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Vedic Places of Worship: A Study of Their Layout and Spatial Organisation – Projet FNS (2011-2014)

«Aménagements cultuels et organisation spatiale des lieux de culte védique»


Harvard University Professor Michael Witzel has noticed, in an article published in 1995, that a systematic comparison between the textual data of the Vedic corpus and the findings of Indian archaeology has never been attempted. A little more than 15 years after Witzel’s remark, this state of affairs did not undergo significant changes, despite some spectacular advances in archaeology and philology. One of the reasons for this situation partly lies in the absence of a common framework allowing these two fields of knowledge to communicate easily and with a reasonable degree of clarity. Such a framework may exist in the form of taxonomical systems known as "seriations" by the archaeologists. Such seriations have been devised and used by Prof. Thierry Luginbühl of the IASA to trace religious components in Celtic and Gallo-Roman excavations.

Prior to the start of the project, Dr François Voegeli made trials at applying Prof. Luginbühl's methodology to samples of Vedic ritual texts. This particularly ancient Indian religious corpus – made of works known as Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas and Kalpasūtras – is unique in that it allows to reconstitute every single component of a ritual: the people involved, their actions, their prayers and songs, the implements they use, the structures they build and the layout of the place where they move. As these first experiments were quite successful, Prof. Luginbühl and Dr Voegeli devised the current interdisciplinary research project, which received a three years funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF).

The general aim of our project is to extract seriations from the minute descriptions of rituals found in the Vedic ritual texts and to compare these seriations with the archaeological findings made in India since the 1950s.

The Vedic system of ritual is, however, exceedingly complex. It comprises mandatory and optional sacrifices, long and brief rites, ceremonies made exclusively for the royalty, etc. Some of the sacrifices described by the literary sources were, moreover, sophisticated priestly exercises not intended for the common folk, or they were meant to be realised only occasionally, for special purposes. We must therefore find some criterion ensuring that we will be studying sizeable rituals that were frequently accomplished during Indian history and which are, therefore, liable to have left enduring remains in the archaeological landscape. One way to come to this result is to check for attestations of Vedic rituals in the Indian epigraphic corpus.

The first stage of our project thus consists of a review of the widest possible selection of Indian epigraphical documents, looking for mentions of Vedic rituals. This phase is now finished. It led to interesting, and even surprising, results which are summarized in the following document.

We have now started the second stage of our project, which consists in extracting seriations out of the description made by Vedic ritualistic texts. The rituals our epigraphic survey led us to choose as best candidates for seriation are aśvamedha, vājapeya and pauṇḍarīka. All three are soma sacrifices with close links to kingship – the first in the list being the famous Indian horse sacrifice.

As they are drawn out of prescriptive texts, the seriations we can come up to will represent a morphological and functional ideal preserved from the onslaughts of time. We do not expect possible remains of the rituals selected for this study to tally faultlessly with the data extracted from the texts. The extent to which our seriations could help in identifying traces of Vedic rituals in the Indian soil will be the subject of the third and last part of our project.

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