From Megaliths to Temples: Astronomy in the Lithic Record of South India
India has a long history of monuments built in stone—from prehistoric megaliths to later religious monuments like stupas, temples etc. covering a period of nearly four millennia. In this paper we discuss the influence of astronomy on the design and layout of some of these monuments, as well as depiction and incorporation of astronomical objects and phenomena in several of these or their components. In several instances, prehistoric rock art features Sun and Moon motifs, which are also seen in later sculptural art in temples, hero stones, etc.
Megaliths, which are mostly the sepulchral and commemorative monuments of the Iron Age, have a variety of forms, ranging from the simple upright stone to relatively complex constructions like dolmens etc. We demonstrate that at least some megaliths have sightlines to astronomical phenomena on the local horizon deliberately incorporated into their layout. It is quite possible that these early monuments evolved into later monumental structures like stupas and temples.
Temple architecture in southern India followed two main evolutionary trajectories that spanned roughly 800 years. Temples often feature sculptural panels of deities, myths and legends on their outer walls. We examine some of the legends, such as the Tripurantaka legend of Shiva, commonly depicted on temple walls, for astronomical symbolism. Heavenly bodies, such as the Sun, Moon and planets, are deified in traditions of the Indic religions, and we examine some of these deities depicted in temple sculptures. We also discuss the Dikpalas—guardians of the directions—often depicted to safeguard temple precincts. The phenomena of Sun Temples, depictions of eclipses, zodiacal stones and navagraha worship are also dealt with.
Finally, we examine Sun-facing structures, such as rock-cut temples and structural temples, which are designed to interact with the rising or setting Sun on given days of the year.
I am deeply indebted to Professors A. Sundara, Shrinivas Padigar, and Ravi Korisettar and Dr. Corinna Wessels-Mevissen for their continued and generous support over the years on all aspects of archaeology, monumental architecture and art history. I am also grateful to Professor Mayank N. Vahia, Dr. Nisha Yadav and Shri Kishore Menon for insightful discussions as well as their cheerful company on many of the field trips that led to some of the insights outlined in this paper. I wish to acknowledge the kind support of Shri Sukavana Murugan during the site visit to Mallasandram, and his immense knowledge of megaliths, which he generously shared with me. Ms. Adrija Choudhury assisted in the study of the rock-cut minor cave at Badami. Finally, I am thankful to the Homi Bhabha Fellowships Council (Mumbai) for support.
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