ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS THAT greets your sight the moment you step inside the National Museum at Delhi is the resplendent Vigraha of Aditya. Two things happen to you simultaneously. You experience the emotional equivalent of being slapped across the face by Mike Tyson. Then you wonder what this exquisite Vigraha is doing in a museum, a place where remnants of the unrecoverable past is preserved. The rightful and original place of the Aditya Vigraha still stands majestically about 1785 kilometres from Delhi. Konark. One of the grandest among the twelve Surya-Kshetras that dotted the sacred geography of the original Bharatavarsha.
ādityāya vidmahe sahasrakiraṇāya dhīmahi
tannaḥ sūryaḥ pracodayāt ||
It is a tale of two orphans. The National Museum is a tourist spot. So is the Konark Sun Temple. People flock to both places to click photographs and “learn” theory: who built it, when it was built, how many tons of stone were used, how long it took to build it…all these questions have more or less concrete answers but the question that must actually be asked is never asked: what built it? The clearest answer to that question is in its practical dimension: imagine for a moment that the sublime Aditya Murti was in the Garbagruha (sanctum sanctorum) of its original haven, the Konark Temple. That would have made the temple a Tirtha-Kshetra, not a tourist attraction. Lakhs of Hindus would then take Vratas and undertake Padayatras to Konark akin to Tirumala, Srisailam, Kashi, Mathura, Vaishnodevi, or Rameswaram. Thus, Konark, like Khajuraho, finds it difficult to erase the sex-sculpture taint that it has acquired over the decades. A place of piety has been transformed into a lair of sculptural lust.
But Konark and its Aditya Vigraha in Delhi is merely a high-profile representation of a more deep-rooted malaise that is also breathtaking for its extensiveness. Most renowned museums in India that host these invaluable Vigrahas reflect the same malaise of cultural amnesia. One wonders what exactly prevents the powers-that-be to restore these Murtis to their original homes even after seventy-five years of independence. There are some Murtis that belong to the Gupta Era, or generally, to the pre-Islamic period. Those temples have been permanently decimated and it is next to impossible to rebuild them. However, a justified case can be made for restoring at least such Murtis and placing them inside temples of a more recent vintage instead of in a museum, which is essentially a tomb.
We can examine the issue from a more contemporary perspective as well. The merger of the Princely States in 1948-49 was based on the intrinsic premise that the new Government would also maintain local traditions, customs and other social and cultural aspects that were unique to each Princely State. We now know the casual mercilessness with which all these were slaughtered in a systematic fashion, most notably during Indira Gandhi’s regime of brutality. Whatever their other shortcomings, the Princes had undoubtedly safeguarded temples in their dominions, a total area comprising roughly forty percent of India’s geography. The “democratic” government of “independent” India took their land but butchered its culture. It was the usurpation of the vilest sort. In other words, living cultural traditions were forcibly transformed into history right before our eyes through legislation without consent.
Barring a handful of exceptions, the very notion and practical approach of what is known as “heritage conservation” as far as Sanatana heritage is concerned, needs a comprehensive overhaul. This is precisely what K.M. Munshi meant when he delineated his “flowing river” approach to the study and writing of Indian history.
The history of Indians having a common culture…flows as a running stream through time, urged forward by the momentum of certain values and ideas and must be viewed as such… without such an attempt, the past would have no message and the future no direction… THE MODERN HISTORIAN OF INDIA MUST APPROACH HER AS A LIVING ENTITY WITH A CENTRAL CONTINUOUS URGE, OF WHICH THE APPARENT LIFE IS A MERE EXPRESSION. Without such an outlook, it is impossible to understand India…
The prevalent notion, approach and practice of conserving Hindu heritage is a flagrant violation of Munshi’s philosophy because it is a mimicry of the colonial Western frameworks. The archaeological explorations of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, etc., were the explorations of extinct civilizations which can never be revived. However, the archaeological work that they undertook in India were yawningly different in its innate nature. Broadly speaking, thousands of Hindu temples and structures might have been destroyed but the civilization and knowledge systems that birthed and nurtured them were all still thriving. One of the greatest, practical demonstrations of this truth was the rebuilding of the Somanatha Temple according to its original plan and grandeur. On the contrary, you simply cannot reconstruct the ancient Greek civilisation even in its barest essentials because the knowledge systems and the people who carried it with them had vanished forever.
Unfortunately, Indian heritage-conservation experts seem to have internalized this western approach. I do not mean to apply this observation in a blanket fashion to all heritage conservation experts but there is doubtless this serious problem. A simple, common sense question suffices: why would anyone even treat a living tradition and culture as “heritage?” This once again evokes the Konark example: there is a robust and unbroken Sanatana tradition which makes it really simple to perform a punar-pratishtapana (re-consecration) ceremony of the Aditya Murti back in Konark. The aforementioned cultural amnesia is exactly what prevents it.
The Greek scholar Ioannis Poulios tangentially echoes the observations so far in a rather academic fashion:
…[there is a] discontinuity imposed by conservation between the monuments, considered to belong to the past, and the people of the present… The continuity of [the] religious tradition [of temples] is rooted in the continuity of their religious function…, the continuity of the religious community’s connection with the sites, seen in terms of the community’s physical presence in the sites and also the community’s primary role in the operation of the sites; the continuity of the process of the caring of the sites by the religious community, seen in terms of the ownership status, the management mechanisms and the maintenance practices of the sites – the community’s caring of the Temples is often referred to as “traditional” (so as to differentiate from the modern scientific-based conservation principles and practices)…THE DISCIPLINE OF HERITAGE CONSERVATION, AS IT WAS ORIGINALLY FORMED LARGELY WITHIN A WESTERN EUROPEAN WORLD AND WAS THEN TRANSFORMED IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD, CREATES DISCONTINUITY BETWEEN THE MONUMENTS…
As I never tire of repeating, the Sanatana cultural inheritance is too precious, too nuanced and too sublime to be left to democratic governments.
The sharpest contrast to this Hindu cultural amnesia is also the most effective, practical method to understand the extent of the malaise. From Bengal to Gujarat, from Delhi to Kerala, notice the hawk-like vigilance and motherlike care that the Muslim community bestows upon its historical structures. The fact that the masjid-in-disuse, the Babri mosque, was transformed into an international issue is the most high-profile proof of this vigilance. As always, the roots are in the Book which shapes and forms and informs the Muslim psyche. All over the world, wherever the sword and fire of Islam went throughout history, it was accompanied by an inseparable handmaiden: a meticulous chronicling of Islam’s triumphs. For more details on how this played out historically, refer to the three-part series linked below:
Thus, although even Muslim rulers fought among themselves in Hindustan and engaged in unceasing, internecine bloodlust, they were united in and unambiguous about the overall objective: of extending the borders of lands conquered for Islam by them. While Qutub-ud-din Aibak was generally wary of the barbarian Bakhtiyar Khalji and considered him an upstart, he still honoured Khalji as the “rising star of Islam in infidel Hindustan.” The same psyche operates behind the aforementioned vigilance of a completely useless structure like Humayun’s tomb sprawled over a huge tract of prime land in the heart of Delhi. It keeps a tight watch over Ala-ud-din Khalji’s wasteful monuments in Haus Khas. It guards the tomb of the incurable Sufi bigot Nizamuddin Aulia and gets a railway station named in his “honour.” Likewise, it elevates Shah Jahan’s profligate marbled graveyard for his wife, the Taj Mahal, as some kind of “love.” Devagiri’s original name is erased, and its Islamic vulgarization named Daulatabad and the Biwi ki Maqbarah (sic) therein is celebrated. Such examples, throughout India, are in hundreds. As the history of “independent” India shows, the Muslim community has generally been united in arm-twisting successive Governments to maintain status quo. Even as recently as in 2015, “His Excellency Dr. Mahesh Sharma, Minister of Tourism & Culture, and His Highness the Aga Khan today launched construction of a site museum at the Humayun’s Tomb Complex, one of the 25 Adarsh or “model” monuments.” More shamefully, and even more recently, some deracinated denizens in some outsourced unit of the Culture ministry put out a slick video celebrating the Qutub Minar as a "tower of victory."
All this happens because of the community’s rock-solid vigilance and a sense of ownership, which in turn, comes from a sense of fierce inner pride. Let it be said that majority of Islamic structures serve no useful function: they are either expensive and extensive graveyards or mosques or madrassas. These structures are also sites of permanent conquest. But the fact that they are so doggedly preserved is a practical proof of a zealous psyche: to the rest, these are useless, to us, these are enduring victories.
Even today, the invader keeps winning over the infidel while the infidel keeps fighting infinite loops of legal battles and exaggerating minor wins as civilizational triumphs. The daily truth stares in our face: in countless cases regarding Hindu temples, the opposing lawyers are also Hindus fighting against temples.
Meanwhile, Konark remains bereft of the Aditya Murti. Hindus walk all over the magnificent Kailasanatha Temple complex wearing shoes. And this tragic list keeps expanding.
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