Saturday, January 22, 2011

Pantocrator: the snake, the lion and the dragon ... and Belur

Some days ago a very good friend and mutually adopted brother of mine hailing proudly from Sienna and Bologna sent me a picture (below) of a mosaic. Along with that he wrote a cryptic note:
... A short visit last day to Pisa showed to me a little detail of the Pantocrator mosaic who is ....Super aspides et basiliscum ambulabis...that I would like to share with you. I do not know why. But this is the way we christians think we should treat our enemies. We are in a good company around the word. ...

I did not (probably still don’t) have an idea of what he meant. I had not heard of Pantocrator nor had I heard of “super aspides …. ” and so on. I had just visited Belur and Halebid and like many ignoramuses (which I shamelessly admit I am simply because you learn so much when you know you don’t know: you see, I do not even know whether it should be ignoramuses or ignormusii) I was a bit intrigued by some of the things that I noticed at Belur-Halebid which I need not have noticed.

There are many beautiful pieces of sculpture in the temples. They were apparently not carved at the spot but were probably mass produced elsewhere and assembled at the various structures housing the gods for worship. The particular architecturally distinguishing feature is perhaps not the sculptures themselves but the way the edifices were built. But as I said the sculptures themselves will not be the main part of this blog. Rather it will be to find a connection between Pantocrator and Belur.


As somebody said when attempting to climb mount Everest “Because it is there” or “because it has not been done before” or something like that. "Aiseyii" as we would say in India for "just like that". It need not be important. But ... it could be important also.

I have not been able to contain the size of my blog. I have, however, broken it up into several smaller parts instead of making several blogs (as my daughter and other best (better?) friends want me to. Most figures require being expanded to see the details.


A quick search through the internet gave me some images of Pantocrator which when collaged looks something like that in Fig 2. There is a “kiss curl” on the image on the right top (Fig 2) which is thought to be influenced by Alexander (the kiss curl I mean). A Princeton professor would write in the '40s that the curls on Buddha's forehead is due to the influence on the sculptor of Alexander's kiss curls!

Pantocrator, the Wikipedia, tells me is Greek for almighty and as “El Shaddai” it may mean “all sufficient” which may or may not mean “all sufficient”. The tribals of Mesopotamia may think it is related to a goddess of fertility from which one could easily jump to the conclusion that the popular word for marriage in India, shaadi, came from that word (I digress too much?). The Christians think it refers to Jesus, and that is what we will accept for the purpose of this blog. What makes the icons Jesus in Fig 2 is the halo and the cross.

Pantocrator from Buddha?
My religious stream of consciousness nowadays is flowing over the pebbles of bon religion of the Tibetan people and as a true devotee perhaps I find the bon Buddha in everything. It is a much more harmless time-pass than the screeching TV debates on our news channels on base matters.

So what struck me in these images is not the book that the icon held in his left hand as all Brahmins of learning (not birth) do as their birthmark. Rather, it is the way that he held his right hand up. The fingers were positioned close to that of Buddhist Vitarka Mudra or Jnana Mudra both of which are associated with intellectual activities (see bottom left of Fig 2). The dissimilarities with the correct finger positions must be attributed to the artist’s unfamiliarity with Buddhism (if my version is to hold any water). Whatever it may be, the earliest of these is (from internet) the icon at the top centre which was produced at around 550 AD in the St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai. It is around this time, it is said, that the popular images ( of Christ was changed from that of a shepherd---like our Krishna or keshto---to the latter day images with a beard as in the acheiropoeta (not made by hand like the swayambhu image of Kasba Ganapti of Pune, for instance) shroud of Turin found a few years earlier.

Pantocrator as Ardhanareshwari?
What is interesting from my perspective (as always) is the split personality built into the face in this earliest icon (second from left on top in Fig 2). This is absent in the others. The right-side of the icon’s face (reader’s left), controlled by his analytical left brain after he has become familiar with his environment, has a calm resoluteness of a scholar. The right side of the icon’s face reflects his right-brain activity which controls his response to unfamiliar environment, being hostile in this case --- the beard is ruffled, the eyes are hostile, the hair is long the lips are curled angrily upwards. This is not unfamiliar with those of us brought up in the ardhanareshwari images, which is the extreme of this split personality. A common calendar image in the above collage shows shiva with the docile bull (nandi) on the left-brain controlled right-side and parvati (with the lion, but also holding a lotus like Lakshmi, thereby identifying with Vishnu and thereby with Shiva-Vishnu Hari-hara ?) on the left hand side. As one would notice it is the lady which has the sharper mind that responds creatively to unfamiliar situations --- and, therefore, and chiefly therefore, is the better half. Women never required to be liberated!?

There is some confusion (in my mind) about the difference between ardhanareshwar (shiva-parvati) and ardhanareshwari. It won’t bother me now as Indian iconography does not seem to have set rules that are carried through all time --- a national character we do not seem to be bothered about, thankfully. Let us assume that the nareshwar has Shiva associated with destruction as well as his tranquil meditative nature. In this case, St. Catherine of Sinai’s image of pantocrator would correspond (in my mind) to the dual personality of shiva without a change of sex for the two halves.

It is interesting therefore to think of Pantocrator in the ardhanareshwar version of Shiva. Shiva the destroyer is Pantocrator’s left and Shiva the tranquil is Pantocrator’s right. The connection with Buddha will come a little later.

The Snake and the Dragon and the Lion.
The other thing my Italian brother/friend wrote that I did not know was the phrase Super aspides et basiliscum ambulabis… . When I got the translation I seemed to remember it from my Catholic School days. One meaning is “Thou shalt walk upon the adder and the basilisk and shalt tread down the lion and the dragon.

At school I did not really believe my catechism master that the “adder” is a snake. I thought it was some sort of an adding machine, like the Chinese abacus. And the basilisk, I thought was some sort of a church steeple like the obelisk in some vague way. Thanks to my friend I paid more attention to the real meaning. The rest of the blog is a consequence of this understanding.

The basilisk, as I read from the Wikipedia, is sometimes said to be, in European legends, a twelve-finger long snake with a white spot on its head that looks like a crown (Fig 3 top left, a common cartoon in the net). It features in the coat of arms of Moscow being killed by St. George (Fig 3 in colour). “It is said that one of these, being killed with a spear by one who was on horseback, and its venom flowing on the spear, not only the man but the horse also died. It spoils the wheat and not only that which it touches, but where it breathes the grass dries and the stones are split.” I wonder what happened to St. George.

The basilisk also could have figured (Fig 3, right) perhaps in Lewis Carroll’s poem Jaberwocky (only now I know what it could be meaning --- after nearly sixty years!!) the first and last paragraphs of which had the slithering snake when you read it aloud.
`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

A closer look (Fig 4, bottom) at the Pantocrator image gave me the logic behind the superaspidem in my brother/friend’s cryptic note. The pantocrator was really stomping with his foot (Fig bottom) the two creatures whom we can recognize as (or understand the artist’s interpretation of) a snake (although why it should have teeth is not clear unless it is also “Black Adder’s” Cheshire cat) and the basilisk. The lion can be easily recognized snoozing; the all-important dragon of this blog will be discussed later. Both are not being tread upon by the Pantocrator.

My search of the internet got me a rather interesting incident from Google book’s “Christopher Marlowe: the plays and their sources” by Vivien Thomas and William Tydeman. Part of this incident is given below:

"The Pope being at Venice, and required to be sent of the Venetians to the Emperor, they would not send him. Whereupon Fredericus the Emperor sent thither his son Otho, with men and ships well appointed, charging him not to attempt anything before his coming. The young man, more hardy than circumspect, joining with [attacking] the Ventians, was overcome; and so taken, was brought into the city. Hereby the Pope took no small occasion to work his feats.

"The father, to help the captivity and misery of his son, was compelled to submit himself to the Pope, and to entreat for peace. So the Emperor coming to Venice, at St. Mark’s church, where the bishop was, there to take his absolution, was bid to kneel down at the Pope’s feet.

The proud Pope, setting his foot upon the Emperor’s neck, said the verse of the psalm, ‘Super aspidem et basiliscum ambulabis, et conculcabis leonem et draconem’: that is, ‘Thou shalt walk upon the adder and the basilisk, and shalt tread down the lion and the dragon.’ To whom the Emperor answering again, said, ‘Non tibi sed Petro’: that is, ‘Not to thee but to Peter.’ The Pope again, ‘Et mihi et Petro’: ‘Both to me and to Peter.’ The Emperor, fearing to give any occasion of furthe quarrelling, held his peace, and so was absolved and peace made between them. The conditions whereof were these: that he should receive Alexander for the true Pope. Secondly that he should restore again to the Church of Rome all that he had taken away before. And thus the Emperor, obtaining again his son, departed.

This is quite in line --- in my interpretation at least --- of the dual personality to strike and to appease, always to serve Peter (peter can as well be to the stone worshipper, a stone which you worship in the image of the god you want to worship). I, of course, do not know why one should “walk upon the adder and the basilisk” or “tread down the lion and the dragon” unless they symbolized another religion hostile to it.

The basilisk does not move by wriggling like a snake but from the centre forwards to the right it is said. Some would say that the basilisks refer to the common or Brown basilisks of Mexico and Equador. Others say that the resemblance is to the upright movement of the cobra. Both basilisk and the cobra are deadly poisonous and king of snakes. The cobra has a natural enemy in the mongoose and the basilisk in the weasel.

Which should prove conclusively, except to the common (and they are numerously common) sceptic, that the basilisk in the psalm is referring to a cobra? Maybe. We pursue on our line regardless.

Shiva wears a cobra and could have been the target for Christian wrath. The lion is the vehicle of Parvati, Shiva’s consort or the better half.

Makara and Kirtimukhi

A version of the dragon-like creature in Indian and Tibetan temple architecture is the Makara which is a sea dragon. It is many times depicted with a front like that of an elephant, but with extended teeth like that of a magar crocodile, and a tail with that of an aquatic creature such as lobster/fish/seal, sometime a peacock-like tail is depicted!

It is here that I would try to make a connection between Pantocrator’s image and Belur-Halebid temples.

When we reached Belur just after dusk we found a decent-ish hotel which was about a kilometer away from the main temple. We walked down to the temple before it closed for the night. There was some crowd in the sanctum sanctorum and it took us some time to get near the main idol of the Chennakesava temple. What strikes me (Fig 5, left) immediately at first sight are the elephant-like creatures supporting an arch (torana). These "elephants" are the makara (see my blogs on Pune Street Scenes III and IV on Trishundiya Ganapati). The image is blurred because my digital camera has not learnt not to move when taking the shot at long exposure. In any case a nearly identical structure is found (Fig 5, right) at the entrance of the Hoysaleshwara temple at Halebid a few kilometers away which I shot in bright daylight. There are many others, of course. The arch (torana) supported by the makara comes out of the mouth of a kirtimukha which transliterates to a “glorious face”.

To one who is not a scholar in such affairs there may not kirtimukha in it, but a just a powerful face with bulging eyes and gaping mouth ready to swallow (or disgorge) the torana. It would have been the face of a lion to the uninitiated like the early explorers/stragglers from western lands who reported to their religions.

The makara and the kirtimukhas are everywhere in Indian temple decorations, degenerating with time to common familiar images; such as the makara beoming actually an elephant as in gajalakshmis; or the “glorious face” becoming just a face with the tongue sticking out like maa kaali. Somehwere inbetween the “glorious face” could have become the lion face.

In Halebid there is one row of makaras which meet at a corner in the most interesting way (Fig 6 left) if only because of the slight asymmetry which must have been an error of no consequence when perfection is not the objective but the imagination. There are kirtimukhis alternating with the makaras; the makaras do not book-end a torana and the kirtimukhis grasp a chain with its mouth instead of disgorging an arch (or torana).

The kirtimukhis seem to be seen as a “glorious face” when they are supporting arches. Otherwise they become faces of stylized imperious lions as in Fig. 7. The mane of the rows of lions at the right of Fig have obviously evolved from the chains of the kirtimukhis in Fig. 6,left.

The main gopuram at Belur has mainly work of plaster and is likely to be a latter day creation. The figures in the front have different characteristic from those at the back. The figures at the back seem shorter and dwarfish and resemble the local people, which I suppose they should. There are remnants of the “glorious face” (besides those of pigeons) on top of these figures;the only change being that the disgorging of arches has turned simply into hanging of a tongue. I wonder whether goddess kaali’s image (click to expand) with a hanging tongue (see inset of Fig 6, centre) came from this glorious face.

In the meanwhile, the present-day devotees (Fig 6, right), looking similar to the figures on the gopuram (Fig 6, centre), enter the temple with their own veneration of the primeval fire.

So, one asks, where is the connection with the cross of Christianity?

St. Thomas's Cross and the "double Vajra"

While researching this blog I came across a blog titled Saint Thomas’ Cross- A Religio Cultural Logo of Saint Thomas Chrsitans at by one Thomas Anthony who has written a series of well-researched blogs. In this blog he has a picture of an Empty eastern cross standing on a lotus (Fig 8, top left). According to this blog the most ancient emblem of the cross in India is the St. Thomas Cross. St. Thomas, being an apostle of Christ must predate Constantinople’s time when the Byzantine influence on the iconism of Christ influenced Christianity. “According to St Thomas Christian tradition, the Apostle Thomas planted crosses in the Christian communities he established. Acts of the Apostles doesn’t comment about any such acts by any Apostles despite the author of Acts of the Apostles, St Paul who himself being a champion of the power of Cross.(1 Cor.1:17, Gal.6:14). The early Roman catacombs have no symbolism of Cross.”

In this blog it is said that “East Syrian Church had a great veneration of the cross. They even considered the sign of the cross as one of the sacraments.” Kerala Christians call themselves Syrian Christians. There is a statement that early Christians used the symbol of fish for their worship. The matsya or fish is used in the golden-fish-pair symbol in Buddhism (Fig 8, top right) for the rivers Ganges and Yamuna. The makara is the vahana or vehicle for these rivers. “In ancient Eastern Indian mythology, the fish is a symbol of transformation and creation. This is observed in the ancient flood myth in which Vishnu transformed himself into a fish (Matsya) to save the world from a great flood. In this form, he guided king Manu’s boat (which contained the select few survivors and seeds of life to re-create the world after the flood subsided) to safety.“ What persists even today in Bengal is the presentation of fish (preferably live) as a gift to a wedding couple, so that this must be a “bon” tradition of “bongs”(see my blog The Bon of the Bongs, Part I: East or West, East is the Best (Sometimes)” of 7th November 2008).

The so-called “empty” St. Thomas Cross shows, on closer examination, the cross to be under the remnant symbolism of the makara-kirtimukhi arch or torana and standing on a lotus. It may have been derived from the Buddhist symbol of Dorje or vajra (Fig. 8, bottom centre) used as a thunderbolt by Indra (Fig , bottom right). One of the oldest Tibetan civilization (although they may resent it themselves), has the ViĊ›vajra or the “double vajra” as its emblem (Fig 8, bottom left) This (Fig 8, bottom left) sign is worn on beaded necklaces of Tibetan, nepali girls, as a Buddhist sign (Fig 8, top middle). They kiss it during prayers the same way as the Christians kiss their cross.

So we go back to pre-christian a Tibetan or Buddhist or pre-Buddhist time (who knows?). One may reverse all arguments and conclude that all this only shows that the Christian religion precedes all others but adopted by different countries differently. Ant the Buddhist and the yogi would say does it matter? Religious symbolism is only for the requirements of those who depend on it. It only lasts in those who did not at all think about it lasting.

They could include at least one blogger.

The Halo and Buddha and Parshwanath

There is one more symbolism to be dealt with before I end the blog--- the halo.

In China's Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region there appeared a rare natural spectacle which was identified with Buddha’s halo (July 24, 2010) which was captured photographically in several ways so as to look like a halo. Buddha’s halo is thought to emit five beams of light (one would have counted five colours in the halo of FIG. 0, left if one did not know about vibgyor) and is sometimes represented by five hooded serpents providing him shade. There are many images of Buddha with a halo. An image (Fig 9, right) from the sixth century shows an halo with twelve lotus petals.

In one non-revered part of the complex at Belur there is an undecorated structure inside which there is, what seems like (Fig 10, left) a seated figure of Buddha in Dharmachakra mudra (see left inset of Fig 18, left). One interesting feature that I noticed while writing this blog is that a ghost image of a halo and the missing buddha’s head seems to be on the wall (right inset of Fig 10, left); like the image of Jesus in the Turin shroud?

On the right side (facing it) walls of the main temple there is a corridor with various images fixed on the wall. One of these has a stack of Buddha-like heads. They seem to have been plastered over so as to hide their giveaway features. Buddhist? Or jain? In another instance there is a nagini a lady serpent (Fig 10, right) with an halo of serpent’s heads. A search of the net for snake goddess many time have an image of this piece and the description “The altar where Jory Goddess is worshipped. Photo taken at the main temple in Belur Karnataka”. I could not get any more internet strike on the Jory goddess except that along with another snake-goddess, Manasa, she is prayed to for curing snake bites.

There could be another connection. The seven-headed serpent’s hood on the nagini goddess (Fig. 10, left) is similar to that of kalpasutra (ancient Jain text containing biographies of their last two Tirthankaras) images (inset of Fig 10, right) of Parshwanath (~ 900 BCE) the earliest historically acknowledged leader of the jain sect. Parshwanath is always shown with this hood of serpents.

This brings on another question. My answer to this question should lead to my beheading by the narrow-minded political classes of the lower parochial types. I have lived a life well so I can do without my head, at least in the after-life.

The question is this. Is the image of Vishnu as Chennakesava at Belur (Fig 11 top right) a Jain image? The early Jain idols (not from belur) are usually made from black stones such as those on the left and middle in Fig 11. The image at top centre is said to be from the sixth century AD. The image in bbottom left of Fig. 11 is from the Jain temple at Lakkundi. A characteristic feature of all Jain images is that the eyes are wide open. The four-faced (chaturmukhi) image of Brahma in the Jain temple complex at Lakkundi also has its eyes wide open. The widen open eyes of Jain idols are in contrast to the Buddhist idols which have their eyes nearly closed in deep meditation, so they say. So is the idol of Chennakesava (handsome Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu, not Vishnu himself) actually a Jain image. Will we see a naked mahavir if we remove the adornments? Have jain and naga structures been demolished by the later Hoysala kings? Without changes in the style of the craftsmen?

What can we now say about the Halo of the Pantocrator. The earliest one (top centre of Fig 2 has no features), When did the cross appear in the halo of the pantocrator as it does in later images of Fig 2. It is not easy for a scholar to comment on this as they have their professional positions to worry about. For a blogger it is easier. In the absence of easy access to historic evidence I relied on the only book I could lay my hands on in the net. This book is Art in the Early Church, by Walter Lowrie (Princeton), Pantheon Books, New York, 1947. Without dwelling on what the learned Lowrie had to say, I reproduce only two images (Fig 12) of the 5th-6th century A.D. from his book. The one on the left is from plate 134.b titled “Judas or Barabbas” and the one in Fig. 12 right is from Plate 132a titled The Last supper and Christ washing Peter’s feet. In these pictures the halo is eight-spoked and is not like the cross. The halo could have been like the original Gandharan carvings of Buddha in the first century BCE, in which the halo has flames of light bursting out from it like a sun. The cross of St. Thomas was yet to reach Rome, at least in the halo of Christ.

There is strong evidence that the structures left standing at Belur were built on remains of some other previous structure unlike the structure at Halebid a little further away from Belur. Many of the stones that pave the spaces between structures at Belur have geometrical shapes that suggests pillars and bases and arches (Fig 13, left and centre). In one or two places there are even signs of worship with haldi and kumkum (Fig 13, left). There is no sign of an idol having been installed there although there is some sign of some inscription on the whiter stone. There are many such geometrical shapes but no other with signs of worship (at least that day). It is as if there is a folk memory (swarm intelligence if you like) of time past when a sacred object of worship would have been associated with the stone. The worship endures because the memory endures because the worship continues with or without the haldi and the kumkum. There is little veneration from the devotee for the art of the sculptor as such.

It will take many more blogs to uncover any understanding of this part of the Belur complex. It suggests that the area where the belur temple now stands has several layers (not necessarily vertical) of religious history. The Belur temple is a story of temples upon temples. It is more a story of what Hindus have done to other hindus and Buddhists and other older tribal indigenous places of worship.

The Shaman, the Tantrik and the Geometry of Star of David

Looking at the paved remains of temple structures in Belur, one sees a strange figure (Fig 13, right). At first glance it looks like a patient amateur's attempt to reproduce the sculptor's images. On that hard rock, it must have been a patient art-less artist. But maybe it was not. A closer look seems to suggest that the head of the figure is upside down!. That could have been by design. So was there a shamanist at work?

From the way this blog has been going it may as well end there.

It won’t, if only because we may not want 13 figures. Any blog on religion cannot end without the shaman and the tantric. The wall of remnants at Belur has one (relatively recently carved it would seem) pillar with what would at first glance seem to be the Israeli Star of David (without the inscribed lotus) , at least to those strongly influenced by the holocaust of the second world war. It turns out that the star of David as it is known today was roughly a mid 15th-16th century development introduced by cabalists and is much after the development of tantric signs.

According to tantriks (and later day cabalists) the Star of David or six-pointed star made by the overlapping of two oppositely-oriented equilateral triangles is actually a tantric symbol representing the divine union of the male and female. The three corners of the primitive triangle are supposed to be Creator, Preserver and Destroyer.

The triangle in a common interpretation represents a woman and two overlapping triangles (for some unclear reason if one thinks of them as two women) is supposed to represent the supreme act of reproduction. The hexagram could then be a geometrical representation of the goddess of fertility. If one doesn’t colour the triangles to represent different species it becomes the purely geometrical pattern of the Star of David as represented on the Israeli flag (inset of Fig 14 top left, or in the Star of David of the masoretic text (Fig 14 top centre).

When one colours the triangles (as in Fig 14 right top and middle and in the Star of David in the re-created Shiloh Synagogue, Fig 14, bottom middle) the six-fold symmetry is lost and the triangular aspect stands out. When the triangles are interlocked and coloured differently only the three-fold symmetry of the equilateral triangle is retained.

An equilateral triangle could mean that the relationships between each other are the same. You are as much created as you are destroyed or as you are preserved, much like a (dry) sand-pile’s shape when one pours (dry) sand on it. That is an equilibrium, fixed state, without an ability to change one’s final state when the triangle is being formed.

A tantric yantra (Fig 14 right) could have concentric symmetrical geometrical figures such as triangles and circles and squares (Fig 14 right top) or in the masoretic text (Fig 14, bottom middle).

When the equilateral symmetry is lost, the equality between preserver (P), creator (C) and destroyer (D) is lost, one expects the triangles to become isosceles to begin with.

If one requires a direction of time, one may find P-C equal P-D but not equal to C-D. In a version of the Sri Yantra (Fig 14 bottom right) the triangles are isosceles and their aspect ratio changes as one goes outwards.

All kinds of changes appear and simple arguments disappear --- as it should I suppose when considering the many-parameter complexities of the life of the universe.

It will take many more blogs to uncover any understanding of this part of the Belur complex.

I am satisfied with my current level of not understanding --- with my state of nirvana.

This blog suggests that the area where the belur temple now stands has several layers (not necessarily vertical) of religious history. The most important revelations could be lying in the history of the remnant figures on the wall. This Remnant wall (partly shown in Fig 10) and the puzzle of paved remainders (Fig 13) is more very perplexing than any simple geometry of an yantra can give.

The Belur temple compley is (for me) a story of temples upon temples. It is more a story of what Hindus have done to other hindus and Buddhists and other older tribal indigenous places of worship.

The purpose of a religion would seem to be to establish a kingship through the agencies of the rituals ordained by the priests who serve their king. It will not matter if it is Christian or Islam or Buddhist or Jain.

We cant say Hindu because we dont have a structured religion as yet, except for their influence on other structured religions.


rpconover said...

The positioning of the fingers in the Pantocrator Icon is simply the oldest position for holding the fingers when giving a blessing. The Russian old believers still hold their fingers thusly both when making the sign of the cross or blessing an object or person. Christ is blessing the viewer. That's all there is to it.

CmonReally said...

"It's old and that's all there is to it" is not an answer. Dad. Mom. Grandpa. Grandma. Father Ignatius. Whoever you are.

Someone always did something originally *for a reason.*

You may be perfectly content to continue aping an action without understanding why.

Some of us simply aren't content to do things until and unless we understand WHY.

That in a nutshell is the difference between Orthodoxy/Conservatism and personal spirituality/personal relationship with the mystery of existence.