CHENNAI, INDIA, May 12, 2021 (Atlas Obscura): Vaidyanatha Selvanathan Sthapati, 57, says he grew up in the pattarai (workshop) of his uncle, who taught him to be curious and observant, as nature was the inspiration for art and the work their family did. Before his death in 2011, Selvanathan’s uncle, Vaidyanatha Ganapathi Sthapati, was a prominent temple architect. Today, it is Selvanathan who supervises the work, and maintains a family tradition that has lasted a millennium: He is the descendant of Kunjaramallan Rajaraja Perunthachchan, the 11th century master builder, or sthapati, whose work includes the UNESCO-listed Brihadisvara, or Big Temple, in Thanjavur, South India. Selvanathan represents the 38th generation in this unbroken line of sthapati. His work now, in the 21st century, is as much about restoring and preserving the past as it is about designing new temples.

For millennia, Hindu temples have been built by teams of sthapatis and shilpis, or sculptors, organized into guilds, with skills traditionally handed down from father to son. The entire process of temple design and construction—and renovation—is dictated by ancient principles of design rooted in Vedic traditions, most prominently Vastu Shastra, which govern the location, orientation, and layout of a building. Much of the practical knowledge is passed from one generation to the next via oral tradition. The original texts, says Selvanathan, “had evolved over thousands of years. Many have survived, though some were lost in the ravages of time.” Selvanathan and his team have built or restored temples in England, Singapore, Malaysia, Fiji, Canada, and the United States, including the construction of the Iraivan Temple on Kauai, Hawaii. For that project, hundreds of pieces of white granite, some as heavy as 12,000 pounds, were shipped across the ocean from where they were quarried and carved by hand in South India. The entire temple was assembled without machine tools, according to Selvanathan.

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