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Destruction of Hindu shrines by Muslim invaders- Perspective

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There are numerous instances of destruction of Hindu shrines and institutions by the Islamic rulers and invaders. Many of them are recorded by contemporary Muslim historians. Reclaiming those holy sites has been a contentious issue between the two communities for centuries. Now, the legal battles are being fought to reclaim those sites and as a part of the legal process, various pieces of evidence are being gathered.  

What can be the pieces of architectural and historiographic evidence which can be conclusive for determining if there was a temple that was demolished to construct the mosque? 

Fellows at Bharat Punj Foundation both archaeologist Dr. Shilpi Bajpai and a historian Dr. Shalini Singh tell Rajiv Prasad in an email interview.

  1. Initially, it was Somnath then Ayodhya and now there are Kashi and Mathura. What were the reasons that mediaeval Islamic invaders destroyed the Hindu / Jain / Buddhist places of worship or other institutions? 

Dr. Shalini Singh – There is no doubt about the fact that the Islamic invaders and rulers both destroyed the places of worship and institutions in India. However, we need to understand two points first there were two phases of attacks and destruction and both had different objectives, second, the destruction was not a one-time event. Whenever any temple was destroyed, after some time locals would try to repair it locally to the possible extent, only to be destroyed by another Islamic invader or ruler. The first phase can be considered from Muhammad bin Qasim in the 8th Century AD to Humayun till mid of 16th Century AD.

During this period the temples were attacked for money, plundering and structures were destroyed. Mahmud of Ghazni’s attack on Somnath is a classic example of this phase. People were massacred also women were violated and taken away as war booty. Some people had been forcibly converted also. But the primary objective of the attack was plundering of wealth from the temples and institutions. Most of the Islamic invaders did not have any intention to establish an empire here and those who aspired the same, could not survive long enough to transform the dream into reality. Other things were collateral damage only. Though they imposed Jizya and converted people, there was no systematic drive for mass conversion.

After Humayun, his son Akbar initially followed the established practice of expeditions for plundering but he realized soon that a strong empire could be built with structured administration, sustainable revenue and military with Rajput’s. He reconciled with Rajput’s and remain flexible towards the non-Muslim subject and his son Jahangir also followed the same policy. Even Raja Todarmal, one of Akbar’s Navratna even helped in the restoration of some of the temples. 

The second phase of temple destruction started with Shajahan with different political objectives. By this time, most of the temples had been deprived of their wealth and the Mughals had amassed a great deal of wealth in their treasury. So they had no scarcity of resources for any expedition. Thus, setting up the Islamic state was the main objective in the second phase of temple destruction under Islamic invaders or rulers. The Mughal rulers like Shahjahan and Aurangzeb wanted to set up an Islamic state through mass conversion.

For that, they used cash awards on conversion and also destroyed temples to demoralize the masses. They selectively destroyed the temples and Varanasi (Kashi) was their prime target as ‘Kashi’ was the most sacred place for Hindus. Contemporary historian ‘Abdul Hameed Lahori has recorded that in his writings. Another view is that the temples were the communication hub due to pilgrims coming from far off places and they wanted to restrict the information about the dissent and rebellions in some areas. 

  • Recently, there has been a controversy where the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) wanted to shift an idol as it was disrespectfully placed in Qutub Minar. Similarly, now we have another controversy regarding the survey of the Gyanvapi Mosque at Varanasi. What is the archaeological issue in such cases?

Dr. Shilpi Bajpai – I’m not aware of the real reasons why ASI wanted to shift the idol from Qutub Minar. Since ASI is responsible for protecting and maintaining the historical monuments, I’m sure that they must analyse that from various angles. However, the presence of symbols of Hinduism, Jainism, and various idols at Qutub Minar, Gyanvapi and several other Islamic monuments/mosques make it a contentious issue. The reason is that the Islamic belief system prohibits the usage of such symbols and idols etc. In pure Islamic architecture, they are nowhere found. Since, these are ancient architectural attributes thus, can be better examined archaeologically. Archaeological evidence can be collaborated with historiographic evidence to draw the inference. 

  • There are disagreements and varying views on the nature, architecture, and purpose of monuments like Qutub Minar and Taj Mahal that have been made by demolishing Jain or Hindus shrines. The footprints of ancient Indian architecture and Hindu religious symbols indicate that direction. What can be the conclusive archaeological or other scientific evidence proving or disproving such claims?

Dr. Shilpi Bajpai –See, archaeology is a scientific study of human activities through the analysis of artefacts, architecture, biofacts/ecofacts, sites, and cultural landscapes. It helps us in learning about the societies and events for which written records may not be available. It can also be used to verify the folklores. Within the discipline of archaeology, its branch ‘Historical Archeology’ deals with historical sites, places, things etc. It can further help in analyzing the issues of historical importance where written records and oral traditions can inform and contextualize the cultural material. These records can both support or contradict the archaeological evidence found at a particular site. 

In Indian culture, the Truth (सत्य) is considered sacrosanct and that is evident from the dictums like सत्यमेवजयते’ and असतोमासद्ग्मय. Discovering the truth is an essential part of learning history as well as science. Knowing the correct history is the right of the people. We must know the correct history whether it’s good, bad, or ugly. The presence of many Hindu / Jain symbols at Qutub Minar, Taj Mahal, Gyanvyapi mosque and several other Islamic monuments make a case for a comprehensive investigation to know the truth.

  • What can be significant historiographic evidence to conclude, if these mosques / Islamic monuments were constructed by forcibly destroying Hindu / Jain temples?

Dr. Shalini Singh – The archaeological evidence can collaborate with historiographic evidence such as ‘Shahi Farman’ (Royal Decree) issued by Shahjahan and Aurangzeb clearly ordering the destruction of specific temples. The communication between the Mughal emperor and his  ‘Subedars’ (Governors) can be used as historiographic evidence. In the Gyanvapi case even the map, photographs and the court verdict of the British period can be referred to as historiographic evidence. All this evidence must corroborate the archaeological findings.

  • Is it possible to conclude through archaeological excavation and survey that these monuments or mosques were constructed by forcible destruction of Hindu / Jain or Buddhist religious places/institutions?

Dr. Shilpi Bajpai– Archeologically, through survey and excavation etc. we can examine the age and type of structure and other artefacts buried or present at the site. That will be a good indicator of human activities performed then. Based on that, multiple hypotheses can be developed. For example, there can be hypotheses regarding the destruction of Hindu temples that whether it was forcibly destroyed was it was destroyed due to natural calamities like Earthquake or sky lighting? If it was due to natural calamity then there must be a similar effect on the adjoining area also. If it was forcible destruction, then there must be the marks of hammer-like heavy objects on the damaged artefacts. Those hypotheses can be examined with logical analysis and reasoning. Historiographic references can also be used in the analysis. But we need to be careful as texts may not be giving adequate details. So, we need to consider all evidence holistically including the excavation of sites and the analysis of artefacts and other physical remains.

  • There is a clear trend of destroying Hindu / Jain temples or Buddhist places of worship. Was that for purely religious consideration or a psychological attack on the faith of non-Muslims?

Dr. Shalini Singh– As I mentioned earlier that during the second phase of the destruction of the temples, the sole objective was to develop and establish an Islamic State in India. For that their multi-prong approach was to attack and destroy the places of worship and centre of knowledge. To glorify Islamic identity they intentionally built mosques over destructed temple sites. That is how they wanted to weaken the masses psychologically so that the masses start losing the faith in their idols and can be easily converted to Islam. Aurangzeb even offered cash rewards and land for conversion 

  • There are many examples of Islamic monuments/mosques using the material coming from damaged or destroyed Hindu shrines. This is evident from the damaged idols and other Hindu religious symbols. What could be the possible reasons for using the material same as constructing the Islamic monuments/mosques? 

Dr. Shilpi Bajpai – There are two aspects of this point, the first is intent and the second is a necessity. The intent of using the same material from the destroyed temples needs to be deciphered by historiographic evidence. Archaeologically it can be determined if there was a substantial time gap between the demolition of one monument and the reconstruction of another while using the same material. If it was forced destruction of Hindu / Jain / Buddhist shrines then constructing a new Islamic monument or mosque at the same site and using the same material, maybe the intent of humiliating the local people. 

  • Could you please elaborate on the main Hindu temples which have been destroyed and now a Mosque or some Islamic monuments stand at the same site?

Dr. Shalini Singh – See the list is long. An eminent historian Sitaram Goel in his book ‘Hindu Temples : What happened to them’ had compiled a list of around 1800 temples and institutions with references, that were destroyed by Islamic invaders and rulers.

Dr. Shilpi Bajpai is a faculty in Deakin University, Melbourne (Australia) and Dr. Shalini Singh was Asst. Professor of History at Banasthali Vidyapith, Rajasthan. Both are Senior Fellow at Bharat Punj.

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