
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Gateway to the Gods; Sermons in Stone and Images in Bronze


Nagaswamy, R., UNESCO Courier


For the past two thousand years the life of the Tamil people has centered on their temples with their lofty towers, elegant sculptures and remarkable bronzes.

A number of places in Tamil Nadu are said to be directly or indirectly connected with episodes in certain popular myths and legends relating to one or other of the pdivine manifestations of Siva, Vishnu, Subrahmanya, Durga and other gods.

Places mentioned in epics land puranas (collections of legendary tales) assumed a sacred aura and were visited by a large number of devotees. While some such legends are pan-Indian in nature, most of them are purely Tamil in origin and in essence.

The Vishnu temple of Srirangam and pthe Siva temple of Ramesvaram are thus connected with Ramayana epic.

Rama worshipped Siva at Ramesvaram to purge his sin of having killed Ravana.

Thiruchendur, a place ssacred to Muruga, is believed to be the spot where Subrahmanya killed the demon Surapadma.

The Meenakshi temple of Madurai is said to be the place where Siva performed sixty-four miraculous sports.

Temples were also built for the welfare of the people. An inscription at Mamallapuram records that a temple of Lord Siva was erected by the king to fulfil the desires of his subjects. Whenever a king settled his people in a new place, he erected a number of temples and arranged for worship for the well-being of the invabitants. When Karikala, the celebrated Chola ruler of the Sangam period, established Uraiyur as his capital, in accordance with the instructions given in the acncient treatiese he erected temples before building housing for his subjects. p Temples were also often built in honour of rulers, parents, relatives or famous men.

The great majority of temples, however, were erected by kings, queens and nobles out of piety and devotion.

Koccengannan, a Chola ruler of the Sangam period, erected seventy lofty temples to Siva as an act of devotion. The celebrated Pallava monarch Mahendravarnam I 590-630 AD excavated a number of temples out of rock as an act of piety. "Having made this abode for the Lord Siva, whose image he has installed there, he bore the supreme Lord on his head", says an incription of his at Tiruchirapalli. Indeed, Mahendra eventually assumed the title of Mahachettakari, or "Great Temple Builder". The great temple of Tanjore, built by the great Chola monarch Raja Raja I 985-1014 AD, was erected as an act of pious dedication.

Temples were also erected to honour the dead, either at the place of burial or in the form of memorials. After a period of mourning, the dead, it was believed, became celestial beings and were therefore to be worshipped. Sthe erection of monumental structures for lthe dead can be found in very large numbers.

Dolmens in particular played an important role in the evolution of temples to lthe dead and, in later periods, minor temples closely reslembling dolmens are to be found. Often an image of the dead person appears on the back wall.

The form of worship in the temple is prescribed by ritual treatises called Agamas or Tantra Sastras. All agamic texts consist of four parts: Caryapda, Kriyapdad, Yogapada and Jnanapada.

The Carypada deasl with such things as the persona

cleanliness, discipline and initiation of the worshipper. The mode of worship in the temple is treated under the Kriyapada. The Yogapada details the yogic path to be followed by the devotee.

The Jnanapada is essential as it deals eith the ultimate end of worship, culminating in the realizaion of knowledge and final emancipation and thus embodies the essential philosophic concep of each sect.

The earlier Agamas are elaborate treatises dealing not only with temple ritual but also, ion great detail, with such matters as the lay-out of villages and cities, the building of house and temples, and the manufacture of utensils.

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