REVIEWS Hermits Huts

Kazi K. Ashraf. The Hermit's Hut: Architecture and Asceticism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013.

Ashraf's book reworks his doctoral dissertation under Joseph Rykwert, who pioneered the study of hermit huts. The Hermit's Hut addresses not only architecture but philosophy, religion, culture, and history. The book is a thorough exploration of key eremitical concepts and practices at the center of the hermit dwelling, especially in Buddhist India of the 3rd century CE.

The book's chapters provide thematic packages. The narrative is flexible, usefully weaving context and concepts in and out of the topic of the moment, building a spiral structure that cumulates insights and information. The strength of the book is in connecting eremitism and asceticism. Readers are assured of a richer under- standing of a frequently overlooked subject.

As the author states in the Introduction:

This book focuses on the ascetic body-hut as the site and instrument of demonstrating an existentially reorganized life. Despite the intimacy indicated between the ascetic and his dwelling, this study also takes into account the lack of a clear, symmetric relation between the two. The inseparability between the hermit and his dwelling are both problematic and challenging. With a domain broader than that of architectural history, the narrative of the hermit's hut encompasses phenomenological descriptions, religious ideas, yogic practices, sociological formation, metaphysical constructs, and fabrication of home and homelessness.

The book is organized thusly:

Introduction: The Architecture of Asceticism
1. Asceticism and Architecture
2. Home in the Ascetic Imagination
3. The Buddha's House
4. The Two Houses: Body and Building in the Ascetic Imagination
5. Asceticism and the Primitive Hut
6. A Hut with  Many Meanings
7. The End of Architecture

Notes, glossary, and bibliography provide invaluable resources. Numerous black and white illustrations highlight huts, stupas, caves, and statuary of Vedic and Buddhist images to supplement the text. What follows are summaries of important ideas and observations, chapter by chapter.


The author opens with the emblematic declaration of the enlightened Gautama (in the Dhammapada) that the rafters are shattered, the roof collapsed, that the house shall not be rebuilt. Thus the equation of body or self with building or dwelling place is an established theme in Buddhism. The practitioner will dwell in a temporary transient place: the ascetic's hut or hermit's hut, "no mere object of reflection but a metonym of that reflection; the hut stands for how asceticism structures its intentions and practices."

Earliest Vedic religious fire rituals revolved around open-air altars. The first structures were rathas or vimanas, shrines based on huts, as noted by historians such as Albert Foucher and Anada Coomaraswamy. The hut predates the shrine and temple; it is more fundamental. The same architectural phenomenon occurs in Buddhism, specifically from the 3rd century BCE, when images increasingly "depict the hut with the dweller inside or in front of it, often in a forest setting," ... with evolution of the relationship of hut and occupant into codified meaning at literary, visual, and ideational levels. Ashraf compares the evolution of the Japanese tea hut ( chashitsu) and Mohandas Ghandi's Wardhu hut to establish cross-cultural functions of huts and their spiritual identity.

Chapter 1.

The Greek root word for asceticism means labor, and corresponds with the India srama, which refers to intensive practices such as meditation and yoga. The first Indian ascetics appear in late Vedic literary sources as hermits, shamans, and yogin. A distinction between ascetics and renouncers arises, the latter as wanderers, monks, and dissenters. The two groups inevitably overlap, as both separate from conventional Brahmanic ritual to concentrate on self-potential. In turn,

the ascetic-renunciatory lifeworld manifests as a polarization between two human types: the householder, or ghapati, and the hermit-renouncer, or vaneprasthi.

The householders' civilized and socialized living space in an urban setting contrasts with the hermits' uncivilized and unsocialized wild space in the forest. The Vedic and Brahmanic values of ritual sacrifice, procreation, and study, contrast with Buddhist and Jain renunciation, which feature celibacy, homelessness, wandering, and mendicancy. The forest comes to represent what the author calls a "spatial laboratory" for the new practices and human potentials for "otherness," a heterotopia. And the chief dwelling place in the forest is the hut or kuti.

The kuti "was a simple, independent structure, either circular or rectangular, constructed of forest materials such as large leaves or woven reeds." Not unlike peasant huts familiar to Brahmanic and Buddhist practitioners alike, 3rd-century CE art depicts the kuti and its occupant to represent concepts, not mere dwellings. In earlier Buddhist literature, trees served as dwellings for dhutanga ascetics, with the distinctive characteristic of being roofless. Caves were sanctioned as rain shelters, and once ascribed to the Buddha's approval were popularized as cave dwellings, eventually as monasteries. Finally, the vihara or building that houses more than one monk evolved from the original kuti as the simple residence for a solitary monk. Other larger structures followed.

Early ascetics held only four necessities: food, clothing, medicine, and a dwelling-place, the last originally a tree, as mentioned. Gautama having rejected extreme asceticism, the four necessities established an important definitional place in complementing Buddhist practice. But traditional dwellings of forests, trees, mountains, caves, charnal grounds, and open ground, were influential, leaving the fourth necessity ambiguous.

Chapter 2.

"Home is both the foundation and, literally, the point of departure for the ascetic project," notes the author. The Pali term pabbaya and the Sanskrit pariv rajaka refer to the aspirant's going forth and renouncing a key identifier: home. Home is not just an edifice but an entire "conceptualized and imagined entity structured by and structuring, on the one hand, an individual's social, economic, and communal conditions, and, on the other hand, the mythological, psychological, and oneiric dimensions." The Great Departure and related tellings form pivotal events in Siddhartha's life story and affect future hermits following his path, with their ascetic dwellings becoming both the affirmation and abnegation of the concept of home. Where Vedic tradition set fire ritual within the domestic dwelling itself, reinforcing domestic, social, and urban values (grhya), house, marriage, and sacred fire identified together a symbolic "being-in-the-world." While some forest-dwellers brought fire and wife to forest places, ascetics directly rejected grhya, asserting a path away from home to homelessness, exemplified by wandering. The Samannaphala Sutta asserts that the ascetic is free to achieve the perfected life of detachment and mental purity precisely because of his homelessness.

To pause in wandering to accept or find rainy season shelter evolved the Buddhist sangha by locating it at a fixed point, at least for a while. The same monks returning to the same dwelling is the monastery prototype. But "ascetic homelessness implies a peripatetic existence;" the "bipolar flux" is a paradox, for the hermit's dwelling is conceived as neither home nor a place -- perhaps an ambivalence as much as a paradox.

Renunciation and asceticism thus seem to be caught in a web of disengagement and meditation. What is then seen as a paradox of ascetic dwelling is perhaps best described as an osmosis rather than an antagonism between two parallel systems ...

Chapter 3.

This chapter extends the concept of home specifically to the Buddhist tradition, taken as an ascetic paragon, product of "the sustained religious, sociological, and philosophical imagination."

The house is not literal but extends architectural purpose, identifying the ascetic's body with the building. Dwellings of the historical Buddha are not described until Jetavana, with iconography beginning in the 3rd century BCE. Vedic sources have described pre-Buddhist ascetics and their dwellings, but in a formulaic manner.

The tree as dwelling, Buddhism's first hermit dwelling, evolves from the yaksa of Vedic sources, basically a tree spirit. The Vinaya texts assert that the sramana should dwell at the base of a tree. The Buddha's post-enlightenment wanderings show him frequenting gardens, then hermit huts at Jetavana. These huts architecturally define the physical center of later elaborations of monastical architecture. The arched structure representing the hut roof is the caitya, which came to be depicted within a large building or stupa.

The Buddha's personal dwelling came to be called gandha kuti or the fragrant hut, due to flowers and perfumes offered to him, depicted in the iconography of the monastic pavilion. The image also represents the absent Buddha, hence the "house of absence," in turn inspiring votive stupas (harmika), the design of which is that of "world tree." This design parallels the usnisa or cranial protrusion seen in statues of the Buddha. The usnisa is an iconographic device showing the enlightened status of the one depicted.

Chapter 4.

The house or hut, closely identified with the body, is, upon enlightenment, antimasariram, the "last house" or "last hut." Hence identification of hut size relates to the body. Iconography of the Buddha touching the earth links body and nature, a framing of the body. Ashraf returns to a detailed discussion of the caitya in architecture and hut framings of the seated Buddha, with artists challenged by the superasceticism of their subject. A discussion of the usnisa as "sign of a superman" is aptly illustrated. The author points to the Vedic image of external fire transferred to Buddhist imagery as internal fire. This section provides a very useful treatment of all its subjects.

Chapter 5.

Renunciation and asceticism is construed primitiveness, not primitivism. The foundational renunciation disengages from society and civilization, whereas primitivism describes a primordial order from which a social and cultural evolution progresses. The images of the fasting Siddhartha, the hair-shorn, and the ragged Siddharta, embrace the Indic ascetic's primitiveness, which divests itself of "modern consternation about power and the hegemonic relationships between societal groups." Romanticized primitivism is not "actualizeable" asceticism; naturally primitive peoples are not self-conscious. The hut then is transcendent as well as outwardly primitive. Ashraf's hierarchy of of hermit huts, therefore, might be presented thusly:

Robinson Crusoe
Henry David Thoreau
Kamo no Chomei

As Ashraf succinctly puts it:

The hermit hut is ... a dwelling at the social fringe and presents its undeniable and contrived coarseness as a badge of honor. Like other figures on the social fringe, the hermit-ascetic defines a certain kind of cultivated estrangement and alienation but as prerequisite for a larger goal. The ascetic hut is inhabited by a very particular dweller who, not unlike the escapee or renegade, is more or less a solitary and self-absorbed creature but operating from and within a more defined and clearer sense of ideology, intellection, and purpose. The ascetic has a project: the plan to transform himself.

The primitive appearance of the Vedic-era kesin or wild man is echoed by 4th-century Brahmanical Vakhanasas, Jaina digambara, and the famous Gymnosophists or naked philosophers contemporary with Alexander the Great, of which Diogenes the Cynic is a Western counterpart.

Ascetic primitivism intends "the unmediated, unoriginated, or unconditional." Not contrived or ritualized, it abandons, divests, and simplifies. The Brahmanic ascetic-renouncers appear regularly in the Ramayana, and Mahabharata, reaffirming the primitive appearance of the earliest ascetics. Primitivism, however, is an intermediary point in a trajectory, a preliminary and provisional stage, a necessary mediation in the move from a cultivated, socialized life to an ascetic one.

Into this context is found the hut. There is no hermit's hut without the hermit. Ashraf describes the Lomas Rishi of the Ajivakas ascetics as an instance of dwelling and symbol, incorporating the architecture and themes of the hut into elaborate cave dwelling and sculpture. One hut is the simple kuti, the other a complex caitya, both within interconnected caves. Other architectural examples are Guntupalli, Kondone, and Ajanta.

Chapter 6.

This chapter is a deeper exploration of the hut as "metonym of the ascetic discourse on the dwelling." The "polysemous" hut is the last hut, the primitive and transient. Buddhism reduced the ritualized significance of the hut, shifting to the Brahamnic and yogic, from extrahuman to superhuman (inahapurusa), or even (as Ashraf quotes Robinson Jeffers), the "transhuman." The hut from dwelling to embodiment of self, is epitomized in the Japanese chanoyu or tea ritual within a cosmic or cosmicized hut. The appearance of temples and shrines is a late valorization of the progression of "interiorization of sacrifice" and the hut as mirror to the ascetic. The hut further deterritorialized from forest to imaginary mountain.

Chapter 7.

This chapter summarizes the hut as final dwelling for the hermit-ascetic. The paradox of the dwelling is the paradox of the body. Renunciation primitivizes the hut but disciplines the self. Indeed, asceticism is itself a paradox, both affirming a rigorous path and acknowledging transience. As such, asceticism is a cultural inevitability, Ashraf asserts, not merely an existential option. Where Indic thought is more ambitiously a goal of transformation, Buddhist thought is a dialogic structure acknowledging constructed binaries and works with the cultured tensions, thoughtfully and mindfully. The ascetic work appears at times "precultural, postcultural, anticultural, or extracultural," notes Ashraf, quoting one of his many sources.

The first hut is redolent with loss, the last hut is emptied because it only exists when the hermit is present, present on the project. Buddhist asceticism addresses both loss and anticipation, not as ideality but experientially and as actualizable. The first and last huts are distinct but complementary. The first hut is "a discourse on origins," while the last hut presents both a termination and a beginning.


The author approaches a complex and nuanced subject with attentive detail, explanation, context, and solid familiarity with the rich literature and iconography relevant to a grand historical theme. The discussion is thorough and insights clearly presented, while offering a helpful overview of issues and controversies. Above method, however, Ashraf has performed an invaluable service for anyone interested in eremitism, offering numerous insights enriching our knowledge, understanding, and appreciation.