SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

Ritual and Pilgrimage at the Mirkula Devi Temple in the Western Himalayas

Yashaswini Chandra (SOAS/Sahapedia)

Date: 11 January 2012Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 11 January 2012Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B111

Type of Event: Seminar

Abstract: This seminar will be concerned with the Mirkula Devi temple, a sacred site in the Pattan valley in Lahaul which has been meaningful to more than one religious community. Lahaul (Lahaul-Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, India) has the distinction of lying between the Hindu and (Tibetan) Buddhist worlds of the western Himalayas, besides being home to a host of vernacular belief systems, rituals and practices. The Mirkula Devi temple has received its fair share of scholarly attention, since the temple seems to include Hindu and Buddhist themes in its iconographic programme, often seen as indicative of religious transformation.

Little is known about the history of the Lahauli valleys, largely attributable to a paucity of written sources and limited material remains. In this context, the presence of this well-preserved and iconographically rich Hindu temple is startling. The Mirkula Devi temple houses a wealth of wooden sculptures from two different periods, both sets of sculptures remarkable for the richness of their style and iconography. The older group of sculptures is in particular marked by the so-called ‘Kashmiri style’, which is surprising considering that there is little other evidence of this artistic tradition having travelled beyond Chamba into the Pattan valley. To further add to the temple’s interest, the iconographic programme represented by the older group of wooden sculptures includes what appears to be Buddhist imagery in an otherwise Hindu scheme. Even the later group of sculptures, representing scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata and Puranic mythology, are incomparable in terms of artistic remains from Lahaul.

Although the seminar will cover the historical background of the temple, it will focus on the ritual life of the temple, including community participation. While the physical entity of the temple is related to elite patronage, which, I argue, was externally-influenced but local in nature, its spiritual character is seen as re-claimed by local collective imagination, as manifest in the rituals practiced at the site. Besides regular rituals and sacrifices, these include the triennial interaction between the Hindu goddess to whom the temple is dedicated and the patron-deity of Lahaul, Ghepan, in the course of his yatra (or journey), which locates the goddess in the local cosmology. The long-standing cult of Devi at the temple is analysed in terms of its universal and local connotations. In effect, in examining ritual and pilgrimage at the temple, I will emphasise the performative aspect in the interpretation of the ongoing lives of temple sites.

Organiser: Crispin Branfoot

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