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  • Reincarnation of the Sacred Space:Issues in Adaptive Use of Hindu Temples in India
  • Ashima Krishna (bio)

Adaptive use has long been a sustainable and economically beneficial tool used by preservationists, architects, planners, and developers. It has been most popularly used for civic, industrial, and residential structures in not only the developed world, but increasingly in developing countries as well. In India's rapidly changing urban and rural areas, abandoned or vacated buildings have been reused in different ways as public and private institutions, offices, museums, and hotels. The reuse of abandoned houses of worship—temples, mosques, churches, gurudwaras (the place of worship for followers of Sikhism), and synagogues—however, remains a pertinent yet sensitive issue in India. Can a non-functional liturgical space be more than a repository of our past? Can it also be an essential and utilized part of its community?


The Indian landscape is abundant with historic structures spanning a variety of time periods, made from different materials and for various uses. Most, however, escape any official (local, state, federal) attention. The federal agency in India responsible for the designation, maintenance, and preservation of nationally important historic structures is the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), similar to the U.S. National Park Service. ASI has more than 3,650 structures designated as nationally "protected monuments" (Government of India, 2011). Every state in turn has a state-level agency that designates state and locally significant structures. Other, undesignated private structures are often taken care of by a nonprofit or an advocacy group. Yet others either silently go to ruin within the rural/urban landscape, or are often put to some kind of unofficial use by the local inhabitants.

While the exact number of historic structures existing in India (both protected and unprotected) is yet to be determined, the list [End Page 37] of nationally-protected monuments reveals that more than 48 percent of the total structures had some kind of liturgical use at one point in time. The majority of these religious structures belong to the Hindu faith, which begins to illustrate just how many unprotected and undocumented historic structures of religious value actually exist across the Indian landscape.

Religious edifices, like other structures of historic value in India are usually either conserved or restored after they have been designated "protected monuments" at either federal or state levels, or by private patrons or (religious) trusts. The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), which is similar to the U.S. National Trust, often promotes the preservation of these unprotected sites by advocating and raising funds, hiring consultants, and entering into public-private partnerships. The "protected" structures that are not in continued religious use are, however, restored, preserved, or conserved by federal or state agencies as historic structures for tourism purposes rather than religious ones. This is primarily due to provisions in the federal legislation1 that prohibits the use of a "protected" structure for religious purposes if that was not its function at the time of designation (Government of India, 1958). Therefore for historic, protected religious structures of discontinued religious use, finding a new lease on life besides becoming a tourist attraction is difficult. Older, unprotected structures unfortunately share a similar fate. They typically face public opposition to adaptive use irrespective of their religious denomination. In the case of Hindu structures, these issues are more significantly manifested, given the volume of Hindu structures across the Indian landscape and an 80.5 percent majority in population (Government of India, 2001; Joshi, 2005, p. 130).

Understanding the Hindu Temple

A Hindu temple2 is believed to be a vehicle for the enlightenment and salvation of the devotee visiting the shrine, a cultural and social hub, as well as a celebration of the rituals and traditional religious activities of a Hindu (Marathé, 1998, p. 11). The earliest temple form took inspiration from the ancient tabernacles constructed by the pre-medieval man, even before Hinduism developed as a religion. The Hindu temple's actual evolution began with a small hut3 during [End Page 38] the Vedic period,4 which evolved into a modest timber structure, which then gave way to the highly embellished stone and brick structures...


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