Mapping the Chorten’s of Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh
In this paper, we are computationally mapping one class of religious structures in Spiti to better understand ways in which the religious geography of the Buddhist Western Himalayan regions of India are changing. The spatial distribution of religious structures contains unexplored interconnections and invisible patterns, which computational spatial analysis makes apparent. The main aim of this paper is to develop a historical perspective on Chortens, categorize them based on purpose, chronology, and the style of architecture, and then to analyze what their unexplored interconnections and patterns suggest is happening in the region.
Spiti Valley is a cold desert situated in the northeast part of Himachal Pradesh and was historically part of Guge or Western Tibet. The people of Spiti are Buddhists. Chorten (stupa) is a religious structure, associated with Tibetan Buddhism, which embodies various religious functions. According to Tibetan Buddhism, there are eight different types of Chorten, signifying the eight major significant events in the life of Buddha. These Chortens were built at eight different places to house the relics after his death. Most of the Chorten are replications of these eight different types with minute changes in architectural patterns and religious significance.
During the fieldwork carried out in Spiti Valley as part of an ICSSR sponsored project on “Change and Continuity in Spiti”, we conducted a census of all the religious sites of 25 selected villages through a questionnaire, interviews with people, and visited each of these sites to get their location, images, and other information. For this particular study, we have created a dataset of 131 Chorten from the information of religious sites collected during the fieldwork. We have categorized all the Chorten by comparing them with the architectural patterns of the eighttraditional Tibetian Buddhist Stupas. We have built a web server according to the client-server architecture using open-source QGIS desktop software by adopting solutions that facilitate interoperability between different systems that need to communicate with each other on the Web. By mapping the Chorten along with OpenStreetMap layers on the web server, we are identifying interconnections and invisible patterns in their distribution, analyzing change and continuity in the traditional pattern of their distribution, understanding new spatial cultures and urbanization in these landscapes. We hope to show how the changing pattern of social, economic, religious life in Spiti can be plotted through the analysis of Chortens.
Keywords: Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, QGIS, Spatial Analysis, Religious Geography