Sringeri's Dynamic History

A three hour car journey up the mountains from the coastal town of Udupi, just north of the port of Mangalore in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka, Sringeri (pronounced "Shrin-gehri") is home to just over 4,000 people. Being a destination for many outsiders, however, the town welcomes thousands of additional visitors each year. Educated Hindus commonly revere Sringeri's matha (pronounced “mutt”), the town's famous center for Brahmin study and worship, for its long-standing association with the lineage of the influential eighth century CE Brahmin ascetic and scholar Shankara, whom most consider to be the single most important systematizer of the philosophical tradition known as Advaita Vedanta. Sringeri tradition claims that Shankara appointed one of his successors to settle at there, which began a line of succession that continues up to the present day; the head teacher of Sringeri is still designated "Shankaracarya"—"the acarya (teacher) Shankara." In addition, numerous pilgrims who know little about Shankara come to view the famous icon of Sharadamba, goddess of learning, enshrined in a massive stone temple.

Yet the town reveals considerably more about India's dynamic history and contemporary life than its association with Shankara's lineage and Sharadamba's temple suggests. Sringeri is a microcosm vividly exhibiting the pluralism and social complexity of modern India, rooted in millennia-old traditions. The town reveals on a human scale the way that each new layer of India’s history coalesces with that which preceded it.

For example, the main temple complex, which sits above the Tunga river at the edge of the town, displays perhaps the most visible mark of this layered history. The majestic, three-tiered, fourteenth century CE Vidya Shankara temple, dedicated to the supreme God Shiva, is named after the Brahmin acarya around whose tomb (samadhi) the foundations are said to have been laid. The scholar Hermann Kulke points out, however, that before the temple’s construction, Jain culture was predominant at Sringeri. A large Jain temple, now hidden behind a watch keeper's shop on Sringeri’s main road, seems to have been built in the eleventh century CE. Furthermore, the icon of the much smaller shrine immediately adjacent to the Vidya Shankara temple may have once represented a Jain saint, whose image was converted for Hindu worship when the much larger fourteenth century structure was built to overshadow it. No doubt the Hindu renaissance sponsored by the kings of the nearby Vijayanagara empire had much to do with the decline of Jain influence at Sringeri. Along with sponsoring the building of the majestic Vidya Shankara temple, the Vijayanagara kings donated land to bring Brahmins to Sringeri, granting them many surrounding acres of lucrative areca and coconut palm groves easily irrigated by water from the nearby river. Sringeri's Vijayanagara sponsors represented the last major Hindu empire to resist the conquest of India by Muslim rulers, and their vision of a unified Hindu culture significantly influenced modern notions of "Hinduism" as a single tradition. It is most likely during this period that Shankara became increasingly popular as an upholder of Hindu culture, his fame spreading beyond the enclaves of orthodox Brahmin tradition.

By the sixteenth century, Muslim sultans had ended Vijayanagara’s rule, but they dealt amicably with the town Brahmins, as hinted by their current amicable relations with today’s Shringeri Muslims. More significant in many ways was the coming of British colonizers, followed by politicians and social reformers who took over rule after India's independence in 1947; they brought to Shringeri not only distinctive styles of architecture but also modern banks, schools and trade networks. This most recent period of development culminated with access to electric power and modern forms of transportation and media that have popularized Shringeri more broadly, turning it into a major pilgrimage center.

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Contents of the Archive

The primary aim of this on-line archive is to document Sringeri's broader history, both ancient and modern, integrating text ethnographic descriptions, and analyses and excerpts from historical sources with photographs, videos, and audio excerpts from translated interviews. The contributors to the archive pursue this goal in order, first, to make more widely accessible research on Sringeri, not only for scholars but also for students of archeology, anthropology, history, sociology, and religious studies; secondly, to encourage others to add to this research; and finally, to serve as a model for scholars researching other locales, who might use a similar format to showcase their work. All who have recorded observations of Sringeri through audio-visual media and/or written description are invited to contribute to the archive; researchers planning work at Sringeri may wish to conduct their work with contribution to the archive in mind.

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