India's Hindu Right Is Correct About One Thing: India's Muslim Rulers Did Destroy Hindu Temples


In my article for the August 2016 issue of the Diplomat’s magazine, I wrote about the influence of the ideology of Hindutva on Indian society and politics. While proponents of Hindutva traffic in their fair share of fanaticism and xenophobia, they also make some legitimate historical points that ought not to be overlooked.

The Hindu right is especially bitter toward Islam, particularly in the context of Muslim rule over the Indian subcontinent for much of the past millennium. While this overlooks the contributions–food, art, architecture, to name a few–of Indian Islam, as well as the religion’s more mystical nature relative to Middle Eastern Islam, the bitterness is rooted in a real history of dominance by a minority that sometimes engaged in the destruction of important Hindu temples.

Islam arrived in the subcontinent via trade in Kerala, during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, and through the conquest of Sindh by the Umayyad Caliphate in 711. Gradually, its reach spread, mostly through further conquests, and until the late 17th century, Muslim dynasties were politically dominant throughout most of the subcontinent until the rise of the Marathas. Since Hinduism is not organized institutionally in a central fashion like Catholicism, coordination among Hindu rulers was limited and local political variants prevailed throughout the subcontinent.

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The attitudes of Muslim rulers toward the native Hindu (and Sikh and Jain) populations ranged from the almost total tolerance of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, who built and patronized temples (for example, a temple to the important Hindu god Krishna at Vrindavan) to the extreme intolerance of his great-grandson Aurangzeb (who demolished parts of the same temple in Vrindavan). Attitudes toward conversion and tolerance were more liberal among Muslim political rulers and less so among clerics. One of the most famous and prominent religious scholars of the Mughal Empire, Ahmed Sirhindi, deplored the tolerant policies of Akbar and wrote regarding Hindus and Sikhs: “With whatever intention and purpose they are killed, the humiliation of infidels is for the Muslims life itself.”

Contrary to the belief of many, the conversion, en masse, of Hindus to Islam by force was relatively uncommon in the subcontinent due to the vast numerical superiority of Hindus and the persistence of various Hindu principalities scattered throughout the subcontinent. For the most part, the population was left alone, but at times, defeated rulers were offered the choice of conversion or death; for example Bukka Raya I, the founder of Vijayanagara, converted to Islam for a while before escaping from Delhi and reverting to Hinduism. However, as the historian Hugh Kennedy notes regarding the spread of Islam in general:

…conquest was the prelude to conversion. It established the political and social framework within which the much slower, incremental process of changing to Islam could take place…the conquest did not cause conversion but it was a major prerequisite: without it Islam would not have become the dominant faith…

By the time of the British Raj, somewhere from a quarter to a fifth of the subcontinent’s population was Muslim. This does not point to massive forced conversion. Nonetheless, there were some unfortunate consequences for Hinduism that resulted from Muslim rule. It would be correct, for instance, to note that Islamic rule in India was often destructive to the physical presence of Hindu temples.

Today, most of the large and important historical Hindu temples are found in southern India (Tirupati, Madurai) or in Orissa, on the eastern coast. These areas remained outside of Islamic rule for most of their history. The traditional heartland of Hinduism in the Ganges river valley (modern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) as well as Punjab and Sindh feature no major large Hindu temples, most of which were destroyed by Muslim iconoclasm, much of which occurred in the period of the initial Muslim conquest of the region from 1000-1300 C.E. As many historians like to point out, many, if not most, Hindu temples were not destroyed, but major ones were, primarily to make an impact on Hindus. This would be akin to destroying the major cathedrals of Paris, Rome, and so on while leaving local churches intact. Many of the historic temples of major Hindu holy sites at Ayodhya, Kannauj, Mathura, Multan, Vrindavan, Varanasi, Thanesar, and Allahabad (Prayag until 1575) no longer exist. One does not have to be deeply religious or nationalistic to perceive or believe that, in a way, this state of affairs is deeply humiliating to Hinduism.

Some of the most wanton destruction occurred during the invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni, from Afghanistan, who raided India numerous times from 1000-1030 C.E. According to a Persian historian and Indographer, Mahmud “utterly ruined the prosperity of Hindustan.” For example, the following occurred when he attacked Mathura, birthplace of Krishna:

In the middle of the city there was a temple larger and finer than the rest, which can neither be described nor painted. The Sultan was of the opinion that 200 years would have been required to build it…the Sultan gave orders that all the temples should be burnt with naptha and fire, and leveled with the ground.

The case of the holy temple of Somnath on the western coast of India is especially tragic. In 1025, Mahmud sacked it for the first time. It was destroyed in 1299 by Allauddin Khilji of Delhi. After being rebuilt, it was destroyed again in 1395 by the Muslim governor of Gujarat. In 1665, another reincarnation of the temple was destroyed by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. There are similar stories of prominent Hindu temples being demolished by Muslim rulers. For example, infamously, in 1528, a mosque was built on what was allegedly once a Hindu temple that marked the spot of the birth of the god Rama. Aurangzeb destroyed many temples as well, one of which was of particular note. What was probably the holiest temple is all of Hinduism, Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, was demolished on his orders in 1669, and a mosque built on its spot. The list goes on and encompasses much of India. Major Sikh and Buddhist sites were desecrated as well, notably Nalanda in 1193.

Of course, most people for the part just lived ordinary lives and paid taxes to whomever ruled them. Hinduism persisted in many parts of India, and remained dominant in rural India, where most temples remained intact. But the historical record does indeed demonstrate that major Hindu temples in urban centers were deliberately targeted by some Muslim rulers, in order to assert their power in areas of the subcontinent. Therefore, today’s Hindu right, despite being wrong about so many other things, does in fact have a valid point: Muslim rule in India has indeed proven destructive to major Hindu temples.

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