What Happens when a Hindu Temple is Destroyed
In the previous part of this series, we saw how Hindu temples show a remarkable sense of unbroken continuity and cultural unity in that they are still a living memory. The majestic Somanatha Devalaya that was rebuilt in 1951 is a superb testimony to this inherited knowledge-heritage, traditions, and rituals which were preserved intact even after hundreds of years of its repeated destruction and alien rule of India. Similarly, many of the ancient and medieval temple towns that have also survived brutal shocks but still continue to thrive also echo the same. Art forms such as Natyamelas, Harikata, Yakshagana, Kudiyattam, and Kathakali are the direct offshoots of this same, sprawling Devalaya Ecosystem. For centuries, these art forms became the immensely popular and excellent vehicles for transmitting a towering, beautiful, and sublime culture.
A Tale of Continuing Temple Destruction
It was this enduring and prosperous temple ecosystem that the first wave of alien Muslim armies encountered when they knocked on the doors of Bharatavarsha. The incisive historian and scholar, Sita Ram Goel describes[i] this encounter vividly:
On the eve of Islamic invasions, the cradle of Hindu culture was honeycombed with temples and monasteries, in many shapes and sizes. The same sources inform us that many more temples and monasteries continued to come up in places where the Islamic invasion had yet to reach or from where it was forced to retire for some time by the rallying of Hindu resistance. Hindus were great temple builders because their pantheon was prolific in Gods and Goddesses and their society rich in schools and sects, each with its own way of worship. But by the time we come to the end of the invasion, we find that almost all these Hindu places of worship had either disappeared or were left in different stages of ruination. Most of the sacred sites had come to be occupied by a variety of Muslim monuments-masjids and îdgãhs (mosques), dargãhs and ziãrats (shrines), mazãrs and maqbaras (tombs), madrasas and maktabs (seminaries), takiyãs and qabristãns (graveyards). [Emphasis added]
From the earliest destructions of Hindu temples that roughly began with the Martanda-Surya Devalaya at Moolasthana (today’s Multan in Pakistan), the subsequent eight hundred years of India’s history is in many ways just one long tale of relentless, ceaseless and large-scale temple destructions. Including the present time especially in parts of West Bengal that have almost completely become Islamised.
Sita Ram Goel has also meticulously documented this tragic record in his two-volume classic, “Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them.” These volumes cite seventy primary source histories and estimate that about three thousand temples have been destroyed across the vast geography of Bharatavarsha including what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan. The volumes conclude that this number[ii] is just the “tip of the iceberg.” It is estimated that the actual figure is at least ten times this number.
Of the prominent temples destroyed, only the Shiva Devalaya at Somanath, Gujarat has been fully rebuilt and restored. And among Kashi, Mathura, and Ayodhya, only Mathura has been partially recovered and restored notwithstanding the splendid Krishna Janmasthana Temple that stands on the site today.
The design and intent behind the destruction of these sites most sacred to Hindus was clear: to shake the foundations of the faith of Hindus in their three most revered deities viz, Shiva (Kashi and Somanatha), Rama (Ayodhya), and Krishna (Mathura).
Umari Sun Temple
This protracted history is also witness to several of these temples being rebuilt. But that is only by way of an aftermath of sorts. What should also be examined are the associated and ancillary destructions that occurred as a consequence of this primary destruction of the physical structure of temples. As also the widespread and permanent erasure of physical and cultural memory. The immediate examples that come to mind is the condition of the entire region of the erstwhile Greater India (Brihadbharata), and in recent memory, of Undivided India. Both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, little if anything remains of its Dharmic past.
The aforementioned Moolasthana, after it was repeatedly attacked and razed to the ground, lost its original identity when the Ismaili ruler replaced the Sun Temple with a mosque in the late 10th century. The Persian scholar Al Beruni visited Moolasthana in the 11th century and reported that it was no longer being visited by Hindu pilgrims because the Sun Temple lay in ruins without being rebuilt. This loss was accompanied by an irreversible loss of all its unique local customs, traditions, texts, art forms, apparel, technical and other skills, cuisine, utsavas and so on. Needless to say, Moolasthana’s case played out in exactly the same fashion in temples destroyed in every single region even in what is known as India today. We can cite a few representative examples in this essay.
Ummatur is today a small village about 170 kilometres by road from Bangalore. It was once the capital of the Ummatur king, a feudatory of the Vijayanagara Empire. Ummatur is also the place from where Sri Krishnadevaraya began his campaign of Digvijaya or imperial conquest. To commemorate his trail of victory, Krishnadevaraya later endowed the Bhujangeswara and the Ranganatha Swamy Temples with land grants and other bounties. The Ranganatha Swamy temple has his bust engraved on one of its pillars. Both these temples, now under the state government’s control are in a state of unforgivable disrepair.
Barring the head of its local post office, hardly anybody in the village is aware of or interested in the historical significance[iii] of their own place. This official also doubles up as the Purohita of the Ranganatha Swamy temple.
The next example is a superb eighth or ninth century Surya Temple built by the Pratihara rulers in Umari in the Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh. In keeping with tradition, this Nagara-style temple faces east and is built on an elevated platform, and the plan comprises a Garbha Girha, Antarala and a Maha Mantapa. It is adorned with fine sculptures of Ganesha, Kartikeya, Vishnu, Sapta Matrikas, the ten avataras of Vishnu, and various figures of Surya among others.
When the present author visited it several years ago, it was largely inaccessible and its Moola Murti was reported to be stolen. It was hardly maintained and I am unaware of its present condition.
Vir Singh Bundela was a powerful, able and valiant Bundela Rajput king who ruled the kingdom of Orchha between 1605—27 CE. He threw an open challenge to the might of Akbar who was at the height of his power by attacking and murdering Abul Fazl at Antri. Vir Singh was also a prolific temple builder and commissioned numerous temples in the Brajmandal region that comprises today’s Mathura and Vrindavan. He was also the patron of the Bhakti Saint Keshavdas.
Today, not much of Vir Singh Bundela’s legacy remains but the tomb of Abul Fazl has been preserved intact.
The badly-ruined Neelakantha Temple in Rajorgarh in the Alwar district of Rajasthan showcases the prowess of the Pratihara architecture. An inscription dated 961 CE recovered by the Archaeological Survey of India shows that it was built by one Maharajadhiraja Mathanadeva, a Pratihara feudatory. In its present condition, notes[iv] the ASI record, it is a
…three-shrined complex of which the central one facing west and dedicated to Siva-linga, has preserved its full elevation including sikhara, while the lateral shrines are now bereft of their superstructures. The three shrines are pancharatha and share a common rangamandapa, supported on four central pillars and preceded by a porch. The temple has a pitha which supports a vedibandha with niched figures. The jangha of the central shrine bears figures of Narasimha (north), Harihararka (east) and Tripurantaka (south) on the bhadra niches and those of surasundaris and dikpalas on other projections. The rangamandapa has a concentric ceiling of coffered cusps of the padmasila type while all the pillars are laden with figural ornaments of surasundaris and gandharvas in multiple zones.
However, today it remains largely inaccessible, atop a steep mountain with hardly any directions to locate it easily. When the present author visited it, it was home to animals and their urine and faeces, and found that priceless sculptures were carelessly strewn around, and it was difficult to clearly make out the details of the sculptures. Its heritage has all but been permanently lost.
Indeed, one can add any number of such temples of considerable antiquity to this list including the magnificent Shiva temple at Malwai on the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border built by the Bhils in the 12th Century. These temples are only symbolic and symptomatic of the same phenomenon: it is striking that when one visits a Kugrama (a dilapidated village) far away from “civilisation,” one suddenly witnesses a temple of immense grandeur or a monument of great antiquity, and there seems to be no logical explanation as to why all of them still lie in utter ruin and unforgivable neglect long after the vandals have departed and seventy years after India attained freedom. When we observe the simple fact that almost no temple of the classical era exists in the entire Ganga-Yamuna region, it is hard to avoid the inescapable conclusion as we shall see.
Erasing the Sacred
But if this is the fate of the aforementioned temples of antiquity, we must also examine the fate of restored temples at say, Konark, Khajuraho, Ellora and numerous Chalukya and Hoysala temples. Apart from a handful of Chalukya and Hoysala temples, none of the others have active, living worship, which is a sure sign of a lapsed cultural heritage. They have become mere tourist attractions, accompanied by familiar touristy elements detrimental to such sacred spaces. The fabled UNESCO World Heritage site, Hampi for example, has witnessed[v] considerable drug trade, the hippie culture, murders, and other crimes. This is another form of the same cultural negligence and apathy noted in the examples cited earlier.
In summary, this phenomenon is a facet of civilisational and cultural persecution that Hindus have internalised and even normalised.One can also consider the impact of large scale temple destructions from another perspective. Dr J K Bajaj, India’s foremost demographer and scholar in his research, offers some conclusions which he shared with this author. In the same Ganga-Yamuna belt (or North India, broadly speaking) there is not a single village or town that has remained in the same place for more than four hundred years. In his study travels, Dr Bajaj found only one village near Hissar, Haryana, which remained intact for more than six hundred or so years. He also found that this village almost exactly resembled a typical South Indian village in terms of its plan and layout: for example, where and how the temple, water bodies, burial grounds, fields and farmland, boundaries, etc should be located. This was completely unlike any typical North Indian village falling in the entire stretch between Punjab to Bihar to Bengal.
To understand the impact of temple destructions, it is important to understand what’s known as the Rooted Indian psyche. This can be more accurately called the attitude of the Hindu soul: an inseparability from Sampradaya. An honest study of Hindu history and culture shows that this psyche is a deep attachment to said Sampradaya and the intimacy that their immediate physical surrounding provides them. Unless violently forced, Hindus typically never moved out of their villages for generations. Of course, the jaundiced critic may call this attitude as frog-in-the-well but that discussion is beyond the scope of this essay.
Thus, when a Nalanda University which was economically and otherwise supported by over two hundred villages (apart from royal patronage) is destroyed in one fell swoop, when Chidambaram, Rameswaram and countless such temples are razed, it automatically destroys all this substructure including people, traditions, customs, and way of life. Today, the local populace of even these celebrated temple towns and heritage sites know very little of their own place.
Or to state the obvious, destruction of temples is the destruction of memory. The history of every civilisation and culture also lies in its physical spaces which are both the incubators and resting places of its arts and way of life.
Of course, one can rationally explain the religious motives of alien faiths destroying Hindu temples and everything associated with them. Yet, what explains the fact that in the modern time, Hindus are themselves stealing their own Deities and selling them to the very people whose religious tenets ordain them to destroy idols? The enormous wealth accruing from trade in stolen antiques and Murtis and sculptures is one of the major fuels[vi] that propel the ever-expanding terror activities across the globe.
Dr. S L Bhyrappa explores this phenomenon in his epic Kannada novel, Thantu very artistically using the theft of the Saraswati Murti (belonging to the Hoysala era) as a motif. Similarly, the Telugu poet and novelist Viswanatha Satyanarayana also explores this cultural loss and alienation in a different way in his Veyyi Padagalu. The Devadasi in the novel who performs the final dance of her life as her regular Seva in the temple of her village dies on the stage. Her art form dies forever with her death. In Dr. S L Bhyrappa’s other classic novel Mandra, the same Mahadeva temple in which the protagonist learnt classical music in his youth has transformed into a place of debauchery in his own lifetime: he is himself a witness to this transformation.
[i] Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them: PP 41-2: Sita Ram Goel
[ii] Ibid: PP 13-20
[iii] In an interview with the present author
[iv] Archaeological Survey of India Jaipur Circle: Record on Neelkanth Temple
[v] Hampi has historical high on dope also: DNA news report, 29 January 2010
[vi] Conflict Antiquities: A Terrorist Financing Risk: Antiquities Coalition: 4 August 2017
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