Morning fog, enveloping Hindu temples on Durbar Square, Bhaktapur, central Nepal, evaporates at sunrise. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The word Hindu is of Persian origin, meaning ’people from the Indus’. Nowadays, however, it refers to followers of Hinduism as a religion. This religion has no founder, but is rooted in the Vedas (from the Sanskrit vid: to know) – a collection of doctrines, which arose among the Aryans, a Middle East tribe, who invaded the Indus Valley around 1500 B.C. The Vedas were learned by heart by Brahmins (scholars, or ‘priests’), and were passed on orally from generation to generation, until they were written down around 1800 A.D. The Vedas relate Aryan gods and myths, and among followers of this religion, ritual offerings were the main essence. Other gods and myths from the local Dravidian religion in the Indus Valley were incorporated into the Aryan religion, and Hinduism is the result of this amalgamation.
Hinduism differs from other world religions in that it does not instruct its followers to pray to specific gods, or to perform specific rituals. The spiritual universe is interpreted from e.g. the Vedas, and also to some degree from the great Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. There is a huge difference in the way that a philosopher and a farmer interprets and performs his religion, and Hinduism is so capacious that the business man of today can also find a meaning in it. For the major part of Hindus, their religion and their daily life are entwined to an extent, that Hinduism is best described as a way of life as well as a religion.
Hindu temples around a sacred lake, Pushkar, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
An entrance tower, a so-called gopuram, in a temple, dedicated to Devi, Shiva’s shakti, in a form named Minakshi, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. This temple is adorned with thousands of carvings. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Hindu caste system
The Aryan invaders were pale-skinned, whereas the local Dravidian inhabitants, whom the Aryans made their slaves, were dark-skinned. People were divided into four castes, in Sanskrit varna, which merely means ‘colour’ – in all probability referring to the various skin colours of the Indus Valley population. According to one Veda text, this classification of people was dictated by the gods.
Hindu rites, including presentation of offerings to the gods, are performed by the Brahmins, who interpret the Vedas, and often live strictly according to these doctrines. Originally, the Brahmins made rules for the righteous way of life for the four castes. Naturally, they placed themselves in the uppermost caste, Brahman, claiming that they originated from the mouth of the god Brahma, the creator of the Universe. (See paragraph ‘The most important Hindu gods’.) Today, not all Brahmins are scholars, but include persons from other trades, e.g. farmers.
The second caste, Kshatriya (in Nepal called Chhetri), were said to originate from Brahma’s arms. Traditionally, members of this caste were warriors, whose duties included protecting the country against invaders. In today’s society, they often occupy high posts in the armed forces and in the police, as government officials, or in various trades. The third caste, Vaishya, include farmers, artisans, traders, and others. They were said to originate from Brahma’s thighs. – These three higher castes are classified as dvija (‘twice-born’). Across their body, from their left shoulder to their right hip, many men of these castes wear a sacred string (janeu), consisting of three twined threads. The string of Brahmins is made of cotton, the one of Kshatriyas of hemp, and the one of Vaishyas of wool. – The fourth caste, Shudra, were said to originate from Brahma’s feet, typically including labourers and servants.
Over time, these four basic castes have been split into thousands of sub-castes, called jati, often based on the various branches of trade. Most Hindus marry within their caste, or even sub-caste, and it is your duty to observe its rules, morals, and rituals. These duties are called dharma.
Outside the caste system are dalit – ‘the untouchables’, or, as they are termed by the Indian government, ‘the scheduled caste’. They perform ’unclean’ work, such as refuse disposal and dealing with dead people or animals, including cremation and leather work. In principle, all non-Hindus are dalit, including Christians, Muslims, Indian tribal peoples, and tourists.
The Aryans, who invaded the Indus Valley, were pale-skinned, whereas the local Dravidian inhabitants, whom the Aryans made their slaves, were dark-skinned. – This turban-clad dancer in Bikaner, Rajasthan (top), is of Aryan descent, while the girl below, a Tamil from Tarangambadi, Tamil Nadu, is of Dravidian descent. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Brahmins interpret the Vedas, often living strictly according to these doctrines. This Brahmin is meditating on the shores of the sacred Ganga River (Ganges), Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Brahmin, performing an offering ceremony outside a temple, dedicated to the goddess of children’s diseases, Harati (also called Ajima). – Swayambhunath Stupa, Kathmandu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Brahmin, greeting the rising sun at dawn, Ganga River, Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
While waiting to perform ceremonies for pilgrims at the sacred Ganga River, Varanasi, this Brahmin is reading a newspaper. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Not all Brahmins are scholars, but include persons from other trades, e.g. farmers, like this elderly couple from the Kabeli Valley, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Janai is the sacred hand-spun string, which men from the three highest castes, Brahman, Kshatriya (in Nepal Chhetri), and Vaishya, wear over their left shoulder and around their body. On Janai Purnima, the Full Moon Day in July or August, every Tagadhari (‘wearer of the sacred string’) will change his janai with a new one. For Vaishnavites (followers of Vishnu), the Muktinath Temple, Mustang, central Nepal, is an especially auspicious place to change your janai. During Janai Purnima, thousands of pilgrims are crowding around this temple. These girls are cleansing themselves ritually, passing under 108 fountains, which bring forth water to the temple from the sacred Muktinath spring. These 108 fountains are shaped as ox heads, with the exception of three, which depict mythic creatures. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Pilgrim, igniting oil lamps during the festival of Janai Purnima, Muktinath. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Among followers of Hinduism, ritual offering is the main essence. These women carry offerings to a Hindu temple in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This woman is scooping up water from the sacred Ganga River (Ganges) into her cupped hands, then presenting it as an offering back into the river. – Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Small oil lamps and marigold flowers are placed on tiny ‘rafts’, made from leaves, and offered to the Ganga River, Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Flower garlands, malla, which have been presented as an offering to the Ganga River, are floating on the surface. – Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This man brings an offering to a statue of Kalo Bhairab – Newar people’s version of Shiva – Durbar Square, Kathmandu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Woman, burning incense as an offering to Krishna, Sri Venkatesvara Temple, Tirumalai, Andhra Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Aarthi is a ceremony, carried out at sunrise, in which incense is presented as an offering to the sacred Ganga River, Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Offerings of various herbs and flower garlands, malla, draped around a statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, Sri Minakshi Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Life without desire – moksha
In the West, most people understand time as a straight line, moving from the past, via the present towards the future. As opposed to this perception, Hinduism operates with a cyclic conception of time, envisaging the course of life as a wheel: You are born, grow up, and die, whereupon you are reborn in a different body. This process is called reincarnation, and devout Hindus claim that all living beings undergo this cycle. All Hindus hope for a better life in their next reincarnation. Whether you are reborn as an animal or a human, rich or poor, is determined by your karma – a result of your deeds in your former life. Broadly speaking, karma is a reckoning of your good and evil deeds. If you have performed more good than evil, you are reborn in a higher caste, but if you have done more evil than good, you are reborn in a lower caste, as a dalit, or as an animal.
The final goal, however, of an orthodox Hindu is to completely avoid being reborn, obtaining moksha – a state, in which you have no wishes or desires (corresponding to the nirvana of Buddhism). The best way to obtain moksha is through offerings, and through recognition without ulterior motives. Sadhus are holy men, wandering about, carrying very few basic possessions, making a living from alms. Many of these sadhus strictly follow the directions described above, and their only goal in life is to obtain moksha.
These pilgrims take a ritual, cleansing bath in the sacred Ganga River (Ganges), Varanasi. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sadhus are holy men, wandering about, carrying very few basic possessions, making a living from alms. – Kolkata, West Bengal (top); Madurai, Tamil Nadu (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
It is a common understanding among Westerners that Hinduism holds thousands of gods, but in reality, they are merely aspects of one supreme deity. Many Hindu gods have several names, and, altogether, these many different names reflect the corresponding aspects of the human mind. Originally, only male gods existed in the Aryan pantheon, but at an early stage, the female aspects, or energies, of these gods, called shakti, became an important part of worship. In daily use, this shakti is personified, becoming the ’wife’ of the deity in question. Worship of gods, called puja, takes place through prayer and offering at statues or images of the gods, which are found everywhere in streets, temples, and private homes.
Brahma, creator of the Universe, is often depicted on his mount, a goose, or standing on a lotus flower. He has four heads, often with a full beard, and several arms. Worship of Brahma only takes place on a small scale, probably because his deed is over and done with, and praying to him would hardly be of any benefit to you. Brahma temples are seen a few places, e.g. in the town of Pushkar, Rajasthan.
Saraswati is Brahma’s shakti (’wife’). She is depicted with four arms, often sitting on her mount, a swan. She is the goddess of learning, wisdom, and music, mostly worshipped by students. Many homes have pictures of her, in which she is playing on her string instrument, the veena.
This Khmer rock carving in the Stung Kbal Spean riverbed, Cambodia, depicts the reclining Brahma – creator of the Universe. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Brahma temples are only seen a few places, as here in the town of Pushkar, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
According to legend, at the beginnings of time, Vishnu was resting in the primeval sea, lying on a huge serpent, the seven-headed cobra Shesha. When he awoke, he had assumed the shape of a golden egg, from whose shells the Sky and the Earth were created. When the World comes to an end, he will assume a similar position, and from here recreate the world. In general, Vishnu is depicted with four arms, sitting, lying, or standing on a lotus flower, or on Shesha. In one of his hands, he holds a conch, which points towards the sea, where all creation began. His mount is Garuda, who is partly eagle, partly human, often guarding the entrance to Vishnu temples.
Vishnu represents the positive and preserving aspects, protecting humans and gods against demons and other evil forces. For this reason, he has been incarnated in nine other forms, so-called avatars. According to Hindu mythology, the tenth avatar, Kalki – a white horse with the head of a goat – will soon emerge on Earth, bringing about the end of it, due to Man’s excessive desire for material goods – a picture of our time? During religious festivals, or when on a pilgrimage, worshippers of Vishnu, called Vaishnavites, adorn their face with a white figure, shaped like a tuning fork, running from their forehead down the nose.
Lakshmi, Vishnu’s shakti, is the goddess of wealth, happiness, and beauty. She is often depicted on a lotus flower, or holding a lotus in her hand. Lakshmi is the most important deity during Dipavali, or Tihar, also called ’Festival of Lamps’. In the evening, during this festival, countless small oil lamps illuminate streets and houses, and long rows of lamps lead to the entrance of houses, so that Lakshmi can find her way to the family cash box and fill it up.
Vishnu is among the three most important gods in the Hindu pantheon. This picture shows a brass water tap in Tusha Hiti, the royal bath, from 1646, in the Old Royal Palace, Durbar Square, Patan, Kathmandu, depicting Vishnu and his female consort, Lakshmi, riding on their mount, the man-eagle Garuda. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This six-metre-long sculpture of Vishnu, called ‘The Sleeping Vishnu’, has been carved from one huge rock. He is depicted reclining in The Cosmic Ocean, resting on a somewhat unusual bed – the eleven-headed cobra Anantha Naga. In this picture, the face of the statue is being cleaned ritually with milk during the festival Haribondhi Ekadasi. – Budhanilkantha, Kathmandu Valley. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sculpture, depicting turtles, covered in green algae, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. Turtles are sacred to Hindus, as Kurma, the second avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu, was a turtle. – See further down on this page, ‘The Churning of the Milk Ocean’. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Khmer sculpture, depicting Garuda, the man-eagle mount of Vishnu. – Terrace of Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
During the Hindu festival of Tihar, or ’Festival of Lamps’, the goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, visits all her devotees. In the evening, countless small oil lamps illuminate streets and houses, and long rows of lamps lead to the entrance of houses, so that Lakshmi can find her way to the family cash box and fill it up. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rama, the seventh incarnation of Vishnu, who is often depicted with blue skin, is the main character in the great epic Ramayana. He was a crown prince, but, in a moment of thoughtlessness, his father promised one of his other wives that her son should inherit the throne, and that Rama should be expelled from the kingdom for 14 years. Rama knew of no other law than to obey his father, and spent his exile wandering about in the forests with his chosen one, Sita, and his half-brother, Lakshmana.
One day, Sita was abducted by Ravana, a ten-headed and twenty-armed demon from Sri Lanka. Hanuman, leader of the monkey army, which supported Rama, went to Sri Lanka to negotiate Sita’s release, but Ravana’s soldiers tied a rag, soaked in oil, to his tail and set fire to it. This was noticed by the god of fire, Agni, who protected Hanuman from the heat, while the flaming tail, in retaliation, set many houses on fire. An enormous leap brought Hanuman back to India. During the final battle, Rama managed to kill the evil demon, and Sita was released. When the 14 years of exile had passed, Rama went home and assumed his throne.
As a reward for his services, Hanuman was raised to become a deity. He inspires strength in people, making him popular among men, while women regard him with mistrust, because he is unmarried. During puja, Hanuman statues are smeared in orange sindur, consisting of cinnabar or another red dye, mixed with mustard oil. Due to the great deeds, performed by the monkey army in the Ramayana, monkeys are considered sacred, and troops of rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta), bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata), or grey langurs (Semnopithecus) often live around temples, where part of their diet is rice, sweets, or other edible offerings.
Khmer relief in Banteay Srei, Angkor, Cambodia, depicting a scene from the epic drama Ramayana. The monkey brothers Sugriva and Valin battle for the crown, while Rama fires an arrow at Valin, killing him. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Balinese Keçak Dance (‘Monkey Dance’) depicts a scene from the Ramayana. Rama’s fiancée Sita has been abducted to Sri Lanka by the demon king Ravana, and Hanuman’s monkey army is trying to rescue her. – Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This sculpture, depicting the monkey god Hanuman, is adorned with flower offerings. – Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Over the years, the features of this sculpture of Hanuman have become blurred, due to a thick layer of orange sindur (red powder, mixed with mustard oil), applied by devout Hindus. – Pashupatinath, Kathmandu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Due to the great deeds, performed by the monkey army in the Ramayana, monkeys are considered sacred, and troops of monkeys often live around temples. This female rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) and her young are feeding on rice grain, presented as offerings at the Swayambhunath Stupa, Kathmandu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Krishna, eighth incarnation of Vishnu, is depicted with blue skin, often playing on his flute. He is a very popular deity, often depicted with his greatest love, Radha, or with gopis, beautiful female herders, whom he was fond of seducing. Krishna grew up with a herdsman, well protected against a cruel king, Kansa, who was killing man-children, as a fortune teller had warned him that he would be overthrown by a young man. A divine voice, however, warned Krishna, who took shelter with the herdsman. When he had reached manhood, he killed the evil king and liberated the people.
Krishna is one of the main characters in the great epic Mahabharata, which describes a conflict over the throne between the five Pandava brothers and their cousins. In a passage of the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita (’The Sublime Song’), Krishna is the charioteer of one of the Pandava princes, Arjuna, trying to convince the prince that he must fight for honour and power – even against relatives.
Carving in a window opening, depicting Krishna, Vishnu’s eighth avatar, in a local black form, named Jagannath, together with his brother and sister. – Puri, Odisha (Orissa). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Khmer relief, depicting Krishna, killing the evil King Kamsa. – Banteay Srei, Angkor, Cambodia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Celebrating the festival of Maha Shivaratri, these men are performing as Krishna (with blue skin) and an unknown god, aiming at each other with bow and arrow. – Jaipur, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
According to the Mahabharata, the famous Hindu epic, one of the Pandava brothers, Bhima, spent some time in exile in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, northern India. He fell in love with a local beauty, Hadimba (also called Hidimbi), who, as a young woman, had vowed to marry the man, who was able to defeat her brother Hadimb (or Hidimb) – a very brave and strong person. Bhima managed to kill Hadimb, whereupon Hadimba married him. Later, the local people regarded her as a goddess, an incarnation of the supreme Mother Goddess, Devi. – This picture shows the Hadimba Temple in Manali, erected in 1553 over a cave in a huge rock, where Hadimba supposedly meditated. Later, the rock was worshipped as an image of the deity. The temple is adorned with horns of e.g. bharal (Pseudois nayaur), and antlers of Kashmir stag (Cervus hanglu). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Shiva is a complex deity, destructing and reconstructing in an eternal interaction. He is often performing a savage dance, his four arms flailing in dynamic positions. His hair is tied in a knot, which is also seen among many of his followers, called Shaivites. In one of his hands, he holds a trident, a trisul. On his forehead is a third eye, which is able to behold what is hidden for humans. His forehead is adorned with three horizontal lines – a pattern, which his followers also use. His mount is a great bull, Nandi, which is often lying in front of Shiva temples. Shiva is also connected with cremation platforms, where he, according to legend, dashes about, smeared in ashes. For this reason, Shaivites often smear themselves in ashes and dust. A lingam is a phallus-shaped stone, representing Shiva as the creator of fertility and life. A lingam is often placed on a yoni, a carved, flat stone, which resembles a stylized vagina. In most Shiva temples, many of these so-called yoni-lingams are erected.
Devi is Shiva’s ’wife’, also called Parvati, Sati, Uma, or Durga. Many Hindus regard her as the great Mother Goddess – a symbol of the natural forces, which create, as well as destruct, the World. She is often depicted, riding on a tiger or a lion. A bloodthirsty form of Devi is bluish-black Kali, in whose temples a daily offering of blood is made. In former days, certain Kali sects sacrificed humans, but today billy-goats and roosters are the most common offerings. Kali is often depicted with a bloody sword in one of her many hands, and the chopped-off head of a demon in another. Her tongue is blood-red, hanging far out of her mouth, her necklace and belt consist of chopped-off heads, and chopped-off arms are tied around her hips. Kali worship mostly takes place in West Bengal, and Kolkata (Calcutta) – formerly Kalikata – is named after her.
Lichen-covered sculpture in a temple, depicting Shiva and his mount, the bull Nandi. – Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A lingam is a phallus-shaped stone, a symbol of the fertility god Shiva. This four-headed lingam is situated outside a Hindu temple in Parphing, Kathmandu Valley. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A linga-yoni comprises a lingam, placed in a yoni, a stylized vagina, symbolizing the unification of Shiva and his shakti, Devi. – Budhanilkanth, Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lingam, linga-yoni, and Shiva’s trident (trisul), Amritsar, Punjab. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ganga Thapa, a young pilgrim of the Chhetri caste, applies a tika mark on his forehead, taking the vermilion dye from a small Shiva shrine at the Gosainkund Lake, Langtang National Park, central Nepal. – More about the sacred Gosainkund Lakes is found on this website, see Plants: Plant hunting in the Himalaya – Around sacred lakes of Shiva. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Several days before an important festival, Maha Shivaratri (‘Great Shiva’s Night’), is celebrated, numerous Shaivites (followers of Shiva) gather at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu – by many Hindus considered the most important Shiva temple in the world. During this festival, many Shaivites, smeared in ashes, and wearing nothing but a loincloth and rosaries, smoke charas (hashish) to enter a different mental level, and thus get in contact with their god. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Procession with decorated elephants during the festival Maha Shivaratri, Jaipur, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Hindu mythology, Mahishasura was a powerful demon, who threatened the power of the gods, and not even the mighty gods Vishnu and Shiva could resist him. But Durga, Shiva’s shakti (female energy), took action. Riding on her lion, she attacked Mahishasura, who first changed into a huge buffalo, then into a lion. Durga sliced off his head, but he then changed into an elephant, whereupon Durga cut off his trunk. The demon hurled large mountains at the goddess, but, nevertheless, she managed to kill him with her spear. – This sculpture in the great temple at Aihole, Karnataka, depicts Durga, riding on her lion, battling against Mahishasura. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The festival of Dassera, or Durga Puja, celebrates Durga’s victory over Mahishasura, the buffalo-headed demon. – In this picture, a procession with musicians is marching through the streets of Kullu, Himachal Pradesh. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Deshnok, Rajasthan, a local goddess, Karna Mata, is regarded as an incarnation of Devi, Shiva’s shakti. Her followers believe that if you are reborn as a rat, you escape the wrath of Yama, the god of death. For this reason, rats are sacred in the Karna Mata Mandir Temple, in which pilgrims feed a horde of black rats (Rattus rattus). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A bloodthirsty form of Devi is Kali, in whose temples a daily offering of blood is made. These Newar people are waiting in line with their offerings at a Kali temple, Dakshinkali, Kathmandu Valley. The goat has just left pellets on the feet of a woman (top). The ritual slaughtering of the sacrificial animals is performed by people of a certain caste (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Ganesh, who is the youngest son of Shiva and Parvati, has a human body, but the head of an elephant. He is often depicted with his four arms raised in a friendly gesture, while standing on his mount – a rat. He is a very popular deity, and before making important decisions it is wise to place a flower garland (malla) on an image of Ganesh, while saying a prayer.
There are various legends as to how Ganesh got his elephant-head. According to one of them it happened in this way: One day, when Shiva was away on a longer journey, Parvati wished to take a bath. She created a young man from clay to guard outside the house, while she was having her bath, ordering him not to let anybody enter the house. Shortly after, Shiva returned from his journey, and the young man told him not to enter the house, as he was ordered. This made the fierce-tempered god so furious that he chopped off the young man’s head. This deed, however, made Parvati so angry that she threatened to destroy the universe, unless Shiva restored the young man’s head to his body. Sadly, his head had been destroyed, so Shiva ordered a servant to go outside the house and take the head of the first one he would meet. This happened to be an elephant, and the servant – taking his master’s order literally – ordered the elephant to hand over his head.
Sculpture, depicting Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, adorned with mallas (garlands), made from marigold flowers. – Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This malla has been presented as an offering outside a shrine, dedicated to Ganesh, Asan Tole, Kathmandu. An albino black rat (Rattus rattus) is interested in eating the flowers. Incidentally, the mount of Ganesh is a rat! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hinduism in Southeast Asia
The spread of Hindu religion and culture to Southeast Asia began in the first millennium B.C., partly through traders, who settled there, partly through conquests. Hinduism had an enormous influence on the civilizations of Southeast Asia. Indian merchants probably brought Brahmins with them, and these Brahmins were patronized by rulers who converted to Hinduism, hereby giving birth to numerous Hindu empires in Indochina, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Java, Bali, and parts of the Philippine archipelago. Notable among these kingdoms was the Khmer Empire, which left a superb legacy in the shape of the Angkor Wat ruins, in present-day Cambodia.
Over the years, in most of the former Southeast Asian Hindu kingdoms, Hinduism was replaced by Islam or Buddhism. Hinduism is still the major religion on Bali, but in most other places, only minor Hindu communities exist today, mainly comprising descendants of Indian settlers, especially Tamils.
Sculpture, depicting the Sun god, Surya. – Sun Temple, Konark, Odisha (Orissa). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The festival of Thaipusam, which celebrates Shiva’s and Parvati’s son Subramaniam (‘The Virtuous One’), takes place in the Batu Caves, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. During this festival, pilgrims undergo various self-inflicted pains to have their wishes fulfilled. This man has pierced his cheeks with a spear (top), and this one has stuck numerous small needles into his tongue (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A famous Hindu legend, ‘The Churning of the Milk Ocean’, from the Bhagavata-Purana, relates that the gods had become weakened and had been usurped by the asuras (demons). The gods appealed to the supreme god Vishnu for help, and he suggested that they should regain their power by drinking the miraculous amrita, the nectar of immortality, which they could obtain by churning the cosmic milk ocean, thus bringing the jar with amrita to the surface. However, Vishnu advised the other gods to treat the asuras diplomatically by suggesting them to jointly churn the ocean. When the amrita was brought to the surface, Vishnu would ensure that the gods got hold of it.
To perform this stupendous task, the gods and the asuras uprooted the mountain Mandara, placing it upside down in the ocean, and coiling the giant, many-headed naga (serpent) Vasuki around it. By pulling alternately at each end of Vasuki, the mountain would act as a gigantic churn, thus bringing the amrita to the surface. However, the mountain began sinking into the ocean floor, so Vishnu assumed the shape of a gigantic avatar (incarnation), named Kurma, half man, half turtle, dived to the bottom of the sea, and placed Mandara on his back, thus supporting the churning.
Finally, the jar with amrita surfaced, whereupon a fierce battle between the gods and the asuras ensued, the latter grabbing the jar and running away with it. Again, the gods appealed to Vishnu, who assumed the form of a new avatar, Mohini, a beautiful goddess, who seduced the asuras and managed to get hold of the jar of amrita, thus preventing evil from becoming eternal, and preserving the good.
In this frieze at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Hanuman, the monkey god, is urging the gods to pull harder on the body of Vasuki. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Part of a long line of sculptures at Angkor Thom, Cambodia, depicting asuras, holding on to Vasuki. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Khmer relief, depicting a scene from a legend, ‘Fire in the Kandava Forest’. Riding on his three-headed elephant, Airavata, the rain god, Indra, creates rain to extinguish the fire. – Banteay Srei, Angkor, Cambodia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Almost all deceased Hindus are cremated. For the sake of the next reincarnation of the deceased, his or her relatives make a great effort to carry out the cremation in a proper way. The oldest son, who is tonsured, ignites the funeral pyre. To increase the chances of the deceased obtaining moksha, the ashes are strewn into a sacred river – preferably the Ganges. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
During the festival of Holi, or ‘Festival of Colours’, people smear one another with dyed powders. These two pictures are from Rajasthan. The lower picture shows a young man, throwing red powder on women, who are leaving a temple. – Read more about the Holi festival on this website, see Travel episodes: India 1991 – Attending Hindu festivals in Rajasthan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Hindu festival of Bisket Jatra is celebrated with vigor by the Newar population of the town of Bhaktapur, Kathmandu Valley. During this festival, numerous men haul a chariot, containing an image of Kalo Bhairab (Shiva), through the streets of the town (top). – These men, who have just sacrificed a goat to Kalo Bhairab, have applied oil to the head of the goat and ignited it (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The South Indian festival Pongal, or Sankranti, celebrates the outset of the harvest. During this festival, cows are washed and decorated with turmeric powder, their horns and hooves are painted, and they are fed with pongal (a mixture of rice, sugar, lentils, and milk). – Mysore, Karnataka. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
According to legend, the moon god Chandra was the progenitor of the rulers of the Chandella Empire, situated in present-day Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. A beautiful woman, Hemavsti, were bathing in Lake Rati, in moonshine, when Chandra descended from the sky and embraced her. Later, she gave birth to a son, who became the first ruler of the Chandella lineage. Between 900 and 1050 A.D., 85 stone temples were erected in Khajuraho, whose friezes and sculptures depict many aspects of life in those days. Most striking are numerous depictions of women in challenging positions, their hips and breasts accentuated, and mithunas – men and women during intercourse. These sculptures in the Vishvanath Temple depict a voluptuous woman (top), and a mating couple, with two other women who seem a bit embarrassed. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Khmer Empire left a superb legacy in the form of the Angkor Wat ruins, in present-day Cambodia. In the 19th century, when European travelers visited the ruins, most of them were overgrown by rainforest. Since then, most of the vegetation has been removed, with the exception of Ta Prohm, which has been preserved in the state it was found. This picture shows a ruin, overgrown by a huge rainforest tree, Tetrameles nudiflora. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Huge, carved faces of a Hindu Khmer king, Lokesvara, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Prambanan, a 40-metre-high Shiva temple near Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia, erected in the 9th century A.D., during the reign of a Saivite king of Mataram. This temple is part of a complex, comprising 242 temples, which was rediscovered in the 1880s. Prambanan was restored in 1953. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Khmer relief, depicting Hindu apsaras (‘heavenly nymphs’, or ‘daughters of joy’), female court dancers and prostitutes. The darker colour on their breasts stems from greasy hands of numerous visitors! – Angkor Wat, Cambodia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Algae-covered sculpture of Rangda, a Hindu demon queen, with lolling tongue and pendulous breasts, Wenara Wana (Monkey Forest), Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded May 2017)
(Revised March 2018)