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Karnataka and South India - 03 Airavatesvara Temple

Identifier

022638

Type of Spiritual Experience

Background

A description of the experience

Airavatesvara Temple is a temple of Dravidian architecture located in the town of Darasuram, near Kumbakonam in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This temple, built by Rajaraja Chola II in the 12th century CE is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Great Living Chola Temples.  The Airavatesvara temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

The pyramid, the porch, the tunnel  and the step well

The temple incorporates the standard sacred architecture features – the pyramid, the porch and the tunnel.  It also has a step well.

The temple starts with a mahadwara, main entrance on the eastern side.  The significance of the east is the same here as in other systems, the implication being that one can only enter the temple having completed the spiritual path [Four seasons and the hours].  The vimana (tower) is 24 m (80 ft) high.

Carvings - Bull and elephant

The temple has some particularly fine carvings with additional symbolism.  The bull and the elephant are notable in a number of very fine sculptures.

 The Chariot

The temple consists of a sanctum without a circumambulatory path and axial mandapas. The south side of the front mandapam is in the form of a huge chariot with large stone wheels drawn by horses. The pillars of this mandapa are highly ornate. The elevation of all the units is elegant with sculptures dominating the architecture.  Again the choice of south is significant, as it is symbolically the time of experiment on the spiritual path, after having been born one travels ‘south’ symbolically  and the chariot is the symbol of spiritual out of body experience.  In other words this is not a literal indication of the physical modes of transport used by the kings, but a representation of the spiritual modes of transport!  The care taken with the carving tells us that this is spiritual.  The chariot and its wheel are so finely sculpted that they include even the faintest details.

 

Seat of 'Sacrifice'

To the east of the inner court lies a group of well-carved buildings, one of which is the Balipita ('seat for sacrifice').  Shaivism incorporates literal sacrifice of animals for nourishment and sustenance, where the animal is first blessed and honoured for having given its life to feed man.  The idea is that one does not slaughter animals needlessly and one recognises where one’s food comes from.  Shaivism allows meat eating, but it is notable that having seen the slaughter of an animal for their benefit, many appear to turn vegetarian. 

There is also symbolic sacrifice, however, and Shaivism also embodies this concept.

Celestial music

The pedestal of the Balipita adjoins a small shrine. The pedestal has a set of 3 finely carved set of steps on the south side. Striking the steps produce different musical sounds (seven basic notes of music).  Thus there is a link here with the concept of celestial music – songlines – the music of the universe and the seven layers and levels.  This must be one of the more extraordinary symbolic concepts built in to the temple, as it must have taken great skill to get the notes ‘right’.

The High Priestesses

The north wall of the verandah consists of 108 sections of inscriptions, each containing the name and description and image of the 63 Saivacharya (Saivite saints) listing the principal events in their life. This reflects the deep roots of Saivism in this region. There are sculptures for river goddesses like Cauvery, Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari and Narmada.  Other important sculptures of the temple are the 108 Devara Othuvars who sung in the temple during the time of Raja Raja II.  This indicates that the temple was used by High priestesses and that the sexual arts and tantra were probably practised.

 

And now for a bit of Greek myth, just to compare, everyone wants  a chariot when they start out ….

The Story of Phaeton

The Sun's bright palace, on high columns rais'd,
With burnish'd gold and flaming jewels blaz'd;
The folding gates diffus'd a silver light,
And with a milder gleam refresh'd the sight;
Of polish'd iv'ry was the cov'ring wrought:
The matter vied not with the sculptor's thought,
For in the portal was display'd on high
(The work of Vulcan) a fictitious sky;
A waving sea th' inferiour Earth embrac'd,
And Gods and Goddesses the waters grac'd.
Aegeon here a mighty whale bestrode;
Triton, and Proteus (the deceiving God)
With Doris here were carv'd, and all her train,
Some loosely swimming in the figur'd main,
While some on rocks their dropping hair divide,
And some on fishes through the waters glide:
Tho' various features did the sisters grace,
A sister's likeness was in ev'ry face.
On Earth a diff'rent landskip courts the eyes,
Men, towns, and beasts in distant prospects rise,
And nymphs, and streams, and woods, and rural deities.
O'er all, the Heav'n's refulgent image shines;
On either gate were six engraven signs.

Here Phaeton still gaining on th' ascent,
To his suspected father's palace went,
'Till pressing forward through the bright abode,
He saw at distance the illustrious God:
He saw at distance, or the dazzling light
Had flash'd too strongly on his aking sight.

The God sits high, exalted on a throne
Of blazing gems, with purple garments on;
The Hours, in order rang'd on either hand,
And Days, and Months, and Years, and Ages stand.
Here Spring appears with flow'ry chaplets bound;
Here Summer in her wheaten garland crown'd;
Here Autumn the rich trodden grapes besmear;
And hoary Winter shivers in the reer.

Phoebus beheld the youth from off his throne;
That eye, which looks on all, was fix'd in one.
He saw the boy's confusion in his face,
Surpriz'd at all the wonders of the place;
And cries aloud, "What wants my son? for know
My son thou art, and I must call thee so."
"Light of the world," the trembling youth replies,
"Illustrious parent! since you don't despise
The parent's name, some certain token give,
That I may Clymene's proud boast believe,
Nor longer under false reproaches grieve."

The tender sire was touch'd with what he said,
And flung the blaze of glories from his head,
And bid the youth advance: "My son," said he,
"Come to thy father's arms! for Clymene
Has told thee true; a parent's name I own,
And deem thee worthy to be called my son.
As a sure proof, make some request, and I,
Whate'er it be, with that request comply;
By Styx I swear, whose waves are hid in night,
And roll impervious to my piercing sight."

The youth transported, asks, without delay,
To guide the sun's bright chariot for a day.

 

The source of the experience

Shaivism

Concepts, symbols and science items

Activities and commonsteps

Activities

Suppressions

Creating a sacred geography

Commonsteps

References