Visiting Jessore is always a fantastic journey; not only because of the bountiful nuances of glorious history it encompasses but because, next to Rajshahi, it houses so many intriguing ancient historical sites. That said Jessore was also the first district of Bangladesh to be liberated from Pakistani forces on the 07th of December 1971. But that is not the focus here. Near the town of Jessore, there is a suburb called Chanchra and in there lays a Jora Shiv Temple at Murali in almost dilapidated condition. That temple is a tiny treasure trove of mythological creatures that spawn primarily the Hindu mythology preserved magnificently over the ages, and knowing its history only heightens its significance. Furthermore, getting there from Dhaka is not a big hassle and the can be done within a span of give and take five hours which makes it a must see for those interested in our ancient history.

As the name says, there are two almost identical Shiv temples in the location (Jora, meaning a pair) and the temple themselves are roughly 27 feet in height – not that impressive. However, what are impressive lies in the doorway of the first temple; the arch of the doorway is engraved in repetitive motifs and a little above it lies engraved the head of a mythical creature, with its head shaped like an elephant and teeth like that of a crocodile. Two heads are engraved in symmetry above two ends of the archway and jumping from the two heads are two lions in leap towards a fruit tree, their mouths perched open with a fruit clasped in their teeth. Furthermore, roughly 7-8 feet above the lions lie plastered a small almost destroyed image with four arms which could either represent the Hindu god Shiv, or Kali (Shiv’s destructive form is known as Kali; Shiv being the destroyer of the world). Above the plastered image lie a row of images of humans and one fruit, with the two heads of the mythical creature at two ends of the row as if engulfing the humans.

The Sea Monster

I was amazed the first time I saw the temple. Most famous temples are engraved with stories from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, such as the Kantajee temple or the Govinda temple, but this was a first I encountered in Bangladesh intricately decorated solely based on creature mythology. The elephant head with teeth of a crocodile was undoubtedly that of a makara. Locals address it as the mokkor and claim it to be a sea monster still lurking in the waters of our part of the world – our very own lochness monster you may say – and some even claimed that their forefathers had seen it. I do not know about the sightings but they were at least partially right.

The makara has appeared in Indian and Buddhist art from ancient times: on temple pots, on rare pre-Kusana (1st century AD, in the region that is now Afghanistan) coins, on temple walls, as sculptured waterspout. The makara is usually regarded as a soma animal: an emblem of the waters, the plants, the entire vegetal substratum of life; and in this connection it is thought to serve its primary artistic function – as the vehicle of the river goddess Ganga and the sea god Varuna, while representing the bringer of life. Yet, interestingly, its acknowledged prototype is the crocodile, an animal that from the beginnings of Indian civilization has been an object of fear and a symbol of the unknown sea. More intriguingly, the symbol sprouts on Shiv temples all over South Asia. The key lies in the makara taking the form of a crocodile.

Before moving forward it is important to note that the makara is depicted is many forms: in animal forms of elephant or crocodile or stag or deer, and in hind part as aquatic creature, as a fish tail or also as seal; sometimes, even a peacock tail is depicted. The Jora Shiv Temple is certainly not the only place in Bangladesh where the makara symbol has appeared, although its elephant form seems to be more dominant here. While the elephant form can also be found in a sculpture in Sonargaon, (which was once a Hindu settlement) the crocodile form can be seen in a single remaining terracotta plaque at the Khodla Moth in Ajodhya at Bagerhat feeding on a fruit from a tree (possibly representing life).

Origin and Significance

The animal may have first appeared on an Indus Valley seal of a boat sharply upturned at both ends, with a makara-like figure at the prow. To note is that the Indus Valley civilization dates as far as 3,300 BC meaning that the legend of the makara is very, very old. In an academic paper titled “The other face of the makara” by Steven Darian, he mentions that “among the two species of Indian crocodiles, the largest and most dangerous is found in the river deltas and along the seacoast, and it seems likely that the makara figure on the boat served as a talisman against the crocodile and the terrors of the sea.” Even today, makara handles can be found on the oars of country boats in Bengal if you look hard enough.

By Buddha’s time, Indian sailors had travelled great distances across the sea, reaching as far as Malaya and Indonesia. But fear of such journeys and the unknown alwaysremained, and from fear stemmed the significance of the makara and its body being partly shaped like that of a crocodile. Its significance can be found in famous Hindu and Buddhist ancient manuscripts. The Cullavagga (one of the sacred scriptures of Buddhism, 4th century B C) speaks of the makara as “great ocean creatures that… stretchfromone to five hundred leagues.” In the Avaddnasataka (translated as “Century of Noble Deeds;” it is an anthology in Sanskrit of legends, primarily concerning the Buddha and emperor Aśoka), a makara overturns a ship and the hero reaches shore by clinging to a plank. Reference to the makara is also even made by Kautilya in his famous book “The Artha Shastra” (2nd century AD) where the term makara is used for effective battle formation. It is interesting how fear slowly seeps into history’s corners in the form literature, motifs and symbols.

In other words, Shiv being the god of destruction is perfectly suited for makara. The impressive portion is how the makara symbolism have sprouted all over history ever since its first found depiction in the Indus civilization – from coins in Mohenjo Daro in 200 BC to the Jora Shiv Temple erected in 1782 AD (by the Chanchra Rajas). When I visited the Calcutta Museum, I found the makara in the Stupa of Bharhut that dated back to the reign of Chadragupta Maurya where several men on a boat were feeding human heads to the makara, as though a sacrifice to keep it calm. This corresponded to the makara heads in the Jora Shiv Temple where the heads positioned as if to engulf the humans in a row. When I visited the Rijks Museum in the Netherlands, the makara was there in a beautiful sculpture from the 7th century AD where it was engulfing a lion. The lion was also positioned in the Jora Shiv Temple, and in many other places where the makara is positioned, especially in Shiv temples. So, where does the lion come from?

The Story of the Lion

The lion represents various aspects in Hindu mythology. Since, we are dealing with the Jora Shiv Temple, I will focus on the lion’s connection with Shiv. As the story goes, when Shiv, was about to wed Parvati, a messenger came to him from the land of the demons. This messenger was Rahu, the demon that every now and then swallows the sun and so causes eclipses. The message he brought was that the king of the demons considered Siva unworthy to wed Parvati, and that he himself would take her instead.

On hearing this Siva became so angry that, before he could even speak, a monster in the shape of a man-lion, which was indeed nothing else than his own concentrated fury, sprang out from between his eyes and fell upon the unfortunate Rahu. Rahu, however, threw himself at Siva’s feet and begged for mercy, arguing, as the ambassadors of kings have always done, that he could not reasonably be held responsible for the message of which he was only the bearer. Siva, mollified, agreed to let him go. But the lion creature that was born of his wrath now turned upon Siva, and complained of hunger.

“You created me to devour the demon,” he protested. “And now you have forgiven him and sent him away. What am I to do?”

“Well,” Shiv agreed, “that is true enough; but if you have been cheated of one demon, there is still another. You will just have to eat yourself.”

And this the monster did. He began with his legs and then his arms, gradually eating himself up until nothing remained of him but the face. The sight of this so amused Siva that he appointed the lion spirit – or what remained of it – as guardian of his door, to be worshiped and fed with sacrificial meats by all who entered. Fascinating story!

Hence the lion carries the spirit of fury and that of involution. Assisted by the makara they do make a fearsome duo. However, the two together also represents the ability of the makara to absolve fury or destroy involution. Now involution can go both ways – change for the good or for the bad; and so can the makara – it can represent death or new life (from its sprouting vegetation as discussed earlier). In order words, Shiv has the ability to destroy what he sees fit and hence is to be feared.

Be it simply in legends through the makara or in reality through the crocodiles, the symbol has been immortalized in man’s history and it is fascinating to find inter-cultural connections. I am sure if we dig a little further we are bound to find connections with the Nordic Midgard Serpent or maybe even the Greek Ceto. After all, the origin of everything is nothing but simply an idea.

Article published in the Daily Sun Newspaper, Morning Tea Magazine on 13 May 2011.