Temples from Mughal-era India demonstrates the fluidity of art and contradicts contemporary Hindu nationalist historical revisionism.

When one thinks of Shahjahanabad, the capital city whose foundation was laid by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639, one thinks of the majestic Red Fort and towering Jama Masjid. One rarely thinks of temples.

When I was writing the final book in my Delhi Trilogy, Shahjahanabad, The Living City of Old Delhi, I spent many months traversing the muhallas (localities), kuchas (corners where alleys meet) and galis (lanes). 

As I started going deeper into the area, I discovered what were, to my mind, Shahjahanabad’s — Old Delhi as it is known now — best-kept secrets: its beautiful mandirs (temples).

In today’s fraught environment, that Mughal cities had Hindu and Jain temples sounds like an anomaly; they are more often than not associated with temple destruction rather than construction. 

But according to historian Richard Eaton, Mughal emperors from Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, onwards treated temples as royal property, which resulted in state patronage and protection. 

Emperor Akbar's alliance with Rajput rulers such as Kachhwahas and their inclusion, along with other Hindus such as Raja Todar Mal in the higher echelons of his administration, reflects in the growth in construction of temples by these groups in the regions of Braj and Kashi, in what is now the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. 

This was also the case from the mid-18th century till 1857, where the indirect support of later Mughal emperors through the patronage of favoured nobles led to a similar result. 

While there has been destruction, (which is a much more complex issue than can be discussed here), temples continued to be constructed often with active and sometimes passive royal patronage.

One reason for temple demolition was when there was a suspicion, Eaton writes, “that a temple's latent political significance might be activated and serve as a power-base to further its patron’s political aspirations.” 

Thus if a non-Muslim subordinate officer was accused of treason, he was punished and temples associated with him became subject to demolition.

Eaton calculates on the basis of contemporary sources that 80 temples were broken between 1193 and 1729. However, he qualifies this by saying that “we shall never know the precise number of temples desecrated in Indian history,” and that the number is nowhere close to the figure claimed by Hindu nationalists.

Expert on the architecture of Mughal India, Catherine Asher writes, "[w]ealthy Khattri Hindu merchants and Jains, including one branch of the Jagat Seth family, played a role in the city's economic well-being.” 

They were traditionally in the banking trade and underwrote the Mughal economy, while semi-independent rulers provided military aid. It was this style that was copied by the British East India Company, whose rise was bankrolled by loans from Marwari bankers and military aid from the Indian rulers.

Asher continues, “between 1639 and 1850 Hindus and Jains built over a hundred temples that still survive; others must have been destroyed, for example, in the massive rebuilding of Faiz Bazaar. Yet for the most part, these temples are almost invisible to the casual visitor. The question is why?”

The historian explains that unlike mosques, which were either large or built on a second storey in a main street so that they could be seen from afar, the temples were found in the city's interior lanes and never located on the main road and were essentially openings in the wall, appearing little different from a shop. They could also be inside small, private courtyards just off the narrow pedestrian lanes of the city. 

In these courtyard-like spaces, the temple area is public but the dwellings within which they are located are private. Since shikharas (the spire in temple architecture) were only constructed in the 19th century — with the first one being Lala Harsukh Rai's Naya Jain mandir, built with the permission of Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah II — they were not visible from the streets.

There were Shivalayas (temples dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva) inside a compound in an open courtyard, though today, their area has been severely curtailed. 

The fact that they were not visible while mosques were, did not mean that Islam had subsumed the Hindu identity, but that they were following a distinct pattern. 

The fluidity of art and architecture

Oxford University scholar Sam Dalrymple and I found a number of Shivalayas in Katra Nil, the richest locality of Shahjahanabad in the 19th century, where indigo traders, who were mostly Shaivites, lived. We found that though the major building activity was in the reign of Akbar Shah II (1806-37) and Bahadur Shah II (1837-1857), there were many temples from the reign of Muhammad Shah (1719-48) and Shah Alam II (1788-1806).

The Jain temples are much larger but once again, except for the Digamber Jain Lal Mandir in front of Red Fort, behind nondescript walls and doorways. 

To quote Finbarr Barry Flood’s Objects of Translation, “The idea that temple and mosque represent two extremes of a bipolar cultural history is an axiom of South Asian historiography.”

This is why Sam and I wanted to address and highlight the Hindu and Jain heritage of a city said to be Islamic. 

We were interested in the art and its conservation, and in studying how the temples of Shahjahanabad used the contemporary architectural idiom: thus, we see Shivalayas in domed pavilions with the same carved columns, arches, acanthus leaves, upturned lotus with finial, and fleur-de-lis as in Red Fort and other Mughal-era buildings. The deity is housed in a haveli temple similar to the Diwan-e Aam where a ruler sat on his throne.

Art is fluid and knows no boundaries. Thus, the dome of the Prachin Digamber Jain mandir in Shahjahanabad is similar in design to the dome of the Jama masjid there, the difference being only of scale. The painted arches and gilded ceilings, pietra dura decorations and ceilings with decorations that seem to soar into the devotee's consciousness in a Jain mandir, would once have also embellished this city’s fort, palaces and mansions. 

Our project aims at raising awareness on the issues of conservation of Vaishnav art, and of the style known as haveli temples. In 2019 while researching for my book, I had captured the beautiful Vaishnav murals in Charandas ki Bagheechi. 

Unfortunately, when we went this year, we were appalled to see that they had been painted over. Since these are not listed on the Archaeological Survey of India lists, they are not protected monuments and the temple trustees may not be aware of its art value.

We want to raise awareness of a city whose beauty once dazzled the visitors, like Francois Bernier (1625-88), who visited India in 1658 and stayed for twelve years and who compared its grand buildings to the Palais Royale in Paris. We want to give back to a city that has given us much.

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