By Sharon St Joan
The now deserted site of Hampi, in Karnataka, in south India, covers 25 square miles, of stunning ancient ruins – the temples, palaces, and bazaars of this ancient city.
Knocking on the pillars of the beautiful Vitthala Temple is no longer allowed; but when they used to be struck, each pillar would produce a unique musical tone.
The main temple features 56 columns – each of the columns is made up of a circle of musical pillars — long, slender, and graceful. The rock that resonates contains large quantities of metallic ore, including silica. Other temples in India also feature musical pillars, including some at the Chidambaram Temple on the east coast and at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. They produce a clear, bell-like sound, with each pillar sounding its own unique note. In some cases, when one pillar is rung, others in the same circle will also ring.
Begun in the Fourteenth Century, the Vitthala Temple was expanded later on by the great Vijayanagara king, Krishna Deva Raya in the Sixteenth Century.
Vitthala is a traditional name by which Krishna is known in this area.
The structures at Hampi, as is typical of old temples, are constructed in two sections, the bottom part being built of heavy stone, and the top section made of clay bricks which are much lighter, so the structure is stable with the heavier stone on the bottom. The clay bricks tend to wear away easily over the centuries, while the stone sections, less affected by weathering, remain much as they always were.
In front of the Vitthala Temple at Hampi stands a great stone chariot. The stone wheels of the chariot are made to be able to turn, just as they would in a real chariot; however, to prevent damage to them, they have been fixed in place in modern times and no longer revolve. Inside the chariot is the icon of Garuda, the winged being, part man, part eagle – or part brahminy kite, who is the vehicle of Lord Vishnu.
Where, a few centuries ago, two stone horses were placed in front to pull the chariot, now there are two stone elephants instead. The horses were destroyed by the invading army that leveled the city of Vijayanagara (Hampi) in 1565. The topmost part of the chariot, made of bricks is also gone; the great carved stone section of the chariot remains.
A powerful, magical being, Garuda is seen as one who has access to mystical knowledge and insights. Ferocious and fearless, he targets evil with his keen eyes and sharp claws. He is particularly an enemy of snakes.
This does not mean, however, that snakes are evil. Like all the animals of the earth, snakes are innocent beings. The nagas, who are mythical snakes and serpents, possess great knowledge of the earth; after all, snakes live within in the earth so they know it well. (Even in western mythologies, dragons guard the hidden treasures of the earth.) Snakes, however, are also likely to eat eggs, which does not endear them to birds.
It may be said that eagles, hawks, and all birds, have an opposing worldview from that of snakes – the birds’ domain is the sky, the realm between heaven and earth, so their perspective is opposite to that of snakes, but neither one is evil (There are, in fact, a few birds that do make their homes in caves in the earth, but only a few.) In many mythologies, among the peoples of South America, for example, there are tales of feathered serpents – who, one supposes, must have an affinity with both snakes and birds.
In any case, Garuda’s realm is the space between heaven and earth; his home is the skies, which he traverses to carry Lord Vishnu from his heavenly home down to the earth. Whenever unrighteousness holds sway over the earth (which seems to happen quite a bit), Vishnu descends to the earth, where he incarnates as an earthly being to overcome injustice and set things right again.
The number of avatars of Vishnu varies from one source to another, but most commonly is said to be ten; of these, the ninth is Krishna. These are described in Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s beautiful “Book of Vishnu,” where she writes, “Vishnu means all-pervading: he is the all-pervading sun, whose rays envelope the earth, who protects the sacrifice and sends forth the rain and is the final abode of the pious dead…Benevolence, goodwill, and willingness to help his devotees whenever they call upon him are characteristics that made Vishnu popular in an increasingly material world and which brought him into the world in several incarnations.”
© Text and photos, Sharon St Joan, 2017
Top photo: The Vitthala Temple, with its musical pillars.
Second photo: The stone chariot of Garuda.
Third photo: A flowering tree in the courtyard.
Fourth photo: Traces of painting still present on one of the sculptures.
The Book of Vishnu, by Dr. Nanditha Krishna, is available on Amazon –www.amazon.com