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Michael Meister’s review of my book The Temple Architecture of India brings to the fore two basic and interrelated questions about medieval Indian temples. How should one name and classify their various forms? And how were these forms conceived and designed?
The review focuses largely on typology and terminology. Meister implies one general criticism: that I do not adequately follow the names suggested for shrine forms by inscriptions and texts. Here the distinction needs to be made between deciphering the intended meaning of architectural categories used in texts with no illustrations, and categorizing, through illustrations as well as words, what architecture actually shows. It is the second of these tasks that I am attempting in the book. I accept, nevertheless, that to use “authentic” names is desirable; but while this might be achievable when dealing with the architecture of a given place and time, when the discussion is more general, choices must be made.
Even if the terminological “shifts and slips” could be ironed out from the texts, and the meanings of temple names be securely ascertained, textual terms should not be followed slavishly if the aim is to explain forms, because the textual categories are not always formal. Meister’s other general criticism of my terminology is made explicitly: that I fail to recognize “the dual nature of temple names, regional versus formal.” But it is precisely on account of this “dual nature” that one should select terms with caution when form is the focus. If texts contain such ambiguity, this needs to be understood in its context, not perpetuated. Meister’s review itself illustrates the danger of emulating this kind of inconsistency. When he says that Nāgara or Drāviḍa temples can take certain forms, it is largely unclear whether he is using “Nāgara” and “Drāviḍa” to mean my architectural “languages,” or merely saying that these forms of temple are found in the north or the south. “Kalinga” (roughly “Orissan”) is clearly a regional term, but tells us little about the variety of temple forms in Orissa; that “Vesara” (“mule”) should be regional is baffling. It is in order to avoid such confusion that I use all these terms in an explicitly formal sense, while explaining the geographical distribution of the various kinds of temple, along with their development through time.
The unwary need to be warned that there are no universally “correct” terms for Indian temple forms, only terms that are more or less correct, more or less accepted, and more or less useful. I have chosen useful terms that are gaining acceptance, thanks in no small part to Meister. This is why ultimately Meister’s objections, other than to my explicitly formal and perhaps extended use of “Nāgara” and “Drāviḍa,” are not about my misusing but my not using certain terms.
On the question of how temple designs were conceived, for me the key is the idea of the aedicule, defined as an “image of a building used as a compositional element” (Glossary, 244). Much of Indian temple architecture is not merely “decorated” with the “small models of large buildings” observed by James Fergusson, but composed entirely of temple-images that appear at a whole range of scales. Meister’s only argument against the interpretation is that in applying the term to “full scale” elements I misunderstand John Summerson’s explanation of the aedicule as “little house.” Summerson, in fact, argued that Gothic architecture graded its skeletal heavenly mansions up to the “superhuman” scale of a nave bay.
The issue, however, is not whether one accords with Summerson’s authority. That Indian temples are overwhelmingly aedicular can be substantiated on the basis of the evidence that they themselves present. Foremost is the explanatory power of the interpretation: that for countless examples it enables one to understand an architectural composition instantly as a whole, and to explain this in relatively few words, gestures, or strokes of the pen. Moreover, the aedicules are not arbitrary assortments but representations of familiar shrine forms, bodied forth from the matrix of the temple walls. Underlining the fact that they are meaningful entities, these various kinds of shrine-image appear not only as primary components, but also at lower levels of the compositional hierarchy, as niches and so on.
Aedicules are only the first step of my argument. In many traditions the relationships between the aedicular components of a temple design increasingly express movement. More than just “cascading,” interpenetrating forms emerge one from another in emanatory sequences. Furthermore, it can often be shown that the same pattern of emergence, growth, and proliferation expressed in a single temple is reflected in the pattern of development of architectural forms during the course of the tradition. Next, the argument goes beyond form and skirts the mystery of the interconnectedness of things. Parallels and connections can be shown between temple forms and, on the one hand, social structures, and, on the other hand, religious and philosophical ideas. The congruencies between these realms are vastly more apparent once the aedicular structure of temple designs is recognized. For example, in terms of religion, the simple idea of one god with many aspects is made visible when one sees how their many abodes are linked into a heavenly palace. If a temple is an image of the unfolding universe, a symbol of divine and cosmic manifestation, the aedicules are its disaggregating units.
It has been more than two decades since I first put forward this aedicular interpretation of Indian temple architecture, but Meister has been silent about it. That he now pronounces against it is a hopeful sign that the question will at last be debated. Let students, mine or Meister’s, and free spirits everywhere, spreading out from the tiny mandala of temple enthusiasts, begin to look. Perhaps the debate will move beyond the aedicule toward the emanating universe. Then, let the whole tower of cards stand until it dissolves. Meanwhile, from down here under the table, it is exciting enough to think that the first stage of the edifice may at last be visible on the table top.
Senior Lecturer, Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University