In ancient Buddhist, Jaina and Ajivika edifices, the simplest form, the stupa, was placed in the heart of the sacred space. In Hindu temples, it was the linga, or symbol, the mark of the formless eternal (nirguna) that was made in the sanctum sanctorum. These took us closest to the truth of the eternal, which is beyond the distracting forms of the world. The most revered linga of Tamil Nadu is in the Chidambaram Temple. It takes us a step further. There are silver curtains in front of it. When we part these, what do we see — nothing at all, only empty space. This revered linga brings us closest to the concept of recognising the eternal, which is without form. The temple priests carry forward traditional knowledge and inform us that this is the most Upanishadic representation of the linga. They also point out that their temple also has the most formful representation of Lord Shiva, as the Nataraja, in his cosmic dance.
The stupa or the linga is where we come to meditate upon the truth: to recognise the divinity, which is beyond the ephemeral forms of the material world. Around the stupa or the sanctum sanctorum, are made railings and temple walls. The devotee circumambulates, or goes around these, before he proceeds towards the centre and the final truth which he seeks.
On these railings and temple walls, is made the multiplicity of the forms of the world. We see ourselves represented here, men, women, children, animals, birds, trees and flowers, all the beings which surround us in our daily lives.
A beautiful conception which is repeatedly seen here are composite creatures, which combine the physical attributes of humans, various animals and the flora of the world. In the ancient Indian vision, we perceive the separated forms of the world, only because of the limitations of our senses and sensibilities. They are only as real or unreal as the delightful combined creatures which the artist brings before us.
Finally, we have to leave behind all the shapes of the transitory world, to proceed towards the centre, in our search for the nirguna or arupa, beyond all this. In this great journey, we come around the stupa railings or temple walls and approach the gateway, through which we would enter the sanctified space within. Next time, we will speak about who meets us at this entrance.
Composite Creature. The depiction displays the oneness of all life forms. It is such a delightful creature, with the qualities of a crocodile, elephant and fish, with the stem of a plant emanating from its mouth. The oneness of all of creation is seen here. Stupa II, Sanchi c. 100 BCE.
Text and photo Benoy K Behl