More Vicarious Traveling: “The Lost Temples of India”

Someone posted a Learning Channel documentary called “The Lost Temples of India” on Google Video. (From News; thanks Rasudha!) Click “play” above or see the larger version at Google.

It exploits many of of the annoying clichés you would expect, including repeated references to elephants and a near obsession with the phallic symbolism of the Shivalingam.

“Lost Temples” also plays a bit of a geographic and historical trick on viewers, by starting and ending with the erotic temples at Khajuraho (which it insists are “lost,” “forgotten,” and “shrouded with secrecy”), and shots of the Taj Mahal. But in between it is actually mainly about the South: the temples built by Rajaraja Chola, the city/kingdom of Vijayanagar, and the Meenakshi Temple at Madurai. The attempt to link the Hindu temples of Southern India with Khajuraho is nonsensical, but I suppose the producers felt they had to sex it up a bit (elephants alone = too academic).

Despite its many flaws, it must be said that the cinematography in “The Lost Temples of India” is quite good — there are some beautiful shots of the temples in question. And there are actually a couple of facts in the documentary, though they’re carefully hidden (“shrouded”) by the steaming Orientalist cheesefest.

18 thoughts on “More Vicarious Traveling: “The Lost Temples of India”

  1. Heh, I agree with your take Amardeep. I actually clicked on it via the News tab yesterday but was put off after about ten minutes precisely because of the Orientalist clichéd mumbo jumbo you mention. Perhaps I’ll give it another chance.

  2. you’re spot on amardeep. i saw this when it first came out on Discovery a couple of years ago. the constant cutting between Khajuraho and the lingam really bothered me, because Khajuraho in the western imagination is more about prurience than anything else. even the lingam is misunderstood. also, the temples of the south were not lost, except perhaps to the western knowledge of india which does tend to focus on the taj and the north (although this is changing). but it’s no worse than most of their documentaries – they overdo and overdramatize a lot to keep viewer attention and make a half hour show into an hour show. i’ve seen them do it with a feature on mysterious peruvian pyramids – loads of repetition and breathlessness and tenuous connections.

    but the programs are worth watching on the whole because they mean well for the most part and whet your appetite to learn more about the subject. new york city hosted a great exhibit of chola bronzes and sculpture some years ago, but rajaraja and the massive scale of the temples and the ingenuity behind their building and their contribution to Angkor Wat and the temples of Indonesia deserve more attention. the mention of the british discomfit with hinduism compared to islam is true, and only reflects what Macaulay and others said at the time. just a few weeks ago i read a piece by a british journalist based in india who said there was something more familiar to him about pakistan than india.

  3. A temple without the dancers would have been like a football field without cheerleaders

    heh. Amazing aerial shots of the temples, though.

  4. The shots are nice and I didn’t know much about this – but tosh like “the king was a follower of Sheeeva, so wore his hair up, above his head in dreadlocks…which made him look like a Jamaican Rastafarian” was too much! And I can understand pronouncing Indian words wrong, but ‘devotee’ becoming ‘d’vvo-tay?’ But yes, agreed – some nice camerawork and the occasional fact.

  5. I agree there’s a lot of unnecessary connections between Khajuraho and the Southern Temples, focus on the Lingam, etc. But there’s a lot to take away from it too.

    1. There was an e-mail passed around few years ago about how India is the only country that has never invaded another. Read your history! If not ask the Sri Lankans. They still hold a grudge about the Chola sacking of their ‘divine’ city. Raja Raja’s son Rajendra Chola invaded Indonesia, Malaysia and ruled the seas.

    2. The truth is, like the British, a lot of colonial Indians adopted the Victorian mindset about sensual aspect of hinduism. Everything sensual was dirty and whitewashed from our culture. Did any of us learn about the lingam from our parents. Not me! My parents probably wouldn’t watch this documentary with me in the room. As a result the truth behind Khajuraho and the Lingam worship remains hidden.

    3. The documentary has beautiful footage of the Temples. A lot of people visit Tanjore without realizing what a extraordinary effort it took to build it and the advanced and ancient science behind it. I know that next time, if possible, I’ll look for the side buildings where the murals are located.

    4. Raja Raja’s story tells us how great India was at one time. His legacy belongs to all Indians not just to the people of the south. He was a product of Hindu culture but had Indian values such as tolerance for all religions and sects. Sure he was responsible for a lot of death and destruction. But that’s what it took in their time to be a great king and to protect your empire.

    You don’t need to watch the imperfect documentary. But all Indians should learn more about entire Indian history.

  6. The truth is, like the British, a lot of colonial Indians adopted the Victorian mindset about sensual aspect of hinduism. Everything sensual was dirty and whitewashed from our culture. Did any of us learn about the lingam from our parents. Not me!

    My mother was in her 50′s when she discovered that the lingam was supposedly a phallic symbol. I was the one who enlightened her. Now that I think about it, it seems a bit of a stretch to imagine that most hindus have no clue what they’re doing when they perform their rituals. It is more likely that meaning is simply not as important to most hindus as much as performance of a ritual. The west on the other hand is constantly looking for meaning in things. Such extreme textual and linguistic analysis only ends up making a caricature of a tradition which places more emphasis on performative knowledge (or practice).

    The lingam has many meanings, among the most common of which are “symbol”, “sign”, or “gender”. “Phallus” is also one of the meanings. There are stories about Shiva’s phallus being cut off (none of them are particularly sensual stories) which is where this association has come from. But lingam worship goes back to before these stories came about. In vedic times, the ligam was used to symbolize a flame when there was no actual fire. The lingam was (is) mostly considered to be a symbol of Shiva. There is no sexual, sensual or erotic meaning associated with it.

    Even if according to the stories the lingam can be interpreted to be Shiva’s phallus, it is equivalent to being his toe or ear for all the difference it makes. I guess ancient hindus were not too squeamish about any of the body parts. Nowadays, however, it is a big deal that it is a phallus. Somehow people want it to mean phallus as some sort of symbol of liberation. But in practice it doesn’t hold up. Most hindus to this day simply do their puja to a shivalinga without associating any sexual significance. Shiva is not worshipped for virility, or marriage or multiple children or any such thing. So, at this point in time, I do not accept the phallus theory even though it is becoming more and more widespread even in India (via the west). It makes more sense to simply regard the lingam as a symbol of shiva.

  7. Great post! I have been thinking of a theme for my next trip to the motherland, and I think I found it.

  8. I guess ancient hindus were not too squeamish about any of the body parts.

    My point exactly! These days people get hives from the suggestion that the Lingam is a phallic symbol. The argument isn’t whether it represents sexual parts but what is the meaning behind it. If people get over the aversion, we can understand our religion better.

  9. According to Shaivism, and more specifically SriVidya tantric paths, the lingam consists of two parts: the ‘base’ is the Yoni of Devi or Shakti, which receives the lingam or the phallus of Shiva.

    The lingam therefore is a representation of the union of Shiva and Shakti. The meaning behind this representation runs very deep and spans into various depths of hindu philosophy and the understanding of the universe, creation etc… If you want to learn more about this, there are various books on it. The best books I have read are by Sir John Woodroffe or Arthur Avalon (same guy, changed his name), titles “Serpent Power” “Shakti and Shakta” “Principles of Tantra

    Tantra is grossly misrepresented now-a-days, especially in the west… and even in india people are losing the understanding. Tantra is a path of energy awareness and about building a relation with that energy. This cosmic energy is believed to be seated at the base of our spine (or at the muladhara chakra)… this energy is Shakti. Kundalini is the rise of this energy along the spine is a serpent-like motion… (similarity to the DNA double helix). Several spiritual/ mystic traditions talk about a similar energy and have tantra-like practices (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, Sufism, ancient Mayan traditions that are still alive in the form of Toltec teachings in Mexico). Sexual union is a tool that can be used to raise the energy up the spine, and get a glimpse of the experience of union with the ‘divine source’. It is only a tool and one of many. It is not the main practice by any means nor do any texts preach that sex is the way to awareness and enlightenment. The ultimate goal of tantra is to become aware of and maintain the energy flow, strong and steady at every moment, in order to live in connection with the divine source. The key tools used to work towards this are mantras and yantras.

    The ‘taboo’ aspect of the representation of the lingam is thought to have originated from the influences of Christianity and Islam in India. This is only one proposed explanation. It is suspected (and some believe) that prior to such influences, there were no sexual or taboo-like connotations associated with the lingam or the architectural depictions seen on the temple walls. They are simply sculptures depicting what the tantric texts have outlined. Religion in India was threatened especially during the Moghul empire and the Tipu Sultan rule. External influences tried hard to alter relgious practices and beliefs because they were not in sync with their own. The Islamic and Christian perspectives of Hinduism eventually gave rise to a cultural understanding vs the original religious/ spiritual understanding, which is different in different parts of India. The culturally influenced understanding has become confused with religion… also the religious dogmas generated by the brahmins when the caste system was ‘created’ further complicated the true symbolisms. At that time a lot of the explanations were made ‘secret’ because only the brahmins were considered worthy of the knowledge… which was mainly passed down by word of mouth down sepcific Guru lineages. In the process much information got lost in translation and was never properly documented.

    Anyhow… this is my perspective on the whole issue… and I need to stop typing to get back to work!

  10. My ancestors are from Thanjavur and I had far less problems with the doc. compared to you guys.

    The flower gatherer for the temple need not be a lifelong celibate. it is not required of anyone in Hinduism especially those in the service of good.

    Anyway who has a smattering of Sanskrit or Hindi would know “lingam” refers to gender – you can tell if a person is male or female by their lingam or lack thereof.

  11. The ancient Tamil structures of south India do not belong to all India. They belong to the Tamils – otherwise it would be like the Eiffel Tower belongs to all white people.

    And please don’t say a lingam is a phallus, because I don’t start talking nonsense about Aryan fire worshippers burning down my cities.

  12. Govender apparently has been drinking the “Dravidian” coolaid dished out by the political parties that have ruled Tamilnadu for the past many decades. They have clearly excelled at the art of divide and conquor that the Muslim and European invaders utilized with brutal efficiency against Indians in the centuries before. See to trace the genetic background of Indians. I and many other south Indian Brahmins are from the M52 haplogroup. Note that the “dravidian” M20 gene is actually genetically closer to these so called Aryans/Europeans! And both the M20 and M52 have existed in the Indian sub-continent for 25,000+ years.

    So this IS something that belongs to ALL Indians.

  13. It’s all a healthy discussion. It actually hurt more than I expected with I read S Govender’s post which drew a line between Indian and Tamils. I havn’t seen the documentary yet. Our strength is unity in diversity and I have heard this one first time and is giving me a depression…

  14. Although many of these parties in Tamil Nadu have been spouting garbage, although we are all genetically quite similar, there was never ever an ‘India’ as it exists in the modern sense of it. Modern ‘India’ is a British creation. India will eventually be reconstituted along more federal/confederal lines or it will be balkanized. This is inevitable. The temples are a part of the Tamil people’s history. To talk of an ‘Indian’ history is futile prior to the British presence…

    ” ‘India’ is a British creation… it is merely a single administrative unit governed by a bureaucracy under the sanction of the sword. That is all. It is a paper creation, it has no basis in flesh and blood.” – Jinnah (Dec 18th 1943) (pg 193 of Verdict on India)

  15. Jinnah is the one you turn to for quotes about Indian nationality?

    Just because the British unified it under one state doesn’t mean there was never a cohesive civilization known as India. By your logic Germany, Italy, France, and Britain itself aren’t real countries because they were originally a bunch of various principalities and kingdoms before they were finally unified too. Why do you think most people, to this day, see a South Asian and assume “Indian?” Is it a coincidence that we all look similar enough to be confused for each other?

  16. My apologies for quoting Jinnah =$ (PS Pakistan too is a recent construct that is too difficult to manage as well… best reconstituted as well =D)

    Can you point me to a ‘cohesive civilization known as India’?

    For the most part the French speak French, the Germans speak German etc. The English have integrated a few languages into Britain and there are a few other exceptions about, which is to be expected. Yet something on the scale of India for the whole subcontinent and the whole set of horribly mapped countries all over Africa are simply European constructs.

    Please do note that I am not questioning our genetic similarity. Multiple states in the place of India would probably be much better at eradicating widespread poverty on the subcontinent.