By Sharon St Joan
In 1565, invaders poured into the magnificent city of Hampi, one of the largest cities in the world at that time, leveling many of the buildings and much of the artwork, and slaughtering nearly all the city’s residents.
Located in the southern state of Karnataka, in India, the Hazara Rama Temple is one of the most remarkable temples of this ancient city. Inside are black polished stone columns, exquisitely carved. At the city’s final hour, as the marauding armies drew near the city gates, some of the temple devotees were thinking only of protecting the temple’s central icons.
During the destruction of Hampi, many sculptures all over the city, icons that were worshipped and revered, were violently smashed and broken. Some fragments lay on the ground for hundreds of years afterwards, with no way of restoring them.
If one looks closely at the floor of the temple interior of the Hazara Rama Temple, one can see four empty rectangles where today nothing stands, yet clearly sculptures once stood there. Apparently, as the armies approached, some worshippers, with the help of others – no one knows who – were able to spirit away four of the key temple icons – Rama, Laksmana, Sita, and Hanuman – before the invaders broke through the gates. The unknown devotees who, out of love for the Gods they worshipped, moved them in the dark of night, must have buried them in an unknown location, intending to return later to restore them to the temple. It seems they were never able to return. Thanks to their brave act of devotion, the icons, which have never been found, rest in peace and were spared from being broken.
The outside walls of the temple remained intact and are lined with thousands of panels, beautifully sculpted, that tell the story of the Ramayana – one of the two great epic poems of India. The Ramayana is very long – several books, but in a nutshell the story is this: The ancient god-king Rama is looking for his wife, Sita, who has been kidnapped by the demon-king of Lanka (today’s Sri Lanka). Rama is distraught, not knowing what to do or where to look for his beloved Sita. In the forest of Kishkinda, he meets the monkey god, Hanuman – a magical being who becomes known for his undying loyalty and devotion to Rama and Sita. Hanuman brings light and positivity into a desperate situation; he travels with Rama to help find Sita, and time after time against impossible odds, he finds a way to overcome all the obstacles that block their way – building a bridge across the sea, transporting a whole mountain top on which healing herbs are growing, finding and communicating with the missing Sita, and then selflessly allowing Rama himself to rescue her. Hanuman brings the gift of life with his innocence, devotion, and magical abilities.
Just across the river from the ruined city of Hampi, which is now a World Heritage Center, lies the wilderness of rocks and forests where Hanuman was born and where he spent his early life. This whole area was the forest of Kishkinda, many thousands of years before Hampi was built in the fourteenth century.
All around the outside walls of the Hazara Rama Temple run the enchanting panels that depict, with immense charm, the story of Rama’s and Hanuman’s journey to find the lost Sita. While travelers flock to this spectacular late medieval city, it is Hanuman’s story and Hanuman’s presence that provide the backdrop for the city of Hampi.
The wonderfully sculpted panels of the temple portray the events of the story. Hanuman is engaging and clever. He always finds a way where there seems not to be one. When he has no idea at all what he can do, or how he can help, he never gives up, and then an inspiration will come into his head. Sometimes he acts impulsively, without much advance planning. At the moment when he locates the cave where the kidnapped Sita is being kept, it dawns on him that he has never actually met Sita, and that naturally, not knowing who he is, she may be afraid of him. So, with his magical powers, he reduces his height, becoming very small and unthreatening, speaking very gently to her – appearing to be just a little forest monkey who would not harm anyone. Rama has also given Hanuman his signet ring as a token to give to Sita so that she will know that he has been sent by her husband Rama. That helps too.
Hanuman has been sent by Rama to find Sita because, being a magical creature, he can fly through the air – something the human being, Rama, cannot do. Rama cannot traverse the several miles of ocean that lie between India and Sri Lanka. Later, when the bridge has been built across the sea by Hanuman’s friends, the army of monkeys, then Rama also can cross the sea to Sri Lanka.
Hanuman is intensely charming because, in his innocence, he does not recognize his own strength and his own powers. It is only when he is reminded by someone else that he becomes aware that he can do amazing tasks, such as getting his monkey and bear friends to build a bridge across the ocean, that he can fly, or grow smaller or taller, or pick up a mountain and carry it thousands of miles – that he has the powers and the ability to find and restore to Rama, his lost wife Sita.
But there is something else very captivating and charming – and that is the intense devotion to Hanuman of the sculptors and temple builders who created these beautiful evocative images of Hanuman – and the reverence of the many thousands of worshippers who come here to see this re-creation of the life of Hanuman and the story of Rama and Sita.
It is with great love and faithfulness that artists carved the wonderful lifelike images of Hanuman and all the other beings in the story. It is with profound reverence that they brought the images to life.
An uncomprehending eye might say that after all, this is just the story of a flying, talking monkey – something like a child’s story from thousands of years ago – about a forest animal that travels through the air — what could be its relevance today?
But the devotees from all over India and from farther away who visit these beautiful images do not see it that way. Instead they are caught up in the magic of this heroic presence, Hanuman – always faithful, always innocent, ever brave, and endowed with the magical gifts needed to bring light, life, and a happy ending to this ancient tale. It is a story of profound loyalty and a beautiful heroic spirit – a story always relevant to all times and all places.
Thank you to Dr. Nanditha Krishna for her profound insights into the character of Hanuman.
Photos: Sharon St Joan
Top photo: Hanuman on the right, and, above, giving the ring to Sita.
Second photo: The temple interior.
Third photo: More scenes from the Ramayana.
Fourth photo: A winged being.
Fifth photo: A black polished column and a visitor to the temple.
© Sharon St Joan, 2017