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Flight Of Deities: A Tale Of Dharmic Resistance


प्रतिष्ठायां सुराणां तु देवतार्चानुकीर्तनं |

देवयज्ञोत्सवं चापि बन्धनाद्येन मुच्यते ||

One must know the true nature and power of divine murthys while consecrating them; By worshipping such images through utsavas and yajnas, one obtains liberation from this worldMatsya Purana

Meenakshi Jain’s latest book “Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples, Episodes from Indian History” is an extraordinary narration of an unfortunate part of Hindu history. It documents the struggle and, in some cases, survival of Bharata’s splendid temples and their revered deities. It is the product of a painstaking effort on the part of the author to gather information from primary sources and observation of the remnants of the heroic struggle of the Hindu community to protect their temples and murthys in the wake of centuries of attacks by Islamic invaders and other non-dharmic civilizations. By covering every part of the country, the author highlights how the problem of iconoclasm affected every nook and corner of this great civilization and brings forth an interesting truth about how a common zeal and belief bound the dharmic citizens of this country.

It is an often asked question as to how the Hindu religion survived foreign onslaughts for over a thousand years. Meenakshi Jain’s book offers a possible explanation to this question. A combination of the extreme allegiance of the Hindu rulers of this country towards Dharma and the unflinching faith and devotion of the ordinary Hindus of this country in their deities and places of worship ensured this survival.

With 600+ pages the book packs accurate historical account and chronicles the struggles of the temples and deities in different parts of India. . The history of the temples of Multan, the destruction of sacred sites in Kashmir, the battles in Ayodhya to reclaim the most revered spot in Bharata, the tenacity of Somnath, the tragedy of Tamil Nadu’s holiest kshetras – all of these are well highlighted in separate chapters in this book. However, there does emerge three distinct themes in the story of each of these places,

  1. The doggedness and religious zeal of the iconoclastic invaders over hundreds of years. Narration of their relentless attacks on the epicenters of Bharata’s dharmic religions.
  2. The heroic fight back from our dharmic rulers. Their sworn faithfulness to sanatana dharma and never-say-die attitude to ensure its survival.
  3. The unflinching faith of thousands of ordinary people of this country who valued the temples and deities more than their own lives.

Bharata under attack – a thousand year war

If you are looking for a single book that gives you a comprehensive account of the wanton destruction unleashed on our glorious temples, look no further. Every chapter of this book provides minute details on the barbarity of the invaders from the west. In her typical style, Meenakshi Jain supports every one of her assertions about these unfortunate incidents with copious references and quotes, leaving one staring at the harsh, but irrefutable, truth.

The details of every one of our invaders from Ghori to Ghaznavi to the Khiljis to the Tughlaqs finds mention in the appropriate chapters. Aurangzeb’s maniacal obsession with eliminating temples is highlighted in multiple chapters, indicating how widespread his atrocities were. The destruction of so many of our precious lands due to the Anglo-French conflicts and the contributions of the Portuguese in the loot of this civilization also finds mention.

The great Sun temple of Multan was one of the early victims of iconoclasm. In the early part of the 8th century C.E it was attacked and destroyed by Muhammad Bin Qasim. The author quotes Alberuni to show how it was religious iconoclasm that led to the destruction of the most revered temple of those times.

“When Muhammad Ibn Alkasim Ibn Almunnabih conquered Multan, he inquired how the town had become so very flourishing and so many treasures had there been accumulated, and then he found out that this idol was the cause….. therefore he thought it best to have the idol where it was, but he hung a piece of cow’s-flesh on its neck by way of mockery. On the same place a mosque was built”

In the chapter on Kashmir and its temples, the author describes the destruction of innumerable temples by Sultan Sikandar in the 14th and 15th century. So complete was the annihilation he brought about that he earned a special nickname.

“The process of destruction and denudation started in the later part of the reign of Sultan Sikandar (1389-1413) who earned the epithet Butshikan (idol breaker) by virtue of his breaking the images and demolishing the temples”

These temples were burnt down by piling heaps of timber in the temples and setting fire to these heaps.

Kashi, of course, is ground-zero when it comes to places of tirthayatra in Bharata. For the very same reason, it was a marked place – by the invaders. The scale of destruction too was keeping in mind the hallowed position of the place.

“In 1194 C.E Qutubudding Aibak, military commander of Muhammad Ghori, led a force that devastated Benaras. Hardly a shrine survived the offensive…Hasan Nizami claimed that over a thousand temples were ravaged….”

What common event occurred in Bharata that connects the 1st, 7th, 10th, 11th, 14th and 17th century C.E? The answer lies in the chapter on Gujarat. The Somnath temple, located in the eastern entrance of Bharata was destroyed repeatedly in these time periods. Mahmud Ghaznavi, Alauddin Khilji, Sultan Ahmed Shah and Aurangzeb were some of the infamous attackers who oversaw the repeated bringing-down of the ‘Eternal Shrine’.

In a chapter detailing the plight of temples and deities in the south, Meenakshi Jain documents how the great Srirangam temple in Tamil Nadu too was subject to repeated attacks and wanton destruction. In the 14th century, the temple was attacked twice within a period of 12 years – first by Malik Kafur and then by Ulugh Khan. The deity was displaced as a result.

“The Koil Olugu stated that the exile of Perumal lasted fifty-nine-and-a-half years, of which two years were spent in the palace of the Sultan”

In addition, Malik Kafur’s southern expeditions led to the savage destruction of the temples in Devagiri, Warangal and Dwarasamudra (Halebidu, Karnataka).

The Islamic invaders were not alone in destroying the Hindu heritage. The Portuguese engaged in similar activity during their initial phase of occupation of Goa. Their scale of destruction was equally shocking.

“At the time of the Portuguese advent, there were at least 124 distinct temples for 564 divinities in Goan villages. The temples were subjected to large-scale destruction by the Portuguese, many were converted to churches”

Thus the book provides a comprehensive, and eye-opening, historical account of the travails of our temple towns and cities and their pitiable fate at the hands of invaders.

The Dharmarajas of Bharata

The second key insight from Meenakshi Jain’s extensive research is the dedication and efforts put by various rulers all over Bharata to negate the intentions of the invaders. In each chapter, the author narrates details of the kings and rulers who fought the invaders (many a time leading to their death), reconstructed temples as soon as the threat of the invaders receded, made grants for the upkeep of the temples and assured safety of the places. They kept the fire of devotion burning in the hearts of the devotees. They passed on the baton of dharma to the next generation. They ensured our heritage lived on in temples, rather than in museums.

While discussing Mathura, the hallowed land of Krishna, the author describes how the Gahadavala Kingdom who ruled the region in the 12th century C.E went to great extents to protect sanatana dharma. They were “champions of Hinduism” who declared themselves as the protectors of the Indian “tirthakshetras”. As a response to the Islamic challenge they even shifted their capital from Kanauj to the holy city of Varanasi! In order to effectively respond to the military might of the invaders, the Gahadavalas even levied a “Turks tax” called as turuskadanda.

The author narrates a similar effort by Sawai Jai Singh, the ruler of Amer, following the death of Aurangzeb at the beginning of the 18th century. He successfully pleaded with the Mughal ruler to abolish the jizya tax on the pilgrims of Gaya. In addition

“Jai Singh strove to improve conditions for Pilgrims in Hindu sacred sites. In 1773, he secured the faujdari of Gaya, in addition to that he held of Mathura, which enabled him to contribute to the betterment of holy sites in the regions…”

While discussing the unique contribution of Rajasthan in providing resort to numerous deities during the tyranny of various invaders, the author enlightens us about the tremendous contributions of Rai Singh, the ruler of Bikaner.

“In 1583, Rai Singh succeeded in obtaining from Akbar the 1050 Jain idols looted from Sirohi in 1576 C.E. He dedicated them to the Chintamani temple at Bikaner”

The extra-ordinary dharma-karya of the Peshwas throughout Bharata is also well brought out. The construction of a Vishwanath temple at Kashi, the rebuilding of the Mahakaleshwar temple at Ujjain by the Diwan of the Peshwa in 1745 C.E, the repeated grants made to the Tuljapur Bhavani temple, the grants by Shivaji’s son Rajaram to the Pandarapur temple and the frequent visits, and grants, of the Peshwas to the Tirupati temple have been highlighted throughout the book. The Marathas truly displayed their affiliation for Dharma by upholding the same in all four corners of the country.

The story of Bharata’s dharma-protectors can never be complete without mentioning the contributions of the Vijayanagara rulers. A great amount of detail has been provided in the book about the contributions of this kingdom.

“An interesting inscription (No 5 from Bennur, dated 1347 C.E) stated that the divine cow, Kamadhenu, complained to Shiva that it was very difficult to walk on one leg……..Shiva recognized the gravity of the situation and said he would send King Sangama, and dharma would stand firmly again. The inscription was a declaration that Vijayanagara was founded to re-instate dharma

The greatest amongst the Vijayanagar emperors, Sri Krishnadevaraya, was an ardent devotee of the Pandarapura Vittala. When the place was confronted with a Muslim threat

“Krishnadeva Raya took the image for its security, and it was returned in safer times (Ranade 1933)”

The fine analysis of the case of the Vittala idols of Pandarapura and Hampi is a treat to read, and one of the highlights of the book.

Similarly, during the discussion on the temples of Tamil Nadu, the author elaborates how the main idol of Srirangam was taken to Melkote in Karnataka and subsequently to Tirupati to save it from the marauding invaders. An officer of Vijayanagara king Harihara II, Gopana Udaiyar, helped in reinstating the idol back at Srirangam.

At the end of the reading, one is left with no doubt that the Hindu dharma has survived due to the strong and continuous patronage it has received from devout rulers of this great land. This, however, is no longer true in post-independence India where the rulers of the day take pride in calling themselves “secular” and trying to “stay away from anything to do with religion”.

Ordinary people – Extraordinary sacrifices

The third highlight of the book is the fascinating narration of the efforts put in by ordinary people to save their deities and their abodes. Followers of the sanatana dharma have always believed that the murthy of a deity, once consecrated, has the divine presence of the deity and that its exalted status does not diminish especially if the consecration was performed by a great sage or devata himself. This has reflected in the great lengths to which people went, during the past ten centuries, in trying to save precious murthys and preserve them for safer times. The book contains details of many such incidents from all over the country.

While narrating the history of the controversy over the Rama Janmabhumi site at Ayodhya, the author explains how the sacred spot has always been sought back by the devotees of Rama. Ever since Babur destroyed the mandir, the people of Ayodhya have been seeking it back. Meenakshi Jain quotes the report of Muhammad Ibrahim, Inspector of Waqf, 1948, on the never-say-die attitude of the Hindus.

“At the time of the Shube namaz, a lot of noise is created, and when the namazis leave, from the surrounding houses shoes and stones are hurled…the bairagees said the Masjid is Janmabhumi, and so give it to us…I spent the night in Ayodhya, and the bairagees are forcibly taking possession of the Masjid…”

When Aurangzeb issued a royal decree in 1669 C.E to destroy every temple in Mathura and Vrindavan, the pious devotees and priests of the temples there arranged a mass migration of the deities. In order to protect the murthy of Govindadeva from the onslaught of the Mughal rulers, the devotees moved the deity to eight different places over a period of 48 years! At eight different places, from Radhakund to Kaman to Govindhagada to finally Jaipur, temples were built and the deity worshipped. He found his permanent abode at Jaipur in 1727 C.E.

At Shatrunjay in Gujarat, the Jain devotees of Adinatha came up with a most unique, but painful, method to prevent the destruction of their revered temple and its deity.

“Henry Cousens observed miniature masonry idgahs in front of the tower of the Adinatha temple, as well as above the south corridor, and the adjoining temple. According to him, Jains claimed to have built the idgahs themselves to protect the temple from Muhammadans!”

Having learnt that it was contrary to Islam to destroy an idgah or mosque, they built the mosque in such a way that if the Adinatha temple was razed it would fall on the idgah!

Another fervent attempt to safeguard a deity is described in the chapter on Eastern India. The Jagannatha idol of Puri, Odisha, was protected by the temple priests on countless occasions between the 16th century and the middle of the 18th century, when the Marathas took control. The priests had to escape with the deities on several occasions. On other occasions, the images were buried in sand, at other times kept in mud houses and worshipped.

When Aurangzeb explicitly ordered the destruction of the Jagannath temple in 1692 C.E, the ruler and the priests came up with a unique plan

“…the then Raja of Khurda met the Subadar and agreed to arrange a pretended demolition under his supervision. Some minor structures were pulled down, a replica image of Jagannath sent to Aurangzeb, and the main temple gates closed. Some priests, however, entered the temple through a secret side door in the southern wall and continued the daily rituals”

This arrangement continued for 15 years, till 1707 C.E when Aurangzeb died.

In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the devotees and priests took resort to the instructions in the Marici Samhita, a Vaikhanasa Vaishnavite text, that allowed for metal images to be buried in moments of calamity and restoring them for worship in propitious times.

“When there is fear from robbers, enemies, invasion by the opponent kings, or disturbances in the village, in order to protect the kautuka, snapana, utsava and balibera the metal images, and that of the goddesses should be hidden”

The great sacrifices of the Ullanat Panicker family of Kerala is narrated in the chapter on Guruvayur. In the aftermath of Tipu Sultan’s savage destruction of the temple and surroundings and declaration of Malabar as a part of Madras Presidency by the British (after Tipu’s death), the temple of Krishna fell into troubled times. Out of their own personal wealth, the Panickers took complete care of the temple for over seven decades!

“For seventy-five years, from 1825 to 1900 they served the temple free, and used the wealth of their vast estates to ensure it survived

The book is full of many more such wonderful tales of the heroic resistance of ordinary Hindus and their successes (and failures, sometimes).

Conclusion

Meenakshi Jain’s book is an absolute must-read, and a must-have for one’s personal collection. The chapters need slow reading, only because one needs to assimilate every bit of information it provides about the penance of our ancestors attempting to preserve our glorious heritage only so it could be passed on – to us!

Sticking to our roots, culture and heritage is only possible if our efforts are built on the foundation of knowledge, and consequent belief and pride in our tradition. A factual knowledge of our history, however bitter it may be, is therefore a pre-requisite. This is to be substantiated by stories of the efforts put in by our forefathers. Only then can the path laid down by them serve as a guide for us and our next generations. The present book is sure to serve as an invaluable instrument in our efforts.

Meenakshi Jain deserves our heartfelt thanks for creating such an honest work. It deserves to be read by every Hindu.

Title: Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples: Episodes from Indian History

Publisher: Aryan Books International (2019)

ISBN-10: 8173056196

ISBN-13: 978-8173056192

Disclosure: A short work of the reviewer has been referenced by the author in the book.


Hariprasad Nellitheertha
Hariprasad N is based out of Bangalore, and works in the Software Industry, mainly on Cloud Computing and Operating Systems. An alumni of SJCE, Mysore and IIM Bengaluru, Hari has special interests in the areas of Spirituality, Politics and Law. He blogs regularly on topics related to need for uniformity of law in India. Hari tweets as @pranasutra on Twitter.
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Hariprasad Nellitheertha

Hariprasad N is based out of Bangalore, and works in the Software Industry, mainly on Cloud Computing and Operating Systems. An alumni of SJCE, Mysore and IIM Bengaluru, Hari has special interests in the areas of Spirituality, Politics and Law. He blogs regularly on topics related to need for uniformity of law in India. Hari tweets as @pranasutra on Twitter.

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