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: firstname.lastname@example.org) 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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