Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


From Sacred Groves to Architectural Paradigms: The Forest in Greek and Indian Imagination

November, 1994

Presented at a meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians, Philadelphia, November 1994.


The forest is a place of awe; it is awesome, awe-striking and awful. It is through these realizations I will try to rekindle the idea of the forest in Greek and Indian imagination in order to consider concepts of sacred space.


With an enduring presence in human thought, the space of the forest – the deep forest, the sacred grove, and the clearing – led to diverse experiences and conceptualizations. Those experiences were foundational not only for the earliest speculations on sacred space, but also for metaphysical thoughts and fabrications of architectural paradigms. Giambattista Vico writes: “This was the order of human institutions: first, the forests, after the huts, then the villages, next the cities, and finally the academies.” Vitruvius attributes the origin of society in a forest fire.


The forest was an overwhelming phenomenon in the ancient environment. Mountains and forests, and their significations, defined the earth, and were not yet converted to abstractions. It was in the “naturalness” of the mountains and forests that the sacred was articulated, and a religious-mythological-cosmological system produced. The mountains are still here, but forests have progressively dwindled, making the forest an idea, thus making it doubly significant.


In architectural contexts, the forest has appeared and reappeared in many ways. For example, the construction of temples has been foreshadowed by the awesome power of sacred groves in any ancient cultures. Temples and sanctuaries have been interpreted as the “lithification” of forest space. Cathedrals have been seen as representing the forest. As we proceed backwards, architecture becomes increasingly indistinguishable from other phenomenal experiences. We may have to sort through mythological ideas and religious rituals as the foundation of architecture is intertwined with those practices. My talk is about this nexus of pre-architecture and architecture.


Before proceeding to the temple precinct, I would like to enter the depth of the forest. The forest is many things as far as human experiences are concerned – it is a space for asylum, exile, enlightenment, wildness, ascetic renunciation and erotic indulgence.


In a primary sense, the forest is wilderness, the domain of things afar and set apart from human society. These ideas cohere strongly around the ancient Greek goddess Artemis. If any deity represents best what lies outside humanity, and what is truly uncultivated nature, it is Artemis. She is beyond regular reason and control, and enigmatically, both a virgin and goddess of sexual power. She is also the pre-cultivation aspect of the great goddess. Earlier to agriculture, the forest is a space that both provided and threatened. It is this tension-filled aspect that characterizes Artemis, or Diana, as she was known to the Romans.


The forest is a space for the outcast and the outlawed. Roman historian Tacitus mentions the grove of the Asylum, where Romulus wishing to gather foreigners into his new state made a sanctuary. At the famous sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, the high priest, called the king of the grove, was a fugitive slave who always obtained the position by killing his predecessor. While in any sacred grove, the breaking of a branch was sacrilege, at that sanctuary a runaway slave was allowed to break a branch before he engaged in a combat with the incumbent priest.


As a site for metamorphosis, the forest appears in fictional forms, as in fairy tales, when the protagonist goes off into the forest seeking adventure meeting dragons and other antisocial creatures. This can happen in a mythic sense when the Pandava brothers in the epic Mahabharata, and Rama and Sita in the Ramayana live in the forest a life of exile but fulfilment. The forest can become an actual space for “spiritual transformation” as it happened for the Buddha and many other sages in ancient India.


Invoking an oppositional orientation, the forest harbours both asceticism and eroticism. Indian tradition is replete with the figure of the hermit and the world-renouncer, who in almost all occasions takes up abode in the forest. It is in the forest that various Vedic texts were composed; a key Upanisadic text was named after the forest. The art historian Ananda Coomaraswamy argues that the hermit’s hut in the forest provided the constructional and notional paradigm for built temples. The hut in the forest epitomized the secluded hermit, who in turn served as the approximation of the divine. In Indic traditions, the hut in the forest and the body of the hermit coalesced into a singular connotation of the sacred.


The forest also is the site of “play,” a space of tryst and divine revelry. This can be seen in a variety of forms in Greek and Indian traditions: in the charming sexual encounter between Radha and Krishna in Vrindavana, the frenzied sexuality of the Maenads in Dionysism, and the eroticism of the women in the cult of Adonis. Indo-European mythologies are filled with sexual encounters, chases, and consummations in the forest. A host of godly figures participate in this theophanic sexuality: Siva, Krishna, Dionysos, Adonis. The gods are not alone. The gods are often accompanied or emulated by various forest spirits; in India by yaksas and gandharvas, and in Greece by satyrs, centaurs, nymphs, pans, and silenus.


This array of attributes of the forest may be summed up in the idea of the “other.” Etymology supports this. The Latin foris, meaning “outside,” out of doors, provides a perceptual polarity between the city and the forest. Being constructed and as a pure human inscription, the city is artificial; it is “invented.” The forest is found, where significances reveal themselves to human experience – the nature of the forest spatiality is ‘discovered,’ so to speak. This oppositional nature is also confirmed by the Roman dual term domi-fori, in which domi implied in-dwelling and fori “outside.” The spatial meaning of domus as home and forum as a public space is also derived from that duality. Another term for sacred grove, lucus, also implied “outside in the field.”


Vana, the forest in Sanskrit, does not imply the explicit inside-outside polarity of the Roman domi-fori. For ancient Indians, unlike the Greeks, the forest was not really an “other;” it was an “another,” an another existential space that could be inhabited. In India, the idea of another is codified in the doctrine of four asramas of life: being a student, householder (grhysta), forest-dweller (vanaprastha), and renouncer, in which vana, the forest, is considered the space of a necessary stage. The horizon of the “world” includes both the city and the forest.


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