Category Archives: I. The Hindu Temple and Worship Rituals

The Kalighat Temple and Kali

Kalighat and Its Goddess Kali

The Kalighat Temple is a shrine to honour the Goddess Kali. Kali throughout her history has always been linked to death and destruction. Her appearance alone represents mayhem. Her hair is dishevelled, she has four arms, she is dark and blood is often depicted being smeared on her lips. In her hands she holds a cleaver and a severed head, and with her other two hands she signals peace (Kinsley 77-78). Almost all stories about Kali speak exclusively of her killing someone if not many people. Kali is said to have a tendency to become blood thirsty and even lose control. Kali represents many ideas but over them all she is considered to portray the concept of pain and sorrow, always showing that nothing can escape death but that death, to those who have released themselves from “reality”, is not the end. (Kinsley 142-145).

Kali is associated with the god Siva. Conflict between Kali and Siva is a recurrent theme in many Kali related myths. Both are said to haunt the wilderness, causing destruction or trouble in different ways. Kali in some myths is sent to slay great warriors on the battlefield. This is claimed to protect the world and others from destruction, but at times it seems like Kali is the one who is the destroyer. In one myth, the Vamana-purana, her name is interchanged with Parvati’s [Siva’s wife]. Parvati however does not like having Siva comparing her to Kali, due to her dark complexion, and rids herself of any dark attributes (Kinsley 101-108). In other stories Kali is tied to Siva not so much directly but through Parvati herself. In the Siva-Purana, it is said that all goddesses come from one goddess, Uma-Sati-Parvati. This goddess again is also claimed as Siva’s wife. Kali does not get mentioned in the same manner but later on in a retelling of a story, she is said to come from Siva’s hair (Kinsley 104).

An infamous depiction has Kali dancing on top of Siva who is laying on the ground. The story behind this is while Kali was on the battlefield she becomes so overwhelmed with killing and tasting blood she breaks into a dance that shakes the earth. Siva upon seeing this, lays down at her feet and when she notices him there she then ceases her war dance (Kinsley 108). This is the most popular story regarding Kali’s dominance and blood-thirsty tendencies. With Kali always being portrayed as being disruptive it shows that she is one that goes against stability and what others percieve as order. Kali gets sent to battle warriors and demons but often is shown at the end representing that which she is trying to destroy. When associated with Siva, Kali is the opposite of his other spouse Parvati. Parvati is shown to calm Siva, balancing with his tendencies of destruction. Kali however seems to always bring out Siva’s antisocial and destructive side. To further counter-act each other, Parvati is the one who calms Siva. However it is Siva who is said to try to tame Kali. The disruptive nature of Kali, when being compared with other goddesses, embodies an idea of the anger and intensity that is brought out when forced on the battelfield or to war (Kinsley 80).

Being associated with such violence and often frowned upon behaviour, she thrusts upon an individual the darker aspects of society that many try to ignore or not think about. The Hindu culture was that of people looking for freeing themselves of false reality and obtaining one pure mind. Having such vile aspects of society brought out to the fore front, Kali allows one to see the many faces dharma can take. This brings to life the idea that some call her the Mother Goddess. She is portrayed as a Mother Goddess because she is claimed to bring her devotees a broad world-view (Kinsley 84). Some follow strict dharmic ways and to those and view Kali as too harsh. To others she is viewed as a revealer of the world in its true self, its violent reality. From either position Kali represents that harshness which so many try to avoid. To all, Kali is the part of life that is the hardest to face, that which is inevitable. Kali represents the world as it really is and not just the positive that people have a tendency to focus on. Followers of Kali view her as a way to see the full world and use it to further step away from all illusions (Kinsley 136-137).


Harding, E. U. (1998). Kali: the black goddess of Dakshineswar. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Puiblishers.

Kinsley, D. R. (1996). Kali, Blood and Death Out of Place. In J. S. Hawley, & D. M. Wulff, Devi, Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kinsley, D. R. (1975). The Sword And The Flute. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

McDermott, R. F., & Kipal, J. J. (2005). Encountering Kali: in the margins, at the center, in the West. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.


Article written by: Phil Austin who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Animal and Plant Iconography

Iconography can be defined as the study of images (paintings, mosaics or sculptures) of deities or saints that are worshipped by the followers of a religion (Banerjea 1, 2, 6). It involves examining the various art forms, noting the types of images used and interpreting the meanings of the various images (Banerjea 2). Especially in the Hindu tradition, these images are diverse and vary from region to region and across time, such that there are many differences in the images associated with particular deities. Studying the images that followers of a particular religion create, especially those recovered from archeological excavations, can give us great insight not only into the types of gods and goddesses worshipped but possibly the ways in which they were worshipped and values important to the society (Banerjea 7, 8, 175; Nagar 129).

Depictions of animals and plants in the Hindu tradition date back to the Indus Valley Civilizations in the cities of Mohenjodaro and Harappa. Many of the clay seals and coins created during this period, some believed to be as much as four or five thousand years old (Banerjea 158), incorporate some combination of animal, plant and human images (Nagar 4). Among these are images of male and female figures surrounded by animals and/or plants or taking full- or part- animal form (Nagar 4). In particular, one terracotta seal depicts a three-faced (trimukha) male figure sitting down in a forest setting, wearing a horned headdress and surrounded by an elephant, a tiger, a rhinoceros, a buffalo and two deer (Nagar 55, 57; Banerjea 159). This figure is thought to be an early representation of Siva, an important god that is still worshipped today and is often referred to as the “Lord of the Beasts” (Nagar 60). Other seals have been found that show a male figure that is standing by or on an acacia tree attacking a tiger and another with a male figure holding two tigers by their throats on either side of him (Nagar 62, pl. 51). Another seal shows a feminine deity – known as the Tree Goddess – standing with two tree branches on either side of her and a composite animal made up of a bull and a goat, with the face of a human standing nearby (Banerjea 168; Nagar 48). A number of forest deities (most often female) are also thought to have worshipped in ancient India (Nagar 101-104; Zimmer 69), including: the Tree Goddess, a goddess said to have a complexion as green as grass, another with a lighting-bright complexion, seated on a lotus and others with their arms wrapped around the trunk of a tree. In addition, trees were given human form and characteristics, often as dryad-like figures (Nagar 104). Snake or serpent deities (Nagas and Naginis) also likely had followers in ancient India (Nagar 94; Banerjea 347); these gods and goddesses are often portrayed as multi-headed, with jewels on their hoods, two-tongued and having hands (Banerjea 348).

Composite animal forms are quite commonly depicted on items found at Harappan and Mohenjodaroan sites (Nagar 73). There are human-animal forms, animals with human heads or faces, humans with horns, multi-headed animals, and other composite animals (Nagar 73-79): half human-half serpent (nagas), half human-half bull and half woman-half tiger are the most common human-animal forms found on ancient Indian clay seals; elephants, ox-like creatures, goats, rams, tigers and composite forms of these animals are those depicted with human faces; a male figure with a tail, two horns and a bow in one hand was found on a copper tablet in Mohenjodaro and other similar figures have been found on terracotta pottery and seals; an example of the multi-headed animals has the body and head of a urus-like animal (a now-extinct large cattle species) with two additional heads – that of an antelope and a short-horned bull; composite animals include chimera-like animals consisting of bison, unicorn and ibex parts. There are also portrayals of animals themselves on clay seals and figurines: unicorn-like figures, humped and humpless bulls, buffalos, goats, lions, tigers, serpents, crocodiles, peacocks, doves, monkeys (including one of a monkey holding a baby), rhinoceroses, and elephants (Nagar 7-8, pl. 42-50). Plant and vegetation designs, including lotuses, palmyra, date palms, acacias and other trees, are also commonly seen on ancient seals associated with goddesses or being carried by human figures (Banerjea 173).

Plant and animal images are so connected to Hindu deities that they are often identified by or differentiated between by the images around them (Banerjea 134). Deities are also depicted as having multiple arms in which they hold a range of objects, including various plants or flowers.

Animal Forms: Some Hindu deities currently worshipped that date back to the Vedic period have animal manifestations. The god Visnu is a prime example; of his ten incarnations (avataras), five are animal or part animal – the Fish (Matsya), the Tortoise (Kurma), the Boar (Varaha), the Man-Lion (Narsimha) and the White Charger (Kalki) (Swali 22). The goddess Sri-Laksmi is thought to take the form of a golden antelope adorned with gold and silver garlands (Banerjea 134) and the great god Siva frequently takes the form of his bull mount Nandi (Banerjea 535). The pot-bellied, child-like god Ganesa, the son of Siva and his consort Parvati, is a particularly well-known and much adored figure in modern India (Nagar 10). He has an elephant head in all of his depictions (Zimmer 70; Banerjea 357) and is also depicted holding a radish, with a tiger skin garment and a sacred thread made of a snake (Banerjea 360). Hanuman, the monkey deity of the Ramayana epic, is another god in animal form. Garuda, Visnu’s vehicle, is usually represented as a large bird-like figure with wings, human arms, legs of a vulture and a beak-like nose (Banerjea 531; Zimmer 75).

Vahanas: Depictions of gods and goddesses in the Hindu tradition typically include an animal, or sometimes a plant, that sits beneath and carries the deity’s human form; this is called their vehicle or vahana (Zimmer 70). Some of these vahanas, which are representative of the character and the energy of the deity they are seated beneath (Zimmer 70), are listed below.

Agni: ram (Banerjea 485)

Brahma: swan (Banerjea 514) or a lotus (Zimmer 51)

Durga/Devi: lion/tiger (Zimmer 48,70)

Ganesa: rat/mouse (Zimmer 70)

Indra: white elephant called Airavara (Zimmer 48, 53)

Krsna: sometimes he is seated on a horse made out of gopis (Swali 29)

Kubera: a crouching man (Zimmer 70)

Laksmi: lotus (Zimmer 92)

Parvati: lion (Banerjea 469; Zimmer 70), alligator/iguana in some medieval images (Banerjea 172, 501)

Siva: white humped bull named Nandi (Zimmer 48; Banerjea 135)

Skanda (who is said to be another of Siva’s sons): peacock (Banerjea 365)

Surya: a chariot pulled by seven horses (Banerjea 516) or a lotus (Banerjea 137)

Visnu: eagle/Garuda (Zimmer 76) or a serpent called Ananta (Zimmer 37, 59)

Yama: buffalo (Nagar 81)

Other Associated Images: Aside from their animal forms or vehicles, there are often certain images that commonly appear in representation of deities, only a few of which are listed here. A bull is sometimes seen alongside Parvati as she is one of Siva’s consorts and the bull is Siva’s mount (Banerjea 407, 470). As mentioned above, Siva is called the Lord of the Beasts and has many animals surrounding him as well as a necklace and bracelets made from snakes (Nagar 94; Zimmer 183). The goddess Laksmi, when in her human form, is bathed by two elephants and surrounded by lotus flowers (Banerjea 375).

A number of animals and plants have certain significance in the Hindu tradition and are commonly represented in religious art. Some of these and their images are discussed below.

Lotus: The lotus is a particularly common and important motif in Hindu art. Deities are often depicted sitting on lotus flowers (including Laksmi, Brahma and Surya) or holding lotus flowers (Banerjea 304); in fact, this is one of the most common items they are shown to hold in sculptures (Banerjea 138). The lotus flower, also called padma, is said to represent the sun, creativity (Banerjea 138, 304) and enlightenment (Zimmer 146) and is associated with the creation of Brahma and the universe (Zimmer 90). Many representations of the god Visnu show a lotus projecting from his navel, which carries Brahma on its petals (Zimmer 61).

Monkey: Monkeys are regarded as sacred in modern India and may have been regarded as sacred in ancient times as evidenced by the relatively large number of models of monkeys that have been found in the Indus Valley Civilization sites (Nagar 86). Hanuman, the much-loved monkey god discussed above is an example of the special place that monkeys have in Hinduism; he is described as being a loyal servant (of Rama in the Ramayana) skilled in magic (including the ability to change size), grammar and healing and statues of him are situated at the entrances of forts, towns and villages (Nagar 87).

Bull: Due to its close association with the god, Siva’s followers often worship the bull but the bull is also thought to have had its own cult in ancient times (Nagar 87). It is a symbol of strength and fertility (Nagar 56, 87).

Swan/Gander: As the mount of Brahma, the gander or swan is a symbol of freedom from the cycle of rebirths (samsara) and also of the divine essence and the “creative principle” (Zimmer 48). It is even said that when a Hindu attains liberation, he or she attains the rank of “gander”/hamsa (Zimmer 48).

Snake/Serpent: Images of serpents (nagas) are also common in Hindu art and have a number of symbolic meanings. Some of these include water (Zimmer 37), life energy, guardianship and cleverness (Zimmer 63). They are often associated with images of eagles with the two in opposition as the former represents more earthly qualities and the latter the heavens and freedom (Zimmer 75).

Tree: Trees are worshipped in the form of goddesses but some are also considered sacred in and of themselves, and are worshipped in their natural form (Banerjea 173; Nagar 104). Pipal (Ficus) or nimba trees are regarded as holy or sacred to Hindus and idols are placed underneath them (Zimmer 72; Nagar 98). There is one particular tree (the asoka tree), which is said only to bloom if a girl or young woman touches or kicks it (Zimmer 69). In the creation of the universe, one of the forms of the “life-maintaining element” is sap from a cosmic tree (Zimmer 34). To Hindus, ancient and more modern, trees symbolize beauty, knowledge, life and fertility (Nagar 98, 103; Zimmer 69).

Elephant: Elephants, too, are a common motif in Hindu art and have been an important part of Indian society. Kings sought to own and domesticate elephants and they were used for battle and ceremonial purposes to carry people. According to myth, elephants came into being at the very beginning of time, with Indra’s mount Airavata being the first elephant to emerge from the cosmic egg held by Brahma. Elephants are also said to “support the universe at the four quarters and the four points between” (Zimmer 103, 104). In addition to Airavata, the two elephants associated with Laksmi and the elephant-headed god Ganesa are both prominent representations of elephants in Hindu art. Elephants, partly because they are associated with Laksmi (the Lotus Goddess of fortune and prosperity) and partly due to their long life span, are symbols of fertility, good harvest and other “earthly blessings” and thus must be treated with care and worshipped (Zimmer 108, 109).



Banerjea, Jitendra N. (2002) The Development of Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Chawla, Jyotsna. (1990) The Rgvedic Deities and Their Iconic Forms. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Nagar, Shantilal (1998) Indian Gods and Goddesses: Early Deities from Chalcolithic to Beginning of Historical Period v.1. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Rao, T.A. G. (1914) Elements of Hindu Iconography. Madras: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Ltd.

Swali, Nalini (1984) “Metamorphosis in Myth.” MARG 36(2): 21-30.

Waghorne, Joanne P. (1991) “Vahanas: Conveyers of the Gods” MARG 43(2): 15-28.

Zimmer, Heinrich (1946) Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Hindu deities

Hindu art



Indus Valley Civilization

IVC seals and figurines

Animal symbols

Tree Goddess












Animal worship

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Jenna Woodman (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Yamuna River

The Yamuna River is a major tributary in northern India which flows though many major Indian provinces into the Ganges. This river has become an important cultural symbol in the Hindu tradition, representing the goddess Yami and the powers attributed to her. The culture that has evolved around this river have become threatened in the past century due to the effects of pollution. Yet, even with the present turmoil surrounding this natural wonder, her importance and relevance in modern culture still survives.

Water is the life blood for the best part of all creatures in existence. This simple, yet vitally important substance has an understandably special place in all cultures, and the Hindu tradition is no different. Bathing, prayer, and death ceremonies are but a few practices from a vast number in which water has a significant role in India. Crops for food and livestock depend upon water as a necessity of life. Understanding the magnitude to which water affects their lives, Hindus who depended on waterways saw water as a gift from the gods. In the Rg Veda, there are several hymns dedicated to celebrating the water’s life-giving qualities. Thus water itself is seen to be of a divine nature, sometimes having gods themselves identified as waterways. The Yamuna River is among seven rivers in India which has the blessedness of the deity Ganga (Hawley and Wulff 137) ascribed to it, who is the goddess of all sacred water. Although the goddess Ganga is the embodiment of all sacred water, and is present in the Yamuna River, the goddess Yami is said also to be the main deity embodied. Yami is the goddess of love, and like the other goddesses of water, is quite often referred to as mother (because of water’s ability to nurture like that of a mother).

Physical traits of the goddess Yami have become affiliated with the Yamuna River. Yami is the twin sister of Yama and is the daughter to the god of the sun, Surya and his wife Samjna. In religious mythology, Samjna’ could not look Surya in the eyes while making love because of his brightness (Hawley and Wulff 137). Samjna became like the shadow, Chhaya, and her children were to be alike. This attribute of Samja’s dark side, Chhaya, is present in Yama, who becomes the god of death, and Yami is claimed to be dark skinned. This theme of dark characteristics of Yami is true of the Yamuna River, water which has a dark color.

Beyond the physical trait, the religiously important ethereal traits of gods are often attributed to the material world. Although Yami’s brother Yama is the god of death, he is considered to be one of the most dharmic entities, becoming also known as the “King of Righteousness” (Haberman 137). Yami, on the other hand, is an allegorical antonym to Yama; being passionate, blindly lustful, and representing all which is love (Haberman 138). These characteristics of Yami are said to be present in the Yamuna River. Performing ritual baths in the river allows for the essence of the goddess and her qualities to be absorbed. Another reason many bathe in the Yamuna is because of the Indian epic the Mahabharata. Yami is closely related to Krsna, who in the epic is an avatar of the great god Visnu. It is said Krsna made love to Yami and a drop of precipitation from his body fell to make wave of bliss (Nelson 239). The act between Krsna and Yami is seen as the perfect union, and the act of love making often draws couples to the Yamuna to help with fertility.

Mythology and traditions pertaining to the Yamuna River are immense and many are still in practice. Some of India’s largest cities lie on the river, including New Delhi and Agra, which have a together have a population approximately fourteen million. Many religious and historical sites (such as the Taj Mahal) are close to the river. Water from the river is taken by people and temples to perform multiple pujas, or acts of worship (Haberman 96). Rituals are common with Yamuna River water which is an integral part of too many people’s daily routine.

Unfortunately the Yamuna River in modern times is not just used for religious practices, bathing, drinking, transportation, etc. Rather it is used to dispose of hazardous material and raw human waste. Slums downstream from main urban settings use this toxic water, creating open sores on the body, which only grow larger with more contact. The Yamuna River it seems is now the unwelcome home of irony. Bathing, in Hinduism, is a way of purifying one’s body, ironically, if done in the Yamuna today, more contamination will be added to the body than was on it before., Three thousand two hundred ninety-six million litres of raw sewage is add to the river daily [see Yamuna Action Plan]. The all loving nature of the goddess Yami is jeopardized by the severally polluted river in which she is now embodied


Haberman, David L. (2005) River of Love in an age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Baartmans, Frans (2000) The Holy Waters: A primordial symbol in Hindu Myths. Delhi: B.R. Publishing Corporation.

Hawley, John S. and Wulff, Donna M. (1996) Devi: goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nelson, Lance E. (1998) Purifying the earthly body of god: religion and ecology in Hindu India. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation









Rg Veda


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Cole Schneider (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Brhadisvara Temple

The Brhadisvara Temple was built, in its entirety, during the reign of King Rajaraja (985 – 1014 CE) of the Cola Dynasty. At the onset of his political reign, the Cola kingdom was constricted to the Tamil country. Rajaraja implemented a rigorous twenty year military campaign which resulted in putting most of Southern India and some of North India under the rule of the Cola monarchy (Vasudevan 16).

The Brhadisvara Temple is considered a royal temple. A royal temple differs from a bhakti temple (or a non-royal temple) in that a royal temple is built by a monarch to their chosen gods and “were grand in design and execution,” while a bhakti temple usually originates as a small shrine built from brick (Vasudevan 152).

In 1003 CE, his nineteenth year of reign and near the end of his military campaign, Rajaraja commenced the construction on a grand temple located in the town of Thanjavur (in southern India). Upon completion, the temple was the most “massive temple in India” (Davis 4). It is said that King Rajaraja’s greatest achievement was this monumental temple, which he named Rajarajesvaram –known today as the Brhadisvara Temple or sometimes just referred to as the Big or Great Temple (Vasudevan 43).

Building a temple was a highly visible political act as well as a devotional one. It was said that “only the king of kings could be considered qualified to construct a preeminent temple” (Davis 6). One of several purposes for the construction of the temple is that it was a highly visible proclamation of Rajaraja’s political achievement.

Another, and more devotionally directed, purpose was to provide a home for a divinity that Rajaraja believed was the unsurpassed ruler of the cosmos. This temple was constructed in order to allow god to receive homage and offerings of devotion presented by kings, the kings’ family and the kingdom. Only a supreme god could be worth such great devotion. Rajaraja built the most magnificent temple to Siva, which was believed to elevate Siva to the position of Supreme Diety. As Siva usually resides upon Mount Kailasa, or Northern World-Mountain, Rajaraja believed that by building this imperial temple he was giving Siva a home in the south, equal to his northern abode (Davis 6).

However, the main purpose that the temple was devoted to Siva was that the Colas believed in Bhakti Saivism. During the Colas’ rule many shrines were built or remodelled to unmistakably show their devotion to Siva. “Through the adoption and patronage of the cult of linga, the Colas universalized a new aspect into the worship of Siva” (Vasudevan 101).

The temple was erected with two sets of outer walls – the most outer wall serving a defensive purpose. The Big Temple is the first temple in southern India that was built with any defensive apparatus (Vasudevan 44). The temple is made mostly of granite – a stone which was not indigenous to Thanjavur – had to be obtained from outside the kingdom making acquiring the building materials a difficult task. The temple sits on the side of a river that was specifically re-routed as to allow a moat to form around the temple. The temple tower is composed of 16 stories and stands an unprecedented 63 meters high and is was claimed to be among the tallest in the world (Vasudevan 153). The tower is topped off with a single spherical block of granite, which is known in Southern India as a vimana (Vasudevan 44). Pillars, piers, and pilasters are placed all around the sikhara. Inside, entire wall spaces and ceilings were covered in exquisite paintings. Unfortunately, most of the original artwork has been obstructed since the time of original conception.

The primary icon in the temple is the gigantic Siva-linga, said to be the “the largest such linga in existence” (Davis 5). The Siva-linga is the principal icon because in its highest form Siva is said to inhabit it. The linga is the geographical centre of the shrine and is considered to be the generative source of the entire temple complex (Davis 7). By installing the massive linga in the royal temple, Rajaraja wanted to identify the linga with himself. The considerably large “linga, enshrined in the most majestic temple, built by the mightiest emperor of the south, bore a direct comparison to the glory and might of the Cola monarch” (Vasudevan 159).When Rajaraja’s subjects bowed to the linga in the temple they were indirectly showing their commitment and obedience to Rajaraja. By implementing the indirect action of showing dual allegiance and submission to Siva and Rajaraja, he was able to use the spiritual aspect of the royal temple to unite Cola control over his large empire.

To serve Siva and the other gods of the temple, Rajaraja and his royal entourage made extensive donations. Among Rajaraja’s personal donations were: gold artefacts, silver objects, Myriad jewels, and land. Dancers were also supplied from other temples throughout the empire to entertain Siva.

Even in a time where Hindu kings were trying to surpass each other in the lavishness and size of their temples (between 700 and 1200 CE), no temple comes close to the Brhadisvara Temple’s opulence (Vasudevan 44). Vasudevan states that, “compared to [the Brhasdisvara], other temples were like little churches before a cathedral” (43).

Rajaraja’s son and successor, Rajendra I (reined in 1012-1044 originally with his father) extended the Cola Empire when he took power. He instigated a successful military mission that reached the Ganges. Rajendra I built a new capital city, Gangaikondacolapuram (“the city of the Cola king who took the Ganges”), and, replicating his father, he created another imperial scale Siva temple with a linga that is the largest monolithic linga in the Tamil country (Davis 6) (Vasudevan 46,106).

The Great Temple was not solely used for the purpose of worship and devotion. Personal and communal activities, the performing arts and the literary arts all took place there. The temple also functioned as an employer, a landlord, and a money lender. By these acts the Brhadisvara Temple turned into a major economic institution for Southern India.

Another difference between royal and non-royal temples is the way the administration staff was appointed/ hired. The administrative staff of the royal temple of Tanjavur worked within well-defined powers and responsibilities and were appointed directly by the government from anywhere in their territory. However, in bhakti temples the administrative workers were vested with local bodies. There were more than 800 personnel on the pay-roll of the temple (Vasudevan 93). Rajaraja was able to incorporate everything and everyone into the temple. He made the temple the centre of his empire. He brought in people from every corner of his kingdom. An example of this is that Rajaraja did not bring in resources that were close to the capital. He had material brought in from remote areas of his empire with the underlying idea that this would bring the kingdom closer together. By bringing in resources from all over the kingdom, and not just from the capital, allows different parts of his empire to come into closer interaction with each other.

A large portion of the Temple’s administrative work was done to administer grants and monitor services within the temple (Vasudevan 155). Since the administration employees were chosen by the government it was easy to obtain support of other government agencies, therefore allowing the administration of grants to occur flawlessly.

The Brhadisvara Temple had a large amount of wealth attached to it. No other temple had property, gold, and cash as much as a royal temple did. This is because King Rajaraja lavishly applied his wealth to the temple. Rajaraja used the Temple to unite the existing territories under Cola rule to the acquired territories. He combined his power by granting villages from these newly acquired regions as devadanas (gifts to the gods) to the temple. Religion had a powerful appeal to the people and Rajaraja translated this appeal into an organization that influenced and controlled various regions (Vasudevan 157). Rajaraja wanted to link every part of his realm to his temple. He made the royal temple a great organization that was worthy to be associated with his subjects. It is because of the temple’s ‘worthiness’ that his temple is a symbol of his grand empire (Vasudevan 158).


Davis, Richard H. (1991) Worshipping Siva in Medieval India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Vasudevan, Geeta (2003) The Royal Temple of Rajaraja: an Instrument of Imperial Cola Power. Delhi: Shakti Malik.

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Article written by: Kimberly Oliverio (March 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

Hindu Pilgrimage

There are a large number of people that travel across India every year on pilgrimage in order to celebrate and develop new sense of spiritual awareness. There are specific pilgrimages for the devotees of Krsna and others who follow the god Rama. Each set of followers travel to distinct destinations that are specific to a particular deity. Other pilgrimages are done in order to visit sacred sights and temples, some for religious purposes and others for more leisurely reasons. These journeys can be done for reasons of celebration, while others have more profound and sacred motivations behind them. Pilgrimages can be undertaken alone as an solitary journey to find oneself reconnect with a special form of self-awareness. Other journeys, however, can be taken in groups as fun adventures. There are a remarkable number of differences found in pilgrimages within Hinduism.

The Sanskrit word for pilgrimage is yatra, and one undergoes this in a process of observance or vrata. Some who take on a pilgrimage will do so because of a motivation to travel and see other parts of India. For some, the practice has a more spiritual meaning. The idea of journeying may be an attempt to reach perhaps a temple or holy site in the hopes of receiving forgiveness. Others may decide to take on a pilgrimage in order to find a path of self awareness, and understanding. Whatever the reason may be behind the pilgrimage there are numerous options to any traveler. Another common type of traveler found on a Hindu pilgrim is a new married couple, perhaps using a pilgrimage as a honeymoon. Pilgrimages relating to new marriage can also be tied to traditions connected with goddesses that hope to bring fertility and prosperity. (“Village Daughter,” Sax, 498) Many who choose to go on a pilgrimage do so in the hopes of being able to travel from the reality found in everyday life to a more centered and holy place (an axis mundi). The ability to travel into this realm comes from crossing a tirthas or a crossing place. This crossing allows the traveler to be able to make the journey across reality to a holy place. Jean Rémy argues that, “Popular religion, particularly seen in the pilgrimage, is thus supposed to lend greater importance to the individual with his personal problems and at the same time to favour participation in collective undertakings.” (Remy, 41) Some pilgrimages brought about through tragedies such as a death, such as the sraddha ceremony for those who have died. (Bharati, 138) This ceremony is linked to the holy site of Gaya. Family members will carry the ashes of the deceased family member, which have been preserved till the pilgrimage, and deposite them in Gaya. (Bharati, 139) Other pilgrimages are more festivals in order for people to gather and celebrate. The Kumbha Mela is a festival that takes place every three years but is held in four different locations. Not every location is held in the same regard, which is made evident through the much larger gathering at Prayag (Allahabad). This location holds the festival every twelve years and millions travel there. Popular rituals for worshippers at this location are bathing in the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. The idea of bathing is to purify oneself and because of the belief that bathing in a holy place will allow the pilgrim to also become holy. (Sax, 54) A vast number of travelers visit this festival making it very popular.

Other popular pilgrimages are ones in which those devoted to a certain deity set out in a journey of worship. Individual deities have separate destinations for worship that travelers can visit. For Krsna-bhaktas a journey to Mathura or Dvaraka is a popular choice while Rama-bhaktas will journey to Ayodhya. A very popular holy site is the temple of Sri Venkatesvara that is dedicated to a form of Visnu. It attracts thousands of visitors each day and is a very wealthy temple. While some pilgrimages are marked by a journey to a natural landmark such as a river or a mountain other journeys take one to a manmade temple. The hopes of awakening self-awareness are apparent in some pilgrimages, and some devotees begin their journeys because of personal failure. Furthermore, it is obvious that some pilgrims set out clearly to honour and worship their own personal deity. Often times the option of pilgrimage is determined depending on location, as pilgrims are often restricted due to location, time, and the financial constraints of undertaking such a task. While there are many pilgrimages in West Bengal they are often restricted to those living in the region of Bengal because of the time needed to travel to the location. (Morinis, 12) In order to compensate for the amount of time needed to travel on a pilgrimage, some pilgrims take part in a shorter pilgrimage, often taking part in the journeys culmination. (Sax, 47) For some the practice of a pilgrimage can be the journey to a festival, a journey to a temple, holy site, or an attempt at spiritual awakening. Sādhus or holy men participate in pilgrimages in the Himalayas; there they challenge themselves by travelling barefoot on demanding paths. While some Hindus see pilgrimages as simply a chance to travel, while others regard pilgrimage as a difficult challenge in order to become stronger in personal faith.

It is impossible to make sweeping conclusions about pilgrimages in Hinduism due to the fact that they occur for such a multitude of reasons. However, due to the vast number of travels being undertaken by pilgrims they offer a fascinating study not only to those interested in studying Hinduism but also anthropology and geography. Part of what makes pilgrimages important is not only the importance to Hindus but also the fact that it is an ongoing journey which provides detailed information. (Rutherford, 143) One of the most important elements for a pilgrim is the idea of contemplation. One may be a follower of Krsna, Rama, or is simply looking for an adventure, yet a pilgrims claim to seek some sort of personal gain. That gain may be trying to find a deep understanding, a surreal realm, or an attempt to find balance in life. Hindu pilgrimages occur for many different reasons and therefore are fascinating for those reasons. Scholars are able to seek out numerous different questions when trying to understand this very diverse tradition. It is this diversity which so uniquely defines Hinduism.


Bharati, Agehananda. (Summer 1963). “Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition.” History of Religions 3, no. 1, z135-167.

Morinis, E. Alan. (1984). Pilgrimage in the Hindu Tradition. A Case Study of West Bengal . Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rémy, Jean. (1989). “Pilgrimage and Modernity.” Social Compass 36 no. 2: 139-143.

Rutherford, Ian. (2000). Theoria and Darśan: Pilgrimage and Vision in Greece and India.” The Classical Quarterly 50, no. 1, 133-146.

Sax, William S. (1991). Mountain Goddess. Gender and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sax, William S. (August 1990). “Village Daughter, Village Goddess: Residence, Gender, and Politics in a Himalayan Pilgrimage.” American Ethnologist 17, no. 3, 491-512.

Suggested Terms:




Kumbha Melas

Prayag (Allahabad)








Sri Venkatesvara

West Bengal


Suggested Websites

Written by Amanda Munroe (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

Pandharpur Pilgrimage

Pandharpur, often referred to as the city of the saints, is located 200 miles east of Bombay on the Deccan Plateau in Western India and is home to about 55, 000 people (Engblom 1). The city plays an important role within the Hinduism, especially in the last seven centuries (Engblom 1). Pandharpur is the location where the god Vithoba is worshipped. This worship takes place in the lunar month of Ashadh, which is the time period between the end of June and the beginning of July. Throughout the year small pilgrimages to Pandharpur take place, with the largest pilgrimage taking place in Ashadh. During this lunar month Pandharpur becomes home to five or six hundred thousand pilgrims who come from all over India as well as from other places throughout the world (Engblom 2). The site’s importance to the Hindu tradition is directly influenced by how many pilgrims go to it each year. Due to the popularity of the large Pandharpur Pilgrimage in Ashadh, as well as the smaller pilgrimages throughout the year Pandharpur has become the largest site for pilgrimage in Maharashtra (Engblom 1).

The city of Pandharpur is centered on the Vithoba temple, which has a central role in the pilgrimage. The temple is large, covers a vast area and its structure is very detailed. The style of the temple dates back to the 5th century BCE and some of the designs on the temple date back to the 13th century BCE. Containing many columns the temple has six different gates where each is an entrance into the temple. The navdev gate is located on the eastern side and is the main gate used by pilgrims to enter the temple (Deshpande 3). When pilgrims go through the entrance of the temple and become closer to Vithoba, they “dissolve their separateness from one and other, moving nearer towards the movement and place when and where they would be seeing god’s face with their own” (Ludwig 289).

Pilgrims embark on this fifteen day spiritual journey starting in Alandi, which is in the district of Pune, and make their way to Pandharpur (Karve 15). Pilgrims come from a variety of areas, including Pune, Junnar and Moglia (Zelliot 158). Travelling in small groups, individuals sleep in white canvas tents and eat their meals communally. Typically, females prepare the meals for the men as well as for themselves. During the pilgrimage some pilgrims choose to follow special dietary rituals at meal times in order to form a stronger connection with god, therefore they do not participate in the communal meal times.

Alandi, which is located outside of Pune, is the starting point for the pilgrimage. Alandi was chosen because it is the location where Dnyaneshwar, a philosopher and poet, died voluntarily at the age of twenty in front of hundreds of people. Dnyaneshwar composed songs about the meaning of the Bhagavad-Gita in Marathi and set out in search of God by entering into a Yogic path at a young age (Karve 15). He is an important symbol to the pilgrimage and for pilgrims, because during his quest for God Dnyaneshwar traveled to Pandharpur. To commemorate his journey, every year on the pilgrimage silver images of his feet are taken to Pandharpur by a palanquin.

On the pilgrimage the pilgrims travel through the hilly regions of Alandi, Poon, Saswad and enter the plateaus of eastern Maharashtra where the temple is located. Each group of pilgrims is accompanied by a dindi that sings different songs, and keeps different rhythms with their feet (Karve 15). A dindi is worshipping in groups where individuals creative talents, such as singing and dancing are expressed (Lele 121). The individuals who make up the groups travelling to Pandharpur are from different castes, but are mostly all Marathi speaking people who are able to sing the same verses (Zelliot 158). Even though everyone speaks a different dialect, the pilgrims sing the same verses and are thus able to express themselves in a standard language when forming a connection to Vithoba (Zelliot 159).

Waking up early in the mornings when on the pilgrimage is common; some groups wake up as early as 4:30 am in order to bath and continue the journey. According to the anthropologist Iravati Karve, when walking towards Pandharpur there are many professional beggars and poor people who are willing to eat whatever pilgrims are willing to donate (Karve 18). Giving food to beggars is a form of sacrifice that the pilgrims choose to partake in, and they believe that by performing such acts of charity, a stronger connection is formed with God. As pilgrims near the city of Pandharpur the pilgrimage swells in number as more pilgrims congregate and the different groups who have walked the fifteen day journey merge. Pilgrims of all the various castes come together, singing the same songs and verses. This is one of the most notable characteristics of the Pandharpur Pilgrimage for through the collective singing, the ideology that distinguishes and separates each caste is removed and commonalities between individuals are formed.

There are two distinct traditions of worship that take place at Pandharpur. The first is the pilgrimage that takes place accompanied with travel by road, singing and prayer in order to worship Vithoba. The second form of worship is an emotive approach that lovingly worships Vithoba (Engblom 8).

Once at the pilgrimage site there are various ritual services that are available. These include snana which is ritual bathing. The action of ritual bathing is believed to be the washing away of one’s sins. Tonsure and upanayana (the sacred thread ceremonies) are also available. If someone has died since the last pilgrimage, often their ashes will be brought to Pandharpur, where family members will spread them in the holy waters of the Bhima River (Engblom 10).

Individuals from any caste can enter the temple of Vithoba. Once individuals have entered the navdev gate many take part in the Pad-Sparsha-Darshan which is a ceremony where individuals can place their head at the feet of Vithoba (Religious Portal 1). It is claimed that placing one’s head at the feet of Heads Vithoba provides a direct connection between the god and devotee. This procedure of making physical contact with the feet of the divine is a particularly attractive feature of the Vithoba temple, and therefore draws a large number of Hindus as well as tourists (Pandharpur 1).


Deshpande, Mayur. “Pandharpur: Pilgrimage Place in Maharashtra”. Dec 2008.

Engblom Philllip C. and Mokashi, Digabar (1987) Palkhi, an Indian Pilgrimage. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Karve, Irawati. (1962) “On the Road: A Maharashtrian Pilgrimage.” Journal of Asian Studies. Vol. 22, No. 1 (Nov 1962), pp. 13-29.

Lele, Jayant (1981) Tradition and Modernity in Bhakti Movements. Canada: Queens University.

Ludwig, Theodore (1990) “Review: Joachim Wach’s Voice Speaks Again.” History of Religions. Vol. 29, No. 3 (Feb 1990), pp. 289-291.

Zelliot, Eleanor (1988) The Experience of Hinduism-Essays on Religion in Maharashtra. New York: State University of New York Press.

Related Terms / Possible Topics for Future Students





The impact of Hindu pilgrimages on other cultures and religions

The history of Indian Pilgrimage

Other Related Websites

“On Pilgrimage: Transformative Journeys to Sacred Centers”

“Pilgrimage India”



“Pilgrim: Religion”

Vithoba Temple”,_Pandharpur

Written by Kim Morden (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


The four aspects of Vijayanagara that this paper will discuss are: its geographic context, its historical significance, its religious history, and its archaeological history. The city of Vijayanagara, more commonly known as Hampi, was the capital city of the Vijayanagara kingdom. It became the capital because it was built in a strategic area and it was powerful because of its positioning (Verghese 2004:421). It was constructed on a rocky area that opened up into wide valleys that further opened into fertile flat lands (see Verghese 2000:8-9). There is evidence that rulers were concerned with agriculture, and improving it. The available fertile lands of the region suggest why agriculture would have been such an important part of the ruler’s concerns (Sinopoli and Morrison 92). Another major physical feature was the Tungabhadra River because it provided water for the people and for agriculture. The placement of the city near the waterway and the fertile land allowed it to grow into an important and powerful.

Temple Courtyard with Hanuman relief, Vijayanagar

Historically the kingdom of Vijayanagara along with the capital city had been greatly influential. In 1328 CE South India was controlled by one common force but eventually independent states started to appear as a result of the successful revolts that were taking place (Verghese 2000:1). These independent states included the Vijayanagara kingdom and the Bahmani Sultanate (Verghese 2000:1). With the Vijayanagara kingdom emerging as a powerful kingdom the dominant and strategically placed city Vijayanagara, was named as the capital. Three dynasties ruled the Vijayanagara kingdom. They were the Sangama, Saluva, and Tuluva dynasties (Verghese 2000:1). The Sangama dynasty expanded the kingdom southward through a number of conquests and it was the first king, Harihara I, who built and expanded the kingdom from coast to coast (Verghese 2000:1). At the same time the Bahmani kingdom was emerging on the other side of the Krishna River. The emergence of this kingdom created an epoch of constant warfare between the two (Verghese 2000:1). When Harihara II took the throne he continued with the success of Harihara I and expanded the Vijayanagara kingdom over all of Southern India (Verghese2000:1-2). Throughout the kingdom’s existence it was ruled by many different kings, but of them all Krsnadevaraya was the greatest. He was a very good monarch and his armies were successful in every feat they took on (Verghese 2000:2). He and his brother Achuytadeveraya expanded and strengthened the kingdom (Sinopoli and Morrison 85). The great kings that headed the Vijayanagara kingdom were the reason the kingdom was so successful. One of the last kings to rule, King Ramaraya made alliances with the Deccan Sultanate which allowed the kingdom to expand even further. The kingdom’s increasing power made the Deccan Sultanate uneasy and a battle soon broke out (Verghese 2000:3). The Vijayanagara army was defeated in January 1565 at the battle of Talikota, which resulted in the sacking of the capital city (Verghese 2004:417). This defeat led to the desertion of Vijayanagara along with the loss of the northern territories eventually causing the collapse of the kingdom because it was not able to recover (Verghese 2000:3).

The capital city was established in the fourteenth century and was similar to the kingdom because it became a very large and wealthy city relatively quickly. It is known as the “city of victory” which was named after the fabulous city that was built by Bukkha I (Sharma 1255 and Verghese 2000:42). The city eventually reached an area of three hundred and fifty square kilometers, which included everything from city houses to farm land. The city served as a major population center, a marketplace, a sacred place, and a military center (Sinopoli and Morrison 92). There were many temples found within the city; in fact most monuments were religious, civil, or military. There was also evidence of some Islamic influences found on these buildings and monuments (see Sharma 1255). The temples, upper class houses, and fortifications were subsidized by the king or other upper class individuals (Sinopoli and Morrison 86). After the defeat at Talikota, Vijayanagara was looted and occupied by the enemies. The city was then sifted through by vandals and finally natural forces took over, leaving the city in a state of ruin, as it is today (Sharma 1255).

Temple Ruins at Vijayanagar

Religiously the city has numerous connections. The city contains numerous Hindu temples but also contains three Jaina temples (Sharma 1255). The most important Hindu temples are the Vaishnava Ramachandra and the Shaiva Virupkaksha (Sharma 1255). The towers, pavilions, and stables contain the evidence of Islamic influence. Evidence also shows that for over one thousand years there was a lot of religious activity (Verghese 2004:416). [For more on religion within the kingdom see Verghese (2000)]. It is evident that public rituals were practiced in the city because processional routes and platforms were found (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). Concerning the history of the city, local beliefs tend to deviate from scholars’ beliefs. This is seen in the belief that Vijayanagara is Kishkindha, kingdom of the monkey kings, from the great Hindu epic the Ramayana (see Verghese 2004:421).Locals believe this story and although there is a strong tie to Rama within the city there is no actual evidence that proves Vijayanagara is tied to the epic in any way.Along with a strong tie to Rama, Vijayanagara also has closely related sacred ties to Siva (Sinopoli and Morrison 85).There are a great number of opinions on the religious aspect of Vijayanagara but not all of them are proven.

Archaeologically the site is magnificent because it is rare for archaeologists to be able to study an entire city; usually they only get to study bits and pieces. The earliest archaeological documentation is from 1800 and by the 1970s there were some systematic research and documentation projects initiated (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). It was not until the 1980s that major excavations started to occur. These excavations included surface mapping and documentation by the Karnataka Directorate of Archaeology and Museums and the Archaeology Survey of India (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). Archaeologists used two techniques: excavation and surface archaeology (Sharma 1255). In 1987 the Vijayanagara Metropolitan Survey studied unrecorded items and tried to look at the broader environment by looking at roads, irrigation networks, shrines, and temples (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). They provided a wealth of new information that could not be found in texts. Archaeological evidence proves that the city dates back to Neolithic times, based on the neoliths and handmade pottery found (Verghese 2000:9). Archaeologists also found that a number of the remains were burnt or heat cracked proving that the city or at least parts of it were burnt (Verghese 2004:417). Processional paths along with platforms were also discovered proving that there were ritual procedures occurring within Vijayanagara (Sinopoli and Morrison 87). Although the site was not really excavated until around 1975, it is fairly well preserved. The good preservation is a result of the capital’s abandonment because there were no people left to change, modify or destroy buildings. Therefore, it is mostly natural forces that have affected the site. The city was robbed of all its treasures but the buildings are still in good shape and an archaeologist can find a lot of information from the remaining structures, soil, and debris. The city was important in antiquity and that importance carried on to the present as it is currently seen as a World Heritage Site.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Anila, Verghese. (2000) Archaeology, art, and religion : new perspectives on Vijayanagara. New Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press.

Anila, Verghese. (2004) Deities, Cults and Kings at Vijayanagara. Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis, Ltd.

Michell, George. (2008) Vijayanagara: splendor in ruins. New Delhi: Alkazi Collection of Photography.

Morrison, Kathleen D. (1995) Fields of victory: Vijayanagara and the course of intensification. University of California, Berkley. Archaeological Research Facility.

Sharma, Jagdish P. (1986) Where Kings and Gods Meet : The Royal Centre at Vijayanagara, India. Tucson: University of Arizona Pr.

Sinopoli, C. M., and K. D. Morrison. (1995) Dimensions of Imperial Control the Vijayanagara Capital. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Stein, Burton. (1989) Vijayanagara. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Venkata, Ramanayya N. (1990) Vijayanagara: origin of the city and the empire. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.

Related Topics for Further Investigation





Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Written by Lindy Holthe (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Ellora Caves

The historically and archaeologically significant Ellora Caves are located near the city of Aurangabad, in the Maharashtra state. The Ellora Caves site is comprised of thirty-four temples and monasteries cut directly from the vast cliffs that surround the caves. The site exemplifies the Dravidian tradition of rock-cut architecture and art. The Ellora Caves were given UNESCO World Heritage site accreditation in 1983 (UNESCO). There is also evidence that the various caves have been used throughout history for Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu worship (Heston 219). The site culminates at the centre, where the vast Kailasanatha Temple sits in the middle of the courtyard area. Although the other thirty three caves are similarly intricate and interesting, the most is known about the Kailasanatha, or Kailasa Temple.

The caves are an excellent example of the Dravidian architectural tradition. The gopura, or gateway, at the Kailasa Temple [as well as at several of the other caves] is monumental to the study of Hindu religious architecture (Heston 219). In particular, the Kailasa gopura features numerous figural images that are extremely important to the Hindu tradition. The gopura is often seen as an indication to the worshipper as to what kinds of themes they may wish to consider upon entering the temple. Gopura sculptures typically depict guardian gods and goddesses, whereas depictions of other more important deities are reserved for the inside of the temple (Heston 220). This is an example a hierarchy within the Hindu tradition, where images such as one of a river guardian may be present at the gopura, but important imagery such as the linga, representing Siva, are present inside the temple. At Ellora, several lingas adorn the inner niches of the Kailasa Temple, along with other depictions of Siva, Visnu, and Brahma.

The use of several Hindu [as well as Buddhist and Jain] deities throughout Ellora, and particularly Kailasa, represents a certain unity present in many elements within the Hindu tradition. For example, one image in the niches of Kailasa depicts Harihara, a composite of Siva and Visnu together (Heston 223). Another example is a male and female fusion of Siva and his divine consort. This image is called the Ardhanarisvara, and represents the union of powers, or sakti, and could be based on the purusa-prakrti doctrine (Heston 225).

The Ellora Caves offer great insight into the development of Indian architectural traditions throughout the county, but particularly on the Indian subcontinent. There are other rock-cut cave sites that exist in India. Sites such as Elephanta and Kanheri offer additional insight into the realm of ancient architecture, but Ellora remains one of the more important sites (Chakrabati 327). Despite its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the knowledge surrounding Ellora is still somewhat patchy. It is an immense challenge to try to piece together the historical context within which the Ellora Caves were constructed. From 1830 to 1861, excavating megaliths in southern India became very popular (Chakrabati 328). Many images and relics at Ellora [and other sites] were supposedly damaged during this time due to over-enthusiastic excavation (Chakrabati 328). After 1939, Indian universities became more interested in archaeology, the preservation of historical information, as well as pre-historic research endeavours. This contributed to existing theories about the history and context of the Ellora Caves.

The Ellora Caves are renowned for their exemplary rock-cut architecture. The caves and the images within were carved directly from the rock face of the staggering cliffs that surround the site. The time it must have taken the ancient architects to design and execute such a massive feat can only be imagined, especially when the dimensions of the site are taken into consideration. The Kailasa Temple alone, stands at the centre of the Ellora site, and measures 200 feet long, and 100 feet wide and high (Goetz 85). The entire site stretches even further towards the faces of the cliffs, making the feat of creating such a masterpiece very impressive. The Kailasa Temple, although it is not technically a cave, is one of the most important examples of ancient Indian art. Also carved directly from the rock face, Kailasa is a freestanding structure that sits in the middle of the enormous court surrounded by the wall of cliffs (Goetz 89). The Kailasa has been generally accepted to date back to the middle of the eight century of the Common Era (Goetz 89). This assertion is based on inscriptions present in Kailasa that indicate the temple was erected in honour of Krishnaraja (757-772 CE) of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty (Goetz 90). The courtyard walls surrounding the Kailasa Temple are generally accepted as being carved out later. These ties to the Rashtrakuta Dynasty are what help make Kailasa so important to Indian art history.

Although Kailasa is mainly credited to the Rashtrakuta Dynasty, scholars have accepted that it would have been impossible for the entire temple to have been finished under one ruler (Goetz 92). Not only would the construction of such a marvel be extremely time-consuming, but there is also the issue of the non-uniform nature of much of the imagery throughout Ellora. Due to India’s rich history of rock-cut architecture and other art, it is also near impossible to cross-reference the Ellora Caves with other sites such as Elephanta. The fact that few monuments survive from the time of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty suggests that it was a violent period in which temples were constantly changing hands, and therefore were re-appropriated over time. [By the tenth century of the Common Era, the Ellora site seems to have been occupied by the Jains (Goetz 92)]. It is currently accepted that Kailasa could not have been completed during the reign of Krishnaraja, even though he is the ruler who is thought to have commissioned the temple, and maybe even the entire site (Goetz 92).

Another important factor in determining the historical context within which the Ellora Caves were constructed is that rock-cut structures were built backwards. Normal temple construction began with the gateway, or gopura, and progressed into the rest of the temple afterwards. Rock-cut temples began with the construction of the inner rooms and builders would have worked towards the mouth of the cave, finishing with the gopura (Goetz 94). This concept is very useful in analyzing another of the major structures at Ellora, the Dasavatara cave. This cave houses fifteen inscriptions about Dantidurga (735-757 CE), who is thought to have been the founder of the Rashtrakuta Dynasty (Goetz 97). This would mean that Krishnaraja, although he had previously been credited with Ellora, could not be the mastermind. The chronology of the Dasavatara cave, along with the inscriptions and general styles of the images contained within, may prove that Dantidurga, not Krishnaraja, was the planner behind the Ellora Caves. Despite this evidence, Krishnaraja I is still credited with completing the Kailasa Temple, although his contribution to Ellora as a whole is still somewhat questionable. There are implications that Krishnaraja killed Dantidurga’s two sons, who would have been the rightful heirs to the Rashtrakuta Dynasty, and took power by force. This may be why Dantidurga’s contribution to the Ellora Caves seems somewhat covered-up, and Krishnaraja’s contributions glorified (Goetz 99)


Chakrabati, Dilip K (1982). “The Development of Archaeology in the Indian Subcontinent”. World Archaeology. Vol. 13, No. 3 – Regional Traditions of Archeological Research II. 326-344.

Goetz, H (1952). “The Kailasa of Ellora and the Chronology of Rashtrakuta Art”. Artibus Asiae. Vol. 15, No. 1/2. 84-107

Heston, Mary Beth (1981-1982). “Iconographic Themes of the Gopura of the Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora”. Artibus Asiae. Vol. 43, No. 3. 219-235

Markel, Stephen (2000). “The ‘Ramayana’ Cycle on the Kailasanatha Temple at Ellora”. Ars Orientalis. Vol. 30, Supplement 1: Chachaji – Prof. Walter M. Spink Felicitation Volume. 59-71

UNESCO (2002). “Ellora Caves: Description”. 2 February 2009. <>

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Purusa-Prakrti Doctrine




Guardian Deities

History of Indian Philosophy

Rashtrakuta Dynasty




Dravidian Architecture

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

Article written by: Evelyn Hickey (April 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Jagganatha Temple

The Jagganatha Temple is a major Hindu temple and religious shrine located in Puri. Puri is a city in the eastern Indian state of Orissa on the Bay of Bengal. Puri is the modern name of this holy city, yet a large number of pilgrims call it Jagganatha Puri. Jagganatha Temple is the most famous temple in Orissa, and one of the most famous in India (Fabri 103). The word Jagganatha refers to Natha (master) of Jagat (universe). The origin of the Jagganatha cult has been traced back to time of the Veda (Pasayat 5). The city and temple is considered by Hindus to be one of the four dhams in India. The dhams are believed to be the abodes of Hindu gods, and the holiest places of pilgrimage (Patnaik 1). The building of the temple was started by the Ganga king Chodagangadeva, but scholars are not unanimous regarding the period of its construction (Satapathy 46). Although the exact date is debatable, construction began sometime in the 11th to 12th century. The temple construction was finished by Chodagangadeva’s descendant Raja Ananga Bhima Dev III (Pasayat 5).

Jagganatha Temple is a huge building that dominates the seaside town, and the tower can be seen from seven miles away (Fabri 148). The temple has a flight of stairs with 22 steps and measures 63 meters in height. The temple complex covers an area of over 400,000 square feet, and is surrounded by a high fortified wall. The outer wall is heavily decorated with carved divine figures and other floral and geometrical motifs and measures 202.7 x 196.3 meters (Patel 72). The complex contains at least 120 temples and shrines. The main temple is a curvilinear temple and on the top is the srichaka (an eight spoke wheel). The temple tower is on an 8 meter elevated platform (Patel 71). The temple has four gateways at each cardinal direction. The Singha Dwar (lion gate) is the eastern gate, the Aswa Dwar (horse gate) is the southern gate, the Vyaghra Dwar (tiger gate) is the western gate, and the Hasti Dwar (elephant gate) is the northern gate. Centuries of whitewashing the temple has obliterated almost all evidence of its antiquity and art. The whitewashing has built up a layer of surface coating estimated at over a foot in depth which hides the facade (Fabri 103). The temple is built of Khondalite stone without the use of mortar; instead iron dowels have been used to keep the stone blocks in position. There has been profuse damage done to the temple structure overtime caused by the iron dowels oxidizing, water seepage and structural pressure (Patel 72). There have been a lot of conservation efforts in the recent years to repair damages to the temple. During the process of conservation the original look of the temple was maintained, nothing new was added nor was the original look disfigured at any time.

The Jagganatha Temple in Puri, renowned for its chariot festival, known as the Ratha Yatra; Odisha, India
The Jagganatha Temple in Puri, renowned for its chariot festival, known as the Ratha Yatra; Odisha, India

The temple is revered as the home of Lord Jagganatha, the Lord of the Universe; his origin and worship is shrouded by myths, legends and traditions (Mahalik 1). Lord Jagganatha is a revered and ancient deity, who was originally worshiped by tribes (Mahalik 1). In the temple there are wooden images or statues of the worshipped deities that exhibit strong tribal influences. The deities Jagganatha and his elder brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra, are carved out of wood and are peculiarly handless. The legend goes that a carpenter Vishwakarma carved the deities out of a log. He instructed everyone not to disturb him while he was in the temple carving. Unfortunately the queen got impatient and went in the temple before Vishwakarma was finished. He was so upset that he left without finishing and that is why the statues are unfinished. The deific images are carved out of wood from the specially-grown Daru (Neem) trees every 12 to 19 years according to the lunar calendar (Patnaik 4). When the old statues of Jagganatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra are replaced with new ones the brahmapadartha (the life substance) is taken out of the old statues and is placed in the new statues (Satapathy 159). The three deities are kept in the Garbhagrha (sanctum sanctorum) of the temple unless they are taken out for a festival (Barik 19). The persons entrusted with the Sevapuja (ritual services/activities) of the deities are known as Sevakas. The tradition plays a pivotal role in the temple and the Sevapuja rites are not only numerous but also remarkably varied (Pasayat 6).

It is said that there are twelve important yatras (festivals) celebrated at the Jagganatha temple, but there are many more observed at the temple. The temple is most famous for the Ratha Yatra. The Ratha Yatra is one of the holiest rituals in Hinduism; it is also known as the Car or Chariot Festival. It is an annual festival held in Puri at the Jagganatha temple on Asadha Sulkla Dwitiya, which is the second day of the bright fortnight of Asadha (June-July). On this day, the three deities are taken out of the temple and loaded onto very large wooden rathas (chariots). The deities are carried to their rathas in a traditional ceremonial manner called Pahandi when Lord Jagganatha and Balabhadra are swung back and forth. Tradition states that Lord Balabhadra comes out first, followed by Devi Subhadra and then Lord Jagganatha (Barik 20). Lord Jagganatha’s ratha is known as Nandighosha; it has 16 chakras (wheels) and the colors of the fabrics that cover it are red and yellow. Lord Balabhadra’s ratha is known as Taladhwaja; it has 14 chakras and the fabrics that cover it are red and green. Devi Subhadra’s ratha is known as Debadalana; it has 12 chakras and the fabrics are red and black (Barik 20). Four small brass statues of the deities Sudarsana, Madanamohana, Lord Rama and Lord Krsna are also put onto the rathas. Once all the deities are placed on their respective rathas the floor of each ratha is swept by the Gajapati Maharaja of Puri. “This signifies that even the highest sovereign power of the state is only a sevaka (servant) before the almighty” (Barik 20). The rathas are then each attached to four horses and ropes are tied and then pulled by devotees irrespective of caste, creed, sect, religion or sex (Patnaik 4). The rathas are taken to Sri Gundicha Temple, which is about three kilometers away from the Jagganatha Temple, along the Bada Danda (Grand Road). The festival ends once the deity statues have been brought back to the Jagganatha temple; the festival lasts for nine days. Another Jagganatha festival, the Chandana Yatra begins the construction of the rathas. It starts from Akshya Trutiya which is the third day of the bright fortnight of Baisakha (April-May) (Barik 18). And Niladri Mahodaya is celebrated on the eighth day of the bright fortnight of Baisakha (April-May). The festival is to celebrate the day Lord Jagganatha was first worshipped in this Kshetra (holy precinct). For this festival, an abhisek (bath) is performed and 108 pots of consecrated water are offered to the deities (Barik 19).

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Hindu Pilgrimages:



Shri Badrinathji




Shri Kedarnathji





Hindu Yatras (Festivals):

Amarnath Yatra

Chardham Yatra

Kailash Mansarovar Yatra

Vaishno Devi Yatra



Hindu Temples:

Angkor Wat


BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Toronto)

Gurmandir Temple (Toronto)

Noteworthy Websites Related to Jagganatha Temple,9171,892784-2,00.html

References and Further Recommended Reading

Barik, Sarmistha (2007) Festivals in Shri Jagannath Temple. Department of Information an Public Relations Government of Orissa.

Bhardwaj, Surinder Mohan (1968) Hindu Places of Pilgrimage in India. University of California

Fabri, Charles Louis (1974) History of The Art of Orissa. London: Longman Group Ltd.

Michell, George (1977) The Hindu Temple. Toronto: Fitzhenry and Whiteside Ltd.

Patel, Dr. C.B. (2005) Shree Jagannath Temple, Puri and Its Conservation Scenario. Department of Information and Public Relations Government of Orissa.

Patnaik, Jitendra Narayan (2008) The Four Dhams. Department of Information and Public Relations Government of Orissa.

Patnaik, Lalmohan (2008) The Holy City Puri. Department of Information and Public Relations Government of Orissa.

Pattanayak, Pramod Chandra (2008) The Unique God, Lord Jagannath. Department of Information and Public Relations Government of Orrisa.

Satapathy, Niranjan (2000) Religious Life in Orissa. Calcutta: R.N. Bhatacharya Antiquarian Booksellers, Publishers & Exporters

Written by Jacinda Foulkes (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.


Kalarippayattu is the term given to the oldest martial arts form founded in the state of Kerala in India’s southwest. The word, Kalarippayattu, broken down means: kalari or “place of training” and payattu, “exercise”. Kalarippayattu only began to be considered a martial art in 20th century during the revival of the sport (Green 2001a). Kalarippayattu, historically, is said to date back to the 11th century during a prolonged period of turmoil in the kingdom of Cera. During this time groups of Brahmins trained themselves and others in art of warfare and supported the war with the Colas. After the fall of the Cera kingdom, and the region of Kerala was divided, a group of Brahmins continued to practice their military art. The cattar or yatra, the sub-caste of brahmins also called “half –brahmins” for their devotion to the practice of arms combat, proceeded to teach, train, fight and dominate in the martial arts for centuries. Keralopathi, the legendary Kerala Brahmin chronicle tells of how the brahmakshatra, (the land where Brahmins take on Ksatriya roles) was given by Parasurama, and given instruction that the ardhabrahmana (half-brahmins) should fulfill military roles such as guards or soldiers (Mills 23-24). Parasurama, a warrior sage, is said to be the founder of Kerala and the first in the lineage of teaching families. Along with the yatras, other caste groups were trained in the art of Kalarippayattu. The Nayars were both soldiers and personal physical therapists to high-ranking officials such as district rulers or the local raja. The ideals of Kalarippayattu are also said to date back to the time of the Vedas. The concept of vital points (marman) can be traced back to the Rg Veda, in the story where the god Indra slays the demon Vrtra by attacking his vital spot with his vajra (thunderbolt) (Green 2001a).

During British rule Kalarippayattu experienced a decline because of an increase in military technologies such as firearms. It survived through the teachings of a few masters throughout the region, especially in the northern area. In 1920 Kalarippayattu started to revive with a sudden interest in the local art forms. Then in 1958, a few years after Kerala became a state government, the Kerala Kalarippayat Association was formed making Kalarippayattu an official sport. However, Kalarippayattu was still an unknown sport for most of the next few decades. Over the years that Kalarippayattu has been in practice, many forms and styles of it have emerged such as Arappukai, Pillartanni, Vatten, etc. However, many styles were lost, especially in the 19th century where there was a drive to strip power away from the Nayars and centralize power using European institutional models. Nowadays, there are three styles recognized by the Kerala Kalarippayat Association: Northern, Central and Southern, all named for their geographical region (Green 2001a).

Practitioners of Kalarippayattu focus on strict training methods and meditative practices to link the body and mind together. The basis of Kalarippayattu is the knowledge of the three “bodies of practice”: The first is the fluid body of humors and saps attained by rigorous seasonal training. The second is knowledge of the body, composed of bone, muscle, and vital spots. The third is the manifestation of the interior body through yogic practices to awaken the inner “serpent power (kundalini sakti) (Green 2001a). The learning of these practices are essential in creating the ideal state where “The body becomes all eyes”, which is a state of heightened awareness of all your surroundings and being able to act on impulse and instinct, much like an animal (McDonald 1570-1571).

Training in the art of Kalarippayattu is done in a kalari, which traditionally would be a pit dug in the ground, however, modern practitioners go to gyms (McDonald1569). The kalari itself is seen as a temple, with varying number of deities that are worshipped daily during the training season (Green 2001a). Training is traditionally started at age 7 and is for boys and girls. The training season is carried out during the cool monsoon season (June – August) (Zarrilli 25). Clothing prescribed is usually a loin cloth for males and loose fitting clothes for women. Entering the kalari is much like entering a Hindu temple: enter with your right foot first, and touch your forehead and chest with your right hand. The student crosses the kalari and pays respect and performs puja (worship) to the guardian deity of the kalari. Practice usually begins by oiling the body (McDonald 1570) and then start going through body exercise sequences (meippayattu) which link yoga asana-like poses, steps, kicks, jumps and turns and hand-arm coordination’s performed in increasing speed and difficulty. The poses are designed after dynamic animals such as the horse, peacock, serpent and so on (Green 2001b). When students are ready physically, spiritually and ethically, they are allowed to move onto weapons training. It starts with wooden weapons such as the long staff, and then is moved on to combat weapons like swords, and spears. Ideally, if practitioners are ready, the weapon should become an extension of their body-mind. Armed combat, much like un-armed combat is designed to attack and defend the body’s vital spots (Green 2001a). During the training period, special dietary, behavioral and observances are taken on that resemble one of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga. These may include never sleeping during the day and not staying awake at night, no sexual intercourse during training, to never misuse what is learned, and to be a good person (Zarrilli 25).

Along with physical exercise, meditation and massage are important aspects of Kalarippayattu training. Meditation is a way to increase concentration, and through different methods one can attain a higher form of one-point concentration. One method is to repeat particular mantras. Past masters of Kalarippayattu possessed mantra “tool boxes”, with mantras each having its own purpose such as one to worship a specific deity or another that has healing properties used during treatment of wounds. Before exercises begin, students are to massage oil on themselves and during training, full body massages are given by the master’s feet as he holds onto ropes suspended from the ceiling. These massages are done so that it will stimulate a person’s wind humor and create more flexibility and fluidity in the body (Green 2001a).

Although Kalarippayattu is a martial art, it has many other applications other than self defense. Constant discipline calms the three humors in the body: wind, phlegm, and fire. Knowledge of these humors is important to a practitioner of Kalarippayattu because when you know about the body it is easier to train and to treat injuries (Zarrilli 36). The concept of vital spots is important to both self-defense and medicine. In the 2nd century when Susruta wrote the classic Sanskrit medical text, 107 vital spots had been discovered to aid surgical intervention. With the knowledge of the vital spots, a master could injure or kill someone in a “counter application” of the previous use by striking a vital spot, or avoid them during therapeutic massages. Kalarippayattu, although a martial art, is also an important cultural aspect of Kerala and is on constant display in duels, displays of talent, or cultural applications such as dance and dance-dramas. So diverse is its use, that it is even used in a Christian dance-drama form, Cavittu Natakam displaying the Christian heroes St. George and Charlemagne (Green 2001a).

Martial arts, whether it is in Japan or India, are based on its key principles and devotional attitudes. Kalarippayattu is the unique martial art of the Kerala area and has been developing for thousands of years. Its ideals of exercise and meditation have been used in many other ways and in many other areas from medicine to warfare and even drama. The diverse use of Kalarippayattu is a testament to this dynamic and powerful martial art and to the culture that developed it.


McDonald, Ian. (2003) Hindu Nationalism, Cultural Spaces, and Bodily Practices in India. American Behavioral Scientist, Vol 46, No. 11: 1563-1576

Mills, James H. (2005) Subaltern Sports: Politics in South Asia. London: Anthern Press. Pg 23- 24.

Green, Thomas A. (2001a) In Martial Arts of the World: Kalarippayattu. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Green, Thomas A. (2001b) In Martial Arts of the World: India. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1994) Kalarippayattu: A South Indian Martial Art and the Yoga and _ Ayurvedic Paradigms. Journal of Asian Martial Arts 3, 3: 10-50

Related Topics:


Sanga Tamil

Dhanur Veda

Asana Yoga











Recommended Websites:

Article written by: Anthony Erickson (March 16, 2009) who is solely responsible for its content.