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Historical Monuments in the Public Domain - Sudipta Sen


This lecture was delivered as part of the 6th annual History for Peace conference titled 'The Idea of Democracy' which was hosted in Kolkata through August 4, 5, and 6, 2022.

My talk today is dedicated to the memory of an enchantment. I would like to reminisce very briefly on how as an eight-year-old growing up in this very city of Kolkata I fell in love with ancient Indian history. This was just over two decades after the year 1947. There was no dearth of patriotism in Indian school classrooms. However, as children we were also invited to reflect on the antiquity and history of the subcontinent, to try and appreciate the vastness and complexity of the larger questions of history that lay behind the frontispiece of the nation. Some of the same questions and challenges remain today. How do we teach the history of India that is not simply the history of conquests and defeats, of winners and losers, or of outsiders versus insiders? I have been teaching Indian history now for over thirty years, and I marvel sometimes at how the word ‘invasion’ has become a generic, freestanding term over the decades. Our contemporary historical accounts replicate through rote the figment that an entity called ‘India’ has always been at the receiving end of repeated invasions. The weakness of India as a country and the sanctity of her borders, even if in the distant past there were none, is rendered timeless through this idea of perpetual geographical vulnerability. But who was invading whom and for what? Across which lines? And thus, a fresh coat of patriotism is applied to every act of conquest, jettisoning a question that should be important to all young students of history. What did the act of territorial conquest really mean—especially when kingdoms and empires did not have any fixed maps or borders? A narrow focus on the rise and fall of dynasties has obscured for a very long time the more valuable history of the passing and succession of regimes, and the handing over, transmission, possession and repossession of objects, artefacts, and structures. It is worth reflecting in this context how we have taught and still teach the history of conquest, defeat or assimilation of tribes, kingdoms, and empires with little thought about how past institutions, practices, customs and forms of religious belief persisted or manifested their presence within the depths of later, successive regimes. How can we teach such histories without dragging them into our present-day controversies about what patriotic or religious identity should look like? Or indeed the politics of majorities and minorities? Should not the classroom be spared from the mobilisation of history for narrow political ends? Today I would like to make a case, as forcefully as I can, about the teaching of history through public monuments and architecture, which are some of the most powerful and evocative tools for teaching history, acknowledging the fact that they are also particularly susceptible to misinterpretation or deliberate exploitation for the purpose of creating opposing narratives of ‘us’ and ‘them’, pitting Indians against non-Indians, and coreligionists against non-adherents.

The teaching of Indian history in this regard could take some salutary lessons from the teaching of world history, especially from the work of historians of architecture and architectural monuments. This is particularly instructive in parts of the world with overlapping territorial claims such as in premodern Europe, where people over many centuries have lived in proximity to historical memorials across many changing national borders. Following such structures and their changing significance over the passage of time let us consider the following questions. First, how were figures, emblems, buildings, structures, and architectural spaces assimilated, incorporated, reused, memorialised, or repatriated by new regimes, especially after a period of war and conquest—and especially during periods of history when the present-day form of the nation-state was not quite known? Second, what were the terms of such reuse? Was it simply for the purpose of exploiting material from buildings destroyed or dismantled: pillars, domes, lintels, murals, inscriptions? Or was such appropriation a deeper reflection of the desire to consume, digest and rehabilitate the aesthetic and visceral remains of regimes displaced? Or did acts of conquest involve a deeper acknowledgement of the gravitas and prestige of older dynasties and regimes humbled by newer ones? Third, what kind of historic aura did broken columns and defaced images invoke for a new political order? How important was the dismantling or reclamation of earlier structures for its own architectural legacy? These questions lead us a step forward from uncritical, textbook versions of invasion, conquest, and defeat, or routine descriptions of looting, plunder and ‘sacking’ of capitals and cities. I think that our young students of history should be encouraged to think more critically about the nuances and implications of spoliation, including the breaking or appropriation of fragments of buildings and structures of a defeated kingdom, and the display of fragments and icons of the defeated enemy as trophies by new, victorious kingdoms. Such dramas and rituals of conquest and possession are the staples of all histories, including the history of Indian kingdoms and empires from antiquity. A free exercise of historical imagination and acknowledgment of different possibilities of historical interpretation on this score should be instructive, and not threatening, to the modern conceptions of citizenship and nationhood.

Architectural historians, who study the history of such objects and structures, often use the old Roman/Latin term spolia. They make a distinction between spolia in se and spolia in re: the taking of material objects (images, artefacts, buildings) as opposed to virtual and aesthetic entities (designs, motifs, styles, rituals). Let us take a well-known example to illustrate this point, namely, the exploits of Mahmud of Ghazni. Mahmud, in the bid to enhance his status as a defender of the Islamic faith, took bits of monasteries and temples, including fragments of Hindu idols as trophies—if one were to believe Arab chroniclers of subsequent centuries—to his new capital in Ghazni, Afghanistan. During the latter part of his reign, he also issued coins bearing the image of Lakshmi, which is hardly surprising, given the fact that he had finally defeated the frontier kingdom ruled by the Shahi dynasty and had incorporated their territories into his domain, which would have included all the trans-Himalayan trade routes and caravan trails. Fragments of buildings and coins are specific and potent objects of value. The second kind, spolia in re for Mahmud’s Ghazni would have included the thousands of books and manuscripts in his fabled library. This second order of spolia, going back to examples from Roman antiquity, included the appropriation of books and libraries, texts, formulae, charms, and incantations, and in an extended sense, the acquisition of new norms, habits, forms of knowledge, and the deciphering and translation of new tongues and scripts. Mahmud’s patronage of literature, especially his commission of Ferdowsi’s great epic poem Shahnameh―a distillation of the Sassanian book of kings in pre-Islamic Persia―belong to such assertions of pre-eminence. Our textbooks list the victories and defeats of empires and kingdoms, but they seldom delve into the aftermath of such events. What exactly happened after military engagements, looting, arson, and the taking of cities and prisoners? Why were some cities and capitals sacked and others not? What were the heralds of conquest and glory: the capture of flags, or even the symbolic capture of rivers as a sign of territorial reach and prowess? When I think of symbols of triumph, I imagine Dhruva Dharavarsha of the Rashtrakutas or Rajendra Chola of Tamil country washing their war elephants in the holy waters of the Ganga or returning with Ganga-water as trophy to their capitals. I introduce students to the history of temples and towers of victory built specifically to commemorate the valiant rulers in battle with formidable enemies. One of the most common aspects of spoliation in ancient India among warring Hindu regimes was the desecration and destruction of temples, the looting and recycling of images, and the display of such trophies of war in the temples and battlements of the conquering regimes. One could teach an entire course on the repeated invasion of cities such as Kanauj, after its rise to prominence as the stronghold of the Maukhari dynasty in the western Gangetic plains—possibly the most invaded Indian city in the post-Gupta era—which was laid to waste more than a dozen times. Think of the remarkable succession of marches and protracted sieges, and the number of times the city must have been deserted, depopulated, and rebuilt.

Kanauj itself was the site of spectacular spolia during the time of Harshavardhan’s rule. To show what military exploits of such post-Gupta kingdoms might have entailed, I ask my students to read the great writer Banabhatta’s account of emperor Harshavardhana, which contains a detailed description of the spoils of Harsha’s elder brother prince Rajyavardhana’s last great victory in Malwa before his death, brought back to the imperial capital by the faithful commander and cousin Bhandi. The loot included the defeated king’s army and equipage, numerous war elephants ‘great as moving boulders’, prized war horses caparisoned and decked with ornaments, pearl necklaces snatched from the necks of royal women, white flywhisks made of yak tails, the vanquished king’s white umbrella with a golden stock, female captives beautiful as celestial nymphs, lion-crested thrones of gold, and couches and stools. The victorious army had also seized the treasure chests of Malwa laden with ‘wreaths of ornaments’ along with detailed inventories of their contents. These spoils of war were accompanied by a long line of retainers of the Malwa ruler captured alive, their feet bound together in iron chains.

While embellished with a degree of literary flamboyance, Bana’s account nonetheless provides a vivid image of the rich harvest of the Malwa campaign circa seventh century CE. We can draw a parallel from the near-contemporary Roman Empire, which had established a long and rich tradition of the display of objects seized in war as a vital aspect of its exercise of power. Seizure of such objects as talismans from the defeated was also a symbolic appropriation of the potency of one’s enemy, which is why weapons of fallen combatants were so prized by Roman patricians and plebeians alike. The sack of temples and capture of idols is particularly noteworthy in the fierce Roman campaigns waged against the Greek islands of the Aegean, intended to strip the enemy of its divine protection. Graven images of conquered regimes ended up in the imperial treasury as well as in private collections as cumulative inventories of past laurels: for example, Roman emperor Titus’s conquest of Judea and the sacking of the Second Temple. At times, such spolia also served to reaffirm Roman gods and Roman ways of worship. Romans proudly displayed their trophies in the Temple of Jupiter, and Roman patricians decorated their villas with shields, enemy standards, along with the prows and beaks of vessels destroyed in naval combat. One can only imagine the plunder pouring into the capital during the siege of the Greek islands, which would have included the arms and armour from enemy chieftains slain in distant battlefields, idols seized from temples, agorae, and shrines to be reinstated in Roman shrines, and paintings, sculptures, and other objects of art.

In India as well, the triumphal display of spolia was an integral part of warfare and dynastic rivalry. Conquering Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms routinely looted cultural artefacts of enemies, especially temple idols. This was a habitual feature of warfare especially in southern India. Pallavas flew the palidhvaja (flags in rows) on the battlefield. These were multiple pennants and war standards captured from fallen kings strung together into giant banners. The Rashtrakuta imperial standard wielded an image of the eagle-winged Garuda, Vishnu’s triumphal mascot rising from the lotus, and branching out from this central staff were the pennants and emblems of the various dynasties that they had conquered. The Nesarika grant of Govinda III lists the insignias appropriated by the Rashtrakutas from thirteen defeated kings. Among these were fish of the Pandyas of Tamil country, bulls of the Pallavas, tiger of the Cholas, elephants of the Gangas, bows of the Keralas (Malabar), and different kinds of boars of the Andhras, Chalukyas (Vengi), and the lesser Mauryas. The Rashtrakutas also displayed captured objects and valuables taken during their legendary campaigns in their royal temples: a doorkeeper carved on an oblong tablet used as a standard by the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty ruling in Kanauj, figures taken from Sinhala (Sri Lanka) as well, and an image of the goddess Tara (tarabhagavati) seized from King Dharmapala of Bengal.

Of course, these vignettes of rival Shaiva and Vaishnava dynasties warring and looting, do not typically appear in our school history textbooks. The opposite is true, however, of the history of ‘Islamic conquest’ and the acts of desecration perpetrated by invaders such as Mahmud of Ghazni or Muhammad Ghori. Here the appropriation of buildings and building materials from Hindu, Jain and Buddhist antiquity takes centre stage in Indian history as the violation of its heritage. The spoliation of Islamic regimes, even those that ruled from within the geographical confines of the middle-Gangetic valley, is still seen as acts of ‘outsiders’. In drawing such lines, we project modern-day national identities and geographical boundaries onto empires and kingdoms that knew no such distinctions. Here we could take some notes from the history of intra-European dynastic campaigns during the post-Roman era. It would be as if the appropriation of Rome and Roman antiquities as Carolingian monuments in the Loire Valley during the ninth century CE were taught today as the imposition of French national claims over the symbols of an original Italian victory (Italy was not known as a nation until the early 1860s). Of course, we do not see the Italians and the French fighting today over Roman or Carolingian monuments or the repatriation of antiques! It is important to remind ourselves that the architectural assimilation of bits and pieces of the material past has been a perennial element of the passage of empires and kingdoms across the spectrum of human history. Consider the Arch of Constantine in Rome and its strata of recycled fragments from previous epochs, woven together into an architectural statement where it is very difficult to figure out the exact antiquity or historical authenticity of individual pieces. The layering of past histories imagined or displayed in the same structure suggests that the afterlife of historic monuments continues for centuries, long after the original inspiration for their construction has faded from historical memory. The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus in the old city of Damascus, which is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world built after the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634 CE, was built on a sacred site dedicated to the ancient Syrian god of tempest, Hadad, where the Romans had also built a temple to Jupiter. At the time of the construction of the mosque, a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist (Yahya) also stood on the spot. To this day, the mosque nestles a shrine that some people still believe contains the head of John the Baptist, honoured as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims alike. Here is a ‘conquered’ monument that has retained its aura across many centuries shared by people belonging to different and sometimes antagonistic religious traditions.

In India, dynasties that arrived hundreds of years after the fall of the ancient Maurya Empire still sought to appropriate the symbols of Maurya royalty to stake their claims over Indian antiquity. I am thinking here of our famous Asokan pillars. Bearing the edicts of Asoka, fashioned out of sandstone quarried from near the Kaimur Hills in Chunar near Varanasi, were transported to various sites during the 3rd century BCE. The Allahabad Pillar inscription bears not only Asoka’s celebrated message to his subjects but also the inscription of the fourth century Gupta emperor Samudra Gupta. It does not end there. It also carries the imprint of the seventeenth century Mughal Emperor Jahangir, as the pillar was reinstalled during Jahangir’s father Akbar’s reign from its original location to his great Allahabad fort on the Ganges overlooking the confluence of Prayag. Both the Delhi-Topra pillar that stands over the palace (now in ruins) of Firuz-Shah Kotla and the Delhi-Meerut pillar, were transported by wheeled cars and barges along the Jumna river during the fifteenth century by Firuz Shah Tughluq. Firuz Shah was fascinated by empires of Hindu antiquity and employed scholars to try and decipher the Brahmi script in which Asoka’s messages were written. In this regard, the Tughluqs and the Mughals were as interested in claiming the legacy of Asoka, as was the Gupta emperor Samudra Gupta.

It is in this context of shared architectural and historical space that we must address the controversial subject of the destruction of temples as an extension of warfare. Yes, Hindu regimes routinely destroyed each other’s temples, and many temples were built specifically to commemorate imperial conquest―ask anyone who teaches the history of the Pallavas, Chalukyas, Pandyas, Rashtrakutas and especially the Cholas. During the fierce contest, over territorial supremacy in the Deccan, between the Pallavas and Chalukyas, Pallava king Narasimhavarman commissioned the Mallikarjuna temple in the heart of the Chalukya capital, with an inscription proclaiming his military triumph over the Chalukya capital Badami (he took the title of the seizer of Vatapi, vatapi-konda). In response, Queen Lokamahadevi, wife of Vikramaditya I, had the Virupaksha temple built in 745 CE to commemorate the victory of her husband, ‘captor of Kanchi’, over the Pallavas. The Cholas raided the temples and monasteries of their rivals: for example, they captured a famous Chalukya statue of the goddess Durga to be displayed in a temple at the Chola capital. Such rivalry between local Hindu kingdoms continued, even during the so-called period of Islamic invasions. During many of Mahmud of Ghazni’s attacks and raids on ill-defended and vulnerable temples of western India, chiefs of rival Rajput clans took opposing sides. Such older and local dynastic feuds played a part in the destruction of Hindu idols and the ritualistic defacement of human features of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist sculptures by early Islamic regimes that expanded across the Gangetic valley.

However, along with ritual acts of iconoclasm, we must also discuss how Muhammad Ghori and his successors, during the late 12th and early 13th centuries CE, built at least five major mosque complexes. These were made of brick, mosaic, and terra-cotta, and were located across northern India, with fragments of Hindu and Jain temples dating to the eighth or ninth century CE, drawing on the architectural repertoire of their enemies: Chahamana, Gahadavala, Chalukyas and Chandelas. Take the following examples: Adhai-din-ka-Jhopra mosque near the dargah of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, the Shahi Masjid north-west of Ajmer, the Chaurasi Khamba Kaman, near Mathura, and of course, the Qutub Minar—where the pillars are displayed not only as prizes of conquest but also a tribute to local designs and motifs. In none of these structures, it is possible to tell with any degree of accuracy which original temple or monastery, whether already in ruins or still standing, was utilized for the construction of courtyards or interiors. When Firuz Shah Tughluq laid the foundation of Atala mosque upon the ruins of an old, deserted and dilapidated temple, dedicated to the female deity Atla Devi, he was carrying on a well-established tradition of the reclamation of important, pre-Islamic sacred space. Our key problem with the interpretation of such histories of spolia and spoliation lies with the way in which we have been taught to look at this history as the antiquity of the Indian nation and the history of Hinduism, following pedagogical traditions that date back to colonial era scholar-administrators such as James Tod, the author of the Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan and James Fergusson, who along with Alexander Cunningham, popularized the study of Indian architecture. They put forth the claim that Islam was alien to the meaning and history of Indian civilization. Tod’s famous lines about the Turkish conquest of the upper Gangetic valley were picked up eagerly by many Indian nationalists, where he lamented the fall of Delhi and Varanasi to the armies of Muhammad Ghori during the early twelfth century CE. According to Tod, these conquests were followed by “scenes of devastation, plunder, and massacre that lasted through the ages… all that was sacred in religion and celebrated in art was destroyed by these ruthless and barbarous invaders.” It is not a surprise that we see same or similar sentiments echoed today with greater ferocity in our present day political discourse. James Fergusson, the pioneer scholar of Indian art and architecture, for example, was insistent on using religion as a strict basis for the identification of architectural style. He had a method of separating out Jain, Buddhist, Hindu, and especially Islamic elements in Indian monuments. He also coined the term Indo-Saracenic, laying the foundations for the unjustified claim that all Islamic architecture that India had to offer was the result of ‘outside’ influence and not native to Indian heritage.

There must be, however, a different way of teaching this history. Drawing on what I have laid out at the beginning of this talk, I will give you two examples of how we can start thinking outside of these boxes and ask our students to do the same. First, the ruins of Firuz Shah’s palace in Delhi sporting the Delhi-Topra Asokan pillar, which was simply a historic claim of the latter-day Delhi Sultanate on the majesty of Indian empires of Hindu antiquity. Second, is the Mughal emperor Akbar’s great fort, built in the city formerly known as Allahabad, in which Akbar relocated the Akshay Vat or the sacred banyan tree in the Patalpuri Temple, which lies inside the fort, claiming his status as the great protector of Hindu pilgrims, especially those who came to bathe in the holy waters of the river Ganga during major festivals such as the gathering of the Kumbh. It is hardly surprising that these emperors, separated by two centuries, both of central Asian ethnicity―one a devout Muslim and the other much less so―attempted to draw on antiquity and local culture to fashion an inclusive, ecumenical idiom of rule.

I will end today with one last and final example that illuminates the many-faceted and conflicted legacy of religious monuments in India. Let us take a close look at Zafar Khan Ghazi’s tomb and mosque complex that lies at the ancient pilgrim town of Tribeni, in West Bengal, where the smaller rivers Kunti and Saraswati meet the Ganga, just an hour and a half's drive from Kolkata. Here stands what is possibly the earliest mosque in West Bengal, and perhaps even the whole of Bangladesh. Overlooking the site of a major Hindu pilgrimage that overlooks the river, Ganga, it bears witness to the history of both conquest and peace, enmity and love. It is associated with Zafar Khan Ghazi, an enigmatic figure, reputed to be a fierce warrior and the spearhead of Turkish conquest in late thirteenth century Bengal. He was also a harbinger of early Islam and founded one of the first Sufi lineages in the region. Zafar Khan is remembered for his public charity and selfless work among the poor in Tribeni, and most importantly for the eight-stanza composition dedicated to Mother Ganga in exquisite and flawless Sanskrit. He might have been the first to have insisted that only Ganga water is fit for wazu―ritual ablution before daily prayer practiced by all Muslims. The Tribeni mosque offers a fascinating glimpse of the early Muslim architecture in Bengal, which embraced the ideas of both contested and shared sacred spaces. This mosque was constructed on the ruins of pre-Islamic structures, not only Buddhist and Jain remnants but also broken pieces of sculpture from a Hindu temple that once stood on the site, evident in the pillars that have survived to this day. It is most likely that this was once a temple dedicated to Surya the sun god, and possibly Vishnu as well. The discovery of Buddha and Mahavira images during archaeological surveys of the early twentieth century revealed that the Hindu temple was likely built over what must have been older Buddhist and Jain places of worship. You can still see the basalt slabs on which the old sun temple once stood, which later became the foundations of the mosque. There is no way to determine whether this temple was already in ruins or if it was partially dismantled to make way for the tomb and the mosque of the Sufi saint. What is even more intriguing, is that the entire structure is not only built out of fragments of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist monuments but also fragments from older mosques brought to the site that no longer exist. How do we teach the history of the evolution of such a structure―a perfect example of architectural spolia―today?

Why do the Babri Masjid or the Gyan Vapi dominate the headlines of our newspapers today, while the Atala Mosque or Zafar Khan’s mosque, arguably of equal or greater historical significance, remain in relative obscurity? Why does our attention focus selectively on monuments destroyed or vandalized to illustrate external invasions as moments of national debacle, and keep recapitulating incidents of violence and desecration of ‘outsiders’ in the study of our public, historic monuments, perpetuating the prejudice of colonial-era scholars such as Tod and Fergusson, more than seventy years after independence? I think some of you know the answer to these questions better than I do. I believe it is the obligation of writers and teachers of history to emphasize nuance, context, myth, fiction and fact, and to engage with the valuable lesson that an open-ended inquiry into the meaning and significance of the remains of religious monuments from the distant past is vital to the pursuit of history in a free society. The right to disagreement over its history is part of the lifeblood of every democracy. We must also teach that the right to civic dissent over state-mandated versions of the past does not diminish the love for one’s country. If we do that, then our students will be able to distinguish between latitudinarian, inclusive accounts of the past and those that are tendentious, weaponized, or calculated for political gain. They will also be able to detect the selective manipulation of historical monuments as symbols of sectarian and communal conflict, intended to pit one group of citizens against another.

Sudipta Sen, currently in India as a Fulbright-Nehru fellow affiliated with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, is a professor of History and Middle East/South Asia Studies at the University of California, Davis. Trained as a historian of late Mughal and early British India and the British Empire, his recent work focuses on the history of the environment. Sen has taught at Beloit College, University of California, Berkeley, and Syracuse University, NY. A recipient of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Award for his contribution to research and teaching at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, he was recently awarded the Sir William Jones Memorial Medal by the Asiatic Society of India for his lifetime contribution to history and Asian studies. His most recent books include Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River and a co-edited volume, Terra Aqua: The Amphibious Lifeworlds of Coastal and Maritime South Asia.


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