“Political Hinduism” & Material Culture in North India


A review of In the Name of Krishna: The Cultural Landscape of a North Indian Pilgrimage Town, by Sugata Ray.

This study examines the consolidation of a ‘political Hinduism’ in British colonial India through the study of the material culture of the pilgrimage town of Brindaban (Vrindavan) in north India. These range from architecture, cartography, and pictorial practices, to the colonial-era genres of photography and prints, and more transient materials such as clothes and temple rituals that undermine the stability of art historical methods such as iconography. Ray assembles this array of visual forms to argue for the production of a local culture that engaged in multiple dialogues. In the particular stylistic choices made during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he locates strategies and statements in relation to emergent colonial discourses about modernity, and narratives constructing Muslim Otherness, as well as the sixteenth-century Mughal style adopted for the creation of the site of Krishna’s play and multiple competing Vaishnava communities (sampradayas).

The choice, for an art historian at the beginning of the twenty-first century, to study Brindaban in the colonial era, is a bold and provocative one. It follows on the heels of archaeological evidence being marshaled to attest to the existence of temples beneath mosques and mausolea. Ray hones in on multiple scholarly interstices, beyond the esoteric sacred texts that reified a religion we would hardly recognize on the ground, and also the art historical estranging of a pre-Islamic past of temples and icons from the glories of the Mughal and British empires, shunning both ‘late’ temples as corrupt and ritual practices and bodily presences as contaminating much prized, pristine architectural images. But pure products go crazy, here as elsewhere. That is to say, excavating the localizing practices of this neglected phase of Brindaban’s past is itself a political act that compels us to contemplate our uneasy disciplinary boundaries with their attendant problematic categorizations that have been complicit in the consolidation of the very ideologies we seek to undermine. Marshaling an exciting assemblage of ideas and material cultural artifacts, he also challenges prior assumptions of timelessness with their troubling Orientalizing overtones, alerting us, instead, to the inherently provisional, mutable, and incremental nature of survival, resistance, and innovation.

Part 1 “The Body Politic in a North Indian Pilgrimage Town: Pre-colonial Vrindavan,” Section 1 “The Two Bodies of Krishna” presents an argument for a visible political dimension to acts of veneration, already initiated in the late sixteenth century, through allusions to contemporary courtly Mughal forms. This section locates Brindaban materially and stylistically between Fatehpur Sikri and Agra. It situates patronage patterns between Akbar and Man Singh, between Gaudiya ritual injunctions and Pushtimargi sartorial choices. Section 2, “Imagining Loss: The Govind Dev Temple (1590),” embeds the peculiar, perhaps even unprecedented form of the Govind Dev Temple in the scholarly literature of the past decade about temple desecration. Ray argues for newly ambitious Jat interventions to the physical fabric of the temple rather than imperial Mughal or fanatical Muslim ones. Section 3, “Towards an 18th-century Vaishnava architecture,” delineates consonant architectural affinities, pointing toward cementing Gaudiya and Mughal political allegiances rather than severance as posited in nineteenth-century accounts.

Part 2 “The Tactics of the Everyday: Making Space in 19th century Vrindavan,” section 4 “Claiming the Nagara: The Krishna Chandrama Temple (1810),” examines the stylistic choices made for the form of this temple as political. Ray identifies a distinctly modern statement about political identity in the particular composite form – the tower (shikhara) of pre-Islamicate temples atop the flat-roofed temple typology that had emerged in emulation of Mughal architectural and political practices of darshan enshrining a divine ruler (a shared, mutually beneficient gaze), now rendered with European-style pillars. The environment within which such choices were contemplated, and the implications of this maneuver are situated in Section 5, “Of Renegade Kings and Cows in the Early 19th century,” within the context of Maratha anti-colonial agitation. Section 6, “The Islamicate in Brindavan: The Shahji Temple (1868),” turns to alternate models such as the Lucknow imambaras for the mid-nineteenth-century Shahji Temple, but without entirely rejecting the growing legacy of European contact. Section 7, “Of Roads and Maps: (Re)making ‘State Space,’” reads pilgrimage maps and road construction as processes of engagement, as tactics or strategies whereby the local elite intervened in state projects to reclaim space. Sections 8, “The Spatial Techniques of 19th-century Vaishnavism,” and Section 9, “Cow Protection in the Era of Colonial Nationalism,” reiterate through an assemblage of materials and an examination of legal proceedings, right to religious procession, and cow protection, that contestations ranged across competing interests and they resist any singular or easy explanation. They span multiple groups, often overlapping categories – among Vaishnavas, between elite and non-elite, residents and non-resident patrons, and British legislation and army. These accounts resolutely refute any narrative about a monolithic Hinduism in opposition to a Muslim minority.

It is through the accretion of such microhistories that simultaneously converse across a vast terrain, and diachronically map the changing lives of sites through a rich array of materials and queries, that the field of South Asian art history matures and speaks back to the discipline as a whole.

Pika Ghosh
Department of Art
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Primary Sources

Govind Dev Temple (1590), Vrindavan
Govind Dev Temple (18th century), Jaipur
Nagina Masjid, Agra Fort (1630s), Agra
The Krishna Chandrama Temple (1810), Vrindavan
The Shahji Temple (1868), Vrindavan

Dissertation Information

University of Minnesota. 2012. 359 pp. Primary Advisor: Frederick Asher.

Image: Pilgrimage site in Vrindavan, photograph by Sugata Ray.

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