Continued from Part 1
Photos and video by Suhas Mehra, text by Beloo Mehra
In the previous part we spent some time inside the three main shrines of the magnificent Sri Bhoga Nandishwara Temple, situated at the foothills of Nandi Hills near Bengaluru, Karnataka. Let us now explore some more of the divine beauty spread all around us as we walk through the outer courtyard and take a closer look at the exterior of the temple building.
Sri Aurobindo once said that India’s “sacred buildings are the signs, the architectural self-expression of an ancient spiritual and religious culture” (CWSA, 20: 272). The continuity of the Vedic spirit in the temple design is clear from the fact that the prototype of the temple is the Agnikshetra, the sacred ground on which the Vedic yajñavedī-s are built.
“Our ancient Indian temple is not just a technical, mechanically calculated end product but also a symbolic representation of a much wider concept; it is a lucid depiction of the entire cosmos as envisioned by the artist. Undoubtedly, it involves the highest mathematical calculations and engineering skill, but under the sheets of diagrams and equations, one finds the actual foundation of the architecture-to-be – the four points of a square is what makes the sacred geometry and these represent the cardinal directions. The area in between is a representation of the earth. Madurai is a case example and during the annual mass circumambulation that takes place, this ‘earth’ within is charged by the procession, so much so that the thronging devotees swear by the electrical waves perceivable in the air.”(Shonar, Of Past Dawns and Future Noons: Toward a Resurgent India, 2006, pp. 19-20)
The temple (devālaya) – the house for the God or Goddess – was the center of life in Indian villages and towns – whether they were the great mountain and cave temples, or the temples of ancient cities of the Indian plains, or the temples of later times situated in temple cities and places of pilgrimage like Srirangam and Rameshwaram or in once regal towns like Madurai.
“An Indian temple, to whatever godhead it may be built, is in its inmost reality an altar raised to the divine Self, a house of the Cosmic Spirit, an appeal and aspiration to the Infinite.”(Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, 20: 273)
If we fail to see an Indian temple in the light of this truth and stay confined to a narrow conception of rational or material beauty and an intellectual interpretation we will never appreciate the true significance of the Indian sacred architecture. The significance of an Indian temple – a house of the Cosmic Spirit – must be experienced through some responding intuition and revelation in us, in our own soul, our own self.
Sri Aurobindo helps us understand that all art reposes on some unity and all its details, whether few and sparing or lavish and crowded and full, must go back to that unity and help its significance; otherwise it is not art. If we only look at the crowded ornamentation and splendid details of a majestic Indian temple and never go deep enough to realise within ourselves the underlying oneness of spirit that the temple is expressing, we miss out on the inner significance of the temple. Indian sacred architecture tries to figure existence as a whole and not in its pieces.
The unity or oneness that an Indian temple is expressing is not the kind of unity gained by much suppression and a sparing use of detail and circumstance (as was the case with ancient Greek architecture) or the kind of unity achieved in Gothic buildings by casting everything into the mould of a single spiritual aspiration.
Indian sacred architecture begins with the conception of an original oneness, not a combined or synthetic or an effected unity. It constantly represents the greatest oneness of the self, the cosmic, the infinite in the immensity of its world-design, the multitude of its features of self-expression. Yet the oneness is greater than and independent of their totality and in itself indefinable.
Sri Aurobindo explains the significance of the multitudinous and abundant ornamentation for revealing the underlying unity beyond it in his poetic style:
“All its starting-point of unity in conception, its mass of design and immensity of material, its crowding abundance of significant ornament and detail and its return towards oneness are only intelligible as necessary circumstances of this poem, this epic or this lyric—for there are smaller structures which are such lyrics —of the Infinite.”(CWSA, 20: 276)