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Cats And The Goddess: Mapping Pagan Iconography Of The Divine Feminine

Polytheism favours the local over the global. Such religions have a disdain toward proselytization, preaching, and imposing their system of beliefs on natives outside of their geographical sphere. Localization and the awe with which Polytheism regards Nature, led to indigenous animals being co-opted into mythology, and assigned to the divinities as patron creatures.

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The Greeks and Romans may have had a special place for the owl, which they associated with their goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, but the Big Cats trumped the owls in popularity.
Hinduism Durga Mata, wikimedia commons
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By Tania Bhattacharya

 

South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association.
Ms Tania Bhattacharya

The feline species have enjoyed a special place in the pantheons of global Paganism. Long before the advent of the three Abrahamic religions that came to dominate humanity, the world used to be pagan. It was in this Polytheistic atmosphere, that animals came to be represented, and associated with the divine beings.

 

Polytheism favours the local over the global. Such religions have a disdain toward proselytization, preaching, and imposing their system of beliefs on natives outside of their geographical sphere. Localization and the awe with which Polytheism regards Nature, led to indigenous animals being co-opted into mythology, and assigned to the divinities as patron creatures.

 

Among Native Americans, the bear, the eagle, and the wolf, hold a special status and are feted as powerful beings worthy of worship. Among the peninsular Arabs of Pre-Islamic times, the Camel and the Bat were similarly attributed magical powers. The sub-Saharan Africans have placed their wildlife on a pedestal in their oral mythologies. The Chinese have named their New Years after their own. Greco-Roman pantheons were thick with images of owls, and bulls, the most iconic being the Minotaur. The Fox, the snake, and the monkey, are regular fixtures in Japan’s homemade Shinto faith, while India’s Hinduism and its myriad aboriginal or Adivasi beliefs, incorporate many animals from the South Asian landscape, like monkeys, boars, elephants, bulls, peacocks, and mice.

 

Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.
Goddess Cybele’s chariot puled by a pair of lions

While the emphasis on the animal kingdom and Polytheism’s anxiety in elevating the association of humans with beasts is not only unique and worthy of emulation, there is one species of animals that stands out from the rest. It has the longest, and most robust history of being borrowed into myth, legend, and religious ditties. The reference is to the Felids of the earth. A community of creatures that humans have admired for thousands of years, for their stealthy hunting practices, intelligence, cleanliness, fearlessness, pride, reclusiveness, and rodent exterminating qualities.

 

Does the pan-Feline presence through the various Pagan folklores of human history, signal at a common thread that runs through us all? It would be safe to say so. This one species has ruled and dominated our imagination like no other.

 

Let us begin with the Egyptians, the grand old daddies of Polytheistic heritage. The ancient Kemites of Egypt, were quire impressed with the domestic cat. It featured in funerary rituals and worship, and was used as a totem to keep evil forces at bay. The Cat was the only animal, that Kemetic Egypt allowed inside its temples and other places of worship. Mummies of famous ancient Egyptian figures, have been found beside life size idols of gilded cats with septum rings, and pearl embellished collars.

This chance occurrence had forever immortalized the Feline species as being irrevocably intertwined with Goddess worship.
Idol of Goddess Durga

The Greeks and Romans may have had a special place for the owl, which they associated with their goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, but the Big Cats trumped the owls in popularity. With their majestic muscle composition, flexible vertebrae, spread eagle skills, playful nature, large, liquid eyes, and stealth hunting, the big cats came to be incorporated in imagery, most often being placed alongside, or below, figurines of Cybele, the divine goddess of war. Since Neolithic times, Cybele was venerated with much fanfare among the Mediterranean’s pagans. With the arrival of the proto-Indo European Hittites, who managed a sprawling empire in Anatolian Turkey, Cybele consolidated her position as the Lion Lady of West Asian iconography.

 

Not to be left behind, the neighbouring Babylonians, a Semitic civilization that occupied the landscape of ancient Iraq, began to correlate the Leopard with their Supreme Mother goddess, Asherah. She was portrayed as riding the big cat in all her glory, proud and defiant. The pre-Islamic Arabs, placed the Desert Lynx, a powerful feline hunter, next to the triplet of female divinities they called Al Uzza, Al Lat, and Al Manat. The three would be incorporated into Islam many centuries later, as the daughters of Allah, himself a local Polytheistic male deity of Pagan Arabia.

 

The Persians, products of the Asian continent’s most inspirational, and splendid culture, and the one that stood the ravages of time for millennia, immortalized their Mother Goddess Anahita or Nahid, as riding atop the Lion, as she communicated with successive Persian emperors. Meanwhile, in distant Scandinavia, the Vikings and the Nords, had proceeded to dovetail and make synonymous, the divinity of the Panther with their goddess of beauty, Freya, after whom Friday has been named. Freya’s chariot was depicted as being drawn by a pair of wild panthers, making them an extension of her latent powers, and her fierce, protective nature.

This sign was depicted by the Virgin goddess, an attribute commonly found in many Classical cultures, even though most myths woven around the personality of the Mother Goddess, address her as a mother and a wife and not necessarily a Virgin.
Pre-Islamic Arabian goddesses named Al Uzza, Al Lat and Al Manat. The three would be incorporated into Islam many centuries later, as the daughters of Allah, himself a local Polytheistic male deity of Pagan Arabia.

South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association. Religious iconography bloomed in paintings, murals, and sculptures, illustrating a symbiotic relationship between the Mother Goddess, and her ride, the Lion, and alternatively, the Tiger. As Durga, or Parvati, sat bestride her mount, she became symbolic of the animal’s power, its fierce energy, as also its nurturing qualities as a parent. Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.

 

Why was this particular animal singled out for veneration, over time and space, in the human imaginarium of our Polytheistic ancestors? Lions and other Big Cats were often used for symbolizing royalty. This is cogent with our perception of what royalty constitutes of and how it can be made to synergize with the admirable traits of the feline species. The Lion Capital of the Hittites at Anatolia’s Hattushah, centrally located in modern Turkey; the obsessively frequent appearance of Lions in portraiture, reliefs, and wall friezes during the fearsome rule of the Assyrian emperors like Ashurbanipal; and the minting of royal coins with cameos containing one or the other of the Felids has been commonplace. An animal that possesses so much energy, brute force, and intelligence would naturally be equated with seats of power. But this does not adequately explain why the Felids were sought out over cultures, for accompanying the Divine Feminine.

Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.
Goddess with their divine animals, The Cat was the only animal, that Kemetic Egypt allowed inside its temples and other places of worship.

All this would change in 1945. That year, an Egyptian farmer at the village of Nag Hammadi, had accidentally struck at a hidden library while tilling the land. The Egyptian Department of Archaeology was summoned and a Pandora’s Box was laid bare. The library was found to contain some fifty gospels, belonging to an Alexandrian spiritual community, which was active some two thousand years ago. Calling themselves the Theraputae, the oblates from this distinct order, drew upon Polytheistic creativity to weave fantastical tales that hid great truths about the Sciences, and Moral conduct. According to the Nag Hammadi literature, the Lion and by association, other members of the Big Cat family, were representative of the zodiac of Leo. At the tail end of Leo, was Virgo. This sign was depicted by the Virgin goddess, an attribute commonly found in many Classical cultures, even though most myths woven around the personality of the Mother Goddess, address her as a mother and a wife and not necessarily a Virgin. However, in some of her most evocative folklore, she dons the garb of the Divine Virgin, and thus transforms into the symbolism for the sign of Virgo. The reason the Lion and the remaining felids had been made parallel with her, was because Virgo immediately followed Leo, the zodiac sign represented by the Lion. This chance occurrence had forever immortalized the Feline species as being irrevocably intertwined with Goddess worship.

 

Of the many virtues of Polytheism, one of the greatest has been the visualizing of the feminine gender in the role of the divine, and placing as much emphasis on her being, as much as on her male counterparts. Goddesses were powerful in their own right. These were no shrinking violets hanging on the arms of their male consorts. Instead, they multitasked as warriors, mothers, avengers, and nurturers. Many later man-made religions would remove women from their lofty position of divinity and reduce them as sidekicks or even worse, as insignificant others, who played second fiddle to the male Almighty and his necessarily male adversary, Satan.

South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association. Religious iconography bloomed in paintings, murals, and sculptures, illustrating a symbiotic relationship between the Mother Goddess, and her ride, the Lion, and alternatively, the Tiger.
Goddess Durga Idol, As Durga, or Parvati, sat bestride her mount, she became symbolic of the animal’s power, its fierce energy, as also its nurturing qualities as a parent.

It is ironic, that in our present times, both the feminine and the feline, are endangered. Women, despite great strides in education and professional visibility, are walking a slippery slope that impacts their dignity and sense of self. Their self=assertiveness has been misconstrued by elements of society, as ‘rebellion’ which needs to be quelled with violent force, and many a times, without her consent. In a parallel universe, the felines have lost ground to the rapacious greed of the human species. Their territories have been taken over by property developers, they have watched their natural prey disappear or relocate, and some have been reduced to man-eating, to survive. This is a cruel conspiracy against the Laws of Mother Nature, who watches in despair.

Also Read: Pakistani Christians Not Feeling Safe After The IS Attack

 

The creator of the twenty nine thousand year old Venus Figurine of Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, had imagined womanhood resplendent in all its flaws. The Venus Figurine has sagging breasts, and wide, rounded hips, that suggest the high position which lactating women, mothers, and older females in general, enjoyed in prehistoric Dolni Vestonice. Archaeologists and historians have concluded, that women of this era, wore important mantles and occupied positions of administration and priesthood. How far we have come from our original innocence is projected by the fact, that the very naturalness that had inspired the art of Dolni Vestonice, is long gone, having been replaced by cosmetic surgery, botox, fillers, and the overlying need to look ageless and untouched by time.

 

Perhaps it is the need of the hour, to revert to the wisdom of the ancients? A time of innocence, when we considered Mother Nature and the wild kingdom with approaching awe, that prevented us from mindlessly mowing them down in the name of development? A time also, when a woman didn’t have to look perfect in order to please society?

 

Replacing patriarchy with matriarchy seems just about right. The Mother Goddess and her mount, have long awaited their turn. Let us give them what is their due.

 

Tania is a freelance writer with a Masters in Defence and Strategic Studies who has a wide range of interests. 

 

 

 

 

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Top 10 Famous Hindu Temples of Tamil Nadu

Most of the temples of Tamil Nadu dates back to 800 to 1400 years and still stands to be rock solid.

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Most of the temples situated in Tamil Nadu were built during the historic and medieval period
Most of the temples situated in Tamil Nadu were built during the historic and medieval period

NEW DELHI: Tamil Nadu is known as the temple city of India and the state is considered as the torchbearers of the magnificent heritage of that region. The Hindu Tamil temples here are a classic example of art form evolved over thousands of years and thus very much glorifies the ancient culture of Tamil Nadu and of India as well.

Tamil Nadu has nearly 33,000 ancient temples scattered on its land and some of them are known to be the biggest temples of the Hindu community. The Hindu Tamil temples located here dates back to 800 to 1400 years and still stands to be rock solid. Although, the historical records describe the scriptures to be 3,000 years old but the wide variety of complex and wealthy architecture of these temple makes it difficult to believe in their ages.

Most of the temples situated in Tamil Nadu were built during the historic and medieval period when Pallavas, Cholas, and Nayakas were the rulers of Deccan Plateau of India. Thus, these Hindu Tamil temples help you to get an immense insight of elaborate and brilliant sculptures of those times.

All these things point out towards the rich culture and heritage of Tamil Nadu.

Also Read: SC directs registration of Kerala temples having elephants

For the coming New Year, we have compiled a list of 10 famous temples of Tamil Nadu that will walk you through a great spiritual experience and offer you to learn about the mesmerizing past of the state. The astounding beauty does spellbind every visitor and tourist.

Meenakshi Amman Temple is a masterpiece of the Dravidian architecture. Wikimedia Commons
Meenakshi Amman Temple is a masterpiece of the Dravidian architecture. Wikimedia Commons
  1. Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai

The ‘Meenakshi Amman Temple’ is devoted to Goddess Parvati in the character of Meenakshi and her partner, Lord Shiva in the character of Lord Sundareshwarar. It is one of the most ancient and famous temples of Tamil Nadu, as the temple was built around 6th century AD and a major portion of it got damaged in the 14th century during the Muslim invasion. The present structure was again restored to its pristine glory by the Nayak rulers. The whole temple is furnished with thousands of figures of gods, goddesses, and demons.

The Meenakshi Amman Temple is a masterpiece of the Dravidian architecture and is no less than an ancient architectural marvel. Thousands of devotees throng this temple every year during ‘Meenakshi Tirukalyanam festival’ in the months of April-May.

2. Brihadeeswarar Temple, Thanjavur

Brihadeeswarar Temple is one of the largest temples in India and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is located in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. This Hindu Tamil temple was built during the reign of the Chola dynasty in 11th century AD and stands 216 ft. tall. The temple is known for one of its structure known as ‘Vimana’ and claimed to be the tallest structure in the world.

The Brihadeeswarar temple comes under the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of ‘Great Living Chola Temples’. The Temple also professes of being the world’s first temple completely built from granite stone.

According to archaeological records, the exact is not known and dates back to the 10th century under the rule of Chola dynasty. Wikimedia Commons
According to archaeological records, the exact is not known and dates back to the 10th century under the rule of Chola dynasty. Wikimedia Commons

3. Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam

The Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple is devoted to Lord Vishnu and is located on the Srirangam Island of the Tiruchirappalli city in Tamil Nadu. The temple is another gem built by the Dravidian architectures and is counted as the first amongst the 108 holy abodes of Lord Vishnu. It is spread across an area of over 150 acres with some dazzling tower gateways.

According to archaeological records, the exact is not known and dates back to the 10th century under the rule of Chola dynasty. The temple was plundered in the 14th century by Muslim invaders but was again restored by the Vijayanagara and Nayaka rulers in the 16th century.

Also Read: Arulmigu Masani Amman Temple: Temple of Justice in Tamil Nadu

4. Ramanathaswamy Temple, Rameswaram

Ramanathaswamy Temple is located on the serene island of Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu. This temple is considered as one of the holy ‘Char Dhams’ and included in the 12 sacred Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva. This Hindu Tamil temple is supposedly built by the Pandya rulers during the 12th century.

Such is the divineness of the temple that it is observed as one of the four primary pilgrimage destinations for Hindus. ‘Vishwalinga’ is located next to Ramalinga, the Shivlinga that is believed to be brought by Hanuman. The most amusing thing is the corridor hall which is acknowledged as the longest in India.

There is a mysterious water stream under the Shivlinga that continuously flows out. Wikimedia Commons
There is a mysterious water stream under the Shivlinga that continuously flows out. Wikimedia Commons

5. Jambukeswarar Temple, Thiruvanaikaval

Jambukeswarar Temple was built during the reign of Chola empire and is located on the Srirangam Island. This temple is devoted to Lord Shiva and represents a Dravidian style of architecture.

The temple holds 5 enclosures inside it and the innermost enclosure is the main sanctum housing the Shivlinga in the form of Appu Lingam. There is a mysterious water stream under the Shivlinga that continuously flows out. According to an ancient ritual, every day the priest of the temple dresses in saree and offers prayer to Lord Jambukeswarar which is a very unusual practice.

6. Kanchi Kailasanthar Temple, Kanchipuram

Kanchi Kailasanthar is believed to have been built under the rule of the Pallava Dynasty and dates back to the late 7th century- early 8th century. This Hindu Tamil temple is the oldest temple in Tamil Nadu and dedicated to Lord Shiva with 16 sided Shivlinga’s made of black granite stone. It is located in Kanchipuram district of Tamilnadu and made entirely of sandstone.

There are various delicately carved sculptures of Lord Shiva and also walls of this temple have pictures of Goddess Parvati. The temple is said to attract a large number of pilgrims, especially during the occasion of Maha Shivratri.

Inside the structure, there is a 1000 pillared hall with carvings of Shivlingas. Wikimedia Commons
Inside the structure, there is a 1000 pillared hall with carvings of Shivlingas. Wikimedia Commons

7. Ekambareswarar Temple, Kanchipuram
Ekambareswarar Temple is counted amongst five elements of the universe and is devoted to the element earth. This shrine holds great substance for followers of Lord Shiva. The exact date of its existence is still not known but it is believed to have been in the existence since 600 AD.

Inside the structure, there is a 1000 pillared hall with carvings of Shivlingas. There is also a mango tree present in this Hindu Tamil temple and is believed to be 3000 years old and what makes it special is that it bears four different types of Mangoes in four different seasons in a year.

Also Read: Enigmatic Mount Kailash: The abode of Lord Shiva

8. Kapaleeshwarar Temple, Chennai
Kapaleeshwarar Temple’s structure dates back to 16th century but after the devastation caused by Portuguese, it was built back by Pallava kings during the 7th century. The Hindu Tamil temple is located in Mylapore district of Ch