Powers of Life and Death

Lights at a roadside shrine

In his introduction to Tantra Song (written about previously here) Lawrence Rinder invites us into the world of Tantric images by describing how he feels when he is out in the countryside, looking at the trees and the stars:

I have little idea what I am looking at, even though I might be able to give it a name, or perhaps recall some principle of nature that has made it as it is. What I see is color, texture, shape. I see energy, evidence of change, and the transforming powers of life and death.

He goes on to draw an analogy to the experience of looking at mystical images such as those contained in Tantra Song:

Franck André Jamme’s collection of Tantric images affects me in a similar way. Just little scraps of paper really with barely a mark upon them. Simple. Anonymous. Repetitive. But utterly riveting. I can’t begin to say what these images are. I know virtually nothing about the tradition from which they spring…In these divine images, I find an echo of art.

It helps that I have a very broad definition of art…Maybe art isn’t quite the right word: let’s call them experiences that ground us in the real, images that cut to the quick of what we might be.

Rinder’s response to Franck André Jamme‘s collection of sacred Tantric images parallels my own response to those exquisite forms. It also played out for me again during my weeks visiting living Hindu temples in southern India.

Much has been written to denigrate the dark side of our Western proclivity to be idea tourists, shopping for concepts and tokens inappropriately stripped of their sacred cultural context. But there is a significant distinction between insensitive, sacreligious appropriation and the open mind/open heart position that Rinder describes. His words have helped me find a place of integrity to stand as I encountered these deeply moving rituals and celebrations. And even though I am not an expert on Hindu thought and will always be an observer looking in from the outside, I feel the connection to the “transforming powers of life and death” that are played out every day in these ancient shrines.

Inside the temple at Madurai

Chanting in the ancient temples of Hampi

Offerings of coconuts and flowers, ready for the pilgrims at Chamundi Hill in Mysore

Jain priest at the foot of the immense statue of Lord Gommateshwara

Hindu variation on milagros

Temple entrance, Madurai

Altar at Madurai

Nandi in the Shiva temple at Madurai

Generally inclusive, Hindus have their limits too

Puja procession at Madurai

Putting the gods to bed…Madurai

Temple elephant at Thanjavur: A coin offering gives you a gentle tap on the top of the head

Sacred lingam at Thanjavur

Brahmin family’s prostrate offering at Kanchipuram

Gods adorned, a sign of being cared for

Pilgrims in Chidambaram, a part of life

Wise men in the digital age

Ornamenting the tree

Offering to Nandi, in Kanchipuram

Reader at Sri Kanchi Kamakshi temple

5 Replies to “Powers of Life and Death”

  1. These are such powerful images, though completely strange to me as a westerner, with so much color and so much imagination. It must be overwhelming to be in the midst of this, rather than see a selection of sculpture in a museum.

    1. Altoon, the otherness of these places and rituals is part of what astounds me, both visually and conceptually. They show up in my dreams for months, and I am sure they are tempering the nature of my work in the studio in their own subtle fashion. My going there is my own kind of pilgrimage, something I feel I need every few years.

      Thanks for your comments.

  2. In the case of these displays of huge stone carvings, yards of bright draped fabric, opulent tropical flowers, tattooed elephants, ornate columns, painted drawings, wooden mobiles, costumed figurines, festooned alters, henna powdered statuary, seems to be every conceivable way to display the mystery of the power of the gods and the care given to them, quite a visual avalanche!

    1. Di, I love that phrase, a visual avalanche. Yes! Thanks for your list. It IS an extraordinary inventory of images.

  3. Fantastic post and images…I love the colors, absolutely fascinating. I hope to one day immerse myself in this rich culture. Thank you for sharing.

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