Exploring Sacred Centers through Virtual Reality

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A digital archive with a 3D and a VR model of a Hindu sacred site, Gaya, in India allows students and researchers to experience its sacrality, rituals, and historical importance.

picture of woman looking up through VR headset
Credit: TierneyMJ / Shutterstock © 2018

The Sacred Centers in India project, a digital archive of Hindu Gaya and Buddhist Bodh Gaya, began in April 2013 at the Digital Humanities Initiative (DHi) [http://www.dhinitiative.org/]1 at Hamilton College. Through an interdisciplinary and collaborative archive, this project seeks to examine the complex historical development of these two sites. The first phase of the project, from 2013 to 2018, focused exclusively on the development of a multilayered archive of material remains housed in the twenty Hindu shrines and temples of Gaya. Equally important during this phase was to develop a 3D and a VR model for pedagogical purposes (see figure 1). The second phase will focus on completing the archive by including data from thirty-five additional shrines and temples.

VR model of Gaya
Figure 1. VR model of Gaya


Being the preeminent site for the performance of the ancestral rites since the beginning of the Common Era, the city of Gaya in the Bihar province of India is an important sacred pilgrimage center in the Hindu tradition. The city has been accorded a central place in the oldest descriptions of pilgrimage in the Hindu scriptures. Because of its sacred importance, it has attracted innumerable pilgrims from different parts of India for millennia, and their religious practices have shaped the contours of Gaya throughout that time. However, this city's complex and multilayered history has not been the object of sustained study. Previous studies have accorded primacy to the texts and scriptures, specifically Gaya-Māhātmya, and treated material remains as supplementary. Often these efforts have relied on texts to develop a framework, within which they have placed the inscriptions, sculptures, and architectural remains.

This treatment of material remains (or material culture) ignores their ability to convey an alternative and a much more complex history of the city. I conducted an archaeological survey of the temples and shrines of Gaya in 2011, which resulted in the documentation of more than fifty-five temples and shrines. After the survey, I explored new possibilities of organizing the data and contacted the director of the DHi, Janet Simons, who has been instrumental in developing this archive project over the past five years. This project adopts an interdisciplinary approach to organize and digitally curate a collected data set to pursue my research about the multilayered past of the Hindu city of Gaya. In the past five years, the DHi team and I have developed a web archive that includes a virtual reality component, a 3D model of the Vishnupada temple, a digital database, and GIS information of twenty shrines and temples of Gaya.


The first goal was to create a standardized form and format to organize the collected data in accordance with library standards. This included several steps:

  • Creating a standardized form and format for listing all data including photographs
  • Cleaning up forms and relabeling the photographs in a standardized manner
  • Organizing photographs of images, architectural materials, inscriptions, fragments, shrines, and temples in a sequential order to clarify context, their specific positions, and relationships with other remains
  • Creating a metadata2 schema on the basis of the documentation form and research questions

The foundation of any archive is a strong metadata schemata, which requires one to think carefully about different curatorial strategies.

Organizing the digital collection on an internal server with metadata and inputting that into the archive was the next step. I decided to include site descriptions, documentation forms, photographs, a 3D model of the Vishnupada temple, GIS information, and a VR model of the temple within the archive. Greg Lord, the lead design of DHi team, developed a 3D model of the Vishnupada temple in Blender, an open-source software. He based this model on the sketches/diagrams of the temple and specific photographs. In December 2014, I prepared the sketches/diagrams on the basis of accurate measurement of every part of the temple and hired a professional photographer, Saurabh Raj, to generate higher-resolution pictures of the temple. Later, Greg used the collected data for the 3D textures of the temple. By the end of spring 2015, the DHi team had developed the 3D model to an accurate scale, which provided an interactive display of both the interior and exterior of the temple and its surrounding context. Given the pedagogical goals of the project, I also decided to develop a VR model of the Vishnupada temple and its surrounding context. A contextual understanding of this temple is crucial to explain the layered development of Gaya and its shrines.

Importing the 3D temple into the popular Unity game engine made the model interactive and allowed both real-time interaction with and movement through the model. I also put in place the foundations of what later became an interactive VR experience, with a series of control scripts that allow a user to move freely through the temple and its surrounding context. Now, the 3D Vishnupada temple in Unity is enabled with full VR support through the powerful SteamVR system. This allows real-time exploration in a virtual reality space with the help of HTC Vive VR hardware. This version of the virtual experience affords free movement, head tracking, tours through preset locations, real-time day/night lighting including control over time passage, interactive zooming, and audio support for realistic sound within the experience. This version also begins to incorporate multimedia from the project archive, allowing for the display of image galleries and videos of the archive collection from directly within the VR experience, linking virtual locations to real-world research materials. I also recorded many videos of rituals, the interior and exterior parts of temple, and its context in 2014 fieldwork. All of these are integrated within the VR.

The VR model makes a location that is geographically distant from many people digitally accessible to a broad audience, specifically the scholarly community and my students, who may never visit or see the temple complex. This digital reconstruction of a 3D model and VR has also made it possible to understand the spatial arrangement of shrines in and around the Vishnupada temple and their layered development over a long period.

In the past two years, I have successfully integrated this project into my pedagogy. As shown in the pedagogy segment [http://sci.dhinitiative.org/pedagogy] of the web archive, students from my seminar course titled Death, Dying and Afterlife visited the DHi lab to experience the VR model and understand the process of digital reconstruction of the temple complex. In those visits, I discuss the 3D model to explain gradual development of the temple complex. Through the VR experience, students walk in the different parts of the temple complex to understand spatial arrangements, placement of images and sculptures, and their associated rituals. They travel to Gaya virtually and stand next to a small image shrine to see how people engage with an image. They see the rituals and also hear the mantras of the officiating priests. They also go to the sanctum of the Vishnupada temple and see how priests and patrons conduct rituals, make offerings, and engage with each other.

This firsthand experience of a geographically distant locale conveys the power and prestige of a temple and its daily importance in the life of people. These ideas are more effectively conveyed through VR in comparison to textual descriptions. This experience has inspired my students to develop creative projects including writing short story books on Gaya and its mythology, creating a replica of the Vishnu's footprint and enacting funerary (sraddha) rituals, and writing blogs on the themes of space and ritual through an analysis of images and shrines of the database. Many of these projects are available in the pedagogy section of the archive.

Future Goals

At this stage, there are two important goals for this project. The first is to complete the database for the shrines and temples of Gaya, which includes processing and inputting data of an additional thirty temples and shrines. The second goal is to develop an archive of materials from Bodh Gaya. In addition to existing temples, shrines, and images at Bodh Gaya, many objects and remains are currently housed in different museums within India and the UK. The archive will hopefully work as a virtual museum that will provide the details of images and sculptures and their specific contexts. Concurrently, I will also develop a VR model of the Mahabodhi temple of Bodh Gaya, which will make this paradigmatic Buddhist center digitally accessible to a wider audience.


  1. DHi, funded initially through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant in 2010, is a research and teaching collaboration that uses emergent technologies to promote humanities-based research, scholarship, and teaching across the liberal arts.
  2. Metadata is a spreadsheet of all of your data, which records how the information is related along with the file structure. Successful metadata will store all information in a single space to create a cohesive, easily navigated organizational structure.

Abhishek S. Amar is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Hamilton College.

© 2018 Abhishek S. Amar. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 4.0 International License.