THE finest of Indian architecture is visible in its temples, unlike other cultures where their best architecture is visible in palaces and mausoleums. And such grandiose could not have been possible without patronage from the rulers of the time. And hence, the study of temples in India is also the study of the political and cultural history of our nation. The varying styles of artisanship, the shifting emphasis from one deity to another and the rituals followed give a large picture about people and life.
But for long, Indian history has been largely studied through texts, especially Sanskrit. Recently there has been a shift in this approach, with architecture, archeology, anthropology and oral traditions contributing to make the perspective on our history more holistic and rich.
Archeology and Text: The Temple in South Asia, a recent publication has put together several scholarly papers to highlight temples as a “major source for understanding the history of Indian culture and religion…” These selected papers were presented at a conference hosted by the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies (OCHS) in 2007 and have been edited by Himanshu Prabha Ray, Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
In his Preface to the book, Gavin Flood, Academic Director, OCHS says, “The temple signifies a new kind of understanding of religious life, an understanding closely linked with medieval political developments and rise of powerful dynasties. Indeed, the temple marks the importance of the region during this time was clearly a political centre and expression of power.”
The book’s editor Ray in the Introduction says, “Historians have, however, explained the origins of temple in terms of requirements of local political elite or landed intermediaries to legitimise their newly emerging status in a period of urban decay, decline of trade and agrarian expansion. There is unity also in the association of brahmanas with migrations and their role as priests in consolidating the new cults. The archaeological study of religious architecture provides a counter-position to this view and indicates a diverse landscape and the involvement of Buddhist and Jain monastic centres as well as brahmanas in social integration, rather than as agents of political legitimisation.”
There have been attempts to study the temple in a socio-economic and art context. The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts is running two pilot projects on Tanjavur and the Vraj region, looking at the temples’ iconography, rituals, the socio-cultural life around the temples and the economic impact of the temples on the population. There was a study some time ago on the influence of the temple (Manjunath temple in Karnataka) on the life of people living near it and on the town itself by a research scholar at NIPEA. But this book under review breaths a fresh life into the study of temples as sources of our history, an area largely ignored till now.
The book has 13 papers in all, divided into two sections – ‘Archaeology of the temple’ and ‘Asceticism and the Bhakti tradition.’ The contributors are: Himanshu Prabha Ray, Parul Pandya Dhar, Devangana Desai, Kumud Kantikar, Lisa N Owen, Sandrine Gill, Sanjay Garg, Indra Sengupta, Patrick Olivelle, Natalia R Lidova, John Stratton Hawley, John E Cort and T. S. Rukmani.
All the ancient temples in India have been built by specialised artists, the stapatis, who had mastery over the texts. The temple structure as symbolic of the human body and the human-cosmic relations have been written about by several scholars over the centuries. Essays in this book have approached the issue of temple in South Asia from a multidisciplinary perspective. This is an academic work, with all the contributors renowned in their respective fields of study. A very welcome addition to the study of Indian history.
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