The Idea of India
In Garbs Foreign: Temple Desecrations & Acts of Conquest

I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the 10th century or earlier disfigured, defaced, you realize that something terrible happened. I feel that the civilization of that closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions … The Old World is destroyed. That has to be understood. Ancient Hindu India was destroyed

V.S. Naipaul, Interview in The Hindu, 1998

It is 17 years since the Babri mosque incident but tensions and feelings are still running brittle. The entire area is cordoned off with steal fencing topped with barbed wire and protected by 24 hour police and security patrols. There is an entire police encampment just meters away from the site. Plainclothes men from India’s Central Intelligence Department (CID) hang out at the local tea shops and keep a close eye on every one in the surrounding residential neighborhoods. Young boys accost you and offer you tours of the city, while interspersing their offers with stories of the planned construction of the new Ram temple while offering you a chance to go see a model of what the temple would look like.

One afternoon I had been loitering outside a religious bookstore on the Ram Ki Pauri area in Ayodhya when I was accosted by a short man with a long moutasche and a stance akin to a sumo wrestler about to lunge. Perhaps he suspected that I would try to make a run for it!

What are you doing? He challenged me.

It took a few seconds for me to realize that he had grown suspicious of my behavior; I had been walking back and forth for nearly 2 hours, just waiting for the light to adopt the essential texture. But in a city whose very atmosphere has been transformed into one of fear and suspicion since the 1992 destruction of the Babri mosque, what were the ordinary sufferings of a photographer appeared to the uninitiated as suspicious and worrying.

I am looking for a photograph. I pointed at my camera, and deliberately spoke in English. I am waiting for the light.

I regretted that response, realizing its incomprehensibility once it had left my mouth. But surprisingly it seemed to calm him, as if the sheer surprise of my utterance released me from being what he feared!

Or perhaps it was that I spoke English.

We are worried about terrorists. He explained.

By now a few policemen from a nearby post had also come up to us. They will attack here.They wanted to make a graveyard out of Ayodhya. He continued, the softly reverent postures of the other men suggesting that he was someone of authority, both intellectual and social.

Muslims! he suddenly exclaimed while looking at me for some indication of understanding.

We are grateful that the British arrived when they did! Otherwise, all this he waves his hands around in a circle would have turned to  fields and graves.

They all nodded in approval. Yes, India was saved by the British one of the constables echoes.


Questions keep entering my head, but I can’t find any one I can share them with; why leave all the temples in the city intact and destroy only the one that the fundamentalists claim (though there is no textual, literary or archeological evidence to confirm that a temple had ever existed at the Ramjanmabhoomi compound – but that is a topic for a separate post) stood where the Babri mosque once stood? Why not destroy, if the Muslim rulers were single minded iconoclast, each and every temple across the entire city? The region of Awadh was under ostensible Mughal rule for some three hundred years. They clearly had plenty of time. And why would the Nawab of Awadh donate land for the construction of Ayodhya’s most important temple – the Hanumangarhi, lands that still belong to the temple?


Temple desecration and destruction were acts of conquests and establishment of authority and rarely if ever acts of theocratic zeal.

Local rulers would invest their authority in to a royal temple – one that housed an image of the state deity, or rastra-devata. When the ruler was defeated, the temple would be destroyed and the deity carried away as a physical act to negate the political and ruling authority of the defeated ruler. And as much as the modern day historical iconoclasts would like to explain this through some belief in the invader’s theocratic convictions, particularly if they were Muslim invaders, the act of attacking royal temples and carrying off state deities as booty or prize was a pattern established well before the arrival of Muslim armies in India.

These are essential points in Romila Thapar’s work Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History. They are elaborated in great detail in a fascinating essay by the historian Richard M. Eaton in a chapter titled ‘Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim States’ that appears in Gilmartin & Lawrence’s Beyond Turk And Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia. He provides a number of instances of Hindu rulers pillaging temple deities and wealth prior to the arrival of the Turkish invaders. For example, as Eaton states:

The Palava king, Narasimhavarman I, looted the image of Ganesha from the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi. Fifty years later, armies of the same Chalukyas invaded North India and bought back to the Deccan what appears to be images of Ganga and Yamuna, looted from the defeated powers there. In the 8th century Bengali troops sought revenge on King Lalitaditya by destroying what they thought was the image of Vishnu Vaikuntha, the state deity of Lalitaditya’s kingdom in Kashmir…In the early 10th century, the Pratihara king, Herambapala, seized a solid gold image of Vishnu Vaikuntha when he defeated the Sahi king of Kangra. A few years later the same image was seized from the Pratiharas by the Candella king, Yasovarman, and installed in the Laskhmana temple of Khajuraho…In the mid-11th century, the Chola king, Rajadhiraja, defeated the Chalukyas and plundered Kalyani, taking a large black stone door guardian to his capital in Thanjavur, where it was displayed to his subjects as a trophy of war.

The history of medieval India is filled with instances of temple desecrations and destruction that occurred during inter-dynastic conflicts between Hindu kingdoms. Similar evidence is provided in Richard H. Davis’ Lives of Indian Images, where this practice continued even after the Turkish conquest of India. For example, Kapilendra, the founder of the Suryavamshi Gajapati dynasty in Orissa, sacked both Saiva and Vaishnava temples in the Kaveri delta during wars of conquest in Tamil territory. Even the Vijayanagari‘s, those favorites of the Hindu right, were in on the act: around 1514 Krishna Deva Raya looted an image Bala Krishna from Udayagiri which he incorporated into his growing Vijayanagara state. And 6 years later the same fate befell Pandharpur region from where a Vittala image was carried back to Vijayanagar.

Romila Thapar points out in her work Communalism and the Writing of Indian History that as late as the 13th century Paramara dynasty rulers were attacking and plundering Jain temples in Gujarat. The Turkic invaders merely continued the practice, and primarily did so where conquest was concerned and an opposing or treasonous ruler was defeated. Eaton provides comprehensive evidence of the patterns of Muslim temple desecrations and their close association with frontiers of conquest or expansion of regional empires.

The iconoclasts, both Hindu and Muslim, prefer that we do not see this.


There was a temple to the god Rama where once the Babri mosque stood. There may not be archeological or textual evidence to this fact, but there is imaginative evidence for millions and material evidence cannot undermine it. Each side takes from its readings of history what it must to ensure its sense of victimhood and to justify its acts of violence and dispossession.

The conflict at the site has existed for centuries, possibly since the very moment the mosque was constructed there. An archeological survey done in 2003 failed to resolve the matter, though how archeology could resolve what was clearly a matter of faith remained unclear. To say nothing about the inconsistencies of the survery and the clearly political priorities that motivated and influenced it.

And for many centuries both a mosque and a temple stood on these grounds. An uncomfortable compromise perhaps, but certainly not an unreasonable one. But the conflict and divisions deteriorated during the realm of the British with the waqf, perhaps smarting from the humiliations that followed the 1857 rebellion, placing restrictions on the Hindus from visiting and praying at the temple next to the mosque.

The history of the Muslims in India was about to be revised at the hands of the new masters keen to place their own rule in a more enlightened and civilized light, and to discredit that of the recently ousted Mughals (More about this subject in a separate post). Suddenly, as the historian Mohammad Habib said:

The peaceful Indian Mussalman, descended beyond doubt from Hindu ancestors, was dressed up in the garb of a foreign barbarian, as a breaker of temples, and an eater of beef, and declared to be a military colonist in the and where he had lived for about thirty or forty centuries… the result of it is seen in the communalistic atmosphere of India today.

In Ayodhya, nearly 200 years later, history and collective memory continues to wear its new found garb. The issue of the temple at Ramjanmabhoomi continues to inspire acts of violence and sectarian separation.

Emotions wear a thin veil, slipping from amicability to animosity at the drop of the wrong words; I come from a Muslim family or I am from Kashmir or any even just my clearly Arabic name, Asim Rafiqui. I use a foreign name, state only that I am a Swedish photographer (I am), and lie that I am not from the region.

I continue to wear a garb foreign.

June 5, 2009 | Filed under Ayodhya, History and tagged with , , , , , .

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