A Special Feature
BY ANURADHA GOYAL
Every hindu temple is a home of its deities, where they live just like we live in our homes, following a set routine through the day and celebrating special occasions around the year. Temples themselves are a form of Deity, designed to make us feel their presence at both the gross and subtle levels. Historically, as a public place that belongs to everyone, they have been the nerve system that keeps society together. These sacred chambers and their ecosystems have evolved along with human civilization. The variety and diversity of temple structure, a science and an art in itself, marries aesthetics and storytelling with brilliant architecture and engineering. The essence of the temple is the relationship between its enshrined Deity and the devotees who take care of that Being, worship and share their everyday joys and sorrows with the Deity. It is here that the most intimate communion occurs between Deity and devotees. We find magnificent stone temples in the southern parts of India and glimpse them in the ruins of North India, but it is easy to miss the unusual, simple temples scattered all around the land of Bharat. Each of those sites has a unique story, showing how temple traditions can arise from specific circumstances and situations. They also tell us about the immense faith Hindus have in their Deities, to approach them like a child reaching out to parents or friends, sharing their love, needs and best-kept secrets. Come with me for a journey to some of India’s unique and unusual temples. Some may surprise you and expand your concept of what a temple can be.
On the Riverbed Of Shalmala
In the village of sonda, about 10.5 miles from the town of Sirsi in the South Indian state of Karnataka, the Shalmala river flows quietly through lush green forests. Approaching the river, you see carved granite stones all around, but nothing prepares you for what you see at the river when the water levels are low. All over the riverbed are boulders finely carved with Sivalingas and Nandi bulls, the vahana of Siva, as well as some Nagas, or serpent sculptures. Some larger boulders have been creatively chiseled to look like a big bull. Some of the carvings are unfinished. Sometimes the Sivalinga is done but the Nandi has just been marked on the stone; in some cases the Linga is half finished.
Looking at the base of the boulders, you realize they are a part of the riverbed, therefore must have been carved in situ. As the stones stay submerged in the river for the better part of the year, the carving must have been performed in the dry summer months when they became accessible. Imagine sculptors sitting in the middle of the river with their hammers and chisels to carve out Siva and His vahana.
Legend goes that the King of Sonda, Swadi Akasappa Nayaka, was childless. Advised to create 1,008 Sivalingas to acquire offspring, he had every stone available to him carved into a Sivalinga. He was indeed blessed with children, so these can be seen as a mark of wish fulfilment. This riverbed has a sibling in Cambodia, where thousands of Lingas are carved on the bed of Siem Reap River. Traditions have mysterious ways of traveling great distances.
Visa-Giving Chilkur Balaji
On the outskirts of hyderabad is a small temple with blue walls and colorful gopurams. The shops outside give you a punch card and a pen along with the flowers and other offerings for the temple. This is puzzling unless you know the tradition here. Inside the grounds you see everyone carrying the card and pen as they do parikrama, or circumambulations, around the tiny temple. The card has 108 numbered boxes, to count the optimum number of parikramas. On completing each round, you bow before the Deity and punch the card, then start the next circle.
This is how devotees thank the Deity, Chilkur Balaji, for obtaining a visa—to travel to their dream destination for education, work or leisure. It seems that in the 1980s, people wanting to go abroad, mostly for study, prayed here for quick visas, and their wishes were granted. The trend caught on, and the temple came to be known as the Visa Temple.
Fittingly, chilkur means small, and the temple is dedicated to Balaji. History tells how a devotee, unable to make his annual visit to the grand Tirupati Balaji Temple due to ill health, discovered a murti of Balaji here. Balaji had appeared to him in a vision to fulfill his wish, and the temple was constructed to mark the appearance. Over time, the practice developed to make eleven rounds of the temple while making a wish. When your wish comes true, you come back and do 108 parikramas. So, those who are circumambulating with punch card in hand are actually thanking the Deity for a wish fulfilled.
Unusually, this temple has no hundi (donation box). It does not accept donations. One is also advised not to close their eyes while praying, but talk to Balaji eye to eye. Possibly because wish fulfilment is the focus of this temple, a priest told me this is a temple of the young, where children bring their parents rather than the other way round.
Nyay Devata: God of Justice
In the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand, surrounded by tall deodar trees, is the temple of Golu Devta, the presiding Deity of this region. Entering the temple, you are surrounded by thousands of brass bells. Small, big, huge and giant brass bells hang everywhere, most of them tied with a red cloth called chunri.
Hanging from the walls of the corridor around the sanctum are piles of judicial stamp papers and handwritten letters. The Deity here is Nyay Devta, the God of Justice. When legal battles are not solved in court and people do not get justice in the world of humans, they put their petitions before Golu Devta to sort out disputes and disagreements. Petitioners firmly believe He will deliver justice to them in His own way.
Reading a few of these letters, you understand the devotees’ deep connection with the God. For example, a person with a terminally ill family member writes that the doctors have tried their best, but doctors are only human after all, requesting divine intervention from Golu Devta. Students share their dreams with him, seek help in clearing competitive exams, and request guidance in staying on the right path throughout their lives.
Golu Devta is considered as an incarnation of Gaur Bhairav (Siva), and is worshiped all over the region. Legends connect Him to the two primary dynasties that ruled this region—Chand and Katyuri. It is said that when he was born, his stepmothers replaced him with a stone in the palace and left him near the river, where he was saved and raised by a fisherman. As a child, he took a wooden horse to the lake, where his stepmothers were bathing, and asked it to drink water. When his stepmothers laughed, he told them that if a woman can give birth to a stone, why can’t a wooden horse drink water? His father heard of this, understood what had happened and made him the king. He was well known for his delivery of justice during his rule and continues to be approached for that purpose. The wooden horse became his vahana or vehicle; in the temple, he can be seen riding a white wooden horse.
As for the bells, devotees tie one when their wishes are fulfilled: all those bells represent wishes that have been fulfilled.
World of Miniature Sivalingas
Kashi, or varanasi, is the spiritual epicenter of India, some say of the world. It is the city of Siva; where one can find a Sivalinga or a small Siva temple in nearly every nook and corner. Hindus nearing death come to Kashi to look at death face-to-face at Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat.
In the ancient Jangamwadi Math, located not far from the famous Dashashwamedha Ghat, one finds a million miniature Sivalingas. This math belongs to the Vira Shaiva or Lingayat community that primarily hails from the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra, as evidenced by the sign boards in Kannada and Marathi here. This sect believes in and worships Sivalinga and nothing else. Their journey with that aniconic mark of God starts even before birth, when a small Sivalinga is tied around the belly of the expectant mother to protect the infant. Soon after birth, the same Sivalinga is placed on a string around the baby’s neck.
Jangamwadi Math has rooms full of miniature Sivalingas neatly arranged in rows, usually surrounding a larger Sivalinga. Thousands surround the Sivalinga inside the main temple. These are offered by the devotees during the auspicious month of Shravana, which falls during the monsoon months and is well known across India for worship of Siva. Devotees offer Sivalingas for departed loved ones, especially those who died an unnatural death, and as part of the usual rites for departed ancestors. Wherever you stand in the Math, you see so many Sivalingas that you are struck by the presence of Siva around you. No one tries to precisely quantify the number of Sivalingas here, they are so numerous and many more keep coming in.
Rudra Siva of Tala
The 7th- and 8th-century ruins of Tala are situated at the confluence of the Shivnath and Maniari rivers in Chhattisgarh’s Bilaspur District in in central eastern India. The place is widly known for the Devrani Jethani temple, which looks beautiful even in its utterly decimated condition. A 20th-century excavation here revealed a stunning piece of sculpture—a two-meter-tall murti in red sandstone of a Deity in the standing posture. Uniquely, the various body parts are carved using all possible animals and serpents. This is an excellent example of composite art, where a larger image is created using the smaller complete images of related or unrelated objects. The headgear is a coil of snakes, the nose a combination of chameleon and scorpion, the ears as peacocks, eyebrows as frogs, shoulders as crocodiles, fingers like five-fanged snakes, breasts as humans, belly as pot, lions on knees, and many more beings in finer details.
Serpents dominate the sculpture from top to bottom. There are also many signs of the zodiac. Unfortunately, some parts of the murti have broken, and we may have lost some crucial details. It is locally called Rudra Siva, and may represent the Pashupatinath form of Siva where He is seen as the protector of pashus, (“animals” or “beings”).
Rudra Siva, the signature sculpture of the state of Chhattisgarh, has been replicated in museums elsewhere. Yet, no other known sculpture is similar to this one. This uniqueness may be rooted in the place it was found. Currently it is kept locked at the site, though you can see it from outside. We do not know what the sculptor was trying to convey, nor the intention of the patron who commissioned this unusual sculpture.
Chausath Yogini Temples
Other unique sculptures are found in the Yogini temples, most of which are lost to us. Thankfully a few survive in central and eastern India. Close to the east coast, near the city of Bhubaneswar in Odisha, is Hirapur, a small village named after a queen. This is home to one of the smaller but relatively better-preserved Chausath Yogini temples, dating back to the 9th century ce. Chausath in Sanskrit and Hindi means sixty-four. These temples are dedicated to the groups of 64 Yoginis who serve Siva and Shakti. They are in fact the manifestations of Shakti Herself.
Most classical temples are rectangular in shape, with a tall shikhara, or superstructure, over the garbhagriha, the sanctum sanctorum. In contrast, Chausath Yogini temples have no roof; they are open to the sky, freely interacting with the elements. They are circular in shape, with a small entrance. Seen from above, they resemble the yoni, female genitals, a symbol of fertility and creation. They also resemble a wheel, called yogini chakra. In the center is the place for a Sivalinga, which is surrounded by the murtis of Yoginis carved on the inner circular wall of the temple. Each Yogini is identifiable through the ayudhas, or icons, in her hands, or the vahanas or vehicles She rides or stands on. The moods of the Yoginis vary from benevolent to fierce.
No two Yogini temples have the same set of Yoginis on their walls. At Hirapur, for example, one sees the rare murti of Vinayaki, the Shakti of Vinayaka or Ganesha. The chief Yogini in Chausath, located opposite the entrance, is Mahamaya, who stands upon a human head. Well adorned with garments and flowers, She is worshiped regularly. Other Yoginis, too, are offered flowers. In the middle is a platform with Bhairava murtis. Chandi Path, the most popular yagna for Shakti worship, is performed here during Navaratri. On the outer periphery of the circular temple are nine larger murtis of Goddess Durga. In the middle of Mahamaya Pushkarni tank, close by, is a small square temple, as is typical of village tanks in Odisha.
New Delhi, India’s capital, was once called Yoginipura, the city of Yoginis. Only one Yogini temple there has survived the ravages of invasions and time—the Yogmaya temple near the famous Qutub Minar, which was built after destroying 27 Hindu and Jain temples, many of which may have been Yogini temples. The parliament building in Delhi was built in a circular design resembling the Chausath Yogini temples.
The village of marcel, in goa, is home to the Devaki Krishna temple. Immediately after Devaki gave birth to Krishna in jail in Mathura, He was taken across the river Yamuna to Gokul village, where He grew up with Yashoda, His foster mother. Devaki and Krishna never met during His childhood. It is said that when Devaki finally saw grown-up Krishna, she yearned to hold Him in her arms as an infant—and Krishna took the form of an infant to fulfill His mother’s desire. The temple celebrates that moment; its main murti has Devaki holding baby Krishna. This is the only temple dedicated to the mother-son duo.
This temple is also known for its unique mud festival, held in July during the peak monsoon season, when the ground is sloshy with mud. Males in the village, from toddlers to seniors, gather in front of the temple. The owner of a local grocery store applies coconut oil to their bodies, with elders putting cotton in their ears to denote all who have been oiled. Then all chant “Jai Vitthal, Hari Vitthal” and enter the temple. They take a bit of oil from the temple’s big oil tub, dab it on their bodies, and return outside to play games in the mud—blind man’s game, tug of war, kabaddi and many more, concluding it all with a war of words. These are believed to be the same games that Krishna played in his youth, which they are re-enacting for the pleasure of Devaki, the Deity of this temple, who missed this during her son’s childhood.
Meanwhile, the village families are distributing sweets to everyone present. In the final act, Dahi Handi, men form a pyramid to reach a pot of curd hung high on the tree. The pot is broken and the curd falls on everyone in the pyramid. They then go to the local washermen’s quarters to clean bathe. This is one of the most fun festivals you can witness. Some see it as an annual earthing exercise.
Calming your Nerves
In the Chottanikara Temple in the city of Kochi in Kerala, Devi—as She who enlightens—lives in her Trigunatamak form, which embodies all the three qualities (sattva, rajas and tamas) in the one murti. There is a fascinating story about how Adi Shankaracharya brought her to this area, his land of birth; but the uniqueness of this temple is its ability to cure mental disorders.
One level below the main temple here, connected by a wide staircase surrounded by a temple tank, is the Kizhukkavu Temple, where pujas are performed here for the mentally disturbed. The Guruthi Puja, performed on Friday evenings, is considered particularly beneficial for mental issues, but to get completely cured, the prescribed worship is for 41 days. People who have been cured return and conclude the process by putting a nail into a tree at the temple with a hammer they bring with them. Many nails adorn the thick tree trunks here.
Dozens of small wooden cradles hang from the same trees, tied by those who hope the Goddess will bestow them with children so that their homes, too, will have cradles.
A unique way to worship here is the bursting of firecrackers. There is a counter where you can buy a ticket, and an official there will burst the crackers on your behalf. These sound almost like gunshots. Incidentally, gun salutes to the Goddess are given at many Goddess temples in India.
Mummy in Meditation
Unlike Egypt, India is not known for its mummies. However, some saints and lamas have entered samadhi while meditating and turned themselves into mummies. One such can be seen in the small Himalayan village of Giu, in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh, where the mummy of a Buddhist lama was discovered some years ago when a road was being repaired. Locals believe he was Sangha Tenzin, a monk of the Gelugpa order of Buddhism. He is sitting in a meditation, one hand in dhyana mudra with tips of forefinger and thumb touching. His nails and hair are said to still be growing, and his teeth are intact.
Radiocarbon dating tells us the mummy is roughly 550 years old, and the lama was in his early 40s when he died. No trace of any chemical has been found on his body. Some believe this monk knew a technique of natural self-mummification by gradually giving up food while entering a deep meditative state. Others propose he was buried under an avalanche while meditating in this cold desert region amidst naked snow-clad mountains.
Though Giu can only be reached by a detour from any other route, the lama is starting to turn this remote Himalayan village into a tourist destination. A temple has been built around the mummy, which is wrapped in the yellow monastic robes and protected within a glass enclosure. It is surrounded by coins, currency and other items of worship offered by visitors.
Where Rats Rule
The famous Karni Mata Temple, popularly known as the Rat Temple, is located in Deshnoke village, close to Bikaner in Rajasthan. The premises swarm with thousands of rats, lovingly called Kaabas and treated as the progeny of the presiding Deity Karni Mata, who lived some 600 years ago. She is the kuladevi (family protectress) of the Charan community here and of the royal family of Bikaner. Over time she came to be revered as a Goddess, and the rats here as her children. Her temple is modest, with a small murti of her that has been covered with silver. Nearby her life, documented in a fort-like museum, honoring her as an illustrious ancestor who and saved the community through miraculous deeds. Karni Mata is also considered a form of Hinglaj Mata, whose hill shrine is now part of Pakistan.
Most of the rats here are brown. The few white ones are considered extremely auspicious, so people visiting the temple look around for them. Seeing a white rat is believed to bring loads of good luck.
Here rats get priority over everyone else. The temple is their home, and you are just a visitor. Everywhere are pots of milk and piles of yellow bundi laddus, which the rats feast in great numbers. The marble façade of the temple is carved with rows of rats, each holding a laddu in its hands. Visitors must enter the temple barefoot, not even wearing socks. They cannot step over a rat or hurt one in any way. If by mistake you hurt one, you have to offer one made in silver at the temple. This unique temple reminds us to peacefully coexist with all kinds of living beings, as we are all the children of the same mother nature. It is believed that the total number of people in the Charan community and rats remains constant.
Baba Mandir of Nathula
In the high himalayan mountains of Sikkim, near Nathula Pass, is the scenic Tsomgo Lake, 38.5 miles from Gangtok. At an elevation of over 12,000 feet, this tourist attraction stays frozen most of the year. This is a border area between India and China and has often seen military action. Near the lake is the Baba Mandir, a unique temple dedicated to Sepoy Harbhajan Singh from Punjab, soldier who served in the Indian Army in the 1960s.
While leading a mission here, he fell into an icy cold river and died. His body was lost for days, until he appeared in the dreams of his comrades and directed them to his corpse. His bunker was converted into a memorial temple. There a photograph of him in full military uniform is enshrined, and an empty chair is kept for him at meetings. It is believed he continues to perform his duty at the border by keeping guard at night and warning Indian sentries through dreams. People bring back bottles of water from here as his blessing. This is a legend we have seen taking birth in our own generation.
Ode to Bharat Mata
This essay cannot be complete without mention of Bharat Mata temples, which can be seen at Varanasi, Haridwar, Ujjain and few other places. In Sanatana Dharma, the Earth has always been treated as mother. Motherland refers to the land we took birth in and belong to. Bharat Mata is a Deity that came into manifestation during the Indian Independence movement.
The first painting of Bharat Mata was created in 1905 by Abanindranath Tagore, nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. She is depicted wearing a saffron sari and, like most Goddesses, having four arms. The two upper hands hold the scriptures and a piece of white cloth; the lower hands hold a sheaf of paddy and an akshamala (string of prayer beads). Thus, She holds the essentials of human life, Shiksha-Diksha-Anna-Vastra: education, initiation, food and clothing. The original painting can now be seen at Victoria Memorial Hall Museum in Kolkata.
Within a couple of decades, a temple to Bharat Mata was built in Varanasi by Babu Siva Prasad Gupta, enshrining a to-scale 3D topographic map of India. Carved in marble from Makrana in Rajasthan, the map depicts, water bodies, oceans, islands, plateaus, plains and over 450 mountain peaks. Poet Maithili Sharan Gupta wrote an ode to this temple, and Mahatma Gandhi inaugurated it in 1936.
Studying and visiting these unique temples give us a glimpse of how their legends were formed, slowly took the shape of beliefs and finally became tradition. We also learn of the devotees’ faith in these temples, which is strengthened every time their wishes manifest, as evidenced in the rituals associated with thanking the Deity.
Formal temple architecture is a well-established art and science, but there are many temples that take a detour and carve their own niche. Some variations, like Golu Devta and Karni Mata, are limited to a small region, while others can be found across the country. Some deliver justice, others relieve pain, and some simply leave you wondering about their story. Some celebrate the land, while others celebrate its brave men and women. Anyone who nurtures or enlightens can be a Deity for us—be it the land, facets of nature, living beings or unseen elementals with whom we coexist.