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  • Simhavahana

Wood, pigment, metal
18th century
Karnataka, Southern India

Each South Indian temple has its annual calendar of auspicious celebrations known as utsavas or events to ‘drive out sorrow’. Chief among these are the temple processions in which ceremonial bronze images of the deity (utsavamurti) are carried beyond the temple compound on poles, on their animal vehicles, or in chariots drawn by devotees. Great care is taken in dressing the portable images of the deity to create an image of regal splendour – the gods are bathed with purified water and by devotees. sandalwood ash, and then dressed in a gold embellished silk sari and bedecked with jewellery. The processional images are secured on their vehicles and sheltered by a canopy or large umbrellas from the harsh heat of the day. Only the officiating priests are permitted to travel with the utsavamurti on the moving platform, receiving offerings and dispensing blessings on behalf of the deity. The processions are designed to allow the deity to visit his ‘territory’ and mark out his authority. The procession proceeds slowly through the town, stopping at regular intervals for rest and to provide further opportunities for devotees of all castes to experience darshan.

The animal mounts or vahanas of the deity are typically considered physical shells inhabited during the procession by the celestial mounts of the gods. Accordingly, they are carved in wood, a material that once contained life and is deemed primed to hold life again. The vahanas’ otherworldliness is highlighted by their enormous size, often dwarfing the deity, his priests, and the devotees who carry the vahana.

This particular vahana represents the simham or lion, the chosen vehicle of the Great Goddess in her many manifestations, including Chamundeshwari, Mariamman, Mookambika, Durgai and Parvati. The simhavahana may also carry images of Lord Venkateshwara (a form of the Hindu deity Vishnu), as well as of Lord Arunachaleswarar (a form of the Hindu deity Shiva) and the Nayanmar saints. During the ten-day temple festival known as the Brahmotsavam, the simhavahana is usually selected to carry the utsavamurtis on the third day. In previous centuries when the image of the lion was a royal mascot and the king was the chief patron and host of the temple festival, the simhavahana would have led the procession bearing the chief deity of the temple deemed the ishtadevata of the royal family.

As is customary, the simham or lion is depicted with bulbous eyes, prominent fangs, curled tail, and a large mane – features that proclaim the powerful nature of the beast. The warrior figure beneath the simha, dwarfed in proportion, further enhances the bhadra or fierce aspect of the vahana. The rounded volumes of his powerful legs and torso and alert posture bespeak latent strength. Small wings and luxuriant vines fan out from the lion’s muscled shoulders, indicating his celestial nature. The lion is bedecked in ceremonial finery: multiple anklets, cuffs, and belled necklaces evoke the prestige of precious metals. A small pedestal is affixed to the lion’s back to seat the deities; the lotus plinth of the pedestal aptly symbolises purity and auspiciousness.

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