image of Percy Arfeen-Wegner: Transcending Boundaries: Sacred Spaces in Premodern and Early Modern Malabar, South India
PhD Defence

Percy Arfeen-Wegner: Transcending Boundaries: Sacred Spaces in Premodern and Early Modern Malabar, South India

CERES Palais, room "Ruhrpott" (4.13)

This dissertation explores the architectural heritage of Malabar, southwestern India, renowned for its rich biodiversity, vibrant culture, and historical religious pluralism. The study investigates historical traditions of building sacred spaces — temples, mosques, churches, and synagogues — from c. 13th/14th centuries to the 17th century, emphasising the convergences of architectural practices across religious divides.

While previous scholarship has acknowledged the visual parallels among these religious edifices, it has largely overlooked the historical evolution of building traditions and their intricate interplay across cultures shaping Malabar’s architectural landscape. This dissertation challenges two widely prevailing perspectives in architectural studies: first, the notion that non-Hindu religious architectures in Malabar borrowed from “Hindu” building traditions; and second, the belief that global architectural exchanges began with Portuguese influences in the 16th century, primarily evident in church architecture. These views have led to uncritical acceptance of binary oppositions such as Indic vs. non-Indic and Eastern vs. Western traditions, often oversimplifying the multifaceted evolution of architectural traditions over centuries.

This dissertation transcends such categorisations by utilising the theoretical and methodological framework of Transculturality. The framework provides a comprehensive approach to understanding cultural interactions, exchanges, and transformations across different spaces, moving beyond traditional approaches that emphasise fixed boundaries and essentialist notions of cultural identity. It enables a nuanced understanding of historical building practices and their inherent diversity, demonstrating the dynamic and transformative nature of building traditions. Furthermore, it recognises historical (dis)continuities and adaptability of traditions across religious divides, allowing for the nuanced exploration of connections, patterns, convergences, and divergences of architectural practices.

Through meticulous analysis of nearly eighty edifices, Sanskrit building treatises, and other archival sources, the dissertation situates historical building traditions within the regional socio-cultural and political context of Malabar while connecting them to the broader cultural exchanges of the Indian Ocean World. This study contributes by establishing a robust analytical framework and providing comprehensive architectural analyses that reframe architectural traditions and practices as the shared heritage of multiple cultures within a region. It enriches existing scholarship across the fields of Art and Architectural History, Archaeology, and Cultural & Religious Studies, opening up avenues for inquiry into historical architectural practices of pluralistic cultures beyond Malabar. 


Photograph of Percy Arfeen-Wegner

Percy Arfeen-Wegner

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