Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Study of Ancient Indian Sphnixes Reveals Trade Routes


Indian scholar, Raja Deekshithar M.A. Managing Trustee Shri Sabhanayaka Temple (Shri Shiva Nataraja Temple) emailed me about his fascinating research into the origins of sphinxes in Indian art.

"The earliest textual reference to the sphinx of India is found in the Yajur Veda. The earliest known depictions in stone of sphinxes are found in central and north-west India and date to the 1st century BCE till the 2nd century CE. They are found among the decorations of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain shrines. And they show distinct Hellenistic influences especially in that they often have wings of the type typical of Greek sphinxes.

The earliest dated example of a sphinx in southern India is found among the sculpture in Mamalapuram. In the 6th and 7th century kings of the Pallava dynasty experimented in the vicinity of this ancient port with various architectural and sculptural forms.

The domination of the Pallavas was eclipsed in the 9th century by the Chola kings, whose centre of power lay in the delta of the Kaveri river. The Cholas dominated southern India for over four centuries and made generous contributions towards the temples and towards the arts, generating some of the greatest treasures of human civilization. It was in the temples constructed and supported by them that we find many of the early sphinx sculptures.

In this period the main characteristics of the purushamriga are lion bodies, with mane, and only a human face, with elongated ears. A few are depicted crouching, and in pairs. Most are striding or jumping. During this period we also see occasionally purushamriga that have the lower body of a lion, with the upper body of a human being, and are shown half up-right. Often they are engaged in the worship of the Shiva Linga with a lamp and a bell. Many of the depictions are narrative panels relating the story of the chase of Bhima by the purushamriga from the Mahabharata.

After the fall of the Chola dynasty various dynasties dominated different parts of Southern India, till the kings of Vijayanagara, modern Hampi in Karnataka, became the emperors of the South. In temple architecture of this period we also find many depictions of the purushamriga. By this time most scultures show the Indian sphinx with the lower body of a lion and the upper body of a human being. They are depicted as rishis or seers, as described in the Mahabharata story. With long matted hair knotted on top of their head. Moustaches and long beards, elongated ears with disks. Many are shown worshipping the Shiva Linga.

The final phase of artistic development in southern India took place under the Nayakas. This was a dynasty that owed alliance to the emperors in Vijayanagara, but ruled from Madurai. Their sculptors developed the concept of the sphinx-human beast into a fully upright man with lion’s hips, legs and claws. These imposing life-size sphinxes are also depicted as rishis. "

I have always found sphinxes to be marvelous depictions of beings with muliple aspects. I found similarities in the Indian sphinxes depicted on this website and those I have seen of ancient Greece quite unmistakable. Obviously these cultures exchanged trade goods and the influence of Alexander The Great's conquest is quite apparent as well.