Bhairava

Look at this relief on the wall. Who could he be?  That wreath on his head and beautiful, serene face, doesn’t he look like a Greek God? But that wreath is not of flowers. Zoom in and you find skulls roped in like beads. Interesting, isn’t it? What a fabulous fusion the sculptor’s imagination has created! Neck and beneath till the feet, is it some Jain Muni? Hoyasalas followed Jainism. In fact Queen Shantala the most popular and dynamic queen of the dynasty followed Jainism till her death. There are many Jain basadis and temples spread across Hoyasala kingdom. But he can never be representing anyone even remotely linked to Jainism. Those skulls, snakes, and bhoot, pishach kind of figures in the side towards bottom, the dog licking the blood tells otherwise. Even though the face reflects serenity of the munis, this sculptor surely did not have any Jain muni in his mind. Then who he could be?

It is the most mysterious and enigmatic God of Hindus, The Bhairava.Bhairava is an incarnation of Shiva. Yes, the tridents, the snake around neck, the bhoot pisachs all confirm the association with Shiva. If you come to think of it even the serenity on face is that of Siva. Surrounded by all kinds very unusual companions, His Ganas, even in midst of chaos, decked up in His strange adornments Shiva sits perfectly still, calm and sublime. So yes, this is Bhairava, who was created by Shiva Himself.

Do you know what the skull in his hand and the begging bowl represent? The story goes like this; once Brahma and Shiva had an argument over the issue of supremacy. Enraged by Brahma’s continuous atrocious behaviour Shiva created Bhairava. That is why Bhairava is known as Raudra roop of Shiva. As it happened Bhairava immediately after taking shape decapitated Brahma’s fifth head, which actually was creating the entire problem. But this fifth head of Brahma stuck in Bhairava’s hand and could not be dislodged. The head in Bhairava’s hand in this relief is that fifth head of Brahma. How so ever angry Shiva was with Brahma’s unethical behaviour and He Himself had created Bhairava but justice is a highly valued ethic in our religion, hence Shiva punished Bhairava for the sin of Brahmahatya. He ordered Bhairava to roam around the earth with a begging bowl like a mendicant. That is why we see the bowl in his hand and Bhairava is shown naked or say in tattered rags.

So in this relief the sculptor has etched Bhairava as a mendicant walking on earth with skull and bowl. In this avatara dog is said to be vahana of Bhairava. Otherwise too just imagine Bhairava walking on streets in rags with a bowl and skull in hand, his flaming hair waving and,  dogs following him flashes as a natural reaction.

The mythological story further progresses like this. Shiva while ordering Bhairava thus had told that when the skull would automatically dislodge from his hands, he should understand that he had been absolved off his sin and then he had to stay at that place and this happened when Bhairava entered Kashi. Since then Bhairava is stationed there in the famous Kal Bhairava temple.

There is another story about Bhairava which says that during His punishment tenure   wandering once Bhairava came to dense Deodara forest where many Rishis used to reside. Bhairva’s mysterious enigmatic naked presence with a God like aura attracted the women in Ashramas. They were not able to resist His charm.  This infuriated rishis and they casterated Bhairava. The fallen Linga immediately turned into an endless column of fire and Rishis understood the miracle of God and started worshipping Linga. Some what similar story I heard at Jageshwar in Uttarakhand where the famous Bal Jageshwar temple of Shiva is located. Jageshwar is surrounded by dense Devdar trees. It made me wonder how our mythological stories spread so far. Did pilgrims covered such long distances from one part of nation to other? That too when fast modes of transportation were not available.

Another question which popped up in my mind while going through these stories is why our Gods, Devtas are depicted to behave so human like. They represent Supreme Being yet they are shown to have weaknesses, human weaknesses. Do these tales want to convey that it’s ok to have weaknesses but if we work upon the positive and just forces inside us, we too can develop certain traits which could produce miraculous results? One very popular thought propagated in our religion is that we carry a part of God within us. May be that is what it means. Ah! Thoughts would go on churning, let us move forward and enjoy the dazzling testimonies of art and sculptures.

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Main shrine in chennakeshava complex at Belur

I walked upto the steps leading to Jagati, the star shaped platform with 32 angles over which the temple stands. Even before one raises foot to climb on the first step the miniature temples on both the sides of step invite one to stop.

The entrance to Garbhgrah and a view of smaller temple outside

I too was tempted but after stopping for a fraction of second, looking up and around, I inhaled deeply and went directly inside. I decided to come out later and let the art pieces carry me into their world but first I thought to have darshanam of Keshava and convey my gratitude for calling me to His doorstep. As I crossed the threshold and stepped inside, the darkness in the chamber made me stop. I looked straight over the heads of other devotees and the lamp in the Garbhgrah beckoned like a guiding force. From exterior to interior, it was like body to soul and at the farthest end Keshava smiled like the blue light at the deepest core of our soul. It was such an amazing experience that for few minutes I was rooted to the spot. And then gradually the eyes became accustomed to the dark and the unparalleled beauty inside started captivating me. But first I headed directly to sanctum, paid my obeisance to Lord and then moved back to get subsumed by the sculptural beauty around.

That source of light, the supreme being

The interior of temple is divided into three parts – Garbhgrah (sanctum), Sukhanasi(vestibule)navaranga (central hall). On both the sides of the door of sanctum stand dwarpalas – Jay, vijay. Above the door hangs an intricately carved Torana with many embleshiment. Above that stand a band of musicians and dancers and then are two makaras on both the sides with garland like, arc shaped finally carved image coming out from their mouth under which sit gracefully Laxami Narsimha. It is not easy to see every detail there as it is quite dark inside but then who is in a hurry to come out. Stand there inside for some time. Let your heart soak in the aura and eyes ready to be able to focus and the wonders start unfolding.

Have divine Darshanam and then enjoy every intricate detail

Navaranga mandapam, the central hall has many pillars but out of these the four pillars close to the dancing floor stand out due to their exquisite carving. These pillars and the ceiling between them is mesmerizing. The pillars are smooth, shining so much so that even though black in colours they sparkle in the darness of hall. Of course, for absorbing the finally carved details we need to throw some light. One of these four pillars is known as Mohini pillar.

An overview of central hall and vestibules with exquisitely carved pillars.

Navaranga and one of the vestibule

Mohini pillar depicts Vishnu in His Mohini Avatara. Her serene facial expression, stance of standing, the curves of body and with that swaying effect of intricately carved jewelry is astounding. How could such fine detailing be done on stone! And when it comes to detail these Hoyasala times artists and sculptors have surpassed all the limits. Take an example of this Mohini image. Along with various items of jewelry like necklace, anklets, waistband there is a thread hanging from left shoulder to waist. What is that? An Yagopaveet, the sacred thread and what that thread is doing on a woman image? Perhaps, the artist wanted to establish that this is Vishnu, a male deity in a woman form. What a flight of imagination and what a way to manifest that!

Mohini pillar

Another pillar here is Narsimha pillar. The entire body of the pillar is studded with fine filgree work, images of Gods and goddesses and various mythological episode. Besides this the shape of the pillar too depicts the ingunity of the sculptors. The rectangular base on which rests a circular end of the pillar, again a rectangular portion and then a circular portion with many horizontal layers and at the top the pillar gradually becomes narrow. I have not witnessed it but heard that this pillar has this specific structure as it was made with a purpose to be rotated on its axis. May be like those big prayer bells in Buddist temples and monestry the artists had something in mind. This pillar is very near to Garbhgrah.

The ceiling above these four pillars too is very intricately carved. Above each pillar is a bracket figure. These are Suk Bhasini, Gandharva dancer, lady drying her hair and Queen Shantala. These bracket figures are specialty of Chennakeshva temple, Belur and the outer wall of the temple has many specimens of this type.

Shukbhasini, a bracket figure
intricately carved ceiling over central hall
ceiling with two of the bracket figures.

The dancing floor on three sides leads to vestibules with doors opening to platform on east, north and south side. The platform with pradakshina path has flight of steps on these three sides touching the open temple compound.

From Garbhgrah now we are out on platform ready to enjoy the extravaganza of art and sculpture, a wonder world of masterpieces created by the artist and sculptors.

I love the symbolism in this picture — the body, the soul and the light source at the farthest end.

All the pictures @Sunder Iyer