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The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple or Thiruvarangam is a colossal temple to the Hindu god Vishnu (or, more specifically, it is dedicated to Ranganātha, a reclining form of Vishnu).  Located on an island in the Cauvery river in Tamil Nadu, the temple is one of the most illustrious (and largest) temples in India. The complex includes 21 monumental ornamental towers (including the 72 meter (236 foot)  Rajagopuram), 39 pavilions, fifty shrines, all within a 156 acre complex which includes six miles of concentric walls.  The shrines, walls, and towers are bedecked in stunning stone statuary painted in all of the brilliant colors of South India.

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The story of the temple’s creation is steeped in Hindu myth: Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu completed his devotions to Vishnu by worshiping a mysterious idol.  After killing Ravana and returning victorious from Sri Lanka (as detailed in the Ramayana) Rama gave this sacred statue to King Vibhishana.  The king planned on taking the statue to Sri Lanka, but when he set it down while resting on an island, it became rooted to the spot.

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The temple itself was built by the Chola Dynasty, India’s longest lived dynasty.  There is a further legend of the temple’s construction: a Chola king chased a parrot into the deep forest and found the idol overgrown by jungle.  He built the complex around the statue and the temple was maintained and expanded by the great dynasties of Southern India–the Chola, Pandya, Hoysala and Vijayanagar dynasties.  The oldest parts of the building seem to date back to the 10th century AD, but written sources do not accurately convey the precise chronology.  The great temples of South India are themselves primary historical sources, but alas, they are not as particular about dates as historians might like.

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It is difficult to even begin to describe the sumptuous beauty and complexity of the ornaments of Sri Ranganathaswamy.  The colorful and intricate statues of the figures from Vishnu’s lives and incarnations have an otherworldly and alien beauty not found elsewhere.  Nor will I attempt to  describe the meaning of Vishnu’s iconography (although if you are as smitten by his reclining beauty as I am you can read about Ananta Shesha, the many headed cobra god which serves as his divine couch).

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Earth-May3

Happy Earth Day!  Today, to celebrate our lovely planet, we write about the largest tree (by canopy area) on Earth, Thimmamma Marrimanu, a Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) which lives in Andhra Pradesh, India.  Banyan trees are fig trees which propagate from aerial dispersal—birds eat the fig seeds and (in due course) drop them on trees, rocks, or buildings.  The roots grow downward as aerial roots and then become tree trunks–so the tree is known to cover buildings or strangle other trees.  Banyans also reproduce by vegetative, “branching” propagation.  A whole twisted interwoven grove of banyan trees is often actually one tree.

Thimmamma Marrimanu (one tree with many trunks)

Thimmamma Marrimanu (one tree with many trunks)

Such is the case with Thimmamma Marrimanu which has spread out over eight acres and is at least 200 years old (though, as with clonal colonies like Pando, it can be difficult to ascertain the true age of Banyan trees).  Thimmamma Marrimanu is named after a devoted wife who was married to a Bala Veerayya (whatever that is).  When her husband died in 1434, Thimmamma committed sati and immolated herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.  A temple to the grieving (but misguided!) widow was built on the spot—then the tree sprouted from the temple.

A Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) growing over a temple

A Banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis) growing over a temple

Banyan trees are the national tree of India and they have become worked into the religions of South Asia. In Hinduism it is said that the leaf of the banyan tree is the resting place for the avatar Krishna. The fact that the Banyan tree forms a huge group of trunks and branches which seem heterogeneous but are actually a single entity is believed to have spiritual significance and underline greater truths about the interconnected nature of all living things.

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Holi Celebrations

Yesterday, March 20th, 2011 was the Hindu festival of Holi, the festival of colors. According to myth, Hiranyakashipu, a king among the demons, was granted a boon by Brahma after undergoing a long period of intense asceticism.  Brahma decreed that Hiranyakashipu could not be killed “during day or night; inside the home or outside, not on earth or in the sky; neither by a man nor an animal.”  Emboldened by his apparent invulnerability, Hiranyakashipu initiated an evil scheme to supplant the gods (because of his wickedness, I am going to include him in my “deities of the underworld” category as I customarily do whenever I write about the Asura).  He demanded that all beings worship him instead of the rightful deities and he visited hideous torments upon those who disobeyed.  The demon’s own son Prahlada was one such protestor. Prahlada maintained stalwart and absolute devotion to Vishnu, despite his father’s threats.  In order to make an example for the rest of the world, Hiranyakashipu poisoned his son, but the poison turned to nectar.  Enraged the demon ordered Prahlada put to death by being crushed by elephants, but this too went awry.  After several other attempts to kill Prahlada also failed, Hiranyakashipu decided to burn his son on a great pyre.  In order to ensure that nothing went amiss Hiranyakashipu decreed that his sister Holika, who had her own boon of fire resistance from Brahma, would hold Prahlada in the flames.  However when the fire was lit Holika, despite her gift of being completely flame resistant, was burnt to death and her nephew Prahlada was spared.

Lord Narasimha Killing the Demon Hiranyakashipu

Vishnu, the demon-slayer (who from time to time assumed mortal shapes such as human, pig, or turtle) then came to Hiranyakashipu as a lion avatar, Narasimha.   Narasimha attacked the demon king at twilight as the latter was on the steps to his dwelling. Vishnu in his Narashima avatar-form clawed the renegade demon to death while holding him (the demon) on his (Vishnu’s) lap.  The conditions of the boon were met because a god incarnated as a lion monster is neither man nor animal and Vishnu was holding the demon above the ground but not in the sky. Additionally twilight is neither day nor night and steps are neither in nor out of a dwelling.  However, what exactly went wrong for Holika and caused the utter failure of her special power still remains a topic of debate among Hindu theologians

Holi with old-fashioned color squirt guns

These fateful events are celebrated on Holi which also celebrates the passing of winter and the coming of spring. Holi is the festival of color and the first day of the festival (which is always a full moon) is celebrated by all manner of dying, painting, and friendly pelting of family and friends with colorful pigments. As an artist I love the idea of a festival of color and spring is clearly the perfect time for such a celebration. I have tried to fill this void in my life with Easter-egg dying but the color has been leaching out of Easter as it loses its preeminence among Christian festivals.  So, to celebrate Holi, and the return of color to the world after the austerity of winter, I am going to devote the rest of this week to some of my favorite colors and pigments.  Feel free to chime in with your favorite colors of any sort, this is a topic which I love dearly.

I haven't been to India yet, but I think I'm going to love it.

Kali (artist unknown)

In Hinduism, Kali is the dark mother goddess who represents the force of change and transformation in the universe. The Devi Mahatmya, a Sanskrit text of the 5th – 6th century AD, relates that Kali was born from the brow of the mother goddess Durga, but it may be that she actually is Durga or vice versa (the mutable forms of divinity in Hinduism are transfigurative and sometimes subsume one another).

In appearance, Kali is one of the most fearsome deities in any pantheon.  Her skin is completely black, like the night sky, or like the oblivion which awaits all living things.  Nude but for certain terrible adornments made of human body parts, Kali wears a skirt made of severed limbs and a necklace of 50 bloody heads, one for each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet.   Her nudity is important as it represents her freedom from maya—the illusory false consciousness in which the mortal world is steeped. Her four hands clutch different ceremonial items: a great sword/cleaver, the severed head of a huge demon, a trident, and a bowl fashioned out of a skull to catch the blood flowing from the head.  Kali’s eyes are red with wrath and she has fangs at the edge of her howling mouth.  Her nude body is spattered with gore and her four long arms bend at improbable angles.

kali (artist unknown)

Many representations of Kali show her in fury, rampaging over the prostrate form of her husband Shiva, the creation god.  There is a story behind the image.  The Devas and Devis (gods and goddesses) of the universe were engaged in a conflict with terrible demons and they were losing the fight when Kali was created.  Her rage and her battle fury were so terrible that no demon could stand against her awful onslaught.  As she slew, she begin to drink demonic blood and grow in strength.  No force could withstand Kali and the universe began to tremble and shake.  But, before she could annihilate all things, Shiva assumed his comeliest form and cast himself like a corpse at the feet of his wife. When Kali realized that she was touching her husband with the soles of her feet (an incredibly disrespectful act within the code of Hindu morality) her rage died.  She stuck out her tongue in distaste and horror and her awful slaughter came to an end.  Other myths pick up the story and tell of how she and Shiva (both nude and heated from carnage and near disaster) began to engender new life, but you will have to look those up on your own.

The familiar tableau certainly suggests that without the power of Kali, great Shiva becomes inert.  This juxtaposition is important and reveals something about Kali. Worshipped on the charnel ground where the bodies of the dead are cremated, Kali is obviously a death goddess, however her divine status transcends that of other chthonic gods.  Terrible though her appearance may be, Kali is one of the most beloved goddesses of India.  She is universally held in reverence by sages and gurus who have begun to see through life’s illusions.  These wise people esteem Kali as the mother of all things because without death there is no possibility for rebirth.  If things are not unmade there is no material with which to create newer finer things.  Thanks to Kali we do not live in a derelict world of disease, rot, and senility.  Instead we march forward and upward and we are replaced as we wear out.

Or at least we seem to stumble forward—whether we are getting anywhere or not is a question for the gods themselves (and to my way of thinking they themselves are just another illusion).

Kali (artist unknown)

Lake Lonar

Approximately 650,000 years ago, an outer space object–either a comet or a meteor– struck the Deccan plateau (an immense basaltic flow on the Indian subcontinent dating back to the twilight of the dinosaurs).   The resultant crater in Maharashtra is now the sight of a very interesting saltwater lake, Lake Lonar.  The geology of this region has been intensely studied because the great basaltic mass of the Deccan traps is thought to mirror the igneous geology of Mars and the moon.

Lake Lonar proper is nearly circular with a diameter of 1.2 kilometers.  The greater meteor crater rim is about 1.8 kilometers and the crater measures 500 feet deep in the deepest part of the lake.  In addition to the obvious features of an extraterrestrial impact (um, a large round hole), the region features many other unique geological signs of such an event. Maskelynite, a material only naturally known from meteorites and meteorite impact areas, is found around Lake Lonar, as are silicate minerals with planar deformation features (distinctive high-stress crystalline irregularities which have only been found in silicates from meteorites, craters, and nuclear test areas).  The deeper geology of the lake region displays shatter cones in the bedrock, and extreme deformation of the basalt layers. Finally the surrounding region has been spattered with a non-volcanic ejecta blanket. 

Lake Lonar: pink-beige indicates bare ground, blue and off-white indicate human-made structures, dark blue indicates water, green indicates vegetation, and dull purple indicates fallow fields (NASA: Terra Satellite)

By measuring the accumulated radiation in certain crystals (aka thermoluminescence) scientists had assigned an approximate age of 50,000 years to the crater. However a 2010 study of isotopic Argon in Lonar impact melt rock estimated the true time of impact to be 650,000 years ago (give or take 80,000 years).  The compelling 2010 study drily notes “The discrepancy between the thermoluminescence age and the new isotopic 40/Ar/39Ar age is flagrant.”

Daitya Sudan, a temple to Vishnu

Several abandoned temples and archaeological sights are also located around the lake.  For example, the beautiful Daitya Sudan Temple to Vishnu was built by the Chalukya Dynasty which ruled of Maharashtra from the 6th and 12th centuries.  The local town, Lonar, still has an active temple to Vishnu, the great protector of the universe who features prominently in local legend.  According to the Skanda Purana (a canon of Hindu scripture universally cited when a story is doubtful or can not be found elsewhere) a great underworld demon, Lonasur, lived where Lake Lonar is today.  From time to time the demon would venture from his subterranean abode to torment the countryside and challenge the gods. Assuming the form of an extremely beautiful young man, Vishnu…somehow convinced the demon’s sisters to divulge where the monster could be found.  The god then lifted up the countryside like a great lid and found the demon hiding in his huge circular lair. After Vishnu slew the demon, the demon’s dwelling place filled up with water made salty by the fiend’s blood.    

Although threatened by India’s ever growing sprawl, Lonar Lake is a rich wetland with abundant wildlife—particularly birds.  The jungles, fields, and lake are a birder’s paradise featuring flamingos, grebes, black-winged stilts, dabchicks, ducks, shell-ducks, shovellers, teals, herons, rollers, parakeets, hoopoes, weavers, larks, tailorbirds, magpies, robins, swallows, peacocks, coots, white-necked storks, lapwings, grey wagtails, black droungos, green bee-eaters, and tailorbirds (to name just some).

The Jungle around Lake Lonar

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

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