The Virupaksha Temple at Hampi – a Shiva temple



By Sharon St Joan


Inside a stone structure near the temple, langur monkeys played in the rays of the late afternoon sun.


Like nearly all Hindu temples, the Virupaksha Temple at Hampi began as just a small shrine; it is thought to go back to around the seventh century CE.


Virupaksha is the God Shiva, and this is a living temple, which means that people still go there to worship so many centuries later.


Over time many rulers contributed to its growth. Around 1000 CE, the temple was expanded. In 1510 CE, on the occasion of his coronation, King Krishnadevaraya, the iconic emperor of the Vijayanagara Empire, added a complex comprised of the inner eastern entrance, or gopuram, a pillared hall, and many more shrines.


Near the temple entrance are several graceful statues of Nandi, the sacred bull who is the vehicle of Shiva; he gives permission to each devotee to enter the temple. One of the Nandis has three heads. There’s nothing mysterious about this, the sculptor simply gave him three heads, but normally Nandi has only one head.


*2Nandi by VirupakshaDSC00293


Quite far away, perhaps a tenth of a mile up high in a structure of pillars built by the side of a mountain, near where the monkeys were playing, the original Nandi looks out towards the temple – a very imposing figure carved out of a giant black boulder.


It is said that it was Nandi who taught Shiva to dance. The dance of Shiva is an important one since Shiva is the God of destruction, and one of his two dances is the tandava, the dance which brings the world to its end. The other is a gentle dance during which the world begins anew.


The destructive aspect of Shiva is not in any way unkind or malevolent. It is essential; without destruction there can be no renewal. It is the essence of how the cosmos works, causing the wheel of life and death to turn. There are many worlds, many levels, both seen and unseen, and many Gods, yet they are all One, the ultimate Brahman.


To be separated and cut off from the truer levels of being is to live in a world of turmoil and unrest. To be in touch with the deeper levels of reality and with the Gods, is to know peace and truth.


*3boulders near NandiDSC00300


Many thousands of years ago, during the time when the Rig Veda, the oldest book in the world, was written, there existed another, earlier, magnificent phase of Indian civilization. The ruins of over a thousand cities which existed along the banks of the Saraswathi River, in India, and spread out encompassing a far wider area, have been found, along with other already well-known ancient cities such as Mohenjo Daro and Harrappa, now in Pakistan, which were all part of the same civilization. The artwork found there shows clear evidence of continuity between the customs and worship of Indian people then and today.


The Rig Veda describes the Saraswathi River as being vast and energetic, a huge, dynamic river. Eventually, the Saraswati River dried up and most of it went underground, which is how it remains today. Archeologists and geologists have noted that the last time the Saraswati River was flowing in full force as a huge beautiful river was around 5,000 BCE. This has led to their being able to date the time when the Rig Veda must have been composed as no later than 5,000 BCE – which means that the history of India goes back at least seven thousand years, and possibly much, much farther. Many more fascinating confirmations of this very ancient antiquity are described in an article in the IndiaFacts newsletter – please see below for the link to this and also for the link to Michel Danino’s book, Land of Seven Rivers.


One of the most intriguing pieces of artwork found in the Indus-Saraswati Civilization is the depiction of a God believed to be Shiva. Portrayed as a yogi, he is surrounded by animals and is shown as the God of the natural world. Shiva is a sacred being, the beginning and the ending of all existence, of the entire cosmos. His living beings — the animals, the plants, the trees, the rivers, the mountains, and all of nature, are sacred too, and they are to be cared for and worshipped.


*4one of the Virupaksha gopurumsDSC00277


Within the Virupaksha Temple, in the late afternoon, one can feel an age-old connection with levels beyond; an ancient continuity that is only evident when there is still a link with the past – when we are not lost in a present that is chaotic like a boat cast adrift without moorings. Like the temple trees whose roots provide a grounding strength, the centuries and centuries that go back into the mists are rooted in an ancient truth that is always there, a light shining through the forests of time.


© Sharon St Joan, text and photos, 2017


Photos: Sharon St Joan


Top photo: A part of the Virupaksha Temple that goes back to around 1000 CE.


Second photo: A giant Nandi overlooking the temple.


Four: Nearby boulders.


Five: One of the temple gopurams.



Aryan Invasion Myth How 21st Century Science Debunks 19thCentury Indology – the IndiaFacts newsletter



Lost River: On the trail of the Sarasvati by Michel Danino


Bulls in India need an email from you

the statue of Nandi at Brihadeshwara Temple

At Brihadeshwara Temple in Tamil Nadu, Nandi, the sacred bull, guards the entrance, just as he has guarded the entrances to all Shiva temples for thousands of years. Like the cow, the bull has always been revered and honored in India.

In modern times though, there have sprung up more recent “traditions”, such as sporting events (some known as jallikattu) in which bulls are forced to participate and which are very cruel to them.  It is sad to see this happening in India, since it goes against the time-honored respect that India holds for all life.

Within a couple of days there will be a court case to determine whether bulls should be used in these various kinds of sporting events in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. All these events, like bullock cart racing and jallikattu, subject the bulls to suffering and abuse.  It is not natural for bulls to race, so they must be mistreated to get them to run.

A few months ago, the Hon’able Jayanthi
 Natarajan, one of the ministers of Tamil Nadu, was instrumental in passing a ruling that bulls should not be used in sports events as performing animals.  However, as you can imagine, those who are profiting from using the bulls in races, would like to continue these events, and they have been very active in making their voices heard.  So it would be helpful if all of us can make known our wish that the bulls should be treated with kindness, respect, and compassion and not be used in racing, which is inhumane.

Please send an email, thanking the Minister for the ruling she issued banning bulls from being used as performing animals and expressing your wish that bulls may continue to be protected from having to participate in any sporting events.  Below is the letter that I sent.  Please use the same form of address, but please do not use my words, since it will be more effective to use your own words.  The points made can be the same. The email address is  Thank you for taking this step to help the bulls in India!

Hon’ble Jayanthi Natarajan


Ministry of Environment & Forests

Government of India

Dear Hon’ble Jayanthi Natarajan,

I was very happy a few months ago to learn that your Ministry had issued a notification banning the use of bulls in performing.

This is an extremely important issue because India is known throughout the world as a country that respects animals, especially cows and bulls, who are so abused in much of the world, for example, by being slaughtered for food.

It is essential that India set an example for the rest of the world by ensuring that bulls are never used in any kind of sports events, races, or contests, or in any similar ways that could cause suffering to them.

Bulls must be honored, respected, and allowed to live in peace.

Only by honoring and caring for animals can we as humans create a society where there is peace and well-being.

Thank you for ensuring that bulls in Tamil Nadu will be safe and well-cared for and for preserving and protecting the noble traditions of India, which always show kindness to animals.


Sharon St Joan

A little history of the earth, starting with bulls

Lascaux painting of aurochs bulls

The paintings in the Lascaux Cave in the south of France, in the department of Dordogne, are believed to date back 17, 300 years.  Inside the cave, in the Hall of the Bulls are many equines; among them paintings of aurochs, a species of cow now extinct, ancestor to the varieties of modern cows.

The painting of one of the bulls is 17 feet long and is the longest cave art animal anywhere. The paintings in the cave, because of the presence of visitors (the visitors’ breath has affected the air) have been damaged by fungi, and in 1983 a different cave was constructed for visitors with replicas of two of the cave halls.

The earliest cave paintings in Europe go back around 35,000 years.

Reverence for bulls was widespread in the ancient world – in Paleolithic times and on into Neolithic times – and up to today as well.

In the book of Exodus, in the Bible, is told the story of the Hebrews returning to the practice of worshiping the Golden Calf while Moses was up on the mountain collecting the ten commandments.  Moses wasn’t pleased to see the image of the Golden Calf when he got back, and he smashed the ten commandments in anger when he saw it.

Still, worship of the bull cropped up again and again, both before and after the time of Moses.

The Babylonian god Marduk is called the Bull of Utu.  In the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, the heroes are often referred to as “bulls”.

An Indian calf

In Mesopotamian mythology, Gugalanna was the Bull of Heaven.  The word “gu” meant bull and was of the same origin as the Sanskrit word ”go” or “gau” meaning “cow”.  “Cow” comes from these earlier words.  The bull Gugulanna was associated with the constellation Taurus (the Bull), which from 3,200 BC held the place where the Spring Equinox occurred in the northern hemisphere.

The myth tells us that the bull Gugulanna was killed by Gilgamesh (the Sumerian Noah). Gilgamesh was linked to the light of the sun, and when the streams of sunlight rose at the Spring Equinox, they overcame the starlight of the constellation of Gugulanna, which then became invisible, thus “killing” Gugulanna.

The bull, whose horns are shaped like a crescent moon, has been associated with the moon.

Bull-leaping in a Minoan fresco

When I visited the Minoan ruins in Crete in the summer of 1969, I recall looking at a stone block, one of many there with carved bulls’ horns, and noticing for the first time the unique importance of the bull to ancient cultures.  The bulls’ horns were everywhere.

The aurochs, the ancestor of today’s cattle, both western and eastern, became extinct when the last of the aurochs, a female, died in 1627, in the Jaktorow Forest in Poland. Authorities at the Paleontologisk Museum, University of Oslo, believe that the aurocks first appeared in India two million years ago, and from there spread throughout the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

It is thought that South Asian, including Indian, cattle descended from a sub-species of aurochs who lived at the edge of the Thar Desert which lies across Rajasthan and Pakistan.  These Indian cows have a hump and have a very elegant, distinctive look.

Western cows do not have a hump and are known as taurine cattle.  Aurochs were much larger than all modern cows; the males were black, and the females reddish.

A copy of a fifteenth century painting of an aurocks

Aurochs also spread to North Africa, and the cattle of the ancient Egyptians may have descended from them.

Throughout the centuries, the bull has been both worshipped and mistreated.

One might wonder whether the human race has a propensity for killing what it worships – from the sacred bull to the life and death of Jesus.  To be fair, it may not only be humans who behave that way.  Among all mammal species, males engage in battle with each other.  And any male who seems to stand above the others becomes a target—to be feared or to be attacked in order to take his place. (Having the top place seems to be a pretty essential goal, which can supplant any inclination towards reverence or worship.) Females are not immune from an impulse towards violence, and they also attack when they are defending their young.

Throughout the ancient world the bull was worshipped as a divine being, yet today, one finds in various places extremely cruel rituals that seem designed for young men to prove their dominance over the bull.  These ritual “games” seem to have degenerated over time into greater and greater levels of barbarism.

The cruelest of these are festivals put on by the Catholic Church, on feast days of saints, held in Mexico and Spain, in which the bulls are tortured and killed.  There are also, of course, the bullfights in Spain, introduced here and there in other countries in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  In the western U.S. there are rodeos, also cruel, also exported to other countries.  There are attempts taking place now, to introduce rodeos into China.

The slaughter of bulls and cows for food happens all over the world, more in the U.S. than anywhere else, where around 33 million cattle are killed every year.  Brazil and China are fast catching up.  The pursuit of cattle for food is destroying the planet through climate change and destroying vast tracts of land, as well as native animals like the bison and the wild horse, thousands of whom are being killed by the U.S. government to make way for cattle grazing.

Worship of the bull has tended to devolve over time into torment of the bull.

In the Greek legend, the Minotaur, who is half-man, half-bull, dwells in a labyrinth, and is killed by the hero Theseus.

The Egyptian god Apis, (or Hape, which is closer to the original Egyptian word), was worshipped, and the bulls were mummified and interred in great underground complexes.  It is assumed that they were killed.

Bulls and cows are very highly revered in India.  I’ll only mention them briefly for now.  The fascinating book “Sacred Animals of India” by Dr. Nanditha Krishna, has a great deal of information about them.

Nandi at the Brihadeshwara Temple, Tamil Nadu

In India, the bull Nandi is the beloved vehicle and gatekeeper for the God Shiva.  In every Shiva temple throughout south India, there is a figure of the bull Nandi. Nandi is also the leading disciple of Shiva.

At the Brihadeswara Temple, Nandi is immense, majestic, and charming, with a very innocent, rather playful face.  The devotee pays his or her respects to Nandi before going into the temple.  Nandi is a much loved and revered figure, who would never be harmed.

In a strange contrast, however, there is also in south India, in Tamil Nadu, the cruel practice of jallikattu, in which crowds of young men torment and pursue bulls, often leading to injury to the bulls and to themselves in the process.

What begins as honor, worship, and devotion, can degenerate over the centuries into persecution and killing.  Indeed, things tend to take that route.

These observations have taken a gloomy turn, but are not meant to be gloomy.   The same fate is befalling all of nature—as we humans, who once worshipped the forests, the trees, and the divine beings who lived in them, have destroyed nearly the whole earth now to make way for ourselves.  But of course we cannot live without the earth. Going to live in a colony on Mars or the moon doesn’t really seem like the best option—not for us, and certainly not for Mars and the moon.

Enlightening our fellow human beings and encouraging kindness to animals and to the planet is absolutely well worth doing.  It may be the only thing well worth doing, and it will go a long way towards lessoning the immensity of the suffering of many people and many animals.

But as for affecting the fateful course of events and the downward-spiraling destiny of the earth, something else, an approach on a more cosmic scale, seems to be needed to turn the tide or to bring about a new tide—a tide that may go back to the beginning before the origin of cruelty.


Top photo: Prof saxx / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license / Lascaux painting

Second photo: Lea Maimone / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license / Indian calf

Third photo: Wikimedia Commons / in the Public Domain in the U.S. /

Minoan fresco from the palace of Knossos / Bull-leaping

Fourth photo: Wikimedia Commons / In the Public Domain / A copy of a painting of an aurochs, the original may have been done in the Fifteenth century.

Fifth photo: Sharon St Joan / Nandi at the Brihadeswarer Temple, Tamil Nadu

The big temple of Tanjore

Part of the Brihadeswarer Temple

The Brihadeswara Temple in Thanjore in southern India was built exactly one thousand years ago, and a dance was held in the fall of 2010 to commemorate the event.  In early February of 2011, the vimana, the tallest part of the temple, was being cleaned, and so was covered in scaffolding, which did not seem to detract in any way from the beauty and power of the temple.

Built by the king Raja Raja, of the late Chola period, the temple, in downtown Tanjore, is surrounded by a moat and by an outer wall.  The vimana is one of the tallest in the world.  Part way up the vimana is a sculptural rendition of the sacred mountain, Mount Meru.

The temple belongs to Shiva, who is shown in many forms.  The extraordinarily beautiful painting and sculpture of Tanjore, unequaled throughout the world, are visible everywhere.  A line of Nandis—Nandi is the sacred bull—are walking along one of the outer walls.  Facing the tall vimana is the largest Nandi in the world—of black granite—looking both absolutely magnificent, and at the same time playful and innocent.  He has a really lovely face.  A person entering the temple always honors Nandi first, as a way of asking his permission and approval to go into the temple and worship the God Shiva.

Nandi, the great bull

The temple is filled with smaller Nandis too, of all sizes—as well as many, many variations of the form of Shiva.  All things Indian have extraordinary levels of complexity, weaving together layer upon layer of reality, each more beautiful or magical than the last, at least that’s how it seems to many, myself included.

One can go up a very steep, narrow stairway to enter a small shrine where there is sitting Dakshinamurthy, who is the Lord of the South, meaning Shiva of the South.  Dakshinamurthy is Shiva the Teacher, who has an extraordinary presence of great peace and kindness.

Stairs lead up to the shrine of Dakshinamurthy

A larger shrine to one side of the main buildings is dedicated to a female form of Vishnu in his incarnation as Varahi, that is the boar.  Vishnu came to earth as the boar, and also as the female form of the boar.  Not all the gods lend themselves to written descriptions.  If one wishes to get to know them, one can only do that with time and reverence.

There are sculptures of animals everywhere:  There is  Bhairava, the form of Shiva who is always shown with a dog.  In fact, Bhairava is the name of both Shiva and his dog. The peacock who accompanies Murugan, known by many names, is one of the sons of Shiva.  Shiva is married to Parvati, and their eldest son is Ganesha, who has the head of an elephant.  Ganesha is much-loved throughout India, and is normally invoked in prayer before praying to any other deity, the reason being that he is the remover of all obstacles, just like the elephant who walks through the forest, brushing aside anything that may be in the way, and in that way creating a pathway for the other forest animals to follow.

Visitors entering the Brihadeswarer Temple

There are large sculptures of doorkeepers too.  One enters the temple complex through a very beautiful Gopurum, which is the gateway.  Gopuram means city of the cow.

In one of the buildings there is a collection of gigantic Tanjore paintings—now no longer viewable because it has been hard to preserve them over the centuries, so they are kept out of sight now to protect them from further deterioration.  Copies of them are on display in a hall and are genuinely amazing.  One can see at first glance how Tanjore painting gained its place among the foremost art of the world.  Every detail is captivating, in a way that defies description.  They are paintings of extraordinary scenes of myth and magic, which spring to life as one is looking at them. More on these paintings later….

The Brihadeswarer Vimana

The vimana, the main temple tower, the largest and tallest in India when it was built in 1010, is 66 meters (216 feet) high—or maybe only 61 meters, depending on who one asks. The stone at the top is believed to weigh 80 tons, so there is considerable speculation as to how it was placed there, one of the leading theories being that a long ramp was used to haul the stone. Mount Meru, appearing part way up the vimana, is believed to mark the symbolic and also the real center of the earth.

One of the most amazing architectural sites in India, the Brihadeswara Temple is a living temple, filled with worshippers.  The towers and buildings, covered with sculptures are all of granite.

Photos: Sharon St Joan