Aesthetic is an enormous component of any religion, designed to appeal to our senses. From elaborate houses of worship which appeal to our vision, fragrances that engage our sense of smell, and the widespread presence of music and other sounds, religions throughout the world employ a broad array of practices to captivate our senses.
As a deeply ocular individual, I am most fascinated with how religions produce and deploy beautiful sights, specifically the immense detail and diligence to which religious houses of worship are bestowed. This transcends time, place, and individual religions: humans have dedicated an immeasurable amount of time and resources to the creation of structures that physicalize the importance of religion in the human landscape, including such structures like temples, mosques, and churches.
Perhaps my most memorable encounter with religious architecture occurred during my trip to India several years ago. On this trip, I visited Belur, a small town in the south which is known for the Chennakeshava Temple. Construction began in 1117 CE and over the course of several generations, the temple rose into an immense complex of intricate towers, ornate statues, and beautifully carved stone. The temple, constructed to worship the god Vishnu, has survived the onslaught of time, war, and plunder.
Driving through the rural countryside, as I approached the small, unassuming village, a view of the temple came into my field of vision, dominating the center of the town.
Meandering around the sprawling temple complex, I quickly became enamored with a carving that had been ingrained in the center of the temple. The statue depicted a woman, flanked with a veil of flowers. Her arms were elegantly raised, as if captured in the midst of a dance. In her depiction, she wears an intricate skirt, with her torso and breasts exposed to nature. While I do not remember her significance or the meaning behind her presence in the temple, the intricacy of her portrayal and the attention to detail struck a chord with me. While many of the other Belur-natives ambled throughout the temple, familiarized with the myriad of beautiful architectural feats, I could not help but wander away from my family and stare at the statue, wondering how long it took to create her, what or whom she represents, and who the sculptor was that formed her.
Throughout Hinduism, the prominence of visual stimulation is epitomized in the phenomenon of darshan, in which the devotee worships the deity by laying eyes upon their physical form, depicted as a statue or icon. Not only are the devotees able to rest their eyes upon the deities, but the deities, commonly made with prominent eyes, also gaze upon the devotees, forming an intimate connection between the two parties.
This form of visual engagement with and appeal to the senses is central to Hinduism. Temples designed with care and meticulousness are common throughout India, though also throughout the world. In no other area of life have people dedicated the time and resources they have towards houses of worship, and the female figure I described above, whose name remains unknown to me, is a testament to this.
Can you recall a time when you were moved or impressed by a religious work of art, whether that be sculpture, architecture, music, or something else? What struck you about it?