WHEN it comes to the subcontinent, questions of faith and culture are often rooted in an almost inseparable game between history and myth. The concept of “(hi) stories” in the subtitle is therefore akin to that of “itihasa” in Sanskrit literature – a term now loosely translated as “history”, and hence perhaps the confusion which leads some to make vehement statements about how we had nuclear planes and missiles in a bygone golden age.
Using archaeological and historical research, scriptural texts and inscriptions, observations and memories, folklore and the wisdom of various tour guides, “Where the Gods Dwell” weaves a mixture of insightful and thoroughly enjoyable tales. These describe temples as living monoliths of cultural identity, and their evolution over ancient tribal practices, appropriation by institutionalized religions, invasions and annexations, renovations and destruction, and struggles of power between rulers and priests, in our contemporary era of Unesco heritage hunting statute, paid tourism, court orders and state jurisdiction. The 13 essays explore beyond faith, mythology, architecture and academic anecdotes fascinating aspects of administration, alternative histories, socio-political dynamics and heritage management in order to sketch the (hee) stories of each temple.
Starting from the Padmanabhaswami temple and the Travancore kings, the second essay addresses the Cholas and the Brihadisvara temple in Thanjavur. Afterward, we jump to the Kamakhya temple in Assam, retracing its appropriation of a Khasi creator goddess, Ka-Mei-Kha, in the greater Puranic narrative of being the place where Sati’s yoni fell while Shiva was dancing with his body.
The book moves to Pandharpur in Maharashtra before heading north to Somnath, touching on, among other things, its history of invasions and the controversial inauguration of its current avatar in 1951.
Nine tries later, we cross our political borders to arrive at a Shivratri celebration at Killa Katas in Pakistan, followed by the Pashupatinath temple and its role in Nepalese politics and Indo-Nepal relations, then Jaffna. We finally head north to Srinagar, where Siddhartha Gigoo guides us through intimate childhood memories amid the exodus of Pandits from Kashmir to the present, when he feels like a tourist in his own country and must agree with Google’s “Temporarily Closed” description of the temple where her grandmother took her to pray.
The judicious use of marginalized narratives and the prism of historical materialism shows that at its heart lies a deliberate and strong position regarding the much slaughtered idea of India – an idea that goes far beyond the Hindi belt and dominant political narratives that seek to polarize and categorize our inherently multi-faceted (hi) stories.