ISSN 0975-7945


The Journal of Indian Art Hist~ry Congress

Volume :_ XVI • 2010 - 2011

Astronomy in Indian Art as reflected in the Temples of South India

Priya Thakur*


The beginning of astronomy in early times can be directly related to the growing knowledge of the sky and the celestial bodies- the sun, the moon, stars and planets by the human civilization. They were able to correlate between the periodical appearance of stars and constellations and the subsequent changes in the seasons. Early cultures believed in the existence of supernatural powers or divinities behind these constellations and which were responsible for the changes in the seasons. This belief in divinity was the commencement of the divine worship and even the initial stage of astrology in India. Their feeling about the commencement of seasons was akin to conditioned reflexes, rather conditioned responses. 1

'My present paper is an attempt to study the representation of astronomical knowledge of the Indian people through the medium of sculptural art with special emphasis on the depiction of zodiac signs in the Vidyasankara temple and some other related instances from southern India. Extensive work has been done by researchers to understand the astronomical knowledge of early civilizations on the basis of the orientations of ancient Egyptian temples- and European dolmens and stone alignments.I In Indian context, Meadows Taylor," Allchin,> Paddayyav and Rao? have discussed the astronomical purposes served by the stone alignments. Rao also studied the tradition of using the temples, such as, the Sun temples at Martanda," Kashmir and Modhera.? Gujarat as well as the stiipas at Safichit? for astronomical purposes.

In early literary sources we come across the mention of the sun, moon and other celestial bodies along with details relevant to astronomical studies. The Vishnu Purana mentions that the glorious sun, Maitreya, darts like an arrow on his southern course, attended by the constellations of the zodiac and causes the difference between the day and night.' I The same text goes on describing the movement of sun with respect to the various rIfSi or zodiac signs. The mountain range that lies most to the north (in Bharata varsha) is called Sringavan (the horned), from its having three principal elevations (horns or peaks); one to the north, one to the south, and one in the centre; the last is called the equinoctial, for the sun arrives there in the middle of the two seasons of spring and autumn entering the equinoctial points in the first degree of Aries and of Libra, and making day and night of equal duration.l- According to Parashara, between the extreme northern and southern points, the sun has to traverse in a year, 1800, ascending and descending. 13

The Vidyasankara temple

In general, the Hindu temples are oriented on an east-west axis, according to the local cardinal directions as well as by the local topography, There are several temples where the phenomenon of the ! ,

_o' ,

* Assistant Professor, Department of History and Archaeology, P. G, Centre. Turnkur University. Turnkur, Karnataka - 572 103.


Kala, Vol. XVI, 2010-2011

illumination of the garbha [ilia of th main temple occurs on certain days of the year, and it can be associated ornehow \ ... ·ith the concept of calendar and with its ocial, political and religious con equences. Similarl the Vidyasankara temple is .oriented in such a manner that enables the light of rising sun [0 reach the interior mandapa and illuminate the respective pillars with zodiac signs.

The Vidyasankara temple was built by Sri Bharati Tirtha and Sri Vidyaranya during the period 1338 - 1350 AD as a memorial to their teacher Sri Vidya (Sankara) Tirtha on the banks of Tunga river at Sringeri in Chikkamangalur district of Karnataka (13° 25' Nand 7Y 15' E). This temple has five shrines - three of them facing east, namely the central shrine dedicated to Vidyasarikara and two shrines of Vidyaganapati and Mahishasuramardini on either side of it. The shrine of Laksmi Narasirnha faces west and Uma Mahesvara shrine is facing north direction. There is an empty shrine facing south wards. We do not come across any literary or inscriptional evidence which might shed light on the role of navaranga pillars as some type of calendrical instruments or gnomes! Even the contemporary inscriptions related to this temple fail to make any notice of this important phenomenon. The zodiac pillars served an important role in the astronomical events but it is difficult to understand that why this unique feature of the Vidyasankara temple failed to find any place in the contemporary records.

According to Srinivasan, sun light falls in the early mornings upon the appropriate rasi pillar, during each of the twelve months of the solar year through one of the three openings in the order of the twelve solar months, named after twelve rasis or houses which the sun is said to occupy in the course of the year according to Indian astronomy - the rasi cakra. 14 The navarangalA'hich is a structure having twelve highly ornate pillars of the Dravidian type. On the back ide. each pillar has an ornamental pilaster raising out of a kalasa and bearing one of the twelve sign of [he zodiac. It is said that the sunlight falls upon the Ram pillar during the month of Aries and on the BuU pillar in the month of Taurus. 15 The early sunlight do pass through the circular platform. but do not follow any marked path as suggested by scholars, as the lines appear to be quite random in nature, The pillars are arranged in square pattern. In the case of Aries and Taurus, the two periods merge into a ingle period. The pillars of Gemini, Leo, Cancer and Pisces are not illuminated from the eastern door. Further, illumination of the Leo and Capricorn pillars is obstructed by those for Taurus and Arie respectively'>

But the construction of pillars with zodiac symbols akin to the pre ent day signs does not appear to common phenomenon in temple architecture of the region as the author .. vas unable to find any examples of temples where such practice was employed by the builders. Animal worship dates back to the prehistoric times as seen from the paintings and brui ing in rock helters and caves. The earliest paintings are bison, elephants, tigers and boars. These are the same animal that appear in some Indus seals that have been i nterpreted as constellations representing the equinoxe and solstices.'? These depictions of animals that ancient man worshipped were later iran lared on the sky as constellations to denote the groups of stars either to monitor the movement of the Sun and Moon and planets or to estimate the passage of time during the night.

Wall Panels probably representing constellations?

There is a single series consisting of eleven panels carved on the northern wall of this Vidyasankara temple. The interesting element here is the representation of twelve animals- real as well as mythical along witl, human figures that are depicted in various yogic postures. The animals are listed in the following table along with their possible identification with the constellation or zodiac sign :

nomy in Indian Art as reflected in the Temples of South India


I si, No. Animal Constellation I Zodiac
l. Fish Pisces
2. Dog Canis Major or Sirius- brightest star- part of the
constellation Orion
3. Tortoise Constellation of Lyra
4. Antelope (goat?) Aries
5. Deer Probably constellation Orion i.e. Mrigashirsha
6. Bull Taurus
7. Lion Leo
8. Makara Capricorn
9. Scorpion Scorpion
10. Snake Constellation of Hydrae i.e. nakshtra Ashlesha
11. Boar Constellation of Great Boar
12. Yali (Mythical composite beast) Probably Sagittarius (nakshatra of Purva and Uttara
Ashadha) Some of these animals can be easily identified with either Indian constellations or even the zodiac signs. Similarly the depiction of human figures- which can be identified as yogis on the basis of their appearance which included matted hair, danda, kamandala etc. But again the author is not able to correlate the animals with the respective yogi or sage. These yogis are represented as either riding the animal- seated in yogic postures or simply standing next to the animals. In three of the panels showing the bull, the scorpion and the ya]i -there are two yogis - one riding the animal and the other one standing next to the animal, In first two instances the yogis are in standing posture-holding a kamandala in their hands but their appearances are different. The yogi in the later panel is shown holding tail of the scorpion high in the air. But in the last panel the bearded yogi is shown in yogic mudrti standing on one foot with hands folded in obeisance over his head. Other figures are shown in sukhasana, padmiisana with abhya mudrii.

Interestingly, the - igveda discusses these constellations or nakshatras in much detail. The demon Vritra that appears in the guise of an antelope or mtiga is said to be encompassing the water of a celestial river. He is killed by Indra thus the water began to flow hence leads to the commencement of the rainy season. (1-32-8).18 This constellation Orion lies on the western bank of the Milky Way. The river referred to is obviously the Milky Way that is traditionally called the celestial Ganges or the Ak.ssh. Gangii by the Hindus. The other constellation mentioned in the similar manner is of the Ashlesha or the Serpent (Hydrae) called as 'Ahi' in the - igveda. He is also slaughtered by Indra for obstructing rains. A much detailed study needs to be done to understand the astronomical and iconographical details of these panels.

R !iii- Chakras

While studying the genesis of use of zodiacal" symbols in relation to the temple architecture, the author came across two stone rasi-chakras (No. 1341 & 1342 - State Archaeological Museum, Hyderabad) - both of the same dimensions and having appearance similar to ancient sundials with the exclusion of any gnomon. These resi-chakras appear to be some kind of saur-p ithas and they could


Kala, Vol. XVI, 2010-2011

have been part of the extended paraphernalia of the bali-pitlzas in a south Indian temple complex which usually consist of the navagrahas and even the saptamiitrikas.

The first pitha (No. 1341) is carved on the convex surface of a stone pedestal, showing ashtadikptilas riding with their consorts on their respective vehicles around, and a full bloomed lotus on the top with a bulging centre. Around the border of lotus are twelve zodiac symbols, represented in highrelief. It has been assigned to the Kaktiya era. The petals are seventeen in number thus do not seem to follow any regular pattern. Whereas in the second p itha (No. 1342), recovered from Patancheruvu Rangareddy District site, A. P., there are twelve petals pointing to the respective zodiacal signs and is almost identical to previous panel in its sculptural details. Only difference being that the centre of the lotus has a pair of foot prints. It is assigned to 12th century AD.

Thiruvisanalur temple, Tamilnadu

The Thiruvisanalur temple near Kurnbhakonam, Tamilnadu was built by Parantaka Chola in 10th century AD as evident from the several donative inscriptions inside the temple premises.'? The main deity in this temple is Yoganandeswara also known as Sivayoginathar. There is a depiction of the twelve zodiac signs on the garbha gtiha ceiling of this temple, arranged in a square pattern. But this portion of the ceiling appears to be a later addition to the structure on the basis of its manifestation. Interestingly, on the outer compound wall of this temple is a modern sundial painted on the top surface. In the close vicinity of this temple, there is another temple called as the Karkateswara temple. Here, a Karka or crab is shown holding the linga on the surface of a pillar in front of the garbha gtiha. These two form interesting instances of representationof zodiacal signs in Indian art.


Early temple builders were highly elaborate in their work and most aspects of their architectural marvels could have more than one reading and deserve more than one interpretation. It can be concluded that the Vidyasankara temple was constructed on a spot that was deliberately chosen with the purpose of employing some prominent peaks on the eastern horizon as natural markers of the sun's position on certain dates of the year; whereas the architectural details like orientations and pillars were laid out to indicate dates that were in a meaningful relation to those marked by the horizon features. Thus, a brilliant combination of astronomy, architecture and landscape was produced.

The multiple names and various related myths are significant in providing hints related to the manner in which the astronomical observations merged with social beliefs as well as with the evolution of understanding of the astronomy. This phenomenon reflected from the art and architectural forms.


1. Holay, P. V 1998, 'Vedic Astronomers,' in Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India, Vol. - 26 (1). 91-106

2. Shaltout, M and Belmonte, J. A. 'On the orientation of ancient Egyptian Temples' in Journal of History of Astronomy, Vol. 36 (3). 2005. pp. 273-298

3. Thorn, A. 1971. Megalithic Lunar Observatories. Oxford: London.

4. Taylor, Meadows. 1852, 'Notices of Cromlechs, Cairn and Other Ancient Scytho-Druidical Remains in the Principality of Shorapur' in 'Megalithic Tombs and other Ancient Remains in the Deccan' Asian Educational Services: New Delhi, 1989.

5. Allchin, F. R, 1956, 'The Stone Alignments of Southern Hyderabad, Man, 11, 133-136

Astronomy in Indian Art as reflected in the Temples of South India


6. Paddayya, K., 1973, 'Investigations into the Neolithic Culture of the Shorapur Doab, South India', E. J.

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8. Rao, N. K. 1995. 'Observational Astronomy and Ancient Monuments in India' in 'Sri Nagabhinandanam' Srinivasan, L. K & Nagaraju, S. (eds.), M. S. Nagaraja Rao Felicitation Committee: Bangalore. pp. 861- 875

9. Rao, N. K., 1998. 'Frontispiece Sun Temple at Modhera.' Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India, Vol. 26 (I). i

10. Rao, N. K., 1992. 'Astronomy with Buddhist Stupas of Saiichi' in Bulletin of the Astronomical Society of India, Vol. 20. pp. 87-98.

11 Wilson, H. H. (tr.) 1972. The Vishnu Pursna : A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. Panthi Pustak

Publications: Calcutta. Book IJ, Chap. VII-XU, pp. 174-190

12. Ibid, pp. ] 84-185

13. Ibid, Chap. X, p. 190

]4.. Srinivasan, K. R. 1976. The Age of Yidyaranya. Part Ill-Architecture and Sculpture. Kalpa Pubs. : Calcutta. pp. 12-30

15. Krishna, M. H. 1936. 'The Vidyashankara Temple' In Vijayanagara Sexcentenary Commemoration Volume.

Vijayanagara Empire Sexcentenary Association : Dharwar. Pp. 289-294.

16. Thakur, P 'A Study of Astronomical Elements at the Vidyashankara temple, Sringeri' in Journal of Ancient Sciences and Archaeological Society of India. IV. (In Press)

17. Bag, A. K. 1985, History of Astronomy in Ancient India, Indian National Science Academy: New Delhi.

P. 122

18. Griffith R. T. H. 1976. The Hymns of the Rgveda. Motilal Banarasidas : Delhi.

19. South Indian Inscriptions, Vol.-III, No.I07 and several inscriptions publi hed in the Annual Report of South Indian Epigraphy of 1907 between the years 918-948 AD.

20. I would like to thank Prof. N. Kameswara Rao, Indian Institute of Astrophysics for his useful suggetions and input on the subject. I am also indebted to Prof. Rao for providing me the opportunity to visit Sringeri and Hyderabad State Archaeology museum during 2008-2009 which inspired the formulation of this paper. I also thank the Archaeological Survey of India for allowing me to photograph the interiors of the temples.


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