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Reflecting on Landscape and Sacred Architecture in Pre-Modern South Asia

Posted On December 12, 2014 | 14:53 pm | by jessicas | Permalink

Dumbarton Oaks provides travel awards to Harvard students wishing to attend scholarly events at the institute. Recently, three students traveled to Dumbarton Oaks to attend the Garden and Landscape Studies colloquium, “Landscape and Sacred Architecture in Pre-Modern South Asia,” on November 14, 2014 and shared with us their experiences.

Sonali Dhingra, PhD candidate, Department of History of Art and Architecture

The daylong colloquium brought to light several understudied aspects of sacred sites from across India and provided new directions for their analysis. The innovative research presented that day indicates to me a very exciting and inspiring trend in South Asian art and architectural history: looking beyond “masterpiece” monuments to lesser shrines and the immediate physical and even imagined terrain in which they were located. It made me think about the lived aspects of the spaces I study, such as the choice of their makers in their articulation, the negotiation and taming of the natural landscape for their creation, and their inextricable connection with the environs in the minds of the users. All these significant aspects, I was reminded by the papers, are easy to forget in a solely image- or monument-centric analysis.

Each of the scholars had a specific methodological point to make, but many of the papers prompted me to look closely at topographical maps and to make better use of Google Earth. I was reminded to consider the temple and monastic sites I study together with the hills and rivers they were a part of, and to imagine the distances pilgrims traversed to reach them. The talks also made me reflect on the considerable spheres of cultural influence these spaces once wielded and that we as historians need to excavate. The scholars brought together rich visuals from their fieldwork, motivating me to travel to these places and to look again at them with a new, wider lens.

I also noted the rich new evidence presented by the scholars at the colloquium. Lisa Owen’s work elucidated, among other things, the close ties between apparently immodest Jain shrines on rock faces and local communities in medieval Tamil Nadu. Pia Brancaccio’s paper analyzed early Buddhist reliefs in caves hewn in the untamed landscape of the Western Ghats together with literary references of magnificent palaces. Robert DeCaroli presented Buddhist archaeological sites in the western Deccan as vivid spaces with gurgling natural waterfalls and cisterns manipulating water-flows alongside rich sculptural programs, focusing attention on the role of monks in the mundane aspects in daily monastic life. 

I found the discussions that followed the talks stimulating as well, especially the collective brainstorming sessions at the very end of the day that brought out many common themes, as well as avenues not yet explored in the talks. For instance, a scholar wondered how sound could be brought into the study of South Asian sacred landscapes. I hope that I will return to many of the questions explored and raised by the talks in my upcoming research for a term paper and in my doctoral research on medieval Buddhist architectural spaces in India. I feel honored to have received the Bliss Award that allowed me to travel to the beautiful facility at Dumbarton Oaks for the event. It gave me a wonderful opportunity to meet with and learn from some of the most brilliant scholars in my field and will have a lasting impact on my work.

Dane Carlson, Master of Landscape Architecture candidate, Graduate School of Design

My particular interest in the colloquium relates to the discipline of landscape architecture and the study of cultural landscape within this disciplinary lens. The history of landscape architecture is typically dominated by narratives of garden and park design, and is, with some exceptions, largely void of infrastructures (sacred, civil, etc.) and systems-based landscape narratives.

Although the designers of the sacred landscape systems discussed over the course of the colloquium were likely not what we might define as landscape architects, their work is incredibly relevant to the past and future of our discipline. The relevance of landscape systems, particularly those relating to the sacred in South Asia, was a particular focus of those papers presented at the colloquium, many of which argued for movement beyond the object-based narratives typical of previous study and research. Although the sacred is abstract in conception, these papers emphasized the ability of the immaterial to dictate spatial forms and the processes that inform and are informed by these spaces, as well as the continual evolution of these processes through time. 

Perhaps the most compelling subnarrative that arose during the colloquium was the argument, present in several papers, for a systems-based understanding of sacred places on a variety of scales (site, complex, region, etc.). It has become apparent that a site cannot be legitimately studied at a single scale; regional narratives were integral to the development of any single site discussed during the colloquium.  Even within the relatively narrow lens of South Asia, the presence of these intimately related regional and site-based landscape narratives span an immense range of geographies, cultures, and religious traditions; they are a constant in the development and continuation of landscape.  

Nicolas Roth, PhD candidate, Department of South Asian Studies 

Issues of landscape and garden history in a South Asian context—whether premodern or early modern, Islamic, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist—still receive relatively scant scholarly attention, and academic events centered specifically around such matters are typically few and far between. 

This colloquium was a wonderful introduction to all the fascinating projects on which scholars interested in South Asian landscapes and architectural spaces are working. As a South Asianist working primarily on historical texts and something of an outsider to the discipline of the history of art and architecture, I found it particularly enlightening to see some of the new avenues of investigation pursued by art historians, and to ponder the ways in which my own research may coincide with, draw on, support, and perhaps complement this current work. 

I learned a tremendous amount, filling page after page of my notebook during each panel, but I also began to notice places where my own research might eventually be able to fill a gap. That in and of itself made for a hugely encouraging experience, as did the opportunities to talk to many of the scholars and the enthusiastic and helpful responses that I received from all of them.

As a novice just beginning to make my way in the field, and as someone who often has to explain and defend why he is interested in garden and landscape history and material culture, it was enormously helpful to talk to a group of such accomplished scholars who already carry out such work and see value in it. The visit to Dumbarton Oaks, made possible by the Bliss Symposium Award, was not only a wonderful educational opportunity, but it also helped reinforce my passion for and commitment to my own research by giving me a better idea of where and how my own work might one day fit into a larger conversation.