A significant number of ancient Indian temples fall under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). These tend to have the hushed feel of museums, with buildings cloistered amidst manicured lawns and neat pathways. Naturally, the ASI also controls access to such spaces, and what you may or may not do there. Others, despite their antiquity, continue in worship. What’s striking about these parallel environments is the incredible variety of social activity you encounter there. And I don’t mean the religious life of the temple—which is undoubtedly rich and varied, depending on daily and seasonal calendars. I mean the activity that takes place in temple spheres that makes them fit uneasily, if at all, in the sacred-secular binary.
In modern India, temples are meeting places for lovers, who manage to find privacy in some secluded nook that offers a welcome respite from social restrictions. Temples also attract multigenerational family groups, who picnic in their spacious pillared halls, shady arcades, and expansive courtyards. Indeed, many working temples draw people precisely for the delicious preparations that emanate from their kitchens. In complexes like the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai—an immense walled maze more like a mall or mini city—it’s possible to indulge in a self-directed food tour and sample laddus (sugary dough balls) from various “regions” of the temple. Quite simply, temples offer clean, safe, (relatively) noise-free spaces for sociability. You can escape the heat, and such urban stresses as traffic and pollution. You can take a nap, read the paper, listen to your music, meet friends, do homework, bathe in the temple spring or reservoir, or catch a performance. In India, the temple (and the mosque too) serves the role that the café or the piazza does elsewhere.
The temple’s salience for commerce is just as vital. Even modest shrines attract enterprises that cater to worshippers, who must come bearing gifts for the resident deity. So, of course, the bazaars that spring up around temples sell ritual items: from bananas and bells to coconuts, cloth, camphor, flower garlands, incense, and lamps. But they purvey so much more. Take the pageant of shops around the Jagannatha Temple in the seaside town of Puri. In the impressive array of establishments along the main thoroughfare, Grand Road, tourists, pilgrims, and town residents look for clothing, shoes, bags, toys, jewelry, cellphone covers, kitchen and household wares, portable images of the gods, souvenirs, and a whole lot more. Now, Puri is well known for hosting a yearly chariot festival (ratha yatra) that is the highlight of the town’s calendar if not of the Hindu pilgrimage season. At the height of the festival, the three deities of the Jagannatha Temple are paraded through the town in towering, vibrant vehicles—basically temples on wheels—that are fabricated every year specifically for the festival. Hundreds of thousands from around the subcontinent jostle in the crush for a devotionally charged sighting (darshana) of the mobile gods. To be sure, such celebrations have their origins in religiosity. But they are just as importantly, occasions for communities to gather and travel together, to sightsee, to witness and participate in public spectacles, and to visit beaches, bazaars, and other sites of pleasure and diversion.
These modern practices and their motivation in pleasure find remarkable resonances in historical experience. Consider that even the language that ancient writers used to denote temples and monasteries shared the semantic field with pleasure gardens and palaces. Prāsāda was both temple and mansion; vihāra was at once monastery and pleasure garden. Moreover, early writers described the attractions of the places we characterize as “sacred” using the same literary devices they used to represent beautiful people and this-worldly realms. Similarly, the architectural elements and decoration of temples and mansions also originated in a common pool. Much to the confusion and disapproval of nineteenth-century scholars who judged based on Eurocentric contexts and values, a key feature of temple adornment is the amorous couple or mithuna. From the Buddhist worship halls of the early centuries BCE to the Hindu temples of the first millennium CE, sculptural décor includes sensuously modeled lovers. In fact, both the material record and texts on temple architecture affirm the couple’s undeniable association with auspiciousness, wellbeing, and protection. For premodern South Asians, then, a temple would have been incomplete—ill-equipped to perform its public duties—without such imagery. That such imagery echoes the modern-day paramours finding refuge in these same places is perhaps too obvious to state.
Crucially, pleasure and engagement in pleasures drew people to the temples I discuss in my book, Shiva’s Waterfront Temples: Architects and Their Audiences in Medieval India. Temples were situated in beautiful locales such as waterfronts and hilltops as much to entice their audiences as for ritual and authoritative reasons. Temples attracted people because of their natural beauties and scenic vistas. Like today’s “pilgrims,” medieval people came to sightsee, picnic, and celebrate spring festivals and other joyous occasions. These audiences encompassed the broad array of social groups that made up medieval India as well as the gods. Strikingly, texts and inscriptions stress the aesthetic response of the gods. The Sanskrit Brhat Samhita asserts: “the gods haunt those spots which by nature or artifice are furnished with water and pleasure gardens.” Once again—pleasure with a capital P. Another text—a copperplate epigraph—describes the wonder the Deccan rock-cut monolith, the Kailasa Temple at Ellora (8th century CE), elicited in its divine spectators. That texts should acknowledge the sensory experience of divine beings is not surprising. For the Hindu temple is conceived as a terrestrial simulacrum of the god’s celestial abode—a place where his or her material and metaphysical needs are met. Put differently, these spaces do not deny material existence, be that of the devotee or of the gods. Rather, the devotee’s physical body is the conduit for approaching and apprehending divinity.
Architects, too, were attuned to pleasure and created to elicit pleasure. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Deccan Plateau architecture. Take Pattadakal, the backbone of my book and the erstwhile coronation capital of the Chalukya kings (543-757 CE). At this dense cluster of buildings on the Malaprabha River in modern-day Karnataka state, architects marshalled Nagara and Dravida, the two transregional architectural styles of the first millennium, throwing them into intense and spirited dialogue. But why innovate a tower profile combining Nagara and Dravida elements for the twin royal temples at the heart of the site? And why cover the surfaces of temples with microarchitectural elements that stage a rhetorical push-pull between Dravida and Nagara styles? Because viewers cognizant in contemporary canons of building could savor aesthetic pleasure or rasa when they discerned affinities with, and departures from, those canons. That is, medieval Indian audiences valued wit, play, fun, humor, displacement, exaggeration, stylization, and various aesthetic provocations in addition to formal excellence. And Deccan visual artists pleased their audiences masterfully through the bodies of temples and in the arena of the temple cluster at places across the eastern and western Deccan starting in the first millennium and well into the second millennium.
All of which is to say that the categories by which we represent medieval Indian temples (and for that matter their present-day counterparts) do a disservice to the plurality of meanings that such spaces held for their contemporaries, none more problematic than the sacred-secular polarity. Of course, these buildings played a vital role as religious dedications. But it is crucial that we acknowledge, at every step, that their social lives were intertwined with kāma or pleasure worlds. Pleasure and devotion belonged, then, not to two separate realms, but to one and the same.
Subhashini Kaligotla is the Barbara Stoler Miller Associate Professor of Indian and South Asian Art History at Columbia University.