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Hindu Response To Crisis: Knowing Us Through Architecture

The Hindu society's response to unbearable stress and strife has been one of construction while those panning the civilisation have a shameful history of destruction


These are hard times. The last great pandemic was more than a hundred years ago in 1918. It means that three generations have passed who had no living knowledge of a pandemic. Like an imaginary alien invasion, this is a crisis which should bring the entire humankind together. And yet we see that certain communities and certain groups are using this pandemic as an opportunity to destroy their enemies. While Tablighi Jamaat is trying to deliberately ignore the advice of the doctors and the governments and functioning as a power spreader, the ‘liberals’ are also behaving in a predictable but reprehensible manner. They are using this pandemic to blame the BJP government, the RSS and the Hindu society in general. Instead of decrying the terrorist behaviour of the Jamaat members, they are instead blaming the ‘Sangh culture’ for wanting to create Rama Temple and not hospitals instead.

The statement is wrong on so many levels that it hardly needs refutation. The ‘communalist’ organizations like the RSS are one of the topmost secular NGOs in India building hospitals. But a deeper malaise with this statement is that it is believed that only thing is possible: to either make hospitals or temples. This binary is false and needs to be refuted.

Similarly, the same charge of ‘wrong priorities’ is made whenever the heinous act of rape and murder occurs in India. The anger with law enforcement is understandable. Law enforcement in India is far from perfect and much needs to be done. The sexual revolution with its darker sides of kinky pornography and the resulting build of sexual frustration amongst directionless youth of today also contributes to the increasing spates of sexual crimes in India.

What is not understandable is the reaction of some liberals and neo-humanists who immediately embark upon politicizing this narrative by telling the administration to prevent the building of the Grand Ram Temple at Ayodhya. For them, either the women can be saved in India or temples can be built. And bred upon the left-liberal and Islamist propaganda they are also led to believe that it is particularly the temple builders who are rapists and the defenders of rapists. When the Muslims demand the building of a mosque, ironically no such demand is made by them.

This false binary created by the left-liberal media in India: that either women can be saved, or temples can be built, or either hospitals can be built or temples can be built, is instantly falsified when one sees the history of India.

How does the Hindu society respond to the times of unbearable stress and strife? Does it abandon any hope of survival and stop fighting? Does it turn all its resources towards fighting and turns its society in a war machine? Or does it tend to neglect the threat as long as possible? Or has it found a way to fight for survival and also lead a life worthy of an advanced, cultured and refined civilization?

It would be meaningful to see the historical examples before we reach a conclusion. When the Delhi Sultanate and other Muslim kings were devastating India, destroying Hindu temples and laying waste to every material aspect of the Hindu society, the response of the Hindu society was varied, manifold and interesting to study.

Not only were they putting up great fight to the Islamic invaders, giving them the hardest time they ever had anywhere in the world, they also did not stop creating great works of art, architecture, literature, music, dance and drama on the other hand.

On one hand, the act of destruction was going on. The Hindu society was doing what it was expected to do: to put up the greatest defense that they could muster, in order to save their culture and civilization. But this article is not about it. The story is well told by some of our greatest historians in the modern era, Sita Ram Goel and the others at Voice of India. I need not repeat it. This article is about the other side of the story.

While all this destruction was going on at one hand, the Hindu society was also engaged in some of the greatest acts of creation on the other.

Hindu symphony in stone

Most of the examples I take in this piece are from Hindu architecture. The Hindu temple is a very old institution. It is not just as old as the oldest examples found at Mahabalipuram in the south and Deograh and many other places in Madhya Pradesh would lead one to believe. Even before these earliest examples in stone the Hindu temple was built in other perishable materials and served temporary purposes.

Later on as Buddhism became ascendant in India and started creating great rock-cut architecture all across the country, the spiritual and political leaders of India felt it necessary to throw up an appropriate and creative response and the great flowering, the golden age of Hindu art and architecture began under the Imperial Guptas in the north and the Pallavas and the Cholas in the south. The great tradition was continued by many great dynasties to rule different parts of India after the Guptas. Some of the most prominent were: the Pratiharas, the Chalukyas, the Senas, the Palas, the Kalachuris, the Gangas, the Hoysalas, the Kakatiyas, the Cheras, the Pandyas etc.

Hindu Response To Crisis: Knowing Us Through Architecture
Brihadeeswarar Temple, Gangaikondacholapuram: A Chola Monument

This resulted in one of the greatest symphonies in stone that were ever created on earth. Within a span of a few centuries the Hindu civilization erected thousands upon thousands of magnificent rock-cut and structural temples in stone in virtually every corner of India. A brief timeline with comparison would drive home the point.

Islamic invasion and destruction of Hindu India

The Islamic invasion of India started with the conquest of Sindh in 712 CE. By this time, the Hindus had already been building great rock-cut as well as structural temples in India. The caves at Udaygiri in Vidisha, Madhya Pradesh and the temple site at Mahabalipuram along with many other sites in north, central and west India attest to this fact. The Jaina caves at Siddhachal hill in Gwalior had also started being excavated during this time.

Pancha Rathas, Mahabalipuram: A Pallava Monument

While Mir Qasim was invading Sindh, the site at Mahabalipuram was getting completed. Though most of the rathas that we see today had been completed by then, many cave temples along with many bas-reliefs were being carved as life and death struggle was going on in Sindh between the Hindu armies and the Islamic invaders. One could argue that these two regions of India were far from each other and thus this is not an apt example but the examples extend much further.

After one successful invasion of Sindh, the Hindu society became cautious of the Islamic invaders for around three centuries, and none of the subsequent Arab invasions in India became successful. Many dynasties contributed to this victory; of which two dynasties deserve special mention: the Gurjara-Pratiharas in the north and the Chalukyas in the Deccan. Incidentally these are also the two dynasties that are credited with the explosion of temple building in India.

Sword and art of Pratiharas

In 738 CE, Nagabhatta I of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty led a confederation of the Hindu kings and squarely defeated the Muslim Arab invaders in Malwa.  At around the same time, the Gurjara-Pratiharas were creating the greatest laboratory of the structural Hindu temple in the north, at what is now Bateshwar, Morena, Madhya Pradesh. There were originally around 200 temples at this site, but right now around 44 still stand. (Hardy 23)

Hindu Response To Crisis: Knowing Us Through Architecture
Group of Temples, Bateshwar: A Gurjara-Pratihara Monument

This example is particularly significant because while on one hand the same dynasty and the same ruler was fighting off the most brutal and most unscrupulous invaders in the West, at the same time they were also commissioning the construction of the greatest cluster of temples that India had seen so far.

These temples at Bateshwar are also a crucial link in the evolution of the Hindu temple. Michael Meister considers them important as ‘Mandapika shrines’ as they were the first step after the Hindu temple had graduated from cave temples. They are the first examples of the structural temple with just a garbh-griha, a shikhara, complete with three to five rathas and a precursor of an antarala.

A Row of Temples at Bateshwar: A Gurjara Pratihara Monument

Another great temple site, at Naresar, in the very district of Morena was also being created around the same time period, the early 8th century. It now hosts around twenty-two temples, one of which is the first example of valabhi shikhara in the north. Just nearby, inside the Gwalior fort, the great ‘Teli Ka Mandir’ was also being created during this time. The temple is the largest of the Nagara temples with a valabhi shikhara. The shikhara is tall, rising up to 80 feet.

Hindu Response To Crisis: Knowing Us Through Architecture
Teli ka Mandir, Gwalior: A Gurjara Pratihara Monument

The architecture in stone that was germinated during the Gupta era, came to full-fledged maturation during the reign of the Pratiharas. The greatest of Nagara temples at Khajuraho, Badoli, Kiradu, Modhera etc. were created in the idiom which evolved during the reign of the Pratiharas. Most of the dynasties that created these great temples were once the vassals of the Pratiharas.

One only has to witness just one of these temples and the detail that they go into to imagine about the amount of thought and work that went into the conception and construction of these temples. To think that it was this dynasty which kept the Islamic invaders at bay for around three hundred years, while creating thousands of these great Hindu temples is beyond comprehension. The play of creation and destruction was going on simultaneously.

Architectural splendour of Badami Chalukyas

Another dynasty which defeated the Arab invasions was the Badami Chalukyas. In 739 CE, Pulakesin, the nephew of the Chalukya king Vikramaditya II, led a battle against the Arab invaders based in Sindh and defeated them in Gujarat, saving the state from the iconoclasm of the Muslims and locking India’s borders.

After the Arab conquest of Sindh, the Muslim invaders weren’t successful in India for about three centuries. Only with the Mahmud of Ghazni did they become successful again. In the meanwhile, Hindu dynasties all over India, were building great temples. The Kalachuris of Gharapuri were building the cave temples of Elephanta. The Rashtrakutas were carving out the monumental wonder of Kailashnath Temple, Ellora along with many others. The Kalachuris of Tripuri were creating the great temples near Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh.

Hindu Response To Crisis: Knowing Us Through Architecture
Kailashnath Temple, Ellora: A Rashtrakuta Monument

Chandelas and Solankis

In 1001 CE, Mahmud of Ghazni started his invasions of India. There were many and the historians disagree on the exact number but what is certain that he destroyed many cities and hundreds of temples during his campaigns, most notably the great Somnath. But even during this period, the temple construction did not stop.

The Khajuraho Group of Temples, built by the Chandella dynasty, arguably the greatest group of temples in the great Nagari idiom of the north which still survives, were built exactly during this period, from 950 CE to 1050 CE.

Kandariya Mahadeva, Khajuraho: A Chandella Monument

In Rajasthan and Gujarat during this time, the Maru-Gurjara idiom of the Nagara temple architecture was coming into maturity. The great Ambika Mata temple at Jagat, near Udaipur, arguably the greatest temple in western India still standing, was built in 10th century. At Baroli, in the Chittorgarh district, an entire complex was built which still stands exquisite after so much destruction.

In Siddhpur, the Chalukyas of Gujarat built the great temple of Rudra Mahalaya and many others which were later destroyed by Alauddin Khilji and then the Sultans of Gujarat. The great Sun Temple at Modhera in Gujarat in 1026-27 CE was built just after a devastating attack of Mahmud of Ghazni which destroyed Somnath. Needless to say, Somnath was built again.

In Osian, great temples were being built from 8th to 12th centuries which still stand after destruction at the hands of the Delhi sultanate. Rani Ki Vav, the greatest step well ever built, which was also intended as a temple, was built at Patan during the 11th century by queen Udaymati, a vassal of the Chalukyas.

Hindu Response To Crisis: Knowing Us Through Architecture
Vimana Avatara, Rani ki Vav, Patan: A Solanki Monument

After the Ghaznavid invasions, the Islamic invaders could not get much success until the Ghurid dynasty started invading India in the late 12th and early 13th century CE. An extremely violent and unfortunate period in Indian history began when the Delhi Sultanate was established in 1214 CE in Delhi. In the ensuing centuries, the greatest genocide that mankind has ever seen was perpetrated upon Hindus by the Islamic Sultanate of Delhi and then by Mughals. Millions were killed, thousands of cities and lakhs of villages were destroyed. Untold destruction was heaped upon Hindu society, culture and civilization. Temples obviously were the first target of these empires.

Even during this extremely unfortunate time, temple building kept up in India. In the north it visibly slowed down because in many places Hindus were simply wiped out and in the Ganga-Yamuna doab the Muslim dynasties kept ruling for the next five hundred years. However, it did not stop altogether.

Solankis, the vassals of the Chalukyas of Gujarat were building the great temple complex at Kiradu in Barmer district of Rajasthan. The Ghurid invasions destroyed many of these temples but they were promptly rebuilt by the Solankis. An 1178 CE Kiradu inscription, issued during the reign of the Chalukya monarch Bhima II, records repairs to a temple damaged by the Ghurid invasion.

Cholas build monumental architecture while Ghazni invades

In the south India, the temple building was just exploding during this time. In 1003 CE, just two years after the first invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni, the great Chola King Rajaraja Chola started building the Brihadeeswarar Temple at Thanjavur, their capital. The temple was completed in 1010 CE. This temple, with a height of sixty-six metres, is arguably the greatest temple built in the early Dravida idiom. The Cholas kept building great temples at Pudukottai, Darasuram, Kumbakonam, Gangaikondacholapuram and many other places. The Pandyas also kept building great temples at Kalugamalai, Tirunelveli and Madurai.

Hindu Response To Crisis: Knowing Us Through Architecture
Brihadeeswar Temple, Thanjavur: A Chola Monument

Temple building spree in Karnataka, simultaneous Islamic destruction

The Kalyani Chalukyas in Karnataka were creating an entirely new idiom, the Vesara style of the temple shikhara and creating hundreds of temples in Karnataka and nearby regions. These temples are so many that just naming them would be impossible in this article. Gerard Foekema counts 225 temples building during the time of Kalyani Chalukyas. Gadag, Lakkundi, Balligavi, Itagi, Sudi, Lakshmaeshvar, Haveri etc. are just some of the few sites where one can find many of these great temples.

Hindu Response To Crisis: Knowing Us Through Architecture
Kedareshwar Temple, Balligavi: A Chalukyan Monument

The greatest innovation of the Kalyani Chalukyas was that they decentralized the entire temple building tradition in India. Earlier, most of the temples were built with the active patronage of the kings and dynasties. The Chalukyas kept up the patronage too but they also decentralized the system and involved the entire society in the temple building tradition. As a result, one can find greatest of the Chalukyan temples in every small villages and tehsils of north and central Karnataka. All this while, the Islamic iconoclasm was going on all over India.

Meanwhile other smaller dynasties like the Kakatiyas of Warangal were also borrowing the tradition of Chalukyas and were building great temples at Warangal, Kotagiri and other sites. The Kakatiya dynasty was established in 1163 CE and for the next two hundred years it functioned during the height of Islamic destruction in India. It was eventually defeated by the Delhi Sultanate, but during its reign it kept building great temples. One of those temples, hidden besides a hill in the region around Warangal, the Ramappa temple, survived unscathed and is on its way to become a world heritage site.

The Cheras in Kerala meanwhile were building temples undisturbed.

Tripallur Shiva Temple, Pallakad: A Chera Monument

Hindu sculpture and architecture reaches zenith in Hoysala art, Delhi Sultanate destroys

The Delhi Sultanate destroyed many of these kingdoms and they went down but not without giving a stiff fight to the Islamic kings. Even though the Delhi Sultanate could not rule major parts of South India for long, its raids and brief periods spread untold destruction on the Hindu temples all over India, even in the deepest parts of Tamil Nadu like Madurai.

But the Hindu spirit was unquenchable. Many dynasties matured during the time of the Delhi Sultanate like the Hoysala who took the Vesara tradition to its height. The Hoysala sculpture is one of the finest in India and they covered every inch of the temple in exquisite and extremely fine sculpture. The Delhi Sultanate wreaked havoc upon all of these kingdoms and many were destroyed due to that.

Chennakeshava Temple, Somnathpur: A Hoysala Monument

Vijayanagara creates marvels, destroys enemy

But the Hindu spirit is undefeatable. A great resistance in the Deccan rose in the name of the Vijayanagara Kingdom which was constituted for the specific reason of resisting the Islamic advance in India. And they succeeded in that for more than two hundred years. The entire reign of Vijayanagara was wrought with constant battles with Islamic kingdoms of the Deccan but it still kept building great temples and took the temple building tradition in the Dravida idiom to new heights. The ruins of Hampi are enough to testify to this. They also restored many temples that were destroyed earlier.

The Garuda Ratha, Vitthala Temple, Hampi: A Vijayanagara Monument

Not only this, but the court of the great Vijayanagara King Krishnaraja also pursued all other arts with a gusto which can scarcely be matched with times of strife like the dynasty was in. Sandeep Balakrishna attests to this scale of living in his work 70 Years of Secularism:

“Even if we ignore the gem-studded walls and diamond-encrusted pillars of the houses of the period, we still come away with a truly impressive picture of home constructions built to suit all seasons. A perron, each at the entrance of the house; carvings on pillars; paintings on walls; storeys at a great height and openings therein to enjoy the cool moonlight ; shrines, and multi-hued flags atop the house; a large flower-garden with a pond full of red lotuses; fountains; those who could afford it also had an artificial hillock built next to it, complete with small caverns bored into it and steps built to reach its summit. Given how severe summers were in Vijayanagara, there were separate air-conditioned rooms cooled by water continually splashing on the outer walls. Parrots, swans, peacocks, pigeons, deer, all formed part of the family. As a pastime, womenfolk of the house taught parrots how to speak, and coached peacocks in playing sports.” (Balakrishna 85)

The Mughals put an end to temple building in many parts of India but most of India was still building great temples. The great temples at Chittorgarh fort are a testimony to that. And after the demise of the power of the Mughals, the reign was taken by the Marathas who reconstructed many temples all over India.

To conclude, there is scarcely a year of Islamic destruction in India when the Hindu society has not responded with great construction. While the destruction accompanied the destruction of society, mass rapes of Hindu women, genocides and mass culling of Hindu children, women and men. The Hindu society, whenever it got time, kept building temples, kept pursuing arts and fine arts. And all this while it never forgot its martial duty of defending its kingdom and fighting the enemies, both external and internal.

So, yes, India does need to work upon its health care system and medical facilities. With rising population and rising standards, it does need to build new hospitals and educate even more of its people to become health care workers. Also, it does need to work more on women’s security in India, and much remains unaccomplished now. Not only the government but the society as a whole has to ponder about not just punishing the victim but also preventing such acts in not just legal but also social and other ways. But that does not warrant a moratorium on the creation of fine arts, sculpture, architecture, music, dance and drama in India. So yes, we need to work on saving our countrymen from the Corona Virus pandemic. We do need to save the daughters of India, but nowhere does that say that we shouldn’t build a grand Ram Temple! Jai Shri Ram!

Pankaj Saxena
Pankaj Saxena
Author writing on history, Hindu architecture and literature, chief editor of Indic Varta, currently working at Centre for Indic Studies

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Pankaj Saxena
Pankaj Saxena
Author writing on history, Hindu architecture and literature, chief editor of Indic Varta, currently working at Centre for Indic Studies


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