Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

July 24, 2023

First published July 14, 2023

 in The Hindu

When the Rising Sun in the South Was Auspicious

North India has been the traditional home of the Hindu gods: Shiva atop mount Kailash, Ram in Ayodhya, Krishna in Mathura. The South has been the home of Sugriva, king of monkeys (vanara) and Ravana, king of demons (rakshasa). The journey of Hinduism from the north to the south has been full of trepidation, as revealed in stories and temple rituals. And the reason for this may have something to do with the fact that the Tropic of Cancer separates the north from the south. Shadows start falling in the southern direction south of the latitude, a sinister phenomenon for many, not seen in the north. This mystical divide seems to be reinforced by the Vindhya mountains and the Narmada river, which run parallel to the Tropic of Cancer.

Vedic scriptures have always considered the south to be inauspicious. When the rising sun drifts in the southern direction, after the summer solstice, the rains start, travel stops, gods sleep, days get shorter and colder, and demons rise. This is when you worship ancestors, as the land of the dead comes closer to the land of the living. Even today, Hindus face the south when performing rituals of feeding the dead. Yama, the god of death, is the guardian of the southern direction. It is quite easy for people to confuse the metaphorical south with the geographical south.

Those who read the original manuscript of the Ramayana notice that Valmiki does not really describe lands south of the Godavari. The land he describes, including Lanka, is full of sal trees, which grow only in North and Central India. South in the Valmiki Ramayana is effectively the dreaded land beyond the Tropic of Cancer. India and Egypt are the only two ancient cultures traversed by the Tropic of Cancer. And so, like the Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel, many Hindu temples have been built at or close to this latitude: the Jain temple of Ranakpur in Rajasthan, the Sun Temple of Modhera in Gujarat and the Mahakaleshwar Shiva temple of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh. Gaya, the spot where Hindus go to perform final rituals of the ancestors, is located a few kilometres north of the Tropic of Cancer, and this is no accident.

When Ram journeys south and travels back, he is greeted with lamps, symbols of auspiciousness. Even today people believe that the lamps lit during Diwali help ghosts leave the earth and return to the land of the dead.

A river is born

After the Gupta period, one finds rapid expansion of Hindu ideas, and Hindu artwork in the south, in the Deccan plateau and beyond, along the coasts. Puranic literature was composed between the 5th and 10th centuries. They tell stories of Rishi Gautama accidentally killing a cow and begging Shiva to let the Ganga flow in the south. That is how Godavari is born and is called ‘Dakshina Ganga’. Then we hear of Agastya moving south on Shiva’s orders to balance the world. To help him pass, the Vindhya mountains, said to be tall enough to block the sun’s path, bows and bends. Agastya travels with a pot of Ganga water. It overturns, and the Kaveri flows out. Kaveri is also called ‘Dakshina Ganga’.

Also travelling south is Shiva’s son Kartikeya, who hurls a lance and causes the Krauncha mountain to split. This is located in Karnataka. Kartikeya’s mother feels her son will miss the mountains and so asks the asura Hidimba to carry mountain peaks to the South. He ties them to a bamboo pole that he slings over his shoulder, giving rise to the ritual of Kavadi.

Abode of the goddess

Kanyakumari, goddess of the southern tip of India, wanted Shiva to travel south to marry her. Ravana, king of Lanka, wanted to bring Shiva to the south. His brother, Vibhishana, wanted to bring Vishnu to the south. The gods were alarmed. They wanted this southern migration to stop.

So the gods got a rooster to crow at midnight confusing Shiva who turned back and returned to the north, fearing he had missed the auspicious hour of marriage. Kanyakumari therefore remained a virgin goddess in the south. Both Ravana and Vibhishana experienced a terrible urge to urinate and so placed the images of Shiva and Vishnu on the ground to relieve themselves. The images anchored themselves on the spot where they were left, and are still worshipped there, at Gokarna in southern Udupi, and at Srirangam island of Kaveri. Devotees say that the image of Ranganatha at Srirangam faces south, instead of east, for the benefit of Vibhishana. The dancing Shiva of Chidambaram faces south too. The leaf-shaped trough of every Shiva-linga in the world, however, continues to point north.

In South Indian temples, Shiva is Dakshinamurti, the teacher who faces south. South is the abode of the goddess, ‘Dakshina Kali’. She always faces north, especially when her image is set up in homes during Bengal’s Durga Puja. Her worship during Dasara and Diwali marks the end of the rainy season, the retreat of demons and ghosts, and the protection of the earth until the winter solstice, when the rising sun starts moving north.

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