These nine images, independently cast but otherwise the components of one theme, that is, the Navagrahas, or nine planets, represent seven planetary gods, named Surya – Sun, Moon – Chandra, Mangala – Mars, Budh – Mercury, Guru or Brahaspati – Jupiter, Shukra – Venus, and Shani – Saturn, and two astronomical entities, Rahu – North node, and Ketu – South node. Navagrahas are cast, engraved or sculpted together as a single artifact, whatever the medium, metal, wood, stone or colours, and are usually known as Navagraha-panel. Here the medium being bronze, a tough alloy, Navagrahas have been cast as nine independent images. Highly esteemed in Hinduism Navagraha panel usually comprised the upper lintel piece in early temple architecture – around seventh-eighth centuries, the lower one, immediately over the door-frame, being the Dasavatara panel – Lord Vishnu’s ten incarnations. This Navagraha panel on the temple’s door was believed to protect the shrine and its visitors from the planets’ adverse effect. A metal plate engraved with Navagraha figures or a Navagraha metal plaque usually formed part of Tantric austerities, and as much the part of a domestic shrine.
Besides representing cosmic bodies – planets, the first seven of the Navagrahas also represent seven days of the week. The last two Rahu and Ketu are neither the cosmic bodies nor are indicative of a time’s division – day, or the time’s any other segment. Most of the astronomical systems contend that Rahu and Ketu are not planets but only the shadow planets and as such cast their influence on every other planet and were also immensely powerful. Darkness being the character of shadow both Rahu and Ketu are known to cover with darkness every other planet they come in contact with. An early scripture like the Rig-Veda perceives Rahu as an inauspicious planet, a demon that devours the sun. The systems following Vedic line do not classify Ketu even as a shadow planet, and hence, restrict the number of planets to eight. As is the position in Rahu-related mythology, during the great event of ocean churning Vishnu had removed Rahu’s head. It was this decapitated head of Rahu that had transformed into an independent planet which was known as Ketu. This took the number of planets to nine.
As the related myths have it, after the ocean churning has been accomplished and ambrosia and other jewels have been recovered, gods, frustrating efforts of demons, took the pot of ambrosia into their possession and began hurriedly consuming ambrosia. Disguised as a god Rahu entered into gods’ line and obtained a share of ambrosia. He gulped it also; however, before he could swallow it one of the gods identified him and informed Vishnu who released his disc and removed his head. As ambrosia was still in the neck the Rahu’s head could not die and had life independent of the rest of Rahu’s body. Rahu’s head also transformed into a ‘graha’ and was identified as Ketu. It was as much powerful and notorious as Rahu. Also helpful in rare cases, Rahu and Ketu were invariably destructive and hence identified as inauspicious planets – ‘pap-grahas’. Appeasing them by worship or by whatever means is only to evade their destructive influence; however, evading their adverse influence is as good as gaining the favour of any other planet.
Other planets are divinities manifesting one cosmic body or the other. The popular tradition has woven around each a body of myths, sometimes even fixing its specific lineage and myths in which reflected also such planet’s essential nature. The Rig-Veda perceives sun, otherwise a planet – a cosmic entity, as one of the ‘Devatas’ that accepts ‘havya’ – offering made in the course of ‘yajna’. Though their presence as astronomical entities is as early as the cosmos itself, as divinities the emergence of moon and other four ‘grahas’ – Mangala, Budh, Guru, and Shukra, is late. The Puranas were the first to come out with myths related to them, the myths related to moon being more elaborate than those related to other four. Though it is alluded to also in the Mahabharata like early texts Shani is by and large a Puranic god. While myths related to the moon portray moon’s sensuous nature, those related to Shani are strange, awful and suited to the Shani’s mind-frame. Shani is both, ferocious and benevolent. Shani’s blessings are few but when in ferocious mood it plunders far greater destruction and is hence considered another inauspicious planet – pap-graha. Endowed of almost blinding lustre Shani was the son of Surya but when Shani as newborn opened its eyes for the first time, the sun went into eclipse. Thereafter Shani was commanded to keep its eyes closed. In visual representations also his images were cast with eyes closed.
As contends astrological studies, in particular Indian astrology, planets play a vital role not only in determining man’s life – his destiny, nature, prospects, progeny, name, fame …, but also the prospects of a nation, city or even an abode, business etc and denote the character of a particular moment or fraction of time. Scientific researching also supports astrological findings. Such researches contend that these planets are composed of various elements – minerals, metals and many similar components of which man does not have any knowledge. Such components are releasing such gases and chemical reactions that deeply influence their command area and its every entity. Except moon, Budh and Shukra, all other planets are multi-many times larger than the earth. Obviously, such planetary influences more effectively dent the life, matter, time and space on the earth when they move in the space.
Astronomically the entire space which is also the space around the earth is divided into 12 parts – zodiacs or zodiac divisions – ‘rashis’ under Indian system. Accordingly, each of these nine planets, or astronomical bodies, stays in a particular zodiac division for a definite time, which for the time being becomes its command area. If a planet completes its round in lesser time, it takes less time to pass across a division, but if it takes more time to complete its round, it stays in a zodiac division for a longer time and casts deeper influence. For example, Shani or Saturn is the most distant planet. It completes one round around the earth in thirty year time. Obviously it takes a minimum of two and a half year time to pass one zodiac division whereas it comes to seven and a half year if preceding and succeeding periods are also added – its total influence period. On the other hand, moon takes just twenty-seven days to complete a circle. Accordingly, it stays only for 54 hours in a zodiac and hence, its influence is minimal. Similarly, their elements-wise some planets are friendly to some zodiacs, and some, unfriendly. In the same way, in relation to a particular zodiac planets have a phase when they cast positive influence, and during another phase, negative.
In visual arts various planetary gods have developed around a distinct image form and set of symbols. However, in a small bronze icon – a very tough alloy, many minute details are a remote possibility. These bronzes are cast by the most skilled hands of Swamimalai artisans and this gives them rare distinction. Swamimalai, known world-over for the rare skill in bronze casting – an art now becoming rarer, is a small village near Chennai in Tamil Nadu. The Swamimalai artisans matured their skill through many generations across centuries of practicing. Each of the nine planets has also developed its own distinct imagery; however, the Swamimalai artisans have always preferred identical image forms as are in this panel. Except a few features, such as Shani’s appearance, Guru’s headgear, Rahu’s halo, or Shukra’s mount, most of the images are by and large identical.
This description is by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet.