I had barely walked 20 steps when my feet began to burn in protest. The natural heat of the Western Ghats was quite bearable compared to the pollution heat of the cities. But my feet weren’t used to walking bare under the afternoon sun’s glare. I tip-toed past the tall and colourful gopuram and into the Sringeri Temple premises.
To the right stood the presiding deity Sharada Devi’s Temple. In the middle stood the ornate Vidyashankara Temple in this otherwise humble place of worship. To the left was an open shelter for shade-craving devotees. Way ahead of it all, I could see steps leading to the Tunga River. The entrance, where I stood, was a good hundred steps away from the staircase. I decided to go for it. My feet weren’t impressed.
Walking as fast as I could, I made it past the vast quadrangle, down the stairs to the river. Tunga flowed gently past the temple, as big, blackfish created ripples in her shallow waters. Devotees seemed to pause by a space amidst the steps. I wondered what shrine would fit in an extended crevice between two steps. It was a stone sculpture of a snake using its hood to shelter a spawning frog from the sun–a story believed to be the founding factor behind the temple. The locals say that upon seeing such kindness from a natural predator, Adi Shankaracharya picked this site to teach his disciples. The story of the snake and the frog supports the Advaita Vedanta philosophy he propounded. So, it’s not really a surprise that the Acharya was inspired to choose this place for teaching his disciples.
The riverbank reached out to the child in me, not only for its snake-and-frog story but also for the leaping fish in the water. They splash around in a huddle, close to the bank, happily eating away pilgrims’ offerings. It’s a custom here to feed puffed rice to the hungry fish. Needless to say, I did a thorough job of it. After I had overfed the fish, I made my way to the Sharadamba Temple, the main structure in the premises. The fragrance of camphor invited me in, and my feet sighed in relief when I walked into the cool sanctum.
The Sharadamba Temple was like any other South Indian temple heavy with Dravidian architecture and heady with fragrant camphor. And like you’d picture a goddess, Sharada Devi was adorned with care; the deep red saree and shiny nose-ring suited her. I knew this Hindu goddess was considered an embodiment of knowledge. But I didn’t yet know of her significance in the temple’s birth. Later, I was told that Shankaracharya chose Sharadamba as the presiding deity, for she is the female alternative for Dakshinamurthy–the male God of Knowledge. As female deities in our culture are generally perceived to be more giving and kind, she was the Acharya’s natural choice. It follows, then, that Sharada Devi blesses a devotee not only with knowledge but also with motherly love.
Having received the prasad, it was time to visit the Vidyashankara sanctum, the structure that Sringeri is known for today. There’s a reason this part of the temple is more popular than the rest: it is intricately sculpted in the Hoysala and Vijayanagara styles of architecture. What’s more, ornate sculptures aside, this structure is a record of the astronomical expertise of medieval south India. The temple hall flaunts 12 pillars with carvings that represent the 12 zodiac signs in astrology. The rays of the sun on any specific pillar correspond to the position of the sun in that zodiac sign’s constellation!
But really, it wasn’t the architecture that had me hooked. I was more drawn by the legends of kindness that form the temple’s history. Kindness and generosity are virtues Adishankara’s disciples are known to have lived by. One disciple is known to have dropped a handful of gold coins into the river to show that he was willing to pay the sculptors well for building the temple. Another is known to have distributed dry fruits and nuts to underprivileged children every day.
Even today, such innate goodness seems evident in Sringeri. The present pontiff is known to adopt deer to help conserve them, while some scholars from the Sringeri Mutt continue to educate the needy. I found an explanation behind these touching instances, when I met Sanskrit and Vedic scholar Giridhara Shastry, during my visit. He clarified that ahimsa is, after all, the first step for an Advaita practitioner on his path to dharma. The very philosophy nurtures kindness, generosity, and dissemination of knowledge to all.
We rarely give a thought to the underlying principles behind a place of worship. But if we were to trace the stories behind their origins, we may be able to dig up profound wisdom. I was initially worried I hadn’t been very devotee-like, running first to the river, instead of the sanctum sanctorum. But listening to Dr Shastry’s rendition of the birth of this temple, it seemed I was simply retracing Adi Shankaracharya’s philosophical steps. My feet were happy to know that.