Truth behind tales of Temple destruction

Name of the Book: Temple Destruction and Muslim States in Medieval India
Author: Richard M. Eaton,
Publisher: Hope India, Gurgaon (
Year: 2004 Pages: 101 Price: Rs.225 ISBN: 81-7871-027-7

Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand

Central to the diverse memories of Hindus and Muslims in India about the history of Hindu-Muslim relations are incidents or claims of the destruction of Hindu temples by Muslim rulers. These memories are a defining element in the construction of contemporary communal identities. Some Muslims see medieval Muslims Sultans who are said to have destroyed temples as valiant heroes who struggled against Brahminism, idolatry and polytheism. For many Hindus, these very kings are the epitome of evil and godlessness.

The theme of the iconoclast Muslim Sultan is routinely put to use for political mobilization by communal forces, as so tragically illustrated in the case of the Babri Masjid controversy, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. Not content with that, Hindutva forces are on record as declaring that they aim at destroying or capturing some 30,000 mosques and Muslim shrines, which, they claim, were built on the sites of Hindu temples allegedly destroyed by Muslim rulers. Hindutva literature is replete with exhortations to Hindus to avenge the misdeeds, both real and imaginary, of medieval Muslim kings, including destruction of temples. This propaganda and the communal mobilization that it has provoked have resulted in a sharp deterioration of inter-communal relations in recent years.

That some Muslim kings did indeed destroy certain Hindu temples is an undeniable fact, which even most Muslims familiar with medieval history would readily concede. However, as this remarkable book by the noted historian Richard Eaton points out, extreme caution needs to be exercised in accepting the claims of medieval historians as well as in interpreting past events in terms of today’s categories. Failure to do this, he says, has resulted in the construction of the image of all Muslims as allegedly fired by an irrepressible hatred of Hindus, a gross distortion of actual history.

The notion of the Muslim Sultan as temple-breaker, Eaton says, derives essentially from history texts written by British colonial administrators, who, in turn, drew upon Persian chronicles by Muslim historians attached to the courts of various Indian Muslim rulers. Eaton argues that British colonial historians were at pains to project the image of Muslim rulers as wholly oppressive and anti-Hindu, in order to present British rule as enlightened and civilized and thereby enlist Hindu support. For this they carefully selected from the earlier Persian chronicles those reports that glorified various Muslim Sultans as destroyers of temples and presented these as proof that Hindus and Muslims could not possibly live peacefully with each other without the presence of the British to rule over them to prevent them from massacring each other. Although some of these reports quoted in British texts were true, many others were simply the figment of the imagination of court chroniclers anxious to present their royal patrons as great champions of Islamic orthodoxy even if in actual fact these rulers were lax Muslims.

Dealing with actual instances of temple-breaking by Muslim rulers, Eaton appeals for a more nuanced approach, arguing that in most cases these occurred not simply or mainly because of religious zeal. Thus, the raids on temples by the eleventh century Mahmud Ghaznavi must be seen as motivated, at least in part, by the desire for loot, since the temples he destroyed were richly endowed with gold and jewels, which he used to finance his plundering activities against other Muslim rulers in Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere. Beginning in the early thirteenth century, the Delhi Sultans’ policy of selective temple desecration aimed, not as in the earlier Ghaznavid period, to finance distant military operations on the Iranian plateau but to de-legitimize and extirpate defeated Indian ruling houses. The process of Indo-Muslim state building, Eaton says, entailed the sweeping away of all prior political authority in newly conquered territories. When such authority was vested in a ruler whose own legitimacy was associated with a royal temple, typically one that housed idol of ruling dynasty’s state-deity, that temple was normally looted or destroyed or converted into a mosque, which succeeded in ‘detaching the defeated raja from the most prominent manifestation of his former legitimacy’. Temples that were not so identified were normally left untouched. Hence, Eaton writes, it is wrong to explain this phenomenon by appealing to what he calls as an ‘essentialized theology of iconoclasm felt to be intrinsic to Islam’.

Royal temple complexes were pre-eminently political institutions, Eaton says. The central icon, housed in a royal temple’s garba griha or ‘womb-chamber’ and inhabited by the state-deity of the temple’s royal patron, expressed the ‘shared sovereignty of king and deity’. Therefore, Eaton stresses, temple-breaking, especially of temples associated with ruling houses, was essentially a political, rather than simply religious, act. As proof of this thesis he cites instances of the sacking of royal temples of Hindu rulers by rival Hindu kings as early as the sixth century C.E.. In AD 642 CE the Pallava king Narashimhavarman I looted the image of Ganesha from the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi.. In the eighth 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 ninth century the Pandyan king Srimara Srivallabha also invaded Sri Lanka and took back to his capital a golden Buddha image that had been installed in the kingdom’s Jewel Palace. In the early eleventh century the Chola king Rajendra I furnished his capital with images he had seized from several neighboring Chalukya, Kalinga and Pala rulers. In the mid-eleventh 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. In addition to looting royal temples and carrying off images of state deities, some Hindu kings, like some of their later Muslim counterparts, engaged in the destruction of the royal temples of their political adversaries. In the early tenth century, the Rashtrakuta monarch Indra III not only destroyed the temple of Kalapriya (at Kalpa near the Jamuna River), patronized by the Pratiharas, but, Eaton writes, ‘took special delight in recording the fact’.

This and other such evidence clearly suggests, Eaton argues, that ‘temples had been the natural sites for the contestation of kingly authority well before the coming of Muslim Turks to India’. Hence, the Turkish invaders, in seeking to establish themselves as rulers, followed a pattern that had already been established before their arrival in India. Yet, the iconoclastic zeal of the Muslim rulers of India must not be exaggerated, Eaton says. He claims that based on evidence from epigraphic and literary evidence spanning a period of more than five centuries (1192-1729), ‘one may identify eighty instances of temple desecration whose historicity appears reasonably certain’, a figure much less than what Hindutva ideologues today claim.

In judging these incidents, extreme caution is necessary, Eaton suggests. These temples were destroyed not by ‘ordinary’ Muslims, but, rather, by officials of the state. Further, the timing and location of these incidents is also significant. Most of them occurred, Eaton says, on ‘the cutting edge of a moving military frontier’, in the course of military raids or invasions of neighboring territories ruled by Hindu kings. Once Muslim rulers had conquered a particular territory and incorporated it into their kingdom typically such incidents were few, if at all. When Muslim rulers grew mainly at the expense of other Muslim ruling houses, temple desecration was rare, which explains, for instance, why there is no firm evidence of the early Mughal rulers Babar and Humayun, whose principal adversaries were Afghans, in engaging in temple desecration, including, strikingly, in Ayodhya. Certain later Mughal and other rulers are said to have engaged in the destruction of royal temples and building mosques on their sites in territories ruled by rebel chieftains. These acts were intended to be punishments for rebellion, and once rebellions were quelled few such incidents took place.

Whatever form they took, Eaton says, ‘acts of temple desecration were never directed at the people, but at the enemy king and the image that incarnated and displayed his state-deity’. Eaton cites in this regard a contemporary description of a 1661 Mughal campaign in Kuch Bihar, northern Bengal, which resulted in the annexation of the region, makes it clear that Mughal authorities were guided by two principal concerns: to destroy the image of the state-deity of the defeated Raja, Bhim Narayana and to prevent Mughal troops from looting or in any way harming the general population of Kuch Bihar. Accordingly, the chief judge of Mughal Bengal, Saiyid Muhammad Sadiq, was directed to issue prohibitory orders that nobody was to touch the property of the people. Sayyid Sadiq, Eaton tells us, ‘issued strict prohibitory orders so that nobody had the courage to break the laws or to plunder the property of the inhabitants. The punishment for disobeying the order was that the hands, ears or noses of the plunderers were cut’. In newly annexed areas formerly ruled by non-Muslims, as in the case of Kuch Bihar, Eaton goes on, ‘Mughal officers took appropriate measures to secure the support of the common people, who after all created the material wealth upon which the entire imperial edifice rested’.

The theory that politics, rather than simple religious zeal, lay behind most instances of temple-breaking by Muslim rulers is strengthened by the fact that, as Eaton points out, once Hindu Rajas were defeated by Muslim kings and their territories annexed, pragmatism dictated that temples within the Emperor’s realm remained unharmed. This was the case even with the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, generally projected as the epitome of Muslim iconoclasm. Eaton quotes an order issued by Aurangzeb to local officials in Benares in 1659 to provide protection to the Brahman temple functionaries there, together with the temples at which they officiated. The order reads:

In these days information has reached our court that several people have, out of spite and rancor, harassed the Hindu residents of Benares and nearby places, including a group of Brahmans who are in charge of ancient temples there. These people want to remove those Brahmans from their charge of temple-keeping, which has caused them considerable distress. Therefore, upon receiving this order, you must see that nobody unlawfully disturbs the Brahmans or other Hindus of that region, so that they might remain in their traditional place and pray for the continuance of the Empire.

Justifying this order, Aurangzeb asserted, ‘According to the Holy Law (shari’at) and the exalted creed, it has been established that ancient temples should not be torn down’. At the same time, he added that no new temples should be built, a marked departure from the policy of Akbar. However, Eaton says that this order appears to have applied only to Benares because many new temples were built elsewhere in India during Aurangzeb’s reign.

Eaton thus seeks to dismiss the notion that various Muslim rulers in India wantonly engaged in destroying Hindu temples, allegedly driven by a ‘theology of iconoclasm’. Such a picture, he insists, cannot, sustained by evidence from original sources from the early thirteenth century onwards. Had instances of temple desecration been driven by a ‘theology of iconoclasm’, he argues, this would have ‘committed Muslims in India to destroying all temples everywhere, including ordinary village temples, as opposed to the highly selective operation that seems actually to have taken place’. In contrast, Eaton’s meticulous research leads him to believe that ‘the original data associate instances of temple desecration with the annexation of newly conquered territories held by enemy kings whose domains lay on the path of moving military frontiers. Temple desecration also occurred when Hindu patrons of prominent temples committed acts of treason or disloyalty to the Indo-Muslim states they served’. Otherwise, he notes, ‘temples lying within Indo-Muslim sovereign domains, viewed normally as protected state property, were left unmolested’.

This slim volume is a path-breaking book, a passionate protest against the horrendous uses to which the notion of the ‘theology of iconoclasm’ has been put by contemporary Hindutva ideologues to justify murder in the name of avenging ‘historical wrongs’. It urgently deserves to be translated into various Indian languages and made readily available at a more affordable price.


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