Thursday, March 22, 2007

Truth In History - Temple Destruction

While archeological excavations continue in Ayodhya to ascertain whether a Hindu temple existed at that site, it is important to revisit how this contentious issue (temple destruction during the Muslim rule) has been presented to our people in the past. Did our historians adhere to the truth? Were they motivated by political considerations? Or did they deliberately attempt to commit a fraud on the Indian people and the Hindus in particular?

History is the story of the past. It is man's attempt to decipher what happened hundreds or even thousands of years ago. In this endeavor, he has had to rely on a varied array of clues like archeological findings, notations on rock edicts and oblique references; that is mostly indirect evidence. In essence, man has had to put circumstantial evidence together to come to a logical conclusion. Despite there being a methodology to this study of the past, history has never been and never will be a perfect subject like mathematics or physics. It is to a great extent dependent on human interpretation of findings. And human conclusions are apt to be influenced by a host of factors ranging from ethnic background to one's political beliefs. Therefore, for anybody to claim that his or her interpretation of events is the gospel truth is shortsighted and narrow-minded. But this is precisely what a certain group of historians have done in post-independent India.

Indian history for the last 50 years or so has been the preserve of historians who were Marxists by conviction and who had come to occupy positions of influence in India's elite Universities. These historians have callously distorted past events and interpreted history to suit their political agenda. Their efforts were not an honest attempt at history writing but a warped exercise in social engineering. Nowhere is this as evident as in the case of the temple desecrations that occurred during the Muslim invasion of India. Opponents (even when evidence was forthcoming) were dubbed as fundamentalists and their views effectively suppressed.

A preface to an article on temple desecration which appeared in Frontline (Jan 2001) is a clear example of the vicious propaganda carried out against anybody trying to ascertain the truth or to propose a differing point of view: “The ideologues of the Hindu Right have, through a manipulation of pre-modern history and a tendentious use of source material and historical data, built up a dangerously plausible picture of fanaticism, vandalism and villainy on the part of the Indo-Muslim conquerors and rulers. Part of the ideological and political argument of the Hindu Right is the assertion that for about five centuries from the thirteenth, Indo-Muslim states were driven by a 'theology of iconoclasm' -- not to mention fanaticism, lust for plunder, and uncompromising hatred of Hindu religion and places of worship. In this illuminating and nuanced essay on temple desecration and Indo-Muslim states, which Frontline offers its readers in two parts, the historian Richard M. Eaton presents important new insights and meticulously substantiated conclusions on what happened or is likely to have happened in pre-modern India.” Ironically, the use of the words “likely to have happened” in the preceding sentence exposes the frailty of the argument despite the arrogant righteousness of the tone.

During the Muslim invasion of India, which spanned over a thousand years, hundreds, nay thousands of Hindu temples were destroyed. The vast number of temples destroyed as well as the malevolence with which the desecration of these institutions took place is ample testimony to the satanic nature of its perpetrators. The following excerpts illustrate the crudity of these actions.

John Keay, a British historian, in his recent book India had this to say about Mahmud of Ghazni's destruction of the Somnath Temple: “But what rankled even more than the loot and the appalling death toll was the satisfaction that Mahmud took in destroying the great gilded lingam. After stripping it of its gold, he personally laid into it with his sword. The bits were then sent back to Ghazni and incorporated into the steps of its new Jami Masjid, there to be humiliatingly trampled and perpetually defiled by the feet of the Muslim faithful.”

Khuswant Singh in his book We Indians avers: “Mahmud of Ghazni was only the first of a long line of Muslim idol-breakers. His example was followed by Mongols, Turks and Persians. They killed and destroyed in the name of Islam. Not a single Buddhist, Jain or Hindu temple in northern India escaped their iconoclastic zeal. Some temples were converted to mosques; idols and figurines had their noses, breasts or limbs lopped off; paintings were charred beyond recognition.”

What is even more perverse is the fact that these notorious acts were extolled proudly by Persian poets (including the great Persian poet Firdausi), who defined Mahmud as a paragon of Islamic virtue and a model for other sultans to emulate.

The actual number of temples destroyed during this dark period appears to be a point of contention. Hindu nationalists claim that over 60,000 temples were destroyed. Leftist historians (and their supporters) while disputing this figure are now willing to concede that there is proof that at least 80 temples were destroyed during this phase. So we now happen to agree upon the fact that at least 80 temples were destroyed by Muslim invaders. What was once considered to be a fantasy of Hindu chauvinists is now accepted as a reality.

A meticulous look at even this truncated list of desecrated temples is extremely revealing. There was hardly a prominent Hindu temple that was spared and there was hardly a Muslim ruler who did not indulge in this pastime. This list includes temples from all parts of India including the South. Further, each and every important Hindu temple appears to have been targeted. Somnath, Mathura, Banares, Madurai, Kalahasti, Puri, Pandarpur are but a few that appear on this list. Buddhist monasteries at Odantapuri, Vikramasila, and Nalanda in Bihar were also vandalised.

Initially, some historians claimed that such destructions never occurred. But now in the face of irrefutable evidence, these historians have concocted a medley of reasons as to why these destructions were justified. The ridiculousness of these arguments makes them incomprehensible to a sane mind. Nevertheless, let us evaluate each reason rationally to see whether they make sense.

Muslim rulers destroyed temples only during the initial invasion of a kingdom but did not do so when temples were under their jurisdiction.

This is one of the theories put forward to explain Mahmud Ghazni's dastardly deeds. Richard Eaton writing in Frontline states: “The Ghaznavid sultan never undertook the responsibility of actually governing any part of the subcontinent whose temples he wantonly plundered.”

As though this was enough justification for his deeds! Let me state categorically that the desecration of a temple whether it was during an invasion or not is still a desecration and does not in any way diminish the magnitude of the crime. However, for the sake of debate and in all fairness I am willing to test this theory, despite its obvious absurdity. The examples given below clearly belie the validity of this concept.

In 1478, when a Bahmani garrison in eastern Andhra mutinied, murdered its governor, and entrusted the fort to Bhimraj Oriyya, who until that point had been a loyal Bahmani client, the sultan personally marched to the site and, after a six-month siege, stormed the fort, destroyed its temple, and built a mosque on the site.
In 1659, Shivaji Bhonsle, the son of a loyal officer serving the Adil Shahi sultans of Bijapur, seized a government port on the northern Konkan coast and disrupted the flow of external trade to and from the capital. Responding to what it considered an act of treason, the government deputed a high-ranking officer, Afzal Khan, to punish the Maratha rebel. Before marching to confront Shivaji himself, however, the Bijapur general first proceeded to Tuljapur and desecrated a temple dedicated to the goddess Bhavani, to which Shivaji and his family had been praying.
In 1613, while at Pushkar, near Ajmer, Jahangir ordered the desecration of an image of Varaha that had been housed in a temple belonging to an uncle of Rana Amar of Mewar, the emperor's arch enemy.
In 1635, Shah Jahan destroyed the great temple at Orchha, which had been patronised by the father of Raja Jajhar Singh, a high-ranking Mughal officer who was at that time in open rebellion against the emperor.
In 1669, the emperor Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of the great Vishvanath temple in Banaras, which was in his domain. The reason: Shivaji's escape from Banaras had been facilitated by Jai Singh, the great grandson (not the son or the grandson) of Raja Man Singh, who may have built the Vishvanath temple. Jai Singh was not the son or the grandson but the great grandson of Raja Man Singh, who may (repeat, may) have built the temple and this was enough reason to destroy it. Is this logic? Can a sane man accept this?
In 1670, Aurangzeb ordered the destruction of Mathura's Keshava Deva temple and built an Islamic structure (`idgah) on its site. The reason: the leader of a local rebellion had been found near the city (not near the temple). Can this be a reason?
In the 17th century, Aurangzeb ordered an attack on the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. To quote Rakhaldas Sengupta, the former head of an Indo-Afghan team for the restoration of the Bamiyan Buddhas, “Parts of the wooden frame were burned and there was damage to the upper part of the face and the lower lip and hands.”
All the above demolitions took place in the respective kingdoms of the Muslim rulers effectively negating the hypothesis that the Muslim rulers did not destroy temples in their domain.

Having failed to find ample proof for this convoluted theory, some historians went a step further. A sub-hypothesis was proposed: Muslim rulers destroyed temples in their domain only to discipline errant subordinates (as though it were justification enough) or to put down a rebellion in those areas.

Even this far-fetched explanation cannot pass muster. Did they punish disloyal Muslim officers in the same fashion? The answer is a resounding: No. Infractions short of rebellion normally resulted in demotions in rank, while serious crimes like treason were generally punished by execution, regardless of the perpetrator's religious affiliation. No evidence, however, suggests that ruling authorities attacked public monuments like mosques or Sufi shrines that had been patronized by disloyal or rebellious officers. Nor were such monuments desecrated when one Indo-Muslim kingdom conquered another and annexed its territories. This further proves beyond any doubt that Hindus and Hindu temples were specifically selected out for victimization.

In contrast there is not a single instance where an invading Hindu king destroyed or desecrated a mosque or meted out the same treatment to a mosque in his control.

I quote Richard Eaton from his article in Frontline, “When Hindu rulers established their authority over the territories of defeated Muslim rulers, they did not as a rule desecrate mosques or shrines, as, for example, when Shivaji established a Maratha kingdom on the ashes of Bijapur's former dominions in Maharashtra, or when Vijayanagara annexed the former territories of the Bahmanis or their successors. In fact, the rajas of Vijayanagara, as is well known, built their own mosques, evidently to accommodate the sizable number of Muslims employed in their armed forces.”

To recapitulate this bizarre train of reasoning: First these historians claim that no Hindu temples were destroyed. When this is disproved, they theorize that temples were demolished only by invading Muslim kings and no further destruction occurred when these temples came under their jurisdiction. When even that does not hold water, they go on to suggest that when destruction did occur in their kingdoms, it was to punish disloyal subordinates. But even that rationale has no grounds for justification.

Let us stop trying to find justifications (for this criminal conduct) where none exist. No amount of explanations is going to mitigate the gravity of these dastardly acts. Attempts to whitewash these crimes will only exacerbate the situation. When one denies that a crime has been committed, one perpetrates another crime against the victim. Let us be man enough to accept them for what they are: hate crimes, plain and simple.

What is the express reason for documenting these ghastly deeds? Is it to hold the present day Muslims for the wrongdoing of their forefathers? Certainly not. Is this recapitulation an attempt to wreak vengeance on the Muslims of today? Again the answer is No. Then what is the purpose of this exercise? As a civilized society, we are duty-bound to ensure that such barbaric acts do not occur in our country again. The best way to effect this is to remind people continually of such ghastly misdeeds. If we do not do this, we will be doing a great disservice to our future generations.

Further, I find it puzzling and disturbing that present day Muslims consider themselves duty-bound to stand up for the crimes perpetrated by their ancestors. All over the world, reconciliation and expression of remorse are the order of the day. President Clinton apologized to the Blacks for slavery, the Australian government expressed regret to the Aborgines and the Swiss apologized to the Jews they did not save during the holocaust. The people who asked for forgiveness, in each of these cases, were not the ones who had committed the crime. These magnanimous gestures were meant to soothe past wounds and dispel the rancor from aggrieved hearts. In contrast to this, the Muslims of India are bent on a path of confrontation, aided and abetted by pseudosecularists that see this as an opportunity for political gain. Is it so hard to give up Ayodhya, especially when it means so much for the Hindus? This is a question every right-thinking Muslim must ask himself or herself.

To those who say that these events belonged to a time gone by and will not occur again, they only have to remember what happened in Afghanistan recently. The Islamic Taliban ordered the destruction of all idols (Buddhist and Hindu) that reflected Afghanistan's rich history. Included among the list of structures destroyed were two statues of a standing Buddha (in Bamiyan) measuring 175 and 200 feet and noted to be among the tallest in the world. Can these destructions be justified as instruments of political conquest?

I end this article by quoting Simon Wiesenthal, the legendary Nazi hunter, “I see what I am doing as a warning to the murderers of tomorrow. A warning that they will never rest in peace.” And that alone is the reason for recalling our unfortunate past: nothing more or nothing less.


1. Frontline Jan 5, 2001
2. The Times of India August 25,2002.
3. India. John Keay. Atlantic Monthly Press. 2000.