Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


The Architecture of Asceticism

November, 2010

Introduction from the book, The Hermit’s Hut: Architecture and Asceticism in India (University of Hawaii Press, 2013), written 2010 (partially reproduced here).


He looks at his house with (the words): ‘Give us a house, O Fathers!’

- Gobila Gṛhya Sūtra


I refuse a roof.

- Dhutaṇga practitioner



With the declaration, “Architect, you shall not build your house again,” Gautama Siddhārtha announces his arrival at the critical destination called nirvāṇa, and acquires the qualities of a mahāsamana, a super-ascetic. Siddhārtha, likening his ascetically charged body to a building, describes the inconceivable and ineffable moment of becoming the Buddha.  In that pairing between body and building, architecture is positioned for a portentous destiny in Buddhist imagination. This is made evident when the Buddha provides a cataclysmic scenario for the momentous turn of the building-body. “The roof rafters are shattered,” he announces, and “the roof is destroyed.” The metaphor, while narrating the engineering of the ascetic body, is also an evidence of the deeply imbricated significance of architecture in ascetic discourse and practices. The image of a building has already come to haunt the imagination of asceticism.


Six years earlier, the Buddha, then known as Siddhārtha, had awakened in his magnificent palace in Kapilavāstu, and like so many others before him motivated by a similar compulsion, stole in the middle of the night to leave home and family, the core of dwelling. Thus ensues the operatic process of renunciation and asceticism. Searching for answers to some burning existential questions and looking for pathways for a liberation from suffering as he saw them, Siddhārtha wandered through forests and glades, living under trees or in some basic shelters, and visiting the āśramas of sages and hermits. While the ascetic Siddhārtha will eventually find his climactic answer, as conveyed in the narrative of the destroyed house-body, and go on to propound a world-turning philosophy and disciplined institution of monastic practices, he, as well as his disciples and followers after him, will continue to be vexed by the fundament that he began with, the matter of dwelling.


After having renounced house and home, even the Buddha will require some form of lodging. So will his followers. Dwelling for the super-ascetic will include living under a tree, in a cave, or a simple shelter. Each of these conditions, prosaic as may seem, will be occasions for a continuous debate and struggle in various ascetic circles on the nature of dwelling, its minimal requirements and implications in the life of an ascetic. Some of these deliberations, continuing for well hundreds of years after the Buddha, will form the core of ritual and regulatory texts for monks. Prescribed with an ideal life of wandering and alms-collecting, the earliest group of Buddhist monks encountered the exigency of dwelling during the rainy seasons of north India. Stalling the practice of wandering, the monks were urged to take up temporary residence for the wet period. The matter of temporary dwellings in the rain led to the formation of stable and permanent monasteries.  Even the Buddha is assigned an address and lodging. He may be moving from city to city, teaching and preaching, but he stayed in particular compounds in each city and lived in a dedicated building. From what we know, such buildings were simple and unassuming compared to elaborate houses in the city, but the house of the Buddha, known as the gandhakuṭī or the fragrant hut, came to receive a focused attention from monks and laypeople, and remains a source of didactic and philosophical reflection in Buddhist asceticism.


It appears that the matter of dwelling, addressed as a house or hut, is a critical factor in the trajectory of the ascetic project. Or to see it in another way, the narratives of asceticism are deeply etched by the profile of a hut.  In the Mahāyāna story of Vimalakīrti, a transformation of a mansion emblematizes the profound and subtle notions around “emptiness.” The story relates how the ascetically empowered merchant Vimalakīrti, upon learning the impending arrival of a large emissary from the Buddha to his mansion-like house, divests it of all things, that is, makes it empty so that it can hold multitudes. Vimalakīrti is most likely an apocryphal figure, and so is the narrative of the transformation of the house, but in the Vimalakīrti Nirdeśa Sūtra, the story of the magical mutation of the house from fullness to emptiness becomes a discourse on ascetic prerogatives and motivations. Little was anticipated how the story of a well-to-do man of the world transforming his mansion in the city to a plain, empty house, might impact the fabrication of dwelling. Vimalakīrti’s emptied house is neither a hut nor a hovel, but it imbues all such structures with a resolute significance that belongs to a very particular human type, the hermit, the ascetic, or the recluse.


With the gandhakuṭī or Vimalakīrti’s emptied house, we are already deep in ascetic territory where the hut comes to represent the inner nature of the practice. We can never know when the hut – the dwelling – comes into focus in the ascetic consciousness, and becomes an object of intense deliberation and narrativization for the first time. Before it becomes codified in doctrines and practices, and subsequently gets subsumed in the building of monasteries, the hut-dwelling is part of an existential experience. Food and clothing are also two critical, existential categories that define the parameter and practice of asceticism but neither receives the wide range of discursive and conceptual treatment as the plain hut. The ascetic hut becomes critical because it is no mere object of reflection but a metonym of that reflection; the hut stands for how asceticism structures its intentions and practices.


All these experiences began earlier, in the historical and sometimes fabulous period in time when people left home and society for a journey into the disciplined world of asceticism. Buildings belonging to hermits and ascetics have actually appeared in the horizon since the first human walked out of home to reconfigure one’s relationship to the world, and understanding of oneself. Since then, these simple structures – huts, hovels, shacks and other forms of reductive structures – have played a critical, yet paradoxical, role in cultural imagination. While asceticism is understood as a practice of renunciation and reduction, it also involves quite intrinsically an architectural project with immediate implications of spatial rootedness and material embellishment. In fact, the ascetic hut, despite an inherent image of plainness and reduction, is implicated in the development of grand and monumental architecture. The magisterial cathedrals of Gothic Europe, the exquisite temples and gardens of Buddhist Japan, and the elaborate Hindu temples of India, all have evolved, in one way or another, from a meditation on reductive dwellings. The minimal, ascetic hut seems to be, rather intriguingly, a source for an amplified architecture.


The essays in this book investigate how a hut belonging to the ascetic structures the world of elaboration. The geographical, historical, and phenomenological site of the study is ancient India, and its traditions of asceticism especially in the practices of Buddhism. With pragmatic practices and ideological deliberations of asceticism centered on the hut, as noted earlier, the structure remains as a repository of significances. However, in the historiography of Indian architecture, the ascetic hut has for most part vanished from the horizon; there is little discussion of possible originary connections between elaborate temples and this mundane, nondescript structure. Far less discussed is how that connection may have augmented venerated architectural ideas or anthropological paradigms. The lacuna seems troubling when there is sufficient evidence that a simple building such as the hut formed the morphology and character of monumental architecture; it can be shown that an unremarkable space such as the ascetic dwelling informed the anthropological and symbolic content of elaborate buildings. The act of disappearance of the hut also indicates that it has been absorbed in an increasingly refined architectural scheme or diffused in a world of ideas and imagination. With the presence of the hut confined to allusions and fragments in architectural, literary and ritual repositories, the recovery of the plan and profile of that hut requires a process akin to an archaeological excavation.


[partial text]