Monday, 15 February 2016

Chariots of the Moon

The Moon Chariots of Udupi

The most unique feature of the Hindoo cultus to be found at the sacred town of Udupi on the west coast of the Indian sub-continent are elaborate rites in which cult objects – statues of deities – are placed in massive “chariots” and dragged by devotees around a fixed circuit. The present author was privileged to watch the entire procession from start to finish a few nights ago and has since been pondering the symbolism of the event. 

As always in India there are centuries and even millennia of overlays obscuring the original cultus – Hindooism is especially organic and relinquishes nothing to time – but the essentials of the rites have not changed and can be made out with careful observation and a discerning sense of the symbolic. There are always keys with which even the strangest and most opaque mysteries can be unlocked. Even if those who maintain the rites today have lost sight of their origins, they will usually preserve and guard the essentials – at least in an integral and living tradition such as Hindooism. 

In the case of the rites at Udupi there is a single and somewhat obvious key to what otherwise are peculiar but spectacular events. There are three temples at the site, each of a different age and a different layer of history. It is an ancient site, but it was expanded as recently as the XIIth century when it became one of the foremost centres for the veneration of the avatar Lord Krishna in all the lands of Hindoostan. Each evening – or at least on certain evenings, and certainly at festivals – the image of Lord Krishna, along with an image of Lord Shiva, is removed from its home in the temple and placed in massive four-wheeled wooden constructions which are designated as “chariots”. 

These vehicles are highly decorated, most notably with horse figurines, and function, in fact, as types of temples on wheels. Then they are lit up, blessed and dragged by thick ropes around an elongated pathway. The route is marked by two large guardians, namely men in over-sized costumes with each wielding a sword and a shield, who spin around in circles as they lead the procession. There are starts and stops and fireworks and candles along the way. When the chariots have completed the circumabulation the cult statues are removed and put back into their respective temples in the usual place having gone, it seems, for their nightly jaunt around the track. The photographs on this page illustrate the rites. 

The key? Clearly, the entire event is an enactment of the movement of celestial bodies around the circuit of the heavens. All the details of the rites become explicable in light of this fact. Specifically, one “chariot” – painted gold, as it happens – represents the Sun, and another – balloon-like - represents the Moon. The circuit, which is oriented exactly east-west, represents the ecliptic. The array of torches, fireworks and candles around the pathway represent the background of the stars. The whirling guardians armed with swords and shields represent the nodes that define the limits of the ecliptic. We can be sure of this key since the very name of the town, Udupi, means “Lord of the Stars” and the myths and legends concerning the founding of the site are all cosmological in nature. Moreover, as the present author noted in a previous post, the town is a veritable centre of the astrological sciences; the Hindoo religion takes a particular astrological form here. The entire history of the place has to do with the stars and stellar religion. 

The thing that obscures this key to the symbolism of the Udupi complex is the association of Krishna with the site. Udupi is now known as a centre of devotion to Lord Krishna, and in this sense there is no obvious and direct stellar dimension to that cultus. Indeed, the usual explanation given for the nightly rounds of the chariot is that Krishna was a charioteer, most famously in the Bhagavad Gita. Why is the cult statue of Krishna taken from its temple, placed in a chariot and dragged around its circuit every night? There is a mythological reason: it enacts the scenes of the Gita in which Krishna rides in his chariot. 

But, in fact, this is the most recent layer of symbolism – an overlay on top of the older rites. Before Krishna, the site was sacred to Shiva, and specifically to Shiva as a Moon god. This is plain if one ventures into the sanctuary of the oldest Shiva temple on the site, the Chandramauleshvara Temple. There Shiva is represented, not by the usual lingam, but by an image consisting of a bright round silver face. Chandramauleshvara means, literally, Moon-crowned, or Moon-faced. Shiva, then, was the original passenger in the celestial chariot, the chariot of the Moon. The Krishna cult is a late arrival. Krishna has been added to the temple complex in the XIIth century on the basis of the simple association of chariots. Since this was already a place featuring sacred chariots, the cult of Lord Krishna, the charioteer, found a ready home here. But one needs to look beyond the associations with Krishna to the earlier Shaivite layer of rites in order to understand them correctly. 

Many other strange details of the rites become clear once one applies the key. The whole complex, in fact, its history and its rituals, deserves a thorough study – more thorough and comprehensive than can be offered here. In each of the temples in the complex there are further stellar motifs. The more time one spends there, the more the cosmological character of the cultus becomes clear. 

* * *

As an aside, the structure, purpose and symbolism of the lunar chariots of Udupi invite comparison with the Chariot Trump in the Tarot cards of western esotericism. The resemblance is striking. The present author has long noted that while most occidental literary references to celestial chariots have a solar symbolism - Phaethon's chariot in Greek mythology, for instance - the Chariot Trump of the Tarot is, even in the earliest designs, lunar. The author has had the problem of explaining this lunar chariot symbolism. The problem is resolved in Udupi. Here we have lunar chariots, and they take a form that is strongly reminiscent of the Tarot Trump. 

See the design of the A.E. Waite deck below. Ignoring the pseudo-Egyptian sphinx motif, note the lunar and celestial symbolism throughout. It is exactly this chariot that one encounters in the great temple of Udupi in western India. Most remarkable is the winged (phallic) device in the centre of the card. In the large lunar chariots used in the sacred parades in Udupi, exactly this motif is displayed during the period that the chariot is on the move. Thus, not only is there a general similarity, there is a consonance of details. Note also, if readers care to look closely, how the chariot-riders belt is the celestial ecliptic. The conclusion is inescapable: this Tarot design refers to the very same traditions that are given expression in the rites of Udupi. 


Harper McAlpine Black

No comments:

Post a Comment