UKNA - Urban Asia presentation series

Global Space and Local Spatiality in Premodern Kanchi, South India

Lunch lecture by Dr Emma Natalya Stein, curatorial fellow for Southeast Asian Art at the Freer|Sackler, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art, in Washington, DC.

Lunch will be provided. Registration is required.

During the eighth through thirteenth centuries, the South Indian city of Kanchi transformed from a relatively small settlement into a major urban center. In this pivotal five hundred-year period, Kanchi served as an elite courtly capital for two royal dynasties, the Pallavas and then the Cholas, who sponsored the construction of hundreds of temples that were peppered throughout the landscape. Building these temples entailed larger acts of urban planning that involved diverting water and laying roads to connect the city with the rural hinterlands, and with a wider Indian Ocean network of pilgrimage, travel, and trade. The temple, alive in the midst of physical and social change, became an entrepot with multiple functions and geomantic placement.

This paper uncovers Kanchi’s distinct sacred geography. It argues that a deeply rooted, and deeply local, sense of spatiality determined the emplacement and orientation of temples within the city limits. Kanchi’s urban logic is defined by a central road. From as early as the ninth century, temples have been positioned to face this road, which emerged in the Chola period as a space replete with symbolic meaning and also a great artery of commerce. By the year 1000, the avenue passed directly through the urban core and continued far beyond the borders of the city, positioning Kanchi as one stop along an extensive pilgrimage route. Overlaying this local, undergirding structure, the circulation of a cosmopolitan population drew the temples together, integrated them with their city, and transcended the boundaries of both sacred and urban space.

Emma Natalya Stein is curatorial fellow for Southeast Asian Art at the Freer|Sackler, the Smithsonian’s museums of Asian art, in Washington, DC. She is a specialist of sculpture and sacred architecture of South and Southeast Asia, with a primary interest in the ways in which art and landscape intersect. Emma completed her PhD in the History of Art at Yale (2017), with a doctoral thesis on the urban landscape of Kanchi, South India, that she is currently transforming into a book. She has conducted fieldwork throughout South and Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. She has worked on exhibitions and publications at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Rubin Museum, and the Freer|Sackler, and she has lectured and taught at institutions in India, Indonesia, Singapore, China, and the USA.

Photo © Emma Natalya Stein: Ekāmbaranātha Temple, Kanchi

Registration (required)

Please register via the web form provided below (before Monday 09:00 a.m. if you would like IIAS to provide lunch).