God of the sea

The coast of the Bay of Bengal at Mahabalipuram

It was in 1980, thirty years ago, that Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s book, “The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana” was published.

It opens a window on to the multi-layered world of the spiritual perceptions of India throughout history.

For many thousands of years Vishnu has been worshipped as one of the main Gods of the Hindu pantheon, so a study of the ways in which Vishnu has been portrayed in art and imagery can hardly go out of date.  Still it’s worth noting that there have been new archaeological discoveries along the way and changes in archaeological perspectives, which may throw a different light on certain aspects of the history of the worship of Vishnu. The myth of the Aryan invasion, for example, has in recent years fallen out of favor among scholars, and it is understood now that Hindu spiritual traditions were home-grown, not brought into India from outside.

One of the many goats at Mahabalipuram

This is not to say that there aren’t some extraordinarily fascinating parallels with the gods and spiritual traditions of other cultures, especially those in the Middle East, which is one of the most intriguing aspects of this book, which I’ll write about another time.

This is a timeless and intensely fascinating book, so to touch a little on the origins of the name and the early legends about Narayana–

The name Narayana is composed of “Nara” plus “Ayana.”  Nara is a word that normally means man in Sanskrit—or first man, primordial man.

In the epic poem the Mahabharata though, it is said that “Nara” means waters, and that “Ayana” means abode, so Narayana is the one who lives on the waters.

Some of the shrines at Mahabalipuram

It seems that, a long time ago, following the great flood, the sage Markandeya was wandering about the earth when he came upon a boy who was resting on the branch of a nyagrodha tree (a banyan tree, always a sacred tree).  When asked who he was, the boy replied that he was Narayana, and the boy then went on to talk about the creation and destruction of the universe, and the part he plays in these cosmic events.

The motif of the divine child resting on a leaf is still popular in folk art today in Tamil Nadu.

The word “nira” in Dravidian languages, spoken in the south of India, means water, and this is the most likely source of the word “Nara.”  Apparently there are a number of words that have passed from Tamil (spoken in the south, in Tamil Nadu) to Sanskrit.

“Ay” means to lie down or sleep and “an” is a male grammatical ending.

So “Narayana” can be understood to mean one who lies or sleeps on the water.

Vishnu-Narayana has been depicted thoughout the centuries as lying down or sleeping on a great snake who is resting on the ocean.  The world does not yet exist, so this is the eternal, cosmic ocean that precedes and follows the creation and destruction of the earth.  There is an amazing sculpture of Narayana lying asleep on his bed, the great snake, at Mahabalipuram, in a niche in the Shore Temple by the sea.

Narayana at Mahabalipuram

Narayana, as he lies sleeping, is unaware of the bustle and disenchanting realities of today’s world, but is aware instead of a supernal reality, the level of eternal peace beyond time and space.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna first recognized that this statue of Narayana was created before all the rest of Mahabalipuram, which was constructed in the seventh century by the Pallava king, Narasimhavarman.  There are ruins, perhaps much older, that still lie farther out off the coast in the Bay of Bengal—tantalizing glimpses of them appeared above the surface of the water during the changes in the sea level following the tsunami in 2004.

A parting view of Mahabalipuram with the sea in the distance

It is certain that Mahabalipuram is an amazingly ancient place, used as a seaport by the early Pallava kings as they established trade routes in southeastern Asia, and possibly in use as a port for countless centuries before that time.

The ancient Dravidian people who lived on and near the coast were known to have been a sea-faring people, and Narayana was the God of the sea.

Apsaras, a kind of divine being, also have an association with the sea.  In Sanskrit, “apa” means water and “sara” means a divinity of the water.  The child on the leaf has a link to the apsaras and, through them, to people connected with the sea.

In another legend, a child tied to a creeping plant, who is lost at sea, then found again, becomes the ancestor of the Tirayans, who are the ancient people who lived in Kanchipuram (the former capital city located an hour or so away from Mahabalipuram).

In the year AD 50, Ilyan Tirayan was the king of Kanchipuram (then called Tondaimandalam); it is said that his dynasty was established by the waves themselves (the “tirai”), and that the king was descended from Narayana.

If you are left wondering why all this is completely fascinating—well, what can one say? Some of us are fascinated by some things, and some by other things.

The book “The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana” by Dr. Nanditha Krishna is available from time to time at Amazon.com.

Photos: Sharon St Joan /  Of  Mahabalipuram, one of the most ancient sites on the sea coast of Tamil Nadu

Animals greet the Ganges

Monkey family

The monkey family sit together, the baby on his mother’s lap, and the daddy monkey sits behind grooming the mother monkey.  They are carved in stone, and the peaceful family group has been sitting here, enjoying the afternoon sunshine, since the seventh century AD at Mahabalipuram, an ancient place of monuments carved into the rock.

Along the Indian coast of the Bay of Bengal, Mahabalipuram lies 60 kilometers (37 miles) south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu.

Near the monkey family, stands one of the most amazing monuments ever carved into rock, known as Arjuna’s Penance, also known as the Descent of the Ganges.  The giant whale-shaped rock, about 96 feet long and 43 feet high is carved with over a thousand figures—mostly incredibly charming animals and angels.

Bas relief - the descent of the Ganges

They have come together to witness an event.  There are two different accounts of what the event is. According to one account, Arjuna, a hero of one of the two major epic books of India, the Mahabharata, is doing a penance, in order to win a boon from the god Shiva.  One can see that he looks like he is making a strenuous effort.


Mr. G. Balaji, who is my guide on this adventure, points out the figure that may be Arjuna.  He is very thin, his ribs are showing; clearly he is an ascetic, and he stands on one leg.  Hopefully, Shiva will grant his wish.

Mr. Balaji is an anthropologist and historian with the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation; and I feel fortunate in having him along as a guide to Mahabalipuram.

Rocks and trees

In the other account of what this means, Mr. Balaji tells me, the entire bas-relief represents the descent of the River Ganges from heaven  (although the Ganges River is, in geographical reality, located several hundred miles to the north).  Nevermind, this is the land of myth.

A fissure maybe six feet wide runs lengthwise down the entire bas relief.  This is the River Ganges falling from heaven.  One can see snake beings carved inside the fissure—their coils resembling the waves of the river.  The sacred Ganges starts in heaven, and to break her fall, she lands first on the head of Shiva and becomes entangled in his hair, then she falls more gently down the rest of the way to earth.

A multitude of delightful and charming animals and angels attend this event—most notably an elephant family, portrayed in stone in the most engaging way possible—very lifelike.  The baby elephants play underneath the mother.  Another elephant follows along behind.

Elephants, with their babies, welcome the Ganges

In front of the elephants stands a cat, his hands raised in prayer.  All around him are mice. Mr. Balaji suggests that they may be praying to the cat, to thank him for not eating them. (Though someone else tells me later that this is not entirely certain!)

On the other side of the fissure, there are geese, lions, and deer.  Everywhere there are heavenly beings—flying, musical angels, angels who are part bird, and countless others.

What is more clear than anything is that these great carved beings were put here by people who loved animals—who were, in the seventh century AD, part of the long, bemusing and enchanting story of India, which has, reaching back into the mists of time, always revered nature—the animals, the plants, the stones and the trees.

Nearby, in a large rock-cut temple are six pillars with carved lions.  Mahabalipuram illustrates the transition being made in the seventh century from rock-cut temples to temples built of stone as separate structures.

Krishna's butterball

The natural granite rocks, which must have existed on the sea coast for perhaps millions of years were no doubt always perceived as sacred in themselves—even long before the great boulders began to be carved.  The area, which covers many acres, is incredibly peaceful.  It is kept very clean and beautiful.  Grass and trees grow among the boulders. One huge boulder, called Krishna’s Butterball, serves as shade and shelter for a herd of goats, who might appear to be in great danger from the rock, perhaps 25 feet high, which looks like it may roll over at any moment, but it seems to have been there for centuries, and the goats lie calmly underneath it.  Occasional dogs also find a peaceful spot for a nap on the grass.

A dog on the grass

Photos:  Sharon St Joan

To visit the website of the C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, please go to

Blogroll above.