Temple desecration under the Muslim rule in India was a continuation of the policy the ruling dynasties pursued in the pre-Islamic period. Hindu kings victorious in battles plundered the temples their vanquished rivals patronised, ferreted away the deities installed there, and in extreme cases, even broke them. Such instances are documented and known to historians.

But this phenomenon has failed to inform the public discourse on Islamic iconoclasm. This has enabled the proponents of Hindutva to project the destruction of temples under Muslim rulers as an assault on the Hindu religion, and as an example of the tyranny perpetrated on its followers.

It has also led the Sangh Parivar to construct a narrative in which Hindus are said to be seething in rage at the wrongs done to them in the past, often invoked to lay claims on mosques in the present or for justifying their verbal and physical assaults on Muslims. But this narrative of anger – and hate – might have had little purchase if the stories of Hindu kings desecrating temples were as well-known as those pertaining to Islamic iconoclasm.

Hindu kings desecrated temples of their rivals because of the close link between the deities they worshipped and their own political authority. As Richard H. David, professor of Religion and Asian Studies, Bard College, writes in his essay, Indian Art Objects as Loot, “In the prevailing ideological formations of medieval India, worshippers of Vishnu, Shiva, or Durga considered ruling authority to emanate from the lord of the cosmos downward to the human lords of more limited domains such as empires, kingdoms, territories, or villages.”

Shared sovereignty

From this perspective, the king and the deity had a shared sovereignty; the king’s authority was legitimised because it emanated from the deity he patronised. This conception turned the deity into the most exalted symbol of the state. To vanquish the king was therefore not enough. Victory was complete only when the victorious took away the state deity, effectively sundering the vanquished from the very source from which he drew his authority.

As early as 642 CE (or Common Era, equivalent to AD), the Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman I vanquished the Chalukyas, sacked their capital of Vatapi, and brought the image of Ganesha to his kingdom in Tamil Nadu. The image acquired the sobriquet of Vatapi Ganapati. At times, temple images passed on from one king to another because of their fortunes fluctuating in battlefields, known to us because of the inscriptions proudly detailing who the previous owners were.

Thus, in 950 CE, the Chandella ruler Yashovarman built the Lakshman temple at Khajuraho to house the Vishnu Vaikunth, made of gold. This image was obtained from Mount Kailash by the “Lord of Tibet”, from whom the Sahi King of Orissa wrested it. It was seized from the Sahis after they were defeated by the Pratihara ruler Herambapala. Yashovarman then overwhelmed Herambapala’s son, Devapala, and ferreted it away to Khajuraho.

Among the most charming stories of image appropriation is one narrated by the Buddhist chronicler Dhammakitti. According to him, the Pandyan ruler Srimara Srivallabha invaded Sri Lanka around 835 CE and routed the army of the Sinhala king, Sena I, who fled to the mountains. Srimara plundered the royal treasury and took away, among other things, “the statue of the Teacher (Buddha)”, which had been made in gold and placed on a pedestal in the Jewel Palace about 50 years earlier.

Once the Pandyan army departed, Sena I returned and, to quote Prof Davis, “took up sovereignty once again, but sovereignty of a decidedly diminished nature.” Sena I was succeeded by his nephew, Sena II (ruled between 851-885 CE), who found it odd that the pedestal was empty and asked his ministers about it. Dhammakitti quotes ministers telling Sena II, “Does the king not know? During the time of your uncle…the Pandyan king came here, laid waste to the island, and left, taking that which had become valuable to us.” On hearing this Sena II felt so ashamed he ordered the minister to assemble troops forthwith.

By then, the Pandyan army had been weakened because of the three battles it had fought against the Pallavas. The Lankan army swept its way to Madurai, and Srimara died of the wounds sustained in the conflict. The Lankan army entered Madurai, sacked the city, and took back the gold statue of the Buddha. Amidst much festivity, the statue was placed on the pedestal in the Jewel Palace.

Prof Davis sees a deeper meaning between the image and sovereignty. As he writes, “The stolen image, disclosed to the young king by its empty pedestal, serves as an objectification of defeat not only for his uncle, who had suffered the loss, but for the very institution of Sinhala sovereignty.”

Voluntary gifting of images to a challenging power implied accepting his superiority. A couple of decades before the expropriation of the statue of Buddha, the rise of the Rashtrakuta king Govinda III alarmed the Lankan king Aggabodhi VIII into buying peace. He sent to Govinda two images. The meaning of this voluntary submission a Rashtrakuta inscription celebrates thus: “Govinda received from Lanka two images of their Lord and then set them up” in a Shiva temple at his capital city of Manyakheta, “like two pillars of his fame.”

Image appropriation

Another charming instance of image appropriation is the insistence of three Deccan dynasties – the Chalukyas of Vatapi, the Rashtrakutas, and the Cholas – that they brought the Ganga and Yamuna to the south. Only those who share the Hindutva literalism will believe the three dynasties had changed the course of the two rivers!

Historians feel what the Chalukyas and the Rashtrakutas did was to appropriate the images of the two rivers often found even today at the entrance of temples of North India. Or perhaps these rivers were represented as insignias on the royal banners of the rulers from whom it was taken after their defeat.

But the Chola king Rajendra I went a step further. In the 11th century, his army defeated an array of rulers in the North and reached the banks of the holy river Ganga. Chola inscriptions will have us believe that the vanquished were made to carry water in golden pots all the way to the South.

A “liquid pillar of victory” made of Ganga water, called the Chola-Ganga, was constructed in the new capital city of Gangaikondacholapuram, or the city of the Chola king who took the Ganga, where Rajendra I also built a Shiva temple. In it were placed images he had captured from other kings – Durga and Ganesha images from the Chalukyas; Bhairava, Bhairavi, and Kali images from the Kalingas of Orrisa, a bronze Shiva image from the Palas of Bengal, etc.

To this list of images the Chola kings appropriated was added yet another one in 1045 CE, when the Chola King Rajadhiraja defeated the Chalukyas, which prompted its ruler Somesvara to flee. Before reducing to ashes the Chalukyan capital of Kalyani, Rajadhiraja carted away a massive stone-guardian, made in black stone, to Gangaikondacholapuram.

It is a mystery why Rajadhiraja appropriated the stone-guardian, not the presiding deity of the Chalukyas. It is suggested he was merely following a historical precedent established a good three centuries earlier. Then, roughly in the mid-eighth century, the Rashtrakuta king Dantidurga had defeated the Gurjara-Pratihara king, Nagabhata I, and marched to the latter’s capital city of Ujjain. There Dantidurga performed the royal gift-giving ceremony, the Golden-Womb ritual, for which the vanquished Nagabhata and other chieftains were compelled to serve as door-keepers.

Likewise, in Kalyani, Rajadhiraja performed the ritual of Royal Consecration. Since the Kalyani ruler Somesvara had fled, he couldn’t be made to serve as a door-keeper. Therefore, Rajadhiraja took away the stone-guardian. Both Somesvara and the door-guardian were united through their failures. As Prof Davis says, “The hapless door-guardian had been unable to stop the destruction of its temple, and likewise Somesvara had failed to prevent the Chola armies from entering and destroying his capital.” As the Lord, so the king, you’d say.

Demolition of temples

The dominant trend in the pre-Islamic period was of Hindu kings looting temples and whisking away images, but there are also instances of demolition of temples and idols.

In the early 10th century, the Rashtrakuta king Indra III destroyed the temple of Kalapriya, which their arch enemy, the Pratiharas, patronised. Then again, when the Kashmiri ruler Lalitaditya treacherously killed the king of Gauda (Bengal), his attendants sought to seek revenge. They clandestinely entered Lalitaditya’s capital and made their way to the temple of Vishnu Parihasakesava, the principal deity of the Kashmiri kingdom. However, they mistook a silver image of another deity for Parihasakesava, and took to grounding it to dust even as Kashmiri soldiers fell upon them.

Though the Gaudas failed to achieve the desired result, their act of retribution does illustrate the symbolism inherent in destroying the image the ruler worshipped. “There is no question that medieval Hindu kings frequently destroyed religious images as part of more general rampages,” notes Davis.

The above account shows that the iconoclasm of Muslim invaders from the 11th century onwards was already an established political behaviour in large parts of India. The destruction of temples by Muslim rulers couldn’t have been consequently traumatic, as the proponents of Hindutva argue.

Its scale, some might argue, was the reason for the supposed trauma, insisting that Muslim rulers desecrated as many as 60,000 temples. However, Richard M Eaton, professor of history, University of Arizona, in his essay, Temple Desecration and Indo-Muslim states, argues that evidence supports a very conservative estimate of 80 temples over centuries of Muslim rule.

He further argues that temples were not targeted indiscriminately. Muslim rulers primarily focussed only on those their opponents patronised, thereby undermining their legitimacy, much in the manner the contesting Hindu kings had done in earlier centuries. But that is another story for another day.

(The essays of Richard H. Davis and Richard Eaton, referred to in this article, can be read in Demolishing Myths or Mosques and Temples?, a book edited by Prof Sunil Kumar and published by Three Essays Collective. For a counterpoint to Richard Eaton, please see: ISIS demolition of Palmyra temple has lessons for both Left and Right in India)

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It is available in bookstores.