Natalie Savelyeva

For Hindus, the temple is "the place where the world–order is brought to life, in actu, where its battles are fought, and the ultimate victory of the good is celebrated. In the temple, the clashing universal forces are brought under control; divine power is very efficiently present within its walls."

South Indian temple

"A popular South Indian saying holds that "a place without a temple is unsuitable for human habitation." And indeed, every settlement has some locus of the divine presence. What matters often most is the place, a definite location where the divine is actually and effectively present... The atmosphere is, so to say, potentially charged with the divine; not only the temple is the focus–point of divine expression, the entire settlement is charged with ritual meaning and importance. The divine manifests itself in this place and in that mode which is suitable to those to perceive it. Thus, different categories of shrines and types of worship exist side by side within one village."

The example of natural formation of a sacred village–plan (chaturveda mangala – "the auspicious place of those who belong to the four Vedas") is small town of Thirunelvelly. There is famous temple of Nelliyappar (Siva who protected rice fields). The Chaturveda mangala denotes "bipartition of the village in ritually pure and ritually impure part. Dividing line is Tamraparani river and a channel that is dug specially for this purpose, since water is considered to have a purifying effect and to protect against defilement. The purest part of the village is formed by the four "grand" roads around the great temple. During festival days the temple–chariot follows the quadrangle round the temple. The highest (ritually purest) castes are grouped round the temple. According to degree of diminishing purity, occupational groups are further and further removed from this ritual center. Across the channel live the caste–groups that share features like unclean professions, non–vegetarian diet and worship of indigenous, non–Brahmin gods." Settlement for the followers of other religions like Christians, Jains and Muslims are also moved across the channel.

Temple ground is divided in nine cardinal points (nava–sandhi). All gods, goddesses, demons and other divine manifestations have their own "power–fields" and their own proper modes of worship.

South Indian temples are divided into four categories:

  1. Indigenous temple – belong to local gods worshiped according to non–Brahmanic rites.
  2. Agamic temple – follow the ritual code laid down in the Sanskrit Agamas.
  3. Royal temple – is Agamic temple which houses tutelary deity of the royal house.
  4. Pilgrimage temple – fusion of Agamic and indigenous temple, canter of pilgrimage constructed on "very powerful" indigenous cultic spot overlaid with later Agamic layer.

The temple ground is the stage of Agamic performance. There are four interpretation of its layout:

  1. Derivation from Vedic sacrificial ground

    The plan of temple resembles that of yagasala (hall of Vedic sacrifice). The idol represents Vedic sacrificial fire, Dhvajastambha (flagstaff) – yupa which is also axis mundi (axis of the world) or Indra–pillar (ritual enactment of Indra"s victory over the demon), symbol of king power.

  2. Homology between the temple and human body based upon yogic doctrines.

    There are three principal levels of human constitution – spiritual (spirit is pure consciousness or energy identical with highest being and individualized through Maya, illusion), psychological (subtle body, including intellectual and effective subdivisions) and physiological. Subtle body plays a role of connection between physical body and the spirit. There are correspondences between subtle and physical bodies, but not identity. Important components of subtle body are nadis (conduits or channels of pranic energy) which meet in cakras (disks or centers of psychic energy). There are seven important cakras corresponding to sympathetic plexuses of physical body. Using this homology, temple comprises gross body (construction, idol or murti – image). Different shrines represent cakras. Ritualistic worship creates "subtle body" of the temple. Like Kundalini flows through cakras, the worshiper goes in circles inside temple grounds, visits different shrines, pays respects and receives darshan (vision of divine).

  3. Homology between the temple and body of the god–king

    Vastupurusha mandala. Purusha is the prime person from whose body all forms originated. Vastu means "place", and Mandala – "plan". Vastupurushamandala is yantra, i.e. geometrical contrivance by which any aspect of the Supreme Principle is bound to particular spot for purpose of worship. Vastupurushamandala is conceived as a square mandala of the earth. Around the central cardinal deity (Brahma) are grouped eight gods surrounded by square formed by sixteen men and then by twenty four ghosts. All divine powers are honored at individual sandhi (ritual spot). Together the three concentric "circuits" of sandhi–s form the triple Worlds of Gods, Men and Demons. Thus, all divine forces "embedded" in temple area are balanced and content. This diagram of balance of forces reminds structure of an atom, where positive charged nuclei comprises positrons and neutral neutrons, and negatively charged electrons rotate on outer orbits round the nuclei.

  4. Composite field of divine energy of various nature

    Great variety of cults found shelter in Agamic temple – worship of sthalavriksha (sacred tree), purru (ant–hill), Navagraha idols (astrological symbols) along with indigenous gods.

    "The main image (murti, vigraha) may be abstract (Lingam or even empty space) or anthropomorphic and is installed in the mulasthana (primal station) also called garbha griha (womb–house). The image is immovable and can be compared to a king living in the safety of his well–guarded strong–hold. In anthropomorphic form the god is usually represented as the "divine pair" (Siva–Sakti or Hari–Devi); sometimes the god has two wives or entire family (Sa–Uma–Scanda – Siva, Parvati and Scanda). Near to main shrine processional image is situated (which is always anthropomorphic)."

Dance as part of temple ritual

The present day practice of presenting Varnams, Keertanas, Javalis,Tillanas in Nadaswaram concerts is of recent origin, perhaps 60–70 years. Earlier, concerts at the temples were significantly different. Ragas were rendered with their full embellishments/laya structure and appropriate to the presiding deity.

The Nitya Pooja or daily prayers normally comprised 6–8 rituals. Each time an appropriate raga was rendered on the Nadaswaram. This wasthe tradition and continues even today.

The expert on Agama Sastra Sri Ramaswamy Dikshitar, has laid down a detailed structure for Nadaswaram recitals at the temples.

The first pooja, Tiruvanandal, is performed between 5 am and 6 am to wake up the Gods. During such times, ragas like Bhoopalam, Bowli, Malayamarutam are played.

During the 7 am Vila Pooja, ragas like Bilahari,Kedaram are rendered.

Around 8 AM ragas like Dhanyasi, Saveri, Aaaveri, and around 10 am ragas like Surati, Mukhari, Manirangu are played.

At noon, during the Ucchikala Pooja Mukhari, Poornachandrika, Mandari and similar ragas are played.

At 8 in the night during the Ardhajama pooja, ragas like Sankarabharanam,Bhairavi, Kambhoji, and at the 10 pm Palliarai pooja, ragas like Anandabhairavi, Neelambari are handled.

Thus it is a very scientifically laid down structure which was not only appealing but in keeping with the time of the day. The village folk could easily identify the time without clocks merely by listening to the ragas and the songs. Devotees would also be able to know which pooja was being performed.This evidences the fine–tuned prayer scheme prevalent in south Indian temples.

The playing of ragas is keeping with the temple rituals.

Rendering of Mallari, Pancha Nadai, Ragam–Tanam–Pallavi etc during the procession of the deities were the traditions prevalent over many years. In recent times, Madurai Sri Ponnuswamy Pillai, Tiruveezhimalai brothers, Tiruppambaram brothers and SriKaraikurichi Arunachalam contributed to the change in the concert format from the earlier raga–oriented approach to the present format of handling ofVarnams, Kritis, Keertanas, Tillanas etc.


"Nityasumangali" by Saskia C. Kersenboom, New Delhi, 2004