Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
Funding Organisation

Project Duration: 2019 - 2022

Temple Networks in Early Modern South India

Ritual enactment of the Hastigirimāhātmya, the foundation myth of the Varadarāja-temple in Kāñcipuram (Foto: Ute Huesken)

Principal Investigators

Project Description

The project “Temple Networks in Early Modern South India: Narratives, Rituals, and Material Culture” explores how the sacred space of the ancient South Indian temple town of Kāñcipu-ram is represented, negotiated, and shaped through mythological texts in Sanskrit and Tamil in interaction with ritual practice and material culture.
Kāñcipuram, the so-called “Benares of the South”, is a city of prime importance to South Indian religious, political, and cultural history. The major traditions of Hinduism – Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism, and Śāktism – have for centuries not only co-existed, but interacted and competed in Kāñcipuram. The project employs the concept of temple networks to de-scribe the relations between the city’s numerous temples as well as their position vis à vis other temples outside Kāñcipuram. Several intersecting temple networks exist in parallel in Kāñcipuram, and their hierarchies have been constantly renegotiated by the different reli-gious traditions that share the city’s space. Such processes find expression in local mytho-logical texts (Māhātmyas / Sthalapurāṇas) that deal with Kāñcipuram as a sacred place. From at least the 16th century onwards, several such texts have been composed in both San-skrit and Tamil. These texts praise specific places, local deities, and specific ritual activities, often contrasting them with other places, deities, and ritual activities, which are then pre-sented as inferior. The project investigates how the temple networks of Kāñcipuram are reflected and produced in the mythological texts. Adopting the texts’ own notion of Kāñcipu-ram as a “field” (kṣetra) of divine and human encounter, it looks at Kāñcipuram as a dynam-ic nodal point where diverse religious networks interact with each other.
Many narratives that are found in the mythological texts are ritually enacted during tem-ple festivals and are materially represented in the temples’ iconography, keeping these epi-sodes alive in collective memory. Similar to the different interpretations of the basic narra-tives in the diverse texts, the ritual performances and sculptures also tell stories differently, and are moreover often at odds with the textual narratives. The project therefore pays close attention to the relevant ritual performances and the iconographic program of the temples in order to assess how rituals and material relate to the texts.
The team of this project works on two interconnected case studies across sectarian affili-ations, Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava. Ute Hüsken’s subproject accesses the relevant dynamics for Vaiṣṇava temple networks through local mythological texts in Sanskrit (esp. Sthalapurāṇa texts) and through the ritual enactments of the narratives pertaining to central mythological and historical events during temple festivals. Jonas Buchholz’ subproject investigates Śaiva temple networks through the comparison of Sanskrit and Tamil mythological texts (Sthala-purāṇa / Talapurāṇam) and analyzes the interaction between the Sanskrit and Tamil tradi-tions. In close collaboration the investigators assess how the texts, the temples, and the ritual practices of the diverse religious communities interact, representing, yet continuously re-configuring, networks within an ancient South Indian temple town.

Subproject 1

Varadarāja in the Kāñcimāhātmya: Vaiṣṇava Temple Networks
(Ute Hüsken)

Within the ancient temple town of Kāñcipuram, with its many religious traditions and plac-es, the Varadarāja temple is the city’s most important Vaiṣṇava temple. Many texts in San-skrit and Tamil deal with the history and mythology of this temple, positioning it within the diverse sacred sites in Kāñcipuram, but also within the larger sacred landscapes of the Kāñcipuram region, and within the network of 108 Vaiṣṇava “divine places” (divyadeśa) in (South) India. The relative position of this temple within the networks of sacred places is reflected and produced in the narratives regarding the temple’s foundation in conjunction with this specific deity’s first appearance in Kāñcipuram. These narratives are central to most mythological and ritual texts, are enacted during temple festivals, and are materially represented in diverse parts of the temple. This subproject’s focus is on the myth(s) of origin of the temple’s main deity, Varadarāja, which is represented in a variety of ways in the diverse texts, in ritual performances, and in the iconographic program of the temples.

Subproject 2

Sanskrit and Tamil Narratives on the Śaiva Temple Networks of Kāñcipuram (Jonas Buchholz)

Śaivism, the most dominant religious tradition in the Tamil country, is firmly entrenched in Kāñcipuram. The city’s largest temple is the Ekāmranātha temple, where Śiva is worshipped as the “lord of the single mango tree”. Moreover, numerous other shrines dedicated to Śiva dot Kāñcipuram’s cityscape. The dynamics of the temple networks that these temples form part of are reflected in the Śaiva Sthalapurāṇas of Kāñcipuram that were composed in both Sanskrit and Tamil. These texts give emphasis to the Śaiva temples of Kāñcipuram and often try to assert their primacy by including narratives that establish Śiva’s superiority over other deities. This subproject looks into these narratives in order to understand how temple net-works are demarcated and reinforced in Śaiva mythological texts. At the same time, the subproject investigates the relationship of the Sanskrit and Tamil Sthalapurāṇas of Kāñcipu-ram. While these texts are closely connected on a narrative level, their radically different literary agendas raise questions about the literary cultures that they formed part of. The Śaiva Sthalapurāṇas of Kāñcipuram provide an opportunity to investigate the relationship of Sanskrit and Tamil Sthalapurāṇas at large, thus illuminating an important aspect of the in-teraction of Sanskrit and Tamil literary cultures in early modern South India.


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