The Modern Lives of Hindu Temples, Panel, 2011

Date: 6 January 2011 Time: n/a

Venue: American Historical Association Conference, Boston

The Many Modern Lives of the Hindu Temple

Panel convenor: Deborah Sutton, Department of History, Lancaster University.

Panel abstract

The Hindu temple is a palimpsest of material and devotional forms in which a complex of divine and temporal authority co-exists with everyday ritual performance and celebration. Temples have proved evasive subjects for successive state projects in South Asia. Large temples control swathes of revenue and possess substantial autonomous wealth while small temples, embedded in localities, rely entirely on daily donations and unmediated ritual for their existence and meaning. As sacred sites, temples can step in and out of history, being appropriated for other purposes or falling into disuse before resuscitation and rededication. In periods of conflict, temples have served as served as fortifications, marking points of safety and supply to insurgents and state alike. Although often linked into networks by practices of devotion and traditions of iconography, temples are not subject to institutional or doctrinal hierarchies. Existing temple studies, therefore, have necessarily limited their purview to specific localities and sects. The intention of this panel is to explore the ways in which the fabric, inhabitants and landscape of the Hindu temple have been encountered, and accounted for, by modern sensibilities over the last 200 years. During the nineteenth century, the governments of the East India Company and the British-Indian state sought generic solutions to understand - and later to extricate its officers from - the deep involvement with temple administration acquired in the course of territorial conquest. The colonial state floundered between its own parsimonies and pieties on the one hand and a desire to moderate a range of temple functions, both revenue and ritual, on the other. By the twentieth century, the temple was idealised as a repository of both antiquity and national religious tradition. The independent Indian state has consolidated and added to the layers of custody claimed over the temple, in particular in laws designed to invigilate its form and fiscal activities. Beyond the direct concerns of the state, patterns of religious practice underwent considerable change in nineteenth-century South Asia. Hindu thought and practice were radically re-imagined in ways which challenged and redefined the ritual space of the temple. This panel will explore the relationship between temple form and the broader dispositions of Hinduism in the modern period. Literary and historical claims have been asserted to the meaning of temples in the recent and remote past. These representations both redeemed and retold fragments of temple traditions and erased and simplified the life of temples. In every project of custody - whether customary, literary, theological, juridical, art historical - the Hindu temple has presented a moving target, swiftly evading attempts to abstract and regulate it. The aim of the panel is embrace this aspect of the temple and explore new methods and sources in the cultural, art historical and architectural history of the Hindu temple.


Malavika Kasturi, Department of History, University of Toronto

William R. Pinch, Professor of History & Chair, Department of History, Wesleyan University

Discussant: Leslie Orr, Department of Religions, Concordia University

Event website:


Who can attend: Anyone


Further information

Associated staff: Deborah Sutton

Organising departments and research centres: History