Temple Destruction

A commercial was droning by, as I tried to watch the NBA game and tool around on the laptop. Something about Memorial Day tie-in at the local Jeep Wrangler dealer. I glanced up just in time to see a panoramic shot of Mt. Rushmore.

It occured to me, in that moment, that I finally have a way of getting my students to understand that ever-thorny issue of temple destruction in South Asian history i.e. the Muslim invaders destroyed Hindu temples and erected mosques on those sacred sites. Historians have countered this incendiary claim in the Hindutva arsenal by pointing out that temple destruction was a common fact of medieval warfare and Hindu kings were just as prone to do it as Muslim ones. But why, I remember a student asking me, destroy their sacred site at all? He was rather insistent that all this temple destruction pointed to some natural urge in the Eastern mind which was all bent on being religious. I think I mumbled something about the Parthenon but made little headway.

But, there an example stands: a sacred mountain blasted up to build a temple to our own nationalist gods – specifically to drive worshippers to that far-off land [promised to them natives]. That should explain it.

Author: sepoy

what is the vertiginous chapati saying to me?

17 thoughts on “Temple Destruction”

  1. “I would like to see how often what goes on in conferences actually leaves the halls and out into the outer world. I’m not being snarky; I’m stating what is my observation. Of all of the very pretty sounding comments about “sacredness of space” and so on, I’m wondering how any of that can be used in a concrete manner.”

    Well i do not agree. u r just being cynical, and by ur own logic, u shouldn’t be exchanging these comments but should be doing something ‘concrete’ some other place.

    the basic difference between our thinking is that i think all this is relevant today. u think anyone who’s interested in temple destruction is an irrelevant hindutvawadi, but anyone studying the renaissance is an art connoisseur. That’s very judgmental. And what’s sacred – well that cuts both ways.

    Indeed there are kashmiri muslims who are suffering. But they are not linked to the guru teghbadur incident, so I did not mention them to prove my point abt history. The reasons why pundits are suffering and why kashmiri muslims are suffering are different.

  2. “DI, I think u r raising a more fundamental issue here – and ur question really applies to the history class from the post – why study history at all and why not just concentrate on the real fundamental issues in India.”

    No– either I wasn’t being clear (totally possible), or you didn’t read all of comments. My comments spoke to how the Hindutva had dangerously politicized such a moronic issue (IMO), that people now feel impelled to deconstruct it. That the Hindutvavadis find it easier to fixate on something centuries ago speaks volumes. I am not taking issue with the study of history, or with historians, as I made it clear in the second comment.

    And this politicization of Babri Masjid then causes some folks to accord a higher significance then there is to it, and some tend to simply veer off into the netherlands of who knows what- ie searching how “sacred” something is, “erasure of previous occupants,” “dispossession,” etc why the Moghuls did it (if at all), and making flawed comparisons (and this is really where some academic discourses start to take on a life of their own and that then become so disconnected to what is going on). There was no “erasure of previous occupants,” “dispossession,” etc. What there was an erasure for any regard of human rights for the violence that followed afterwards.

    “i’d like to find out if there’s a link, and i’d like to find out if this link can be used to prevent such a tragedy in future. academic – may be, real – may be.”

    I would like to see how often what goes on in conferences actually leaves the halls and out into the outer world. I’m not being snarky; I’m stating what is my observation. Of all of the very pretty sounding comments about “sacredness of space” and so on, I’m wondering how any of that can be used in a concrete manner.

    “and rem the real kashmiri pundits who are wasting away in refugee camps?”

    PS. There are Muslim Kashmiris who are in a similar plight.

  3. DI, I think u r raising a more fundamental issue here – and ur question really applies to the history class from the post – why study history at all and why not just concentrate on the real fundamental issues in India. I appreciate the spirit, but do not agree with the proposition. we must learn history because history is relevant today in terms of not some emotional but real issues too. for example, rem the sikh guru who was beheaded in chandani chowk? and rem the real kashmiri pundits who are wasting away in refugee camps? i’d like to find out if there’s a link, and i’d like to find out if this link can be used to prevent such a tragedy in future. academic – may be, real – may be.

  4. Triple:

    “DI, lot of anger. the question can also be reframed, “so how many buddhists are there in afghanistan to dispossess or conquer? is there an historical link between the babri masjid and the erased bamian buddha? here the question is not whats sacred, the question is whats one’s anger against what others consider sacred?””

    I am unsure as to what your comment addresses to what I said, when I am talking about actual facts on the ground and what we can do with that to addresses the problems in a concrete manner. I am all game to this sort of inquiry, as long as it addresses the serious and concrete issues in India and something comes out of it. Meaning, as long as this kind of search doesn’t stay confined within the walls of academia and largely the subject of eloquent academic poetry.

    So let’s say we take your question. Then, the next step would be….?

  5. DI, lot of anger. the question can also be reframed, “so how many buddhists are there in afghanistan to dispossess or conquer? is there an historical link between the babri masjid and the erased bamian buddha? here the question is not whats sacred, the question is whats one’s anger against what others consider sacred?”

  6. hah, even before lapata’s comment I was immediately thinking of examples closer to (not-quite) home, other holy spaces reconfigured post-conquest: the Mezquita of Cordoba (which I have yet to see), and, of course, Aya Sofya in Istanbul, where the mosaics of Christ and the Virgin and assorted saints gaze up towards the Qur’anic calligraphy inside the dome. And of course it, like several other Byzantine churches-cum-Ottoman mosques, is now a state museum: a forced convert to Kemalism.

    What interests me most, though, is how some of these are never quite “memorials of victory and erasure of previous occupants,” because the erasure is incomplete. Instead you have these accretions and admixtures, and end up with a hybrid testament that can be interpreted in so many different ways.

  7. “ever-thorny issue of temple destruction in South Asian history i.e. the Muslim invaders destroyed Hindu temples and erected mosques on those sacred sites”

    “I remember a student asking me, destroy their sacred site at all? ”

    Sacredness is a value imposed onto something, it’s not a given fact that stands by itself. It’s highly interpretive. I will bet my University of Chicago student loans that the majority of Hindus did not look at Babri masjid as a “sacred [Hindu] site” before the VHP, RSS, and other Hindutva goondas politicized it. If they did, they probably didn’t think it was necessary to tear the masjid down. And most probably don’t regard it like that now. It’s certainly regarded as “sacred” to the vocal minority that trumpets this day in and day out (amongst other proclamations).

    Sepoy, you should sit this student down and tell him that his departure point is the wrong starting point. Tell him that when you ask a question with the idea that something is factually “sacred,” you’re not getting to the root of the problem; that you are going to frame the issue and answer on the basis of an assumption (that indeed it was a “sacred” site, and then the Muslims came and made it theirs, blah blah blah.) Send him to India to investigate on foot and in person the other concrete, tangible, very real problems that people face there. Tell him to talk to Indians about their daily realities. Perhaps conduct a survey on how many Indians feel that Babri masjid is an important issue, that it’s a sacred site, and whether it is absolutely essential to “reclaim it”, and how much impact this is going to have on their daily lives. And then ask him to put the Babri masjid/mandir into perspective (with hopefully not too much obscure academic jargon that often tells us less rather than more).

  8. Sepoy says:

    “But, there an example stands: a sacred mountain blasted up to build a temple to our own nationalist gods – specifically to drive worshippers to that far-off land [promised to them natives]. ”

    Jeff says:

    “Is there the same aspect of disposession in Muslim-Hindu violence in India?”

    Lapata says:

    “One wonders how many historic landmarks and monuments are not memorials of victory and erasure of previous occupants.”

    All of these comments are based on the assumption that there was actual “dispossession” and “erasure of previous occupants” with the building of Babri Masjid.

    Unwittingly, all have seemed to fall for the line that a masjid dispossessed and erased Hindus. This operates on the assumption that one little masjid wiped out Hindus.

    It clearly did not. As far as I know, mass numbers of Hindus were NOT dispossessed or erased when Babur decided to erect a masjid. By placing an undue importance on its symbolic meanings (“It was meant to represent the superiority of the conquerers,” “It symbolized the victory of whoever/whatever over this/that”), you’re conflating the actual facts, or viewing them under the lens of symbolism.

    And a comparison to the American “Christian God wanted the whites to have the land” is not precisely and accurately pertinent to the issue in question. Why?

    Anglo Saxons- who used religion to justify political, social and economic objectives- actually succeeded in wiping out entire populations (Native American tribes), supplanted them with colonial settlers, and erected an entire nation/state upon that, what we now know as the United States.

    If I have my Moghul history correct (and Sepoy can verify or refute this), there were Moghul rulers, but not a mass of colonial settlers that eventually dispossessed, displaced, and replaced the indigenous populations as in the case of the United States.

    Furthermore, the Moghul empire- while it had several strongholds in various locations throughout its highly decentralized rule- never held an absolute monopoly and rule over the entire Indian subcontinent in one given period.

    As a partial result, various populations had relative autonomy (again, depending on which region you are speaking about). If Moghuls were indeed carriers of the crescent and soldiers of Islam, the majority of the population wouldn’t have remained Hindu. Meaning, there had to be tolerance, independence, and so on to a certain degree to even allow the majority of Hindus to not only practice their religion, but allow an expansion, renewal, and continuous development of Hindu mythology, writings, literature, music, and so on. The majority of the population- which was largely indigenous to its specific locations, such as Gujaratis, Punjabis, and so on- was left to grow.

    None of this really happened in the US. So while I can see that there is a commonality in the usage of religion to secure certain political, social, and economic objectives that the US and India- and really, many other nation-states- put forth, I don’t see how this helps explain the Babri masjid/mandir issue.

    And then once the dynamics of that is all cleared up– the “symbolic” as well as the actual realities and facts on the ground- perhaps we can figure out how we can use our explanations to enact and/or propose change to the phenomenon that we see taking place? Not only the Hindutva movement, but other issues I stated in my first response.

    And BTW, though academia, writers, journalists, and so on have used the Babri masjid/mandir issue as the symbolic face of Hindutva (“Babri masjid is where it all started,” “the explanation can be found at Babri masjid”), they have glossed over the other more complex dynamics of the Hindutva movement. Of which Babri masjid/mandir is one of them. The Hindutva movement did not originate at Babri Masjid; and though it is one of the locations where contemporary Hindutvavadism has manifested itself and led to consequences such as the Bombay bombings, it is far from the only place.

  9. Sanjay Subrahmanyam has something on this in his essay in the Kaushik Basu ed. volume Unravelling the Nation – a conqueror would go after the existing king’s temples for the same reason the existing king built those temples, to show his glory, as it were. This holds even for more secular monuments, of course. All over Cairo there are mosques and buildings that were stripped of all their stone or marble at some point to built a new mosque or monument for the new king’s city. Good idea to make an American comparison though, you have to do that sometimes to get students to empathize rather than exoticize.

    And yes, I tend to agree with Desi Italiana about the idiocy of obsessing about the Babri Masjid issue.

  10. Jeff:

    “Is there the same aspect of disposession in Muslim-Hindu violence in India?”

    Could you please expand on this? Because in the case of the Babri Masjid, I don’t see how it is a fact of dispossession in actuality- the square footage of the masjid did not dispossess Hindus en masse. If you are talking about the symbolic “dispossession”– which would depend on the subjective definition of a “sacred” site- than that’s a whole other story.

  11. Sepoy:

    “well, not to put too fine a point on it but the question arose in a class on the history of South Asia – covering at least 4 centuries. So he needed to care, at the very least, for academic reasons. ”

    I understand what you are saying, and I am sorry I used your post to lash out and vent my own frustrations. However, what is so academic on asking “why destroy a sacred site at all?”

    I can conjecture what might be the origins of an enquiry of this type, especially in the academic sphere. My response is: I don’t care. I don’t care whether a “sacred” site was destroyed or not. What I care about is why have millions of Indians- including people in my own family- have been forced to migrate. I care about how families have been torn apart. I care about the fact that most Indians do not have anything to eat, drink, or shit in.

    Also, I do think there is a very fine line between the sacred and profane. This is why I take issue with the framing of the question: “why destroy a sacred site?” How “sacred” is it, and defined by whom? And how does that influence what we make of the situation? And how we percieve it and subsequently frame the discussion?

    “But when claims of historical truths are made on behalf of these memories and histories, it is the responsibility of the historians to step into the public debate and at least attempt to present a critical reading. And of course, teach.”

    Absolutely. And I’m ever grateful for people like you who step into that role.

    I do realize that history and the study of history is important- and when political projects of this kind gain momentum, we need people who correct the historical claims made by people, especially when it is used to justify and advance certain moves. And I certainly don’t want to undermine the work that people do.

    “I know of no peoples on this planet who do not share a collective [and often contested] memory of their pasts. ”

    Again, I totally agree. And this is fine.

    I know that history has a bearing on their present predicament- Palestine, for one, is an example of that. The creation of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh is another. Afghan refugees is another example. The effects of history of are directly tied to the present, and I totally understand that.

    But whether a mandir existed centuries ago?

  12. It would be fun to start a visual archive of monuments and geographies of displacement. Intercultural comparisons are very helpful in teaching and beyond for putting things into perspective. One wonders how many historic landmarks and monuments are not memorials of victory and erasure of previous occupants.

  13. “the Christian God wanted whites to have the land.”

    Jeff, thanks, that is a great point and one worth remembering even as nationalism has become the thin veil for religion in this country.

  14. Sepoy, I think your comparison is very interesting. Is there the same aspect of disposession in Muslim-Hindu violence in India?

    Some time ago, I spent a bit of time studying the tragic relationship between whites and Native Americans in the Early National Period — in particular, the political climate and events surrounding the Indian Removal Act. It’s both rather straightforward (avarice) and complicated. Let’s just say that it includes race, sectionalism, federalism, and religion as well as deeply-ingrained fear of the “other.” (Sounds like the American Civil War, huh?) But underneath all of it was the belief that the Christian God wanted whites to have the land.

  15. DI: “why the hell care about something that happened fucking centuries of years ago?”

    well, not to put too fine a point on it but the question arose in a class on the history of South Asia – covering at least 4 centuries. So he needed to care, at the very least, for academic reasons.

    And while I understand your frustration over the manipulation of faith and history for the sake of politics in India, I know of no peoples on this planet who do not share a collective [and often contested] memory of their pasts. And whether tribal, communal, national or otherwise, these memories are invariably based on narratives – historical, religious, etc. – that are eagerly manipulated by whomever and for whatever reason.

    But when claims of historical truths are made on behalf of these memories and histories, it is the responsibility of the historians to step into the public debate and at least attempt to present a critical reading. And of course, teach.

  16. Sepoy:

    “The more apt question would be: why the hell care about something that happened fucking centuries of years ago?”

    I hope it’s clear that I meant that the student should have asked the more apt question, not you.

    Just to clarify, by no means is my post above directed towards you. My anger and frustration are directed towards those who have politicized the masjid/mandir issue, and the Hindutva movement in general, and how people have had to actually take the time to deconstruct their agendas in an effort to undermine this Hindu political project. Instead of spending time and energy on focusing on the other issues and providing possible solutions to those problems that I mentioned, they have created just one more problem to deal with: fundamentalism, state sponsored terrorism based on religious fundamentalism, and all the other implications that have been borne out of this Hindutva project.

  17. “But why, I remember a student asking me, destroy their sacred site at all?”

    The more apt question would be: why the hell care about something that happened fucking centuries of years ago?

    It’s much easier to fixate on something that might have happened hundreds of years ago. It’s much harder to think about the current issues that plague the well being of every single Indian citizen. It’s more difficult and it requires intelligence and rationale to come up with policies that will guarantee every Indian citizen potable water, sanitation, a roof over their heads, and roti in their bellies. I’m Hindu, but frankly, I don’t give a shit whether there was a mandir before, and if there was, whether someone destroyed it and built a masjid in lieu of that. Who cares. All conquerers- whether they were Muslim, Hindu, Christian, whatever- did crap like that in order to assert their supremacy. Is building a mandir going to prop up the well being of every Indian? Will every Indian have pani to drink, roti to eat, have somewhere to go “home” to that isn’t a freaking slum? Will they be able to live in a situation that isn’t demeaning and dehumanizing? Will it stop the trafficking of young girls and boys? Will it stop prostitution? Will millions of people stop dying from AIDS? There’s so much nasty shit going on right now in India. Just go the Bombay. Go to Bombay and see the disgusting practices that take place. But these folks who talk about the masjid/mosque don’t give a crap. Not for them, these tangible realities that exist. No. They are going to talk about fucking Babur and what he did centuries ago. They will use this so that they will have an excuse to dress up as saffron clad hooligans and bash people, rubble, past historical events. Pathetically, for all their invectives against “Muslims” and how “Islam is a fundamentalist religion,” you’ll see idiots with saffron face cloths which emulate Islamic militants. How’s that for hypocrisy, illogic, and stupidity?

    I’m come to believe that people who obsess with this masjid/mandir issue are people who are looking for a outlet to channel their anger and disillusions. It’s easier to zero in on something that is so intangible and almost impossible to verify, because then you are not challenged to have any rationality and logic to sustain your positions.

    Excuse my anger. I’m sick of and disgusted by the fact that people have been forced to write books, spend energy, and direct attention on junk to beat back and challenge this masjid/mosque issue- a historical question mark that I feel provides no answers to the actual things that are taking place in India right now.

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