16 September 2015

Sri Chamundeshwari Temple, Mysore, Karnataka


“Into the bosom of the one great sea flow streams that come from hills on every side.
Their names are various as their springs. And thus in every land do men bow down
To one great God, though known by many names.”
– Tikkana, late 12th-century Telugu poet

Venerated as a “Shakti Peetha” and dedicated to Goddess Chamundeshwari (aka Chamunda), a fiercely destructive manifestation of the primordial universal feminine energy who was adoringly worshipped by the famously affluent Wadiyar/Wodeyar Dynasty of Mysore (reign AD 1399-1947), the mesmerizingly beautiful Sri Chamundeshwari Temple situated as a glorious crown atop the crest of the towering Chamundi Hills some 13 kilometers from the charming city of Mysore is so exceedingly renowned that no visit to the city is considered complete without a trek (or a bus ride like in my case!) up to the revered shrine. Identical to the folkloric and historically chronological development of the attributes and mythologies associated with most of the Tantric Hindu Goddesses, the fearsome aspect of Goddess Chamundeshwari – often portrayed as a terribly emaciated, horribly deformed, frighteningly fanged feminine deity who roams about graveyards and battlefields with packs of ravenous jackals and fiendish goblins, feasts on the blood of the horrible demons she recently slayed and adorns herself with ornaments conceived from decapitated skulls, live scorpions and slithering serpents – is said to have its origins in tribal Goddesses who were assimilated into Hinduism and Jainism and associated with primal all-encompassing mother Goddesses who are in their entirety considered an embodiment of the combination of the all-pervading life force, the unimaginably diverse aspects of matter and relentless, boundless time.


Heartwarming yellow! - The fierce Goddess' abode


Like the famously notorious Kamakhya Temple of Assam and Kali Ghat of Calcutta (refer Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple and Pixelated Memories - Kali Ghat Temple), this ancient shrine too has its mythological roots in convoluted Hindu legends which recall the ritualistic sacrificial worship (“yagna”) commissioned by the mythological emperor Daksha in which his own angelic daughter Sati (Shakti) and her husband Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction, were unwelcome. Sati, though requested not to go by Lord Shiva but persuaded by an unremitting love for her father and maternal family, nonetheless reached her father’s abode only to be faced with an unrelenting onslaught of merciless abuses and insults heaped upon her all-powerful husband, as an anguished consequence of which she committed suicide by jumping into the ceremonial fire. Dangerously enraged and unnervingly grief-struck, Lord Shiva picked up Goddess Sati’s lifeless body in one arm and his frightening trident in the other and began the frenzied “Tandava Nritya” (“Dance of  Universal Annihilation”). The entire world was on the brink of irrevocable destruction when all the Gods and deities collectively invoked Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and preservation, who used his “Sudarshana Chakra” (serrated spinning disc weapon) to cleave Sati’s body into 51 parts since an infuriated Shiva had vowed not to stop his terrible dance till Sati’s body existed. Each of the sacred spots where these 51 hallowed parts fell came to be sanctified as an auspicious “Shakti Peetha” (“Seat of Power”) where an intent worshipper would be endowed with immeasurable intellectual and spiritual prowess. Sati’s hair are said to have fallen at Chamundi Hills and a small shrine was constructed eons ago in the city’s ancient history to commemorate the mythological event and its bequest of sacredness to the city’s frontiers. It was later expanded and exquisitely adorned by the formidable Hoysala Dynasty sovereigns (reign AD 1026-1343), especially Emperor Bittideva Vishnuvardhana (ruled AD 1108-52) whose reign also saw the construction of two of Karnataka's most renowned temples at Belur and Halebidu (refer Pixelated Memories - Sri Chennakesava Temple and Pixelated Memories - Hoysaleswara Temple); the shrine's massive towering gateway, surmounted by an intricately ornate elongated-pyramidal spire (“Gopuram”), was a later addition financed by the courtly cultured Vijaynagara Empire sovereigns (reign AD 1336-1646) and was extensively repaired during the reign of Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (ruled AD 1799-1868).


Enigmatic sculptural art - Vijaynagara Dynasty's finest legacy


True to its fame, the marvelous sunshine-yellow shrine is not just an excellent epitome of the hundreds of fanatically worshiped and patronized religious heritage sites scattered throughout the country, but is also a fascinatingly detailed study of the assimilation of several exhilarating mythological tales and mythical folklores into religious and sculptural art as well as the evolution of architectural features chronologically appended to numerous edifices by the historical dynasties that lorded over the beautifully-endowed state of Karnataka. The temple’s surroundings, overly crowded with humans and animals and frequented by hordes of often excessively pestering vendors, though are an altogether different picture which might leave a sour taste in one's mouth – functioning as an extensive, poorly-managed parking lot, a feeding space for dozens of cadaverous cows sniffing through mounds of rotten, scandalously foul-smelling garbage and leftovers accumulated around courtesy of the thousands of devotees who throng to the shrine every single day of the year (that’s Indian religious hypocrisy for you!), and a commercial zone lined with makeshift shops, food carts, trollies and cross-legged vendors squatting on the ground offering everything a visitor could possibly desire (crudely sculpted stone souvenirs, plastic framed photographs of the shrine, offerings of sugarballs, sacred red thread, brilliant orange marigold flowers and ripe coconuts for the deities, colorful bead necklaces, several kinds of eatables and streetside food like samosas (deep-fried, spicy potato-filled triangular parcels crafted from corn flour), pakoras (deep-fried lentil and vegetable fritters), bananas, sugarcane juice and steamed/roasted corn garnished with lime juice and rock salt). The magnificent shrine itself rises through the sheer surge of humanity and proudly flaunts depictions of mythological creatures and mythical anthropomorphic deities conceived in all their artistic splendor through hundreds of years of human imagination and replicated here in an extensive extravaganza of enthralling sculptural art.


Unarguably the most iconic of Hindu deities!


The two sides of the soaring gateway tower that are parallel to the sanctum possess in their centers highly realistic, thoroughly detailed sculptures of celestial guards and the other two sides portray each of the “Sapta Matrika” (the group of seven divine mother Goddesses to which Chamundeshwari also belongs; the other six – Brahmani, Maheshvari, Kaumari, Vaishnavi, Varahi and Indrani – are each considered the feminine aspect (“Shakti”) of a male deity and resemble him in their physical appearance as well, but Chamundeshwari is unique in that she is generally associated with the supreme mother Goddess Durga herself and therefore is depicted seated at the very apex of the tower). The excellent representation of Goddess Chamundeshwari at the tremendously well-conceived crown of the tower is unbelievably spellbinding! The mythological symbolism is so vividly portrayed and each individual feature so seamlessly blends into the next that the depiction is unparalleled, both in the scope of the visual description and composition of the demons and mythical creatures involved, as well as the overall placement and juxtaposition of the elements – the crown literally transforms into an unforeseen rococo of numerous mythical creatures, divine entities and delicate scrolls of floral foliage and firmly delineated geometric patterns – thus there is the voluptuous, four-headed, four-armed Goddess Chamundeshwari in the center, painted flawless white and exuding divine tranquility, seated upon a symbolically unyielding divine throne surrounded by three semicircular rings composed respectively of beautiful swans, formidable elephants and divine followers and servants of the Goddess symbolizing in their turn insurmountable strength, elegant grace and unbending faith – this whole scene emanating on either side from the wide-fanged mouth of a lumbering mythical “Makara” (entities possessing the body of a fish, the face and tusks of an elephant, the limbs of a lion and the tail of a peacock) and surrounded by a resplendently beautiful bouquet of delicate flourishes of foliage before eventually culminating at the very apex into the vicious jaws of a massive “Kirtimukha” (the ferociously wide fanged, lion-like face of an all-consuming demon conceived and originated out of thin air by Lord Shiva, the God of death and destruction, to destroy other, mightier demons) who is flanked on either side by another “Makara”, these however very different from the earlier ones in that these are physically composed of the body of a tortoise, the face of a fish, the teeth of a lion, the tusks of an elephants, the wings of an eagle and the extremely long curved tail of a bird of paradise!


Monumental!


But the vivid blossoming of poetry in stone and plasterwork does not cease here – punctuating the monotony of the brilliant yellow walls are tiny alcove shrines inset with miniaturized sculptures pertaining to numerous mythological aspects and incarnations of the Goddess, each bearing in her numerous arms numerous destructive weapons (mace, swords, battleaxes, tridents, lightening thunder and so on) and astride a beast (an elephant, a bull, a mythical Makara etc) – each an exemplar not only of unparalleled sculptural art, but also of tremendously excellent ancient mythological fables. And then there is a large, brightly colored, multihued sculpture of Lord Ganesha, the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God of auspiciousness, good beginnings and knowledge, embossed over the massive front entrance. Lastly, facing the temple building and a score meters or so away from it stands its immensely renowned, instantly recognized, dark-humoredly comical, massive 16-feet tall representation of Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon warlord whose illustrious story is retold time and again in epic scriptures in order to stress upon the ever-fruitful power of redemption and the generously forgiving nature of the mother Goddess. It is said that Mahishasura was born from the copulation of a demon and a woman cursed to exist as a buffalo (“Mahishi”) and thus could easily transform to either appearance; moreover he possessed immense physical and meditative strength that was a result of extreme penances that he undertook to impress Gods into granting him boons, thus ensuring his near invincibility. In his arrogance, when he challenged and vanquished the Gods from heavens, the unparalleled rage exhibited by the trinity of Hindu deity pantheon – Brahma (the God of universal creation and knowledge), Vishnu (the God of life and nourishment) and Shiva (the God of death and destruction) – merged together to invoke the primordial sacred feminine, all-consuming, universal energy from which emerged the splendidly radiant Goddess Durga (another divinely interconnected sister-form of Goddess Chamundeshwari) who was then equipped with battle gear and weapons by all the chief Gods and Goddesses so she could take the field against Mahishasura’s massive legions which she did with such inconceivable fury and armed with such terrible weaponry in each of her numerous arms that all three worlds shook with her rage and many demon chiefs dropped dead with fear.


Comical!


She and her fierce lion annihilated the entire demon army including mighty Mahishasura himself, but tradition holds that before his death, the demon king worshipped the Goddess and impressed her into conferring the honor of having him present everywhere where she is prayed to – thus even today, every Durga idol is depicted in the “Mahishasuramardini” (“Mahishasura slayer”) form with the Goddess's lion straddling a prostrate/dead buffalo and her glittering trident piercing the demon’s muscular body – here of course, instead of the ubiquitous “Mahishasuramardini”, we have the sword brandishing, serpent-whirling, flamboyant Mahishasura himself in his full mustached, slick-haired, hilariously colorful glory. This of course has to do with the beyond-belief interesting fact that somewhere down the line implausibly far-fetched mythology incredibly merged with emotionless history and an exciting legend originated that stated that the demon lord Mahishasura, also otherwise spelled as Mahishasuru, actually reigned from a fortified capital located at Mysore which derives its original nomenclature “Mysuru” from the former!

Apart from the shrine’s impeccable mythological associations and the unrelentingly strong faith that millions of faithful devotees have on the Goddess’ ability to shower blessings of health, auspiciousness and prosperity (despite the very fact that symbolically she is actually the personification of death, degeneration, disease and pestilence!), the place doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of visual compositions and/or observation and learning – besides being a testimony to its far-flung renown, the very fact that there are always several hundreds of devotees literally spilling through the seams of the complex’s peripheries also proves that one can be assured of an absurdly long time spent miserably lined up in an extremely long slowly slithering queue along with the combination of perspiration, frustration, pushing and shoving that comes along with it free of cost (unless of course one pays for a moderately long or an immediate (well, almost!) “VIP” queue – the two cost Rs 30 and Rs 100 per person respectively).


An enduring testimony to the skills of the craftsmen of yore


The bus ride to the apex of the hill does offer some pretty thrilling, greenery-enthused scenes overlooking the entire landscape of Mysore; moreover the 1,000 meter ascent through the curving snaking road at considerable speeds does leave one breathless and apprehensive about toppling down the hill side, besides the surprising ear-popping sensation often otherwise experienced during flight landings – definitely reason enough to prefer a bus ride over climbing the 1,000 steps leading to the summit. But then again, the climb up does take one past the 5 meter tall, 7.5 meter long ornately carved, devotedly deified, monolithic granite sculpture of the bull Nandi, the mount of Lord Shiva and a patron of spirituality and religious dedication.

I had expected the magnificent shrine to be a rather simplistic affair vis-à-vis the grand, opulently decorated exemplars of south Indian temple architecture that I have previously visited – in fact, the journey to the shrine was little more than an effort to tick off another “Shakti Peetha” off the list of edifices, religious and otherwise, that I intend to visit across the entire country (hopefully in this lifetime!) – little did I know that not the shrine but its superlatively graceful entrance tower will steal my heart instead! What surprises me the most is the fact that despite its centuries-old architectural and symbolic heritage and millennia-old religious customs, the shrine is not untouched by the all-consuming winds of modernization and global connectivity – it has begun to offer sixteen religious services, including the worship of the deity, online to millions of devotees throughout the world, of course for a cost! The ubiquitous “ladoo prasad” (the offering of excessively sweet, clarified butter drenched corn flour balls) would afterwards be delivered to the devotees home via mail. Instant religious gratification! Sadly Cash on Delivery is not applicable.


Religion and silver - A combination as old as either


Location: Chamundi Hills
How to reach: Regular to and fro bus service is available from different parts of the city for the hill summit.
Open: All days, 7.30 am – 2 pm, 3.30 – 6 p.m and 7.30 – 9 pm
Free meals for devotees from 12.30 – 2.30 pm.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: Depends on the queue preferred (Normal/VIP/VVIP). The VIP queue (costs Rs 30/person) takes approximately 30-40 min to reach the sanctum from the peripheries on a normal day.
Note – The shrine being a place of worship, visitors are advised to dress conservatively. Footwear are to be left behind at one of the numerous makeshift shops/counters across the road for the modest sum of Rs 5 per pair.
Relevant Links -
Other monuments located in/around Mysore -

  1. Pixelated Memories - Mysore Palace
  2. Pixelated Memories - Seringapatnam
Other Shakti Peethas located in the country -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Kalighat Temple, Bengal
  2. Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam
  3. Pixelated Memories - Kankalitala Shaktipeetha, Bengal
Suggested reading -
  1. Chamundeshwaritemple.kar.nic.in (Official website of the temple)
  2. Timesofindia.indiatimes.com - Article "Chamundeshwari temple of Mysore offers 16 sevas online" (dated Sep 01, 2013) by Lawrence Milton 
  3. Wikipedia.org - Chamunda

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