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The Nagara Tradition of Temple Architecture: Continuity, Transformation, Renewal

An examination of the transformations and renewals of an architectural tradition across a millennium and a half in India to see how past and present can be studied both for their own sakes and for their mutual illumination.

Studies of revivals and reinventions of ancient artistic traditions in a postcolonial context tend to focus only on the political implications of the renewal, taking the earlier tradition as a changeless given, in little need of analysis. Studies of ancient traditions, on the other hand, generally regard their later manifestations as, at best, an embarrassing postscript.

The tradition in question, in this project, is the Nagara tradition of temple architecture, which has been the predominant branch of temple architecture across the northern portions of the subcontinent since its formative stages in the Gupta period (c. 320-500 CE), when temples, built of stone or brick, became the principal focus for worship.

Aim

The aim of the project is to arrive at an integrated understanding of the Nagara tradition of temple architecture – its formal principles and patterns of change, its body of written theory, and its modes and processes of creative practice.

Recognising the complexity and value of the artistic medium itself, the study aspires to illuminate issues of historical and social context in the light of a clear grasp of that medium.

About the project

The research is structured around three inextricably related areas:

  1. the surviving temples constituting the built record
  2. the surviving related theoretical texts (Vastushastras)
  3. the nature of architectural practice.

For the third theme, a large part of the research will be concerned with the present-day practices of the Sompura community from Gujarat and Rajasthan. These lineages of traditional architectural practitioners (sthapatis) tend to be ignored by architectural historians and marginalised as an archaic anomaly by the architectural mainstream, despite their prodigious output and their often uncritical acceptance elsewhere as the embodiment of tradition.

It is envisaged that members of this community will not merely be an object of research but active contributors to its development.

The long time-frame embraces a succession of periods with significantly varied social and economic conditions and changing forms of religion, inevitably affecting the nature of temple architecture and its patronage. The kind of material to be studied and the nature of the investigation vary accordingly.

Objectives

For temples

  • To compile, in a systematic format, a documentary compendium of the known corpus of Nagara temples providing a comprehensive overview up to the present time, ranging from overall design to detail, supplementing this corpus through field surveys, most extensively for the later (post-17th century) periods for which documentation barely exists.
  • To assemble a database of relevant measurements of a full range of key examples, in plan, section and elevation; and to pioneer, specifically for Indian temple architecture, the use of digital scanning and modelling for this purpose.
  • To use both of the above to analyse evolving typologies, design principles, systems of measurement and geometry, and construction methods, illustrating the analysis through analytical drawings.
  • To make a visual survey and critical overview of the range of practices for conservation and renewal of Indian temples.
  • To develop and illustrate the concept of meaningful display of temple remains.
  • To carry out measured and high quality photographic documentation of the temple fragments from Palitana (Gujarat) and Ajmer (Rajasthan) in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection.
  • To make graphical reconstructions of their original contexts.
  • To make suggestions for their meaningful display.


For texts

  • To transliterate and make meaningful English translations of the main chapters on temples from the Aparajitaprchchha (c. 12th century) and of a representative sample of subsequent Vastushastra texts up to the present time.
  • To make informed drawings from the prescriptions in those texts.
  • In terms of composition, type, proportions and geometry, to compare the designs dealt with in the texts with those found in corresponding built examples.
  • To understand 20th-century texts by Sompuras in their historical and historiographical contexts.

For practice

  • To trace the conceptual and technical processes of designing and building temples in the respective periods and to understand the role of Vastushastra texts in these processes.
  • To understand the nature and development of the architectural practice of the Sompuras over the past century.
  • To gain an overview of the range of Sompura practices (families, locations, works, scale of operations and techniques).

Project team

  • Prof. Adam Hardy

Principal Investigator

  • Dr Vishakha Kawathekar

Co-Investigator: History and practice of temple conservation

  • Megha Chand Inglis

Research Associate: Contemporary architectural practice

  • Dr Kengo Harimoto
  • Dr Libbie Mills
  • Dr Mattia Salvini

Translations from Sanskrit Vastushastra texts

  • Bimal Mistry

Translations from Gujarati

  • Ashish Trambadia
  • Poonam Trambadia

Surveys and documentation

  • Kailash Rao

Digital documentation and analysis

  • Devdutt Trivedi
  • Virendra Trivedi

Sompura family history advisors

  • Prof. John Cort, Dept. of Religion, Denison University, Granville, Ohio, USA
  • Prof. M.A. Dhaky, Emeritus Professor of American Institute of Indian Studies
  • Prof. A.G.K. Menon, Convenor of INTACH, Delhi chapter
  • Prof. Anupa Pande, Dean, National Museum Institute, New Delhi
  • Dr. Samuel K. Parker, University of Washington, Tacoma, Washington, USA
  • Prof. Rabindra Vasavada, former head of Conservation, CEPT, Ahmedabad

Collaborating institutions

  • School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), Bhopal, India
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Funders

Funded by the Leverhulme Trust (£270,284)

Funded for three years from November 2015.