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Indian Temple Sculpture.

Indian Temple Sculpture, by John Guy. V&_A Publications, London, 2007. 192 pages, 50 black-and-white and 150 colour plates. US$ 65.


The Victoria and Albert Museum, London has a limited but fairly representative and valuable collection of images, carved architectural fragments, and ritual objects from the Indian subcontinent. John Guy, until recently the Senior Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art in the new and revamped Asian Art Department there, looks at them not merely as temple sculptures or images but as objects of veneration interwoven with specific religious beliefs and rituals observed by devotees over centuries. Instead of writing a standard catalogue he has opted for a detailed study of their form, specific iconographic features related to their true identity, and their precise place in the temple structure as well as in the minds of the devotees. Not stopping at that, he moves to the temples where these were originally placed in order to understand how they took their divergent shapes, sizes, and complicated architectural forms. He also deals with the rituals of worship daily performed in the sanctum sanctorum and also outside it in the temple precinct amongst the multitude of devotees assembled for darshan. He examines the plethora of myths and legends in order to explore the true meaning and symbolism of the form and setting of the sculptures. Briefly, he feels that the underlying story of each of the sculptures needs to be narrated to explain its shape, form, and expression, its iconography and its precise place in the temple complex, and his book is all about this.

John Guy has organized his thoughts into six sections. In the first, "Religious Sculpture of the Indian Subcontinent", he explores the beginning of the sculptural tradition from the sacred idea to the sacred word and symbol leading to the emergence of anthropomorphic images in clay, terracotta, bone, and ivory, and then in stone and metal, coexisting with symbolic forms like tree, stupa, or linga; and the shrines constructed to provide a shelter for the images, exclusive places where the devotees would congregate to offer their worship or puja. With the passage of time there were sectarian rivalries and conflicting interpretations of the sacred texts, leading to the growth of a large body of myths and legends and religious literature, and the translation of these into relief sculptures around stupas and on temple walls. The results are manifest in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain sites at Bharhut, Sanghol, Mathura, Gandhara, Sarnath, Bodhgaya, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram), and the caves of western India, spreading to various large and small temple sites all over India.

In the second section, "The Rules of Designs: the Sastric Tradition", Guy discusses the Shilpashastras, the body of manuals regulating the conception and creation of sculptures (images) and temples (image houses), their form, posture, and proportions, the position of hands and feet, emblems held by them, flexion of the body, mounts, ornaments, etc. to make them perfect and flawless. In the following section, "The Temple Setting", he continues the subject keeping in view the numerous daily, fortnightly, seasonal, annual, and other periodic rituals performed in the temple to observe and celebrate the deity's cycle of life. Temples are important as abodes of the god--imposing, elaborate, magnificent, and inspiring spiritual bliss. He briefly touches on the subject of their forms--that vary from age to age, from region to region, and with the type of patronage--and the function of their various elements. The fourth section, "Devotion and Temple Worship", deals with the daily puja performed by the priests using specific texts and manuals, the participation of the devotees to witness the "spectacle", and the elaborately observed festivals--utsavas and mahotsavas--specifically in the context of southern India. (In fact, the book is largely based on the author's personal knowledge of south Indian temples and rituals that he witnessed, studied, and recorded in the course of many visits there).

The last two sections, "Iconography and Emotion" and "Manifestations and Appearances", analyse the outward appearance of the image that symbolizes the specific aspect of the god or goddess as described in the texts, and the wide range of emotions expressed through the various rasas that could help the devotee understand the true significance of the particular manifestation of the deity.

There is no doubt that John Guy has succeeded in writing an "innovative" account of Indian temple sculpture that is also ambitious in its approach, encompassing studies on Indian sculptural tradition, iconography, temple architecture, Shilpashastra, myths and legends that grew around the deities and their many manifestations, manuals of worship, and even the impact of bhakti motivating the devotee throughout his or her life. The other unusual feature of the book is his inclusion of rare archival photographs that go with the pictures of some of the V&A objects, illustrating how these objects were discovered and salvaged from neglect or destruction. Whether we judge on text or on illustrations, the book comes out a winner on both counts.
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Author:Das, Asok Kumar
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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