Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains
Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains: Architecture, Religion, and Nature
Series: Global South Asia
- ISBN: 9780295744513
- Published By: University of Washington Press
- Published: March 2019
In his introduction to Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains: Architecture, Religion, and Nature in the Central Himalayas, Nachiket Chanchani asks two questions that frame the rest of the text: “First, how did the Central Himalayas emerge as a land of the gods (deva bhumi)? And, second, how did it develop into a sacred terrain, a focus of Hindu pilgrimage?” (6). After all, the Himalayas are a remote, thinly settled region, in which travel is still slow and laborious. His initial answer is that this was “a gradual, even halting historical process involving… many and varied communities living on the northern mountains and on the plains” (10). The book’s chapters, arranged chronologically, tease out this process.
Chanchani’s primary sources are architectural and figural—that is, he “reads” buildings and images to gain insights about their times. This strategy offers abundant data—whereas the region has fewer than two dozen inscriptions for the period between 3rd c. BCE and12th c. CE (15), the book’s first appendix lists 216 sites dating as far back as 550 CE, arranged alphabetically by district. The constraining factor is that such data is intelligible only to those who can read it, and Chanchani shines here, analyzing architecture and style to construct a dense historical and narrative picture. His expertise as an art historian is evident throughout: a helpful glossary of architectural terms, a schematic drawing (76) of a latina temple (the main Garhwali style), multiple temple floor plans drawn from site measurements, and stylistic comparisons between central Himalayan sites and images with those of other regions, ranging as far as Bihar, Gujarat, Karnataka, and trans-Himalayan Tibet. In his analysis of the Pandukeshwar temples, he deftly employs (as appropriate) both north and south Indian architectural terminology (118-22).
Despite its art history content this is not an art history book. This book uses art and architecture to write a history, which it supports with wide-ranging additional evidence: epigraphic sources, myriad texts (the Vedas, Mahabharata, puranas, classical dramas [kavya], travelers’ accounts, and local legends), and even dendrological research to estimate the age of Jageshwar’s deodar (Himalayan cedar) trees. It’s an impressive body of evidence that draws from multiple disciplines—exactly what one would hope for when historical evidence is generally patchy and scarce.
The text consistently highlights that despite being remote and difficult of access, the central Himalayas have always been connected with the rest of India—partly through trade, but more importantly through the transfer of objects, artisans, and technologies. These connections are evident in the Ganges-Yamuna valleys—as Kalsi’s Ashokan edicts and Rishikesh’s Mathura sandstone sculptures clearly show—and beyond. Lakhamandal’s dvarapalas (“door guardians”) are stylistically similar to sculptures at Deoghar and Mandasor (66). A Shiva temple inscription near Jageshwar reveals that its founder came from South India’s Telegu-Kannada speaking region (87). Pandukeshwar’s Yoga Badri temple is built (Chanchani contends) in the alpavimana (“single-story”) South Indian Dravida temple style. In the 11th century rulers in Karnataka and Gujarat were building “Kedarnath” temples in their own kingdoms, and Gujarati rulers were building Maru-Gurjaran style temples in the central Himalayas. This sense of connectedness has grown only stronger as roads have pushed farther into the region in the past sixty years.
The book’s central chapters (4-6) document the conscious creation of sacred centers at Jageshwar (4), Pandukeshwar and other sites in the Vishnu Ganga valley (5), and at sites first in the plains, and then back in the Himalayas (6). Aside from the artisans and builders who were active throughout, the primary agents in the first case were Pashupata Shaiva ascetics, in the second local and regional Himalayan rulers, and in the last extra-regional rulers. This last group’s activities attest that the central Himalayas were considered a sacred land, even as their temple-building further reinforced this idea. Yet this sense of Himalayan sacrality clearly goes back at least to the Gupta era—as Chanchani himself notes, the Deoghar temple (6th century) has a sculpture of Narayana (Vishnu) instructing Nara (the primordial man) at Badrinath (66). So whereas chapter 6 convincingly portrays this idea of Himalayan sanctity in full flower, the earlier chapters are so narrowly site-focused that some of the story seems obscured. Given the sparse evidence for those times it’s difficult to say how it could have been done differently, but I’m still wondering the extent to which the examples of Jageshwar and Pandukeshwar were emblematic for the rest of the central Himalaya.
The conclusion begins by lucidly summarizing the preceding text (up through the late medieval period) and then continues to the present. This last part is painted with the broadest strokes, and has a few niggling errors: Jesuit traveler Antonio de Andrade is variously listed as visiting Badrinath in 1621 (179) and 1624 (127), and Thomas Hardwicke’s visit to the Haridwar Kumbha Mela was in 1796, not 1789 (190). Some claims in this chapter are also subject to honest academic disagreement. As but one example, even though British colonial infrastructure undoubtedly stimulated travel to Kedarnath and Badrinath, I would not say that it spurred the Char Dham Yatra (192), since I would argue that this idea was formed post-independence.
These quibbles aside, this is an essential text for art historians, central Himalayan scholars, or anyone interested in artifact-based research. It is carefully and incisively written, visually lush with over 100 images (two of mine, in the interest of full disclosure), and almost every chapter has a dedicated map focused on that chapter’s sites. Indeed, one reason why I agreed to write this review was my desire to read this book a second time, and more slowly. That in itself is a strong recommendation.
James G. Lochtefeld is an Emeritus professor of religion at Carthage College.James G. LochtefeldDate Of Review:October 25, 2022