The mystery of the missing temples
Here’s a question for you. Among the thousands and thousands of temples in India, how many are dedicated to Brahma? The answer is – very few! In fact, the number of such temples can be counted on your fingers. They are scattered in hard-to-reach locations in Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh and one in a remote village in Goa.
Brahma is the Hindu God of Creation – without him, there would be no Universe and no people. In mythology, He is the first of the Trimurti or holy trinity of Hinduism - Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer). In a sense, Brahma is a VIP among the gods. So why are there so few temples dedicated to him? Now that’s the first part of the mystery.
Visiting a Brahma temple is an unusual experience. The best known and biggest of them is the one at Pushkar in Rajasthan, on the banks of the beautiful Pushkar Lake. The temple is believed to be over 2,000 years old. Over the centuries, it has been built, renovated, damaged and re-built several times over. The huge stone blocks that make up the temple are said to be have been held together with molten lead. Today, it is a magnificent sight with its bright red 700-ft shikara and unusual hamsa (swan) motifs all around the entrance area. Do you know why they chose a swan?
That’s not the only unusual motif in the temple. As you walk up a flight of steps to the entrance, on the marble floor is a beautiful silver turtle surrounded by hundreds of embedded silver coins with the names of devotees written on them. Even the walls are covered with these coins. When you come to the sanctum sanctorum (the innermost holy shrine in any temple), there is a life-size statue of Brahma in his ‘Creator’ pose. He is riding a hamsa and has four arms and four heads facing the four directions. He is accompanied by Saraswati, the goddess of learning. Pilgrims throng the place. They have a dip in the Pushkar Lake and then enter the temple. Brahma is a popular God. Why then are so few temples devoted to him? The mystery deepens. And like every good mystery, there is always ‘more to it than meets the eye’!
In ancient times, India was a very influential country. Shiploads of sailors, soldiers, conquering kings and merchants sailed out to various parts of Asia. Along with them went the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism. And that is how some of the most important temples dedicated to Brahma have ended up deep in the jungles of Cambodia!
Angkor Wat in Cambodia is the largest temple complex in the world. It was built by King Suryavarman II in the late 12th century as part of his capital city. It covers over 400 km and was designed to look like Mount Meru, the abode of the Gods. One of the main temples here was dedicated to Brahma.
Not far away, in Java, Indonesia, is Prambanan, another massive Hindu temple built in the 9th century CE. There is a Brahma temple here with a magnificent statue of Brahma; the walls are carved with detailed stories from the Ramayana. The hamsa or vehicle of Brahma gets a shrine for itself!
Bali in Indonesia is known as the Island of a Thousand Temples: there are more than 20,000 temples on this tiny island! The most important of these is The Mother Temple of Besakih. It is spectacularly located on the slopes of Mount Agung which is an active volcano! The three main shrines are dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. The Brahma shrine can be identified by the red flags draped over it. Red is the colour of Brahma’s clothes – remember the red shikara at Pushkar? Elsewhere in Bali, Brahma is said to live in the Andakasa temple, popularly known as the Sthana of Dewa Brahma. Almost every village in Bali has shrines dedicated to the Creator.
That’s not all. There are still functioning temples dedicated to Brahma in Thailand. The popular Erawan shrine has a statue of the four-faced Phra Phrom, the Thai version of Brahma. The Royal Barge of the Thai King has a hamsa-shaped bow so that when it sails, it looks like the King is riding on Brahma’s vehicle! Brahma shrines are commonly found in front of modern buildings all over Thailand.They are revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike since Brahma is known to be a granter of boons or wishes. All over South East Asia, you come across beautiful sculptures and statues of the four-headed god made in a distinctly ‘eastern’ style.
This brings us to the second part of our mystery. These countries were influenced by Indian civilisation and particularly the Hindu religion. They learnt from the Indians that Brahma was important enough to have major temples devoted to him. So where are the Brahma temples in India? Were they built at some point and then destroyed? Or were they built and then taken over by other, more popular Gods? Or were they never built at all? Play detective and try to solve this two-part mystery! Hint: Start by reading stories from Hindu mythology featuring Brahma. You may find an explanation for why there are more temples dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu.