History & Culture

Symbols of tradition - Part 2

This is the second and concluding part of the story about the temple rituals, shodasha upacharas, published on April 13.

Deepa or waving a lamp lit is an integral part of the upachara, for two reasons - it was the only means of light in the past and because of its symbolism of removing ignorance. As a consequence several types of lamps evolved – those that were stationary (a fine example from the Chola period can be seen in the Government Museum, Chennai), those that were suspended from the ceiling and those held in the hand. Those held in the hand had the lamp in the front, the horizontal ‘S’ that served as two base pedestals. The space behind the lamp and the rear base had separate icons cast and fixed. Icons included a five-headed cobra, then called the nagadeepa. The cobra has been a symbol of fertility whose worship in the lesser Hindu traditions was absorbed in the Sanskrit tradition.

It could be an elephant, the gaja deepa, where the elephant symbolises royalty; the horse, a symbol of speed and valour, became the ashwa deepa. Siva temples had the rishaba, Siva’s mount. They also had the Purushamriga, an animal with the head of a man/sage. There is a minor reference to this ardent devotee of Lord Siva in the Mahabharata. In some temples, these icons were a similar pedestal without the lamp, in which case they were ritually shown to the deity much like a King would inspect his army and check if they were all in the best of condition.

Vishnu temples had a unique Kurma deepa, where the tortoise had in its rear a handle. The carapace of the tortoise had five small holes through which the wick was inserted. Against the belief that tortoise signifies ill omen, it is considered a symbol of stability and even today in Kerala, wooden seats are made in the same shape for use in Vedic rituals. Such rare lamps may have also been the whim of an aesthetic devotee and a master craftsman. There is no a specific textual reference that insists on a temple having this lamp.

Most of these lamps have been gone – auctioned off by temples or removed by unscrupulous collectors. What remains is the adukkudeepam, where each platter has several wicks in a circle and then there are smaller levels of platters, always of an odd number.

The other lamp used in the end is the Kumbha arathi, which is a pot with one upright wick at the top. This is waved in front by the priest today but was once reserved for the devadasi of the temple who would sing special songs while waving it and finally place it near the balipeetam. This ensured that the ‘evil eye’ cast on the deity was removed in this process.

For honouring guests

Poorna kumbha is a metal pot with sacred water that has in its mouth a cluster of mango leaves. This is carried by the host in both hands and shown in front of the visiting dignitary. Agamas don’t seem to mention this as an upachara for the god and this is more for honoured guests – royalty or ascetics.

Pancha thattu: These are found in Siva temples and used particularly for the evening ritual. They are placed and then shown in front of the deity. Each of them is a metal plate with a wick - Ishanam (North East/upwards), Thathpurusham (East), Agoram (south), Vamadevam (North), Sathyojathi (west) and At the centre is one for Sadasiva, this alone is a metal pot with a single wick in the centre. They represent the five aspects of Siva and signify his universal presence.

Kannadi, the handheld mirror, is twisted in a decorative fashion in front of the processional deity after the decoration is complete, symbolically allowing the deity to admire himself/herself and ‘check’ if the decorations are in order. The traditional mirrors were polished metal discs with a slender rod for the handle. Today, modern glass mirrors are used.

Kudai (umbrella) – has long been a symbol of royalty. The winning king always cut of the umbrella of the defeated king. As an upachara, a smaller metal umbrella is shown to the deity. In procession, the sunlight or rain must never fall on the deity and therefore one or even two large umbrellas with flat tops are used. Even when in the case of Vishnu temple, when riding a horse vahanam, a golden umbrella is carried with the vahanam and the deity in temples such as Srirangam during the vedupari festival.

Chamaram – flywhisks come from the manes of horses and a pair is waved on either side during processions. Many of these were in Chola times made with handles of gold.

Visiri – a fan, either a real one of cloth or a ritual one made of metal are waved for the deity. In the Nanguneri temple, the fan is a large one made of a palm frond (thala brundham).

Surutti – or Vyajanam is a teardrop shaped metal or cloth borne on a long rod. The face has the symbol of the deity and a pair is carried on either side of the procession to show the royal status of the deity. Those who bear it are called edupadi.

Veda parayanam – recitation of the Vedas is a key upachara. Also in this list is the recitation of the ‘Dravida Veda,’ the 4000 divyaprabhandam and the thevaram for Siva temples. In some temples, there is an interesting order. The Tamil saints sing of seeing God, whereas in Vedic hymns, the presence of god is inferred. Therefore in procession Tamil recitations take precedence in some temples!

Naadham – music. Deserving greater focus, many instruments exclusively for temple use are largely forgotten today. The Tiruvarur temple is probably the one with the most complex and comprehensive music traditions – different ragas for different days, and points out when the deity is in procession and for the various rituals.

Natyam – dance was once one of the most important offerings with the devadasi community but today it is largely absent. Several dance dramas were written for staging in temples and all of these are lost today, the enactment of the ‘Kaisiki Puranam’ in Tirukurungudi is an exception though, since it is a dance drama. Several medieval dance and drama texts by kings such as Shahaji and Amarasimha languish in libraries for want of revival.

Today, with most temples having a smaller number of devotees or having devotees not always familiar with the Sanskrit languages, many of the hymns that need to be said when the upachara is performed have been lost. The God-Ruler connection continues but in a democracy, it is confined to political posters! The only purpose for these upacharas therefore seem to teach us to enjoy a feast for the senses and use that elevated level of consciousness to propel us to be better human beings.

The writer, who has recently authored a book on lesser known temples of Tamil Nadu, can be reached at pradeepandanusha@ gmail.com

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 2:07:48 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/symbols-of-tradition-part-2/article3331935.ece

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