Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England

Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos

 

 

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Nobody knows how and when the labyrinth symbol first appears in the Indian subcontinent. In Europe it first appears in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, around 2000 BCE, at first as petroglyphs on rock art panels and later on artefacts, found from Spain to Syria, and especially around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The spread and development of the labyrinth within Europe during Prehistory, and particularly during the periods of Hellenistic and Roman influence, has provided a remarkable selection of survivals from these earliest stages in the history of the labyrinth symbol, and also provides the first examples of the development of the labyrinth design into new forms at the time of the Roman Empire.

But the labyrinth is also found in regions of the world far beyond the bounds of Europe, from the Middle East, in the Indian subcontinent, and also in parts of Indonesia that were influenced by cultural and trading contacts with India. While most frequently found in Hindu and Buddhist contexts, the labyrinth is also occasionally encountered in the Islamic world.

Although the labyrinth is rare in Islamic architecture, several early Islamic texts record and illustrate labyrinths, which are of particular interest to us here. A manuscript study of India, written in 1045 CE by the Iranian geographer Abu'l-Rayhan Al-Biruni, illustrates a Classical labyrinth and records it as a plan of Ravana's fortress at Lanka, as described in the Ramayana epic, in which the demon Ravana abducts Sita, the wife of the hero Rama, and holds her hostage in the impenetrable fortress. Rama, with the aid of an army of monkeys, attacks the fort and eventually rescues his wife. A later 13th century Islamic geographer, Al-Qazwini, also figures the labyrinth in a manuscript, but here refers to it as a plan of Qustantiniyya (Constantinople), another city with both real and mythical dimensions (Kern, 2000).

A more recent document from Afghanistan, collected in the early 20th century, is also accompanied by a simple drawing of the labyrinth symbol (Kern, 2000). Alongside it is an explanatory text that tells the story of the House of Shamaili - that once there were seven princes, sons of King Namazlum, who all wished to marry the beautiful Shamali, the daughter of King Khunkhar, the bloodthirsty. The King had promised his daughter's hand to the first suitor to catch sight of her, but kept her imprisoned in a secret room in his palace. The first six princes try to find Shamaili, but all are killed by the King when they fail to locate her hiding place. The seventh, Jallad Khan, manages to reach her by hiding in a magical dancing statue which so impresses the King that he has it taken it to Shamaili's room. Under the cover of darkness, Jallad Khan exchanges rings with the sleeping princess and claims his prize now that all the King's conditions are met. Khunkhar agrees and he and Shamaili are married, only then does Jallad Khan avenge his six brothers and rob Khunkhar of his eyesight. This story has certain similarities to the story of the fall of Troy, which fell to a similar deception, this time involving the famous wooden horse.     

Currently the earliest evidence for the labyrinth in Asia is probably a labyrinth carved amongst other prehistoric petroglyphs, recently discovered on a riverbank at Pansaimol in Goa (Kraft, 2005). The age of this labyrinth is the subject of considerable dispute amongst experts on Indian rock art, but it could date to the Neolithic period, maybe c.2500 BCE, which would make it as old, if not older, than similar early labyrinth petroglyphs in Europe. Several examples of the labyrinth symbol have also been found amongst cave art in the north of India. One example at Tikla, in Madhya Pradesh, has been dated to approximately 250 BCE, although doubt remains as to whether the labyrinth is contemporary with other more dateable figures (Kern, 2000). Two examples recently reported at Pangawan (?) are even more uncertain.

An example carved on the floor of the Ondavalli Temple in Andhra Pradesh, could have been carved at any time since the temple's construction in the 6th or 7th century CE, although it appears alongside other early inscriptions (Hyland, 1993). Like the all of these ‘early’ labyrinths from the region, is of the 'classical' form.

A number of labyrinths, all of the classical design, have recently been documented in the Kota villages of the Nilgaris Mountains in the northwest of Tamil Nadu, in the villages of Gudalur Kokkal (4 examples), Sholur Kokkal (3 examples) and Trichikadi (5 examples). Most of these small labyrinths, 15-25 cm in diameter, appear carved on rocks at communal gathering areas where the men of the village would meet, and often alongside similarly inscribed game boards, known as Puli Attam -the Tiger Game (Kürvers, 2006).

Another example in this same area, carved on a dolmen shrine at Padugula (and now missing), has been claimed to be as old as 1000 BCE, but in common with the examples carved in the Kota villages, is probably no earlier than the 14th century CE, when the Kota settled in this area. Clearly, more research and secure dating is required before a tentative history of the earliest labyrinths in India can be written.

In Pakistan, an early knowledge of the labyrinth is demonstrated by the carving of a labyrinth on a boulder along the banks of the Indus river at Shatyãl. Dated to the first few centuries CE, it is accompanied by numerous other Buddhist figures and symbols at a resting spot on a branch of the great silk route that linked India to Central Asia, followed by pilgrims and traders alike. Eighteenth and nineteenth century labyrinths are also known in northern Pakistan, where a series of labyrinth carvings, often in the prayer rooms of Islamic mosques have been documented (Scerrato, 1983), usually situated low down on pillars, to enable study while sitting at prayer. Several such labyrinths, carved at the base of pillars in the Mosque of Lamutai, have unfortunately been destroyed in recent years as the old timber mosques in the region are demolished.

During the 18th century, the Vatican sent many missionaries to work in Nepal and Tibet. Their reports and letters provide a wealth of information about the region at this time and amongst the reports of Father Cassiano da Macerata, of his travels through Nepal and Tibet in 1740-45, is an account of a labyrinth carved on a stone in the royal palace at Bhatgao (modern Bhaktapur) in Nepal (Lundén, 1998). The design was said to represent a plan of the walls defending the fabled city of Scimangada, which despite their strength, were breached by treachery.

Cassiano, who had already visited the overgrown site of the city, deep in the forest, relates how the walls enclosing the city were: …a labyrinth which it was impossible to enter except on a single spot, and after having entered there one had to pass beneath four fortresses, which were evenly distributed from place to place within the enclosures of the labyrinth… Cassiano goes on to tell the local story of how an aggrieved minister of the King of Scimangada plotted to overthrow the King and revealed the weakest point in the defensive walls of the city to the attacking army of a rival Muslim Emperor, with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants of the city.

This description is accompanied by a sketch plan of the city defences, drawn as a perfect Classical labyrinth, with forts marked at the terminal ends of the walls, the city at the centre and the point of the fatal breach marked where the four walls cross at the core of the labyrinth. Cassiano implies that his sketch is based upon the inscription on the inscribed stone in the palace at Bhaktapur, although unfortunately the whereabouts of this stone is currently unknown.

However, another depiction of Scimangada was recently rediscovered during restoration work at the temple of Dattatreya in Bhaktapur. Unlike the Classical labyrinth employed at the royal palace, this takes the form of a curious swastika/labyrinth hybrid, 71 cm. square, painted on a wooden panel set into the ceiling of a large meeting room on the first floor of the building. This, too, shows the complex defences of the city with warriors, chariots and elephants parading around the walls. A similar swastika-labyrinth pathway is also to be found, laid out on the ground in the form of 500 or more votive lingas, within the enclosure of the temple of Pasupatinatha, also in Nepal (Cimino, 1995), and a number of carved stone panels with the same design have recently been reported on the Ibrahim Rouza mausoleum (built in the 1620’s) at Bijapur in Karnataka (Saward, 2006) and forming the design of a decorative water labyrinth carved from marble (from c.1800), originally from Rajasthan, but now in a private collection (Bowden, 2008).   

The extensive overgrown ruins of the city of Scimangada (at modern Simraon, 90 km. south of Kathmandu) remain largely unexcavated. Historical sources record that the city was founded in 1097 and was the seat of a powerful local dynasty, until it was destroyed in 1325. Although no systematic survey of the site has been produced to date, a high inner wall surrounded by concentric earthen walls and ditches are still visible. It is clear that the defensive walls were only a metaphorical labyrinth, we should not expect to find any trace of an actual labyrinth at the site, although Cassiano records that ancient coins issued in the region bore the labyrinth symbol on their reverse, but to date, no examples of these have been found.

The parallels between the story of Scimangada and the defences and subsequent fall of the classical cities of Troy and Jericho are quite striking, but there is no need to look to European or Middle Eastern sources for origins, as the labyrinth has a long tradition in the legendary literature of India. The appearance of an apparent reference to the labyrinth design in the classic Indian epic Mahabharata, has ensured a wide knowledge throughout the continent.

The Mahabharata was clearly influenced by the campaigns of Alexander the Great in the late 4th century BC, although the text as handed down to us was probably added to until the first few centuries AD. The epic relates that at the battle of Kurukshetra, the magician Drona endeavours to ensure victory for the Kaurava army by devising a troop formation, Chakra-vyuha (wheel battle formation), that "the gods themselves could not enter." However, Abhimanyu the son of Arjuna, the only other person who knows the plan of Chakra-vyuha and sworn enemy of Drona, joins the fray on the side of the Pandavas. He knows the way in and kills many enemies along the way to allow the battle to be won. But Abhimanyu never learnt from his father the route out of the labyrinth and was killed at the centre by arrows fired from all sides.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Temple of Kali, at Kurukshetra, where the Pandava went to pray before the battle, has a classical labyrinth painted on the floor of a niche in the temple to this day, although it is difficult to know how old this decoration may originally be (Saward, 2005).

Whether the Chakra-vyuha and the labyrinth symbol were associated from the earliest origins of this story is uncertain, but they certainly were by the late 12th or 13th century AD, when two depictions of the Kurukshetra battle were carved on the carved friezes of the Hoysaleshvara and Kedareshvara temples at Halebid in Mysore (Kern, 2000). Both show an army of warriors arranged in labyrinth form, although the design used in both cases is a modified Classical labyrinth with the central section replaced with a spiral; a variant common in India and rightly labelled the "Chakra-vyuha" type.

The labyrinth has been recorded in a number of Indian manuscripts from the 17th century onwards, particularly from Rajasthan and Gujarat (Kern, 2000). Many appear on Tantric drawings, magical charms to provide protection for the owner. Several of these are designed specifically for easing labour pains during childbirth and provide instructions to draw the accompanying Classical labyrinth pattern, Abhyumani Yantra, with saffron on a metal plate, rinse it and drink the water to provide relief from pain and ensure an easy birth. In this context it would appear that the labyrinth symbolises the path of the baby out from the mother's womb - a one-way passage.

Labyrinths have also been recorded as tattoo patterns in southern India and found in the design copybooks of wandering Korowa tattoo artists. In the region of Tamil Nadu, in south-eastern India, labyrinths are still to this day employed as protective devices known as Kolam, elaborate patterns marked on a freshly scrubbed doorstep or porch with finely powdered rice flour, an offering to Lakshmi, the goddess of rice, earth and wealth, to stop evil spirits from crossing the threshold and to ensure general good fortune to those in the house (Layard, 1937; Kern, 2000).

Perhaps the most surprising form of labyrinth encountered in India are the stone and boulder labyrinths, found in the regions of Madras, Orissa and Tamil Nadu, in southern India. A surviving example beside the Baire Gauni resevoir, near the ruined town of Kundani in Tamil Nadu,  is of the Chakra-vyuha design, 8.5 metres in diameter and formed with lines of stones embedded in the ground (Kürvers, 2006). A larger example, at Sitimani near Bijapur, was known locally as the Lakshmana-mandal and had walls formed from mounds of rocks. Regrettably, it has now been destroyed by a recently completed dam project (Saward, 2006). A remarkable example near the temple of Rhanipur Jharial, 50 km. north of Titlagarh in Orissa, is approximately 25 metres in diameter and was supposedly laid out by the Yogis who gather here to venerate the 64 female Yogis to whom the temple is dedicated (Kern, 2000).

The age of these stone labyrinths is completely unknown and little documentation of these monuments exists. Their location in the vicinity of standing stones and other ancient structures has been taken to imply a considerable antiquity. Indeed, these labyrinths in India remain an area for much further research and, no doubt, further exciting finds.

Finally, the island of Sri Lanka, off the southern coast of India, also has several labyrinths recorded. They appear in temple wall paintings from the 18th century in the temples of Mädavala and Arattana in the districts of Kandy and Nuwara Eliya respectively, in the central highlands of the island (Kern, 2000). Both are accurately drawn classical labyrinths, representing the Vanga-giriya (Crooked Mountain), a place of banishment for Prince Vessantara, a figure from Buddhist mythology. Exiled for seven months to live with his wife and children in two huts deep in the jungle, the track was supposedly so overgrown that there was only room for one person at a time on the path that led to the huts. As we have seen before, another occasion where the labyrinth symbol can be employed to help tell the tale.

While the labyrinths in India and its surrounding countries are comparatively little known, and much further research is required before an accurate history of the use of this universal symbol in the region can be told, I hope these notes will help spur further research and interest. Undoubtedly, many more historical labyrinths remain to be discovered in the regiond Sri Lanka, and the author is always keen to hear of new discoveries and further details of those mentioned here. Please contact me with your discoveries, so that they can be added to the catalogue of labyrinths in the Indian sub-continent given below.

Jeff Saward, Labyrinthos, March 2009

Labyrinths in India, Pakistan, Nepal
& Sri Lanka -
by Jeff Saward

Back to Introduction Page

Labyrinth carved on a pillar in the old mosque at Tal,  Pakistan

Location

Type

Age

Comments

 

 

 

 

Pakistan

 

 

 

Lamutai

wooden sculptures

?

Two labyrinths on pillars of mosque prayer room    

Mankyal Bala

inscription

?

Carved on door frame of mosque

Shatyal

rock inscription

?

Dated first few centuries CE?

Tal

wooden sculpture

?

Carved on pillar of mosque prayer room

Utrot

wooden sculpture

?

Formerly on prayer room pillar, destroyed 1980

 

 

 

 

Nepal

 

 

 

Bhaktapur  

stone carving

?

Reported 1740, whereabouts now unknown

Bhaktapur

ceiling painting

?

Recently restored in the temple of Dattatreya, swastika-type

Pasupatinatha

‘stone’ labyrinth

?

Formed from over 500 votive stone lingas, swastika-type

 

 

 

 

India

 

 

 

Baire Gauni

stone labyrinth

?

8.5 meter labyrinth of uncertain age - 14th cent. CE or later?

Bijapur

stone carving

c.1620

24 Swastica-meander labyrinths on the Ibrahim Rouza shrine

Gudalur Kokkal

rock inscription

?

4 labyrinths carved on rocks -  14th cent. CE or later?

Halebid

stone carving

12th/13th cent. CE

Carving on wall of the Kedareshvara temple  

Halebid

stone carving

12th/13th cent. CE

Carving on wall of the Hoysaleshvara temple

Kurukshetra

temple painting

?

Painted in alcove of the Temple of Kali - age uncertain

Ondavalli

inscription

?

Graffito on temple floor, age uncertain

Padugula

rock inscriptions

?

carved on a shrine, age uncertain, now destroyed

Pangawan

rock paintings

?

Two labyrinths, age unknown

Pansaimol

rock inscription

Neolithic ?

Large labyrinth with prehistoric carvings, c.2000-2500 BCE ?

Rhanipur Jharial

stone labyrinth

?

Huge labyrinth formed of stones, near ancient temple

Sholur Kokkal

rock inscription

?

3 labyrinths carved on rocks -  14th cent. CE or later?

Sitimani

stone labyrinth

?

Large labyrinth formed with mounds of stone, now destroyed

Tikla

cave painting

c.250 BCE?

Age uncertain

Trichikadi

rock inscription

?

5 labyrinths carved on a rock -  14th cent. CE or later?

 

 

 

 

Sri Lanka

 

 

 

Arattana

wall painting

mid-18th century

Temple wall painting  

Madavala

wall painting

1755

Temple wall painting  

Historic Labyrinths in India, Pakistan, Nepal & Sri Lanka

Below are given the locations of permanent labyrinths found as monuments, carvings and inscriptions, temple paintings, etc.
Temporary examples, portable items, manuscripts, etc., are not included in this catalogue.

References & Further Reading:

Surprisingly little has been published about labyrinths in this region. The best overall source remains Hermann Kern's encyclopedic Through the Labyrinth (Prestel, 2000), which has a catalogue of examples from this region, especially those appearing in early manuscripts, on pages 286-295, 301 & 303. My book Labyrinths & Mazes (Gaia & Lark Books, 2003) also has an illustrated summary, catalogue and distribution map.

Details of particular examples can also be found in the following books, papers and articles:

Bowden, John. “A Water Maze from Rajasthan, India” Caerdroia 37 (2008), p.56.

Brooke, S.C. "The Labyrinth Pattern in India" Folklore LXIV (1953), pp.463-472.

Cimino, Rosa Maria. "A Short Note on a New Nepalese Labyrinth" East and West 45 (1995), pp.381-385.

Hyland, Paul. "The Ondavalli Labyrinth" Caerdroia 26 (1993), pp.11-12.

Kern, Hermann. Through the Labyrinth. Prestel, 2000, pp. 286-295, 301 & 303.

Kraft, John. "The Oldest Labyrinth in India?" Caerdroia 35 (2005), pp.57-59.

Kürvers, Klaus. "Kota Labyrinths in Southern India" Caerdroia 36 (2006), pp.38-52.

Layard, John. "Labyrinth Ritual in Southern India" Folklore XLVIII (1937), pp.116-182.

Lundén, Staffan. "A Nepalese Labyrinth" Caerdroia 26 (1993), pp.13-22.

Lundén, Staffan. "A Nepalese Labyrinth" East and West 48 (1998), pp.117-134.

Nath, Ashoke. "Hoary Past of Goa" India Perspectives vol.14/1 (2001), pp.2-5.

Saward, Jeff. Labyrinths & Mazes. Gaia/Lark Books, 2003, pp.60-66.

Saward, Jeff. "A Labyrinth at Kurukshetra, India" Caerdroia 35 (2005), p.59.

Saward, Jeff & Kimberly. "Labyrinths in Western India" Caerdroia 36 (2006), pp.59-62.

Scerrato, Umberto. "Labyrinths in the Wooden Mosques of North Pakistan" East and West 33 (1983), pp.21-29.

Schuster, Carl. Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art, Volume 3, Book 2, ed. Edmund Carpenter. New York: Rock Foundation, 1988.

Wall painting, Mädavala Temple,
Sri Lanka

Stone labyrinth, Baire Gauni

Stone labyrinth, Sitamani

Korowa tattoo pattern

Kolam pattern, Tamil Nadu

Hoysaleshvara temple, Halebid

Temple of Kali, Kurukshetra

Ibrahim Rouza, Bijapur

Labyrinth carved on a dolmen shrine at Padugula

Labyrinth  inscription, Ondavalli

Dattatreya temple, Bhaktapur

Inscribed stone (now missing), Royal Palace, Bhatgao

House of Shamali, Afghanistan

Labyrinth petroglyph,
Pansaimol, Goa

Photo: Jeff Saward, February 2006

Labyrinth  petroglyph, Pansaimol