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A Memory by Marshall Riggan

     We loaded our camera equipment into a rented Nash Ambassador and headed for the lovely State of Mysore. It was a bit crowded with all that gear, the crew, and our new friend Rajan Singh, a
highly regarded Indian still photographer. We were in an especially adventurous mood because Rajan had announced that he was going to take us to where we could see the largest nude statue ever carved from stone and a few other strange and marvelous things. What a delightful reprieve from our weeks of trying to navigate the complexities and ambiguities of Indian mysticism.

We drove west through the old soft hills of Mysore to the village of Shravanbela Gola, about midway between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. When we were miles away, we could see the great stone colossus towering high above the horizon.

The colossus is a holy monument of the Jains, a religious group that broke away from Hinduism in the sixth century B.C., primarily as a rebellion against the rigid caste system of the Brahmins. The Jains have survived as a small and disciplined community to this day, and their holy mountains covered with temples can be seen throughout India. Much to our surprise, Rajan revealed to a temple priest that he, too, was a Jain, and we were treated with great courtesy, a thing rare
enough in the Temples of India.

There was only one path leading to the monolith atop the mountain. It was a pathway of five hundred torturous steps carved from the solid rock. It could only be climbed early in the morning because the broiling midday sun makes the stone dangerously hot for the bare feet of the pilgrims. Jain temples can only be approached barefoot.

Rajan said the figure was carved from a single piece of stone more than a thousand years before. It represented the younger of two brothers who fought a duel over succession to their father’s throne. He was victorious, yet he generously handed over his kingdom to his defeated brother and then lived the life of a saint until he died.

Then we were at the foot of the colossus. Towering nearly sixty feet above the temple floor, it stood staring with sightless eyes out onto India and the ages. According to Rajan, there was no erotic significance to the fact that the Jain colossus and his enormous stone penis dominated the landscape. It was merely an accident of scale, design and perspective. (I suggested the world’s largest stone fig leaf might have been appropriate.) But this non-erotic explanation of the
stone statuary was certainly not the case in the temples elsewhere in south India, where the Lingam, or stone Phallus, is enshrined at the most holy altars.

At Kancheepuram , in an orthodox Shivite temple, we came upon one of these great phallic shrines. The stone floor before the altar was deeply worn by the feet and knees of generations of pilgrims who had somehow found spiritual nourishment in the image or aura of the Lingam that dominated the shrine. Nearby, we observed a group of women who appeared to be worshipping the real thing. The priest was sitting in the lotus position, his member bare before him on the stone. The women sat before him, rocking gently, gazing with sorrow or awe at his member. Occasionally, the women would rock forwardand lightly rub his penis with green leaves, and then rock back again into their trance. Lord Shiva represents the destructive aspect of the godhead. Since in death there is rebirth, the deity has also become the symbol of regeneration. It would seem, then, that the women were praying for fertility. It might also seem, knowing the birthrate in India, they might have been praying to remain barren.

In the Shivite temples there was an almost tragic sense of grasping. At the great temple pools, the ascetics, the simple people from the villages, devout sophisticates from the cities, all come to purify their souls in the sacred water. Women with shaved heads and painted bodies, frail and hollow-chested men with self-inflicted wounds, wild-eyed sadhus staring at the sun – all crying out
desperately for solace or favor or forgiveness from the Divine. As we were leaving one of the Kancheepuram temples and were dropping coins into the hands of the leper who was guarding our shoes, a man rushed at me and threw himself at my feet. He was convulsed by his sobbing, and he rolled over and over on the ground. In his anguish, he was asking me something and I didn’t know what it was. He grasped and held onto one of my legs. I was moved, terribly confused, and didn’t know what to do. I suppose that’s how God must feel when he looks down at the temples, mosques, cathedrals and churches our anguish has thrown at his feet.

Rajan took us to the dead old temples of Halabid and Belur. The carvings themselves are exquisite. Carved in the native stone two centuries before Columbus sailed, the detail is still unbelievable. A figure of a woman may be only twelve inches high, but each bead in her necklace is in perfect relief. Even her fingernails seem as if they had been recently manicured. Most of the stone figures carved upon the temple are beautiful women, voluptuous to the extreme, almost, but not quite, disproportionate, in the way Vargas nudes represent extremes of reality. And then there are the remarkable carvings of these lovely, timeless women and their lovers enjoying eternal sexual intercourse on the temple balconies. The entire range of sexual gratification is precisely and beautifully incorporated into the temple architecture.

I asked Rajan why pornographic scenes would be carved on a place of worship. He said there are two aspects of life; the spiritual and the physical. “Often, as we reach into the spiritual realm, we forget that we are, after all, merely men and women, and the affairs of the flesh are equally important.”

Of the ancient temples of south India, the ones I liked best were far to the south in a place
called Mahabalipuram. Now a World Historical Site, the town is blessed with many magnificent temples. But my favorites were called the Shore Temples. At one time there had been seven
temples along this lonely coast, but when I was there, all but one had been claimed by the sand and the tides. The winds and sea had smoothed away the detailed exterior carvings, leaving what appeared to be Henry Moore shapes gazing moodily across the Bay of Bengal toward Thailand. It was a ghostly place. The sea was running high, casting billows of mist over the old, cold stone. I walked barefoot along that vast and beautiful beach and considered how lucky I was to have shared these few moments among the alien gods, ghosts, saints and supplicants that brooded there.

When I came back through the mists by the booming sea, I found my desert boots had been washed into the ocean and were steaming toward Bangkok. I was delighted that such a wonderful thing could happen, and I wished them well on their voyage.

If you enjoyed this memory, you might enjoy my novels, “Sulu Sea,” and “The Lost Caravan.” You can find them on Amazon and elsewhere on this website.