Madison South Asia Conference, October 1996
Michael W. Meister

[1] In this forum, were there more time available, I might have talked to you about India's many village-squares, where people plant a central tree and place an earth platform below for residents to gather under widely spreading branches. In these villages with their shifting lanes and public spaces and in the cool court-yards of her village houses, is India's real ecology, and the source for many of her ideas about cosmic order and form. Such interlinking of society, of nature as experienced and contained within society, and of concepts of a cosmological order, moreover, cannot be taken as peculiar only to India. I might find it equally strongly expressed in the great yet intimate squares in colonial or pre-Columbian Mexico, for example. I participated recently in a seminar in Delhi that focused on the topic of the "Five Elements," the Panca-mahabhutas: that is, water, earth, fire, air, and ether in India's system. In that context, let me try to present a specific and limited example, that of the temple in India, as my case-study of an embedded ecology. I would wish to talk about the temple as it is placed by architects within nature, where it can be seen as surrounded by the five Elements, as defined both by ritual and society. This becomes my "Cosmos in a Tea-Cup." In Delhi, I called this study a "meditation on the temple and the Elements" and give it the more ambitious title: "the Unity and Gravity of an Elemental Architecture." I might make a small preliminary aside based on a local experience. On the bottle of a very good highland malt scotch I found a peculiar restating of the four (rather than five) "Elements" of the Western system. The text of the label read: "Earth, Air, Fire, Water. The four Elements of the ancients. Each essential to the mystery that is [the malt of] Aberlour. From the hills above the Spey Valley in the Highlands, spring water trickles down through peat and granite.... Earth, fire, and water have made their elemental contribution." (Air, I presume, was taken to let the whisky "breathe.") In thinking about this Western system of Elements, I was struck that India places its five Elements in a different order: first "Water," then "Earth, Fire, and Air," then finally "Ether." This fifth and final element is essential to an Indian sense of an eternal reality that lies beyond what we as humans make or experience.

[2] Indian ritual begins with earth and fire; in the fire pit or on the stone altar, all the Elements are combined, with ritual potency and for cosmic effect.

[3] The temple also roots itself in water, placing among its wall's basal mouldings the fruiting, flowering water-pot to represent India's water-oriented cosmogony. This vase acts both as source and ritual lustration for the sacred mountain the temple which acts as the home for deity as well as a place of transformation for mankind.

[4] The temple by intention is poised between elements, always placed near water; built of and on the earth; it is itself the home of fire. Its tower is the embodiment of air; and its apex of ether. "Let the earth reside in the ... hoof," says a fragment of an architectural text translated by M.A. Dhaky; and let "the entire cosmos" be distributed throughout the structure.

[5] The base-moldings that support and bind the temple have at their root the petals of the lotus which is the supernal support for deity in India as the plant that spans the earth, water, air, and which opens itself - particularly its calix, the potent seed-pod - toward ether and eternity. [Some of you may have seen The New York Times report a week ago about a scientific study showing that India's "sacred" lotus regulates its heat, putting out almost the same radiant energy as a light bulb.]

[6] Among the temple's moldings, elephant courses suggest the rain clouds, hovering like Indra's elephant between earth and sky. Above is the temple-mountain - Siva's Mt. Kailasa - which,like the Himalayas, hovers above the monsoon's water-laden clouds.

[7] Through the center of this tower, the cosmic pillar ascends, clasped by the pod of the tower itself. Is this, the venukosa, a tool for clasping ether? Does it hold the cosmos, as if by a ritual instrument, in order to make it material?

[8] The walls of the temple are themselves a cage a pillared panjara giving body to air. According to the Agnipurana, in fact, "the five elements water, light, air, sky, [and earth] [act] as the wrappings," in the "wall of the temple," for the microcosm guarded within.

[9] Embodied up the corners of the curvature of the shrine, and used as its crowning member, the myrobalan fruit - the amalaka - ascends, supported on its own cages, growing upwards and proliferating, as if toward final realization at the pinnacle. It is this seed - placed beyond air, in the realm of ether beyond the top of the tower that one day may flower.

[10] Like the flagpole bearer who carries the standard upward along the edge of some temples, each worshipper ascends this invisible axis from materiality toward the transcendent eternal.

[11] The spaces within the temple, both the flat surface of the hall and the womb of the sanctum, are the earth-altar of human sacrifice. The sky-ceiling is both the cage/body and the air within, like the whale-bone cathedral in Melville's Moby Dick.

[12] At the temple's top, flags signal the wind; and the seed-amalaka again signals space in its endless, unrealized, potential. It is, indeed, "Prasada as Cosmos," the temple as Cosmic Man.

[13] Four personified figures of the Mahabhutas were placed on the corners of the upper vedi-platform of the Shore temple at Mahabalipuram, near Madras, in the seventh century A.D.; but the full range of "Elementals" the infinite particulate fragments or atoms of reality are associated with Siva's host of sprites (his pramathas).

[14] The architects of a small Siva temple built at Amrol in Central India early in the eighth century have rather placed such bhuta-goblins representing the Elements in corner niches on the temple's walls. These take the place of a familiar set of Vedic deities that act as "Guardians of the Quarters" (the Dikpalas).

[15] One of these goblins, on the southeast at Amrol, is radiant with Pramoda's fire, and by its very location has been compared directly to the Vedic fire-deity Agni,[16] on the adjacent entry-wall. The architect of this temple has placed images of Agni and Isana on the south and north entry-walls, thus clasping the worshiper's path of approach by images that represent both the purifying ritual of Fire and the goal of transcendent Ether.

[17] All temples have in their overall ornament a cosmic geography. On the Amrol temple's doorway are placed both females personifying the two most sacred rivers of India, the Ganga and Yamuna, and also representations of Himalayan sages.

[18] The walls of the early-Gupta Siva temple at Nachna in the fifth century were rusticated to look like the foothills of the cosmic mountain.

[19] Its doorway's elaborate ornament suggests the world as a cage of illusion; its cave-like sanctum, the cosmos' fertile womb. At the doorjamb-bases, the rivers Ganga and Yamuna mark an Aryan earthscape, and at the door's top are placed earth-spirits sheltered under flowering trees.

[20] If the Elements of Water, Earth, and Space can be seen as the fertile forge for the growth of actual lotus and amala plants in nature, to temple architects the flame of temple ritual generated growth toward transformation of the worshipper that could be represented ornamentally [21] by vines and other foliage encircling the temple in their many furling coils.

[22] Figures of the eight Guardians of the Directions of Space placed on the corner walls of most temples both measure space as its guardians and seem one further manifestation of the Elements as they "wrap" the wall of the temple - in the words of the Vastu texts - around the microcosm within.

[23] Varuna, on the left, appears on a crocodile; and, like the Mahabhuta Pramukha, is associated with water. Agni, on the right, is placed on the South, like Pramoda, encircled by an aureole of fire. Vayu, like Durmukha, appears on the North wrapped in a scarf filled with air or wind. Indra and Isana, placed on the East, can best be taken as embodiments of matter and ether.

[24] We should not be too literal, however, in this attempt to "read" monuments made within a world-view that sees in each particulate, the whole; and the whole in each proliferation of its parts. The basal square form of the universe, for example, is implicit in each of the temple's increasing and ever encircling offsets.

[25] It is God's unfolding that creates the Elements; and they are both always a part, and then only one part, of God's ritual unfolding in Hindu India. They are indeed his physical wrappings and the substances from which each of his multiple particles is made. But whether in medicine or cuisine, philosophy or architecture, these material parts are only a clothing for His microcosm. They do not define its essence; but transmute us back to its ceaseless center.

Embedded Ecologies, Slides, Madison, 10/96
  1. Auwa: tree & platform
  2. Chittor: Agni kula
  3. Sirpur: pot molding
  4. Modhera: tank & temple
  5. lotus flower
  6. Kiradu: temples with elephant course
  7. Bhundana: tower
  8. Sirpur: wall
  9. amala-fruits
  10. Barolli: temple tower
  11. Mt. Abu: hall & ceiling
  12. Udayapur: temple & flag
  13. Mahabalipuram: Shore temple Mahabutas
  14. Amrol: temple
  15. Amrol: image of Pramoda
  16. Amrol: image of Agni
  17. Amrol: doorway
  18. Nachna: image with rustication
  19. Nachna: door
  20. lotus
  21. Bhumara: vines
  22. Chittor: two Dikpalas
  23. HH 3: temple from west
  24. Indor: plan
  25. lotus