The Arab Destruction of Portuguese Churches in Daman and Diu and how Muscat got its First Hindu Temple

The Arab Destruction of Portuguese Churches in Daman and Diu and how Muscat got its First Hindu Temple

This episode narrates the story of how Sultan bin Saif gave permission to Narottam to build the first ever Hindu temple in Muscat. This was the Govindaraja Temple.

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The Arab Destruction of Portuguese Churches in Daman and Diu and how Muscat got its First Hindu Temple

FOR SULTAN BIN SAIF, the capture of the two forts at Muscat was a decisive triumph. It was, in the words of his congratulators, “a conquest which Allah himself had vouchsafed to the Mussulmans through him over the polytheists.” As much as he exulted in the victory, he was not content. In his eyes, the Portuguese polytheists had not been sufficiently punished. Centuries of their unholy domination of Muslim lands called for stronger vengeance. And so, Sultan Saif ordered a wholesale Jihad against the accursed Portuguese who “swept the coast of the sea of Oman.” 

In a series of separate expeditions spread over many years, fleets of well-equipped warships sailed to Diu, Daman and Mumbai and devastated Portuguese possessions in all these places. The Arabs ravaged and burnt Portuguese Churches and everything that the Christians held sacred. Describing the extensive scale of destruction, an outraged Englishman Hamilton writes that 

the Arabs, like a parcel of unsanctified rogues, made sad havoc on the churches' trumpery, for besides robbing them of all the sanctified plate and cash, they did not leave one gold or silver image behind them, but carried all into dismal captivity, from whence they never returned…as for the poor images of wood and stone, they were so rudely treated by those barbarous infidels, that they came well off if they lost but a limb, and I saw some who lost their heads.

Each Arab expedition launched to punish the Portuguese in India yielded massive loot, which Sultan Saif used for building the imposing fort at Nizwa, which is a popular tourist destination today. It took twelve years to complete and cost “lakhs of silver and gold.” 

— 4 —

SULTAN BIN SAIF did not forget to shower his gratitude upon Narottam for the decisive part he had played in the victory against the infidel Portuguese. He exempted the Sindhi Bhāṭiyā community from paying the Jiyza (poll tax). And then, in an astounding gesture, he did something that was unprecedented and considered as heretical in the theory and practice of Islamic statecraft. He granted Narottam permission to build a temple. 

That’s how Muscat got its first ever Hindu temple about three hundred years ago: the Govindaraja temple. This unravels a profound story by itself. 

By the mid 17th century, most of the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās in India had adopted the Pushtimarga Sampradaya founded by Mahaprabhu Sri Vallabhacharya. Thatta was the city in which he first began to spread the teachings of his Sampradaya. Pushtimarga is one of the most evocative branches of the Vaishnava school with its worship of Bala-Krishna, Venugopala and Srinath Ji, the endearing seven-year-old Krishna. It is not coincidental that Pushtimarga is strongest in Gujarat and Rajasthan apart from the Braj region. It is also not coincidental that a majority of Pushtimargis hail from the business class. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, the Pushtimargi Sindhi Bhāṭiyās of Muscat chose Govindaraja as their preferred deity. It was known as a Mandir, and not as a Haveli, in Pushtimargi parlance.   

After the Govindaraja Temple was consecrated, the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās offered their thanks to Saif by including an Omani dagger in the Ābharaṇa (jewelry/ornamentation) of the Murti. 

The temple not only became the spiritual and cultural centre of the entire Hindu community in Muscat, it inspired and spurred similar feats of devotion in the future. This underscores a demonstrable truth hiding in plain sight: Hindus build temples wherever they go. To cite the same example of the Pushtimarga Sampradaya, there are eight Shrinathji Havelis in the United States, one in Canada, one each in Australia and New Zealand. Hindus building temples in alien countries is both an offering of piety and a preservation of their ties to Bharatavarsha. In stark contrast, a mosque or a church indicates conquered territory in infidel or heathen lands.  

The Yaruba dynasty ended in 1718 with the death of Sultan bin Saif II. A hotly contested succession dispute erupted into a full blown, bloody civil war that lasted for about three decades. It witnessed the invasion of the Persian monster Nadir Shah in 1737. Peace and stability returned to Oman in 1744 with the coronation of Ahmad bin Said al-Busaidi. 

What is notable in this entire blood-soaked saga is how the Hindu community in Muscat remained completely untouched by it. After Ahmad became the unchallenged Imam (i.e., Sultan) and delivered a relatively stable rule, Hindus once again prospered. Like Sultan bin Saif, Ahmad also allowed them to build temples. His Al Said dynasty, now known as the House of Busaid, continues to rule Oman.  

Muscat got its second Hindu temple during Ahmad’s reign. This was a Pushtimargi Haveli dedicated to Sri Krishna, worshipped as Bayaji. The American Scholar Calvin Allen who visited Muscat in the 1970s records that the “temple still exist(s) in Masqat.” By the end of the 18th century, Muscat had four Hindu temples built by Hindus who followed other Sampradayas. 

In January 1765, the Danish adventurer Carsten Niebuhr visited Muscat and wrote this about the Hindu community there: 

In no other Mahometan city are the Banias so numerous as in Maskat; their number in this city amounts to no fewer than twelve hundred. They are permitted to live agreeably to their own laws, to bring their wives hither, to set up idols in their chambers, and to burn their dead.”

However, around the same time, the primacy of the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās in Muscat started to wane. The biggest contributor to this decline was the ejection of the Portuguese. Their exit hit Thatta the hardest and with it, the Sindhi Bhāṭiyās who depended on its commerce, slowly began to sink. By the 1780s, Thatta had been under the control of Mughal governors for nearly two centuries. They ran the prosperous city like a personal fiefdom and ended up ruining it. But the rot had actually set in during Jahangir’s time. Which brings us back to Sebastian Manrique’s description of the city during Jahangir’s reign. After gushing over its prosperity (mentioned earlier in this essay), he gives us a portrait of it dark and sleazy side.

Where riches are in profusion, there all that is good is held of no account, such as faith, probity, modesty, and chastity. 

“So great indeed is the depravity in this sink of iniquity, that the unmentionable vice [homosexuality and transgenderism] is so common that catamites dressed and adorned like women parade the streets, soliciting others as abandoned as themselves. These men also take part in their barbarian festivals and weddings, instead of women dancers. Moreover, they receive such good salaries that it enables them to obtain all the feminine finery and trinkets required on such occasions. 

“There is also in this country a certain order of hypocritical women devotees, or to put it more plainly, prostitutes, who while professing to despise the world, wearing harsh, roughly made clothes, and living a retired life, yet maintain it as one of the privileges of their order to lay hold upon any man they desire and satisfy their wicked appetite with him. Moreover, the men consider it a great sin to refuse to commit this offence, which they hold to be an act of great charity. But what is worse is, that those women who act in this disgraceful way in less-frequented streets are held to be the greatest renunciators of the world and its ways.

“From these and many other obscenities followed by these Barbarians, which are unfit for Christian ears, the Catholic Reader will be able to understand the great extent to which we are all of us indebted to God, who has in His infinite mercy been pleased to implant in us knowledge of His sacred faith. For by it He has opened the eyes of our minds, and has enabled us to recognize their blindness and their abominations. These I leave as unworthy of mention, buried in their own filth.”

In the first half of the 18th century, newer dynamics both within India and on the global stage were at play. It would alter the fate of the Hindu community in Muscat in unprecedented ways. That story will be narrated in the next episode of this series.

To be continued

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