Temples, their structure, rituals and practices

V. Krishnakumar

The concept of temple, worship and rituals are the topic of this section. The Egyptian and the South Indian temples have some similarity in their structure, mode of worship and rituals. Some of the similarities can be dismissed as “natural”, for example the concept of placing the idol of a god at the center of the temple or the presence of a tower over the sanctum, etc. However, there are other similarities that deserve serious consideration, especially in view of the similarities of gods and the epic Mahabharata discussed in our earlier articles.

Temple structure

The picture of an Egyptian temple on p.27 in [1] gives almost a feel of a South Indian temple. In this picture, one finds a row of pillars on either side of a central passageway leading to the sanctum which houses the main idol of the god. There are paintings on the roof; the side pillars have idols carved on them. Several South Indian temples have very similar structure, eg: Kudumiyanmalai, Tamil Nadu, India.

Egyptian temples according to [1], were not just built for the worship of the gods but were representations of the entire cosmos. They were the houses of gods where the gods were cared and looked after. The temple representing the cosmos is very similar to the Hindu concept of temple. The South Indian temples are called ‘Devasthana’, meaning ‘the abode of the gods’.

The Egyptian temples are built in such a fashion as to exclude the mundane life with its chaos and unrest. The outer walls of the temple were sacred, and they depicted the day to day life of the Egyptian society in the universe of chaos, see picture on the top left on p.43 in [1]. This can be seen in many of the Indian temples, where the outer walls have scenes from everyday life apart from divinities; for example: the Hoysala temples, Khajuraho temples; in particular the amorous scenes in the latter. The belief here is the inside of the temple is secluded and away from these mundane interventions. Also many of the Indian temples have secluded and isolated sanctums, which are enclosed by massive walls.

The Egyptian temples had large axial procession ways leading to their sanctum, which indicated the path of the sun [1]. A good number of Hindu temples have East-West orientation and indicate the path of the sun. The axial procession ways are exceptionally long and massive in some of the South Indian temples; for example: Thiruvidamarudur, Tamil Nadu, India.

The inner sanctum of Egyptian temples is very dark [2]. This is true with most of the ancient Indian temples.

The picture of the Egyptian god Horus (Heru) as a divine child on p.129 in [3] shows him standing at the center with animals in his hands. What is striking is the arch around him with a grotesque face at the center of the arch above his head interpreted as the mask of Bes. The arch with the grotesque face resembles the ‘Prabhavali’, the arch that is placed above the Hindu gods in almost all the temple sanctums. It may be noted that Bes has a leonine mane and origin according to [1], while the grotesque face in the ‘Prabhavali’ is leonine; we have mapped Bes to Lord Narasimha in an earlier article. 

Egyptian temples had hearing ear shrines in the outer walls, where common man could communicate with god [1]. In South Indian temples people whisper in the ears of Nandi (the bull mount of Shiva), in order to communicate with god; Nandi is placed just outside and facing the sanctum.

Images of the kings are found at the entrance or within the temple in Egypt [1]. This is the case with many of the temples built by Vijayanagara, Nayaka and Chola rulers in India.

There is an anthropomorphized pillar in front of Egyptian shrines, besides which animals and food were laid out on a table as an offering to god [4]. In South Indian temples there is a pedestal called ‘Bali peetham’, where offerings of food and animals are made to the god. This is typically found just beside a tall pillar called the Garudagambha.

The decorations of the Egyptian columns often represent a bundle of reeds tied up with a cord on the top [5]. This resembles the Darbha or grass tied to the Dwaja-stambha in the Kerala temples.

Typically the South Indian temples have the following structure: there is a pyramidal tower called Gopuram that marks the front gate and the main temple with sanctum containing the idols of the gods at variable distance from this gate with an axial procession way leading to it. At times there are more gates in different directions apart from the front gate. This may resemble the mortuary temple associated with pyramid in Egypt. The front arch of the Tanjavur Chola temple, India is trapezoidal as is the pylon, which is built in front of temples in Egypt.

Stele versus Shasana: The layout of the Egyptian stele is very similar to the Shasanas found in temples: see the picture of the Egyptian stele on p.38 in [1]. The following features are common:

  • A convex semi-circular top.
  • This convex portion has gods, divinities and humans.
  • Below these figures is the text.
  • They have some pictorial representations at the bottom.

God: Iconography and description

The image of god was said to house his spirit or represented the deity and hence was treated to be alive in Egypt [1]. The belief is quite similar in India; when the people address the image as “he” or “she” rather than “it”; for example people say “Lord is coming” when the idol is brought in a procession.

Symbols of god: The Egyptians write the names of the gods in several ways [1]. There are four hieroglyphic signs for god [1]. These symbols have somewhat comparable counterparts in India; they either represent the god or his posture, or they are divine symbols associated with him.

  1. One is a human figure in sitting posture shown from the side [1]. The posture looks quite similar to that of Lord Ayyappa and Lord Yoga Narasimha.
  2. The second hieroglyphic sign is a falcon on a perch [1]. In India we see a Garudagambha in front of the temple, at times with the image of the bird god, Garuda seated on top of the pillar; for example the Vishnu temple in Chamba, Himachal Pradesh, India.
  3. The third hieroglyphic representation is a flag [1]. We have four Indian counterparts: small flags are placed on the ‘Prabhavali’ or the arch around the god. Similar flags are carried in the processions of gods. Thirdly in front of the temple a pillar called ‘Dwaja-stambha’, meaning flag post, is erected permanently. This flag post is made of metal at the top and has some features of the Egyptian Dzed pillar as well.  Some of the saints namely Sri Ramanuja carry a flag in their hands.
  4. Fourth hieroglyphic representation is a star [1]. Certain divine personalities are mapped to stars in Hindu mythology, but they may not be gods themselves.

In Egyptian the word ‘Netcher’ means god; it is used at the end of a deity’s name [1]. In South India ‘Natchiar’ is the suffix of female deities of temples while the suffix ‘Nathar’ is used for male deities in India.

According to the Egyptians [1] the skin of the gods is of gold and hence the idols are made of precious metals. Lakshmi [6] and Garuda are of gold complexion. Every South Indian temple has a metal idol of the god, made of precious metals for processional purpose. The idols of the gods in the sanctum are made of stone and covered with metal sheaths of gold or silver and their eyes and eyebrows are made of Semi-precious or precious stones. The Hindu lunar deity Chandra is made of Silver.

According to [7] the forces embodied by Seth become vehicles of gods in Egypt; also Seth is made to carry Osiris at the end of the latter’s life; Seth was represented by a boat. Many Hindu gods have animal mounts; also as part of temple rituals gods are carried on animal mounts and boat (Teppotsavam) during processions and festivals.

Practices and rituals

Several of the Egyptian practices and rituals at the temples resemble those in India especially the ones in South India; and they are as follows:

In Egypt, the images were taken out of their shrines everyday, bathed, dressed with clean clothes, decorated with jeweled ornaments, incensed and were offered food and drinks like wine, milk and water and then returned to their shrines [1]. In the South Indian temples, idols are ritually bathed, dressed, ornamented and incensed everyday and are offered food and drink like water, milk, coconut water and even wine; for example in the Kala Bhairava temple of Ujjain, where the deity is offered wine. The main stone idol of the sanctum is not carried out but a dedicated metal image is taken on a procession on a regular basis. However in one of the temples of Tamil Nadu, India, at Nachiyar Koil, a stone image of Garuda is taken on procession, while in Chidambaram, the bronze image of Nataraja is both the image of the sanctum and the processional idol.

The gods were carried to other shrines within the same complex or outside to other shrines on portable barques during festivals in Egypt [1]. This resembles the ‘Utsavas’ or processions conducted on festivals or important days of a year in the Indian temples, during which gods are carried on portable palanquins or barques to shrines within the same temple complex or to other shrines.

The picture of a Egyptian procession on p.45 in [1] shows some more points of similarity:

  • The dress of the bearers of the barque: both wear a ‘Vaeshti’, a long white cloth wrapped around the waist which extends to the ankle fastened with a strip of cloth tied to the waist
  • Both carry umbrellas above the god
  • King leads the procession way; this is quite similar to Puri Jagannath Ratha Yathra in India

In Egypt, people could approach the god only during festivals [1]. They had to see the procession of the god from a distance and most often the god would not be clearly visible to them [1]. Indian temples have processions called ‘Utsavas’, during which the god is taken out of the temple, during this common people can witness the procession from a distance and typically the god is not clearly visible to them.

The list of festivals and offerings to be made on a specific day for a particular god were written in the temples in Egypt [1]. This is a common procedure in Indian temples as well.

Before praying to Amun, devotees were expected to cleanse and purify themselves in the river, put on clean linen garments and kiss the ground in front of the temple [2]. In South Indian temples people bathe in the river or the sacred tank of the temple, wear clean garments and prostrate with their head touching the ground in front of the temple.

In Egypt god is given offerings of food, drink, flowers, trinkets, carved and painted statues and votive stele [1]. Once the gods had finished with the food, it was distributed among the people [2]. In India clothes, flowers, trinkets, food and drink are offered to the gods; food is placed before the god and once the gods have finished with it, it is distributed among the people. Cradles with Lord Krishna as a child are offered to the god for fertility.

Offerings such as foodstuffs are placed before the deities; the deities only consume the ‘ka’ of the food or its vitality. After the gods have enjoyed this, the food can be eaten by the priests and is also distributed among the common people [8]. This closely resembles the South Indian practice of ‘Amshi’, in which the ‘Amsha’ or only the essence is consumed by the gods.  Once this is done the offering is distributed first among the priests and then to everyone.

The picture in the bottom right on p.43 in [1], shows an Egyptian king offering incense; this resembles closely the practice of ‘Aarathi’ in Indian temples but done with the right arm.

Pilgrims who came to Saqqara to worship Osiris, sought advice in various issues, success in court cases, cures for diseases and knowledge of the future [2]. When the desired result occurred they would give offerings to the god as a token of thankfulness [2]. There are similar practices in Indian temples as well.

Horusstatues were purchased and donated in Egypt [2]. This is very similar to the South Indian practice of buying idols of snake or Lord Krishna and donating it to temples. These idols are placed at the base of a Banyan tree. Recall that we mapped Horus to Lord Krishna in an earlier article where several interesting points are brought into light.

  • At Buto, Horus was believed to be the son of the snake goddess Wadjet, hence we mapped him to snake.
  • We have compared the tamarisk tree in which Osiris was caught to the Banyan tree that is worshipped in India.
  • The Djed pillar believed to represent a tree, associated with Osiris buried in the tamarisk, was a symbol of resurrection.
  • Osiris was the god for fertility.

Quite similarly, banyan tree in India is the symbol of rebirth and eternal cycles of life; further banyan tree is the symbol of fertility; and it is associated with Lord Krishna and snake. Note that the seemingly diverse facts such as rebirth, fertility, snake worship and Lord Krishna will find the common thread once the story is traced back to its Egyptian origins.

Votive pieces were given to gods by kings, nobles and priests in Egypt [1]. Votive stele with texts requesting god’s favor, were also offered to the gods [1]. In Indian temples, people offer gods votive pieces, such as articles of worship or metal sheets containing the request symbolically; for example, the picture of a limb, of eyes or ears on a sheet of silver is offered to heal the disease in the respective organs.

The kings give cartouches to the god in Egypt [1]. This practice is similar to ‘Archana’ found in South Indian temples. In this practice, the names, Gotra or lineage and the birth star of a senior member of the family is told to the priest, who will worship the deity in his name. Also people who do ‘Archana’ are given a higher position or are viewed as noble in the society.

The kings donating gifts to temples were recorded in the depictions on the temple walls in Egypt [1]. The Hindu temple ‘Shasanas’ record the same.

In Egypt certain gods were believed to answer questions and predict oracles [1].

In several Indian temples there is a belief that gods answer questions and predict future.

The temple precincts were full of fortune Tellers, dream interpreters, astrologers, sooth Sayers and people who gave magical amulets [2]. Monkeys were sold, and typically cheaper ones were replaced by the expensive and rarer ones [2]. Some of the popular Indian temples are thronged by astrologers, fortune tellers and people involved in occult sciences. Duplicate or fake objects of religious interest were also sold in the Indian temples.

The festival of ‘raising of the djed’ at Denderah, Edfu, Busiris, Memphis and Philae and greatest at Abydos, all in Egypt involved the following ceremonies: the myth of Osiris and Isis was re-enacted. The re-enactment involved Seth tricking Osiris and killing him, Isis searching for him, Osiris’ mummification, funeral and ultimately his resurrection. At Abydos, the re-enactments were accompanied by hundreds of priests and priestesses playing the parts of gods and goddesses, and thirty four papyrus boats carrying gods, an image of Osiris in an elaborate chest, lamps and incense [9]. In the Draupadi Cult festivals, the penance tree of Arjuna which closely resembles the Djed (discusses in an earlier article) is raised, and the story of the cult version of the Mahabharata is enacted. We have already shown that the cult version of the Mahabharata closely resembles the Egyptian Osiris story. These enactments are accompanied by processions of gods. In these processions gods are taken in elaborately decorated palanquins with lamps and incense. Also the priests (called ‘Paratiars’) sing songs, which describe the happenings of the Mahabharata.

Priests

All the rituals in the Egyptian temples were performed by the priests [1]. In South India (unlike the North Indian temples in general), only the priests are allowed to worship and touch the god and they alone can perform the rituals as in Egypt.

Priests of Sekhmet temples were well versed in magic and medicine and performed rituals, which involved magic, which was believed to be mysterious in nature [1]. Priests of Kali temples practice magic, provide amulets for cure and are frequented by people during epidemics.

Some of the rituals were performed by the Egyptian priests in private and was a secret knowledge among priests [1]. In many of the South Indian temples there are rituals, which can be witnessed and performed by the priests alone. For example the ritual of ‘the union of Minakshi with her husband Sundaresvarar’ in the temple of Madhurai, Tamil Nadu, India; the rituals in the temple of Kuram, Tamil Nadu, India; the rituals associated with the transfer of life from the old to the new idols in Puri Jagannath temple, India.

The position of the priest was hereditary and there was a large gap between the priests and common man in Egypt [1]. Common man could not participate in the formal rituals of the temple [1]. The lay people had to place their votive offerings in outer areas of the temple [1]. They could not approach or worship the deity of the sanctum themselves, but there were colossal statues outside which they could worship personally which acted as mediators to the main deity [1]. In South India the position of priests is hereditary, he alone can personally worship the deity of the sanctum and participate in the temple rituals. Also in South Indian temples, none other than the priest can enter the sanctum; devotees can place their offerings to the god only outside the sanctum and at times quite far away. The devotees are permitted to worship only large images of gods outside the temple by themselves. Some of the common images outside the sanctum personally worshipped by common people include Dakshinamurthy, Ganesha, Nandi, Parvathi, Kala Bhairava and Shiva. Also in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India, people throw pieces of butter to two colossal statues of Shiva outside the sanctum. Similar colossal statues can be seen outside the sanctum in Avudiayar koil, near Pudukkottai, Tamilnadu, India.

Knowledge of the Duat in Egypt was very sacred, esoteric and was initiate material and “proven a million times” to be restricted to a very few [8]. The Hindu sacred texts are also esoteric and known only to priests.

The profession of the priests in Egypt is one of personal responsibility relative to the physical vitality (Ka) and social class [8]. This is similar to the Indian concept of priest, which is largely dependent on the religiousness and the caste of a person.

The Egyptian priests worshipped inside the temple, while the ancillary tasks like carrying the barque shrines were carried out by a different set of priests called the pure ones, who were not allowed to enter the sanctum [2]. In South Indian temples there are a special set of people designated to carry the cult images on barques, these people are not allowed to enter the sanctum, while those who worship inside the temple are a different set.

The priests who worship the god inside the sanctum are called ‘god’s servants’ in Egypt [2]. A similar concept of service to god exists in South Indian Vaishnavite temples called ‘Kainkaryam’.

In Egypt priests were buried in the vicinity of the king’s pyramid in a small pyramid of their own. However in India we heard that there is a practice of burying saints in the vicinity of the temple if he happens to die inside the temple premises; examples: saint Ramanuja’s mummified body in Srirangam, and Patanjali’s Samadhi in Rameshwaram, both in Tamil Nadu, India.

Practices outside temples

Amulets of Bes and Tawaret were worn in Egypt [1]. Amulets of Lord Narasimha are worn in South India; we have mapped Bes to Narasimha in an earlier article.

Common man in Egypt could worship in small shrines. Apart from this there were household deities, images of Bes and Tawaret kept in the niches [1]. Quite similarly, there are small shrines with images of gods, for common man to worship. Houses have niches with gods’ images, the common one being of Lord Ganesha. Interestingly, Tawaret was the concubine of Seth in Egypt [5, 87], we have mapped Seth to Lord Ganesha earlier; further Tawaret is represented as a pregnant woman with a huge belly and hippopotamus face.

The Egyptian god of male fertility is Min whom we have compared to Manmatha of  India earlier. The ‘Harvest festival of Min’ in Egypt [1] can thus be compared to the spring festival of Manmatha in India.

Pilgrimages were organized to sacred places like Abydos, where the head of Orisis was buried [8]. Hindu’s go on pilgrimage to sacred shrines.

Other significant observations

  1. When invaded by foreigners, Egyptians instead of changing their own culture, tried to Egyptianise them in the words of the author of [2]. We observe a similar theme of amalgamating with the new comers rather than giving up one’s own culture among Indians.
  2. In Egypt gods are believed to be ‘the ones who saw by their own light’ [3]. In Hinduism gods are called Swaprakaasha, meaning self-luminous.
  3. In Egypt great sages were believed to emit light eternally [3]. In Hinduism the great sages like Dhruva, Saptrishi, and Arundhati were viewed as stars or constellations.

Bibliography

[1] Richard H Wilkinson, The Complete gods and goddesses of ancient Egypt, Thames and Hudson, London, 2003

[2] Toby Wilkinson, The rise and fall of Ancient Egypt, Bloomsbury, London, 2011

[3] Muata Ashby, The African origins of Civilization, Religion, Yoga Mysticism, and Ethics Philosophy, 2nd Edition, ISBN 1-884564-50-X, 2005

[4] Sigrid Hodel-Hoenes, Life and death in ancient Egypt : scenes from private tombs in new kingdom Thebes, p. 222

[5] J. C. Loudon, The Architectural Magazine, Volume 1 (Google eBook), Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1834

[6] Architecture of Manasara, Low price publications, New Delhi, India, 1934

[7] http://henadology.wordpress.com/theology/netjeru/

[8] http://www.maat.sofiatopia.org/osiris.htm

[9] Najovits, Simson (2004). Egypt, trunk of the tree: a modern survey of an ancient land. New York: Algora Pub p. 18. ISBN 978-0-87586-256-9

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