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Living Shrines in Museums? An Experimental Approach



Somaskanda/samedha nageswara and kamaatchi of north thirunageswaram - Jothi Balaji
A Living, Richly Ornamented Idol of Somaskanda Nageswara and Kamaatchi of North Thirunageswaram - Jothi Balaji

In Hinduism, deities in living shrines are regarded as living presences and are actively worshiped and cared for by devotees. Daily rituals involve awakening the sculptures, cleansing and bathing them, dressing them in elaborate garments, adorning them with jewelry and flowers, and offering food, incense, and prayers. These rituals establish a tangible connection between devotees and the divine, creating a sacred environment that goes beyond mere display.


The juxtaposition of sacred Hindu sculptures, traditionally housed in living shrines, with their presentation in museum settings has sparked a profound debate in recent years. The contrast between the dynamic, interactive ritual contexts and the static, detached environment of a museum challenges the conventional approach to exhibiting religious artifacts. This has led to discussions on whether it is appropriate to reintroduce the original ritual context of these sculptures within museums and the extent to which ritual reactivation should be pursued.



Photograph by John Guy, Shiva on his silver mount Nandi, 1993. Guy, John. Indian Temple Sculpture. V&A Publications: London, 2007.
Photograph by John Guy, Shiva on his silver mount Nandi, 1993. Guy, John. Indian Temple Sculpture. V&A Publications: London, 2007.

In the living shrine, Hindu deities are treated as living presences, receiving daily offerings of prayers, lamps, incense, flowers, and food. They are adorned with special outfits, ornaments, and furnishings, transforming the shrine into a tangible abode for the divine. Such intimate interactions with the sculptures, including touching and caring for them, are considered essential for devotees to establish a spiritual connection.

Bronze sculpture depicting the Hindu gods Shiva and Uma with their son Skanda, presumably 12th century. Photo: John Lee, 2005. National Museum of Denmark (Inv.no. Da.156)
Bronze sculpture depicting the Hindu gods Shiva and Uma with their son Skanda, presumably 12th century. Photo: John Lee, 2005. National Museum of Denmark (Inv.no. Da.156)

Museum preservation practices, on the other hand, prioritize safeguarding artifacts for future generations. Displaying sculptures behind glass and limiting physical contact is done to ensure their physical integrity and protect them from damage or theft. However, this preservation imperative often clashes with the religious practices associated with these sculptures, as they lose their spiritual significance when removed from their intended ritual context.


Display of South Indian bronzes at the Newark Museum of Art with a consecrated and fully adorned metal statue of Parvati to the far right. August 2016. Source: Photo © Jinah Kim.
Display of South Indian bronzes at the Newark Museum of Art with a consecrated and fully adorned metal statue of Parvati to the far right. August 2016. Source: Photo © Jinah Kim.

In recent years, some museums have explored ways to bridge this gap between preservation and religious practice. For example, the Newark Museum of Art conducted a consecration ritual performed by a local priest on a metal image of the goddess Parvati. The sculpture was installed with garments and jewelry, resembling its presentation in a living shrine. Accompanied by photographs of enshrined images from a living temple in South India, this exhibition aimed to acknowledge and honor the sculpture's original ritual context.

This experimental approach highlights the potential for reintroducing the spiritual essence of these sculptures within museum spaces. By embracing the ritual reactivation of artifacts, museums can provide a more immersive and meaningful experience for visitors.

This experimental approach highlights the potential for reintroducing the spiritual essence of these sculptures within museum spaces. By embracing the ritual reactivation of artifacts, museums can provide a more immersive and meaningful experience for visitors. It allows members of the diaspora community, who have a deep cultural and religious connection to these objects, to engage with them in a manner reminiscent of their traditional practices.

Striking a balance between preservation and ritual reactivation is a delicate task. Museums must approach this endeavor with sensitivity, collaboration, and thorough research.

However, striking a balance between preservation and ritual reactivation is a delicate task. Museums must approach this endeavor with sensitivity, collaboration, and thorough research. Involving Hindu religious leaders, scholars, and cultural experts can provide invaluable insights into the appropriate practices and rituals associated with these sculptures. Together, they can develop guidelines that respect the significance of the artifacts while ensuring their preservation and accessibility to a wider audience.


Unadorned Somaskanda (Holy Family), 13th-14th century

Somaskanda in worship ( ca. eleventh-century metal sculpture with recent adornments), Ekamranatha Shiva Temple, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. March 2004. Source: Photo © Jinah Kim.
Somaskanda in worship ( ca. eleventh-century metal sculpture with recent adornments), Ekamranatha Shiva Temple, Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. March 2004. Source: Photo © Jinah Kim.

While some argue that the aesthetic appearance of the sculptures becomes secondary to their spiritual purpose when considering them within a ritual context, museums must also address the concerns of art conservation and historical authenticity. Striking the right balance will require thoughtful curatorial decisions and an ongoing dialogue between museum professionals and the communities affected by these practices.


The controversy surrounding Hindu sculptures in museums reflects the broader challenge of presenting living arts within static exhibition spaces. It invites museums to reconsider their traditional approaches and explore innovative methods that honor the religious significance of these artifacts while preserving their physical integrity. By embracing the richness of the sculptures' original ritual contexts, museums can create more meaningful encounters for visitors, fostering cultural understanding and appreciation for Hindu traditions.

crucial to acknowledge the concerning issue of stolen ritual bronze sculptures from temples that have found their way into museums worldwide

Additionally, it is crucial to acknowledge the concerning issue of stolen ritual bronze sculptures from temples that have found their way into museums worldwide. The increasing presence of these stolen artifacts raises ethical and legal concerns regarding their acquisition and display. Many of these stolen sculptures were removed from temples without the consent of the communities to which they hold deep religious and cultural significance.

Through the reimagining of the ritual context, museums not only preserve and showcase cultural heritage but also foster cultural appreciation and understanding.

Through the reimagining of the ritual context, museums not only preserve and showcase cultural heritage but also foster cultural appreciation and understanding. Visitors have the opportunity to engage with the sculptures in a manner that transcends their role as mere museum objects. By immersing themselves in the spiritual ambiance and participating in reenacted rituals, visitors can develop a deeper connection to the artistic, religious, and cultural significance of these sculptures.


Ultimately, museums play a vital role in ensuring that Hindu sculptures are presented in a manner that respects their ritual context, acknowledges their spiritual significance, and fosters a greater understanding of diverse cultural practices. By embracing these approaches, museums can successfully navigate the complexities of displaying sacred objects, offering visitors a transformative experience that celebrates the richness and depth of Hindu traditions.


References:

https://collections.artsmia.org/art/6224/somaskanda-india

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