Imperial Frontiers: Building Sacred Space in Sixteenth-Century South India

By Branfoot, Crispin | The Art Bulletin, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Imperial Frontiers: Building Sacred Space in Sixteenth-Century South India


Branfoot, Crispin, The Art Bulletin


Studies of sixteenth-century South Asian art are dominated by the achievements of the Mughal Empire in north India. Later Hindu architecture, that is, after the twelfth century, has been neglected until comparatively recently, under the assumption that the finest productions of Hindu artists were earlier and that later work was simply repetitive, debased, or degenerate. The sheer number of temples to study and the fact that they remain in use have also proved problematic. In south India the temple architecture of the Vijayanagara Empire is now better known, but many consider the fall of the capital in 1565 to have resulted in the end of major temple construction. Close examination of one Hindu temple built in the 1560s highlights a number of issues of wider significance for our understanding of south Indian architecture and the meaning of Hindu temples more generally. Ever since the pioneering studies by Ananda Coomraswamy and Stella Kramrisch in the first half of the twentieth century, the meaning and symbolism of the Hindu temples built across India from the fifth century onward have been taken as manifestations of cosmic form and the process of cosmic creation. Instead of more attempts to explicate the general pan-Indian meaning of the Hindu temple across fifteen hundred years as a supposedly unitary and unchanging phenomenon, more attention needs to be paid to the multilayered meanings of particular temples in specific contexts.

Through his study of sacred architecture in another area, medieval Europe, Richard Krautheimer established the importance of the content or iconography of architecture.1 As Paul Crossley has noted, Krautheimer's theory of the architectural copy joined the notion of symbolism both to the intentions of the patron and to the response of the medieval onlooker.

He noted that certain ancient and venerable structures were frequently copied in early medieval architecture, not accurately in order to produce an exact reproduction, but approximately and vaguely, with just enough of the essential features of the prototype to evoke its meaning, to allow the viewer to experience, at second hand so to speak, the essential qualities of the original. The associative power of architectural forms could thus be used by patrons to promote devotion, evoke holy sites, or . . . make political propaganda.2

These interrelated layers of meaning-religion, sacred geography, and politics-can be explored in the sixteenth-century temple at Krishnapuram.

The "frontiers" of the title are geographic, political, and cultural: this Hindu temple was built at the southernmost extremity of the Vijayanagara Empire, about five hundred miles from the imperial center; it was built around the decisive defeat of Vijayanagara in 1565, which direcdy led to the empire's disintegration; and it was built under the patronage of the Madurai Nayakas, a dynasty of kings and former Vijayanagara governors who defined a distinctive era of cultural and artistic vitality from the mid-sixteenth through the early eighteenth centuries.

Approaching Krishnapuram

Along the river Tamraparni at the southern tip of the state of Tamil Nadu are a number of Hindu temples clustered along the fertile green riverbanks in an otherwise arid landscape. Some of diese temples are in large towns, while others stand almost isolated in small villages. About 5 ½ miles (9 kilometers) from the city of Tirunelveli is the village of Krishnapuram, dominated by the temple to Venkitâcalapati (Visnu), its high walls painted with vertical red and white stripes that stand out against the surrounding landscape (Fig. I).3 Dedicated to a form of Visnu, who, together with Siva, is one of the two main deities to whom Hindu temples in southern India have been consecrated from the sevendi century on, this temple was a new foundation, built in the 1560s on a site that was not previously sacred. The outer of two concentric enclosures (prakaras), bodi neady proportioned in a ratio of 2:1, is entered via a pyramidal gateway (gopura), characteristic of the south Indian temple, at the center of the east side (Fig. …

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