Cosmology and Culture of the Chola World

Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur.  Source: Wikimedia
Brihadeeswara Temple, Thanjavur. Source: Wikimedia

During September of 2014, Dr. Bryan Penprase and Dr. Barney Bate, assisted by Rector Sarah Weiss, offered the Yale-NUS College students a “Week 7” experiential learning course entitled “Culture and Cosmology in the Cōḻa World.” 

Our group of 14 Yale-NUS College students on the  Culture and Cosmology in the Cōḻa World trip explored Hindu temples and art by day and by night peered into the clear, dark skies of central Tamilnadu as we contemplate the evolution of Indian cosmology over several thousand years.

In the trip we explored one of the richest of Indian’s ancient cultures and their approach to the universe – its spatial and temporal origins and the cIosmology and structure of the universe. The joining of cosmology and architecture is motivated by the temples and their place in the Cōḻa world, c. 9th-13th CE. The three temples we will spend the most time visiting in and around Thanjavur are stunning works of architecture in and of themselves. They are also cosmographic diagrams, images of the designers’ understanding of the universe, their Lord Śiva, and our relationship to Eternity. Everything about these temples – their layout on an East-West axis, the centering of structure on the deity, and the intricate carvings of stories about Lord Siva and his saints – was designed to provide the worshipper with an image and understanding of the universe and our location within it. We will spend approximately four days probing their understanding of these temples through extensive site visits, lectures by local experts, and readings.

Siva Natarajah, Chola Dynasty, Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Source: Wikimedia
Siva Natarajah, Chola Dynasty, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Source: Wikimedia

The trip also included an exploration of how the vision of the universe embodied in these temples inspired one of the greatest traditions of astronomy in the world. Cosmology was clearly a preoccupation of Indians over the millennia, and India invented many of key concepts by which we have understood our universe from ancient times to the modern cosmological paradigm of astrophysics. A favorite image of the Cōḻa period is of of the Lord Śiva, or Naṭarājah, the Dancing Lord, depicted in the midst of his eternal dance of creation and destruction of the universe. This vision was contemplated by Tamil Śaivaites for several millennia, and later refined into models of astrophysics by later descendants of this culture, such as Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Chandresekhar’s contributions to astrophysics include the discovery of the theory of collapse stars known as white dwarfs, and new theories of general relativity that have helped advance modern cosmology.

Vainu Bappu Observatory

Our deep contemplation of the origins of the universe, space and time included a visit to one of the most modern of the Indian observatories, the Vainu Bappu Observatory, which features a 2.3-meter telescope and some of the best spectrographs in the world. With such spectrographs, astronomers have been able to divide light into its component wavelengths to measure the expansion of the universe, and the elements in stars and galaxies thousands and millions of light years away. At the observatory we will discuss the origins of the universe, as described by astrophysics, with many contributions from Indian astronomers and astrophysicists. If weather allows we will peer back in time with telescopes to view stars, nebulae and galaxies hundreds, thousands and millions of years in the past, and develop a sense of awe as we witness the past with our own eyes. Throughout the trip we will (hopefully) also include sky viewing within the darkest rice fields we can find in the Cauvery River delta to help us contemplate the evolution of Indian sciences of astronomy and their contributions to the larger cosmology that emerged in the twentieth century, and which describes our own origin from an early universe of particles and forces that ultimately expands and cools to create the earth, stars, and people of today.

M33, Triangulum_Galaxy.  Newton 10" Telescope.  Source: Wikimedia

M33, Triangulum_Galaxy. Newton 10″ Telescope. Source: Wikimedia

Additional resources from this trip also are on this site:

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