Curley on Ray, 'Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850'

Sugata Ray
David Curley

Sugata Ray. Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019. 264 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74537-4.

Reviewed by David Curley (Western Washington University) Published on H-Asia (March, 2020) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

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Curley on Ray, Climate Change

Sugata Ray’s brilliant book, Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, proposes new questions for the discipline of art history. Using concepts and methods taken from material culture studies as well as from art history, Ray proposes reciprocal relations among the earth’s changing environment, ecological transformations brought about by the ways humans have lived upon the land and sea, and “theology, art practice, and an aesthetics of the natural world” (p. 20). As a case study, Ray has chosen the region of Braj in north India, first, because of repeated, disastrous droughts and famines in north India that seem to have been particularly severe from the mid-sixteenth century to the early eighteenth century, and second, because in the same period Gaudiya Vaishnavas made the whole region of Braj a sacred landscape.

In the 1540s, about a decade earlier than the first severe recorded famine of the Little Ice Age, Gaudiya Vaishnava scholars residing in Braj began producing theologies of what Barbara Holdrege has called Krishna’s “mesocosmic embodiment” in the locality as a whole. The whole region of Braj, the Yamuna River, Govardhan Hill, sacred pools and groves, and indeed every living being in Braj were considered parts of the “manifest body” of Krishna.[1] Ray’s thesis is that a theology of Krishna’s embodiment in the land of Braj, together with climatic, political, and economic changes to the environment, led to changes in devotional disciplines of Vaishnava pilgrims in Braj, and to changes in visual practices of art and architecture.

One should note at the outset, however, that his project is not limited to artistic and architectural changes in Braj that were related to climate changes of the Little Ice Age. Rather, Ray has undertaken a case study in a more comprehensive discipline of “geoaesthetics” as an “approach within art history.” Ray describes the subject matter of geoaesthetics expansively: “artistic and architectural practices that were shaped through human interactions with geographical, geological, botanical, zoological, mineralogical, astronomical and climatic formations” (p. 22).

Ray also describes his subject matter as an “interweaving,” “interplay,” or “interconnectedness” between “nature and culture,” or “the natural world and human life,” or “matter and life,” or “the human and the environmental” (pp. 20, 23, 57-9), suggesting practical goals and a dimension of environmental ethics in his geoaesthetics. In a coda we are encouraged to compare a miniature titled “Krishna’s Water Sport” from the Isarda Bhāgavata Purāṇa, ca. 1560-70 (p. 26, plate 1.1) with an installation called “The Water Diviner,” 2008, by Sheba Chhachhi (pp. 185, 186, plates C.11 and C.12). The former shows the whole, beautiful living environment of the sacred Yamuna River. In in the second we see a dimly lit room filled with bundles and shelves of old books, and a small light box that displays Radha and her companions playing in the Yamuna River, but they are surrounded and obscured by the river’s floating burden of garbage, and Krishna cannot be seen. Disconsolate birds and a deer look on from an otherwise lifeless shore.

One of Ray’s strategies of mediation between “nature” and “culture” (p. 58) is to develop a dialectical relation between more direct, sensual experiences of environmental “matter” made sacred as Krishna’s living body, and more abstract cultural representations of bodies of water and features of the landscape. Early works of Gaudiya Vaishnava theology, archival records of property claims, temple inscriptions, and accounts of travelers and pilgrims are just some of his sources, as are records of droughts and famines; together they help provide contexts for an “eco art history” (p. 20). Ray’s most important primary sources, however, are visual artifacts that remain in Braj. He analyzes them with careful attention to detail, and by wide-ranging and insightful comparisons to other works. One hundred and fifteen figures, almost all of which are full-color photographs, provide invaluable visual evidence to support his text.

Ray’s arguments are dense, and complex, and always worth pondering. I can only suggest the range of connections Ray makes in each of his four chapters.

With obvious relevance to climate change, chapter 1 takes up the theme of a liturgical practice of “seeing the flowing [Yamuna] river” (p. 29). Ray links this theme to works of art, and to acts of redistributive piety and charity during two prolonged droughts and famines in north India, the first beginning in 1554, and the second in 1614. He explores a new way of painting the Yamuna River in Vaishnava art to show its living environment of plants, animals, and humans. He links this artistic practice to a new liturgical practice of “seeing” the flowing water of the Yamuna River, rather than bathing in or imbibing its water (pp. 13, 29). He links architectural symbols of water to conspicuous acts of piety and charity by emperors Akbar and Jahangir. Finally, he notes imperial Mughal influence on the aesthetics of the soaring Sati Burj temple, constructed on the Yamuna River at Vishram Ghat in Mathura in 1570 (p. 32, plate 1.3), and on the Torana built by Bir Singh Dev of Orcha at the same site (p. 50, plate 1.17). Both afforded architectural perspectives on the flowing Yamuna River, and the Torana has a motif of the “undulation of waves” (p. 52), and was designed as a balance for the weighing ceremony of Bir Singh Dev against immense charitable gifts of gold.

Chapter 2 turns to the topic of land, and continues a contrast between more direct, sensual experiences of Govardhan Hill, considered a part of Krishna’s manifest body, and more abstract relations to the mountain, for example, as it was represented in icons or landscapes, and when it was disputed as legal property. Ray first describes a series of disputes in the 1570s that resulted in Akbar’s acknowledging the claim of Pushtimarg Vaishnavas to Govardhan Hill, and the forced removal of Gauriya Vaishnavas. Their expulsion was followed by the construction of a compensatory temple, the largest and most important work of architecture ever constructed by Gaudiya Vaishnavas in Braj.

This temple is the Govind Dev temple in Vrindavan, begun in 1565 by Bhagwandas of Amber, and completed in 1590 by his son, Raja Man Singh I (p. 73, plate 2.7). It is located on a small hill in the town of Vrindavan, a hill that Gaudiya theologians claimed is the yogapitha where Krishna and Radha were united in love. For Gaudiya Vaishanvas the site was the center of the “lotus mandala” of Braj and the most sacred site in all of Braj (p. 89). Ray argues that within the temple an icon of Govardhan Hill personified as Krishna, together with a fully envisioned landscape of the mountain he is holding, move Govardhan Hill to a liminal presence outside the temple’s cave-like sanctum, and transform the mountain’s sanctity to a liminal and subordinate status, compared to the temple’s sanctum and its images of Krishna and Radha (p. 79, plate 2.13). Finally, he notes that the material from which the icon was carved, the same red quartzite stone that forms Govardhan Hill, still is thought to be material having “vital energy” and capable of communicating with devotees (pp. 91, 95), quite apart from any artistic use.

Chapter 3 turns to the more prosperous eighteenth century, and takes up the theme of forests. This chapter explores an imagined space for the meetings of Radha and Krishna that became important in Braj along with the contemporary clearing of actual “forests”—semi-arid grasslands, scrub forest, and savannahs. The imagined space was called a kunja, a “dense bower overgrown with creepers and vines” (p. 102). The term kunja in turn inspired a new kind of garden, a new kind of Vaishnava temple, and new ways for pilgrims to experience Radha’s search for Krishna in hidden groves. The first example of this new kind of temple in Braj is the Gangamohan Kunj, a temple in Vrindavan built in the 1750s by Ganga Rani, the wife of Suraj Mal, ruler of the kingdom of Bharatpur (pp. 104, 106, plates 3.5, 3.6). For this temple, and later temples of this type, as pilgrims crossed courtyards before entering the sanctum, they would have brushed against carefully pruned arches in dense clusters of jasmine vines and other flowering bushes associated with Krishna. Thus, Ray concludes, a “corporeal aesthetics” of intimacy between humans and plants was given “tactile and sensorial immediacy” (p. 117). Enclosed by walls, kunjas were a place where “the devotee could viscerally feel Radha’s encounter with the sentient plants of a poetic Braj” (pp. 130-1).

Finally, chapter 4 takes up the theme of ether, the element that connects all other elements over vast distances, and the medium of sound and music. In this chapter Ray turns to art and architecture of the nineteenth century, when the hegemony of British rule was at its peak, and when globally modern technologies and novel forms of colonial subjectivity and masculine identity threatened the “theophanic praxis of immanence” or “geoaesthetics of immanence” of Gaudiya Vaishnavas (p. 174). Chapter 4 explores the first nineteenth-century Vaishnava temple in Braj that borrowed from neoclassical motifs of British colonial architecture. The temple is the Shahji temple (p. 134, plate 4.1), built in Vrindavan in 1868 by the patronage of Shah Kundanlal. Kundanlal was a Vaishnava merchant from Lucknow and a close associate of the last monarch of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, who was deposed by the British in 1856.

Ray first explores motifs of neoclassical architecture that might have reminded viewers of imperial British “domination” (p. 136), but he notes their juxtaposition with other motifs that suggest “entanglements and encounters on a global scale,” and a strategy of colonial “cosmopolitanism” (pp. 139, 151) modeled on the architecture of precolonial Lucknow. Music and other arts and pleasures are another theme. Inside on the walls of the central pavilion one sees pietra dura images of female figures: musicians, a woman painting a scene, and a woman feeding pigeons, all in Lucknow dress. Kundanlal has included in this group an image of himself playing a drum; he is dressed as a man, but wears the ornaments of a woman. Thus, playing the role of a sakhi, one of Radha’s friends, who experience the sweetest form of love for Krishna, is still a third theme. High above the ground floor of the temple, and in the past clearly visible from the central pavilion, an image of Wajid Ali Shah enacts the character of a dancing woman, as he customarily had done in celebrations of the rasa-lila before his forced exile from Lucknow. Ray argues that as Kundanlal’s temple resisted imperial domination, it also resisted a new “hyper-masculine” ideal for colonial male subjects. Instead the Shahji temple represents “the male body as a demasculinized site of spiritual aesthetics” (p. 166).

Important themes in Ray’s book call to mind contemporary issues of climate change, and conceptual and ethical problems that have been caused by conceiving human “culture” as separate from and in control of “nature” (p. 58). By opening art history to questions about how humans have thought about the earth, and how art and religion have been shaped by human changes and natural disruptions to the earth, Ray’s brilliant book guides us to new problems, and to new ways of thinking about art in relation to the “three ecologies” of “land, human subjectivity, and social relations.”[2]


[1]. Barbara A. Holdrege, Bhakti and Embodiment: Fashioning Divine Bodies and Devotional Bodies in Krsna Bhakti (New York: Routledge, 2015), 29, 76-79, cited by Ray, 8n26.

[2]. Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies, trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton (London: Bloomsbury, 2000 [1989]), 19-20, 23-25, cited by Ray, 22n82.

Citation: David Curley. Review of Ray, Sugata, Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. March, 2020. URL:

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