When scholars think of architecture in the Himalayas, what most readily come to mind are the Buddhist monasteries or wooden “pagoda-like” shrines of Tibet, Nepal, and the western Himalayas. Older stone temples are rarely considered, and the central Himalayas are often completely ignored. Unlike the adjacent kingdoms of Kashmir and Chamba or the Kathmandu Valley, the central Himalayas suffer from poor infrastructure that restricts travel, as well as a paucity of textual sources that could contextualize material culture. This is in contrast to the region's vast traditions of pilgrimage, which have been of great interest to anthropologists and scholars of religion. What makes Nachiket Chanchani's new book Mountain Temples and Temple Mountains such a monumental achievement, however, is not merely the fact that it brings to light a remarkable range of unknown monuments but also that it so convincingly asserts their centrality within the broader history of temple architecture on the Indian subcontinent.
At the heart of Chanchani's book is the argument that the emergence of the central Himalayas as a crucial sacred landscape and “enduring abode of the gods” (173) was the result of dynamic interactions between the mountains and the plains of northern and central India. Using lively and often poetic prose, Chanchani demonstrates how the grand yet challenging topography did not segregate the region but rather fostered the formation of new settlements, encouraged travel, and reinforced an enduring sense of sacrality. Patrons and religious communities capitalized on both the transregional idealization of the Himalayas and the specificities of local landscapes in order to transform the region systematically into a pan-Indic pilgrimage zone.
Throughout the book, Chanchani combines rigorous fieldwork and close visual analysis with theoretical sophistication. He draws upon phenomenological approaches to landscape and poststructuralist approaches to premodern material, as represented in publications by Robert Harrist and Wei-Cheng Lin, while also making a case for the continuing relevance of style as a crucial tool in cases where dates and original provenance remain obscure.1 The book is also indebted to the work of Michael Meister, who was the first to demonstrate the transmission of northern Indian temple architecture to the Himalayas in the eighth century, in his similarly titled essay “Mountain Temples and Temple-Mountains: Masrur.”2 However, Chanchani goes far beyond this initial foray to uncover the processes by which the region was semiotically reshaped through the introduction of new architectural forms over many centuries. To contextualize this history, he draws upon an impressive array of sources, including inscriptions, courtly literature, religious treatises, medieval Chinese pilgrims' accounts, European travel memoirs, and archaeological reports.
The book is organized through a chronological progression. Chapter 1, “Headed to the Himalayas,” goes back to antiquity and covers the period from King Aśoka, who reigned from 268 to 232 BCE, to the emergence of new localized clans during the era of the Kuṣāṇas in the second and third centuries CE. Chanchani traces the origins of the idea of the mountain as both a heavenly abode and the source of sacred rivers to the urbanization of the Ganges–Yamuna Doab and the formation of epics, such as the Mahābhārata, in the mid-first millennium BCE. The textual emergence of new discourses of mountain pilgrimage may have encouraged travel and artistic exchange. The subsequent rise of the Kuṣāṇas fostered not only increases in trade and mobility but also new experiments in Brahmanic imagery. Much of this early material was inherently ephemeral. It is thus fitting that the chapter's introduction and conclusion are framed by the ritual performance of the aśvamedha yajña (horse sacrifice), indexed by the fortuitous remains of three brick altars, built by the king Śīlavarman, in the third century CE. As the aśvamedha yajña was the ultimate rite that linked political authority to territorial control, this serves as a useful device for drawing attention to the mechanisms that both conceptualized and actualized the extents of the region's sacred landscape.
The second chapter moves forward in time to the imperial Guptas, from the fifth to seventh centuries. Drawing extensively on the poetry of Kālidāsa, Chanchani ties the evolving idea of the Himalayas as a heavenly abode in courtly literature to the emergence of the Hindu temple as a distinct architectural form at well-known sites. He points to the metonymic nature of the rusticated surfaces of the Pārvatī temple at Nachna and the pose of the colossal Varāha at Udayagiri as evoking Viṣṇu's epithet of “mountain dwelling.” From there he follows the ways in which Himalayan temples at places such as Lakhamandal and Palethi drew directly from the building structures and technologies encountered farther south, first in brick and then in stone. These, he argues, provide evidence for the importation of both building practices and expressions of power, as well as for the increasing presence of cosmopolitan Brahmanic sacred centers along the southern fringe of the central Himalayas.
Chapter 3 examines the creation of a major pilgrimage center (tīrtha) in the Jageshwar valley through concurrent political and religious developments: the rise of new regional principalities and the expansion of Pāśupata Śaivism. Here, Chanchani emphasizes the geological uniqueness of the forested valley. Looking to the fields of paleobotany and environmental history, he establishes both the inherent auspiciousness of the tīrtha as determined by the quirks of its river and the crucial role that the management of the landscape played in the construction of sacrality. For specialists, Jageshwar is of particular importance to an understanding of the larger pan-Indic expansion of Pāśupata religious networks during the seventh and eighth centuries. In the chapter's final section, Chanchani offers an engaging discussion of a remarkable metal sculpture of unknown origin, a depiction of a lamp bearer (ca. 850–1100), that brings questions of style, iconography, and architectural context into dialogue with larger histories regarding the mobility of artisans, patrons, and kings.
The fourth chapter moves forward in time to Pandukeshwar and Badrinath in the ninth and tenth centuries. In addressing Badrinath, Chanchani continues to emphasize the role of religious networks, in this case more mainstream Śaiva lineages, which, at least in later centuries, claimed association with Saṅkara. By contrast, he curiously avoids engaging with the Vaiṣṇava ritual context of Pandukeshwar, choosing instead to focus primarily on architectural forms. It is true that Pandukeshwar, as one of a handful of Indian sites where northern Nāgara and southern Drāviḑa traditions stand side by side, lends itself well to a morphological study. Chanchani's rereading of the Yogabadarī temple as a Drāviḑa alpa-vimāna is particularly ingenious, as is his examination of the role played by architects and miniature shrines in the transmission of architectural knowledge. He returns to the question of Vaiṣṇavism with his final examples, which, together with Pandukeshwar, suggest connections between the formation of new local kingdoms and cultic diversification.
Taking as its point of departure the Gujjar Deva temple at Dwarahat, chapter 5 examines the Himalayas' specific relationship with Gujarat in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as seen through the importation of the Māru-Gurjara style. That the builders possessed deep knowledge of this distinctive architectural form can be seen in the treatment of temple elevations, plans, ornamental friezes, śikharas (towers), and spatial sensibilities. In order to construct a cohesive narrative for both the mechanics and the intentions underlying this transmission, Chanchani investigates the mobility of architects, stonecutters, merchants, patrons, and Śaiva religious preceptors, and suggests that these temples were part of an effort to transform the central Himalayas into another “northern Gujarat,” a familiar place for migrant communities. While his analysis is convincing, it is worth noting that the Māru-Gurjara style may have moved through indirect paths of transmission, as its proliferation was not limited to the Himalayas. In fact, the turn of the first millennium saw the spread of Māru-Gurjara elements across northern and central India, with particular force at sites such as Suhaniya and Khajuraho that were connected with the imperial ambitions of new regional kingdoms.
The book's concluding chapter outlines the afterlives of the region, taking the reader from the thirteenth century to the present. Throughout, the discussion remains tightly focused on the close connections between the central Himalayas and the subcontinent as a whole. Seen through the eyes of powerful yogis, Mughal armies, European travelers, and Rajput painters, the Himalayas continued to represent an idea expressed in visual and literary form while also functioning as a place that actively shaped broader transregional histories.
If there is any flaw to this book, it is its vast ambition. The chapters are peppered with questions that are not only complex but also sometimes unanswerable, given the fragmented nature of the textual and material evidence. Chanchani endeavors to bring together wide-ranging, and occasionally unwieldy, lines of inquiry that include political and religious histories, narratives of mobility and transmission, and changes in ecology and the natural environment. However, the questions are always engaging, and, more often than not, Chanchani is successful in interweaving them, so that each strand adds yet another rich layer to his argumentation.
As a whole, the book stands as a model of clarity, accessibility, and erudition that should be of enormous value to specialist readers invested in ecology, pilgrimage, mobility, and the rethinking of frontier histories, as well as to a more general audience. It also will serve as an indispensable resource for future research on the Himalayas. In addition to a rich body of photographs and original drawings, a useful appendix provides the most comprehensive listing of temple sites in the region available to date.