Sacred Spaces and Objects:
The Visual, Material, and Tangible
George Pati

The sacred spaces of India provide a place for divine-human interaction. In Hindu traditions, sacred spaces include not only temples but also other settings for rituals and performances, as well as transformative spaces such as pilgrimage sites, known as tīrthasthāna, thresholds, fords for crossing over. “Crossing over” is an apt description of how the objects and rituals of these spaces connect the mundane to divine, the inner to the outer. We can also understand this as the place of connection between the inner self (ātman) and the outer, greater self (paramātman). In Hindu temples, the main shrine (vimāna) represents the form of God, the macrocosm, and the human in the temple precinct, the microcosm. When a devotee worships at the temple, union between the devotee and deity takes place. This union connects the inner and outer spaces of ātman and paramātman, respectively, which is extremely important in Hinduism and useful in looking at Buddhist and Sikh spaces as well.

Temples became prominent in the religious landscape of India with the emergence of the bhakti devotional tradition during the medieval period. The bhakti mārga, or bhakti yoga, emphasizes binding oneself to the path of devotion by surrendering at God’s feet, śaraṇāgatī, and receiving God’s grace. In these devotional traditions, the three main Hindu deities—Śiva, Viṣṇu, and Devī—each have many forms and names. For devotees of each deity, the respective deity remains supreme as they conceive of its transcendence and immanence. Such devotional attitude abounds in a devotee as one embarks on a pilgrimage trip to these spaces of worship in India and beyond.

“Sacred Spaces and Objects,” captures these inner-outer connections and the sacredness of such spaces in photographs taken during fieldwork in January 2014 in Varanasi and Bodhgayā in North India where Buddha received his enlightenment, in February 2014 in Tañjāvūr and Kāñcīpuram in South India where the devotional traditions of Hinduism emerged between the fourth and ninth centuries, and at a local temple in Crown Point, Indiana. The exhibit discusses both architecture and the objects used for pūjā, the act of worship in Hinduism. These photographs and objects provide viewers with a glimpse of the lived world of those functioning in these spaces and using these objects, and they connect the viewer with the photographs and the objects.

This exhibition highlights the expressive character of tangible sacred spaces and objects, illustrating how devotion is embodied in these traditions. This rich material culture is essential to the practice and heritage of South Asian religions. More importantly, it gives us a glimpse into the lived experiences of those practicing these traditions and encourages us to explore the world of meanings of the “other” represented by these spaces and objects of South Asian religious traditions, and to engage with the “other” with respect.


George Pati is the Surjit S. Patheja Chair in World Religions and Ethics at Valparaiso University.

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