Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

August 2, 2023

First published July 29, 2023

 in Times of India

Why Stories of Floating Idols Crashing Ships Continues to Endure

When I was a child, my uncle would tell me the story of how the Konark temple was topped by a magnetic lodestone. It could do two things. One, it caused the deity enshrined in the temple to float several feet above the ground. And second, it could attract ships and take them off course and cause shipwrecks.

Foreign sailors, tired of losing ships, investigated the phenomena, broke the temple and stole the magnetic lodestone, causing the temple to fall.

It was a fascinating tale. Many Odias are familiar with this folklore. On social media, many even believe this is true, a lost science of ancient India.

But as I grew up, I realised these tales are not unique to Odisha. For example, the idea of a floating deity, who hovers between the roof and the floor of the temple, is also narrated on the western coast of India in the Somnath temple. It is part of popular historical fiction.

The idea of a temple or a deity attracting ships, forcing them to move off course and causing shipwrecks by their magnetic power is also found on the western coast of India.

We hear the story of Vahanvati or Shikotra Devi, who stood on top of a mountain in Gujarat and caused shipwrecks with her fiery eyes. The sea merchants begged the goddess to come to the foothill. She agreed to come down if one buffalo was slaughtered for every step she took. The merchants were vegetarians, but agreed to do so for the larger good of the community. This impressed the goddess, who blessed the merchants.

A familiar tale

So, we find that the stories found in the western coast, in the Gulf of Kutch and Cambay, are also found on the eastern coast, in Odisha.

A similar story is found in the southern part of India. We hear of the Kanyakumari goddess who stands at the tip of India. She has nose rings that flash and appear like a lighthouse to ships. This caused them to change course and crash against the rocks on the beaches. To prevent this, the temple gates were closed, so the sparkling did not distract sailors.

Exactly the same story is now found in Sri Lanka, where we hear of a deity on top of a mountain causing shipwrecks. The Portuguese sailors go up the mountain, snatch the statue and then try to take it away. But the stolen deity prevents the ship from sailing away from the island. So, the thieves are forced to bring back the image of the deity and leave it on the island. It still exists, but is now not placed on top of the hill, but at the bottom.

That the same story of floating idols and temples or deities causing shipwrecks is found in the eastern, western and southern ends of India reveal their popularity and legendary nature. They become a mythic trope. They need not be taken as historical facts, but stories that are told to show the power of India’s ancient mercantile traditions.

These stories become important when we have low self-esteem and feel India did not have the scientific advancements that the Europeans brought in. Hence, to prove our greatness, we start constructing stories of magic.

Scientific explanation

For example, there are stories of how science cannot explain why a flag flies in the opposite direction on top of the Jagannath temple, or why birds avoid flying above the tall spire, or why the temple’s towers do not cast shadows.

But scientists explain all these ideas with simple science. The flag flutters in the opposite direction of the wind because of air dynamics (Karman vortex street phenomenon).

The temple is one of the tallest structures in India. It is located at the seashore. The air stream develops eddy or whirlpool-like currents at that height. This causes the flag to occasionally move in the opposite direction. Birds avoid such eddy air currents. There is nothing magical or mystical about it.

There are drone shots which clearly show that coastal temples do cast shadows. It is just not very easily visible from the ground level as the temple compound is a narrow one.

That being said, there is always a greater market for mysterious magical explanations to the mundane science explanation.

Science makes our temples look ordinary. It makes them less enchanting, less powerful, less potent, and so less likely to attract pilgrims whose donations play a key role in the thriving temple tourism economy.

Those who profit from temples want gods to be extraordinary and supernatural. Magic sells more than aesthetics, architecture, science and history. Therefore, we are eager to believe magical stories rather than scientific ones.

This is not unique to Hinduism. The success of Christianity has less to do with the wise words of Jesus, and more to do with miracles such as turning water into wine and resurrecting himself three days after being crucified.

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