Roundtable The Modern Lives of Hindu Temples

AHA Session 283
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Boylston Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Deborah Sutton, Lancaster University
Leslie Orr, Concordia University

Session Abstract

The Hindu temple is a palimpsest of material and devotional forms in which a complex of divine and temporal authority co-exists with everyday ritual performance and celebration. Temples have proved evasive subjects for successive state projects in South Asia.  Large temples control swathes of revenue and possess substantial autonomous wealth while small temples, embedded in localities, rely entirely on daily donations and unmediated ritual for their existence and meaning. As sacred sites, temples can step in and out of history, being appropriated for other purposes or falling into disuse before resuscitation and rededication. In periods of conflict, temples have served as fortifications, marking points of safety and supply to insurgents and state alike. Although often linked into networks by practices of devotion and traditions of iconography, temples are not subject to institutional or doctrinal hierarchies. The intention of this panel is to explore the ways in which the fabric, inhabitants and landscape of the Hindu temple have been encountered, and accounted for, by modern sensibilities over the last 250 years. Indeed, the term ‘temple’ is a modern distillation; encapsulating (and overwriting) a range of regional and local designations: mandir, covil, thakurbari, alayam, etc. Throughout the early modern period (and beyond) temples were both nodes of devotion and cultural practice and targets of political and military action. During the nineteenth century, the governments of the East India Company and the British-Indian state sought generic solutions to understand - and later to extricate its officers from - the deep involvement with temple administration acquired in the course of territorial conquest. The colonial state floundered between its own parsimonies and pieties on the one hand and a desire to moderate a range of temple functions, both revenue and ritual, on the other. By the twentieth century, the temple was idealised as a repository of both antiquity and national religious tradition. The independent Indian state has consolidated and added to the layers of custody claimed over the temple, in particular in laws designed to invigilate its form and fiscal activities. This panel will also explore the relationship between temple form and the broader dispositions of Hinduism in the modern period. Patterns of religious practice underwent considerable change in nineteenth-century South Asia. Hindu thought and custom were re-imagined in ways which challenged and redefined the ritual space of the temple. Literary and historical claims have been asserted to the meaning of temples in the recent and remote past. These representations both redeemed and retold fragments of temple traditions and erased and simplified the life of temples. In every project of custody - whether customary, literary, theological, juridical, art historical – the Hindu temple has presented a moving target, swiftly evading attempts to abstract and regulate it. The aim of the panel is embrace this aspect of the temple and explore new methods and sources in the cultural, art historical and architectural history of the Hindu temple.

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