Constructing the guru: ritual authority and architectural space in medieval India.

Author:Sears, Tamara I.

For nearly three millennia the guru has remained at the nexus of Indic society as a figure revered for his innate wisdom, for his vast knowledge of spiritual texts and practices, and for his status as a living receptacle for divinity. Derived from the Sanskrit word meaning both "dispeller of ignorance" and "heavy" or "weighty," (1) the term guru appeared in Indic traditions as early as the first millennium BCE, the period in which the ancient Hindu Vedas and Upanishads were being consolidated into a distinct written corpus. (2) The guru of this earliest period was an ascetic teacher of the highest priestly, or Brahman, caste whose authority was largely vested in his knowledge of the sacred texts. Members of elite society would spend part of their childhoods living with a guru in a single household, known as a gurukula, or guru's house. Over the centuries that followed, the guru's role evolved to accommodate the changing shape of Hindu theology and practice. New forms of devotionalism and the rise of Tantric and esoteric traditions during the first millennium CE transformed the guru from a high-caste teacher into a figure revered as a manifestation of divinity and as a vehicle for liberation. (3) By the early medieval period (ca. 600-1200 CE), the guru's identity as both a spiritual teacher and a focus for ritualized worship had led to the development of elaborate mathas, or monasteries, throughout the Indian subcontinent (Fig. 1). Because mathas were often royally sponsored landholding institutions, the gurus who headed them became invested with the responsibility of furnishing a range of social and economic services to the larger community. (4)

Given the importance of gurus in Indic society even today, it might seem natural that the mathas within which they resided would occupy a critical position in the canon of South Asian architectural history. Yet remarkably little has been published on monastic architecture, and relatively few scholars are aware of the corpus of extant material. (5) A few factors may have prevented more vibrant scholarly study. One is simply the paucity of evidence. Inscriptional sources frequently record the construction of mathas and the patronage of the gurus who headed them. (6) But, unlike in the Western medieval world, or even in the case of the famous Buddhist rock-cut monasteries at Ajanta and Ellora, (7) very few Hindu monasteries survive today. (8) Those that remain can be dated no earlier than the ninth or tenth centuries CE, (9) a period that art historians have more frequently thought of as the beginning of a new efflorescence and experimentation in temple architecture.

In studies of temples during this period, most scholars concentrate on the ways in which they provided a mechanism for political legitimation by allowing regional kings to establish their authority as divinely sanctioned by pan-Indic deities, such as Shiva and Vishnu. (10) They tend to overlook how temples also signified new forms of alliances--not only between kings and gods but also between kings and the prominent religious communities that were actively involved in redefining both theological understandings of cosmic reality and the ritual practices that reinforced them. For example, recent reevaluations of early medieval temple architecture and sculpture at famous royally sponsored temple sites, such as Khajuraho, have begun to reveal that gurus and their spiritual counterparts, acharyas (ritual preceptors), actively participated both in the development of temple architecture and the maintenance of temple rituals during this period. (11) The proliferation of guru-centered ritual around larger temple sites is captured by sculpted reliefs depicting gurus enshrined within architectural settings and caught in the act of demonstrating the correct performance of esoteric rituals to groups of ardent disciples (Fig. 2). Similarly, scholars versed in textual traditions have begun exploring the critical part that religious preceptors played in the consolidation of state authority, particularly as rajagurus, or royal preceptors, began taking on increasingly important roles in the administration of state religious activities. (12)

If gurus were actively involved in artistic production and ritual performance at temple sites, then it seems logical that temples would have been accompanied by mathas and their related institutions. Nonetheless, the overwhelming emphasis on temples has often led scholars to overlook the relation between the two types of monuments. (13) It is true that the drab masonry surfaces and boxlike exteriors of the surviving monasteries pale in comparison to the voluptuously sculpted temples that stand nearby. Mathas, however, played an equally critical role in the structure of religious life at sacred sites. Often erected in close proximity to temples, mathas supported ritual activity within the temple and facilitated the social and economic services offered at temple centers. As religious institutions, temples and mathas formed a functional pair, and each should be understood as sanctified spaces built to house holy, living beings. Whereas temples sheltered the sculpted icons that were seen as living embodiments of divinity temporarily fixed in place for the purpose of worship, (14) mathas housed the holy practitioners who officiated over daily services to the gods. In addition, both temples and mathas operated as landholding overlords during a period characterized by the decentralization of authority, thus integrating religious, political, and economic networks that formed the basis for state formation. (15) While much work has been done on temples, far less is known about how gurus and mathas might have contributed to the construction of these networks.

The examination of a matha that still stands several miles from the bank of the holy Son River in the village of Chandrehe, located in the northeastern corner of the present-day north-central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (Figs. 1, 3), may go some little way toward filling this scholarly lacuna. According to an inscription affixed to its exterior, the matha at Chandrehe was built in 973 CE by a guru named Prabodhashiva, who intended it to accompany a temple established a generation earlier by his spiritual teacher and predecessor, the guru Prashantashiva. (16) At the time of the monastery's construction, Chandrehe belonged to a larger network of monastic sites associated with a Shaiva (Shiva-worshiping) sect known as the Mattamayuras. (17) Although the exact origins of the Mattamayuras have been a subject of debate, inscriptional records make it clear that they attracted the attention of kings residing in the western part of central India as early as the ninth century CE, and that they had become a major, transregional religious movement by the tenth century. (18) The matha at Chandrehe, in particular, was part of a major expansion, sponsored by the powerful Kalachuri royal dynasty during the tenth and eleventh centuries. Under the Kalachuris, mathas were established at major regional centers, such as Bilhari and Gurgi, and at the royal capital of Tripuri, (19) where Mattamayura gurus became rajagurus who were directly responsible for advising the king and officiating over royal decrees. (20) By the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Mattamayura gurus were well established, and their mathas formed an intricate network of royally sponsored institutions that effectively connected agrarian peripheries and regional centers to the royal capital.



The architectural forms of the monastery at Chandrehe evoked the soteriological and ritual world of Mattamayura practice and drew attention to the authority of the guru who resided at the heart of this expansive religious and political community. According to inscriptions, Mattamayura gurus were well versed in a body of texts associated with a larger religious tradition known as Shaiva Siddhanta (literally, the fully completed Shaiva religion) that spread rapidly through South Asia during the tenth and eleventh centuries. (21) These texts place particular importance on the guru, without whose intervention the human soul would remain in perpetual bondage, unable to attain liberation. Liberation in Shaiva Siddhanta was defined as "becoming like Shiva"--that is, becoming like the god himself, imbued with all traits of divinity. The first step toward liberation was an initiation (nirvana-diksha) that could be performed only by a guru or acharya, (22) who, like an icon in a temple, became the living body of the god for the duration of the ritual. The officiating guru was considered "another Shiva on earth," and the initiation he conferred was believed to destroy the fetters preventing the soul from achieving liberation. (23)

If the matha functioned as the residential seat of a liberated guru who was responsible for performing initiation and instructing disciples in the path toward liberation, then how did its architectural form reinforce the guru's position as a spiritual teacher and focus for worship? Although from the exterior the monastery looks unprepossessing, its interior reveals a remarkably complex program of architectural spaces and sculptural details that appears to have followed a carefully constructed pattern. When examined closely, it becomes apparent that the form of the building, its sculptural details, and the patterns of movement that it engendered can be seen as constituting a highly variable text that would have been legible to contemporary audiences. This text was built up through a combination of iconological markers, or visual cues, and through the arrangement of spaces within the monastery. (24)

Whereas early medieval temples, such as the one at Chandrehe, often involved linear movement through space, passage through mathas unfolded in multiple ways (Fig. 20). In temples, the articulation of spaces from the outside world to the sanctum was...

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