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


Chidambaram, the temple of space, part two


By Sharon St Joan


To read part one first, click here.


In the nineteenth century, the theory of ether was popular as a way to describe the medium through which light travels. In the early years of the twentieth century, scientists assumed that ether did exist, but later that theory was discarded. It was displaced by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which gave a different explanation of how light travels.


However, more recently, scientists and mathematicians have found that something was missing to make mathematical equations of the universe consistent with reality. There was some energy not being accounted for. University of Chicago cosmologist Michael Turner coined the term “dark energy” in 1998 to describe this unknown factor.


Modern science seems occasionally to hit upon an ancient truth. What is “dark energy”? No one knows, but it is essential to the mathematical equations that show how the universe works, so it has to be there, though no one has the tiniest clue what it is. Perhaps it is the “nothing” that is really “something” that underlies the structure of the universe. It appears that “nothing” does produces effects and that it may be a “force,” reminiscent of the “force” in Star Wars.


Perhaps in the vastness of space, where we imagine there is a vacuum, there lies instead a foundational reality, invisible and indefinable, a “nothing” that is not truly “nothing.” Perhaps that is the “ether” worshipped in the ancient temple at Chidambaram.



Possibly all this has nothing at all to do with the ether at Chidambaram, or perhaps it does. Science deals with physical reality, and any reality that is not physical lies outside the realms of science.


At the limits of the physical world, science comes to a boundary beyond which it cannot see. It is said that 70% of the existent universe is made up of “dark energy,” and that’s a big percentage. It is this “dark energy” that is thought to cause the accelerating expansion of the universe, driving or pulling the physical universe to its end. One is reminded of the cosmic dance of Shiva that brings the end of time, and in the grand recurring cycle of time, reality, and the universe — the end follows the beginning and a new beginning follows the end.


The place name Chidambaram may be derived from “chit” meaning consciousness and from “ambaram” meaning sky or cloth. It may mean “sky of consciousness.”

IMG_8058 2


Since the mangrove (thillai) forest, now several kilometers away, used to come right up to the gates of the temple, the Chidambaram temple is known as the Thillai Nataraja Temple; it covers over fifty acres.


Hundreds of carvings of Bharathanatyam dance postures, the classical dance of Tamil Nadu, are carved in bas-relief on the stone walls of the east gopuram, or gate; in honor of the dance of Shiva.


The earliest reference to the very ancient Chidambaram temple is found in Tamil literature in the sixth century CE. However, the temple is believed to be very much older than this. No one knows how old. The earliest still standing construction dates back to the Chola period around the 900’s CE. It was added onto in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and much was rebuilt after Moslem armies swept through south India between 1311 and 1325 CE.


As they did everywhere, especially in the north and the west of India, these invading armies arrived in a whirlwind and left a trail of destruction behind them, defacing the icons of the Gods, tumbling over statues, pillars, and walls, sometimes leaving only rubble behind.


Their incursions into Tamil Nadu marked the farthest extent of the Moslem reach, unlike the less fortunate areas farther north and west where they remained an occupying presence, often usurping the remains of destroyed Hindu temples and turning them into mosques. Many of those temples have remained mosques until this day, and have never been returned.


Even at Chidambaram, the invaders stayed too long. A garrison for troops was set up within the temple during the course of the Carnatic wars. The walls were strengthened then and later reinforced again in 1740 during the war between the British and the Moslem general, Hyder Ali.


Stone ruins at Chidambaram still tower in the darkness, at the ends of corridors and just beyond the walls, looming as silent witnesses to this destruction that took place centuries past.


Still, the Thillai Nataraja Temple is a place of eternity, of the most profound serenity, beyond the warring conflicts of this world, where Nataraja dances always, untouched by the upheavals of time, his majestic, cosmic dance that leaves far behind all earthly realms.


Top photo: Raghavendran / Wikimedia Commons / “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain.” / A view of the north gopuram of Nataraja temple.


Second photo: BishkekRocks / Wikimedia Commons / “This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.” / Sivaganga Temple Tank.


Third photo: Sharon St Joan / The mangrove forest, Pichavaram, now a few miles north of Chidambaram.


© Sharon St Joan, 2015





Chidambaram, the temple of space, part one



By Sharon St Joan


The young priest, the son of the head priest, spoke in Tamil for three hours straight, while leading us through the temple. Night had fallen, and there were only the flickering lights and votive fires of the temple to light the way. Very charming, he spoke with great enthusiasm and immense sincerity, pointing out the various features of the temple, their history, and their meaning. It was rather amusing that he never paused to allow time for a translation, saying only, in Tamil, “You can translate it later,” as if anyone could remember three hours of commentary.


Even without understanding the words, one could almost grasp the meaning anyway. The sense of mystery and devotion, which was the essence of the atmosphere of the temple, did not require translation.


Long stone passageways led from one sanctuary to another. There were five main sanctuaries, each dedicated to a particular deity. As well as the primary shrine of Shiva, there are also shrines to his consort, Shivakami Amman, to Ganesha, to Murugan, and to Vishnu.


Outside, in one of the large open stone corridors, the young priest had us stand in a particular spot, by a pillar, the only place in the temple where one could view at the same time all of the gopurams, the gates, of the temple – north, south, east, and west.


At the end of our tour, on a stage, a group of musicians were playing for an audience gathered below. Central Tamil Nadu is the heartland of the beautiful tradition of carnatic music. The musicians would play all night. In December, further north in Madras, every year a six-week festival of carnatic music is held, one of the world’s greatest musical festivals, where in many venues all over the city there are concerts, often several a day. People come from all over the world to attend this season of music.


The Chidambaram temple has always been run by a community of Shaivaite Brahmins, who also serve as the priests, called Dikshitar.


The primary deity of the temple is Shiva, and this is the only temple in India where the primary representation of Shiva is Nataraja, the Lord of Dance. The image of Shiva dancing is an iconic symbol that brings India to mind and is recognizable all over the world. Shiva’s dance is mystical, cosmic, and has two forms – one, the ananda tandiva, is gentle and is a dance of the affirmation of life.


The other is the final dance that brings the destruction of the universe, when Shiva, cognizant that the world has descended into evil, performs the powerful dance that ends all existence, so that after the end, a new universe may arise, purified of evil. This is a cyclic recurrence.


Shiva is the creator, the preserver, and the destroyer of the Cosmos. The cycles recur, unendingly, over and over – while, on another level, there remains always the ultimate world-ground of the universe, Brahman, who is eternal, beyond existence and non-existence, who encompasses all, both form and formlessness, both change and changelessness.


There are secret mysteries in Chidambaram; they are spoken of as secrets, and they are not revealed, so we do not know what they may be.



One of five Shiva temples that represent the abodes of the five elements, Chidambaram represents ether, space (akasha) or the sky. The others represent air or wind; fire; water; and earth. Four of the five are in Tamil Nadu; one is in Andhra Pradesh.




At Kalahasti, in Andhra Pradesh, Kalahasti Nathar is the temple of wind, or air. At the sacred mountain of Arunachala is the temple of fire. At Trichy, Thiruvanaikaval Jambukeswara is the temple of water. At Kanchipuram, Ekambareshwar is the temple of earth or land.


Remarkably, three of these temples, Kalahasti, Kanchipuram, and Chidambaram were built along a straight line at exactly 79 degrees, 41 minutes east longitude. How this architectural feat was established by ancient people is a mystery.


The Chidambaram temple is noted for its gold plated roof over the sanctum santorum, the kanakasabha.


Underneath the gold-roofed sanctuary one may visit the three forms of Shiva – the “form” – or Nataraja, which is the dancing Shiva in human form, the “semi-form” – the crystal lingam, a representation of Shiva, and the third, the “formless” – it is said that this view of formless space may confer enlightenment on the worshipper.


Called the chitsabhai, at this site of “formlessness,” there is a curtain behind hanging strands of gold leaves. When the curtain is drawn back by a priest, one can peer in to catch a glimpse. What one sees within is nothing. There is nothing there. And this nothing, beyond all levels of existence, is the essence of Eternity, the Ultimate Reality. This is the element of ether or space, or Shiva present as the sky.


As an aside, it is interesting that though modern science no longer believes in ether, it once did – up until the twentieth century.


To be continued… To read part two, click here.


Top photo: Sharon St. Joan / Chennai Museum / Nataraja


Second photo: Wikimedia Commons / “This file is in the public domain because it was created by NASA and ESA.” / NGC 4414, a typical spiral galaxy in the constellation Coma Berenices.


Third photo: Raghavendran / Wikimedia Commons / “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.” / The west tower of the Thillai Nataraja Temple.


© Sharon St Joan, 2015



Arunachala arises from the plain of Tamil Nadu, in southern India, a commanding presence over the landscape.

It is the king of mountains; dotted here and there are many other rocks rising up out of the flat plain – rounded, extremely ancient, a remnant of some distant geological event, none is in any way a rival to Arunachala.

The story told about the origin of Arunachala is that one day the Gods Brahma and Vishnu were having a discussion about who was more important than the other.  Overhearing this argument, Shiva thought they were both being rather silly, and he manifested as a tremendous towering column of fire, stretching as far up as the eye could see, and reaching far down into the center of the earth.  Brahma and Vishnu were amazed at this display of power.  Brahma became a swan; the swan is Brahma’s vahana or vehicle, and he flew far, far up into the heavens searching for the top of the column of fire.  He was never able to reach the top; it seemed limitless, extending up forever into infinity.

Meanwhile Vishnu took the form of a  boar; the boar Varaha is one of the avatars or manifestations of Vishnu, and boars are very good at digging in the earth.  Vishnu as the boar dug and dug, with all the energy he possessed, but he was never able to get to the bottom of the column of fire that was Shiva.

Both Brahma and Vishnu conceded that the extent and magnificence of Shiva’s power was far greater than either of theirs. (Of course, not everyone agrees with this story, since it is told from a Shaivite perspective.)


Overtime, Shiva, the beautiful column of fire, congealed into rock and became the great mountain of rock, Arunachala, worshipped for thousands of years as the holy presence of Shiva himself.

Modern day scientists know that fire, or molten rock, does indeed congeal into rock; it is known as igneous rock and is one of the primary ways that the mantle of rock on the earth is formed. The English word “igneous” comes from an ancient Indo-European word, from which comes also the Sanskrit name, “Agni,” who is the Hindu God of Fire, first worshipped many thousands of years ago by the authors of the Vedas.

While modern science has a very detailed grasp of the geological processes that form the rocks of the earth, there seems to be less acknowledgement and less awareness of the presence of a divine spirit — of the Gods, who are the origin and the essence of these processes.  It is considered more acceptable these days to acknowledge only the physical and not the spiritual. Yet perhaps this is a mistake, and perhaps the ancient seers were more accurate than we are today in their perceptions. Perhaps the myth is more truly the reality.

Arunachala is now, as always, one of the most sacred sites in India. The five elements, which are earth, air, water, fire, and ether or space are represented in the geography of India as five sacred sites of the God Shiva, each having a temple at a particular location. Arunachala is the site of the element fire.

Sri Ramana Maharshi, the early twentieth century saint who lived at Arunachala, said that Mount Kailash, in the Himalayas, is the abode of Shiva, but Arunachala is even more holy and is Shiva himself.

Photos: © Sharon St Joan / Arunachala

A Reflection…




These are a few thoughts about Easter and other spiritual traditions.  If they make no sense to you, not to worry, they are only thoughts.


A few weeks ago we celebrated Easter.  Interestingly, many of the world’s traditional calendars celebrate the New Year during the month of April – in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, other Southeast Asian countries, and in Israel (where it is the first of four New Years.)  April is a time of renewal and regeneration.


At this time, Jesus Christ transcended death and rose to heaven.  For two thousand years people have questioned whether or not this was meant to be a literal event.  This may not be the correct question.  From the vantage point of heaven, or a mystical reality, the physical world does not have an independent reality.  One might say that after Christ rose from the dead, the physical world ended, or it never was.


To the Gnostics, a sect thought to be heretical, existing around the time of Christ and continuing to exist, despite intense persecution, in various forms throughout the centuries, Christ always existed only on a spiritual plane, never on a physical plane, and therefore could not have been crucified. From this point of view, the crucifixion was an illusion.


In the Hindu Vedanta tradition, the Sanskrit word “Maya” means illusion.  It doesn’t necessarily mean non-existence.  Applied to the world, it means delusion, or incorrect perception.  An example often used is that if you see a snake on the ground and you are afraid, then at dawn, you realize that it was only a rope and not a snake at all, you simply misunderstood what you saw.  That is the power of Maya, illusion.  We take the physical world to be real, but higher levels of reality are more truly real in an ultimate sense.  Indeed, some people take the physical, material universe to be the only reality, discounting any spiritual levels at all.  Naturally, if one is one of those people, one dismisses an analogy like the one about the snake as meaningless.


To reach a mystical level of being, as was done by seers, saints, and rishis, in times of extreme antiquity and more recent times too, one must transcend the bipolar world of joy and pain.  Both joy and suffering are felt as equal; one rises above the duality of seeking one and resisting the other.


Rising above the experience of joy isn’t really much of a challenge since joy is not unpleasant, so it isn’t a problem.  That leaves the challenge of rising above pain. One finds the mystical world only by having flown on the wings of pain.  There is no other way to rise beyond the world.  This is the esoteric message of the death and resurrection of Christ, and the esoteric truth of many other religions.


The world of hell, which is the physical world, is the stepping stone to the journey of rising beyond it – into the pure reality of the mystical world.  For animals, their suffering is profound and intense.  They are angels and are innocent.  For humans, suffering is complicated, beset with mental tortures which only humans can inflict on themselves and each other.  Seeking suffering is a mistake, but it is an aspect of the world we live in which finds us.




Dakshinamurthy or Jnana Dakshinamurti is a form of Shiva who is the guru, the teacher.  His wisdom is ultimate truth and awareness, beyond the world; flashing like lightning through the clouds, this wisdom comes from beyond. It is irrefutable, mystical insight.  In Hindu temples, Dakshinamurti faces south, because south is the direction of death, of change, of transcendence.  He sits under a banyan tree, with his right foot on a demon, who is ignorance. Students surround him, and sometimes also wild animals, all listening attentively.


Shiva destroys ignorance and the entire world of ignorance; transcending the world of duality and illusion in this way, he unveils the mystical light of heaven, the true world beyond the clouds.



Top photo: Painting by Fra Angelico 1395-1455 / Wikimedia Commons / “The work of art depicted in this image and the reproduction thereof are in the public domain worldwide.The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.”


Second photo: Sharon St Joan / Chennai Museum / Shiva