Visual and Material Evidence of Medieval Yoga and Yogis

Though much of the evidence for constructing the history of yoga traditions in precolonial India is to be found in Sanskrit manuscripts and texts, extensive and valuable information may be gathered from non-textual historical materials (e.g. through paintings, sculpture, temples, and epigraphy). In this talk, Seth will discuss how the textual record can be informed and complimented by the visual and material evidence in order to illumine a more detailed understanding of yoga’s past. In particular, Seth will focus on his recent fieldwork and research at Hampi in the south Indian state of Karnataka, where he has documented numerous sculpted depictions of yogīs performing highly complex non-seated āsanas from the early 1500s CE, carved across the incredible Hindu temple complexes of the medieval capital of the Vijayanagara empire. The āsanas depicted include: standing postures, inversions, twists, unique “pretzel-shaped” balancing postures, and even the use of props. Moreover, several of these sculpted images bear a marked similarity to several non-seated āsanas featured in modern postural yoga systems, and might represent some of the earliest evidence of their existence—visual, textual, or otherwise. Together, we will “read” these incredible images alongside contemporaneous paintings, travel writings, and Sanskrit texts in order to illuminate our understanding of the sort of yoga practices and yogī traditions on the ground in late-medieval south India.

Cast

Seth Powell
Speaker

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