Eclipse Iconography in South Indian Temples

The material in my collection on eclipse iconography found in South Indian temples is extensive and complicated. Even though I have mainly been photographing it on the side – as it were – while pursuing other goals. I have been struggling to find the right way to present it in both a succinct and comprehensive manner. Offering you an overview as well as insight into this fascinating subject.

I presented a list of 15 stand-alone eclipse mandapas in Tamil Nadu in a previous post. This post contains a presentation of over 20 temples that have eclipse iconography in the sculptural program somewhere in their complex. In some of these temples, the eclipse-related material is extensive and curious, as in the Sangameshvara temple at Bhavani and the Suddha Ratneeshvara temple at Oothathur. In other places the reliefs it is limited to a few representations. As in the Brammadesam Sri Eshvaran temple and the Shri Jvarahareshvara in Kanchipuram. Although often found at a very auspicious and significant position.

 

Bhavani, Shri Sangameeshvara, mandapa ceiling with astronomical mandala
Bhavani, Shri Sangameeshvara, mandapa ceiling with astronomical symbolism

 

After wheedling down my photo collection to a maximum of 5 photos per temple, I was looking at a post with over 60 photos. That would have been overwhelming and congestive. This post is therefore a compromise of space, attention, and inclusion and just an introduction to the subject. Each temple is represented by just 1 photo. There will be follow-up posts detailing the specific iconographical programs of each temple. And an analysis of the various themes as well as the phenomenon of eclipse iconography as a whole.

Eclipse symbolism

The themes encountered on the ceilings are the nagas or cobras chasing lunar and solar discs, a multitude of multiform fish, makaras and whales, large feline animals, lotus medallions, Gandha Bherunda, lizards and other amphibian animals, Rahu heads, parrots and other symbols. Their relatedness follows from their depiction together in many pavilions and temples.

We find eclipse iconography especially on ceilings, but also on pillars, walls, and even floors of

  1. covered prakaras, temple corridors, and courtyards
  2. independent mandapa structures within the temple compound
  3. ardhamandapas of main and subsidiary shrines
  4. high, outer prakaras walls (inside or outside)
  5. on crossbeams, ceilings, walls, or in the vestibules of gopurams (temple gateways)

The eclipse-related reliefs can be dated to the later Chola period, all through the Vijayanagara empire and the Nayaka and Maratha periods. It could be connected to specific eclipse events. And possibly to a specific doctrine and religious movement.

Pillars in relation to ceilings

I have also realized the pillars associated with the ceilings on which eclipse iconography is depicted, have their own story to tell. Here the themes encountered are deities both Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta. Such as Mohini, Bhikshatana, Nataraja, Kumara, Kali, Kalasamharamurti, Narasimha, and Krishna. Donors offering their worship with Anjali hasta and monks of various attire. In combination with erotic and tantric couples, the purnakumbha. There seems to be a connection to alchemy, the amrita, and therefore immortality. The analysis of their iconography will be part of future presentations.

For me, the eclipse-related symbolism and iconography in South Indian temples is like one of those things that turn out to be everywhere, once you start to notice. This post is therefore far from exhaustive. I have seen it where it was not possible to take photos. Sometimes I have seen such material in other people’s posts. This post includes some photos sent to me by friends who realized the meaning of them after reading my previous posts on this subject. I want to thank Kathie Brobeck, Srikumar Menon, and Veludharan for their contributions. And also Padmapriya Baskaran and  Professor Sankaranarayanan for answering my questions.

There are many more temples with such material. One of my goals is to simply create awareness: let’s look up!!

 

Bhavani, Shri Sangameshvara: mandapa ceilings, ardhamandapa ceiling, gopuram
eclipse iconography, Sangameshvara temple Bhavani
An old ceiling slab with a lotus medallion and two cobras preparing to eclipse the sun and moon

 

The Shri Sangameshvara temple is especially sacred because it is situated on the confluence (sangam) of three rivers. Two of these are earthly, physical rivers, the Kaveri and the Bhavani. The third river is the Amudham, the celestial river of amrita, the divine substance of immortality, which was churned from the Cosmic Ocean by the Devas and Asuras as told in the Samudra Manthana. The site of the Amudham is marked by the Amrita Linga situated on the tip of the peninsula where the Bhavani and Kaveri rivers merge into one. This Amudham or Amrita is identified with the Akasha Ganga, the Heavenly Ganga, which is also the Heavenly Sarasvati river. This Heavenly river is identified with the Milky Way in the sky, our galaxy.

Eclipse related iconography is found all over the temple complex. Especially the slab from an ancient ceiling illustrated here is a very important key to decoding and understanding the eclipse iconography. On the basis of style, this slab could be dated to the Chola period. Here two nagas or dragon-like snakes approach the discs of the sun and moon. A lotus medallion is in the center, between them. The lunar disc is flanked by a pair of peacocks. The solar disc is flanked by a pair of parrots.

 

Oothathur, Shri Suddha Ratneshvara: prakara ceiling & pavement
eclipse iconography at the Suddha Rathneeshvara temple in Oothathur
Shri Suddha Rathneeshvara temple, Oothathur, man wrestling with a whale and a giant cobra with three heads

 

This ancient temple has a powerful connection to the saint Agastya and all things alchemical. The eclipse-related reliefs on its prakara ceiling are amazing. The one illustrated here shows a hero wrestling with a huge fish, possibly a whale. And the naga serpent next to it has three different heads. The heads are human (or monkey?) in the center, of a ram (mesha) on the right, and of an antelope (or maybe a deer) on the left.

This temple also has two beautiful astronomical yantras carved on the ceiling of its vestibule. And what is left of a mandapa ceiling, also with eclipse reliefs, has been used as pavement in the outer temple courtyard.

 

Thiruvarankulam, Shri Arankulanatha: prakara ceiling, gopuram, pillars
Thiruvarankulam, Shri Arankulanatha, cobras with sun and moon and a ritual chariot in the center
Thiruvarankulam, Shri Arankulanatha, cobras with sun and moon and a ritual chariot in the center

 

The cobras approaching the solar and lunar disc is the primary eclipse-related theme. It connects all these various temples and pavilions. In this temple, two sets are carved in the crossbeams of the main temple gateway or gopuram. And instead of a lotus medallion, a temple chariot and miniature temple are set at the center of the celestial scene. The moon is clearly indicated through the lunar sickle. The sun disc has a deer or antelope in its disc.

 

Vedaranyam, Shri Vedaranyeshvara: prakara ceiling, pillars
Vedaranyam, Shri Vedaranyeshvara, prakara ceiling with makaras and cobras flanking discs
Vedaranyam, Shri Vedaranyeshvara, prakara ceiling with makaras and cobras flanking discs

 

The full length of the main Nayaka period corridor of this temple is covered with eclipse-related symbols. Cobras, makaras, fish, whales, lotus medallions

 

Kanchipuram, Shri Kailasanatha: porch ceiling
Kanchipuram Shri Kailasanatha temple, Nayaka period porch with strange fish, whales, makara
Kanchipuram Shri Kailasanatha temple, Nayaka period porch with strange fish, whales, makara

 

The Shri Kailasanatha temple in Kanchipuram was built by Rajasimha Pallava in the 7th century. But the porch leading to its northern door into the ardhamandapa belongs to the 16th or 17th century. It has Nayaka style pillars and very strange reliefs on its ceiling. We see Makara, whales, and strange fish.

 

Hampi, Varaha temple: gopuram threshold ceiling
Hampi, Varaha temple: gopuram threshold ceiling Two crossbeams of the gopuram (temple gate) with nagas or cobras approaching lotus medallions and discs
Hampi, Varaha temple: gopuram threshold ceiling Photo credits Srikumar Menon.

 

Two crossbeams of the gopuram (temple gate) with nagas or cobras approaching lotus medallions and discs. With thanks to Srikumar Menon.

 

Thirukallukundram, Shri Bhaktavatchaleshvara: covered prakara corridor and mandapa
Thirukallukundram, Shri Bhaktavatchaleshvara: covered prakara corridor and mandapa
Thirukallukundram, Shri Bhaktavatchaleshvara: the ceiling of the main entrance

 

This is the ceiling of the main entrance prakara. Cobras approach the Sun and Moon. A lotus medallion with parrots at the center.

 

Hampi, unidentified temple: gopuram threshold crossbeam
Hampi, gopuram crosbeam with eclipse iconography, nagas or cobras approaching a disc
Hampi, gopuram crossbeam with eclipse iconography, nagas approaching a disc with a deer in it. Photo credit: Kathie Brobeck

 

Kathie Brobeck shared this photo was with me. It shows two majestic cobras approaching a single disc. The disc holds a deer, or maybe a hare. The hare has known lunar connections. But in many of the eclipse depictions I have collected it is often the solar disc that holds a deer or antelope. See the image from the Shri Arankulanatha at Thiruvarankulam above.

Avudaiyarkoil, Shri Atmanathasvami: prakara ceiling
Avudaiyarkoil, Shri Atmanathasvami: prakara ceiling, fish facing a disc
Avudaiyarkoil, Shri Atmanathasvami: prakara ceiling, a pair of fish facing a disc

 

Uttirakosamangai, Shri Mangalanatha: prakara ceiling
Uttirakosamangai, Shri Mangalanatha: prakara ceiling, cobras and fish
Uttirakosamangai, Shri Mangalanatha: prakara ceiling, cobras and fish

 

Kudumiyanmalai, Shri Shikanatha: prakara ceiling, mandapa ceiling, pillars
Kudumiyanmalai, Shri Shikanatha: prakara ceiling, mandapa ceiling, pillars, cobra with disc with a deer
Kudumiyanmalai, Shri Shikanatha: prakara ceiling, mandapa ceiling, pillars, a cobra with a disc holding a deer

 

Thirukanur Shiva temple: prakaram ceiling
Thirukanur Shiva temple: prakaram ceiling, photo Veludharan
Thirukanur Shiva temple: prakaram ceiling, Cobra with solar(?) disc and small animal. Deer, mouse? Photo credit: Veludharan

 

Senthamangalam Shiva temple: ceiling
Senthamangalam Shiva temple: ceiling cobra with lotus medallion
Senthamangalam Shiva temple: ceiling cobra chasing a disc holding a deer next to a lotus medallion. Photo credit: Veludharan

 

Rajendrapattinam, Shri Nilakantha, Thirukkumara Natha, Nilakantheshvara, Swedaaranyeshwara: prakara ceiling
Rajendrapattinam, Shri Nilakantha, prakara ceiling, makara offering abblution to Linga
Rajendrapattinam, Shri Nilakantha, prakara ceiling, makara offering ablution to Linga

 

Kanchipuram, Shri Kachabeshvara: mandapa ceiling, gopuram, entrance doorjamb
Kanchipuram, Shri Kachabeshvara temple, gopuram crossbeam with alotus medallion flanked by lizards, a tortoise, and frogs
Kanchipuram, Shri Kachabeshvara temple, gopuram crossbeam with a lotus medallion flanked by lizards, a tortoise, and frogs
Kanchipuram, Shri Ekambaranatha: mandapa ceiling
Kanchipuram, Shri Ekambaranatha, mandapa opposite the Rajagopuram, ceiling, cobra approaching a disc
Kanchipuram, Shri Ekambaranatha, mandapa opposite the Rajagopuram, ceiling, cobra approaching a disc

 

Thiruvadikai, Shri Tripurasamhara: mandapa ceilings
Thiruvadikai, Shri Tripurasamhara: mandapa ceilings
Thiruvadikai, Shri Tripurasamhara: mandapa ceiling with elaborate lotus medallion and cobra

 

Thiruvannamalai, Girivalam, 2 mandapa: ceilings
Thiruvannamalai, Girivallam, Gautham Maharishi mandapam, cobra with solar disc holding a deer
Thiruvannamalai, Girivallam, Gautham Maharishi mandapam, a cobra with solar disc holding a deer
Thiruvannamali, Girivallam, mandapa opposite Ramana ashram, representation of lunar eclipse
Thiruvannamalai, Girivallam, mandapa opposite Ramana ashram, representation of a lunar eclipse

 

Brammadesam, Shri Eswaran: ardha-mandapa ceiling
Brammadesam, Shri Eswaran: ardha-mandapa ceiling
Brammadesam, Shri Eswaran: ardha-mandapa ceiling, cobras with disc and a fish

 

Kanchipuram, Shri Adi Kamakshi: outside temple wall
Kanchipuram, Shri Adi Kamakshi, cobra on temple wall
Kanchipuram, Shri Adi Kamakshi, cobra on the temple wall

 

Thiruneermalai, Shri Neervanna Perumal: mandapa ceiling
Thiruneermalai, Shri Neervanna Perumal: mandapa ceiling with Gandha Bherunda, whales, mythological creatures and devatas
Thiruneermalai, Shri Neervanna Perumal: mandapa ceiling with Gandha Bherunda, whales, mythological creatures and devatas

 

Thiruvalangadu Vadaranjeshvara: inside of outer prakara wall
Thiruvalangadu Vadaranjeshvara: inside of outer prakara wall
Thiruvalangadu Vadaranjeshvara: inside of outer prakara wall, cobras with discs, crocodiles and fish

 

Kolar, Shri Someshvara: outside of the compound wall
Kolar, Shri Someshvara: many fish on the outside of compound wall
Kolar, Shri Someshvara: many fish on the outside of the compound wall

 

Kanchipuram, Shri Amareshvara: prakara ceiling
Kanchipuram, Shri Amareshvara, ceiling of the covered prakara, makara, cobra and lotus medallion
Kanchipuram, Shri Amareshvara, the ceiling of the covered prakara, makara, cobra and lotus medallion

 

Kanchipuram, Shri Jvarahareshvara: gopuram
Kanchipuram, Shri Jvarahareshvara, gopuram
Kanchipuram, Shri Jvarahareshvara, fish on the ceiling of the gopuram

 

Tittakudi, Shri Vaidyanathasvami: prakara ceiling
Tittakudi, Shri Vaidyanathasvami: prakara ceiling
Tittakudi, Shri Vaidyanathasvami: two fish facing eachother on the prakara ceiling

 

South India, temples with eclipse iconograhy and symbolism
South India, temples with eclipse iconography and symbolism

 

 

3 Responses

  1. Durga

    I have failed to notice such beautiful scenes depicting eclipses on temple ceilings pillars and walls with cobras fish makaras tortoise approaching moon and the sun.Thankyou for sharing .It was lovely .Next time i visit any of these temples i shall hunt for them .😊👍

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