Fordings and Frontiers: Architecture and Identity in the Central Himalayas (c. 7th - 12th centuries CE)

Nachiket Chanchani, University of Pennsylvania


One of the largest concentrations of lithic temples in the Himalayas is to be found around the upper reaches of the Ganga and its important tributaries. By undertaking the first systematic documentation and analysis of the forms, layouts, and functions of these temples, their important sculptures, and inscriptions this dissertation begins to chart how this far∼flung borderland transformed into a sacred landscape. Based on extensive fieldwork conducted in India and Nepal, my study argues that the development and maintenance of tirthas (“fordings”; pilgrimage centers) and distinctive traditions of temple architecture in the medieval period were crucial in establishing the region's identity. I begin with an investigation of the emergence of an architectural tradition in the seventh century amid the opening up of this frontier by adventurous conquerors, traders, and ascetics who cultivated relationships with craftsmen. Thereafter, I trace this incipient tradition’s evolution from the seventh to the tenth century, by focusng on Jageshwar, the region’s largest sacred center. I also plot the roles of masons, ascetics, and redactors of Sanskrit texts in shaping Jageshwar’s edifices and landscape. This allows for a comparison of Jageshwar’s formation with the development of other sacred centers in South Asia where competing emperors and their courts often played significant roles. Subsequently, I show how between the tenth and the twelfth centuries old idioms were refined and new forms were habilitated. These processes were connected with the expansion of religious networks and the foundation of principalities. Finally, I report that in the twelfth century, émigré builders erected temples in imported architectural typologies. I recover the design of these monuments and demonstrate how their construction reflected the position gained by the Central Himalayas in the imagination of South Asia's many and varied religious communities.