Temples of Krsna (Krishna) in South India: History, Art and Traditions in TamilNadu (An old and Rare Book)

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Item Code: IDE410
Author: T. Padmaja
Language: English
Edition: 2002
ISBN: 8170173981
Pages: 147 (Color Illus: 10, B & W Illus: 95)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.9" X 9.2"
Weight 1 kg
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Book Description

From the Jacket:


The spread of Krsna worship to different parts of India is a fascinating study. The book presents an indepth study of the multifarious facets of Krsna worship in South India based on the ancient Tamil classics, inscriptions, sculptures, wood and ivory carvings and folk art. It brings out the golden thread of cultural unity and synthesis amidst regional variations and adaptations.

The book is profusely illustrated with more than one hundred rare photographs.

About the Author:

Dr. T. Padmaja took her M.A. degree in History from Madurai-Kamaraj University and Ph.D. in the Department of Archaeology, University of Mysore in 1990. She was some time a research fellow in C.P. Ramaswamy Aiyar Institute of Indological Research, Madras. Besides lecturing, she has contributed research articles on South Indian History and Art.


The origin of Krsna worship is steeped in antiquity. Some would trace it back to the epic Mahabharata and some would take it still earlier to the Upanishads and the Vedas. But whatever is its antiquity, it cannot be denied that this ancient cult became a very popular and widespread one all over India cutting across the barriers of language, regions, sects and even races. Great philosophers and poets belonging to different parts of India were fascinated by the many-sided personality of Krsna and have composed poems, epics, lullabies in their respective languages, which have enriched the Krsna lore. Over the centuries, Krsna was not only a source of inspiration for the philosophers and religious leaders who gave their own interpretations of his teachings (contained in the Bhagavat Gita) but also popular at the folk level as seen in the popular village festivals, street dramas, folk dances from Saurashtra to Assam and from Mathura and even Nepal to Kanyakumari. The spread of this cult to different parts of India and its impact on the local religion, literature, temples, sculptures and paintings would form an important field of research which is still largely unexplored. Though some valuable attempts have been made to study the origin and spread of the Krsna cult in general, there is considerable scope for an intensive regional study, particularly of South India.

The present work undertakes such a study with regard to Tamilnadu. It traces the origin and development of Krsna worship (or Bhagavatism) in this southern extreme part of India. It focuses attention on the impact of Krsna cult on the religion, temple and folk traditions, art and architecture particularly from about 7th to the end of the 17th century A. D., from the period of the Bhakti movement to the period of the Vijayanagar Nayak rule in Tamilnadu.


Tamil, one of the oldest languages of India, has an ancient and rich body of literature. The earliest extant works commonly known as the Sangam Literature are datable at least to the early centuries of the Christian era. They are comparatively free from Sanskrit influence and so provide valuable data on the history of the spread of the northern religions, faiths, institutions and the like in the extreme south. They also furnish information on the interaction of the northern and southern traditions and their adaptations and synthesis.

The Sangam classics provide the background for the rise of Krsnaism in the Tamil country. The period of the Tamil Bhakti movement between sixth and ninth century A. D. produced devotional Tamil literature of the Alvar saints centring round Visnu and His various forms and especially Krsna, which is another valuable source material for this period. The four thousand Tamil hymns (Nalayara-Divyaprabandham) show how the Tamil saints drew inspiration from Krsna's personality, his and teachings. A detailed analysis of this literature is presented here.

The post-Bhakti literature viz. the commentaries of the Vaisnava acharyas on the hymns of the Alvars form another important source to trace the development of Krsna worship in Tamilnadu. There were Tamil renderings of the epic Mahabharata such as those of Perundevanar's (9th century A. D.) and Villiputturar's (15th century) which help us to know the growing popularity of the Krsna worship. The Sthalapuranas of the Visnu temples of Tamilnadu throw light on the myths and traditions that grew round the temples.

The numerous inscriptions found on the walls of the Visnu temples of Tamilnadu and the copper plate grants of the Pallavas, the Pandyas and the Cholas and the Vijayanagar form another major source material. They throw light on the history and growth of the Krsna temple in Tamilnadu at various times, the patronage extended to them by the kings, nobles, merchants, the shepherd class and indeed various sections of Tamil society. They also tell us about the festivals that were celebrated for Krsna. Copper plate grants contain references to the great esteem in which Krsna was held by the several royal dynasties of the Tamil country.

The beautiful sculptural panels on the Krsna theme, the exquisite bronze images of Krsna in various forms, the wood works and the paintings that abound in Tamilnadu show how the Krsna theme permeated the art heritage of Tamilnadu and form a valuable source for this study. In fact, the Tamil sculptors, bronze makers, wood carvers, painters and ivory carvers have left us a rich legacy of art devoted to Krsna theme which deserves a careful study and appreciation.

In Chapter I the origin of Krsna worship is traced back to Sanskrit religious literature. The Sanskrit works like the Rg Veda, the Upanishads, the epics and the Puranas give us valuable information about the antiquity of the cult and particularly the works like the Harivamsa, Visnupurana and the Bhagavata Purana throw welcome light on the development of Krsna worship from a folk or pastoral cult to the absorption in the pan-Indian pantheon. The chapter then goes on the discuss the advent of Krsna cult in Tamil religious tradition as revealed in the Tamil Sangam works, the oldest extant body of Tamil literature. This literature is quite rich in its references to different aspects of the personality of Krsna and allusions to the episodes connected with his life. The Tamil epic Silappadikaram of a slightly later date (c. 5th century A. D.) presents a remarkable portrayal of Krsna in association with the cowherds in whose company he performed dances of different types. Some of the peculiar aspects of Krsna cult that developed along the indigenous lines of tradition are discussed.

The worship of Panchaviras and the association of Krsna with Nappinnai (Peculiar to Tamil tradition) are also dealt with in this chapter. Many interesting points such as the association of the Tamil kings of the Pandyan and Ay dynasties with the Pandavas of the Mahabharata fame and the Vyadava (cow-herd clan) respectively are examined in the light of the Tamil literary and epigraphical data. The pastoral character of Krsna appealed to the Tamils and they honoured him as the Lord of the mullai or forest region. In brief, this chapter forms the background for the early spread of Krsna worship in Tamilnadu and the process of its absorption into the Tamil social and cultural milieu.

Chapter II analyses the place occupied by Krsna cult in Tamil religion as reflected in the literature of the Bhakti movement which was in full swing between 600 to 850 A. D. This movement had both the Vaisnava and Saiva streams. As the Krsna cult is essentially Vaisnava in its character, naturally the Vaisnava religious works and temples festivals and rituals are to be carefully studied.

The great Tamil work Nalayira-Divya-Prabandham a collection of 4000 hymns of the twelve Vaisnava saints, called the Alvars, is taken up for a detailed study. We take up the Alvars's works one by one and see how the Krsna theme became dominant in their hymns. We see in their hymns an intense emotional ecstasy for the avataras of Visnu especially Krsna in his multifarious facets. Periyalvar assumed the role of the mother Yasoda and sang lullaby tamil. He has described the mother's joy at every stage in the growth of the child. For his daughter Andal, Krsna was her lover and lord and her poems breath. He saw him "in his food, drinking water and even the betel leaves he munched." In the poems of the Alvars, we see the example of bridal mysticism and frustration and anger during separation and joy in union, viraha-bhakti, i.e. the devotion of the lovelorn lady for her sweetheart. All the puranic episodes connected with Krsna's life are extensively described by them. In fact, some of the episodes not found in the Sanskritic purans are alluded to by them.

Chapter III deals with the Krsna tradition in the two categories of literature that appeared in Tamilnadu in the post-Bhakti period i.e. after 850 A. D., (1) Sri-Vaisnava religious works and (2) other general Tamil works. Under the former category, the works of the Vaisnava acharyas like Nathamuni, Yamunacharya, Ramanuja, Pillai Lokacharya, Vedanta Desika and others are analysed. The well-known Vaisnava preceptor Ramanuja was a great devotee of Krsna and wrote his commentary on the Gita. He expounded his famous Visistadvaita philosophy based on the bhakti and prapattimarga (path of surrender) propounded by the Alvars earlier. Several works in Tamil and Sanskrit appeared on the Krsna theme, like Vedanta Desika's Yadavabhavudaya and Gopalavimsati.

Another important class of Srivaisnava literature is the commentaries (Vyakhyanas) on the Alvars' hymns that appeared between 11th and 15th centuries. These were written in the manipravala style, a combination of Tamil and Sanskrit. The commentaries of Nampallai, Periavachan Pillai, Pillai Lokacharya, Alagiya Manavala Nayanar and Manavala Mahamuni are famous and they contain scintillating thoughts and comments on the Bhagavatism Visistadvaita-Vedanta and Krsna's glories. They reflect an important stage in the development of Sri Vaisnava theology of the Ramanuja school which had profound influence on many Bhakti schools of later periods.

The second category of literature is general in nature and includes Tamil renderings of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavat Gita. Here important works like Perundevanar's Bharata-venba, Villiputturar's Bharatam, Sri Battanar's work Jayankondar's Kalingathuparani and Ottakuthar's Muvar-Ula also contain interesting references to Krsna theme and attest to the widespread popularity of the Krsna worship.

Chapter IV identifies temples and shrines specially dedicated to Krsna in different parts of Tamilnadu and trace their traditions and history. The Sthalapuranas and the present-day rituals and festivals of the temples have preserved the popular myths and traditions that have grown round the temples. Here, we focus attention on the localization of myths which form an interesting process of popularizing the Krsna worship.

The numerous inscriptions found in the temples of Krsna and Visnu in general provide us with the authentic historical data on the temples, the patronage they received from the royal dynasties like the Pallavas, pandyas, Cholas, Vijayanagar and other chieftains, nobles and even the common folks. The close involvement of the different sections of the Tamil society in fostering the care of the Krsna temples is revealed in the inscriptions. Each generation took pride in adding some new facets to the temples by way of additional shrines, mandapas or introducing new festivals and services. The data from nearly 50 temples in studied in their historical context.

Chapter V shows how Krsna theme inspired the Tamil artists-the sculptors, the metal icon makers, the painters, the wood and ivory carvers through many centuries. We have many superb examples of Krsna sculptures of the Pallava period at places like Mamallapuram, Kanchi and Tiruvellarai. In the Chola period, we see the sculptors in stone and metal vying with one another in giving expression to complex themes and episodes. Tamilnadu has produced many masterpieces of bronze icons depicting Krsna in various poses-Balakrsna, Navanita Krsna, Kaliya Krsna, Rajagopala, Santanagopala, Venugopala, Parthasarathi, Gitacharya etc.

There are hundreds of Krsna images in stone and metal belonging to the Chola, Pandya and Vijayanagar periods displaying a variety of themes and expressions coming from different parts of Tamilnadu. Certain new forms were introduced in metal icons in the Chola and Vijayanagar periods. Such stylistic and thematic trends are discussed in their historical context.

There are rare paintings of the Bhagavata Purana and other Krsna themes in the temples of Tamilnadu belonging to the 15th and 16th centuries. This was also the period when wooden chariots were made in large numbers. They carry exquisite wood, carvings of Krsna theme as seen at Srirangam, Kanchi, Srivilliputtur etc. We also have some specimens of ivory carvings of Krsna theme in Srirangam temple. A detailed documentation of the above-mentioned art productions and critical study thereof is presented in this chapter which is illustrated with more than 100 photographs, many of them for the first time.




Preface 7
Abbreviations 9
List of Illustrations 11
Introduction 15
I. Krsna in Early Sanskrit and Tamil Traditions 21
II. Krsna in the Tamil Bhakti Tradition 43
III. Krsna in the Post-Bhakti Religion and Literature 69
IV. Temples of Krsna in Tamilnadu - Traditions and History 83
V. Krsna Theme in the Art of Tamilnadu 107
Epilogue 125
Appendix: Tamil Poems and Krsna 131
Bibliography 137
Index 145

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