NEW DELHI, (IANS) — Growing up in a boarding school in the foothills of the Himalayas, Nachiket Chanchani, an art historian and associate professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, learned a lot about world history but very little about the past variegation of the locality in which he lived, fueling a thirst for more.
“The hikes and pilgrimages to peaks and temples, and the memories of nearly two years spent by my parents in a mountain hamlet (a biogeographical area of relatively wet and cool slopes) in the early 1980s only made increased my desire to learn more about sacred structures and stelae,” Chanchani said.
Eventually he returned to the Uttarakhand region for his doctoral research and to write “Mountain Temples & Temple Mountains: Architecture, Religion, and Nature in the Central Himalayas” (Niyogi Books).
Noting that the careful documentation and interpretation of the stone temples and the carvings inscribed there “can give us a means of investigating the construction of sacredness”, he said: “As part of my research, I created plans showing the orientation, scale and layout of parts of a selection of temples erected in the central Himalayas as a basis for recognizing their morphologies.
“Recognizing the limitations of using architectural terminology based on classical Greco-Roman forms to describe Indian temples, I have used Sanskrit terminology where appropriate,” he added.
“Consideration of the precise relationships between plans and elevations, external structures and internal systems, and the original fabrics of the temples and later additions was also essential to my research.
“In writing a history of sacred centers, I have also drawn on texts of multiple genres and various Indian languages: architectural treatises, autobiographies, ballads, courtly poetry, land grants, liturgical manuals, praises of places, registers of pilgrims and hagiographies of sovereigns, of saints. , and traders, among others,” Chanchani explained.
He was careful to record the geographical features that influenced the locations of sacred centers and the movements of peoples, also taking into account in his analysis issues of access, tracing the traditional equestrian paths linking settlements to each other. as well as roads leading in and out of mountain ranges.
For example, “the way the story of the rock of Bhima Sila was used to highlight the sacredness of Kedarnath – to which it tumbled but spared the temple of Kedarnath (during the devastating floods of 2013) – shows the close connection between temple architecture and landscape,” said Chanchani.
The result is a foundational work that explores the historical process of the emergence of the central Himalayas as ‘deva bhumi’ involving dynamic interactions between diverse communities living in the northern mountains and the southern lowlands. These developments, which occurred roughly between the 3rd century BCE and the 12th century CE “were crucial in transforming this frontier into a major place of Hindu pilgrimage,” Chanchani explained.
It also draws parallels between religious places in places such as Gujarat and some Himalayan temples, comparing temple architecture and its related connections.
During his research, Chanchani also discovered “many almost unknown places where individual temples or groups lay desolate and abandoned.”
“The village of Baijnath, in the heart of Kumaon, is a good example. Mounds are waiting to be dug. Hundreds of exquisite medieval sculptures once enshrined in shrines and around the village have been safely locked away in government storage for years. They should be contextualized and displayed to help visitors understand its complex history. »