American Hindu

David Pacchioli
June 01, 1996

The countryside of India is dotted with filigreed stone temples, the relics of Hindu shrines built between 500 and 1500 C.E. More numerous than the West's cathedrals, some of them rival their Christian counterparts in size and for sheer ornate detail. Yet modern art historians have yet to unlock some of the basic secrets of these monuments. By what processes were they built? And who built them?

The existing picture is cobbled from meager sources. "We don't have enough information to know how architects and sculptors built a temple," says Mary F. Linda, acting director of Penn State's Palmer Museum of Art. "The architectural texts we've recovered are later in date, and rather than technical, they tend to be rhetorical and honorific."

Until recently, scholars believed these temples were commissioned by kings or other royalty: The structures are commonly identified by dynasty. But this too is an assumption based on scant evidence, says Linda.

"Certainly some of the larger temples bear inscriptions naming their royal patrons," she acknowledges. But many others have no inscriptions. And the sheer number of temples, along with differences in size and degree of embellishment, make her doubt that royals built them all.

After two years of study in India, Linda has gathered a database of 1,200 stone inscriptions in Tamil, Kannada and Sanskrit, and examined these along with ancient records of land transactions preserved on copper plates. Through her analysis she has begun to identify some heretofore unrecognized patterns in temple sponsorship.

"There was a kind of corporate patronage," Linda reports. "Trade guilds made donations, and so did other groups of individuals." Linda has also published a theory that brahman priests, who frequently received royal land grants during the medieval period, founded temples to aid in "hinduizing" tribal areas.

To bolster the still-scant written record, however, Linda has added another approach -- one that has brought her smack into the present century, and her own back yard. The last two decades, it seems, have seen a boom in the construction of Hindu temples right here in the United States.

The first American Hindu temple was completed in 1976, in Flushing, New York. With the growth of South Asian immigrant communities since then, temples have been popping up all over. Currently, Linda reports, there are 28 temples in various stages of completion around the U.S. One of the most important of these is the Venkatesvara temple in Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. The Venkatesvara's form is based on that of the most popular pilgrimage site in India.

The new temples, Linda says, are closely based on traditional Indian forms. "There are differences, of course. The American temples are made of brick and concrete, not stone. There are adaptations made for American building codes, and for climate." Cultural transplantation, too, has had its effect, producing adaptations like the Hindu-Jain temple in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, with its co-existing shrines to Shiva, Vishnu, the goddess Durga, the epic hero Rama, and a Jain deity. ("This is a combination you would never see in India.")

But as Linda has determined by interviewing temple builders, much remains the same. The U.S. temples are constructed by teams of Indian artisans, who travel from site to site under the direction of a single South Indian architect, Murthiah Sthapati, whose family has reportedly constructed temples for 18 generations. (The name Sthapati, Linda says, means architect in Sanskrit.) They even make their own bricks. The temples are typically built over a 10-year period, section by section as fundraising allows.

"The process seems to be an inexact recreation of what happens in India."

Linda plans to look closer into patronage at five sites, delving into archives and interviewing donors of the temples in Penn Hills, Monroeville, and Flushing, as well as temples in Washington, D.C., and Livermore, California.

"Of course, there is the question of how much from the present can be applicable to the past," she acknowledges, along with the filter of cultural transmutations to peer through. Still, Linda hopes to gain some valuable insights.

"For the first time," she says, "we'll have primary information from the principal agents in temple production."

Mary F. Linda, Ph.D., is acting director of the Palmer Museum of Art, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-7672.

Last Updated June 01, 1996