ResearchAcademy Project: Hindu Temple Legends in South India

27 July 2022

Research project led by SAI researcher Ute Hüsken wants to make accessible core sources of Hindu religiosity

The Academies Programme funded by the German federal and state governments has approved the large-scale research project “Hindu Temple Legends in South India” led by Prof. Dr Ute Hüsken from the South Asia Institute (SAI) of Heidelberg University. The project focuses on mythological narratives around the South Indian temple city of Kanchipuram that have been handed down in different forms for many centuries. The project will make the texts of these temple legends accessible in the form of digital editions. The research project is based at the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities; a research unit is being set up in Pondicherry (India). The activities will begin on 1 August 2022, and are planned to involve an annual funding of 400,000 euros over a total project cycle of 16 years.

Pillars with reliefs depicting scenes from legends of the Varadaraja temple, Kanchipuram.

The temple city of Kanchipuram in the contemporary State of Tamil Nadu is one of the oldest cities in South India and is listed among the seven holy sites of Hinduism. Its significance for Hindu religiosity is substantiated in a myriad of mythological narratives. They have been handed down as written texts since the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They are, however, also reflected in temple architectures, in iconography, in inscriptions, in material culture, rituals and the oral traditions of the city. These narratives are also of central importance for the Hindu traditions as practiced today, Prof. Hüsken underlines.

The team around Prof. Hüsken consists of six researchers. Three staff members in Heidelberg work closely with three Indian colleagues, who are located at the École Française d’Extrême-Orient in Pondicherry (India). Together the two groups involved in this research project will cast their net wide to capture the different forms of tradition, record them digitally and collate them in a database. “That way we want to create a new understanding of this important cultural heritage both in its historical significance and as living practice,” says the South Asia researcher, who heads the department of Cultural and Religious History of South Asia at the SAI.

The gods approach Shiva (woodcut from a Tamil print, 1900).

The database will be based on the digital editions of those temple legends that are preserved as palm-leaf manuscripts and old prints in South Indian libraries, in the scholarly language Sanskrit and the local language Tamil. The team around Prof. Hüsken will systematise these texts, digitise them and translate them into English. They are to be retrievable from the – publicly accessible – database, together with documentation of the respective temple architecture and iconography, as well as the related rituals and oral traditions. Prof. Hüsken says, “Our goal is to preserve these important forms of Hindu cultural heritage and, at the same time, to enable new forms of analytical access.”

Ute Hüsken studied Indology, Tibetology, Burmese Studies, Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Göttingen, where she obtained her doctorate in 1996 with a thesis on the rules for the early Buddhist monastic order. In 2003 she earned her habilitation at Heidelberg University with a study of Hindu rituals. After positions as academic assistant and assistant professor at the University of Göttingen, she continued her research from 2003 to 2008 at Heidelberg University, first on the staff of a project, then as project leader at the Collaborative Research Centre 619 “Ritual dynamics”. In 2007 she was appointed full professor at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages of the University of Oslo (Norway). In 2017, Ute Hüsken returned to Ruperto Carola to take up a professorship at the South Asia Institute. Her main research fields are Buddhism, Hinduism, ritual studies, the study of festivities, and gender studies.

The research programme of the German academies of sciences and humanities – the Academies Programme – is jointly financed by the federal and state governments and promotes the discovery, preservation and awareness of cultural traditions worldwide. At present, it is the most comprehensive long-term research programme for basic research in the humanities and social sciences in the Federal Republic of Germany. With an overall budget of around 72.9 million euros, it is coordinated by the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities and currently comprises a total of 128 projects and 188 research units.

Palm leaf manuscript containing the text of a temple legend.