Approaching the Divine: Temple Rituals in Tamil Nadu

in Image Gallery
Published on: 31 October 2022

Sriram Sabhapathy (photographs), Niharika Gupta (curation and captions, with contributions and research assistance from Piyush Kukrety)

Sriram Sabhapathy is Founder, LastBench Studio. Niharika Gupta was Director of Research at Sahapedia, and led the project on Bhakti and Sufi traditions. Piyush Kukrety did his MA in Comparative Religious Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, and was Content Strategist for Project Dhaara, Itisaaras.

Rituals in Tamil Nadu temples become moments of sensuous encounter with the divine. For Tevaram poets, as observed by Indira Peterson (1991, p. 44), ritual is beautiful, an enactment of offering and service that is central to Bhakti, and which creates the community of worshippers. A common perception is that Bhakti, the melting (urugi) of the soul evoked by Manikkavacakar, cannot be contained by ritual, or karya-kand, and is indeed precluded by going through the motions mechanically. Yet performing or participating in ceremonies can embody a unique experience of the sacred, of which a photo essay can convey but a glimpse.

This essay also attempts to offer a perspective on the historical development of rituals. Its title evokes the process of drawing closer to the deity, and simultaneously echoes the title of a recent study of Tamil Srivaisnavism (Jagannathan 2015), that traces larger historical processes wherein scripture and sectarian identity were consolidated by knitting together Sanskrit and Tamil traditions, making for both continuity and change in interpretation. In the case of Saiva rituals, it has been argued that Saivas were responding to the prescription of practices like devapuja (worship of tirthankaras), guru-upasti (worship of teachers), tapas (austerities) and dana (charity) in the Jain community (Prentiss 1999, pp. 69–71). Processes of mutual influence must be excavated from beneath hymns and hagiographies where inter-sectarian disagreement is often on the grounds of ritual practice, be it austerities (Tirumurai 5.58.1–10, cited in Prentiss 1999, p. 73) or extravagance (see Image 6 below).

Rangaswamy evokes how temples in Tamil Nadu grew in 'ever enlarging circles' with each generation, from the garbha griha (sanctum), to the pillared corridors with shrines to deities like Ganesa and Candesvara, to the prakarams where Puranas were expounded, to the gopurams visible to pilgrims from every direction (1958, pp. 11). He cites Appar's verses saying a town where there is no thirukkoyil (temple) or pala talikal (mathas where pilgrims could perform private worship) are no better than a wilderness (Thirumurai 6.95.5), and the inscription celebrating the vicitracitta ('remarkable mind') of the king who built the first rock-cut temple. This is said to be Mahendravarman I (580–630 CE), whom tradition identifies with the king who became Appar's follower according to the Periyapuranam (Rangaswamy 1958, p. 10, Prentiss 1999, p. 81).

Subsequent scholars have noted there are antecedents in the Gupta period for puja-snapana-kusuma-gandha-dhupa-dipa-havir-upahara-bali-samkha-patahadi ('veneration, bathing, flowers, perfume, incense, lamps, food offerings, Bali, conches, drums', see Gollner 2021, p. 94). Michael Gollner further discusses how, from the 12th century, there emerges the distinction between pararthapuja and atmarthapuja (public and individual worship; Gollner 2021, pp. 96–99) 

Rangaswamy argues that Sambandar's hymns were meant to be sung in temples, for they evoke places more precisely than Appar's contemplative verse. Yet the more extensive cataloguing of places by Appar might suggest new temples were coming up at the time (Rangaswamy 1958, p. 17). More recent analyses point to how it was the meaning of sites whose contours expanded and shifted over the centuries, and with the consolidation of canons. Leslie Orr contrasts how the 'Tevaram poems create an interior devotional realm, the  Periyapuranam a social geography oriented around the saints and community of devotees', and the temple inscriptions fix in place the saints and Siva (Orr 2014, p. 215). Charlotte Schmid observes that the Periyapuranam refers to the Tevaram poets visiting sites that their hymns themselves never mention, and suggests we read the work less as a record of what was than as a 'virtual pilgrimage', that gave 'a sense, a meaning and a direction' to the numerous Saiva sites in existence in the 12th century (Schmid 2014, p. 278).

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Sahapedia is grateful to Bajaj Autos Pvt. Ltd. for the grant that made possible the documentation for this photo essay.