Architecture, Ascetics, and Agency – By Katherine Kasdorf

Katherine Kasdorf on Tamara Sears’s Worldly Gurus and Spiritual Kings

Tamara I. Sears, Worldly Gurus and Spiritual Kings: Architecture and Asceticism in Medieval India, Yale University Press, 2014, 284pp., $75
Tamara I. Sears, Worldly Gurus and Spiritual Kings: Architecture and Asceticism in Medieval India, Yale University Press, 2014, 284pp., $75
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In a village in central India, two medieval buildings stand side by side. One is a Hindu temple, with a tower that reaches toward the sky. Its finely sculpted walls, doorways, ceilings, and pillars feature images of deities and their heavenly attendants, curling vines and overflowing vases that allude to the abundance of a fertile earth, and motifs such as garlands and bells that evoke the multisensory experience of worshipping the god enshrined within. The other building, a monastery, is much more austere in appearance, with solid masonry walls punctuated by the occasional grated window. In contrast to the vertical emphasis of the temple, the monastery extends horizontally, its mass firmly fixed to the ground despite being two stories in height. Its interior spaces are varied, and some, such as the open courtyard at the hub of the building’s separate wings, are unexpectedly light and airy. The pillars and doorways of some rooms are carved with decorative moldings and even the occasional figure, but their sculptural treatment is more subdued than that of the neighboring temple. Once home to a community of Hindu renunciants and their guru, the monastery was likely intentionally restrained in its design, expressing what Tamara Sears, in her new book, calls “a calculated austerity” that projected the power of the building and its residents.

Since the emergence of South Asian art history as a field of study more than 150 years ago, scholars have continually engaged in research on Hindu temples, all but ignoring related monastic architecture. Tamara Sears’ Worldly Gurus and Spiritual Kings: Architecture and Asceticism in Medieval India brings long overdue attention to Hindu monasteries, which until the book’s publication had not been the subject of a monograph. Richly illustrated with the author’s photographs and original measured architectural drawings, the book focuses on five monasteries in central India built between the eighth and eleventh centuries. All were associated with a particular order of ascetics, called the Mattamayūras, who worshiped the god Śiva. (The order’s name translates to “drunken peacock,” perhaps an allusion to the blissful state of spiritual liberation that the ascetics sought to reach.) The first four monateries to be discussed — at the sites of Ranod, Kadwāhā, Surwāyā, and Terāhī, all in the present-day state of Madhya Pradesh — are located in the ancient region of Gopakṣetra, where the Mattamayūras originated. The fifth, at Chandrehe (also in Madhya Pradesh), is more than 200 miles to the east and marks the expansion of the Mattamayūra network following the recruitment of a guru from Kadwāhā by a king of the Kalachuri dynasty in the tenth century. Synthesizing information from ritual texts, historical inscriptions, and the buildings themselves — their architectural spaces and forms, their relationship to neighboring structures and to the wider landscape — Sears traces the development of Mattamayūra monastic architecture, the ritual practices for which it was built, and the changing status of the order and its leading gurus within the political world of medieval India.

As Sears explains, the very construction of monastic buildings in the durable and costly medium of stone is one indication of the Mattamayūras’ status. Although inscriptions make frequent reference to monasteries populated by members of various religious groups, with the exception of earlier Buddhist monasteries very few of these buildings survive. Before the fourteenth century, residential architecture in India was more commonly constructed from perishable materials, such as brick or wood, and the survival of stone monasteries associated with Śaiva ascetics (those devoted to the god Śiva) is linked to the growing prominence of Śaiva religious orders in South Asia beginning around the seventh to eighth century.

This prominence was due in no small part to patronage from regional kings, who sought the spiritual authority they could obtain through association with a Śaiva guru. A teacher with whom disciples formed a close personal relationship, the guru was revered for his mastery over a body of ritual and philosophical knowledge through which one could gain spiritual liberation or more worldly powers. This powerful knowledge could only be accessed after initiation into the tradition by one’s guru. Many gurus oversaw the ritual and administrative activities of temples, and by the turn of the first millennium Śaiva gurus were also believed to embody the divinity of Śiva, becoming objects of devotion themselves. Throughout South Asia, kings recruited gurus to perform rituals that would maintain divine favor; in return, they paid the gurus handsomely with land grants. The temples and monasteries over which these gurus presided therefore became significant repositories of wealth and centers of economic activity, in addition to serving their ritual and residential functions. Looking to the corpus of Mattamayūra inscriptions — which document religious donations and construction projects, record the historical lineage of Mattamayūra gurus (along with the accomplishments of each), and recount the mythical beginnings of the order, said to have originated with Śiva himself — Sears argues that gurus played an active role in negotiating the terms of their royal patronage. Rather than presenting the guru as a passive recipient of royal patronage, she emphasizes the agency of both guru and king in the cultivation of relationships between ruling and religious elites.

The growing prominence of gurus and the processes of Mattamayūra institutionalization that Sears traces through inscriptional records also find expression in the architecture of Mattamayūra monasteries. Sears identifies two types of monasteries: maṭhas, large monastic complexes usually built at the center of a town, ideally situated for the order’s increasing engagement with royal courts; and āśramas (or ashrams), smaller hermitages built as wilderness retreats on the outskirts of a town, which provided a more appropriate setting for the renunciatory practices that were essential to the Mattamayūras’ identity as “forest-dwelling ascetics.” Whereas maṭhas are closed and “fortress-like” in appearance, with a series of rooms organized around an interior courtyard, āśramas are usually preceded by an open veranda that connects them with the surrounding landscape. Both types of residence were important to Mattamayūra gurus, who seem to have moved between them. Sears suggests such a connection between the āśrama at Ranod and the maṭha at Kadwāhā, which are located less than nine and a half miles apart, and in the Kalachuri kingdom a guru based at the central maṭha in Gurgī (a building known only through inscriptions) sponsored the construction of a temple and monastery at the rural outpost of Chandrehe, some fifteen miles away. In some instances, however, monasteries originally built as āśrama hermitages were transformed into larger enclosed maṭhas through one or more phases of architectural expansion. At Surwāyā and Terāhī, modest eighth- to ninth-century buildings became monumental monastic compounds during the tenth and eleventh centuries. The āśrama at Chandrehe, built in the mid-tenth century, was replaced by a large and elaborate maṭha just one generation later, and the site came to function as both an ascetic retreat and an institutional monastic center. In these dynamically changing monasteries, each phase of construction points to a shift in practice for the community of resident ascetics; as rituals evolved, so too did the buildings made to accommodate those rituals.

Maṭha at Kadwāhā. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Maṭha at Kadwāhā. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Sears’ approach to architectural history is itself dynamic, bringing life to long-uninhabited buildings. In addition to her careful analysis of the changes made to each monastery through time, she considers the types of activity that would have enlivened the monastic spaces when they were populated by a guru and his disciples. Considering architectural form together with inscriptional references to ritual practices and religious texts containing detailed instructions related to the daily life of a Śaiva ascetic, Sears describes the practices that the varied spaces within each monastery plausibly accommodated. In fact, she compellingly argues that “looking at text through architecture” is one way to ground the idealized codes of conduct described in written sources within the reality of “lived practice.” A basin and a drain, for instance, signal the performance of ritual ablutions or bathing, practices that factor prominently in texts. Smaller rooms may have been used by individual ascetics for yoga and meditation. A more spacious chamber may have served as a classroom for the guru’s daily teachings to his assembled disciples.

In some monasteries, doorways with lintels featuring sculpted images of deities mark the rooms into which they lead as sacred spaces. The monastery at Chandrehe includes three such doorways, previously assumed to have marked shrines to Śiva and possibly other deities. Considering the architectural character of each space, Sears shows that this was the case for only one of them. What was likely the classroom at Chandrehe is marked with an image of Gaṇeśa, the elephant-headed son of Śiva, at the center of its lintel, with the goddesses Durgā and Sarasvatī depicted on either corner. As Sears notes, the guru’s discourse was itself a ritual act, involving the invocation of Śiva, Gaṇeśa, and the lineage of previous gurus before the living guru imparted his sacred knowledge to the students gathered around him. Another doorway in the monastery at Chandrehe creates a striking visual parallel between guru and god, featuring an ascetic sage with disciples at the center of its lintel, and the same goddesses in the corners. Sears suggests that the space to which it leads served as a room where the guru received visitors, as a sacralized place to keep holy texts, or as a shrine to past gurus. Within this space the living guru himself may have even been an object of worship, the focus of devotional rituals that paralleled those directed toward a deity enshrined within a temple — a practice still observed at many Hindu monasteries today.

The parallel between guru and god is further expressed through a series of spatial and architectural connections between monasteries and temples, found at all five sites featured in the book. Coinciding with an increasing emphasis on temple-based worship within the religious system followed by the the Mattamayūras (called Śaiva Siddhānta), these relationships were developed especially during the tenth century. Many monastic sites saw the construction of new temples at this time. In some, most notably at Surwāyā, the monastic community itself was visually referenced within the space of the temple through sculptural representations of ascetics on doorways or pillars. At Terāhī, tenth-century additions extended the monastic residence toward a neighboring ninth-century temple. In all cases, meaningful axial relationships between the temple and the monastery reinforce a conceptual connection between the home of the god — which temples are considered to be — and the home of the guru. Sculptural elements in monasteries, such as the doorways at Chandrehe and a remarkable rooftop shrine structure at Surwāyā, strengthen the association, marking monasteries as sanctified spaces through the use of a visual vocabulary known from temples. Overall the monasteries may appear austere, but where sculpture is featured, it matters.

In this well researched and engagingly written book there are very few weaknesses. One problem that unfortunately escaped the final edits is a discrepancy between the numbers designating certain rooms within the architectural plan of the Chandrehe monastery and the numbers cited in Sears’ discussion of those rooms. Her description of the spaces, however, enables the reader to interpret the plan as intended.

Like any historical building, the monasteries at the center of Sears’ study are not isolated monuments frozen in time, but have evolved in both meaning and form in the centuries since their construction. Throughout the book, Sears maintains an awareness of the multilayered histories of the buildings, and she devotes part of the final chapter to “the afterlives of monastic sites.” After the Mattamayūras ceased to be active in the region around the thirteenth to fourteenth century, their monastic complexes were put to a variety of new uses. Some were expanded into larger forts. With the arrival of new religious communities came the addition of different ritual buildings: some monastic sites saw the construction of mosques and tombs, and the monastery at Ranod now serves as a temple to the goddess Bījasen Devī. Archaeological conservation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though well intentioned, also left its mark on the monastic sites, in some cases erasing entire phases of construction from the archaeological record. Today, local communities, archaeologists, and scholars such as Sears continue to invest these monastic sites with multiple layers of meaning, activating the buildings through new uses and modes of understanding.