Tripura – A tale of three cities

The God Shiva

In her amazing Book of Demons, Dr. Nanditha Krishna tells the story of the destruction of the demon Taraka’s three sons. If you are thinking that demons sound very unpleasant, and you’d rather not read about them, it’s good to remember that this is India, and nothing is eternally evil.  The demons may be excessively terrifying, which they generally are, but all beings have as their essence a divine spark, which returns in the end to God.  Not only that, but demons can sometimes perform good deeds, and occasionally be more noble and generous than the gods themselves.  However, for the most part, it is true that they are frightful creatures, and one really doesn’t want to be around them. The book is fascinating.

In it is told the following story about the destruction of the three demons, and there is mention of a book called the Harivamsha, which describes Tripura as a city built in the air that was destroyed by fire during a war with the gods. In the ancient myths of India, there was quite a lot of activity happening up in the sky, including wars and airships flying about.

In the story as told in the Book of Demons, the ancient book, the Padma Purana, is cited, which notes that the demon Taraka’s three sons were Vidyunmali, Tarakaksha, and Viryavana.  They wished to become immortal, so they performed austerities, which was the accepted way to go about achieving immortality in those days, since Brahma would then notice them and would grant their request.

However, Brahma refused to do so; so instead, they asked to be given three forts, one made of gold, another of silver, and the third made of iron. There they would live for a thousand years, and at the end of that time, the three forts would be united into one that could be destroyed only by a single arrow. Brahma did grant this wish, and so the demon architect, Maya, set to work to build the forts.

A monkey in a tree

Maya, in Hindu spiritual tradition, is the power of illusion or the illusory nature of the world as we see it.  It’s a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the general idea. So Maya built the three forts, which were also three cities, since cities tended to be constructed around forts.

The demons remained in their cities for a thousand years, living well and happily.  This angered the gods, who were not pleased that the demons were doing so well, and they asked Brahma and Shiva to destroy the cities.  Both refused because the demons weren’t doing anything wrong.

Then the gods went to Vishnu, who came up with the idea of causing them to sin; then there would be a good justification for destroying their cities. Vishnu made a man with a shaved head and a cloth covering his mouth, who began the Jain religion.  The three demons became followers of this religion, and stopped worshipping Shiva.  In this way, it was felt that they had left the truth and had taken up a false religion. (It is thought that the story of the Tripura must be an account of the destruction of a historical Jain city.)

The thousand years were up in any case, and Shiva agreed to destroy the three cities.  Since the cities could only be destroyed by a single arrow, Shiva aimed a single pashupata, or magical weapon, which went straight through all the three cities, burning them to cinders with a single blow.

Two owls in the tree

That is the story as told in the Book of Demons by Dr. Nanditha Krishna, who is one of the foremost authorities in a number of fields, including the art and iconography of southern India.

At the Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjore, Tamil Nadu, are some of the most beautiful paintings one could ever imagine.  Tanjore is known for its sacred art, especially its paintings and bronze sculpture; the city has produced one of the world’s most beautiful artistic traditions. The paintings are extraordinarily delicate and expressive.

Sadly, the paintings at the Brihadeswara Temple are deteriorating rapidly; to protect them, they are now kept in a hall closed to the public.  The original paintings are huge, and the hall they are in is only six feet wide, so it is hard to step back from them far enough to really see them.  But visitors are not permitted anyway.

In a much more accessible room are copies of the paintings in a smaller size, perhaps five feet high.  Even these show significant deterioration, and parts of the paintings are completely gone.  Other areas are very hard to make out.

The head of an elephant

Among them is a painting of the story of the God Shiva destroying the Tripura, the three cities.  One can see the great head of Shiva and other human and animal figures. The brush strokes are incredibly sensitive, and the figures come alive. There is an elephant, along with a king riding on a horse, as well as a beautiful jungle scene of trees and birds. One feels transported into another world.

One of the primary powers belonging to Shiva is divine destruction.  He is the aspect of God who, at the right time, destroys the whole world, the universe, and time, meaning that all that has become corrupt or usurped by evil will be undone, and the fourth or final age, the Kali Yuga, will be brought to an end.  After a while, the Great Cycle of the four ages will begin again, with the return of the first age, the Satya Yuga, an age of grace and innocence, purity and beauty.

The ages are also associated with metals: Satya Yoga is the Golden Age (remembered also by the ancient Greeks and many other early peoples); the Dvapara Yuga is the Silver Age; the Treta Yuga, the Copper Age; and the last and current age is the Kali Yuga.

Looking at this painting of the Tripura, one feels oneself carried off to another, mystical level, on which Shiva, in an eternal cosmic reality, destroys the three cities, which are perhaps the three ages of time and all existence—burning up the evil and corruption that has accumulated down through the eons, and releasing the spirit within all beings, which is then freed to return to God.

Photos: Sharon St Joan / details of a copy of a painting at Brihadeswara Temple in Tanjore, Tamil Nadu

Top photo: Shiva, or Tripurantaka, as destroyer of demons

Second photo: A monkey in a tree

Third photo: Two owls in the tree

Fourth photo: The head of an elephant

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