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Lion Sphinxes In India And Southest Asia

Sphinxes in Asia

  • Sphinxes are possibly the best known complex mythological beings from traditional antiquity, having a mysterious attraction for humanity, though very little is known of their meaning and purpose for the people who showed them in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, Egypt or elsewhere. The story from Hesiod on the source of the sphinx as the descendants of the giant Echidna and her son Orthros is the only myth that has reached us. The myth is part of the Oedipus tradition, in which the sphinx terrorized the city of Thebes. She gave her name to all of mythological beings with the head of a human being and the body of a lion. In Egypt the Great Sphinx of Gizeh was revered as Re-Harmachis or Hor-em-Akhet. During the Middle Kingdom, sphinx was named ‘sheshep-ankh’ or ‘seshep’ used to denote sculptures or images.
  • German art historian Heinz Demisch mentioned the main functions of sphinxes. They were believed to ward off evil, and were placed at the entrance and gateways of graves, temples, palaces, and cities. They stood by the thrones of seated deities. They were shown on animal freezes with other real and mythological animals. They were symbols of riddles, wisdom and secret knowledge.
  • The biggest group of sphinxes in one single temple complex is in Chidambaram. Here is the most clear and beautiful representations of the sphinx concept in Indian art. The richest images of sphinxes are the Mahabhuta sthalas. These are 5 temples which symbolise the Primordial Elements of Hindu philosophy and cosmology. Apart from the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram (devoted to Akasha or Ether) these are the Jambukeshavra temple in Tiruvanaikaval (Apas or Water), the Kalahasteshvara temple in Kalahasti (Vayu or Wind), the Ekambaranatha temple in Kanchipuram (Prithivi or Earth), and the Arunachaleshvara temple in Tiruvannamalai (Agni or Fire). In addition to several sculptural representations of sphinxes in metal and stone (ritual lamps), the Ekambaranatha temple, the Kalahasteshvara and the Arunachaleshvara also have a sphinx vehicle for the annual festival. This is a ritual vehicle for the deity in the shape of a sphinx.
  • A majority of Shiva temples, particularly the more ancient ones, denote at least one sphinx in their sculptural plan. The sculptors positioned the sphinx in a ritually important place. On pavilions, in processional passage ways, gopuram or door post, and near or on an entrance where rituals would take place.
  • More than 200 individual sculptural representations of sphinxes have been identified in forts, palaces and temples in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu. Their role in tradition, art, ritual and mythology has been established by research. The existing electronic sources and literature indicate that sphinxes are also found in the art of South-East Asia, South Asia, and other parts of India.
  • The mythology has been generally forgotten. Just very few temples still continue the ritual of the sphinx as a being which purifies and protects. There is no recognition of its links with that great mythological being of Greece and Egypt. The art-historical material thus far gathered shows that the depiction of sphinxes in statue was everywhere at least in Shiva temples in Tamil Nadu. The sculptural images show an interesting development and can be divided into 3 main kinds.
1.     Sphinxes sitting upright.
2.     Sphinxes jumping or walking.
3.     Sphinxes standing completely upright with the upper body of a human being and the lower body of a lion.
  • One strange feature in all the discovered sphinx depictions is that other religious statue is often a bit uniform and standardized, whereas depictions of sphinxes show a lot of individuality and variation, as if the sculptors had much more artistic liberty regarding this subject but maintained the basic concept.
  • At the entrance of the Chidambaram temple, one of the pair of sitting sphinxes is male. He has stretched ears, arched eyebrows, and pronounced eyes. The female seated on the northern side of the entrance has no fangs and a bit gentler facial features. A row of curls border their foreheads. A short stretch of flowing mane border neck. A circle of longer waving mane, which in turn is surrounded by 2 concentric rows of curls with same centre encircle both flowing and curling mane.
  • Even though these two sphinxes which grace the entrance of the temple are exceptional, there are many others in the temple seated in pairs.
  • Pairs of sitting sphinxes adorn three other temples. In the Airavateshvara temple in Darasuram there is a pair of sphinxes.
  • In Kumbakonam 2 pairs of sitting sphinxes are placed on the northern wall in the entry way of the gopuram of the Sarangapani temple.
  • One more pair of sphinxes is in the Koranganatha temple in Srinivasanallur. These symbolise a very different style of portrayal, even though they have the distinct flat noses, elongated ears, arched eyebrows, eyes, and concentric rows of curls.
  • The seated sphinx in the Krishna cave in Mamallapuram stands completely apart from all of these. He is placed on the side of the cave.
  • Among the sphinxes found in South Indian temples, jumping and walking sphinxes with a human face and a full lion body represent a sub group. Once again the most exceptional illustration is in the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram. Even though sphinxes’ posture is fundamentally same, with one front-leg raised in the motion of walking, the human faces have an individuality of their own. Taking into consideration the size of the animals and the toughness of the material, granite, it is an achievement of sculpting. No comparable of this freeze has so far been found anywhere else.