Michael W. Meister

[Paper presented at the ACSAA Symposium, Charleston SC, November 1998]

[Illustrations for this essay can be found by clicking here.]

[1-2] We art historians too often speak of temples as if built by kings, but they are built for communities; as ritual instruments the use of which changes; one function of which is to web individuals and communities into a complicated and inconsistent social fabric through time. They survive by communities making use of them in a reciprocal relationship of self-preservation quite removed from agendas of historical conservation, Osymandias-like memorialization, or archaeological concerns. This panel represents a preliminary review of a project on "Continuities of Community Patronage" carried out by the panel's three participants, with a field tour in western Rajasthan for five months last spring, funded by the J. Paul Getty Trust's program for interpretive research.

[3-4] The one temple we briefly studied most likely to have been built to fit a king's agenda was the Ranchodrai Vishnu temple near Balotra. Sited in the ancient town of Khed, a medieval capital for Paramara kings, this temple was built in the 9th century; its fronting hall reformulated and made grander in the 11th century; and a new marble image installed in its sanctum. Over time its use seems to have devolved from kings to local Thakurs as patterns of regional power shifted and the capital declined. Finally, in this century, saved from its physical isolation, it has been intermittently and sporadically restored, most recently because of a loyal sage; [5-6] and over the last thirty years re-mirrored to serve a modern merchant community of Agrawals in Balotra -- what L. A. Babb calls its "Lion's Club" function.

[7-8] More suggestive of earlier processes of re-definition and re-appropriation is the Mahavir Jain temple built at Osian. Founded in the eighth century at a time when a charismatic Jain sage had converted a part of the local population to Jainism, the temple was reconfigured in the 10th century by an Oswal family that claimed in an inscription that the temple's ancestry then reached back to the time of the great king Vatsaraja Pratihara two centuries before. The date of this 10th-century reconfiguration, however, has entered the lists of Jain holy places as if the temple had been built then, making the temple's position as Western India's oldest Jain shrine a matter to be established by modern scholarship. A torana-gate and subshrines were added over the next centuries, the two-storied entry re-ceilinged, and the main temple's tower replaced in the 15th century.

[9-10] The story of Osian's conversion to Jainism recorded in the history of the Upakeccha Gaccha has been mined by both L.A. Babb and myself in recent articles in relation to the important dispersed merchant clan of Oswals. Indeed, that myth itself, as recorded in the 18th century, had attempted to explain the disappearance of all resident Jains from Osian. In the mid-19th century, another charismatic sage returned, finding the temple buried in sand up to the top of its shikhara according to one ephemeral account, who instructed the absent Jain community of the temple's importance and urged its restoration. Taken up by Jain families from Pokaran-Phalodi, this effort has created a new myth of the temple's refounding, although the bhojak priests AST the temple claim to have been serving the temple for more than the past 200 years.

[11-12] Again, in this century, a wandering Jain teacher interested in restoring the Osian lineage urged that a Jain school be established as part of the temple to return resident Jains to Osian. Built in the second and third decades of this century, this school compound, now a dharmshala, expanded the compound of the original temple to become an integral part of the 20th-century shrine. Contemporary patronage from a Trust in Ahmedabad has again transformed this now-perceived-as "historical" temple, without, however, substantially changing its community role or that of the school. This new course of construction, however, has helped develop a network of craftsmen that has altered the third temple of our study, that of the goddess Saciyamata on a central hill at Osian.

[13-14] This goddess temple, built originally in the 8th century, has played a complicated role in the conversion story of Oswal Jain origins. The goddess's own conversion from meat-eater to sweetmeat-eater probably reflects the passing of another Jain sage in the 11th century at a time the main temple itself was replaced with the complex structure we now see. Its compound, however, had had three Vaishnava subshrines added in the previous two centuries; and animal sacrifice still occurred outside the temple earlier in this century at a time the temple was still claimed as an origin temple by the Shankla Rajputs.

[15-16] In the past thirty years the Jain school at Osian has been reformulated to claim a physical/mandalic relationship with the Saciyamata temple. Complex negotiations of overlapping community use have been mapped by creation of a Saciyamata temple-trust to fit modern India's changing laws about sacred property; but reconciliation of conflicting claims now among local landholders, non-resident pilgrims, and the priestly community can be seen in the development of the temple's real-estate itself.

[17-18] A set of nine Navadurga shrines, designed to make the temple ritually unique by an important past chief-priest now surround the older temple-compound, and new gateways march up processional stairs to the hill. Jains from neighboring Shekavati - now many in Calcutta and Bombay - drawn by the temple's recent reputation as a "healing" temple, [19-20] have contributed to a vast expanse of dharmashalas and bhojanshalas around the hill; and a new hotel-like compound on the roadside - still built by Jain donations - with its meeting halls used by the local Committee to great visiting dignitaries - was not inappropriately designated the "Maheshvari dharmshala" by one of the priests.

[21-22] The fourth of the temples we studied - that of the goddess Dadhimatimata near to Nagaur - had a seventh-century inscription that stated it was founded with resources from local Dahima Brahmins, a community that still claims the protection of the goddess and the temple as its kul-devi shrine. The remaining sanctum is a ninth-century structure - what art historians focus on - surrounded by a compound of four courtyards built in the 19th century.

[23-24] This reformulation of the temple, recorded by another neglected inscription, occurred when a Dahima sage was rewarded by the Maharana of Udaipur, who funded the restoration. Now often conflated with legends of the temple's original founding, this "new" structure indeed becomes the new temple, its origins conflated with the time of the original myth, when the Goddess appeared to a herdsman, only partly emerging from natural stone. A king's reward in these myths built both temples, but the recipient of patronage controls the myth and the temples, not the other way round.

There is a complex but quite fascinating story we can tell of the Brahmin Dahima community's redefinition of itself in the 20th century and the role of this "old/new" temple in its present refashioning. More interesting for the moment, however, may be the tale of a different community - Jats from the nearby town of Ratava who claim the temple also as their protector and the goddess as their kul-devi. We heard the story from one Jat engineer who had heard it from his clan genealogist more than thirty years ago. No Brahmin seems to know this story (nor perhaps that many Jats); but it plays a centuries-long role in the layered self-preservation of the temple itself.

25-26] Our project I hope will continue to weave these patterns together - and the tales are lengthy and interesting - but my point in this forum must be that a temple is not one structure, nor of one period or even one community. It moves through time, collecting social lightening and resources. It must be repositioned constantly to survive. If it serves one king it may die with that king. Let each tell its long story: both temples and the communities they serve continually redefine their pasts and renegotiate the present. That is what they are.

Let me turn now to one of my colleagues, John Cort.