Bhakti, Gnyana and Aesthetics in Indian temples evoke the Divine

Temple lover Jay Shankar likes to speak through his pictures. His picture of 10th Century Kashmira, made of copper alloy with inlays of silver taken at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York, helps to convey her beauty to those who cannot make the trip to the museum themselves. Kashmira is the personification of Kashmir, also known as the daughter of the Himalayas and revered by many. The picture of the small murthy, is an excellent example of early metalwork from Kashmir. The characteristics include silver inlaid eyes; an inset chin, a small waist and fleshy abdomen; a linear pointed flaming halo; and a plain geometric base. An aesthetic that has been the highlight of brilliance in Kashmiri art.

To Shankar photography is something which is captured by a camera, but the intention is to evoke a sense of beauty of reality. “It is a question of what the person who is looking at the photographs is evoked by. And the evocation is of two or more levels – with one being of the sheer beauty of something and second by the content of the photographs. Somebody may look at a murthy of Parvathi or Vishnu, and that evokes something in the viewer. So it is the content that is evoking an emotion not just the photograph. Temple photography may be more evocative, if it is beautifully done, for a Hindu, than say for someone in Aborginal Australia. But if the photograph itself is beautiful, I have found that it evokes emotions in everybody. That is why Ansel Adams photographs of nature evoke feelings in millions of people independent of the culture.”

Shankar has been a traveller for much of his life, having lived in eight cities including two overseas. And they Himalayas and temples of the North and South have fascinated him in equal measure. His family has always believed in pilgrimages. Five generations on his mother’s side has made the long trip to Badrinath form Chennai, with his great grandmother taking three months for the trip, and her mother perhaps longer. It took Shankar a week when he was in 8th grade. Kedarnath, Mukthinath and Kailashnath round off his yatra experience nicely.

“Like many Indians, I have bathed in the holy waters of Manasarovar, Kali-Gandaki and Bhageerathi at Gomukh. I have bathed in the waters of Rameswaram, Kanyakumari, Varkala and Somnath. I enjoy going to temples, broken, reconstructed and those under worship. And in most of those places I chant Vedic chants, the memorable one being the one at the North face of Kailash,” says Shankar.

His early initiation into Yoga at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai and Vedic Chanting at 26 from Mani Vadyar in Andheri, Bombay, gave him a good grounding in Sanskrit knowledge Systems and kept memories of India alive while he was away in the US and Australia for over 19 years.

“The intensity of these things have grown over the last 10 to 15 years in terms of temples photography and yatras. Mainly this is because I have stayed overseas for long and from there when you look at India there are a few things that stand out and temples are definitely one of them, and once you are interested in temples, a yatra is a part of that. Second there are the Himalayas and there are enough kshetras in the Himalayas. Photography happened because I had seen my dad doing that and so it is in my DNA.”

Bhakti, Gnyana and aesthetics, when the three come together in a temple experience, there is a touching of the Divine. “What is evoked could be a surrender to the Lord or Goddess in a bhakta, or it could be the beauty of it. It could also simply be a sense of the space which evokes something deep within oneself. Any one of those could be a reason for somebody to go to a temple. Where does beauty come in? Every deity is considered beautiful. Vedic passages describe in detail the beauty of the deities, using words like Charu which is beauty or Charumath, which means one who has beauty. Beauty is one of the aspects of the Divine. And any evocation that one feels attracted to and wants to reach is Bhakti. And any way in which one searches for the answer within oneself or that is sacred within oneself is Gnyana. Any of these can attract one to a temple. When or how that comes together depends upon the person and who is to say which is the better way to go. Someone may go through the Bhakti route, someone may go by the Gnyana route, and someone may go by the beauty, aesthetic route. If any of this is central to why a person goes to a temple, then it becomes an experience which helps a person evolve,” says Shankar.

Thiruvanaikaval. Picture by Jay Shankar

Shankar has read and researched temples and now is a valuable guide to those undertaking a tour of temples. While most temples in India were sponsored politically and financially by the kings, the styles have depended on the stapathi who built it. “Just like when Lutyens was commissioned to build the Parliament building, his work did not reflect the British style of architecture but the Lutyens style. Similarly the temples of India reflect the skill and imagination of the stapathi who built it. The best example of this are the Hoysala temples which span around 200 years,” says Shankar who was played a critical role in the recently concluded trip to Hoysala temples organised by Heritage Trust, which was supported by Indic.

The role of the stapathi is usually not emphasised enough, as temples are recognised by the rulers so it is Chola temples, Pallava temples and Hoysala temples and temples of the Vijayanagara period. “If you look at Vishnuvardhan who started the Hoyasala Kingdom’s power structure, he built Belur and Halebid. They have a very different style compared to the temples done at the same time by one of his generals which is in Kambadahalli which is a Jain temple and which resembles Pallava architecture. Or you can look at Vishnuvardhan’s benefactor or mentor Sriramanuja and the temples built by him in Thondanur are very Spartan like the Chola temples. So in many ways while a certain Dynasty may have had a predominant style it is not correct to attribute particular styles to a particular kingship and I would rather put it to a certain time,” says Shankar.

Indian temple architecture has inspired awe both for its ornateness as well as its stark simplicity. The Hoysala temples are extremely ornate and there is nothing before or after the Hoysalas that is comparable. The Chalukyas came before the Hoysalas and the Vijayanagaras followed them. And the three are very different but if you see the time period there are overlaps at times. So where did those structures come from? “I think, most likely there must have been an extremely influential sthapathi or who was the founding father of many of these styles. And his descendants and his students took that style and ran with it, provided that their benefactor – the King – was in support of it and liked it. The kings approval was mandatory, and many of the temples used the actual proportions of the King’s size to make the murthy,” says Shankar.

The passing of a king did not influence a change in the structure of any particular temple. The stapathi tradition played a bigger role in changes in style. “It is very unlikely that the architecture would have changed because the successor wanted to change the sthapathi, because he would rather have built a new temple. Secondly, if the king was killed and the dynasty came to an end, unless the person who took over had a different inclination he would have let things be.”

The artist played a very critical role in Indian art and culture. Despite feuds, political adversaries would use the same stapathi who had been doing the work because “culturally the change in political power did not change the building structure, the people who were building it or the rest of the community. Much like in a democracy, even if the king changed, a lot of the things remain the same.”

Chidambaram. Picture by Jay Shankar

There are instances however, where the time periods were so long, that change was inevitable. “In places like Ellora where things were constructed over a very long time one can see changes. In Karnataka, the Bhoganandeshwara temple was built by the Nolambas, got extended by the Gangas was added on to by the Cholas and then was further added on to by the Vijayanagara Nayaka kings. The ceiling panels and many of the pillars are like the Nolambas, outside influence is by Cholas where the Nandi is present and there are inscriptions which point to the Chola influence. The Ganga influence is there in the very ornate mantapa, the Nayaka influence can be seen in the pillars and other structures,” says Shankar.

Melukote, Picture by Jay Shankar

Many of the temple structures today, especially larger ones like Thiruvanamallai or Srirangam, have been around for a long time and have been refurbished or extended or expanded by a succession of kings. “I would say that it is not the king or the dynasty that made the impact, although that is what is recognisable, but certain stapathis who found favour or who were there at that time, and it is their continuation, their descendants or students who took it up. This is borne out by logic because if the Nayaka king was in Hampi their stapathi would likely have been in that area, and not deep down in Madurai or Thanjavur where the Chola stapathis would have held sway. Many of the kings had diminishing power and so there were times when they were flourishing and when they went down this perhaps lead to a migration of sthapthis and each would have adapted to a different style.”

Hosaholalu. Picture by Jay Shankar

However over long periods of time, even in the Hoyasala temples, even though they look seemingly very similar, many changes happened, sometimes in how the technology changed in how they were constructed, or that many great stapathis changed and many new ones would have emerged, says Shankar.

The Madurai Meenakshi temple is the oldest temple that Shankar has been to. It dates back to the Mahabharata period. Antiquity and aesthetics, bhakti and divinity all find their way subtly into his photographs – mirroring the experience.

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