Māhātmyas — Praising the genius of place EFEO

Inside the Kāñcī Kāmākṣi Ammaṉ temple at dusk.

Stretching back over more than a millennium, there is a truly vast literature of texts that extol holy places, recounting myths that “explain” their origins and idiosyncrasies and commending the benefits of worshipping in this or that particular shrine, or of bathing at astrologically auspicious moments in this or that particular water-body. This voluminous genre of works, which may be in Sanskrit verse and presented as belonging to particular Purāṇas, but which may also be in other languages, has not often been the focus of scholarly studies, but this has begun to change. A recent Pondicherry monograph by Peter Bisschop, for instance, has brought a neglected twelfth-century eulogy of Benares to light: the Vārāṇasī-māhātmya (Collection Indologie 148). As that book demonstrates, such eulogies of sacred sites may be full of information about historical topography and religious practice, and they are to be a focus of two new projects in which the Pondicherry Centre of the EFEO is involved.

"Hindu Temple Legends in South India," a sixteen-year project on the history of the ancient city of Kanchipuram, focusing in part on temple eulogies (māhātmya / talappurāṇam) in Sanskrit and Tamil, will be funded by the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, who will be working in collaboration with the EFEO in Pondicherry. To launch this project, its head, Ute Hueken, together with Jonas Buchholz, and Liudmila Olalde, all from Heidelberg, will be visiting Pondicherry in October.

At the same time, R. Sathyanarayan is joining a new collaborative project funded by a Germano-Polish “Beethoven Classic IV” Grant (of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Polish National Science Centre: DEC-2020/39/G/HS2/03593) awarded to Marzenna Czerniak-Drożdżowicz of the Jagiellonian University, Cracow, and Ute Huesken of the South Asia Institute (SAI) of the University of Heidelberg (https://en.uj.edu.pl/en_US/news/-/journal_content/56_INSTANCE_SxA5QO0R5BDs/81541894/148997296). The aim of the project, entitled “South Indian Temples: Nodal Points in Webs of Connections” [SITes], is to focus on the connections and flows of ideas and material objects between Hindu holy sites, which are here conceived of as nodes in a network mapped by narratives that are sung, written, performed, illustrated and even “walked” by pilgrims. In the context of this project, Sathyanarayan, who has been working with Czerniak-Drożdżowicz on an edition and translation of the Śrīraṅgamāhātmya, plans to examine the story of the peregrinations of the principal idol of Śrīrangam, which is supposed to have been moved from temple to temple to Tirumalai before returning to Śrīraṅgam. He attended the project’s kick-off workshop at the Collegium Paderevianum in Cracow on 9th September 2022. Other networked sites examined will include those of Ahobilam, Kancheepuram and the six principal shrines of Murukaṉ (āṟu paṭai vīṭu).

Contact: Dominic Goodall, ÉFEO, Dominic [dot] goodall [at] efeo [dot] net