The coast of the Bay of Bengal at Mahabalipuram

It was in 1980, thirty years ago, that Dr. Nanditha Krishna’s book, “The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana” was published.

It opens a window on to the multi-layered world of the spiritual perceptions of India throughout history.

For many thousands of years Vishnu has been worshipped as one of the main Gods of the Hindu pantheon, so a study of the ways in which Vishnu has been portrayed in art and imagery can hardly go out of date.  Still it’s worth noting that there have been new archaeological discoveries along the way and changes in archaeological perspectives, which may throw a different light on certain aspects of the history of the worship of Vishnu. The myth of the Aryan invasion, for example, has in recent years fallen out of favor among scholars, and it is understood now that Hindu spiritual traditions were home-grown, not brought into India from outside.

One of the many goats at Mahabalipuram

This is not to say that there aren’t some extraordinarily fascinating parallels with the gods and spiritual traditions of other cultures, especially those in the Middle East, which is one of the most intriguing aspects of this book, which I’ll write about another time.

This is a timeless and intensely fascinating book, so to touch a little on the origins of the name and the early legends about Narayana–

The name Narayana is composed of “Nara” plus “Ayana.”  Nara is a word that normally means man in Sanskrit—or first man, primordial man.

In the epic poem the Mahabharata though, it is said that “Nara” means waters, and that “Ayana” means abode, so Narayana is the one who lives on the waters.

Some of the shrines at Mahabalipuram

It seems that, a long time ago, following the great flood, the sage Markandeya was wandering about the earth when he came upon a boy who was resting on the branch of a nyagrodha tree (a banyan tree, always a sacred tree).  When asked who he was, the boy replied that he was Narayana, and the boy then went on to talk about the creation and destruction of the universe, and the part he plays in these cosmic events.

The motif of the divine child resting on a leaf is still popular in folk art today in Tamil Nadu.

The word “nira” in Dravidian languages, spoken in the south of India, means water, and this is the most likely source of the word “Nara.”  Apparently there are a number of words that have passed from Tamil (spoken in the south, in Tamil Nadu) to Sanskrit.

“Ay” means to lie down or sleep and “an” is a male grammatical ending.

So “Narayana” can be understood to mean one who lies or sleeps on the water.

Vishnu-Narayana has been depicted thoughout the centuries as lying down or sleeping on a great snake who is resting on the ocean.  The world does not yet exist, so this is the eternal, cosmic ocean that precedes and follows the creation and destruction of the earth.  There is an amazing sculpture of Narayana lying asleep on his bed, the great snake, at Mahabalipuram, in a niche in the Shore Temple by the sea.

Narayana at Mahabalipuram

Narayana, as he lies sleeping, is unaware of the bustle and disenchanting realities of today’s world, but is aware instead of a supernal reality, the level of eternal peace beyond time and space.

Dr. Nanditha Krishna first recognized that this statue of Narayana was created before all the rest of Mahabalipuram, which was constructed in the seventh century by the Pallava king, Narasimhavarman.  There are ruins, perhaps much older, that still lie farther out off the coast in the Bay of Bengal—tantalizing glimpses of them appeared above the surface of the water during the changes in the sea level following the tsunami in 2004.

A parting view of Mahabalipuram with the sea in the distance

It is certain that Mahabalipuram is an amazingly ancient place, used as a seaport by the early Pallava kings as they established trade routes in southeastern Asia, and possibly in use as a port for countless centuries before that time.

The ancient Dravidian people who lived on and near the coast were known to have been a sea-faring people, and Narayana was the God of the sea.

Apsaras, a kind of divine being, also have an association with the sea.  In Sanskrit, “apa” means water and “sara” means a divinity of the water.  The child on the leaf has a link to the apsaras and, through them, to people connected with the sea.

In another legend, a child tied to a creeping plant, who is lost at sea, then found again, becomes the ancestor of the Tirayans, who are the ancient people who lived in Kanchipuram (the former capital city located an hour or so away from Mahabalipuram).

In the year AD 50, Ilyan Tirayan was the king of Kanchipuram (then called Tondaimandalam); it is said that his dynasty was established by the waves themselves (the “tirai”), and that the king was descended from Narayana.

If you are left wondering why all this is completely fascinating—well, what can one say? Some of us are fascinated by some things, and some by other things.

The book “The Art and Iconography of Vishnu-Narayana” by Dr. Nanditha Krishna is available from time to time at Amazon.com.

Photos: Sharon St Joan /  Of  Mahabalipuram, one of the most ancient sites on the sea coast of Tamil Nadu