Monday, January 29, 2018

Interview with the Curator: Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles

Urmila Mohan, our founding editor, discusses her new book and exhibit, Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles.

MLA citation format:
O'Dell-Chaib, Courtney
"Interview with the Curator: Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 29 January 2018. Web. [date of access] 

Fabricating Power with Balinese Textiles 
Exhibition On View: February 23–July 8, 2018 
Bard Graduate Center Gallery: 18 West 86th Street, NYC 
Curator: Urmila Mohan 
Bard Graduate Center/American Museum of Natural History Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology 

Mohan is a 2016-2018 Postdoctoral Fellow in Museum Anthropology across the American Museum of Natural History and the Bard Graduate Center and her research focuses on objects as a way to understand people, and their religious beliefs and cultural values. This exhibit builds a story around Balinese textile objects as ceremonial and ritual objects, collected by the anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson during their research in Bali (1936-38) and currently housed at the American Museum of Natural History. Other objects in this exhibit are from prominent museums such as Brooklyn Museum, Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, Fowler Museum at UCLA, and Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, as well as generous private collectors. 

MR: How did you become interested in Balinese textiles? 
UM: I researched religious clothing among the “Hare Krishnas” (also known as Iskcon) in India for my doctoral studies in anthropology at University College London. Textiles were always at the back of my mind and the CFP from Bard Graduate Center (focused on South East Asia) gave me the opportunity to extend two of my interests, cloth and religion into a new geographical area. I chose Bali because I have always been interested in that island and Balinese Hinduism, and the project had to involve objects at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), New York. The latter has a collection of ritual cloths collected by Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson in Bali (1936-38) that became an important part of my project. 

MR: What do you mean by, Fabricating Power? 
UM: Western scholars and artists like Mead and Bateson converged on the tropical island of Bali, Indonesia, in the first half of the 20th century attracted by its unique culture and vibrant artistic practices. My exhibit and the accompanying book (published by Bard Graduate Center and University of Chicago Press) consider the making and use of textiles as processes of fabrication of objects and people. Ceremonial objects with spiritual power operate within a unique Balinese Hindu cosmology and textiles, in specific, are agents as well as symbols of cultural resilience and continuity. Deriving their aesthetic and ritual powers from techniques of fabrication and use in various lifecycle ceremonies, the exhibit’s textiles also serve as records of an important period in Balinese and Western history. Drawing on information from the 1930s, such as the Mead archives at the Library of Congress, and subsequent research, I present an overview of Balinese textiles and encourage visitors to consider the value of these objects as they are made and used today. 

MR: What is important about materiality/material religions to you? What does a focus on materiality/material objects allow you to do/explore as a scholar of material culture and religion? 
UM: I focus on objects as a way to understand subjects, that is as a way to understand people and in some cases, specifically, how their agency is enhanced or limited by materials, substances and objects. My ideas are influenced by my anthropological studies at University College London which has a thriving material and visual culture department, and more particularly by the Matière à Penser group (one of the main reasons I started the Material Religion blog) and the work of associated colleagues (Douny and Naji 2009). Material religion allows me to combine the insights drawn from social sciences and material culture and bring that into the study of religion with ideas of praxis, agency, ritual efficacy etc. I recently co-edited with J.-P. Warnier an exciting special issue of “Journal of Material Culture” that explicates the idea of religion as a bodily AND material practice that makes religious subjects. 
Figure 1 Weaver working on a continuous warp loom. Tenganan Pegeringsingan, Bali, 2016. Photo by Urmila Mohan.
MR: What can these textiles teach us about Balinese Hindu cosmology? 
UM: A majority of the Balinese population practice a unique form of Hinduism that, while having historical roots in the Siwa-worshipping sects of South India, has been transformed into a composite belief system that embraces ancestor worship, animism, and magic. Apart from Siwa, the Hindu deities Wisnu and Brahma are also worshipped, and Balinese paintings often illustrate the stories of these deities. Man is a microcosm (buana alit) within a macrocosm (buana agung), and bodies are made up of the same five elements (pancamahabuta) that constitute the earth. The three levels of visible and invisible existence—that is, the human, the divine, and the demonic—may be expressed and felt in virtually every medium, including textiles. 

Cloth should feature more prominently in the anthropology of Balinese experience, since the bodily and material are intertwined. In anthropological studies, cloth is considered as skinlike because it has a similar function of wrapping and containing the body, mediating the movement of substances, both visible and invisible, between the internal and external. In contexts that can be ritualized (ranging from weaving cloth on a loom to protecting one’s body for a rite of passage), textiles and people, objects and subjects, are coproduced by actions. In a toothfiling (a rite of passage from child to adulthood), for instance, people using the cloth object are affected and transformed by it in some way because it offers protection during a liminal phase. Just between these few examples we can understand weaving (and its products) as generative and transformative activities. 
Figure 2 This Balinese youth is protected by a geringsing cloth during a toothfiling ritual. Ubud, Bali, 2016. Photo by Urmila Mohan.
MR: How would you address your role as a curator, or the power and responsibility of curation? 
UM: Even as people are writing and theorizing about curating, the term curator itself seems to be getting more diffuse—one can seemingly “curate” anything, a magazine, a shoe collection, even one’s life! So it’s probably better to consider this an evolving field where there are as many kinds of curators as collections. Having said that, my agency was exercised specifically as a guest curator in a small art museum in New York city that also functions an educational space. Being a guest curator at a smaller institution gave me much more freedom to experiment. Keeping in mind that a “guest” curator is by definition a transient presence, the first power I can think of is the ability to materialize my ideas. The process is highly collaborative because you are working with so many people and departments, and you have to be both passionate and flexible. Institutions are not necessarily innovative but when the system can make space for you, new ideas emerge, and curating becomes very rewarding. 

I cannot separate the question of curatorial power from the process. I think of curating and my research as a “museum anthropologist” as forms of rhizomatic growth, a kind of branching out and feeling and sensing that takes place in several directions simultaneously. The vision for the exhibit has to be shared and embodied not only by the curator but also by the numerous other people needed to make the idea a reality: the gallery staff, label writers, graphic, web and exhibit designers, marketing, development, registrar, installation crew—the list is endless. In addition, I also had to think of ways to engage my students in the process in different ways. Once the exhibit is up, students from other schools and colleges in the city can use it as an educational and explorative prompt. Further, none of this can be done without funding and we were fortunate to have the Coby Foundation, Ltd. support this exhibit. So in true Gellian fashion, the exhibit is a “distributed” person that mediates the power of various people in their absence. 

The next kind of power is to what extent a curator can represent the culture of non-Western “others” and source communities in a responsible manner. In the book that accompanies this exhibit, I was critical of Colonial Dutch politics in pre-Independence Indonesia and placed the actions of Western artists, curators and collectors against this historical background. In this context, anthropologists like Margaret Mead were products of their times and acquired their iconicity by working within the system of the AMNH. What museums “fabricate” are not just objects and their histories but also specific kinds of subjects. That is, museums make curators, visitors, critics, researchers, etc. as much as the latter shape these institutions. 

While postcolonial theory has been with us for a while, the “decolonize” movement has drawn fresh attention to these sites (for instance, at the AMNH) and researchers should be doing much more work to critique not just the contents of these archives but also how these contents are affected by institutional power. That is, we should be working both within and outside the museum frame by interrogating the question of power through an “anthropology of museums” as well as “museum anthropology”. A more culturally-informed attention to questions of power, agency and access is something that benefits all curators (and visitors), not just anthropologists. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Dressing Rooms: Spaces of Magical Reality

Alyssa Velazquez writes about dressing rooms as transitional spaces, questioning how, and to whom, these secret and privileged spaces generate imagined realities.

MLA citation format:
Velazquez, Alyssa,
"Dressing Rooms: Spaces of Magical Reality"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 4 December 2017. Web. [date of access] 

You are now going “behind the scenes.” As you cross over the threshold you may expect to experience the intimate and exclusive, to learn the unknown, or view the insides of a specialized world. Museums, historic homes, aquariums and zoos, sports’ stadiums, and performing arts spaces alike offer this level of familiarity to their venues in various formats: guided tours and over-night sleepovers, or through sponsorship pamphlets and advertising campaigns. Dance Retailer News, a magazine for the selling and marketing of dance retail, published in 2008 a one-page tutorial on how to glam up a display case of merchandise with a dressing room “motif.” The picture that accompanied this short advertisement displayed a three-tiered makeup organizer, open for the viewer to glimpse an assortment of brushes and nail polish, a kaleidoscope of eyeshadows, and its crowning jewel: a tiara. To the right of the case was a T-shaped earring stand and a double-bar bracelet holder sitting atop a circular mirror. In front of, and amongst, these primary fixtures were perfume bottles, a powder container, and a small wooden artist’s model. Behind this display of makeup and accessories floated a—from their description—gold Rococo mirror, accented by a pair of point shoes hanging from its top right corner. All these elements, if positioned just so, were intended to create “the perfect little girl’s fantasy dressing table.” [i]

This materialized dressing room, rather than revealing the backstage to the viewer, is a staged viewpoint. The malleability of the dressing room as a space or décor is partly due to that fact that the theater’s backstage space remains one of the “least documented, least analyzed, least theorized areas of theater space.” [ii] For Dance Retailer it can be whatever they want it to be. In this case, by setting the store up in this fashion: a dancer’s private vanity, the retailer is promoting merchandise within the mystical transitional space of a dressing room. Validity is given to makeup brushes and frames through the placement of these items in a space devoid of walls and its inhabitant. Without its occupant, the dressing table, costume pieces, makeup, and production footwear are the actor’s stand-ins—not only do they represent the transformation, but also, the person who was or will be transformed. Stripped of any defining architectural features and specific production elements, the magic or the fantasy of the dressing room is encapsulated in the objects that are brought into the space to prepare and to be used on the stage, rather than what already exists. In 2008, the New York Times ran an article on Broadway dressing rooms and some of their a-list occupants. Harvey Fierstien, most known for his roles in Hairspray and Fiddler on the Roof, was quoted as saying, “architecturally, most dressing rooms are pretty horrifying—the bare walls painted seven thousand times. There is magic in the theater, but it’s not in the dressing room.” [iii]
Figure 1: Backstage Dressing Room from the Billy Rose Theater Division,
The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 2, 2017.
That statement was certainly considered true in England throughout the nineteenth-century. On November 30rd 1889 the British Medical Journal ran a short piece on the dressing-rooms of provincial theaters. The article linked the recent deaths of two touring actors from enteric fever— a bacterial disease today known as typhoid—to the “insanitary condition of the rooms in which they “change” or “make-up” before appearing on stage.” [iv] Within the write-up these spaces of change were described as being near water-closets or waste-pipes in unventilated corners that lacked the necessary fresh air circulation—all of which was believed to be the cause of actors’ ill health. The French were equally intrigued with the backstage spaces of its performance venues, exemplified to them in the writings of Emile Zola, who, vividly depicted the sexual atmosphere of chorus girl water-closets and the immodest entertaining of male audience members by leading ladies in their dim and close quarter dressing rooms. 
Figure 2: Don Nicol and Ballet, Theater Royal, Sydney (January 30th 1946). From the collection of the State Library of South Wales. Accessed October 2, 2017.
Today, from this physically and often metaphorically unclean dark and hidden space, the dressing room is emerging as the performer’s private world. The four-cornered dressing spaces of leading men and women throughout the twenty-first century (specifically with the increase of music and cinema stars debuting on Broadway) are becoming venues for interior designers to construct a “home away from home” for their client, or a center of inspiration that speaks to the actor’s character. As a result, these secret and privileged spaces built to transform the performer into someone other than themselves, are being constructed with the fictional personae in mind, as much as, the space’s physical inhabitant. These interior design makeovers are then made the feature story of newspapers and trendy publications, making their transformation public knowledge. 
Figure 3: British actor Alec Guinness in Under the Sycamore Tree, London, 1952.
Accessed October 2, 2017. 
The dressing room, as a transitional space, is a bridge between reality and the world on-stage. This physical hybrid of architecture and imagination has, over the years, been featured in fiction, poetry, news reports, interior design magazines, and even retail catalogues, making a theater’s backstage a fixture in the human imagination. But what are they? What do these spaces do? What do they generate? Why, even in 2008, did Mr. Fierstien direct the outsider’s gaze to the stage as the source of a production’s magic, rather than, the “horrifying” space in which he went day-after-day to transition from a man to a woman for his role of Tracey Turnblad’s buxom mother in the musical Hairspray? From whom or what do these eccentric spaces derive their draw and power? [v] In their marketability, as in Dance Retailer News? In their malleability, as in the professional remodeling of Josh Groban’s dressing room for his character in The Great Comet? Perhaps it’s a lingering vestige of its salacious literary past. Or is it derived from the continued exclusion from the cannon of research in theater history? It is the room? Is it the bric-a-brac that fills the room? Or is it all a product of our imagination? 

[i] Adriana Lee, “A Vanity Fair,” Dance Retailer News 7, no. 2 (February 2008): 50. 
[ii] Gay McAuley, Space in Performance: Making Meaning in Theater, (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 26. 
[iii] Penelope Green, “Setting the Stage, Offstage,” The New York Times (March 20th 2008).
[iv] “The Dressing-Rooms of Theaters,” The British Medical Journal 2, no. 1509 (November 30th 1889): 1236. 
[v] The term “eccentric spaces” is derived from Robert Harbison’s book entitled Eccentric Spaces, New York: Knopf, 1977, in which he looks at spaces and interiors that are created based off human imagination. 


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

State Islam in Morocco: Practice, Discourse, and Materiality

Kaylee Steck investigates the diversity of state Islam in Morocco, including the ways it manifests across the densely interconnected fields of education, politics, religious practice and religious programming. Given the breadth of these manifestations, Steck argues that Moroccans engage with official religious discourse in different ways, rendering not a uniform experience of Islam, as the state may prefer, but unique and diverse quotidian experiences alongside multiple state Islams with different discourses and iconographies. In doing so, Steck resists the notion of state religion as a coherent set of policies and institutions.

MLA citation format:
Steck, Kaylee
"State Islam in Morocco: Practice, Discourse, and Materiality"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 8 November 2017. Web. [date of access] 

This essay highlights the diversity of encounters through which state Islam is articulated in Morocco. It frames state Islam as an arena of practice, discourse, and materiality that encompasses the densely interconnected fields of education, politics, religious practice, and religious programming. Like Christian societies, Islamic societies have historically mixed secular and religious institutions. The boundary between secular and sacred is still blurry in North African countries, where states control civil and religious law. In Morocco, the state controls these domains and monopolizes religious discourse through a diverse array of institutions. State Islam is the official and legitimate expression of Islam within a state, often tied to particular discourses and forms of national belonging. For example, many Moroccans wait to begin the holy fast until the Ministry of Endowment announces the sighting of the Ramadan moon. This means that Moroccan Muslims might begin their fast on a different day than Muslims in other countries. 

Discourse production operates on multiple scales in dynamic interaction with individuals, groups, and societies at large. When considering the formation and deployment of official religious discourse, one needs to be wary of collapsing complex processes and numerous iterations into a single narrative. Nevertheless, state authorities and policy institutions have a stake in presenting state Islam as a uniform institutional entity and adept partner in the fight against religious extremism [i]. The Moroccan state became interested in fighting religious extremism in the early 2000s, following suicide bombings that targeted foreign restaurants, a hotel, and a foreign consulate in Casablanca. Prominent international news outlets circulated accounts that identified Al Qaeda or ‘radical Muslim groups’ as likely culprits. As the highest religious authority in Morocco, the king responded to these events with a commitment to teaching tolerant Islam and reforming religious institutions. 

Institutional reforms coincided with the global war on terror and the mobilization of resources for countering religious extremism. State authorities and policy makers viewed educational initiatives as a promising investment due to the widespread assumption that education shapes people’s lives and decision making. Reshaping religious education required an overhaul of the existing constellation of institutions. After independence in 1956, the monarchy left Quranic schools intact and encouraged the growth of private schools for Islamic learning without much state regulation. Today, the monarchy regulates religious discourse through three main institutions: the High Council of Ulama; the Ministry of Endowment; and the Mohammedia League of Moroccan Ulama. These institutions oversee other religious bodies, including regional councils of religious scholars; mosques; traditional schools; and research centers [ii]. There are also initiatives to fight religious extremism through the introduction of tolerant messaging in religious education. 
Fig 1: Image from al-Mufīd fī al-Tarbiyya al-Islāmiyya (2016). Casablanca: Dār al-Thaqāfa. p.22.
Author’s photograph from a Moroccan book for religious education.
Publishing houses produce religious text books at the request of the Ministry of Education. This lesson uses an image of cultural diversity to make the messaging more compatible with discourses of pluralism and tolerance. The text above the image says, “God created me and made me equal.” What does this lesson mean to Moroccans? According to one individual, it means that Islam brings people of all backgrounds together and does not discriminate based on race or ethnicity. Another individual said it means that Muslims should accept diversity in their communities because God created diversity [iii]. The nuances of these interpretations show that individuals engage with official religious discourse in different ways, rendering unique quotidian experiences of Islam. 

Interpretation is a process of meaning making by which individuals filter textual and visual information through an ensemble of values, experiences, and beliefs. This is not an arbitrary process, but it has no unifying rationality. People can arrive at their own truths within the limits of their particular situations and interpretive tools. The method of using text book lessons to inculcate youth with a single interpretation rests on a problematic assumption about the way schooling works; that “particular curricula create predictable sets of knowledge and motivation in students that reflect the intentions of their producers” [iv]. Islamic education, like other forms of religious and secular instruction, is not a direct motivator of behavior. Moroccan youth can learn about pluralism and tolerance in the classroom, but these lessons have unpredictable and ambiguous influences since belief and action are not formulated within the confines of classrooms, but in society at large, where the persistence of authoritarianism limits opportunities for exchanging and challenging ideas. 

State Islam’s embeddedness in an authoritarian state makes it a poor foundation upon which to build a curriculum for pluralism and tolerance. Preachers often praise the monarchy for offering stability and security in a region riddled with violent conflict. According to a Moroccan activist, “if you attend Friday prayer, you will hear the imam of the mosque ask: ‘May you protect the One who has been appointed over your people and the land’” [v]. However, citizens cannot use religious rhetoric to challenge the status quo. Security forces recently attempted to arrest a prominent political activist who interrupted a Friday prayer sermon to criticize the imam for using religious language to promote the state’s political agenda in response to protest movements in northern Morocco. Thus, there are limits on who can use religious rhetoric and for what purpose. 
Fig. 2: Screen-grab from YouTube video showing people attending a Friday prayer sermon in Morocco. The imam describes the king as “the Commander of the Faithful” and the guarantor of a perfect society. This title reflects the monarch’s status as a sacred sovereign; the king’s hold on power rests on his dynasty’s claim of descent from the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, the king’s authority is imbricated with notions of divine legitimacy and divine blessing.
The 2011 constitution strengthened the state monopoly on religious rhetoric in the sphere of political competition by outlawing explicitly religious and Islamist parties. Morocco’s first official Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (PJD), began participating in elections in 1997. Due to its popularity, the regime limited its activism to the religious sphere. Following palace directives in 2007, the PJD vacated the religious sphere, avoiding electioneering at mosques and removing party symbols when entering mosques to pray [vi]. Avi Spiegel argues that the monarchy’s role in the religious realm is to quash resistance and preserve the status quo through formal and informal modes of social control and selective suppression of distinct forms of activism [vii]. In this sense, ‘state Islam’ is not an inoculation against violent ideologies and could radicalize populations by pushing them out of mainstream politics and civil society. In August 2016, the king delivered a speech in which he condemned people engaging in terrorist activities: “Those who engage in terrorism, in the name of Islam, are not Muslim.” According to a representative affiliated with the Interior Ministry, at least 1,600 Moroccans have joined terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, making Morocco one of the countries from which the greatest number of foreign fighters has come. This points to the limits of official religious discourse within the context of ‘countering violent extremism.’ 
Fig 3: Image of PJD logo. The lantern symbolizes the party’s message of reform.
In June 2017, Hespress, an online Moroccan journal, published an article called “Banning Iʿtikāf in the Kingdom’s Mosques...The State continues ‘monopolizing religion’.” Iʿtikāf means to remain in a mosque, performing a particular sort of worship, especially during Ramadan. According to the article, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs Delegation for the Eastern region intends to authorize worshipers to remain in the mosque after prayer times if they submit a formal request with a copy of their national identity card. The same month, a video was posted on Youtube showing a group of Moroccans from Oujda protesting the four-year ban on iʿtikāf and calling the ban a form of hogra, which means injustice in the local dialect. Hogra is a term that protesters used during the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Morocco. Protesters called to end the system of injustice and corruption that disenfranchises citizens by restricting their ability to exercise basic rights: employment rights, housing rights, land rights, religious rights, etc. [viii]. Efforts to regulate mosque operations fall within the strategy of preventing terrorism and eradicating extremism, but these security measures impinge on the right to freely worship. On a more practical level, the iʿtikāf ban adds to the numerous administrative hurdles that already hobble people’s plans and daily activities, which might involve hanging out in mosques, resting, or just escaping the sun. This accumulation of injustice against the already disenfranchised is the work of hogra

While producing religious text books, outlawing religious parties, and banning certain religious practices are more salient forms of state Islam, other forms are subtler. Religious programming on radio and television are examples of media that inflect the daily lives of many Moroccans. The state-owned television channel ‘2M’ displays a short sequence of images with the adhān (call to prayer) for each of the five daily prayers. Images of Morocco’s diverse natural landscapes are overlaid with the Arabic text of the adhān. The voice of the muezzin chimes with each repetition of the phrase allāhu akbar (God is great). A two-minute program might seem irrelevant or insignificant, especially without information about who is watching, for how long, or whether they connect it to a meaningful practice of prayer. Nevertheless, this example shows us that official religious iconography presents itself in quotidian contexts. 
Fig 4: Image of adhān (call to prayer) on Moroccan television channel 2M. Youtube video.
Another example of television programming that mixes the visuals of the sacred and the state is footage of the king performing Eid prayers. I spent Eid El-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, with my friends in Rabat. After enjoying a breakfast of fresh bread with olive oil and cheese, one of the family members turned on the television, making the volume barely audible. She cleared the table and started preparations for the next course against a backdrop of images – the king traveling in a motorcade to the Al-Mohammadi Mosque in Casablanca; the king performing the Eid prayer; the king greeting high ranking officers. No one except me was actually watching the royal Eid prayer (my friend was sending messages on her phone), and turning it on in the first place was more of a ceremonial gesture (like my family turns on the Macy’s Day Parade while preparing Thanksgiving dinner) than a key ritual. 

In conclusion, there are multiple state Islams with different discourses and iconographies, some more subdued than others. State authorities cannot effectively control or rationalize this vast ensemble of repertoire and the many feelings it imbues. This essay highlighted the complexities of state Islam in Moroccan society by considering the reception of different forms of official religious discourse. By abandoning a uniform and unchanging understanding of state Islam, actual Moroccan experiences of state Islam come to the foreground and allow for serious examination of encounters and clashes with official discourse. Before jumping to conclusions about the role of state Islam in fighting religious extremism, policy makers should consider how Islam relates to daily life, and how close regulation and monitoring might compound existing forms of oppression and marginalization within society. They may be surprised to discover that the state does more to aid and abet extremism than suppress it. 

[i] See Feuer, Sarah. 2016. State Islam in the Battle Against Extremism. Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Brown, Nathan. 2017. “Official Islam in the Arab World: The Contest for Religious Authority.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 11, 2017. 

[ii] Feuer, p. 17-22. 

[iii] I interviewed Moroccans about their interpretation of the image and text in August 2017. 

[iv] Starrett, Gregory (2006). “The American Interest in Islamic Schooling: A Misplaced Emphasis?” Middle East Policy XIII (I): p. 127. 

[v] Spiegel, Avi. 2015. Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 121. 

[vi] Ibid, p. 144. 

[vii] Ibid, p. 129. 

[viii] For a discussion of hogra, see Abdelmajid Hannoum (2013). “Tangier in the time of Arab revolutions: an ethnopolitical diary.” The Journal of North African Studies, 18:2, 272-290. 


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Tracing the Many Lives of Religious Structures

Uthara Suvrathan emphasizes the importance of alternative traces in exploring the complex life-histories of Buddhist and Hindu religious structures in Banavasi, South India. By paying attention to ephemeral as well as more long-lasting religious material culture she offers a way of studying changing patterns of religious practice and cultural memory formation.

MLA citation format:
Suvrathan, Uthara
"Tracing the Many Lives of Religious Structures"
Web blog post. Material Religions. 11 October 2017. Web. [date of access] 

Archaeologists and historians studying religious structures frequently tend to classify temples by the initial dynastic period of their construction, and the literature abounds with phrases like the ‘Chola temple’ or ‘Satavahana stupa’ [i] However, in the academic quest for order in data, we underestimate how frequently monuments are in constant flux. Religious structures in particular cannot be fixed in time, although they might be so in space. By pinning these structures within specific temporal and dynastic periods, we often ignore the fact that religious structures are living entities. We forget that these are complex entities that have complex life histories extending long after that of their initial construction—they were constantly added on to and altered, often spanning the rule of multiple dynasties. By tracing the life-histories of religious structures archaeologists and historians can access an ever-changing pattern of cultural memory formation and religious practice. 

At Banavasi (Karnataka, India) where I worked for several years [ii], my team and I studied several Buddhist stupas, hemispherical structures constructed to enclose Buddhist relics. Site 71 is an extremely overgrown and eroded circular brick mound located about a mile north of the village of Banavasi (Figure 1) [iii]. Based on the form and size of the bricks used in the structure, the stupa was constructed around the second-third centuries CE. Ceramics and terracotta roof tiles found on the structure also date it to an early period, at least prior to the 7th century CE [iv]. It thus falls within a period when Buddhism was widespread in southern India and Banavasi itself was likely an important religious and economic center. The limited historical research on these monuments has so far focused on their form and temporal context and once the structures have been neatly categorized by these criteria their later histories have been largely ignored. 
Figure 1: Site 71, eroded stupa. Photo by author.
It is likely that the core period of the stupa’s use and worship as a Buddhist structure was limited to an early period and declined starting from the fourth-fifth centuries as Buddhist worship in south India was largely replaced by a resurgent Hindu tradition. In Karnataka, Shaivite Hinduism, which focused on the primacy of the God Shiva, emerged as predominant. As Buddhism gradually became less popular, stupas across the region were abandoned and fell into ruin. And yet, even as Hindu temples increasingly became the focus of social and religious life, fragments of “material memory” remained. At site 71 (and at other stupa locations in and near Banavasi) the mound has a looter’s hole on the top. From colonial travellers accounts from the 17th and 18th centuries, we know that the ‘topes’ were often mined for reliquaries by the rather straightforward, though archaeologically unsound, method of digging a hole in the top into the relic chamber. While the looter’s holes in the Banavasi stupas cannot be dated, it is an interesting remnant of a memory or belief that there might be ‘treasure’ in the centre of these structures. 

There is also clear evidence of the later use of site 71. In fact, at present the structure is considered a Hindu shrine although there is some memory among the present inhabitants of surrounding villages of its early history as a Buddhist structure. The hemisphere has been flattened on top, and brick fragments mined from the structure have been used to construct a makeshift shrine consisting of a platform surrounded on three sides by low, roughly-built walls (Figure 2). The shrine itself contains an extremely eroded figure of the elephant-headed god, Ganesha, as well as a fragmentary sapta-matrika panel that represents seven mother goddesses who are a part of the Hindu pantheon (Figure 3). These items have clearly been appropriated from one or more Hindu temples and date to a period after the 16th century. This fits with evidence of a second episode of roof construction on the stupa, where the terracotta tiles are of forms that can be dated to between the 16th and 19th centuries CE.
Figure 2: Shrine on top of stupa. Photo by author.
Figure 3: Shrine elements. Photo by author.
Even more recently, within the last couple of years, a set of cement reinforced steps lead up to the shrine. When we talked to people living and worshiping at the shrine there was no recognition that it was originally a site of Buddhist worship, instead the mound itself has been absorbed into a modern mythos that weaves tales of ancient mounds or 'guddas' that were the palaces of ancient (and unnamed) kings). At most of the stupas that survive in the area, there is evidence of later use and worship, including the construction not just of shrines but of simple stone alignments of unclear purpose. 

Sites like these offer an interesting contrast to other stupas that have been completely forgotten and destroyed. For instance, at site 207 we initially noticed a low circular mound, barely more than an undulation on the ground. Since there were no structural fragments (like brick or tiles) visible on the surface it was difficult to identify it as a stupa. On a visit a couple of months later, the farmer who owned that field had decided to level the ground for cultivation and was using a large mechanical backhoe to dig up the mound. With this excavation, the true nature of the structure was revealed and the distinctive bricks and terracotta tiles that emerged clearly identified it as a stupa (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Site 207, destroyed stupa. Photo by author.
Yet another example of the complex life histories of religious structures comes from a consideration of folk religious practices that often occur outside the traditional ritual spaces of the temple. Throughout South India, folk beliefs populate the landscape with a variety of divine and semi-divine beings, as well as spirits (bhutas) and other inimical forces. In many cases, these small sacred sites do not have built shrines. Instead, they could consist of rounded stones or earthen pots worshiped as forms of the mother goddess (Chowdamma); or places identified as residences of spirits or natural symbols (termite mounds, snake holes). In other cases, these shrines can include miscellaneous architectural or sculptural fragments appropriated from larger structures. These ephemeral forms of construction are a crucial part of the wider religious landscape and as important in lived practice as the larger stupas and Hindu temples. Such small village shrines are simply made of easily available materials and require little labor. Due to their very impermanence the materials they are made of require maintenance and they are continuously cleaned, added to, worshiped. These small shrines are a more organic feature of the village landscape- a rounded stone tucked away under a banyan tree, appropriating the hole of the village cobra, or a broken sculpture under a palm leaf shed. I cannot imagine that such places would leave easily identifiable traces for the archaeologist. And yet, they must have been a part of village life for generations. 

However, the boundaries between these local traditions and more institutionalized Hinduism, where worship was sited within stone temples and mediated through priests, are extremely fluid. Traditionally, if flaws or cracks developed in the central lingam (typically a phallus-shaped symbol of the Hindu god Shiva, worshiped as a generative force) within a temple it was no longer considered worthy of worship. And yet, as sacred items they had to be disposed of carefully and were, by being submerged in the nearby river. Periodically throughout the year these items re-emerged during the dry season when the water level falls drastically. Over some time, these discarded items become the focus of smaller folk shrines, with small walls enclosing them (Figure 5). In many cases worship at these shrines are the province of local families and do not require the intercession of the priest who is attached to the larger temple. However, as the shrine becomes more permanent, the priest re-enters the picture and begins to make more formal ritual offerings on behalf of the people.
Figure 5: Linga on dried river bed. Photo by author.
A more careful exploration of the life histories of small and large structures thus adds greatly to our understanding of the complexity of cultural memory in the communities we study. By foregoing some of our desire to classify the material indicators of history we can begin to explore something of the messiness of human action, past and present! 

This blog post derives from research that will be published in an article that is under review: ‘The Multivalence of Landscapes: Archaeology and heritage’. In Himanshu Prabha Ray (ed.), Preserving Plurality: Heritage in South and Southeast Asia. Routledge. 

[i] ‘Chola’ and ‘Satavahana’ refer to pre-modern dynasties known to have ruled in south Asia. The Satavahanas controlled the central section of the Indian subcontinent from the 1st c. BCE to the 2nd century CE. The Cholas ruled large areas of southern India between the 9th and 13th centuries CE. 

[ii] Uthara Suvrathan, “Spoiled for Choice?: The sacred landscapes of ancient and early medieval Banavasi”, South Asian Studies, Vol. 30.2 (2014); “Regional Centres and Local Elite: Studying peripheral cores in peninsular India”, Indian History (The Annual Journal of the Archive India Institute), Vol. 1 (2014). 

[iii] During my research we recorded and studied over 600 sites, large and small, dating from the third century BCE to the present day. Each site was assigned a unique identification number. 

[iv] Evidence from similar structures elsewhere in the subcontinent, as well as inferences drawn from the low quantities of roof-tiles found at 71 indicate that only certain sections of the structure were roofed.