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A Sanctified Panopticon by Aarti Dhingra

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The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry

If it wasn’t a competition entry I would begin this article the way fairy tales begin, “Far far away, In the lands of mist and snow, …” to present the place I want to talk about, and I’m sure Aesop, Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen would validate that this is the very place they pictured while they wrote their enchanted classics. Ladakh is a cold desert at an altitude ranging from 10,000 to 15,000 feet on the Indian Earth. It is also called the ‘moon land’ owing to its vast dreamy barrenness. However, it is not just these geographical idiosyncrasies that constitute the nature of this remote mystical place, but also the the buddhist grace that lingers over this abode, its local inhabitants, and their humble and sustainable ways of living. Likir is a quaint village in the north-eastern part of Ladakh, with a meagre population density of five people per square kilometre. It is famous for a monastery ten centuries old, which rests picturesquely atop a small mountain, higher than the rest of the village valley. The urban form of the village is comprised of scattered houses in valleys, with their individual farms and patches of land surrounding them. A revered stream flows in a meandering path, sharing its molten glacier water, which is the only source of water for the whole village. The architecture of the monastery reveals characteristics of the people who dwell in it. The natural needs and requirements have shaped up the materials and planning and as a result what we have now is a naturally grown organic cluster of needs over time. It is a timeline of thoughts, necessities, a collection of hopes, and reveals the changes in lifestyle and an evolution of thinking over time. It has grown like a living organism, making extra room for newer necessities and providing shelter to each one that seeks. The monastery sits high up, with a twenty five feet tall statue of the Maitreya Buddha, watching everybody down below. The people of Likir seem to have a moral responsibility towards the gaze of the Buddha, and hence feel accountable for preserving the nature and resources for their future generations. The belief in life after death also acts as a constant reminder to lead their life in a conscientious and sustainable way. It is as if they are being supervised by the Buddha himself, and by virtue of its orientation and height, the monastery has obtained a moral command over the behaviour of the villagers and a homogeneous ‘Gaze’ can be felt in the village.

Jacquez Lacan (1901-1981) describes Gaze as the anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed and is being observed. He argues that the psychological effect of the gaze is that the subject loses a degree of autonomy upon realising that he or she is a visible object. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 -1980) claimed that in solitude, one rules the space around himself, but when his environment gets intruded upon by another person, he has to share it with this Other in a sense that he becomes part of the frame of vision of the Other. Sartre tells us that it does not necessarily have to be an actual eye that puts one to shame but it could also be the rustling of leaves, the sound of footsteps, or anything that a subject suddenly believes to be an unexpected presence of somebody.This ‘somebody’ was termed as the ‘Other’ by Sartre. The Other is the one behind the gaze. In Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, the Other is the watchman present (or not) inside the watch tower. It is this Others’ Gaze that disciplines the inmate of the cell. The central tower of the Panopticon is such that, Michel Foucault explains, it never betrays the presence of the observer inside the tower. Foucault describes Panopticism as an efficient method to exercise power by individualizing the inmates and disindividualising power. The unseen observer has been accorded supreme control. Panopticism addresses self-regulation under systems of surveillance. This refers to how people modify their behaviour under the belief that they are constantly being watched even if they cannot directly see who or what is watching them. The crux here is the idea of being seen without being able to see.

As one nears the Likir monastery, there is an apparent benefaction felt in the atmosphere. All of a sudden one finds himself in a humble and self-conscious state of mind. Suddenly the huge monastery becomes the irrefutable Other, and like Sartre said aptly that in the presence of the Other, one is bound to pass judgement upon oneself as an object being viewed. Privacy no longer exists and an act of delinquency is reduced to an act of shame under the Other’s gaze. Hereupon, facing the divine monastery, the traveller is exhilarated and experiences the panoptic anxiety of being watched from somewhere, but has no clue of whether he/she is actually being gazed at or not. The space itself consists of an inherent Gaze. The windows are dark voids in the front façade, from the outside; however when one is present inside the monastery, the field of view is stupendous.

Recalling Foucault, this behaviour-changing effect the monastery has on the ‘inmate’, is very similar to that of the Panopticon. If we compare the elements of the building, The Panoptic observatory juxtaposes with the dark windows and organic and unidentifiable terraces, where an observer may or may not be present. And the cells on the circumference where the prisoners are kept under surveillance juxtapose with the lower level and the entrance road where the traveller is under observation. It is an un-escapable un- avoidable characteristic in this space. It is a classic example of an urban panopticon. The set boundaries in the manifested landscape translate to boundaries of behaviour. The prisoner in the Panoptic setting can be viewed analogously to a devotee in a social setting.

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