God’s Night Out: A Comment on the Destroyed Monuments at Garapuri (Elephanta Caves, India)
About two thousand years ago, hundreds of artisans, perhaps patronized by the Royal family that ruled this region at the time, set out to carve a beautiful temple out of a hill. It was meant to be a feast for the senses, a City of the Gods. The artisans who set out on this massive endeavor had no modern equipments, just the lay tools of pre-modern era – hammers and chisels. In their minds they carried an undying tradition belonging to their ancestors that had now lasted for thousands of years, wherein Man searched for connection with God in the most basic of elements, the rock. They chiseled out human forms, facial expressions and gestures that would appeal to the deepest aesthetic senses of Man, jolting him from the chores of his daily existence into the world of the Divine. These sculptures and works of art that dot almost all the Hindu temples around India, were a medium through which man could connect with the Divine.
The artists never intended to copy the human form or depict the human body in its finest detail as the Greeks or Romans when carving out human forms. Each of the multitudes of anonymous Hindu artists who sculpted the statues of Divine beings in the numerous temples and cave shrines in India, labored hard to breathe into his work a connection with the Divine.
It was a grand quest to catapult the multitude of simple yet religious visitors to these temples into the realms of an alternate consciousness, a state that these artists were themselves inspired by.
The curves, facial expressions and gestures of the graceful sculptures transported the open mind of the devotee entering into these temples into the Hindu state of divine consciousness called Yoga – Union with God.
We call it Satyam Shivam Sundaram: The final goal of Yoga practices – the Ultimate Destination in which the human mind dwells in the event of Self-Realization:
The True Reality, Divine and beautiful…
The goal of the artists of these fine sculptures in Hindu Temples was to let the watcher a short but strong glimpse into this noble state of mind.
I had the opportunity to visit a cave Temple situated on an island not far away from the shores of Mumbai – The Elephanta caves, Temples that were carved from a single hill, around 9-13th Century, on an isolated island called Garapuri.
After less than an hour ride on a boat through the sea to reach the small island of Garapuri, I reached the “caves”, which were once ‘Cave temples’.
The most important part of the Temple – The plain Inner Chamber where the main deity is placed, is in stark contrast in its simplicity, to the ornamental beauty engraved in the basalt rocks of the main Chamber. The main chamber or the temple hall is a place for the visitors to sit in prayer or meditation, a place where Devdasis (the temple courtesans) would have danced in silent communion with the Divine to the notes of instrumental classical music, all those years ago before the temple was abandoned.
The inner chamber contains one of the most Sacred symbols of the Divine which is also the Hindu metaphor for the Universe and his explanation for existence- The Shiva Linga. The Lingam is a stone figure depicting an Erect phallus which rests on the female organ – the Yoni. The Lingam and the Yoni together – the Shiva Linga – are to be viewed as Divine Consciousness (the Phallus) that penetrates through the Reality of the Universe as we see it i.e. the physical reality that is nothing but the Womb of the Goddess, Creation. Hindus worship the Creation and the Divine Consciousness by worshiping this sacred symbol-The Shiva Linga.
The Shiva Linga is situated in the Inner chamber, which only the priests must have been allowed to enter, once upon a time. The visitors to the temple, standing outside the inner chamber passed on their offerings of flowers, fruits and milk to the Temple deity by the medium of the priests located inside the inner chamber.
As I roamed through the grand Temple hall situated around the Inner Chamber (Garba Griha), I could feel the pulse of every other tourist, which resonated with mine with a feeling of awe. The columns supporting the ceiling were carved with beautiful motifs and smaller statues, and each column was as much geometrically alike the other.
The grand temple sculptures engraved on the cave walls of the Main chamber clearly conveyed the grand human desire of the times: of the attainment of peace through art and architecture, through religion and mythological figurines depicted in the temple carvings.
And for any Celestial being who were to roam these temples in the night, this was a perfect treat to their senses – a human idea of letting the Gods in Heaven have a fantastic night out.
However the immediate feeling that accompanied the awe in us tourists here was a feeling of grotesque horror at the plight these marvelous pieces of art had been reduced to.
“Most of the sculptures here were defaced by the Portuguese, who used the sculptures as target practice in the 17th century.” – Wikipedia
The invocation of such brutality on part of the Portuguese invaders could be gauged by the fact that they were Christians and were instrumental in destroying many such temples of the time elsewhere in India as well.
Looking at each of the defaced sculpture that still retained its graceful poise, the pleasant expression on faces that had escaped being targets of canon-fire, I wondered “Was it just another day in the temple? A time when the people inside were immersed in their prayers that the Portuguese rogues stepped in with their filthy boots, marching inside the Main chamber of this noble and sacred temple? Were the common people attacked? Was there a carnage here, the first drop of human blood to de-sanctify the purity of a Hindu temple, the very reason for which the temple was soon abandoned, paving way for these foreign invaders to target-practice here, defacing almost all the statues?”
It is apparent that the bold depictions of nudity inside these temples were an imminent trigger for the “chaste Christian repulsion” to awaken in the Portuguese minds which couldn’t have stood anything contrary to their codes of “morals and purity”. The result was the use of canon fire, hit with precision at targets that depicted human reproductive organs.
Standing there in the middle of the main chamber, I was a witness to that ugly episode of carnage and violence frozen in time. Amongst the defaced sculptures I could hear the shrieks of a hapless devout crowd frightened and helpless, killed and driven out of their own temple. This was no longer a temple, but a saga of Human violence. The near full clothing on the bodies of the local inhabitants here were now a silent reminder of deeply instilled wounds on the soul of a people. The temple shrieked with wounds, and the premises narrated a story of plunder and loot, of violence and idotic-smugness, which had visited the island years ago. I could sense the silent anger and hurt of the island.
The bottles and cans that litters the landscape are not in the least repelling to your senses, as you stand witness to a more grotesque image – the defaced sculptures in this City of the Gods: the grotesque image of Human intolerance and cruelty.