Temples, Texts, and Networks: South Indian Perspectives

Amol Saghar

Following the framework set by K.A. Nilakanta Sastri, the doyen of south Indian history, historians working on the early history of the region focused, for a considerable period of time, only on the political history. Seldom did they discuss aspects related to social, economic, religious and cultural histories. It was only from the 1980’s onwards, with the path-breaking studies of Y. Subbarayalu, Burton Stein, Noboru Karashima, R. Champakalakshmi, MGS Narayanan and Kesavan Veluthat, among others, that the scope of premodern south Indian history began to expand and the focus shifted from political to non-political histories. The essays in the present work, edited by Malini Ambach, Jonas Buchholz and Ute Hüsken, follow this well-treaded path.

While the monograph, Temples, Texts, and Networks: South Indian Perspectives, is centered on the temple, the religious institution and the facets related to it are not discussed in isolation. The myriad ways in which the ‘individual Hindu temples’ connect with the ‘affiliated communities’ and in the process create what the authors have termed as ‘temple networks’ is a theme running through all the eleven chapters (including Introduction) in the volume. The present publication is an outcome of an earlier project titled, ‘Temple Networks in Early Modern: Narratives, Rituals, and Material Culture.’ Since the project focused primarily on one of the most important temple towns in northern Tamil Nadu, viz., Kanchipuram, all the articles in this book, barring those of Dębicka-Borek and Crispin Branfoot,  concern this town, in the particular contexts of ancient and medieval periods.  

In the ‘Introduction,’ besides giving an overview of the volume and the essays therein, the editors have discussed at length the concept of ‘temple networks’ and its importance in the study of early history of South India. While there are various ways through which these networks are forged, however, contributors of the present volume, as the section notes, have chosen to approach the idea primarily through a particular kind of textual source, namely, temple legends. The texts containing such legends (sthalamāhātmyas) were composed throughout the second millennium CE. While they were composed in a variety of languages including Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam, to name a few, it was in Tamil, as the authors note, that a particularly large number of these texts were written. In Tamil they were known as talapurāṇams. And from the sixteenth century until the nineteenth century, these texts were being written regularly. The temple legends, through their descriptions about deities and sacred spaces, do not just represent temple networks, but more importantly, as the present chapter highlights, play a critical role in integrating local cults, rituals and belief systems with the pan-Indian Brahmanical worldview.

The lead essay, ‘Sthalamāhātmyas and Talapurāṇams of Kanchipuram: A Network of Texts’ by Jonas Buchholz, sets the tone of the volume. The author examines closely the large corpus of sthalamāhātmyas and talapurāṇams texts which pertain to Kanchipuram and its vicinities. Besides examining the sacred space itself, the article also looks at the myriad myths associated with the place. Additionally, the piece attempts to investigate the different contexts in which Kanchipuram has over centuries figured in mythologies. Through a study of some of these aspects, Buccholz attempts to highlight the changing contours of religious landscape of this site. A notable aspect of the present study is the sheer range of literary texts which has been analyzed. In the detailed discussions relating to these texts Jonas Buchholz not only evaluates their characteristics but also investigates the context in which they were composed. Religious affiliations, authorship, dating and the place that such sources had in the Tamil and Sanskrit literary cultures, are some of the other issues that have deliberated upon in this paper.

While surveying the various sthalamāhātmyas and talapurāṇams and studying aspects related to them is the primary objective of the essay, in the concluding portion Jonas Buchholz foregrounds some of the ‘future tasks’ for researchers as far as the study of temple legends is concerned. Among them the most critical task is to publish many of the sthalamāhātmyas and talapurāṇams which have remained unpublished. Again, while some of the texts containing temple legends have garnered more attention, a large number of such texts are yet to receive adequate scholarly attention. Ensuring that historians, instead of limiting their attention to only a selected number of such texts, also turn their gaze to those sthalamāhātmyas and talapurāṇams which have remained understudied is, according to Buchholz, another important exercise that needs to be undertaken by researchers.

The following three essays, namely, K. Nachimuthu’s ‘A Survey of the Sthalapurāṇa Literature in Tamil,’ T. Ganesan’s ‘Innovations and Reformulations in Translation: The Case of the Sthalapurāṇas in Tamil,’ and S.A.S Sarma’s ‘Glory of the Tiruvanantapuram Padmanābhasvāmi Temple as Described in the Māhātmyas,’ may be read in conjunction with Buchholz’s piece. While the latter discusses the temple legends in the specific context of Kanchipuram, the former three articles broaden the scope of the discussion by exploring these texts with regard to other parts of South India.

Nachimuthu’s piece focuses primarily on the talapurāṇams. His paper may be divided into two distinct parts. In the first part the author outlines the evolutionary history of this literary genre. This portion also takes into account the factors that contributed to its making. The second part of the essay provides a comprehensive list of works falling into the category of the genre of talapurāṇams. Along with citing the names of the works, the paper also examines at length some of the important features related to their narratives, forms, styles and literary structures.

Ganesan’s paper makes an attempt to examine the close relationship between the two types of literature, viz., sthalapurāṇas and talapurāṇams. The sthalapurāṇas and talapurāṇams which figure in his study pertain primarily to sacred sites located in parts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu including Kalahasti, Chidambaram and Tiruvannamalai. The study shows the ways in which the Tamil renderings of the temple legends reflect their Sanskrit counterparts. Through discussions on selected Tamil narratives, Ganesan tries to make his readers aware of the role that the Tamil literary culture and the Śaivasiddhānta tradition played in shaping and deciding the writing style and content of a large body of Tamil texts.

S.A.S Sarma’s essay too, like that of Buchholz, examines the sthalamāhātmyas. However, unlike the latter, he explores this theme in the particular context of the Padmanābhasvāmi temple. The temple, located in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala), is one of the most famous Hindu religious sites. His study of the sthalamāhātmyas throws light on the various mythological narratives associated with the emergence of this sacred space as well as its main deity. In addition to this it also helps us to understand the uniqueness of the location of the Padmanābhasvāmi temple and the sacred water bodies surrounding it. Sarma’s studies also deliberate upon the close similarities that sthalamāhātmyas have with many of the architectural features of the temple and also the rituals which are conducted in its precincts.

Marzenna Czerniak-Drożdżowicz’s and R. Sathyanarayanan’s jointly authored paper, ‘Importance of Water Bodies in the Māhātmyas in the Kāverī Region,’ is quite interesting in that instead of examining the sthalamāhātmyas in the context of temples, they have analyzed such texts with regard to the Kāverī, a major river which flows through the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The primary concern of the chapter is to study the diverse forms in which the river has been depicted in the Sanskrit sthalamāhātmyas, especially in the portions dealing with myths. The influence that pan-Indian mythological narratives have exercised upon the local myths surrounding the Kāverī and the sacred sites in the vicinity has also been examined in detail. Based on their study of archaeological and epigraphical sources, Czerniak-Drożdżowicz and Sathyanarayanan have tried to show the ways in which the geographical features as well as the local religious and cultural practices correspond to the perceptions of Kāverī in the sthalamāhātmyas.

The essays by Ute Hüsken (‘Two Lizards in Kanchipuram’s Varadarāja Temple’), Malini Ambach (“‘Reading’ a Sacred Place Differently: Sarvatīrtha in Kanchipuram’s Sanskrit Māhātmyas), and Emma Natalya Stein (‘Grounding the Texts: Kanchi’s Urban Logic and Ambitious Extensions’) also explore questions relating to the theme of sthalamāhātmyas from diverse angles. And like in the preceding sections, these chapters, too, have studied temple legends with regard to either temples (Hüsken and Stein) or sacred rivers (Ambach). Stein’s essay is especially interesting in that, instead of studying any particular temple or shrine, it investigates the religious importance of the Kanchipuram town itself. The paper highlights the fact that the geographical location, along with a distinct architectural layout, ensured that Kanchipuram, which first came into prominence during the period of the Pallavas (c. fourth-ninth centuries CE), never lost its religious importance. The emergence of Kanchipuram as a pre-eminent religious center did not, as Stein notes, hinder the growth of areas located on its peripheries. She, in fact, emphasizes upon the fact that when the town started expanding during the reign of the Cholas and several peripheral areas got incorporated into it, the temples located in the latter retained their religious autonomy. And many of them continue to exercise this sort of autonomy even today!

Ewa Debicka-Borek's and Crispin Branfoot’s essays, as has been noted above, have tried to explore a couple of new themes. Dębicka-Borek’s, ‘Connected Places, Networks of Shrines: Ahobilam in the Nets of Spatial Relationships,’ brings to the fore the different networks which link Ahobilam, an important Vaishnava center in the state of Andhra Pradesh, with other sacred sites both within and outside the state. A primary concern of the article is to investigate the role of shrines dedicated to Narasiṃha (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) and enactments of local legends by professional theatre artists in forging these networks. Additionally, the author examines the various descriptions of this place provided in the Sanskrit text, Ahobilamāhātmya, and juxtaposes it with the natural landscape of the area. Finally, through a study of types of patronage, royal as well as non-royal, which the holy site received over centuries, Ewa Dębicka-Borek provides us with important insights relating to the evolutionary history of Ahobilam.

Crispin Branfoot’s essay, ‘Building Networks: Architecture, Ornament and Place in Early Modern South India,’ examines the diverse ways in which the architectural designs of various temples scattered across Tamil Nadu helped to establish ‘temple networks’ in the early modern period, viz., fifteenth-eighteenth centuries CE. Based on a close reading of relief sculptures and mural paintings located in the precincts of the Brahmanical temples, as well as studying ‘replicas’ of various temples and shrines and traditional rituals associated with festivals, Branfoot’s paper highlights the ways in which one or more than one of these elements constitutes a reference point for one or several temples or shrines. Besides bringing the diverse Brahmanical religious institutions closer these specifics, as is noted in the chapter, also create a vast network of pilgrimage sites.

The essays in the present volume, by focusing on an understudied theme like temple legends, have provided a fresh perspective to the study of South India, particularly Tamil Nadu. Minor shortcomings aside, like an overemphasis on one particular town in Tamil Nadu, viz., Kanchipuram, the academic importance of the present monograph can hardly be doubted.  Written in a simple language bereft of any jargon, the essays under consideration help us to grasp many of the complex arguments related to social, religious, cultural and political histories. This, it is believed, will make the monograph attractive not just to specialists of the subject, but also to those who may not be trained in the historian’s craft.