If asked about monasteries in ancient and medieval India, most of us will think of the Buddhist vihara, with its cloistered monks’ cells surrounding a central courtyard. It may vaguely come to mind that Śaivite maṭhas rose to prominence toward the end of the first millennium, but until now there has been no book to show us their architecture. Among general works, Susan Huntington’s The Art of Ancient India is exceptional in devoting a few pages to the tenth-century monastery and adjacent circular temple at Chandrehe, publishing a plan, and speculating on the beliefs and practices of the Mattamayūra (Drunken Peacock) ascetic sect who inhabited it.1

Not that the handful of surviving related structures is unknown. As Tamara Sears recounts at the opening of her new book, the British archaeologist Alexander Cunningham came across the small monastery at Ranod in 1864–65; at first thinking that it was a palace, he praised it for a simplicity worthy of the Greeks. Chandrehe and the three other Mattamayūra structures that are the focus of this book were all discovered in the next few decades. In parallel, a substantial body of related inscriptions came to light. Better known in scholarly circles than the monuments, the inscriptions speak of the foundation and continuing patronage of the Mattamayūra institutions and give detailed lineages of their gurus.

It is all the more surprising that, until now, there has not been a single sustained study of any group of Hindu monasteries. With this book, Sears has put this building type on the art historical map. She has painstakingly documented the surviving Mattamayūra examples through fieldwork, revealing their architectural typology. Through an impressive mastery of the inscriptional record and Śaiva ritual texts, she has built up a picture of the life of these ascetics, their role in society, and their power in the state; further, through meticulous analysis of spaces and stones, she has “reimagined” their movements and actions in and around the monuments. This finely produced book contains excellent plans from firsthand surveys, engaging analytical diagrams, and helpful maps. Most useful, and something rarely afforded or even felt necessary, are the copious numbers of photographs, so that few architectural points are made without illustration. It is possible for the reader, by taking the effort to read plans and photos together, to begin to approach a comprehensive picture of the buildings, aided by the fact that they are relatively plain.

The Mattamayūras belonged to the dualist Śaiva Siddhānta branch of Śaivism, one of the movements with roots that can loosely be termed Tantric. Though eventually integrated with the Purāṇic mainstream, these were originally nonorthodox, and initiation by a guru, rather than hereditary caste, was the prerequisite of belonging. Ruling families increasingly became patrons, and kings sought initiation. The Mattamayūras first appeared in Gopakṣetra, the area around Gwalior (Madhya Pradesh), where local rulers began to patronize them around the eighth century. From this starting point, Sears makes a very clear and compelling argument. Two underlying types emerge at the outset: the forest retreat (āśrama) and the monastic institution (maṭha). The religious practitioners depended for their spiritual power on mastery of ascetic practices, withdrawn from the world. At the same time, their existence necessitated patronage, and through royal patronage they became integral to the power structures of the state. An āśrama had to be secluded yet accessible, while a maṭha was located just outside a town or city. Increasing engagement with lay communities is reflected in the building of temples close to monasteries. The powerful Kalachuri dynasty patronized the Mattamayūras throughout the kingdom of Jejākabhukti in the tenth and eleventh centuries. The worldly power of the Mattamayūras increased as monasteries, now often within urban settlements, were linked together in a thriving network. Gurus moved around, and one of their number would act as rājaguru, spiritual preceptor of the monarch. Throughout these developments, the distinction between the āśrama and maṭha types was remembered, while the two concepts could be integrated in a single building.

Following an introduction and a chapter on the historical and geographical context, of which I have given the barest outline, Sears addresses the inscriptions in chapter 2. Showing that these are more complex than a single, coherent corpus, she discusses them from a wide range of perspectives: as monumental artifacts, as acts of historical reinvention, as participants in the spread of Sanskrit as a language of political power among transregional networks (following Sheldon Pollock), and as courtly products of literary and craft specializations.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 offer the core studies of the five architectural examples, each chapter devoted to particular monuments and particular themes. Chapter 3, “From Hermit’s Hut to Guru’s Mansion,” probes most deeply into the likely structures and activities of monastic life while examining the buildings at Ranod and Kadwāhā. These exemplify the āśrama and maṭha types, respectively. This distinction is, in fact, implied by a seminal inscription at Ranod that relates how one King Avantivarman made a generous gift to the sage Purandara, who was thereby able to found two monasteries, one “prosperous,” the other “a forest for austerities.” The latter can be identified with Ranod itself, the other, as Sears argues, probably with Terāhī.

The earlier part of the Ranod monastery, from around the ninth century, is a roughly square building of two stories, each consisting of a square, nine-bay central room flanked by lateral chambers, fronted by a veranda, and with a stair tower protruding at one end. Like all subsequent monasteries of both types, it faces north. Its constructional system also sets the norm, with pillars, beams, floor slabs, straight eave canopies (chādyas) shading the colonnades, and slightly sloping roof slabs with inverted U-shaped capping pieces to seal the joints. Sears stresses the openness and the recollection of wooden construction in the solid balustrade. The latter is perhaps an exaggeration, as the particular formalization of timber forms was well established in stone temples, but the bold simplicity is indisputable. In the center of the lower story, at the rear, is a small platform now occupied by the icon of a local goddess; Sears argues that this is probably originally where the guru taught, or was worshipped as a divine and Śiva-like figure. Above would have been the more private, residential spaces. In the tenth century, two stages of additions were constructed, including an enclosure wall (prākāra). The additions were carefully integrated with the original structure to retain its hermitage-like character. At least one temple was also associated with the group.

The “fortress-like” monastery at nearby Kadwāhā, circa tenth or eleventh century, is seen as complementary to Ranod, deliberately contrasting in its closure and inwardness and in its combination of exclusivity with “prominent worldly presence” (85). It is square and two storied, with a variety of rooms surrounding a central courtyard with surrounding passageway, entered through a vestibule from the north. The outer walls are of solid ashlar, massive below and smaller above, and the entrance would have been fronted by a two-story portico looking onto the adjacent temple.

For Sears, the “complex spatial program that is revealed through the unfolding of its interior indicates a high degree of institutionalization in the shape of daily actions” (100). The multiple avenues she scours in order to “reimagine” these daily actions range from inscriptions to door hinges. They include a sustained analysis based on space syntax, a well-established though not universally accepted method used by urban planners and architects to calculate accessibility and interconnection between parts of a city or a building, thereby revealing the “social logic” that may not be apparent to the eye. Notably, Sears suggests that a double-height room on the east side was shrine-like, for public and ceremonial appearances of the guru.

Chapter 4, “Expanding Arenas of Devotion,” deals with the monasteries at Surwāyā and Terāhī while tackling the relationship between the cloistered ascetics and lay communities worshipping at adjacent temples. Several relatively well-known temples lie to the north of the Surwāyā monastery, the whole complex now enclosed within a later fort. Sears skillfully unravels the sequence of construction, showing how the original circa eighth-century core was an open, Ranod-like retreat, to which were added, in two stages, a walled courtyard to the north and a range of buildings along the whole east side. She notes that a long room along that side could have housed an assembly around a guru such as the one depicted in a relief from the Lakṣmaṇa temple, Khajuraho. Its relative location is like that of the “audience room” at Kadwāhā, and a location for guru enshrinement is emphatically suggested by the charming miniature sarvatobhadra shrine on the roof above the second story, axially aligned on the horizontal plane with three doorways to the west. Thus, the enshrinement of the Śivalinga in the main, west-facing temple runs parallel to that of Śiva’s analogue, the deified guru.

The story of Surwāyā’s growth is one of transformation from airy hermitage to enclosed monastic institution. Sears tells a comparable story for Terāhī, but here I am not so convinced. A mainly tenth- or eleventh-century maṭha, again of two stories, looks north through a two-story portico to a small, early ninth-century Śiva temple. The partly ruined monastery is rectangular, with a courtyard off center, yet looking loosely of the Kadwāhā type. There are some earlier pillars (like the pilasters in the temple’s sanctum) in the southeast corner, and Sears suggests that this is the original part, and that a culminating stage was the addition of the whole upper story. She sees a cramped staircase as evidence of the latter, but cramped staircases are a specialty of this tradition. The upper story sits on a floor, not a roof, and to me the two stories look integrated. The earlier pillars could be reused: they are capped by crude blocks, probably making up the height. Exceptionally, I find myself wishing there were more photographs and reaching for my own from a cursory visit (being one of those whom Sears rightly castigates for concentrating only on the temples).

Chapter 5 is on the Kalachuri realm, the entry of worldly gurus into the administrative hub of the kingdom, the network of Mattamayūra establishments, the lost monasteries at Gurgī and Bilhāri, where the temples were huge, and the only one still standing, at Chandrehe. This is a remote, idyllic, but well-connected site. The present monastery dates from ca. AD 950–73, replacing an earlier one of the āśrama class. With a central courtyard and a veranda across the front, it is seen as a synthesis between the fortress-like Kadwāhā type and elements of the ascetic retreat. Foundations of a room formerly attached to the northeast corner are perceptively revealed as a shrine-like chamber opening from the Bilhāri maṇḍapa-like room in the corner itself, once again creating a parallel to the temple outside. Sculpture and ornament are relatively lavish in this monastery, refined and courtly in character, and Sears discerns a “highly formalized spatial organization” (204) suggesting that royal patronage may have contributed to the formalization of the monastic world of the Mattamayūras, drawing parallels with the prescription of increasingly formalized rituals in Śaiva Siddhānta texts. An epilogue draws together the common characteristics that the author has so ably brought to light, reflecting on the legacy of these structures and the further layers and adaptations brought about in the afterlives of Mattamayūra sites.

Of course, a review has to find lapses. The image in Figure 3.8 is seen from the northeast, not from the south as the caption states. Some of the room numbering in the text of chapter 5 does not use the same numbers as the plan, forcing the reader to look very hard. Any other reflections, however, are more in the nature of questions than of criticisms. Would these buildings seem less like a monumental effort to forge something new if we still had their wooden precedents? The recognition in the epilogue of connections with palaces and courtyard houses (havelis), even though we know these only from examples later than the Mattamayūra monasteries, points to a very broad architectural tradition. Are these buildings, then, really so tightly organized, or did they allow the fluidity and multifunctionality traditionally characteristic of Indian domestic spaces?

Throughout the book runs an insistence that this architecture was developed to channel and regulate evolving rituals and ways of life, a claim that can never be verified since what the spaces were used for is unavoidably a matter of maybe, was likely, and could possibly have been. This irony is a reflection of the study’s ambition. As if it were not towering achievement enough to add a virtually unknown building type to the canon and show us its architecture and its centrality in medieval Indian culture and society, Sears takes on for good measure the power of architecture to transform experience and ontology. Another version of the book might reach out to lay communities and strive for open simplicity, but this one is not an āśrama but a maṭha, brimming with overlapping realms and multiple perspectives. None of this obscures its central core, and we can be sure that no future general work on Indian architecture will omit medieval Hindu monastic architecture, or reference to this book.

Note

1.

Susan L. Huntington, The Art of Ancient India (New York: Weatherhill, 1985), 462–65.