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Oct 24

Written by: Jennifer Kumar, Cultural Adjustment Coach
Friday, October 24, 2008



Submitted by: Sudarshan Madabushi
Photos by: Krishna Kumar

This is a short article on the etymology of the Sanskrit word "gOpuram" -- temple-tower. It's a very intriguing topic, indeed.

Honestly, I do not know the exact linguistic origin of the word. I am only speculating wildly when I say that "gOpuram" comes from "gO puram" where "gO" probably refers to cows or cow-shed, "gO shAla", and "puram" means "city", "neighbourhood" or "residence".

In ancient days, temples in India did have separate quarters inside the temple precincts to house many cow-sheds. Often these cowsheds were built abutting the temple tower (as can be seen even now in the Kanchi Varadaraja temple), giving hence the temple-tower its unique name of "gO puram" - the "residence of cows".

My other guess is that the "gO" in the word might refer to God's "tirUnAma" of "gOvinda" or "gOpAla". Since the temple is a residence ('puram') of Govinda or Gopala, its great tower was probably given the distinctive name of "gO puram". I'm however a little uneasy with this explanation, because when I look at a Shiva or Shakthi temple in India I find the tower there too being called "gOpuram" and I know that the word "gO" is not used to designate or, in any way, associated with the deities, Shiva or Amba.

Between the two theories above, I personally prefer the 'cows' & 'cowsheds' one. Cows or "gO" are said to be utterly and completely 'sAttvic' creatures and are the natural favourites of the Almighty. That is why Vedic adepts have said that if one has a problem finding a suitable place to perform a Vedic "yagnya" (rite of sacrifice) like "agni-hOtra" or daily "owpAsana", one need look no further than the nearest 'gO shAla'. It is easily the second-best place for 'yagnyA-karma' next to a properly sanctified 'yagnya-shAla'.

I have another observation to make here.
The very soil inside a temple is said to be supremely sacrosanct. We should ask ourselves why it is so. If there are indeed any "gO shAla-s" within a temple and the herds are often led about, here and there, within the precincts, then the soil they trample upon is said to become "gO dhULi" -- the dust thrown up by cow-hoofs. This fine dust blown off the hoofs of cows is held to be sacred since in the 'Krisha-avatAr', the Lord as a simple cow-herd at Brindavan lovingly tended these blessed creatures and, in the process, was perennially being peppered by the dust and grime they kicked up as they went around grazing. Krishna of Brindavan must have been a real sight indeed covered as He was, all the time, in hoof-dust! This is the reason why it is said that of all the names or "tirUnAma" given to Krishna, the one he cherished most as being the aptest one for him was -- "gOvindan".

Now, whenever a pilgrim in India enters into the portals or the "gOpuram" of any temple, he is expected to mentally re-live the scenes of the "krishnAvatAra" and imagine too, as well, the "gO dhULi" spread fine all across the cowherd, Krishna's person. The soil upon the temple-grounds is to be regarded as the same dust that came off the hoofs of those blessed cows at Brindavan. Why? Because the cows of Krishna's times are to be reverentially regarded as the ancestors of the cows now being witnessed by the pilgrim in the 'go shAla' of the temple.

Thus, the long and short of it all is this:
The tower that guards the sacred, "sAttvic" soil of "gO dhULi" strewn and spread all across the temple grounds -- such a tower, quite appropriately, gets the name "gO puram".


These are just a few of my unschooled thoughts. Sanskrit is such a bewitchingly beautiful language it is always a delight to theorize with license upon its ancient linguistic roots.

I now request real scholars of Sanskrit on this list to please throw more linguistic light on the etymology of the word "gOpuram".

Originally submitted by Sudarshan Madabushi (e-mail: mksudarshan2002@yahoo.co.in) in 2004 to my old website.
This was reprinted from a posting at his yahoo group- tiruvenkatam. Please visit their site at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/tiruvenkatam/ if you are interested. The group is described as: ""Tiruvenkatam" is a cyber-community devoted to informal discussions about Vedantic philosophy with special but not exclusive reference to SriVaishnavite scripture, theology, doctrine, tradition, literature and personalities, both past and present."

Photos taken by Krishna Kumar at Suchindrum Temple, Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, 2007.


Read more of Sudarshan's articles here.



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Copyright ©2008 Jennifer Jayanthi Kumar


3 comments so far...

Re: Gopuram: Etymology of The Hindu Temple Tower

Jennifer's interpretation Go = cow and Puram = city seems fine. But it may not be exact place to tie cows nearby. compared to the ancient wilderness of India, of woods and wild animals, inhabited more by hunter gatherers and shifting cultivators, who were not pastorals, the organized city with grazing grounds around and wilderness kept away through forest clearance, the Gopuram rising into the sky signified civilzation, populated place with cows and temples offering shelter to Brahmins.

From Dr M D Subash Chandran mdschandra@yahoo.com

By M D Subash Chandran on   Monday, November 01, 2010

Re: Gopuram: Etymology of The Hindu Temple Tower

Thank you, Dr. Subash. i like this intrepretation as well. I would not have thought of it. It makes perfect sense! Thanks for speinding time on my website.

By admin on   Monday, November 01, 2010

Re: Gopuram: Etymology of The Hindu Temple Tower

Dear Sudarshan and all writers on this thread,
Gopuram seems to be a proper Tamil word, not Sanskritic in origin. Originally pronounced kopuram. See this knowledgeable exposition:
It says,
This sound (க் + ஓ) can refer to something
* Which is at a higher point,
* Can be seen from a distance,
* To gain from a distant place,
* To Separate and Take,
* Which is unique or different from others.
The two first senses are so fitting that I think we need look no further. I am satisfied that we have the meaning of GO here.
Puram as a Tamil word doesn't possess any meanings that make sense in connection with gopurams. It would therefore make sense if it is not originally a Tamil word or root. Puram is probably cognate with pyramid; though this derivation is probably not historically verifiable any longer. An intuitive hunch of this connection was what led me into this investigation.
The change from y to u is a small one. The y was presumably in Egypt originally pronounced like it was in ancient Greek, i.e. like the German and Turkish ü, a sound which people not used to it find difficult to make. It is easy to see why this sound that would have undergone this change even in a conservative religious context.
Pyramid, by the way, seems to be derived from pyro = fire and mid = middle, center. Fire in the center. Seeing a pyramid as something that focuses energy this makes much sense.
Reading various websites on the construction of vimanas and sikharas, the similarity with pyramids (which are also used to focus energy on the central chamber) is recognised at least by some Hindu writers.
Pyramid building was common to all the ancient cultures, and the only strange thing about it in connection with India is why they are not earlier than they are. Perhaps smaller ones existed. It would interest me if anyone knows about this, for if so, there must be remains of some of them.
However, a later connection cannot be ruled out., There is known to have been a Buddhist mission in Egypt around Jesus' time. The world was more connected than we tend to believe today.
If anyone has relevant information, please write to isakottoATymail.com (replace the AT with @ of course.)
Best regards, Isak

By Isak Otto on   Saturday, June 11, 2016

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