The history of architecture tends to privilege an object's moment of origin as the “authentic” focus of the discipline. The “lives” of an object, however, often extend far beyond the initial context of creation, as the object is moved and modified, forgotten and remembered, and reclaimed and redefined. In The Hegemony of Heritage: Ritual and the Record in Stone, Deborah L. Stein departs from the preoccupation of architectural history with origin stories, arguing instead for a “diachronic history of temples” (1). Taking the “lives” of two interconnected medieval Hindu temple sites in Rājāsthan as her point of departure, Stein explores how temples prompt various actors to construct historical narratives, define identities, perform rituals, and make aesthetic choices in multiple moments over time. She asserts that the architectural remains of a Hindu temple are not only indexical traces of past practices and aspirations but also “catalyst agents” for present and future actions (1).

As the book's subtitle suggests, ritual is the key strand linking the multiple moments in this diachronic history. Applying methodologies from ethnohistory and material culture studies, Stein considers the architectural spaces and sculptural programs of the temples as material residues of past practices. Their resonances with present-day rituals therefore provide a broader context beyond textual and epigraphic sources. Rituals performed by a wide range of social groups also reveal unintentional, and often nonelite, “positions, beliefs, ideas, and experiences rather than the imposition of a singular overarching historiographic frame” (16). As Stein points out, ritual has played a prominent and critical role in the most recent “lives” of medieval Hindu temples, including the two key temple sites examined in the book: in twenty-first-century India, Hindu temples designated as archaeological monuments have been restored to active use, transformed into living temples where the claims of private trusts, state institutions, local communities, and right-wing Hindu political parties clash and coexist. Stein's emphasis on ritual practices and their present and future effects makes a particularly timely contribution to the growing scholarly interest in the fraught relationships among secularism, religion, and politics in South Asian art and architecture.

The two sites that are the focus of Stein's discussion, the Śri Ekliṅgjī temple complex in Kailāśpurī and the Ambikā temple in Jagat, present a remarkable comparative study of how various groups claim, renovate, and reimagine architectural sites over time. Located in the Mewār (Mēdapāṭa) region in southern Rājāsthan, both sites date to the second half of the tenth century. Following the fragmentation of the Pratīhāra Empire, rising local dynasties in this region formed strategic links with religious sects to strengthen their claims to legitimacy. The two temples, however, seem to have led divergent lives from the very beginning. Tenth-century inscriptions from Ekliṅgjī confirm a strong affiliation with the emergent Guhila dynasty and the Śaiva Pāśupata sect. In contrast, the Ambikā temple in Jagat, located outside the Guhila dynastic center, records individual activities instead of clear sectarian or dynastic associations. After falling out of use for a few centuries, Ekliṅgjī regained its royal status in the fifteenth century under the Sisodia dynasty, which still claims the site today; at the Ambikā temple, the majority of worshippers are the local Rajputs and the Ādivāsi Bhil and Meena communities. Yet, as Stein notes, rather than representing a simple dichotomy, the histories of Ekliṅgjī and Jagat reveal parallel dialogues that inform each other and highlight the relationship between architectural remains from the past and ritual actions in the present.

The seven chapters of the book present the overlapping and contrasting histories of the two temples. Departing from conventional linear progression, Stein's discussion moves back and forth between interconnected moments in time, particularly the four eras that are closely related to the present historical and legal claims. These include the tenth-century construction of the temples, the “rupture” that took place from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, the fifteenth-century engagement with tenth-century temple sites, and the twentieth- and twenty-first-century negotiations over the ownership and use of the temples.

Chapter 1 maps the tenth-century sectarian landscape of the Mēdapāṭa region. In a careful analysis of the temples’ sculptural programs and iconography, Stein locates two temple clusters, each aligned in an east–west axis along a river route. The chapter offers a new, “nondynastic” way of understanding temples as part of larger geographical and sectarian networks beyond regional and political boundaries. Moving into the present, chapter 2 explores the tension between archaeological preservation and religious use of temples. Although renovation and ritual use reanimate temples with divine potency, the addition of new structures, fresh paint, and newly fashioned icons is often considered damaging to the temples’ historical value.

Chapters 3 to 5 move in chronological sequence, beginning with the fifteenth-century Sisodia construction of dynastic continuity through architectural revival and quotation. A particularly fascinating example is the Kīrtistambha tower in the Sisodia capital of Chittorgarh. Erected by the Sisodia ruler Mahārāṇā Kumbhā, the interior of the tower cites prior modes of architecture and iconography from the Gupta and Guhila dynasties, even including carefully labeled sculptural figures. As a “sculptural iconographic archive,” the tower reveals the desire of the Sisodia king to fix form and moment and make them permanent (95). Using the notion of “archive,” a term that evokes modern regimes of power, Stein shows that “the manufacture of heritage may no longer pass for a modern pursuit” (117). As chapter 4 reveals, such desire for continuity was an attempt to mend the “rupture” that occurred from the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries, caused by the vacuum of power and sultanate attacks on Chittorgarh and Ekliṅgjī. Outside Sisodia dynastic centers, in fact, multisectarian architectural patronage flourished with the support of an active zinc industry; this patronage in turn may have even left traces in the revivalist forms of fifteenth-century Sisodia temples.

Returning to the tenth century, chapter 5 focuses on the dialogue between ritual practice and its traces in architecture and sculpture. Stein interprets the wall programs and iconography of tenth-century Hindu temples in terms of viewer response rather than patron or artisan intention. For example, a sparse wall program may suggest use by initiated ascetics who did not require meditational aids, while a more complex program with deities, celestial women, and mythical animals adorning every projection and recess may have been intended to help lay devotees imagine themselves becoming one with the divine. Particularly compelling is the chapter's discussion of the kinesthetic experience of circumambulation, during which the positions, gestures, and rhythmic repetition of sculptural figures generate a meditative state in the user (172–73). Although, as Stein admits, such reading may overemphasize the inner experience of a tenth-century practitioner (169), it does allow us to imagine more active roles for the sculptural program beyond exclusively symbolic meanings and iconography.

Chapters 6 and 7 examine contemporary ritual practices at Ekliṅgjī and Jagat and the legal disputes these have generated. At Ekliṅgjī, the tightly controlled royal worship ritual reinforces social hierarchy and dynastic continuity for the Sisodias, who are actively seeking legal ownership over the site against the state of Rājāsthan. At Jagat, the application of foil and powder to medieval sculptures by local worshippers also challenges the authority of the Rājāsthan Archaeological Department. Some of the folk festivals go as far as to disrupt the authority of the temple and its icon as the main ritual focus. In a subversive appropriation of a term that typically evokes the authority of a modern state rather than rural Ādivāsi groups, Stein argues that the importance of heritage lies in its role as the source of agency for disenfranchised groups to “curate” material remains and thereby construct their own histories.

Drawing on various interdisciplinary methodologies, The Hegemony of Heritage presents an engaging study of medieval Hindu temples and the shifting meanings and practices they have generated over time. It makes a particularly valuable contribution by examining newly discovered temples in the margins of dynastic centers that have received little scholarly attention. Still, the book is not without occasional shortcomings. While its nonlinear organization effectively demonstrates that the selection of past histories is never continuous, this can obscure the argument and sometimes results in repetition (as in the discussions of the kinesthetic experience of temple wall programs in chapters 1 and 5). Further, the extensive array of field and historical research presented in the book can at times be overwhelming. The book's interdisciplinary appeal would have been greatly enhanced by maps showing the geographical range discussed in each chapter (particularly chapters 1 and 4). Finally, it may be that the boundaries between archaeological preservation and ritual use are even more porous than Stein suggests: recent research shows that contemporary devotional “renovations” increasingly overlap with archaeological practices, as carefully selected materials and visual forms emulate archaeological remains to re-create historical value for the living temples.1 Despite its limitations, however, this book should serve as an important “catalyst” for future studies of Hindu temples as dynamic agents rather than as fixed entities rooted in an imagined premodern past.


Kavita Singh, “For the Love of God: Reviving Temples and Rescuing Idols in South India” (paper presented at the symposium “How Secular Is Art? On the Art of Art History in South Asia,” Brown University, Providence, R.I., 26 Oct. 2018).