What drove Muslim invaders to loot and destroy Hindu temples? Was it greed? Was it hatred of idol worship? Or was it contempt towards a conquered people? Ajmer offers possible answers
First, some trivia for history buffs. James Tod joined the Bengal Army as a cadet in 1799, presumably looking for a life of adventure in the heat and dust of India. He swiftly rose through the ranks and, as a Lieutenant-Colonel, the records of the times tell us, provided valuable service to the East India Company. His uncanny ability to gather information helped the early colonisers smash the Maratha Confederacy. Later, his assistance was sought during the Rajputana campaign.
Colonel Tod, as he was known, was a natural scholar with an eye for detail and a curious mind. He was fascinated by the history of Rajputana and its antiquities as much as by its palace intrigues and the shifting loyalties of its rulers and their factotums. That fascination led to his penning two books that are still considered mandatory reading for anybody interested in the history of the Rajputs, although latter-day scholars of the Marxist variety would disagree with both the contents and the style, neither leavened by ideological predilections. The first volume of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan was published in 1829 and the second in 1832, nearly a decade after he returned to Britain.
And now to present times. Thousands of people, Indians and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims, visit Ajmer every day to offer a chaadar at Dargah Sharif of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, a shrine where all are welcome and every prayer is answered, or so the pious choose to believe. Many stay on to visit the other antiquities of Ajmer, among them a magnificent mosque complex which bears little or no resemblance to its name: Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra.
People gawk at the columns and the façade intricately carved with inscriptions from the Quran in Arabic. They pose for photographs or capture the mosque’s ‘beauty’ on video cameras and carry back memories of Islam’s munificence towards its followers. Don’t forget to visit Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, they will later tell friends and relatives visiting Ajmer.
As for Indian Muslims who travel to Ajmer and see Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra, they would be tempted to wonder why similar mosques are no longer built, a wonderment that is only partially explained by the fact that sultans and badshahs no longer rule India. The crescent had begun to wane long before a derelict Bahadur Shah Zafar was propped up as Badshah of Hindoostan by the mutineers of 1857.
Such speculation as may flit through troubled minds need not detain us, nor is there any need to feel sorry for those who wallow in self-pity or are enraged by the realisation of permanent loss of power. A century and a half is long enough time to reconcile to the changed realities of today’s Hindustan.
So, let us return to Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra in Ajmer. Few who have seen and admired this mosque complex would be aware of Colonel Tod’s description of it in the first volume of Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan: “The entire façade of this noble entrance … is covered with Arabic inscriptions … but in a small frieze over the apex of the arch is contained an inscription in Sanskrit.” And that oddity tells the real story of Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra.
This is no place of worship built over weeks and months for the faithful to congregate five times a day, it is a monument to honour Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghauri who travelled through Ajmer after defeating, and killing, Prithviraj Chauhan in the second battle of Tarain in 1192 AD. Stunned by the beauty of the temples of Ajmer and shocked by such idolatory, he ordered Qutbuddin Aibak to sack the city and build a mosque, a mission to be accomplished in two-and-a-half days, so that he could offer namaz on his way back.
Aibak fulfilled the task given to him: He used the structures of three temples to fashion what now stands as Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra. Mindful of sensitivities, his men used their swords to disfigure the faces of figures carved into the 70 pillars that still stand. It would seem India’s invaders had a particular distaste for Indian noses portrayed in stone and plaster.
The story of Adhai Din Ka Jhonpra is not unique. Hindustan’s landscape is dotted with mosques built on sites where temples stood, often crafted with material from the destroyed places of worship. Quwwat-ul Islam, the first mosque built in Delhi, bears testimony to the ruthless invader’s smash-and-grab policy, as do the mosques Aurangzeb built in Kashi and Mathura, or the mosque Mir Baqi built at Ayodhya on the site Hindus believe to be, and revere as, Ram Janmasthan.
The pillars and inner walls of Babri Masjid, as the disputed structure was known till it came crashing down on December 6, 1992, were those of a temple that once stood there, a fact proven beyond doubt. Somnath was fortunate: It was sacked repeatedly, but no mosque came to occupy the land where it stood — and still stands — in Gujarat, a coastal sentinel guarding faith, culture, civilisation. The Vishwanath temple at Kashi was less fortunate as was Krishna Janamsthan in Mathura.
Strange as it may seem, such destruction, barring the illegitimate occupation by Muslims of Temple Mount revered by Jews in Jerusalem, never happened in the land considered holiest of all by followers of the three Abrahamic faiths. The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem commemorates (and preserves) the manger where Jesus Christ was born. In the walled city of Jerusalem stands the centuries old Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the spot where Jesus was crucified and the sepulchre where he was buried and from where he rose. These and many other Christian sites have remained untouched. As have Jewish sites.
What then explains the extraordinary destructive trait displayed by Muslim invaders who raided India again and again? It couldn’t just have been the wealth of temples (as Marxist historians who grudgingly concede temples were indeed attacked would forcefully argue in justification of the destruction), there has to be something more. Was it polytheism that upset the early age Islamists? Was it idol worship that enraged them? Or was it simply hate and contempt towards the conquered that drove the destructive impulse of the conquering invader?
Ironically, to ask these questions would be considered as ‘intolerance’ today. Positing possible answers would be labelled as ‘hate speech’. And those asking the questions and positing possible answers would be described as ‘Islamophobes’. History has truly been hijacked by the perverse politics of our times.
(This appeared as Coffee Break in The Pioneer on October 20, 2012)