“Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and Their (Hi)stories”, a collection of essays

Padmanabhaswami Temple  (photo: Prasanthajantha, Wikimedia Commons) Padmanabhaswami Temple (photo: Prasanthajantha, Wikimedia Commons)

The grand churches of Europe are studied as great works of art and architecture. They continue to fascinate believers, historians, and art historians alike. The great names behind these works are hailed as legends and visionaries blending beauty with devotion to give meaning to the rituals that these buildings were home to. Compared to these monuments, what does India, as a land of great faiths and temples, offer as manifestations of art, architecture, religiosity, ritual, and symbols of power—both divine and human?

Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and Their (Hi)stories by various authors brings together an introduction to temples from India (and a few from the neighbouring countries) to give glimpses of these structures that could be better known. While the authors have chosen temples that are very different in terms of their physical features, their approach is more or less the same: a look at the combination of history, mythology, and architecture that makes these temples unique.


Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and their (hi)stories
Where the Gods Dwell: Thirteen Temples and their (hi)stories (Westland, November 2021)

The book opens with strong essays by Manu Pillai about Padmanabhaswami (Vishnu) Temple at Travancore in modern day Kerala and Indira Viswanathan Peterson about the and Brihadisvara (Shiva) Temple at Thanjavur. The Padmanabhaswami Temple, easily one of the richest places of worship in the world with wealth estimated to be over $1 trillion, is referred to in Tamil Sangam Era literature (6th century BCE-3rd century CE), but has a more interesting history in the recent past – 18th century onwards – when it was rebuilt by King Martanda Varma who went on a spree of conquering his neighbouring kingdoms claiming he was ordered to do so by the deity and offered the richest spoils from the conquests as offerings to the deity as a sign of his piety. The temple is still home to unfathomable treasures, as it was in the 19th century when the King of Travancore turned to it for a loan at the interest of five percent in order to escape from the clutches of the British. The (current) titular Maharaja of Travancore is still a trustee to the temple.

The Brihadisvara Temple, a fine specimen of architecture from the powerful Chola dynasty that ruled southern India (and also boasted of a powerful navy), a UNESCO heritage site, can be dated to 1010 CE and is known to have been constructed by Rajaraja I. Again, its recent history is more interesting with the involvement of the Maratha kings of the north in the politics here. In the 19th century, the Maratha King Serfoji renovated the temples with the establishment of 108 lingas (the phallus/abstract form that Lord Shiva is also worshipped in) as a part of the upkeep of the temples. Again, a descendant of the Thanjavur royal family continues to be the trustee of the temple. One of the elements of significance of the temple lies in the fact that it was one of the sites that were of immense interest to the British:


The air of decay that pervaded the temple at the time proved strangely alluring to British visitors. Where devotees saw a living temple being desecrated, engineer-surveyors Elisha Trapaud and Michael Topping, as well as touring artists such as Henry Salt, viewed the ‘Great pagoda’ of Tanjore through a romantic and antiquarian lens, as a picturesque ruin. Their paintings and drawings of the temple circulated widely among European audiences, but the most celebrated of these depictions is undoubtedly that of the artist duo Thomas and William Daniell, who toured India in the late eighteenth century, immortalising its great monuments and landscape in their enchanting aquatints. The Daniell painting of the ‘Great Pagoda’ remains a conversation piece with connoisseurs worldwide.


These examples of association of royalty with divinities aside, some temples discussed in the book are interesting for what they say about the sculptors and artists. The 12th century Hoysala temples – the Chennakeshava (Vishnu) Temple at Belur and the Hoysalesvara (Shiva) Temple at Halebidu in modern day Karnataka (proposed for a UNESCO listing) reveals something unusual about the artists, especially in contrast to the anonymity around the people behind the creation of these masterpieces:


What is unusual about the Hoysala temples is the number of signed images that we have and the style of some of these epigraphs, which are written in language quite reminiscent of royal eulogies. For instance, one sculptor gives himself the title, ‘a thunderbolt to the mountain of rival sculptors’. Such artistic agency points to the artists’ pride in their work and also suggests they had a high standing in society. This is in marked contrast to the usual conception of the mediaeval Indian artist being an anonymous creator.


No wonder contemporary sculptors hold these artists in high esteem, as Meera Iyer, the author of the essay, points out.


All the authors capture interesting details about the deity, the royalty, the making of the temples in various ways. Some, like Thulasi Muttulingam (Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, Jaffna) and Sidhartha Gigoo (Ram Temple in Srinagar, Kashmir) touch upon the conflicts around the seat of the temples they discuss. One is a site of discord among Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists while the other is an example of temples closed since the rise of militancy in Kashmir in 1990.

While the choice of temples in the book is interesting, the volume will be of great interest to readers already familiar with regional politics—especially South Indian dynasties. Although each essay starts with a sketch, the volume would have been helped with more illustrations or photographs to help the readers distinguish the landscape and history of one temple from the other.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.