Sphinxes in Indian Art and Tradition
by Raja Deekshithar
text and photos © asianart.com and the author except as where otherwise noted
July 31, 2009
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A pair of purushamrigas guard the entrance of the Shri Shiva Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, India. Male and female, they are seated on either side of the flight of 21 steps that leads down into the courtyard of the temple. With lion bodies, full flowing and curling mane surrounding their human faces, looking out at the worshippers with a Mona-Lisa-like smile, they accurately correspond to the sphinx so well known from the mythology and art of other parts of the ancient world (figures 1 and 2).
It has been many decades since I realized the mythical composite beings that guard the temple entrance were the equivalent of the sphinxes of classical antiquity. Inspired by the discovery of this unexpected link between other ancient civilizations and the temple’s tradition I started enquiring among the elderly Deekshithars  about these composite beings. I was told they were unique to the Chidambaram temple’s tradition and had been directed here after guarding the Rajasuya ritual of the Pancha Pandavas. They had asked Lord Krishna “Our duty here is over, what should we do?” The answer was they should go to Chidambaram where Shiva was going to perform His cosmic dance on earth. The oral tradition tells they purify and bless all those who visit the temple .
The purushamriga also plays a role during the daily rituals. It is depicted on one of the lamps used for the performance of what is known as the sodasopacara or sixteen honors ritual offered to the presiding deity, the Nataraja, five times during the day  (figure 3). As the priest waves the lamp burning with five wicks on the prabha surrounding the sphinx before the deity he chants the verse from the Yajur Veda
The sphinx is possibly the best known composite mythological being from classical antiquity, wielding a mysterious fascination on humanity, although very little is known of its meaning and function for the people who depicted it in ancient Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia or elsewhere . The only myths that have reached us are the story from Hesiod on the origin of the sphinx as the offspring of the monster Echidna and her son Orthros , and the myth which is part of the Oedipus tradition, where the sphinx is the being that terrorized the city of Thebes with her riddle . It is she who has given her name to all mythological beings with the body of a lion and the head of a human being in classical times and after. The Great Sphinx of Gizeh was worshipped in Egypt during the time of the New Kingdom as Hor-em-Akhet or Re-Harmachis, Horus of the Horizon, an aspect of the Divine Sun . During the Middle Kingdom what we now call sphinx was named ‘seshep’ or ‘sheshep-ankh’ a term meaning ‘living image’ and a word used to denote images or sculpture in general .
Research by the German art historian Heinz Demisch has brought out the principal functions of sphinxes from all across the ancient world . They were first of all beings that warded off evil, and were positioned at the entry and gateways of cities, palaces, temples, and graves. This is called apotropaic. They were also seen as witnesses to the epiphany of the divine. They stood by the thrones of seated deities and sometimes functioned as a deity’s vehicle. They were depicted on animal freezes in the company of other mythological and real animals. And they were symbols of secret knowledge, wisdom and riddles .
Initially satisfied with the explanations of my elder relatives I accepted for a long time the idea these two sphinxes in Chidambaram were the only ones in India. It activated my interest in the civilizations of antiquity for comparative study, but it took some time before I took up the further quest for the sphinx in India. Traveling to the West offered me more opportunities to have access to books, museums and documentaries. This awakened my enthusiasm and no longer satisfied with the answers of my elders, I started looking, and all of a sudden I started noticing sphinxes in other areas of the temple in Chidambaram. This is where we find undoubtedly the most beautiful and unambiguous representations of the sphinx concept in Indian art. It is also the place where I have discovered the largest collection of sphinxes found in one single temple complex.
These discoveries led me to wonder whether sphinxes would be found in other temples as well and I started a search. First in temples I knew to be related to Chidambaram by doctrine, or in some other way, such as through architectural features. My search was well rewarded. The temples where we find the most abundant representations of sphinxes or purushamrigas are the Mahabhuta sthalas. These are five temples that represent the Primordial Elements of Hindu cosmology and philosophy. Besides the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram (dedicated to Akasha or Ether) these are the Arunachaleshvara temple in Tiruvannamalai (Agni or Fire), the Ekambaranatha temple in Kanchipuram (Prithivi or Earth), the Kalahasteshvara temple in Kalahasti (Vayu or Wind), and the Jambukeshavra temple in Tiruvanaikaval (Apas or Water). Besides many sculptural depictions of sphinxes in stone and metal (ritual lamps), the Arunachaleshvara, the Kalahasteshvara and the Ekambaranatha temple also have a purushamriga vahana or sphinx vehicle for the yearly festival. This is a processional vehicle for the deity in the form of a sphinx (figure 4).
Most Shiva temples, especially the more ancient ones, represent at least one sphinx or purushamriga in their sculptural plan. At first sight it looked as though it could be accidental. But after surveying over a hundred temples a pattern started emerging. The sculptors placed the sphinx, or purushamriga, not in just accidentally in any place, but invariably in a ritually significant place. Near or on an entrance, gopuram or door post, in processional passage ways, and on pavilions where rituals would take place. Temples where no sphinxes could be found were often those where extensive renovations had been executed in the last century or so. It is standard for Shaivite temples to include the purushamriga lamp in the daily ritual . Some Vishnu temples have sphinxes among the sculpture (figure 5).
The research has belied the belief of the elders that sphinxes or purushamriga were unique to Chidambaram. Although so far the field research has been limited and has covered only some parts of South India, over 200 individual sculptural depictions of sphinxes in temples, palaces and forts in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh have been identified. The research has established their role in mythology, ritual, art and tradition. The existing literature and electronic sources make it clear that sphinxes are also found in the art of other parts of India, South Asia, and South-East Asia .
Only very few temples still maintain the tradition of the sphinx or purushamriga as a being that protects and purifies. The mythology has been largely forgotten. And nowhere is there any trace of a realization of its connections with that great mythological being of ancient Egypt and Greece, the sphinx. This article will focus on the results of field work with respect to art history in South India.
The art-historical material so far collected indicates that the depiction of sphinxes or purushamrigas in sculpture was ubiquitous at least in Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu. The sculptural representations show a fascinating development and can be dividing into three main types. Many sculptural representations are narrative in nature. These groups are
We can observe one unusual characteristic in all the discovered sphinx depictions. Whereas other religious sculpture is often somewhat standardized and uniform, depictions of sphinxes show on the contrary a lot of variation and individuality, as though the sculptors had much more artistic freedom with respect to this subject while at the same time maintaining the basic concept.
Of the pair of sitting sphinxes at the entrance of the Chidambaram temple the one on the south side of the entrance can be recognized as male. He has fangs, pronounced eyes and arched eyebrows, and elongated ears. (figure 1) The female seated on the north side of the entrance has somewhat gentler facial features and no fangs (figure 2). Their forehead is bordered by a row of curls. The neck is bordered by a short stretch of flowing mane. Both curling and flowing mane are surrounded by a complete circle of longer waving mane, which in its turn encircled by two concentric rows of curls. Both wear what could be called a mysterious smile (figure 6).
They are unique and the only ones of their kind, as far as can be ascertained and do not fit within any of the known styles of South Indian sculpture.
Although these two sphinxes that grace the entrance of the temple are unique, there are several others found in the temple that fall within the same category of sphinxes seated in pairs. Two pairs of seated sphinxes or purushamriga that function as caryatids on the ratha mandapa, a pavilion in the form of a chariot, of the temple called the Nritta Sabha, show a general relationship to the first pair in form, but differ greatly in detail (figure 7). Their faces show the same pronounced eyes and arched eyebrows. They have unusual flat noses, and fangs. Still they are depicted with a smile (figure 8). Their mane is made up of concentric rows of waves and curls. They are sculpted fully in the round with their tails sculpted in a way reminiscent of the caryatid yalis known from Pallava and Chola sculpture. They wear disks in their elongated ears, and unusual jewelry. Each is slightly different from the others (figure 9).
Three other temples are adorned with pairs of sitting sphinxes. In the Airavateshvara temple in Darasuram we find a pair that has probably been inspired by the sphinxes on the Nritta Sabha in Chidambaram. Gracing the base of their respective pillars, male and female, they emerge from the stone with similarly pronounced eyes and eyebrows, fangs, flat noses, wearing crowns, ear disks, and with concentric layers of curling and waving mane (figure 10 and 11).
One more pair of sphinxes can be found in the Koranganatha temple in Srinivasanallur. These represent a very different style of depiction, although they have the pronounced eyes, arched eyebrows, elongated ears (but without ear-disks), flat noses and concentric rows of curls in common with the sphinxes described above.
One seated sphinx found in south India stands completely apart from all of these, and that is the sphinx found in the Krishna cave in Mamallapuram. Uniquely depicted in profile, could we possibly find here the face of one of the Pallava kings? The mane is depicted as flowing in waves, the human ears are not elongated, and he sports a moustache. The face is naturally human without any pronounced features, although what may be a horn seems to grow from his forehead. He is positioned on the side of the cave together with a gryph, a yali, a lion and one or two other animals, away from the main panel which depicts Krishna lifting the mountain Govardhana (figure 15).
Walking and jumping sphinxes with a full lion body and a human face represent a far larger sub group among the sphinxes found in South Indian temples. Once again we find the most unique example in the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, again as part of the sculptural program of the Nritta Sabha. Here the top-most moulding winding all around the base is a freeze of alternating miniature lions and sphinxes (figure 16). Although their posture is essentially identical, with one front-leg lifted in the motion of walking, the human faces of the sphinxes each have an individuality of their own. A triumph of sculpting, considering the size of the animals and the hardness of the material, granite. Although a tentative connection between ratha-type edifices and depictions of sphinxes seems probable, so far no equivalent of this freeze has been found anywhere else.
Other remarkable examples of walking sphinxes with human faces are found as part of animal freezes in the Shri Varadaraja temple in Tribhuvanai in Puducherry. Here we encounter an important aspect of sphinx depictions in South Indian art, the narrative sculpture. The sphinx plays a role in several legends, and especially in what were once important regional versions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana . From sculpture, theatrical and oral traditions it is clear that the story of a race between Bhima and the purushamriga in the context of the performance of the Rajasuya ritual by the Pancha Pandavas was once well known. Its popularity has a specific historical background. We will come back to this in more detail further on.
In the Varadaraja Perumal temple of Tribhuvanai we find three panels that illustrate this story. This is unusual, as the temple is dedicated of Vishnu. In spite of the important role of Krishna in the story of Bhima and the purushamriga, depictions of sphinxes in Vishnu temples are rare. The reason is probably the traditional understanding of the character of the sphinx, the purushamriga, as a devotee of Shiva. On the south wall of the temple, among the elephants and yalis of an animal freeze that surrounds the shrine, we find a superb depiction of the sphinx, walking with one front paw raised, towards a miniature temple (figure 17). He wears a crown, a necklace and ear studs in elongated ears. The mane is clearly depicted in flowing waves behind the head. The plumed lion tail is curled up and above the body, in a kind of ‘S’, which can be recognized as a defining feature for sphinxes depicted in South Indian sculpture.
This panel clearly refers to the Rajasuya episode from the Mahabharata in which the sphinx is described as worshipping Shiva. The two other sculptural panels found in this temple also narrate the same episode and depict the race between the sphinx and Bhima. A sculpture of a walking sphinx is found on the base of the open pillared pavilion that is situated in front of the main shrine. We recognize the characteristic lifting of the front leg and the ‘S’ curl of the plumed tail above the body. Fangs protrude from smiling lips and disks are worn in elongated ears. The mane is depicted in a flowing wave form. Just visible in front of the sphinx we recognize a human hand. Although the rest of the figure has been covered by the wall of the shrine of Garuda, the vehicle of Vishnu, it was without doubt a running Bhima (figure 18).
A third depiction of the sphinx is found on the steps that lead into the shrine. The steps are carved with panels of animals and dancers, separated by miniature pilasters. Among these we find the sphinx, pursuing Bhima who runs holding his characteristic mace. The sphinx raises the front leg and faces the viewer. The mane is depicted is flowing waves ending in curls. He wears ear-disks and the tail is raised above the body (figure 19).
These three sphinxes from the temple in Tribhuvanai are representative for the large number of sphinxes of this type found in temples. As becomes clear from the illustrations, they are each very different in style and depiction, in spite of the characteristics of mane, raised leg, tail, and ear-disks, which they have in common.
The jumping sphinx is invariably part of the depiction of the narrative of the race between Bhima and the sphinx from the Mahabharata. The sphinx is shown jumping as he captures Bhima. Several beautiful examples are found among the panels of the Airavateshvara temple in Darasuram (figure 20).
What is probably the earliest, dateable half-upright sphinx is found on the Surya shrine in the Nageshvara temple in Kumbakonam, one of the original subsidiary shrines, datable to the last years of the 9th century  (figure 21). With the lower body of a lion and a human torso, these sphinxes are often depicted with a bell and lamp in their hands, sometimes before a Shiva Linga. This depiction refers to the character of the purushamriga described in myth as a devotee of Shiva. Figures 22, 23, 24, 25 and 26 offer an overview of some of the more remarkable examples.
The sculptures of half-upright sphinxes accentuate its character described in the tradition and literature as a rishi with great knowledge and as a devotee of Shiva. These sphinxes often wear beards and moustaches, and are sometimes shown with their matted hair knotted on top of their head, or with a crown.
The tradition recounts that the mother of Tirumalai Nayaka (who ruled between 1623 and 1659) performed a special worship of the sphinx or purushamriga wishing to conceive. In the southern most part of the subcontinent, in what is the area around Kanya Kumari, an ancient tradition has an unprecedented connection with the sphinx. It is here that 12 temples associate their origin with the race between Bhima and the sphinx or purushamriga.
When the heroes of the Mahabharata, the five brothers known as the Pancha Pandavas, wishes to perform the Rajasuya, a royal Vedic yajña, they wished to invite the purushamriga. Or obtain its milk, according to another version. Bhima, the brother known for his speed and strength, approached the sphinx, who challenged Bhima to a race, demanding to eat him if he were caught. Lord Krishna advised Bhima and gave him 12 small Lingas. He was to throw one over his shoulder if the sphinx came near. The sphinx, the purushamriga, is also known as Manovega, Fast As Thought, so he easily advanced on Bhima. But each time Bhima threw one of the lingas Krishna had given him over his shoulder, upon which it became a Shiva temple. As a Shiva devotee the sphinx stopped to worship before continuing the pursuit of Bhima. But finally all twelve lingas had been thrown, and as he had just one foot in his own territory, the sphinx caught Bhima. Yudhishthira, the elder Pandava, was asked for judgment. Known also as Dharmaraja, King of Justice, he ruled the sphinx had the right to eat Bhima. Out of respect for Yudhishthira’s sense of justice, the sphinx released Bhima and attended the Rajasuya. This is the regional legend of the origin of the twelve temples of the Shiva Ottam, or race for Shiva. Till today a race in commemoration of this mythological event takes place every year in the night of Shivaratri .
The mother of Tirumalai Nayaka worshipped the sphinx in the first of the Shiva Ottam temples, the Shiva temple in Tirumalai (figure 29). According to the oral tradition she conceived and the prince was named after the place as Tirumalai. He later became one of the greatest kings of this dynasty. This may explain why depictions of the race between Bhima and the sphinx find such a prominent place in many of the pavilions and shrines build during the period of the Nayaka dynasty (figure 30).
The fully upright sphinxes of the Nayaka period are sculpted with, sometimes over-emphasized, lion’s claws, legs and hips. The upper part of their bodies is male, they wear jewelry and sport beards and moustaches. On their head they wear their matted hair coiled in an elaborate knot or sometimes a crown. Their mane is often indicated by waving hair at the sides of their heads forming what could be mistaken for a halo, similar to the sphinxes in figures 5, 10 and 11 from Tribhuvanai and Darasuram. The plumed tail is still shown with the characteristic ‘S’ shape curling behind the body (figure 28). Many examples exist where the sphinx is shown in the act of catching Bhima (figure 30).
© 2009, Raja Deekshithar
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