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Shiva’s Waterfront Temples: Reimagining the Sacred Architecture of India’s Deccan Region

Subhashini Kaligotla
, [Columbia University]
Ittleson Fellow, 2012–2014

Since India’s colonial period and the publication of James Fergusson’s History of Indian and Eastern Architecture (1876), architectural discourse has undervalued the Deccan temple and misinterpreted its formal structure as the organic outcome of its location. This facile understanding has been carried forward to the present day by a succession of scholars who posit the vast Deccan plateau as a “borderland” in which the “natural” temple forms of North India (Nāgara) and South India (Drāvida) come together, either wholly or as “hybrids.” Deccan temples have thus been relegated to a secondary position by a binary taxonomy that denies both their intrinsic artistic value and the agency of their makers. Most studies instead emphasize chronology, and all have privileged the agency of the region’s Chālukya rulers and their affiliates (543–757 CE) on the basis of a handful of securely attributable buildings. Moreover, the hegemonic Nāgara-Drāvida binary has resulted in the fragmentation of the Deccan’s dense temple clusters, with treatment of component buildings separated across independent volumes of temple architecture and divorced from the landscapes that situate and sustain them. By contrast, the actual design of the sites militates against such division, and the monuments likely shared builders, patrons, and worship communities.


Temple cluster at Pattadakal, Karnataka, India, seventh to eighth century, view from the north. Photograph: Caleb Smith

My dissertation challenges the canonical understanding of the Indian temple to foreground the intelligence and intentionality underpinning the design of the Deccan’s earliest extant sacred spaces and to redress their conceptual fragmentation. First, I show that the Deccan temple is in fact constitutively distinct from its Nāgara and Drāvida counterparts. Second, by adopting the Deccan temple cluster as a holistic analytical category, I draw attention to the interrelationships between, and disposition of, its component buildings and to the locative, symbolic, and organizing role of water bodies.

My study analyzes sacred sites founded from the sixth to the eighth century, clustered in the Malaprabha and the Krishna-Tungabhadra river valleys, in today’s postcolonial states Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, respectively. I call this dynamic architectural period Early Deccan, self-consciously avoiding the dynastic labels applied so far and the implication that political agents were the sole architectural and stylistic innovators. I argue, rather, that architects, artists, and regionally specific factors played a vital role. The dissertation establishes the formal distinctiveness of Early Deccan architecture by challenging the normative practice of classifying Indian temples solely on the basis of tower form. My extensive study of the Early Deccan corpus, comprising nearly two hundred structures, and analysis of previously unexamined formal features—particularly architectural representations that appear as relief sculpture on temple interiors and exteriors and as miniature built forms—show that Deccan builders established a dialectical relationship between the Nāgara and Drāvida architectural systems. It is not only the knowledge of multiple building traditions but also their combination, translation, and reconstitution in purposeful and meaningful ways that distinguish Deccan buildings from their Nāgara and Drāvida counterparts. Epigraphic evidence that has so far been deployed only to establish chronologies further allows me to underscore the intentionality of Deccan architects and their status in contemporary society.

The dissertation also highlights the temple cluster’s organization and establishes the water body as its symbolic and spatial focus. Though water bodies—natural, engineered, or a combination of the two—are visually and ritually constitutive of sacred centers throughout the Deccan, this aspect has received little scholarly comment. Indeed, landscape studies of the premodern Deccan remain in their infancy. My dissertation contributes to this nascent field by reading traditional art-historical evidence alongside literary constructions of premodern landscape cultures and phenomenological and experiential perspectives. For example, I read architectural manuals and treatises and a range of prescriptive texts, exhorting waterfront locations for sacred sites and providing directives on the design and siting of water monuments, against the topography and spatial layout of Early Deccan sites to find correspondences and departures. Sculptural and epigraphic sources add another valuable perspective: they establish a homology between kingship and the control and management of water, demonstrate aristocratic patronage of water monuments, and record the donation of water resources, gardens and groves, and fertile, irrigated lands to Brahmins and sacred centers. Finally, since the topography and layout of the cluster can direct the reception and experience of the site, I consider ways of circulating within the cluster and show how component structures relate to one another and the organizing water body. I am therefore able to present Early Deccan sacred spaces not as a conglomeration of disjointed monuments but as integrated environments in which built structures interact with, and engage, natural elements, and vice versa.