Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Politicizing the Sacred: Religious Architecture in the Konkan

This essay is jointly written by Smita Dalvi and Mustansir Dalvi.

It was first published in Take on Art, Volume IV, Issue 13, January 2014. The central theme of this special issue was 'Sacred', guest edited by Nancy Adajania.

All photographs (c) the authors. All rights reserved.













Politicizing the Sacred: Religious Architecture in the Konkan   

For the most part, the cultural geography of the Konkan belt of India’s western coast has been a palimpsest of sub-communities marked by a congruence of cultural practices, sharing food habits, ways of dressing, surnames, attitudes and most significantly a language, Marathi, in common. This cosmopolitan self-similarity is equally manifest in the ways of building, craft practices developed over time, out of the use of local materials, and responding to the tropical monsoon climate. While the several different communities in the Konkan followed their own socio-religious practices, the physical manifestation of the public realm rarely indicated difference. The shared expression of physical presence was largely similar in shape and scale, resulting in various iterations, smaller or larger, of modest buildings in brick, timber and laterite stone in a low-rise domestic scale.

Bhagvati Devi Temple complex at Dhamapur – aesthetics of timber
Deulwadi- a prominent chowk in Uran surrounded by shops and temples

The sacred architecture of the Konkan too for the most part, followed a non-monumental yet urbane scale. These spaces were functional, built quite like the domestic homes that their worshippers lived in and were self-similar irrespective of religious affiliation. This domestic scale, both of homes and religious places, wove together into a built fabric that made the towns of the Konkan small centres of urbanity, all the way from Panvel to the south-east of Bombay down the Konkan coast to Goa. Elsewhere, we have referred to this as a state of ‘unselfconscious cosmopolitanism’, which quietly echoed their other practices, like food, appearance and ritual. Spaces for reverence were spaces for functional practices, not for sub-community image-building. The Konkani identity subsumed all others, and the interchangeability of practice was common across religions.

Friday Mosque at Vijaydurg – non-monumental, domestic scale

Bene Israel Synagogue at Revdanda- Shrine with sloped roof, nestling in the neighbourhood

Such unselfconscious cosmopolitanism in the Konkan evolved over the last three centuries and manifested itself in the ways of living. Every community, whether the Brahmins, the Kolis, the Jains, the Bohras, the Parsis, the Bene Israel (the native Jews of the Konkan) used language and ritual interchangeably, and even internalised cultural signification. A charming, poignant example of this trait is seen on a tombstone in a Bene Israeli cemetery in Panvel, which has been inscribed with a verse in Marathi from a wife to her departed husband. She compares her husband with ‘Ek-vachani Ram’ (Lord Rama, who was always true to his word) and also with the purity of ‘Gangajal’ (holy water of the Ganges). The wife, Ruby-Bai Chincholkar, seeks God’s blessing to get the same husband, Benjamin, for the next seven lifetimes. This example is not an isolated one, and similar syncretism is visible in the traditions of the other communities too, such as the Konkani Muslims referring to their deceased elders as ‘Kailaswasi’ (residing in their heavenly abode, that is Kailash, traditionally a Shaivite usage).

When the attributes of identity, such as religion or caste, are mapped on those of geography and language, we get a matrix of sub-cultures. Such a theory explains the concept of culture as constituting various overlapping circles of commonalities, allowing for distinctiveness as well as assimilation; this process, in turn, provides locations for syncretism, which blurs boundaries. Geography itself cannot be fixed in terms of physical boundaries: the cultural geography of one region will overlap with those of surrounding regions. It is in this condition of blurred boundaries that we may situate the comfortable coexistence of the communities in the Konkan.

This comfortable syncretism forms the binding glue that holds the community together. It is embedded in the structures created by these communities, from abodes to places of worship. Public life and the public aspect of buildings emerged over several generations of unchanging existence and became concretized. All these sacred buildings looked similar from the outside. To seek specific religious signification, one had to go within, to spot the specific accoutrements of religion and ritual. Temples, mosques, dargahs, derasars, agiaries and synagogues all accommodate various acts of worship but modestly eschew the demonstrations of communal identity. We describe this Konkani architecture as ‘non-monumental, non-iconic, at once contemplative, urbane and self-similar.’ To a certain extent this was also because the religious sites were built privately, by those in wealth rather than by those in power.  Some temples, for example were built for private worship, and were sited close to the large wadas that were once a significant typology of the built landscape.

Typically, these communities remained unchanged, even backward for a large part of their existence. Change, as is inevitable, came to the Konkan, and when it did it was fast and irreversible. Since the time of economic liberalization, and the schisms created by the events of the early 1990s, the dismantling of the cosmopolitan ideal has been rapid. One can see a correlation between the rise in affluence and its concurrent rise in aspiration, pan-Indian influences and global imperatives of homogenization. A major outcome has been the need to define and assert a distinct and non-interchangeable religious identity through material signification.

In the case of the religious architecture of the Konkan, this can be seen in a dissatisfaction with buildings that are undifferentiated on the exterior. The imperative of competitive religious valorisation, as well as the influx of wealth, are expressed in the desire for the monumental. These new factors of cultural and political aspiration are articulated through the reconstruction of existing sacred sites in bigger and taller avatars. This process results in strange manifestations of religious architecture that have no precedent in the history of the region’s architecture. The ‘tamir’ of mosques and the ‘jirnoddhar’ of temples has led to the dismantling of pre-existing domestic-scaled buildings, and their replacement by shikharas, minarets or domes, which vaguely mimic generic Hindu, or Muslim, or Jain architectural forms.

Virupaksha Temple at Panvel- urbane and sophisticated, originally located along a chowk

Virupaksha Temple at Panvel after jirnoddhar - an altered scale aspiring to monumental

This new monumental is achieved, inevitably, through the use of modern material technology such as reinforced cement concrete (RCC). The edifices of concrete, plaster and paint that are thus produced have no connection with the local traditions of craft and expertise. What they express is a larger-than-life semantic, quite without aesthetic precedent, where big is big for its own sake. This vulgarization of the original aesthetics of the religious place mirrors the replacement of a once low-rise domestic urban scale by an emergent high-rise concrete jungle.

Hanuman Temple in Panvel- after jirnoddhar of the original brick and timber shrine- concrete shikhara and arches- an aesthetics without precedent

Addition to a timber mosque in Panvel -  a concrete and plaster gateway designed to mimic a tomb with un- proportionate minarets and dome

The urbane cohesiveness that once bound communities together has frayed, with social identity taking a backseat to card-carrying religious membership in full display. The irony here is that this change is emanating from the community itself. The attitude here is not self-reflexive, but mainly aspirational. The community is at ease with these changes and considers them to be a demonstrable scaling up of their standards of life. What has become irrevocable is the transformed image of the city. The skylines now clearly identify these new changes as religious landmarks that are visibly different from one another.

The dismantling of the older, formerly self-similar religious structures, replaced by an aspirational hypermodernity of symbols, in fact, signals the de-cosmopolitanization of the small towns of the Konkan. The new praxis politicizes the sacred by creating dominant signifiers in the skyline, under-pinning the fragmentation of identities forged on difference and otherness.

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