Sugata Ray's Climate Change and the Art of Devotion is an ambitious book that explores how human interactions with the earth and its environment—an emerging specialization within the environmental humanities known as geoaesthetics—shaped the art and architecture of Braj, the region in north-central India associated with the life of the Hindu divinity Krishna. Discussing the historical evolution of geoaesthetics in relation to the art and architectural projects of this region, Ray employs an analytical framework that reveals the profound connections between designs and ecological conditions in Braj from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, during the period of the Little Ice Age, or LIA (14–22). The focus on geoaesthetics and ecology represents an innovative approach to the study of South Asian art history, and Ray largely succeeds in persuading the reader of the advantages of this method. Less successful is his framing of the argument within new debates about localized historical experiences of climate change. This is not surprising, as this field is still in its infancy, with many new and constantly updated findings that are difficult to represent adequately, given the slow pace at which scholarly monographs are produced.
A key factor in the book's focus on geoaesthetics is the sensibility that Ray brings to this work, as he is highly attuned to the perspectives and self-fashioning of those engaged in Krishna devotion. As he notes, new devotional practices in Braj considered the features of the local landscape, including the river Yamuna, rocks, trees, and even the dust itself, to be charged with sacred energy, and thus to represent various forms of Krishna's presence (13). Ray divides the book into four chapters following the logic of these devotional practices: “Water,” “Land,” “Forest,” and “Ether.” Each explores a different facet of the intersection of Krishna devotion with geoaesthetics. For example, in chapter 1, “Water,” Ray convincingly demonstrates the strong bonds connecting devotional aspects of “viewing” the sacred in manuscripts associated with Krishna's devotees to the riparian architecture of Sati Burj, a riverside tower constructed in 1570, as well as to typical local architectural features such as ornamental doorways and ghats, the steps leading down to the river. Similar practices of viewing through ornamental windows were central to the courtly rituals of Mughal emperors and Rajput rulers. In exploring the parallels between riparian symbols and architectural features that facilitated the rituals of both sacred and political spaces, Ray does an excellent job of showing the multiple cultural and historical contexts that informed geoaesthetics in northern India at this time.
In chapter 2, “Land,” Ray builds on a different aspect of devotional practice and its associated geoaesthetics by investigating how Braj-centered topophilia shaped the interactions of Krishna devotees not only with the local landmark of Govardhan Hill but also with its constituent rocks. According to a miracle story, Krishna lifted Govardhan up to shelter the world from a deluge. As Ray notes, this scene was incorporated into the iconography of Krishna in multiple devotional images, statues, and panels. He goes further, however, inviting the reader to consider the materiality of the rock, a deep-red local sandstone from which images and temples were carved, and which provided the essential building materials for Mughal imperial architecture. In pausing to consider the sacred efficacy (dhatu) of these distinctive geological formations, Ray reminds readers of the vital cosmological connections between the human and material worlds, connections extending far beyond the anthropocentric perspective that usually defines the modern relationship between nature and culture (87). In this chapter we see a more integrated conceptual practice that connects humans with landscape and materiality, and that invests the embodied rock with sacral presence and power.
However persuasive his arguments for the geoaesthetics of devotionalism as a means to gain new perspectives on material culture, Ray's analysis of these practices as part of a broader reaction to climate change is less convincing. In discussing the Little Ice Age in Asia, Ray makes the point that for much of the world the LIA did not cause the cold, icy conditions experienced in northern Europe; rather, many locales experienced increasingly intense and frequent droughts (14–15). As Ray admits: “The Vaishnava actors in my narrative were almost certainly unacquainted with the sweeping climatic transformations that were occurring concurrently in the Americas, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe in this period” (16). Indeed, many of the droughts he discusses were chronologically distant from one another, and the impacts of these events on the cognition, imagination, and understanding of human actors require further study. It is also worth noting that the region of Braj, and Mathura, its chief town, stood within the great semiarid zone of the Mughal Empire, characterized by the “dry, deciduous woodlands and scrub forest that was the natural cover in this ecoregion” (101). Thus, the droughts of the LIA in western India represented the intensification of an already familiar weather pattern.
Nor is it clear what impacts the LIA may have had in Braj. Although we know that the local impacts of the LIA varied greatly across regions around the world, the ways in which these events affected South Asia are yet to be tabulated and understood.1 The most extensive factor in the growing urbanization, deforestation, and cultivation of land around Braj followed upon its increased incorporation into a global economy—in particular, through the cultivation of indigo. Mathura is located near Bayana, a famous indigo-producing tract of this period.2 As Ray discusses, the merchants, wealthier peasants, and priestly families—whose devotional practices celebrated the lush riverine ecology, sacred groves, and fauna of their imagined Braj—would have been the agents who drove this increased urbanization and trade. The extent to which these communities recognized their impact on the local environment and integrated this awareness into their religious practice also awaits further study.
This is not to diminish Ray's contribution to the study of the environmental humanities and art and architectural history. In chapter 3, “Forest,” he offers a nuanced and sophisticated reading of human-driven ecological change. Describing the myriad ways in which Krishna devotees embraced greenery, both in the depiction of bowers (kunjas) in stone carvings and paintings and in the actual planting of thick foliage and vines within temple complexes, Ray notes that these practices emerged at a time when intensive cultivation was causing the natural vegetation in these areas to disappear (98). He does not romanticize these sacred groves as symbolic survivors of a premodern past or allegories of harmonious interactions between humans and the environment; rather, he describes them as “simulated gardens” (130). This chapter features some of Ray's most intriguing and problematic arguments. Whether one interprets these groves as evidence for a nonstatist “inclusive habitus of inventive play” (131) depends on how one views the communities associated with such patronage. After all, the hierarchies of caste, status, wealth, and gender within Vaishnava devotional communities are well documented, and, as Ray's work suggests, temple groves, like other contemporary architectural forms, were immersed within these complex and evolving political, social, and economic conditions. It is a pity that the insights Ray brings to his analyses of built space, geoaesthetics, and sacred cosmology do not extend to the social hierarchies of their production, although it is also perhaps unfair to expect a book that does so much to do even more.
Many of these practices of viewing, sacralization, and devotional connection with the materiality of sacred spaces continue into the fourth and final chapter, “Ether.” Here Ray addresses the traces of global, cosmopolitan styles at a colonial-era temple as expressions of devotional hydroaesthetics, performative traditions, and decorative arts that persisted into the modern period.
The high-quality color illustrations and maps in the book aid the reader in comprehending Ray's complex analysis. This is a thought-provoking work whose greatest contribution is that it carves a path for new studies that may extend our understanding of the deep and complex interrelationships among geoaesthetics, ecology, spiritual practice, and the built environment in early modern India.
Data available to scholars through dendrochronology and the study of lake sediments and stalagmites remain thin, but local variations in rainfall and temperature are well documented across the coastal, plain, and mountainous regions of South Asia. See Udya Kuwar Thapa, Santosh K. Shah, Narayan Prasad Gaire, and Dinesh Raj Bhuju, “Spring Temperatures in the Far-Western Nepal Himalaya since AD 1640 Reconstructed from Picea smithiana Tree-Ring Widths,” Climate Dynamics 45, nos. 7–8 (2015), 2069–81; M. F. Quamar and M. S. Chauhan, “Signals of Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age from Southwestern Madhya Pradesh (India): A Pollen-Inferred Late-Holocene Vegetation and Climate Change,” Quaternary International 325 (Mar. 2014), 74–82; Stefan Polanski, Bijan Fallah, Daniel J. Befort, Sushma Prasad, and Ulrich Cubasch, “Regional Moisture Change over India during the Past Millennium: A Comparison of Multi-proxy Reconstructions and Climate Model Simulations,” Global and Planetary Change 122 (Nov. 2014), 176–85.
Irfan Habib, An Atlas of the Mughal Empire (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986), 8B.