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When we visited northern India in 2005, we were struck by the absence of ancient Hindu temples, except for those that had been excavated at Khajuraho beginning in the mid 1800s. On being advised that this vacuum would be filled by a trip to the south, we traveled there in 2011. We were immediately satisfied with many fabulous religious centers featuring ornate towers called goparams (above), and we learned an interesting historical fact. Early Hindu culture was not given to building large and highly ornate temples. It was only with the aggressive rise of Buddhism in the first millennium of the Common Era that Hindu temples began a successful campaign to compete for audiences through spectacular architecture. We were told this by a local tour guide so it must to be true.

Shrine at the Ekambareshvara Temple, Kanchipuram

Shrine at the Ekambareshvara Temple, Kanchipuram

From the Caravan Journals: Recovering from our visits to a string of fabulous temples along our east to west route in southern India, I found myself walking one day in a small village high in the mountains. There I came across a bookshop and was handed a volume by a favorite author of mine. It was Ka (1996), by Roberto Calasso, and shamefully I had never heard of it. In his distinctive poetic style, Calasso spreads out the whole panoply of Hindu mythology, crowning it with the controversial theory of the Aryan introduction of Vedic scripture into India. The contentious idea here is that the earliest Hindu teachings were brought across the northern mountains by outsiders who proclaimed themselves a master race and subjugated the indigenous population by imposing the caste system on them (this is a deplorable oversimplification). The theory preferred by those on the other side of the argument is that Hinduism arose from the Indus Valley culture, within traditional India. There are plausible arguments for dating Vedic traditions to over five thousand years ago. This controversy and its infinite embroidery of contradictions lies beyond the scope of this work.

The two classic epics that arose from early Vedic development are the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (say Ma-hob-ha-rahta). The first of these, though it is a more likely candidate for a modern action movie, has yet to see a Hollywood treatment. No doubt this has to do with the delicacy of treating non-Western religious themes, and the difficulty for Hollywood in casting films set entirely in Asian cultures. There is a movie of the Mahabharata, however, made by Peter Brooke in 1989. It is in fact a film version of a much longer stage production and it is heavy going for the Hollywood film fan (unless you would prefer to watch the movie over reading the book, which is longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey combined).


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