I am sure this book will open a new platform for understanding the complex stories at UNESCO's World Heritage Site. PROF. RANA P.B. SINGH, President—Asian Cultural Landscape Association, and Former Professor and Head, Department of Geography, Institute of Science, Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi.
The Mahabodhi Temple investigates the historic and ethnographic accounts of the ongoing religious contestations over the status of the Mahabodhi Temple complex in Bodhgaya (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002) and its surrounding landscape to critically analyse the working and construction (and reconstruction) of sacredness.
It endeavours to make a ground-up assessment of ways in which human participants in the past and present respond to and interact with the Mahabodhi Temple and its surroundings. The volume argues that sacredness goes beyond scriptural texts and archaeological remains. The Mahabodhi Temple complex and its surround-ing landscape is a 'living' heritage, which has been produced socially and constitutes differential densities of human involvement, attachment, and experience. Its significance lies mainly in the active interaction between religious architecture within its dynamic ritual settings. This endless contestation of sacredness and its meaning should not be seen as the `death' of the Mahabodhi Temple; on the contrary, it illustrates the vitality of the ongoing debate on the meaning, understanding, and use of the sacred in the Indian context.
Nikhil Joshi is a Research Fellow in the Department of Architecture at National University of Singapore. Educated at the University of Pune, University of York, and National University of Singapore, he is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, UK, and recipient of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings Lethaby Scholarship, UK. His other recent publications include Managing Change: Urban Heritage and Community Development in Historic Asian Cities (2018, edited), Community Voices: Preserving the Local Heritage (2016), and People + Places: Exploring the Living Heritage of Songkhla Old Town (2016, edited).
IT SEEMS LIKE an inescapable human condition. Through habits and continual misidentifications, we assign meanings to things and experiences in the hope and belief that they would validate our existence and assure us that all will not come to pass, be trivialized, or worse, settle into dust. These feeble gestures to address personal and civilizational anxieties are always done with resolve and under lively contestations. Dr. Nikhil Joshi skilfully traces the meanings and significance of a great artifice and its environs formed along such a human journey, the Mahabodhi Temple and environs at Bodhgaya in Bihar, India.
Following his work closely as his dissertation supervisor, and once guided by him on a field trip to Nalanda, I observed first-hand his dedication as a scholar and his passion as a communal-conservation activist. He knows his grounds and the people who seek a living in and around the area.
In this book, Dr. Joshi employs 'construct' and 'deconstruct' to narrate the life, decline, rise and transformations of the Mahabodhi Temple and environs. Perhaps coloured by my own practices as a lay Buddhist, I always thought that his scholarly enterprise was more about 'entangling' and 'dis-entangling'. Starting with Anagarika Dharmapala's awakening to revive the beginnings of Buddhism through these otherwise 'lost' artifices that was enabled by the orientalist project of British colonialism and Theosophist leanings; British imperial efforts, in turn, were spurred on by their ideological intent to locate and to legitimize a logical trajectory of their civilizational project in foreign lands. And more recently, the commercialism spurred by the site's UNESCO World Heritage Site listing has created a 'fractured touristscape' that simultaneously threatens the long-unspoken practices of Mahabodhi as a `shared sacred place'.
Disentangling the historical baggage and removing contemporary stickons seem necessary to obtain some clarity on the religious artifice. So, it seems. And therein lies a part of the often-lively banter in our meetings: his quixotic desire, seemingly to get at a pristine point of the artifice's origin, unadulterated by worldly interests and to return the site to, what he characterized as its `multivalent sacredness'. And yet in sustaining the artifice, the real contradictions arise from the imperatives of materials, their arrangements and compositions formed in a human world full of flaws, prejudices and interests. And gingerly he treads around these landmines.
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