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Chiranjivi or Immortals in Hinduism and their presence in Bengal temple decorations

Dr A K Chatterjee, a Gynecologist by profession, is an enthusiastic traveler, researcher on religious places, an author and blog writer.

Chiranjivis or Immortals

Parashurama; one of the Chiranjivi-s ; terracotta; Kali temple; Itanda, Birbhum

Parashurama; one of the Chiranjivi-s ; terracotta; Kali temple; Itanda, Birbhum

Key words (Vernacular words are in italics)

Chiranjivi, Immortal, Eternal, Hinduism, Yuga, Creation, Kalpa;

Introduction

In Hindu religious texts, there are 8 characters who are believed to be Chiranjivi or immortal, i.e. without death. But here one thing is to be noted, the characters are immortal, but not Eternals, they will live only till the end of Kali Yuga, i.e. the last of the four Yuga-s of present "Kalpa" or Cycle of Creation (Krita/Satya, Treta, Dwapar and Kali).

The following is a list of the generally known 8 Chiranjivi -s or Immortal characters in Hinduism :

1. Hanuman
2. Bibhishan.
3. Parashurama.
4. Kripacharya
5. Ashwathama
6. Vyasdeva
7. Mahabali or the demon king Bali.
8. Sage Markeyanda.

But interestingly, 2 more characters can be added to this list:

9. Jambubana
10. Shri Kak Bhushundi.

These two also live through the 4 Yuga-s , from Krita/Satya to Kali Yuga.

In this article, we'll discuss about the Immortal characters very briefly, and then shall discuss about their presence in the decorations of the temples of West Bengal.

Hanuman

Hanuman, the Monkey-God, is the son of Vayu, the Wind-God and Anjana. His foster father was Kesari. He is an ardent devotee of Lord Rama. Hanuman himself is considered as a god of Wisdom, Strength, Courage, Devotion and Self-discipline. He is a bachelor and keeps his celibacy very strictly. Hanuman is implicitly mentioned in the great epic Ramayana, but is also mentioned in the Mahabharata, the second great Indian epic and in many Puranas.

Hanuman's name originated from the story that as a child, he tried to eat the Sun, believing it as a red ripe fruit, but failed in the attempt. Not only he failed, but he sustained grave injury to his facial bone ("Hanu"). Thus he came to be known as "Hanuman".

Hanuman has various other names (which are mentioned in the hymn "Hanuman Chalisha"), some notable ones are Anjaneya, Kesari Nandan, Vayu/Pavan Putra, Bajrang Bali, Sankata Mochana, Kapeeshwara, Mahavira etc.

Vedic root

In the Rigveda (hymn 10.86) a divine monkey called Vrisakapi is mentioned. It is regarded by some as a "proto-Hanuman". However, it is to noted that Vrisakapi was married (his wife was Kapi), while Hanuman is a staunch celibate.

Dravidian root

Hanuman's birth place is Kishkindhya (present day Hampi in Karnataka, South India). Some authorities theorized that Hanuman had a Proto-Dravidian origin, later assimilated in the North Indian Aryan culture.

Tribal root

Some authorities opined that Hanuman cult was derived from the monkey-worship traditions of the aboriginal tribes of Central India.

Hanuman as Avatar

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Shiva Purana mentioned Hanuman as Rudra, an Avatar of Lord Shiva.

Hanuman as a syncretic god

1. Some South Indian mythologies mention Hanuman is a unified form of Shiva and Vishnu, like Ayappa.
2. 17th century Odia poet Dina Krishna Das described in his famous book "Rasa Govinda" that Hanuman is the combined form of Lords Shiva, Vishnu and Bramha.

Hanuman in Ramayana

Hanuman is intricately involved with Lord Rama, and his deeds of valor are described in details in the Ramayana. He fought alongside Lord Rama and Lakshmana, killed many generals of Ravana's army. He also killed
Mahiravana, the son of Ravana and rescued Lord Rama and Lakshmana from Patala (the Netherworld). But his most striking assistance to Lord Rama in the great battle against Ravana was to bring Sanjivani and Vishalyakarani, two vital medicinal plants from the Himalayas to cure critically injured Lakshmana.

Hanuman in the Mahabharata

In the Mahabharata the encounter between Hanuman and the 2nd Pandava brother Bhima is beautifully described.

Hanuman

Hanuman with Lord Rama; stone carving; Shiva temple, Ganpur

Hanuman with Lord Rama; stone carving; Shiva temple, Ganpur

Bibhishana

Bibhishana was the younger brother of Ravana, the demon king of Lanka belonging to the Pulastya dynasty. His father was Vishrava and mother, Kaikesi.

Bibhishana is a highly controversial character. Though a demon (Rakshas) by birth, he always treaded the path of virtue, and joined Lord Rama leaving the evil King Ravana's side.

His first wife was Sarama, and later he married Mandodari, the widow of Ravana. His children were Trijata (daughter) and Taranisen (son, as mentioned in the Bengali version of Ramayana by poet Krittibas).

In the battle with Ravana, Bibhishana helped Lord Rama immensely by divulging secrets of Lanka and Ravana. He actively participated in the battle, and was instrumental in killing Meghnada, the eldest son of Ravana, the fiercest of the warriors in the Ravana's army, by leading Lakshmana to the place of worship where Megnad was busy in the worship of the goddess Nikumbhila.

After Ravana was killed, Bibhishana ascended to the throne of Lanka, and married Mandodari, the widow of Ravana.

Bibhishan

Bibhishan with Jambaban; terracotta; Shiva temple, Uchkaran, Birbhum

Bibhishan with Jambaban; terracotta; Shiva temple, Uchkaran, Birbhum

Parashurama

Son of the sage Jamadagni and mother Renuka, Parashurama is considered as the 6th Avatar of Lord Vishnu. His name originated from the fact that he always carries his axe (Parashu) named Vidyudabhi. Parashurama is also known by his other names Bhargava Rama, Jamadagnya rama, Veer Rama and Rambhadra. He was married to Dharani, an incarnation of goddess Lakshmi.

Parashurama possesses qualities of both the Kshatriyas (the warrior class) like aggressiveness, anger, valor and warfare, and of the Brahmins (the scholastic and the priest class) like calmness, logical mindset, patience and knowledge.

There are several interesting stories associated with Parashurama.
Once he killed his mother Renuka as asked by his father Sage Jamadagni, but immediately he asked a boon from his father to resurrect the deceased.

He is credited with his infamous killing of all the members of the Kshatriya class not once, but 21 times!

Parasurama in the Ramayana (Treta Yuga)

There was an interesting story of an encounter between Parashurama and Lord Rama. While Lord Rama was returning to Ajodhya from Mithila after marrying Sita by breaking Haradhanu, the Bow of Lord Shiva, Parashurama challenged Lord Rama to prove his strength by breaking his bow. Lord Rama easily did that. Parashurama was humbled and he realized that Lord Rama was Lord Vishnu Himself.

Parashurama in the Mahabharata (Dwapar Yuga)

Parashurama was the teacher of Bhisma, Drona, Karna and Rukmi, the brother-in-law of Lord Krishna in warfare and archery.

Parashurama in Kali Yuga

It is said in the scriptures that Parashurama will appear as the teacher of Kalki Avatar, the 10th and last of the Avatars of Lord Vishnu.

Prashurama in terracotta

Prashurama in terracotta; Kali temple, Itanda, Birbhum

Prashurama in terracotta; Kali temple, Itanda, Birbhum

Kripacharya

Kripa or Kripacharya was the son of Sharadvan. He along with his twin sister Kripi were adopted by King Santanu of the Kuru dynasty. He lived in Hastinapur in the Kuru Kingdom. His twin sister Kripi was married to Dronacharya. Like Dronacharya, Kripacharya was also a teacher of the Kauravas in warfare specially archery, and fought in the great war on their side.

After Duryodhana was killed and the Kauravas were defeated on the 18th day of the war, Kripacharya along with his nephew (son of Dronacharya and Kripi) Ashwatthama and Kritavarma attacked Pandava camp under cover of the darkness of night and killed Upapandavas, the 5 sons of Pandava brothers by Draupadi, and all other living warriors of the Pandava side, burnt and destroyed the Pandava camp.

This was an unethical act to say the least, and for this sin Kripacharya and Ashwatthama were cursed by Lord Krishna to live for ever in agony and repentance.

Ashwatthama

Ashwatthama was the son of Dronacharya and Kripi. He was a great warrior (Maharathi), and like his father Dronacharya and maternal uncle Kripacharya fought in the great war of Mahabharata on the Kaurava side. However, unlike his father and uncle, Ashwatthama did not follow the chivalrous code of conduct obeyed by the warriors at that time, and misused his power in the war. He was too much enraged by the unscrupulous way his father was killed by Arjuna, and on the 18th night of the war, after the defeat of the Kauravas and killing of Duryodhana on the 18th day, raided the Pandava camp along with Kripacharya and Kritavarma and killed all living warriors of the Pandava side including the Upapandavas, the 5 sons of Pandava brothers by Draupadi, and burnt and destroyed the Pandava camp.

For this heinous act Kripacharya and Ashwatthama were cursed by Lord Krishna to live for ever in agony and repentance.

One interesting fact about Ashwatthama's progeny is that the Pallava kings of the South India are said to be the descendants of Ashwatthama and a princess of the Naga dynasty.

Vyasdeva or Veda Vyasa

Vyasa, better known as Vyasdeva or Veda Vyasa is a famous sage who is credited with splitting and classifying the single Veda into 4 parts in the Dwapar Yuga, viz. Rig, Sama, Yajur and Atharva, and as the compiler of the great epic Mahabharata. He is also the author of 18 Puranas and Brahmasutra.

Vyasa is also considered as a Shaktyavesha Avatar of Lord Vishnu. However, in Sikhism Vyasa is considered as the 5th Avatar of Lord Brahma.

Vyasa was born to Sage Parashara and Satyavati. His name was Krishna Dwaipayana (for his black complexion, Krishna meaning black).
He was married to Vatika who bore his son Shuka. However, Vyasa was the biological father (by Niyoga tradition) of Dhritarashtra (from Ambika), Pandu (from Ambalika) and Vidura (from Parishrami).

Vyasa was a great teacher and learned person, and the festival of Guru Purnima is dedicated to him.

Vyasa's legacy in contemporary world

In the Mana village near Badrinath of Chamoli district in the state of Uttarakhand, there is a cave called "Vyasa Gufa" (Vyasa Cave, now a temple) which is believed to be the place where Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata to Lord Ganesha who wrote the epic. Just above this cave, there is a very big rock which due to its stratified appearance looks like a huge book. This rock is known as "Vyasa Pothi" (Book of Vyasa) and is believed to be the petrified form of the original Mahabharata written by Lord Ganesha.

Vyasa Gufa and Vyasa Pothi

Vyasa Gufa, now a temple

Vyasa Gufa, now a temple

Vyasa Pothi; Mana village, Badrinath

Vyasa Pothi; Mana village, Badrinath

Mahabali or King Bali

Mahabali or King Bali is the grandson of Prahlada, a descendant of the great sage Kashyapa. His father was Virochana and mother Devamba. His wife was Vindhyavalli, and his children were Banasura, Ratnamala and Vajrawala.

Mahabali was a great demon king, benevolent and generous to all. He temporarily possessed "Amrita", the Elixir of Eternal life, and thus is immune from death.
However, he gradually became ambitious and acquired both the heaven and the earth. The gods were afraid of him, and they prayed to Lord Vishnu to do away with Mahabali.
Lord Vishnu agreed, and came to him in the guise of a "Vamana" (Dwarf). This was His 5th Avatar. He asked for 3 steps of land. Mahabali agreed, but little did he know what was in store for him. Vishnu immediately transformed into his huge and majestic Trivikrama form with 3 legs.

He placed one gigantic foot on the earth and the second on the heaven, and asked for the land where he could place his third foot.
Bali understood that the Dwarf was none but Lord Vishnu Himself. So in devotion he offered his own head as the required "3rd Land". Lord Vishnu placed His 3rd foot on Bali's head and by a strong press sent him to Patala, the Netherworld.

However, as a mark to recognize the great devotion of Bali, Lord Vishnu granted him one boon. He was allowed to come to earth once a year. Accordingly, Bali comes to the earth once in a year. His home coming is celebrated as "Onam" in South India and "Bali Pratipada" in North India, which are Harvest festivals.

Mahabali is mentioned in the Shatapatha Brahmana, Ramayana, Mahabharata and several Puranas.

Mahabali and Trivikrama

Trivikrama with his foot on Mahabali's head; terracotta; Shiva temple, Itanda village, Birbhum.

Trivikrama with his foot on Mahabali's head; terracotta; Shiva temple, Itanda village, Birbhum.

Sage Markandeya

Sage Markandeya was the son of Sage Mrikanda and Marudmati of the Bhargava clan, descended from the ancient sage Bhrigu Rishi.

He is the author of Markandeya Purana and "Durga Saptashati".
He is mentioned in other Puranas as well as in the Mahabharata.
Markandeya is a great devotee of Lord Shiva, and He in the form of "Kalantaka" (He who destroys Time) protected Markandeya from Yama, the god of death.
There are stories relating Markandeya with the River goddess Narmada, how he was protected by the goddess during "Mahapralaya" (the Great flood) which destroyed the world.

So, these are the 8 "Chiranjivi"-s of the classical Hindu scriptures. Now we shall discuss about the other two characters from Hindu religious texts who are also immortal.

Jambaban

There are two more characters in scriptures who are considered immortal - Jambaban and Kak Bhshundi. Now, let us know a little about them.

Jambaban

Jambaban was the divine king of the bears.
He was born from the yawning ("Jrimbhan") of Lord Brahma, and so was named "Jambaban" (also "Jambavat").

According to the scriptures, he was present when Lord Vishnu killed the demons Madhu and Kaitabha; then during "Samudra Manthana" (Churning of the Ocean) in the Krita Yuga; in the Treta Yuga he was a companion of Lord Rama during His battle with Ravana and in Dwapar Yuga fought with Lord Krishna and after being defeated gave his daughter Jambavati (Rohini) to Lord Krishna in marriage (Jambavati was one of the 8 principal wives of Lord Krishna).

He was also said to be present when Vamana, the 5th Avatar of Lord Vishnu encountered Mahabali.

Jambaban is credited with the rare opportunity to live to see all 9 Avatars of Lord Vishnu (Kalki Avatar, the 10th and the Last of Lord Vishnu's Avatars is yet to come).

Jambaban now

Jambaban is worshiped in the form of an Indian Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu as "Karadi Swami", with his main temple situated at Ettimangalam.

Jambaban

Jambaban; terracotta; Shiva temple, Sribati; Purva Bardhan district

Jambaban; terracotta; Shiva temple, Sribati; Purva Bardhan district

Kak Bhushundi

Kak Bhushundi (or Shri Kak Bhushundi) is a great sage who was the first person to tell the stories of the Ramayana. He was transformed into a crow (Kak) by Sage Lomosh. He is a great devotee of Lord Rama who blessed him eternal life and limitless vision.

Kak Bhushundi and the Concept of Recurring Universes

It is said in the scriptures that Kak Bhushundi has the ability to stand "outside Time" and he saw the Ramayana enacted 11 times and the Mahabharata 16 times in different "Kalpa"-s.

Does this ring something similar about "Recurring Universes" (Big Bang to Big Crunch to Big Bang to Big crunch ... ad infinitum) and the start and the end of Time?

PART II : Temple decorations in West Bengal


In this part we'll discuss about the presence of the "Chiranjivi"-s in the decorations of temples of West Bengal.

Temple decorations in West Bengal

This basically means decorations on the temple walls, either external or internal. These decorations are mostly of Bas-relief on terracotta tiles, but other types are also seen. These include :
1. Cut-brick (carved-brick) terracotta.
2. Relief works in stucco.
3. Relief works in stone.
4. Relief works in stucco on stone.
5. Relief works in wood (almost always on wooden doors of the temples).
6. Mural/Fresco.

Different types of decorations in Bengal temples

Terracotta tiles with Bas-relief; Shiva temple, Sribati; Purva Bardhaman

Terracotta tiles with Bas-relief; Shiva temple, Sribati; Purva Bardhaman

Two types of terracotta : tiles (in the centre) and carved brick (on either side)

Two types of terracotta : tiles (in the centre) and carved brick (on either side)

Stucco decoration; a temple in Dubrajpur, Birbhum

Stucco decoration; a temple in Dubrajpur, Birbhum

Stucco on stone; Radheshyam temple, Vishnupur

Stucco on stone; Radheshyam temple, Vishnupur

Bas-relief on stone; Ganpur, Birbhum

Bas-relief on stone; Ganpur, Birbhum

Wood carving; Saraswati temple, Ambalgram, Purva Bardhaman

Wood carving; Saraswati temple, Ambalgram, Purva Bardhaman

Mural; Sridhar temple, Kotulpur, Bankura

Mural; Sridhar temple, Kotulpur, Bankura

Materials & methods

Photos have been shot and collected from about 80 temples in different districts (Murshidabad, Birbhum, Hooghly, Bankura, Purva Bardhaman, Paschim Bardhaman and Medinipur) by the author himself, then analyzed to arrive at certain observations.

The results are shared below.

Chiranjivi-s (Immortal Characters) in Bengal temple decorations

Out of the 10 Chiranjivi-s described in the scriptures, we can find only 5 in Bengal temple decorations.

They are :
1. Parashurama.
2. Hanuman.
3. Bibhishana.
4. Mahabali.
5. Jambaban.

Let us explore these one by one.

Parashurama in Bengal temple decorations

A. Presentation:

1. In the present series, all the examples are of terracotta tiles except one example of Stone work (Gokulchand temple of Gokulnagar, district Bankura).

2. Parashurama is depicted In the decorations of temples of West Bengal mostly singly, but in some cases he is seen facing Lord Rama.
The single depictions are from Dashavatar Panel, and those with Lord Rama are depictions of the Ramayana.

B. Weapons:

1. Parashurama is depicted with the customary axe (Parashu) in all cases.
2. In addition to the axe, in some cases Parashurama is seen holding another weapon - a bow.

C. Special case :

In one case (Charbangla temple of Baronagar, district Murshidabad), Parashuram is depicted with an axe in one hand and a severed human head on the other. Probably this indicates the killing of the Kshatriyas by Parashurama.

Parashurama in Bengal temple decorations

Stone carving; Gokulchand temple; Gokulnagar; Bankura

Stone carving; Gokulchand temple; Gokulnagar; Bankura

Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur

Jorbangla temple; Vishnupur

Parashurama with a severed human head; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Parashurama with a severed human head; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Parashurama confronting Lord Rama; Jorbangla temple, Vishnupur

Parashurama confronting Lord Rama; Jorbangla temple, Vishnupur

Hanuman in Bengal temple decorations

Innumerable temples have Hanuman in their decorations. If we analyze those pictures, we can come to the following findings.

A. Presentation:

1. Hanuman is depicted mostly in relief works of terracotta tiles, but examples of stucco (Shiva temple Nanur, district Birbhum) and stone (Shiva temple of Ganpur, district Birbhum) are also there.

2. Hanuman is mostly depicted in Ramayana scenes, but few examples are there which are not related to the Ramayana. For example, in the Hadkata Kali temple of Itanda village, district Birbhum, Hanuman is seen obstructing the chariot of the Sun-God (to eat the sun thinking the red disc a ripe fruit).

3. Hanumana in Ramayana scenes :

a) With Lord Rama (this picture is the most common depictions of Hanuman).
b) With Sita at Ashok Van in Lanka (Shiva temple, Sribati, district Purva Bardhaman).
c) Crossing the sea and facing demons Surasa and Sinhika (Gangeshwar temple, Baronagar, district Murshidabad).
d) Witnessing Akal Bodhan, the Untimely Worship of Goddess Durga by Lord Rama (Damodar temple of Mejotaraf, Hadal-Narayanpur, district Bankura and Sridhar temple of Sonamukhi, district Bankura).
d) In battle accompanying Lord Rama.
e) In battle carrying Lord Rama on his shoulder.
f) Rescuing Lord Rama and Lakshmana along with Goddess Durga from Patala after killing Ravan's son Mahiravan. (Vishnu temple of Hadal-Narayanpur village, district Bankura).
g) Present by the throne after coronation of Lord Rama (in the so called "Rama-Raja Panel").

What is missing?

In any analytical study, what is NOT there (i.e. Negative finding) is equally important as what IS there (i.e. Positive finding).

Here, we do not find any picture of Hanuman carrying the Gandhamadan Mountain from the Himalayas to Lanka which is a crucial event in the battle.
We also do not find the scene where Hanuman is desecrating Ravana's Yagna, which is also a very important event.
Finally, we do not find the dramatic scene where Hanuman is tearing open his own breast to show the presence of Lord Rama there (Oh! What a nice picture that would be!).

Hanuman in Bengal temple decorations

Hanuman with Lord Rama; stone carving; Ganpur, Birbhum

Hanuman with Lord Rama; stone carving; Ganpur, Birbhum

Stucco work showing Hanuman in Ram Raja Panel; Shiva temple, Nanur; Birbhum

Stucco work showing Hanuman in Ram Raja Panel; Shiva temple, Nanur; Birbhum

Hanuman blocking Sun's chariot; Terracotta; Kali temple, Itanda

Hanuman blocking Sun's chariot; Terracotta; Kali temple, Itanda

Hanuman with Lord Rama; terracotta; Gangeshwar temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Hanuman with Lord Rama; terracotta; Gangeshwar temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Hanuman with Surasa and Sinhika; terracotta; Gangeshwar temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Hanuman with Surasa and Sinhika; terracotta; Gangeshwar temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Hanuman with Jambaban; Ram Raja Panel; terracotta; Damodar temple, Hadal-Narayanpur; Bankura

Hanuman with Jambaban; Ram Raja Panel; terracotta; Damodar temple, Hadal-Narayanpur; Bankura

Hanuman with Sita at ashok Van; terracotta; Shiva temple, Uchkaran; Birbhum

Hanuman with Sita at ashok Van; terracotta; Shiva temple, Uchkaran; Birbhum

Hanuman rescuing Rama -Lakshmana and Goddess Yogadya from Patala; terracotta; Damodar temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura

Hanuman rescuing Rama -Lakshmana and Goddess Yogadya from Patala; terracotta; Damodar temple; Hadal-Narayanpur, Bankura

Hanuman carrying Lord Rama on his shoulder during battle with Ravana; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Hanuman carrying Lord Rama on his shoulder during battle with Ravana; terracotta; Charbangla temple; Baronagar, Murshidabad

Hanuman in Ram Raja Panel; terracotta; Pratapeshwar temple; Kalna; Purva Bardhaman

Hanuman in Ram Raja Panel; terracotta; Pratapeshwar temple; Kalna; Purva Bardhaman

Bibhishana in Bengal temple decorations

Salient points :

1. Depiction of Bibhishana is not very common in the present series.

2. In almost all the examples we get here, we see Bibhishana standing behind Lord Rama during His battle with Ravana.
3. In an exceptional case, in a Shiva temple of Uchkaran, district Birbhum, we can see Bibhishana is actually fighting against Ravana.

What is missing?

Here, we do not find any picture of Bibhisana leading Lakshmana to the place where Meghnad was performimg Nikumbhila Yagna, which is the most important single event leading to Ravana's defeat in the battle.

Bibhishana in Bengal temple decorations

Bibhishana standing behind Lord Rama; terracotta; Vishnu temple; Jaipur, Bankura

Bibhishana standing behind Lord Rama; terracotta; Vishnu temple; Jaipur, Bankura

Bibhishana standing behind Lord Rama; terracotta; Shiva temple; Uchkaran, Birbhum

Bibhishana standing behind Lord Rama; terracotta; Shiva temple; Uchkaran, Birbhum

Bibhishana standing behind Lord Rama; terracotta; Vishnu temple; Jaipur, Bankura (2)

Bibhishana standing behind Lord Rama; terracotta; Vishnu temple; Jaipur, Bankura (2)

Bibhishana fighting with Ravana; Shiva temple, Uchkaran, Birbhum

Bibhishana fighting with Ravana; Shiva temple, Uchkaran, Birbhum