Meditating Minds and Bodies in Space: Making Room for Ritual in Early Medieval Monasteries
The second half of the first millennium A.D. was a dynamic period that saw the rapid
proliferation of new Saiva ascetic orders famed for their knowledge of yoga, japa, and
specialized pujas. Because such rituals were believed to effect real internal transformations in the body of practitioners, the Gurus that headed these groups were widely sought after by disciples seeking to acquire magical powers or even the ontological status of living divinity. Whereas the nature of these internal transformations has been frequently studied by scholars, the extent to which the external, physical environment produced conditions conducive to realizing spiritual goals has rarely been assessed. This paper examines architecture’s role in the creation of ideal spaces for the performance and transmission of intensive rituals. By drawing key examples from newly surveyed Saiva monastic residences (mathas) dating between the 8th and 12th centuries, I suggest that ascetic orders took their architectural settings very seriously. They designed their dwellings in ways that could meet the ritual needs of the resident communities, and carefully planned complicated spatial programs that maximized the potential for spiritual attainment.
Tamara I. Sears is currently on leave as a J. Paul Getty Postdoctoral Fellow. She taught at NYU
for three years, and will begin a new position as an Assistant Professor in the department of the History of Art at Yale University in the Fall of 2009. She is currently finishing a book on the political and religious functions of Saiva monastic architecture, and she has recently published essays in The Art Bulletin and South Asian Studies.