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The Himalayan Lore: Construction of the Sacred

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Book Review

By Dr. Satish C. Aikant

Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains: Architecture, Religion and Nature in the Central Himalayas

By Nachiket Chanchani

Niyogi Books,  Pages 284, Rs.2495.

On a fateful day in June 2013 a catastrophic and unexpected downpour swamped the Kedarnath valley in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand as the river Mandakini rose devastating entire communities along its banks when the pilgrimage season was at its peak. Thousands of pilgrims perished in the disastrous floods and vast tracts of land were swept away. Yet the temple itself remained undamaged as if by divine intervention. While a glacial lake overflowed, a heavy boulder came down to divert the waters away from the temple, thereby preventing its collapse. As a priest later recalled, the boulder, named as ‘Bhima Shila,’ was testimony of Siva’s protective fondness for Kedarnath.

Kedarnath in the central Himalayas is a significant node of the sacred Geography of India and a focus of Hindu pilgrimage. In fact, the entire terrain is known to the people of the region as Dev Bhumi, ‘land of the gods,’ an exalted landscape, held sacred since antiquity.

How did the Dev Bhumi come to acquire the status it has? No doubt there are references to it in several canonical texts of Hinduism including the Rigveda, the Mahabharata, the Puranas (especially the Skand Purana) and Kalidasa testifies to the beauty and majesty of the Himalayas by calling it nagadhiraja (king among the mountains), but there is no comprehensive academic study of the sacrality of the Himalayas. Fortunately we now have Nachiket Chanchani’s book Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains: Architecture, Religion and Nature in the Central Himalaya that explores  the emergence of the Central Himalayas as a Deva Bhumi which, as the author argues, was a gradual historical process involving dynamic interactions among and between indigenous  communities living in the northern mountains as well as those migrating from on the plains that lie to their south.

Mountains, particularly the Himalayan mountains, have increasingly attracted the attention of writers, cultural enthusiasts, spiritual seekers, religious devotees, trekkers, mountaineers and the common folk, who visit and revisit these to experience their cultural and religious resonance. In popular imagination Himalaya stands out not only for its spatial expanse, but also, being close to the firmament, as the symbol of transcendence.  Various narratives have reinforced ideas about the dense sacrality of the landscape. Nachiketa’s study is not limited to the observable phenomena but goes deeper to understand the agency which was at work behind the transformation. His extensive fieldwork attempts to reveal the processes at work and the movement of ideas, political forces and architectural imperatives that led to the transformation. His study melds diverse strands of evidence to investigate the construction of sacrality in the Central Himalayas and to suggest the channels that contributed to the region’s eventual status as a key destination of Hindu pilgrimage.

Though the broader landscape of central Himalaya has been known to exist since immemorial antiquity, the developments that occurred approximately between the third century BCE and the twelfth century CE emerge as being especially crucial in transforming this mountainous region from a distant ‘natural’ frontier to an exalted region and ultimately into a major locus of Hindu pilgrimage.

At the time of the Gupta empire, the Himalayan mountains and rivers (Ganga and Yamuna) were a part of the epigraphic imaginary. One of the earliest inscriptions belongs to an Ashokan edict (third century BCE) located at Kalsi on the banks of the river Yamuna. A large number of extant monuments, sculptures and inscriptions recovered from the Central Himalayas (from Purola, Lakhamandal, Palethi, Talesvara and Koteshwar etc.) can be dated to sometime between the fifth and seventh centuries The temple building technology was introduced by artisans from the plains who were also responsible for building the temple of Lakhamandal.

The author convincingly builds the argument that the sacred is not an essential and unchanging phenomenon. Rather, that which comes to be sacralized over time can be compared to a tapestry that has been woven and rewoven from an amalgam of diverse threads – cultural, economic, social, political, and religious. Brahmanical doctrines of an eternal religion (sanatan dharma) notwithstanding, Hinduism too must be regarded as a culturally constructed category by underlining the changing perceptions of the divine.

An important aspect of the study of sacredness is ‘interconnectedness’ as Diana Eck, a scholar of Indic religions, has observed. The creation of repetitions and homologies -,rather than an exclusive emphasis on uniqueness is identified as a crucial way of creating and maintaining sacred centres. The rise of great sacred centres and journeys to them also served the social function of forging unity. Historically, pilgrimages have promoted socio-cultural affiliations as well as political consolidation in South Asia. It also contributes to the richness of communal life since, as Romila Thapar comments: ‘Participating in a pilgrimage not only dulls the edge of social differentiations and sectarian demarcations but it also creates a temporary identity of community.’

The temple architecture in the north shares the style of the south and the west suggesting close linkages of the south and the north. The linkages attributed to pilgrimage though trans-Himalayan connections could not be ruled out. At the close of the Gupta Age, the technology of constructing brick buildings was also introduced from the northern plains to Himalayan hills. The earliest brick temples in the Central Himalayas stand in Koteshwar and Lakhamandal villages in Uttarakhand. These monuments allowed builders to negotiate claims over the region and construct sacrality and served as conceptual predecessors for a tradition of stone construction that began in the seventh century.

The Central Himalayas contain by far the greatest surviving conglomeration of stone temples and steles in the wide swath of territory extending from Kashmir up to Kathmandu. One hundred and fifty temples and nearly two hundred steles stand at Jageshwar near Almora in Kumaun alone, and several hundred temples and steles are scattered elsewhere in the region. Jageshwar’s unique geographic setting contributed to perceptions of the site’s sacrality. As field surveys and maps attest, the Jageshwar valley stands apart from its surroundings. Unlike other Himalayan basins, which are bisected by south-flowing streams, a north-northeast-flowing rivulet traverses the Jageshwar valley.

Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains provides an alternative understanding of the role of architecture and sculpture in creating and maintaining a sacred geography. Well before temples were erected at tirthas in the Central Himalayas – from the period in which the Mahabharata was redacted (ca. 200 BCE–200 CE) – emigre artisans began travelling through the mountain range, turning boulders into markers of a new ethical order, transfiguring the earth by baking it into bricks that were piled high into Vedic altars, and creating enclosures with prefabricated railings.

Mountains are being increasingly jeopardized by growing numbers of recreationists, whose presence often creates a heavier impact than is usually anticipated, desired, or perceived. Roads, airstrips, and thoughtless consumerism have adversely affected the mountain environments. As mountains become more accessible, tourists rather than pilgrims encroach upon the habitat of the mountain people causing considerable change in their seasonal, subsistence economies and ritual practices. With rivers dammed, hills deforested and fields eroded the landscape becomes a symbolic document of human aggrandisement. As Stephen Alter perceptively remarks ‘tourism the world over has a pernicious way of destroying exactly those things that make it attractive.’

The Himalayas should not only guide us to negotiate journeys as reflective quests but also call upon us to protect our pristine environment where the journeys could be re-imagined and replayed. While traditional Himalayan journeys were often inspired and driven by a search for authenticity, spirituality and self-discovery, such ideals face challenges by the homogenising and commodifying forces of globalisation. The steady and unregulated growth of tourism in the region will have inevitable consequences for the local environment and cultural identities of Himalayan peoples. Rampant commercialism also deprives the sacred landscape of its ‘aura’ if I may use a term employed in a different but related context by Walter Benjamin to mark a unique presence or authenticity of the original (‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’).

Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains provides comprehensive resources for understanding the architectural, religious, and epigraphic aspects of temples in the Central Himalayas. It sheds new light on how the transmission of architectural knowledge shaped and reflected an evolving idea of India, which is crucial to our understanding of our past as well as the present.

(The reviewer is former Professor  and Head of  the Department of English, H.N.B.Garhwal  University and former Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla)