The role of religion in its most fundamental aspect is to soothe. All faiths were invented (or should we say discovered, named or received) to allay the fears and nourish the hopes of us humans.
There is another important role that religion plays and that is as a keeper of the culture of a people. In this, it is intertwined with history and geography, culture and aesthetics, symbols and myth. The book, Where the Gods Dwell (Westland, ₹499), broadly falls under this ambit. It is a series of 13 essays, some better than others, about the sacred history of shrines. My one-line descriptions of the essays definitely do not do the essays justice, but such is the nature of anthologies, and for that matter, hapless writers like me who would like to amplify the audience for such books.
My favourite essay is Trisha Gupta’s piece on Khajuraho, which describes the sexual sculptures in the temple complex, attempts to unravel their history and talks about current India’s discomfort with their frank sensuality. Yours could be one of the other essays, depending on your proclivity or geography. In that sense, there is something in this book for every stripe of reader. These essays offer an opening, and interested parties can choose a shrine that attracts them to delve deeper.
In Tamil Nadu, outside the Hindu temples that I used to visit as a child, shops typically sold a tiny booklet. You bought it for pittance: ₹25 or ₹50. Written in Tamil, it was simply titled Sthala Puranam . History of the sacred place. Occasionally, the priest or guide would perform this function, recounting the sacred history of the land upon which the temple stood. Usually, it involved a fantastic story of a god’s choice of a particular place.
Where the Gods Dwell offers a modern view of these old-fashioned sthala puranas . It also raises the idea of how a site’s history is — and should be — transmitted. Books in this genre offer a portable, expert’s perspective. They offer much to the curious reader. But to truly experience the rich history, myths, symbols and stories that lie within the many temple complexes of India, you need to be in situ. You need to know the local language and go with a local person. For those of us who cannot do that, books such as Where the Gods Dwell offer a great introduction to what we have in India — and for that matter, what is lost in English translation.
More than 13 temples to visit
Indira Viswanathan Peterson’s essay is full of rich detail about the Brihadisvara temple of Thanjavur. It calls forth the layered history that includes Chola kings, Shaivite saints and Europeans. Manu Pillai does the same for the Padmanabhaswami temple of Thiruvananthapuram, describing the intertwined lives of the titular god, his king, Martanda Varma and a Pulaya woman.
I wish I had visited Belur and Halebidu temples after reading Meera Iyer’s essay about its architecture, including the “balcony seats” that were used for napping. Basav Biradar’s essay on Hampi raises significant questions– about local resistance and communities– that make history interesting. Shrenik Rao’s piece on the Kakatiyas uses the learned king, Rudra (Vidya Vibhushana — one whose adornment is education), to describe the rigid caste or varna system of the age. Siddhartha Sarma’s piece about Kamakhya melds together the tantric Srividya cult that is rooted in the Shakti peethas with broader questions that delve into the notion of goddess or Devi worship.
Neelesh Kulkarni mixes personal history — learned from his grandfather — with the stories surrounding Vithoba of Pandharpur, showing how the gods may be specific to a site but their leanings (preferring humility over hubris) are universal to Hinduism. Vikrant Pande includes the voices of guides and priests in his piece on Somnath , showing the multiplicity of narratives that include sacred trees and mythical time. Haroon Khalid’s piece describes Shivratri at Killa Katas , a historic Hindu temple complex in Pakistan through the eyes of a guide, Shakeel, and a local activist, using this festival to describe place and politics.
Amish Raj Mulmi’s piece takes readers back to the hoary history surrounding Pashupatinath of Nepal, arguably one of the oldest gods of them all. As a Tamilian, I knew Sri Lanka’s fascination with the warrior, Lord Murugan. What I didn’t know was the layered history of the Nallur Kandaswamy temple, described by Thulasi Muttulingam – how Muslim, Christian and Hindu shrines stand beside each other, demanding a piece of the tale. Siddhartha Gigoo’s essay describes in lyrical if scorching prose about the ruined temples that the Kashmiri Pandits used to pray at. Once sacred, now desecrated.
Shoba Narayanis a Bengaluru-based journalist and the author of Food and Faith: A Pilgrim’s Journey Through India (2020)