Faculty member's book tells story of sacred city through architecture

Madhuri Desai publishes 'Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu City'

Madhuri Desai, associate professor of art history and Asian studies, recently published "Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu City." Credit: Stephanie Swindle / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Madhuri Desai, associate professor of art history and Asian studies at Penn State, recently published the book "Banaras Reconstructed: Architecture and Sacred Space in a Hindu City" (University of Washington Press, 2017).

“After several years or research and writing, it feels wonderful to hold the book in my hand,” said Desai. “Having hardback and paperback editions will allow a wider range of accessibility and circulation for students and scholars alike. There will also be an International version published for the Indian market.”

The book addresses Banaras, the Hindu center of northern India, and its evolution through architecture and urbanism. A venerated religious site and destination for tourists and pilgrims, Desai grapples with the nature of the city as a built environment and a cultural space. Although the city is described as the oldest living city in the world, its architecture largely dates from after the 16th century, which suggests that the city was rebuilt.

“The city is recreated during centuries of Indo-Islamic rule and exchange, and the architecture is a product of these confluences and tensions between communities and religions,” explained Desai. “It’s the story of a city — a complex story, but it is one that needs to be told.”

Desai incorporates pilgrimage texts, contemporary histories, architecture, and imagery into her thorough history of Banaras. Unpacking the motivation behind this architectural revivalism, she reveals the connection between architecture and identity.

“There is this idea of the timelessness of non-Western art and architecture. Although it has been questioned and proven untrue, it hasn’t been replaced with a newer history,” noted Desai. “It takes time to tell a story with rigor and detail, and I see myself contributing to that larger history with this book as well as my current project.”

Desai’s new project, “Temple Architecture and Archaic Knowledge in 17th Century South Asia,” expands her approach from one city to multiple sites and cities. After several years of travel and a sabbatical in northern India, her research on major temple projects, particularly Brindavan Govind Dev, aims to answer questions about the roles of patrons, designers, locations and the faithful through religious architecture.

“My work is evolving,” acknowledged Desai. “I will always return to Banaras, but the project has made me think more broadly about South Asian religious architecture and cultural exchange.”

For more information about "Banaras Reconstructed," visit the University of Washington Press online.

Last Updated June 20, 2017