The Hindu temple is a place where the divine is made visible and accessible to humans. The divinity present is also made manifest within the temple architecture itself. The temple is a place where one “may progress from the world of illusion to that of knowledge and truth.” This quest for spiritual knowledge is often metaphorically expressed as a physical journey, one which passes through many stages of consciousness. Doorways within the temple are associated with the concept of transition, forming elements which lead from the temporal to the eternal.1 Their decoration elucidates this transition; protecting the sanctity of the gods residing within and reinforcing the function of the temple as a place where the gods manifest themselves in this world.
Over twenty years ago, I came to possess a doorway to a Hindu temple which is now on display in the Architectural History faculty office in the basement of Eichberg Hall. It is a massive piece of work, with its frame standing almost eight feet tall and all together weighing close to three hundred pounds. The door itself is made of carefully fitted teakwood pieces attached to a wooden backing, creating four recessed panels on its surface. It has three heavy crossbars containing decorative brass bosses. These were likely added to reference the defensive nature of medieval wooden doors, which were often fitted with pointed metal protrusions to prevent elephants from pushing in the door during times of attack. Massive teakwood beams make up the frame, with a threshold that, when fit in place, stood four inches high. The surrounding trim is intricately carved with a continuous floral frieze, and above the doorway are sculptured panels containing floral and animal imagery.
In the frame above the temple door is a niche resting on the lintel which would have provided a platform for an image, presumably representing the deity residing within the temple. This most likely would have been Shiva, although this sculpture had been removed when I acquired this door. However, directly above this space is a small, almost hidden image of a face which may represent some form of divine presence. Flanking this empty niche are two carvings of bulls, facing in towards where the sculpture of the deity would have been. These figures may well represent Nandi, the divine bull which serves as Shiva’s mount and who functions as the gatekeeper of Shiva and his consort Parvati in accordance with Hindu mythology. Typically images of Nandi are found at the entrance of Hindu temples and images of a seated Nandi within the temple are often placed to face towards the inner shrine. However, the identity of these sculptures on this door as Nandi may be somewhat questionable, since these images shows a bull with what appear to be feathered wings, which is not a common feature in Nandi representations.
Both above and below these bull images are multiple bird images, which may represent peacocks. The peacock has a long and complex meaning and symbolism in Hindu mythology. The peacock is considered the vehicle of the God of War, Kartikeya (a.k.a. Skanda), who is one of Shiva’s sons. It is also associated with the Goddess Saraswati, who represents benevolence, kindness, love and compassion (the Hindu equivalent of the bodhisattva Kwan-yin). Lord Krishna was also known to have worn peacock feathers in his hair and tied them on his flute. The peacock is thought to possess protective powers, and their feathers are believed to protect against and even cure poisonous snakebites. Two smaller representations of these birds are also found flanking the bottom frame of the doorway, following a tradition that can be found in ancient Persian art.
In their peaks the peacocks hold what appear to be stems to which flowering buds are attached. Similar floral imagery are carved throughout the surfaces of the door and door frame. These flowers may be representations of lotus blossoms, which are symbols of spiritual enlightenment in both Hindu and Buddhist contexts. Because the lotus flower repels water, it is able to bloom with a brilliant purity unsullied by the murky waters from which it emerges, symbolizing for Hindus (as well as Buddhist and Jains), the attainment of spiritual perfection and enlightenment, while its many unfolding petals also represent the expansiveness of the enlightened soul.
As this short examination attempts to show, looking closely at a single architectural element can provide significant insights into the nature of the structure as a whole. As openings into an enclosed architectural space, doorways are points of vulnerability, ones that need to be protected both physical and metaphysically. The heavy wooden construction of this doorway and its added metal elements creates a physical barrier which delineates a corporeal boundary providing physical protection for the activities and occupants within. Likewise, this doorway serves the symbolic function of delineating a spiritual boundary which needs to be recognized and protected through the addition of mythic imagery. As such, it sanctifies the transition from the secular to the sacred, creating a point of transformation designed to protect and reinforce the sacred nature of the deities that reside within.
1. Michell, George, The Hindu Temple: An Introduction to Its Meaning and Forms, University of Chicago Press, 1988, pp. 61 and 66.
My research into the history of commemoration of Native American Indian chief Tomochichi, who assisted Oglethorpe’s foundation of Georgia in 1733, reflects the role serendipity can play in helping the development of an idea and its subsequent dissemination. In 2010 I pulled together a selection of “fun facts” about Savannah that I had been accumulating over several years that related to the city’s place within the larger history of the United States. The result was a public lecture entitled “A History of Savannah at the Cutting Edge,” sponsored by my department and the Historic Savannah Foundation and given in May 2010. Among the many Savannah firsts was my belief that the city hosted the first public monument erected in America — a so-called “pyramid of stone” built by Oglethorpe over the tomb of Tomochichi in the centre of Percival (now Wright) Square in downtown Savannah in 1739, roughly twenty years before more conventional figural style monuments to William Pitt, James Wolfe and King George III appeared in New York and Charleston, SC.
This particular first intrigued me enough to propose a conference paper that more thoroughly situated the 1739 Tomochichi monument within the larger tradition of commemorating the chief in Savannah and how his reputation reflected evolving perceptions of Native Americans. At the time I proposed the topic in May 2011, I still believed, as many still do in Savannah, that the Tomochichi tomb monument survived until 1883 in the form of a mound that appeared in 1870s stereographic photographs. In the course of researching the conference paper, a chance discovery of a small notice of 1871 in the digests of Savannah newspapers compiled and published by the Works Progress Administration promptly changed my thinking and laid the groundwork for challenging the long-held local belief that the Gordon Monument that occupies the site today “desecrated and destroyed” (to use the verbiage on the Tomochichi page in Wikipedia) Tomochichi’s tomb monument. Indeed, so virulent has been the revisionist sentiments towards Tomochichi in the 1990s and early 2000s that some people called for the removal of the Gordon Monument and the reconstruction of the mound.
The small newspaper notice of 1871 was called “The Mound Builders” and reported that five mounds were proposed to be erected in five Savannah squares, including Wright Square. Why the city would embark on such landscaping embellishments remains an intriguing mystery. However, corroborating photographic evidence of at least three different mounds, in Wright, Oglethorpe and Madison Squares, and the absence of any public consternation at the destruction of the Wright Square mound in 1883, all pointed to the unlikelihood that the “desecrated” mound had anything to do with Tomochichi. The chief’s original monument apparently disappeared as early as the 1760s and certainly by the early 1800s, when detailed maps and views of Savannah fail to document its presence.
When I delivered my conference paper, “A Monument for a Chief: The Origins of Public Commemoration in America and the Evolving Perception of Native Americans,” at the annual meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (SESAH), held that year in Charleston, SC, I had the good fortune of participating in a well-attended session (chaired by eminent architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson from UVA). Among those in attendance was the SESAH president Anat Geva, who also happened to be editor of a relatively new academic journal — Preservation, Education and Research (PER) — to which she later invited me to submit my paper for consideration for publication. The experience underscored the importance of presenting at conferences: you never know what might come from the experience, what networking might happen, what feedback you might receive.
The article received very positive feedback from the pair of anonymous peer reviewers, who offered excellent advice on expanding the relationship of Tomochichi’s commemoration to the treatment (enmity, neglect, curiosity, stereotyping, and ultimate revisionist celebration) of Native Americans. More research… and happily some new Savannah discoveries. For over a year I had been fixating on outdoor commemorations of Tomochichi in Savannah, utterly overlooking two indoor commemorations that exist inside SCAD buildings of all places. In fact, it was during a college-wide faculty meeting in Arnold Hall (a former middle school) that I noticed the 10-foot-tall image of Tomochichi as part of the monumental mural painted in 1934 over the auditorium’s proscenium arch. I had seen this mural dozens of times, but never connected the dots — never saw that painted image of Tomochichi as analogous to the enormous boulder erected in Wright Square in 1899 as a second Tomochichi monument. Good thing I attend faculty meetings! An older commemoration of Tomochichi in the form of a plaster relief over-mantle panel from 1892 survives in SCAD’s Poetter Hall, originally the home of the Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory. The completed article, “The Challenge of Preserving Public Memory: Commemorating Tomochichi in Savannah,” appeared in volume 5 of Preservation, Education and Research, published in December 2012.
As satisfying as it was to see the article published in an academic journal, I yearned for a way to reach a broader Savannah audience. I was eager to dispel the perpetual local myth that the Gordon Monument destroyed Tomochichi’s tomb monument, as well as broaden awareness of the other Tomochichi commemorations surviving in Savannah that testify to a long tradition of celebrating him with greater respect than virtually any other Native American in the country. In late January 2013 I contacted a local monthly magazine to gauge their interest in an article about Tomochichi, but the material was deemed too academic. It was worth a try… at least I could reach a local audience by doing a public talk or two.
An invitation received in fall 2012 to deliver a public talk in February at the The Learning Center of Senior Citizens in Savannah led to a planned talk on “The History of Commemoration of Tomochichi in Savannah,” which I gave on February 20, 2013. The timing turned out to be another serendipitous moment in my ongoing relationship with the old chief. As my host, Roger Smith, introduced me, he inquired if I had seen that day’s newspaper and the letters to the editor calling for the big bridge over the Savannah River just west of downtown Savannah to be renamed in honour of Tomochichi or Oglethorpe (or both). The bridge, like its predecessor, currently honours former Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge, an unabashed segregationist and unapologetic racist. “I had not,” I replied, but made a bee-line for a copy of the newspaper as soon as I finished my lunchtime lecture. Sure enough, the issue had been stirring public comment for some days, enough to initiate some action at the Georgia State Legislature.
On a whim, the next day I sent a copy of my Tomochichi journal article from PER to Tom Barton, the editorial page editor at the Savannah Morning News, offering it up as a resource for an article he or one of the newspaper’s staff may wish to write (or that I could write) about Tomochichi in the context of the growing bridge-renaming debate. Later that day I received his reply requesting an article of 600-700 words, roughly a tenth of my journal article. So I would get my chance after all to share my knowledge and enthusiasm for this remarkable Native American and the equally remarkable history of commemorating him in Savannah — and to dispel the Gordon Monument “desecration” myth! Mr. Barton published my article, “Georgia’s ‘Co-Founder’ Tomochichi: Rising from obscurity,” on March 3, generously devoting to it about three-quarters of the Viewpoints page, the same page that hosted an article three weeks earlier by Stan Deaton, a local historian, who evidently started the bridge renaming debate by advocating it be renamed in honour of Oglethorpe.
Due to some technicality, the Georgia State Legislature cannot accept a bill for the renaming of the Talmadge Bridge until January 2014. In the meantime, I can only hope that the local tour operators read the newspaper.
The department Careers Survey for the calendar year 2012 includes 99 positions listings, up from the 55 listings in 2011. The uptick was first noted in the mid-year data and a solid gain is now evident. The number of listings matches the total for 2010, then in decline from 144 in 2009, and 164 in 2008. Prior to the recent decline, the number of listings has historically ranged from about 160 to 200 per year. Although further gains are anticipated, the number of permanent, full-time listings may not reach pre-2009 numbers due to an increase in temporary and contractual positions listings. For more detail, click the Career tab above.
Mida creek is one of many tidal inlets that form a common geographical feature of the East African coastline, but unlike most, it widened out into a large shallow bay before emptying into the Indian Ocean. I stopped my jeep at a small village along the shoreline and approached an elderly man sitting near a smoldering fire pit ringed by a dozen small fish drying on sticks.
“Kuna magofu karibu hapa?” I asked in my limited Swahili, although I already knew the answer to my query as to whether there were any ancient ruins nearby. “Ndiyo” was all I understood of his answer, but his affirmative response was all I needed to hear to negotiate his price to take me to them. It was certainly his lucky day as well as mine, since undoubtedly I would pay him more than he would make during an entire day of fishing.
Without delay we set out in his small dhow, joined by a young boy with a long mangrove pole which he used to push into the murky bottom of the creek to drive the boat forward, making a gentle splashing sound as we glided through the stagnant waters of the bay. As we entered the channel his pole lost the bottom, at which time the boatman hoisted a triangular canvas sail up the mast to catch a barely perceptible ocean breeze, which then pulled us slowly towards an island in the middle of the tidal bay. Before long we were facing the dense wall of mangrove trees which lined the island’s shore. Gliding along, the boatman found an opening where he beached the dhow, allowing us to disembark into shallow waters and make our way onto the island’s sandy shore.
At first the loose sandy soil supported only fan-palms and scrub brush, but further inland the island became more overgrown with the dense lowland forest typical of the tropical climate of the central coast of Kenya. Tall trees hung with vines shaded the thorny underbrush which stuck to my clothes as we pushed on. An encounter with a coiled puff-adder, his brown mottled skin barely visible against the sandy soil, hindered our progress only temporarily, causing a small detour from the path inland.
Soon we ended at a small clearing where my guide stopped and announced “magofu” as he pulled away a clump of brush, exposing the overgrown remains of a paneled façade of a tomb enclosure made of shaped coral blocks with a distinctive column rising from the central face. All its original plaster surface had eroded away and the coral underneath had weathered to a bluish-gray consistency, with a greenish moss clinging to the sharp edges and flattened surfaces. The ruin was one of a cluster of similar structures which formed a line of monumental tombs that at one time were placed near or within a local settlement. No remains of houses or other structures had survived; most likely they were made of mud, timber and thatch which would have long weathered away in the course of the six hundred years since the Swahili people built and prayed at these monumental tombs.
Historically the Swahili occupied the narrow strip of coastal lands along the coast of East Africa stretching from southern Somalia to Mozambique, establishing themselves on offshore islands or near tidal creeks along the shoreline. For over a thousand years, they had been at the crossroads of trade and cultural exchange between the people of southern Arabia, Persia and India and those of the African continent, resulting in significant cultural and architectural influences. With the adoption of Islam new building types were introduced, one of the most notable being that of monumental tombs which became widespread during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The simplest tomb structures were modest rectangular enclosures, bounded by four low walls. They could vary in size and scale, and are sometimes found as large enclosures located along the qibla side of a mosque, most likely built to accommodate multiple burials. Often tomb enclosures were made more conspicuous and imposing through the addition of stepped corners or through the decoration of eastern façade with rectangular panels created by the patterned placement of carved coral blocks to create a series of recessed surfaces. Commonly some form of superstructure was added to the upper wall of the eastern façade, making them more readily visible and calling attention to their presence within the settlement. This often consisted of a square or rounded slap of masonry, which could be left plain or decorated with carved calligraphic patterns, and on rare occasions even bear the name of the person presumably buried within the tomb.
Yet the most distinctive and unusual feature of many Swahili medieval tombs was the addition of a tall column-like structure, forming a characteristic building type along the East African coast referred to as pillar tombs. These pillars come in many sizes and shapes, from rounded, square, multisided or fluted and rose to various heights above the top of the eastern façade of the tomb enclosure. The remains of possibly the tallest example can be found at Mambrui on the central Kenya coast, and is believed to have been as tall as 15 meters in height. These pillars, and sometimes parts of the surrounding enclosure walls, were often decorated with inset porcelain or other glazed ceramic bowls imported from such distant lands as southern Arabia, Persia and even as far as China, increasing their aesthetic appeal with the addition of color which contrasts with the brilliant white plaster surfaces, forming a distinctive decorative tradition unique to the medieval East African coast.
Although more orthodox Islamic beliefs largely argue against such practices, the construction of monumental tombs are commonly found throughout the medieval Islamic world. By the 13th century, widespread popular Islamic customs involving the honoring of the graves of holy men and descendants of the prophet became a common practice throughout the Islamic world, with the belief that those buried within could function as intermediaries between God and ordinary believers. Such tombs were considered places where the baraka, or spiritual power, of the deceased still radiated from the grave after death, and which could be accessed through visitation and prayer at these special sites. Along the medieval East African coast, monumental tombs such as these were visited by pilgrims and local residents where the burning of incense and the offering of food would take place in the belief that one could gain favors through such rituals; a practice which continues to a certain degree until the present day. Some tombs included arched openings on the eastern façade which may well have helped facilitated the placement of offerings and act as a focal point of prayer at the site.
Their placement as focal points and public spaces within the settlement may reflect a distinctively East African context which may go back to pre-Islamic settlement forms. Likewise their frequent association with domestic structures in both their design and their placement, may represents a continuation of traditional African practices and beliefs related to the spirits of the ancestors.
Swahili medieval tombs represent a unique and enigmatic funerary tradition, the origins of which are largely unknown. These ancient tombs remain to this day as hidden reminders of Africa’s distinctive and diverse architectural heritage, which is generally little known and not well documented by traditional architectural historians.
For a more in depth examination of this distinctive building type, see Thomas R. Gensheimer, “Monumental Tombs of the Medieval Swahili Coast”, Buildings and Landscapes: the Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, vol. 19, no. 1, Spring 2012, pp.107-114. See Faculty Publications.
I recently published a journal article in the relatively new Preservation, Education and Research (PER), the journal of the National Council for Preservation Education, which began publishing in 2008. I had the pleasure of having the journal’s editor hear my conference paper presentation in October 2011 at the annual meeting of the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians (SESAH) and subsequently invite me to submit the paper to PER. “What’s PER?” I wondered and quickly discovered an exciting publication that bridged the fields of historic preservation and architectural history, among other disciplines. My satisfaction of contributing to volume 5 of PER inspired me to ponder how many other journals exist in fields closely allied with architectural history. This led to the revised use of the “Resources” page on this website, which is now dedicated to compiling a list of the professional organizations and their publications, along with independent publications, within architectural history and related fields. This is a work in progress, but already reflects a remarkably long list and the evolving nature of academia, where the traditional disciplinary boundaries appear to be melting away. I invite recommended additions.
If you are interested in digital image research, retrieval, storage, or other digi/e~options, see the great series of essays in the new Perspectives on History: The Newsmagazine of the American Historical Association 50:7 (October 2012), available at: http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2012/1210/index.cfm
I and some other ARLH faculty just had a fine SESAH—good company, stimulating papers, and a tour of real substance and discovery. I created some photostreams of the SESAH tour, as well as Athens in general (with the venue for the keynote and the reception), and some views along the highway in middle Georgia.
Please have a look and make SESAH a destination for next year–in Charlotte, SC–You can present a paper, meet fellow professionals, and have lots of fun!
ATHENS, GEORGIA: http://www.flickr.com/photos/egdrossell/sets/72157631872169225/
MIDDLE GEORGIA: http://www.flickr.com/photos/egdrossell/sets/72157631862902309/