G.T. has this little 48-pound piece of stone that measures 9 by 10 by 8¾ inches, and she thinks it might be related to a Hindu spiritual practice.
She bought it at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Goleta, and no one there knew much about its owner or origin. Indeed, it does have something to do with Hindu spiritual practice, and the tradition goes back longer than anyone can know.
Specifically, G.T.’s altar is a 19th-century sandstone niche, originally a form that was designed as part of a temple facade as a niche for an oil lamp or candle, from the early days (8th-century). The form is called a Gokhas, and it is still a part of life today.
If the home of 2022 is a modern Hindu home, and the devotees are traditional, they will have one of these carved out of stone to insert into the wall in the garden to hold a candle or incense cone. Thus, these stone boxes are shrines.
They repeat a square carving motif above the central arch in the style called Mudejar that goes back to the 8th century. G.T.’s is a 19th-century carved stone niche Rajasthani altar. And I would say the value is $500-$800 today.
You may ask, “Why is a light that shines for a god or goddess set in stone?”
From the earliest times, gods and goddesses of the Hindu tradition have been venerated in caves, which are stone, and have been called “the navels of the world.” Because the caves were lit by light from candles in the early days, gods and goddesses were venerated in confined, dimly lit sanctuaries. The small altars or tiny stone shrines that were built into the garden wall even as late as the 19th or 20th century were carved in the tradition of the ancient cave altars originally found in the natural cave environment.
The architecture of veneration in the earliest centuries was carved in stone deep in the earth in caves. These cave surfaces were scooped out and carved from a rock face, and it is a mystery how that great feat was accomplished.
Devotees of the later centuries — 18th, 19th and 20th — carved these “mini” shrines or ordered them to be carved out of the rocks used to build a dwelling or a garden wall. They were usually carved in sandstone. They were meant to be a remembrance of the cave carvings of ancient days.
In the most limited of funding for such a shrine, such as in a lower/middle class home, a homeowner might carve a shrine out of the stone blocks used to build the dwelling.
Why should this small altar be in the shape of a doorway or a niche, not more than 12 inches tall, for a humble dwelling wall?
That is because doorways and niches are important because they are openings.
On G.T.’s little altar that was once set into a garden wall, you will notice little squares carved in the “roof” of the altar, or the top of the structure that was once a niche. This is an imitation of the stone rendering of the ancient wooden structure of an altar going back 2,000 years
This is an echo of the ancient screens called “jalis” in those sanctuaries meant to filter out the harsh light of the sun, and to bring a quiet and solemn atmosphere to the interior where a god or goddess was expected to be venerated. This screen was designed of interlacing squares, some letting light through some not.
To filter the light is an important devotional tool, a stage setting meant to focus the attention on the other world, not the bright light of the world of now.
This attention was meant to echo the attention that the ancient carvers gave when they carved ancient figures and ancient altars of stone by firelight.
The way to convey this thought, this understanding of the division between the darkest matter (stone) and light, is by a depiction of perforated stone, which we see in G.T.’s little altar.
Some material objects take us back years to a tradition that is echoed in the objects, and G.T.’s altar is one of those remarkable objects. It’s such a treat to have seen it and such a great find to have found it, G.T.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Saturdays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.