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Updated: Nov 28, 2020



This talk was delivered on 5 August, 2018, as part of the 4th annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Culture, in Calcutta.


I am grateful to PeaceWorks for having given me the opportunity to be here, but before I begin, I want to place all my cards on the table. I am not only, not a historian but I am also a geographer. This is perhaps the kind of situation that Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee found himself in, when he landed up in King Arthur’s court, for he was not only, not from the Isles, he was an American! No wonder then, that in the presence of all these historians, many of whom I have grown up revering, I am more than a little diffident.


My presentation is titled ‘Songs Sung by Stones’ and through it, and the accompanying images, I will try to draw your attention to some common elements, actually minor details, in medieval architecture, which we tend to overlook. Somebody has said that God is in the details, but I am trying to locate the Devil in the details.


Grecian amphora, The British Museum

We begin with the pitcher, image of a Pitcher needed I don’t have to introduce the pitcher to you, nor do I have to point out to you that perhaps from the time that we learnt to fashion the earthen pot and learnt to fire it and acquired, for the first time, the capability to transport water to our huts and hovels, the task of fetching water, at times across miles, has been entrusted to women, men only consume the water, they don’t fetch it. This assignment has received official sanction, the fact that the officials were all men, is a minor detail.


Archaeological evidence suggests that fine terracotta vessels were in use for cooking in the early Harappan period. The Harappans also produced large vessels that were used, perhaps for storage of grains. A large number of small pieces of pottery have been excavated from Harappan burial sites probably indicating a belief in after life, just as such pieces of pottery have suggested similar beliefs in other ancient civilisations. Each civilization was defined through the pottery it made, the Roman and Grecian Amphorae and Urns, and our own terracotta and painted grey-ware.


Cooking Vessels Harappan, 2300-2200 BCE Baluchistan

Roman Amphoras

Harappan Burial Pottery C 1900 BCE

I believe that once we began to settle down along the riverbanks and initiated agricultural activities, we also began to make pottery—pitchers, cooking vessels, vessels for votive offerings and for rituals of birth and death, large storage urns to store the harvest and also small vessels to store seeds for the next crop. Those small pitchers—the kalash—that stored seeds, because it contained life in it, came to be associated with the womb and came to be called Garbh Kalash. The coconut too came to represent the womb, both had life in them, but we will talk about the coconut later.


Very soon the Kalash began to be used in fertility rituals and continues to be so used even today. The use of the Garbh Kalash in wedding ceremonies, is nothing but the continuation of that tradition during the weddings as we will see later.


The kalash had a large number of other uses as well. A few years ago, while travelling through Kutch in Gujarat, I saw four or five stacks of pitchers, like little minarets, lined against one of the walls inside a hut the pitchers contained grains, pulses as well as money, the family’s savings, buried in the rice or flour pitcher, other pitchers served as almirahs for clothes.


In my childhood, if you arrived at school in a set of crumpled clothes, one of your teachers was sooner or later going to ask: ‘Ghade se Nikaal ke Pehne hain?’ (Have you taken them out of a pitcher?) The pitcher continues to be thus used till today, at least in places untouched by ‘development’.



If you visit the Jami Masjid built by Qutub-ud-Din Aibak in Mehrauli, you will read or be informed by the guides that the pillars that have been used in the mosque, once belonged to Jain temples. The temples were demolished and the material reused.


Each conqueror did this to the places of worship of the defeated king. This was the only way feudal order could survive. Each victor had to establish that his God was more powerful than the god of the vanquished, this was one method of ensuring uninterrupted flow of land revenue, but this is not what we are discussing today, may be on another occasion we will take this up.



We know this mosque, as Masjid Quwwat-ul-Islam, a name given by the British. Qutb-ud-din Aybak never called it that. Let us go back to the stone pillars, in the middle of the pillars, there is a kalash.


Masjid-ul-Islam


Detail from Masjid-ul-Islam




The large number of pillars with kalash-es carved into them helped archaeologists identify these as Jain temples. Kalash-es, Nagas—creatures with bodies of snakes and human faces, bells on rope strings and mask like demonic faces were elements commonly carved on pillars in Jain temples. These pillars were reused for building the first mosque in Delhi in 1192. Images of gods were disfigured because faces are not permitted in a mosque, interestingly, mask like demonic faces were left intact, maybe the defacers did not realise what they were.


Kalash with spikes

From Alamash’s extension to the Mosque