Temple and Mosque, Conflict and Balance
Frederick M. Asher
The power of visual imagery to engender religious disputes has been demonstrated repeatedly, from a huge monument depicting the Ten Commandments in the rotunda of the Alabama Supreme Court to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and at several places in India. Unlike the case of Alabama, which pits secularists against Christian religious conservatives, and unlike Jerusalem, in a nation established as an explicitly Jewish homeland, India was created as a secular nation state. Despite that heritage, however, its imagined integrity was shattered on August 14, 1947, when the Islamic Republic of Pakistan was carved out of former British India, and suddenly a significant portion of India’s Muslim population became foreigners, a notion that has gained increasing currency in reference to the Muslim population that chose to remain in the newly-created secular Republic of India. The establishment of an Islamic republic bordering India has led to an increasing sense of religious identity on the part of India’s majority population, that is, identity with a religion as much as with a nation. Stated differently, a strong Hindu identity has emerged both within India and among Indians abroad, one that has sought to remake India as a Hindu nation and, in the process, to conflate religion and nationality. Just as colonial remnants have been removed -- British street names, for example -- so there is a quest to remove remnants of an Islamic presence in India, particularly those remnants that recall rule by Muslim dynasties.
There has been some success to this quest, most notably the destruction of the second-oldest mosque built by the Mughal dynasty. The mosque was the so-called Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, so-called because it was not constructed by Babur, the first Mughal monarch, but rather by one of his nobles, Mir Baqi, in 1528-29. Many Hindus believe that the mosque had been constructed on the site of the birthplace of the god Rama, a place, they argue, where a temple commemorating the precise locus of this god’s birth stood prior to the mosque’s construction. For some time, militant Hindus threatened to demolish the mosque and replace it with a temple dedicated to Rama. The stand-off became a charged political one debated in both state and federal legislatures. It pitted a well-organized and financially well-backed group of Hindus more against police who had been ordered to protect the mosque than against any organized Muslim community. As tension mounted, a mob finally stormed the police lines on December 6, 1992 and demolished the mosque, while the police did little to stop its desecrators. In the months following, even in the years right up to today, the debate has centered much more on whether a temple had been demolished in order to make way for Mir Baqi’s 1528-29 mosque than on any other issue. Virtually never debated was the ethics of righting one wrong by perpetrating another, in fact, seeking retribution more than 450 years after the event, or, as may be more interesting, debating the notion of space itself. That is, when space is contested, what magnitude of space forms the locus of such contestation?
Among other historically important sites under threat is one that, like Ayodhya, is claimed as the locus of a god’s birth, in this case the birth of the Hindu god Krishna. This site, the Katra Mound, is at Mathura, 145 km. south of Delhi. The Katra Mound long has been known to art historians and archaeologists as the source of an image, one encountered by almost every student who has had even an introductory course on South Asian art history. The image is commonly identified as the Katra Buddha. Despite the fame of this 2,000 year old sculpture, the history of the Katra Mound, that is, the source of this image, tells a story of present-day importance.
That the Katra Mound was the site of a Buddhist monastery seems likely from the several images found there.1 But the Buddhist monastery was not the only occupant of the place art historians call the Katra Mound. Also found there were Jain and Brahmanical images,2 indicating that it was a site used by several religions; in today’s terminology, we might call it a multi-communal site. For example, an inscribed pedestal of a seated Jain image, a work of the second century, originates at the Katra Mound as does a fifth-century lintel with a fine image of the Hindu god Vishnu. Certainly we know that it was the location of a Hindu temple, the Keshavadeva temple, that was dismantled under Aurangzeb’s orders and replaced with a great mosque that still occupies the space.3
That last change was clearly intentional and sequential, that is, a Hindu temple was replaced by a mosque. But should we assume that during the entire history of the Katra Mound, there was a sequential occupation, that is, first by Buddhists, then “Brahmans,” and finally “Musalmans,” as Alexander Cunningham asserted in 1870?4 Or, to quote another scholar writing somewhat later, that is, at the beginning of the last century, Jean Ph. Vogel: “We may conclude that the Katra site was once occupied by a Buddhist monastery. ... On the ruins of that building there arose in afterdays a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu under the name of Kesab Dev or Keso Rai, ... but in its turn had to make place for a mosque built by Aurangzeb.”5 These assertions, following and reinforcing commonly held beliefs, assume exclusive ownership of a sacred site and changes, when they occur, coming in sequential order. That is a notion that fits well with the assumptions of art history, a field committed to sequences. But is that notion, we must ask, more a construct of a present-day world in which territory is more often contested on religious grounds than simply shared? And, for that matter, how do we understand the category of “religion” in pre-modern India? I should add one important note here before considering the site today and its precarious situation. The Keshava Deva temple that was destroyed in order to construct the mosque there had been built at the beginning of the seventeenth century by Raja Bir Singh Deo of Orchha and subsequently supported by imperial Mughal grants, that is grants for this Hindu temple from a dynasty of Muslim monarchs. The Raja who had provided this temple was much admired by the Mughal emperor Jahangir and at the emperor’s behest killed Abu al-Fazl, biographer and confidant of Jahangir’s predecessor on the throne, Akbar. It was thus not a temple of any great antiquity; stated differently, it was specifically associated with a person whose memory remained alive at the time the temple was destroyed in 1669 during the reign of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb -- destroyed, it might be noted, in retaliation for uprisings in the area around Mathura. Mughal losses were massive and included the Mughal commandant of Mathura. What was destroyed was, in a very real sense, the Mughal’s own temple.6 It was replaced by a large mosque, the one that remains on the site.
That’s not the end of the story, for the site of the temple and mosque has been imbued with a new meaning. It has been identified as the locus of the god Krishna’s birthplace, and immediately abutting the mosque a large temple complex has now been constructed. Both mosque and temple are heavily guarded by police; cameras are prohibited, and visitors are scrutinized for anything dangerous they might bring into the courtyards of either building. The space is not just contested; it is highly charged. Few visitors go to the old mosque whose entrance faces a direction 90 degrees and two hundred meters away from the entrance to the temple compound. By contrast, however, thousands every day descend upon what is called Krishna Janmabhumi, the birthplace of the god Krishna, where one recent temple is now said to mark Krishna’s birthplace and a still newer and very much larger temple in the compound, a temple that is less than a decade old, celebrates the location of Krishna’s birth but is not believed precisely to mark it. The mosque remains, but the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the group most ostensibly responsible for destruction of the mosque at Rama’s birthplace, Ayodhya, remains intent on its demolition. Are there ways to grasp this threat with sympathetic understanding, rather than simply fear for the potential loss of a monument of historical importance on one hand or, on the other hand, the obliteration of Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision for a secular India, one in which all communities, that is, members of all faiths, might live in harmony?
Religious space in India has been shared and continues to be. On one level, we might consider some of the internationally regarded monuments from India’s antiquity, for example, the site of Elephanta, off the coast of Mumbai, where a sixth-century sanctuary was excavated from the side of a cliff high on the island’s peak. Today, the sanctuary is an object of sacred pilgrimage for devotees of the god Shiva, but since pilgrimage in India incorporates notions that we might consider tourism, the pilgrims join with more secular tourists, including large numbers of foreigners, who take the hourly boats from India Gate Harbour to Elephanta. And all of them share the space, sometimes competitively, with the Archaeological Survey of India, whose job it is to protect the site, but to sustain their work must depend upon income from the sale of admission tickets purchased by both tourists and pilgrims.
There are many more conventional instances of shared space, some of them sites where we might least expect it. For example, regarding one of the most sacred sites of Islam in all South Asia, the Dargah of Muin-ud-Din Chishti, a nineteenth-century edition of the Ajmer District Gazetteer notes, “The shrine of Khwaja Sahib is venerated and visited by Hindus as well as Muhammadans and other Indians irrespective of their religion.”7 And I have observed, with a degree of wonder that was probably unnecessary, a burka-clad and thus obviously Muslim woman in the great temple of Shiva Nataraja at Chidambaram. This underscores the need to consider with care the meaning of religious identity in the South Asian subcontinent. To what extent is that sense of identity with a particular religion a legacy of colonial conceptions, perhaps most closely associated with the census, which beginning in 1871 mandated counting individuals by religious affiliation that fit British-conceived categories? Certainly we know cases in which communities might identify simultaneously as both Hindus and Muslims, for example the Patuas of Bengal.8 But even in cases such as those, I wonder if the members of these communities imagine a dual identity, as we might construe it, rather than simply identity with the community and its culturally instilled practices.
Although Mathura long has been home to diverse religious communities, it is best known today for its association with the god Krishna. All texts agree that Krishna was born in Mathura but where precisely in this large city, none specifies.9 Thus sanctity extends to all Mathura and even its environs, an area known as Braj, as we can sense from pilgrimages to sites associated with Krishna, an impressively large circuit. But what of the god’s birthplace and its present citing at the Katra Mound? That notion does not seem to have any substantial antiquity.
We have relatively little information about the temple that Bir Singh Deo built, the one that was demolished and replaced by Aurangzeb’s mosque. There is no surviving inscription commemorating its foundation, so we need to rely on written references that might suggest an association of the temple’s site with Krishna’s birthplace. Two European accounts, one of the seventeenth century and one of the late nineteenth century, describe Mathura in some detail, but neither identifies a specific site for Krishna’s birthplace. One is by F. S. Growse, a District Officer serving colonial India, whose 1883 book, Mathura: A District Memoir,10 was intended to aid the colonial agenda which, in part, sought to solidify rule by capturing information, as much information about India as conceivably could be amassed. Growse clearly recognized the importance of Krishna to Mathura, even acknowledging that “the deified Krishna [is] the tutelary deity of the district,” something he states in order to explain the extensive discussions of Krishna in this volume. But when he discusses the Katra Mound and Bir Singh’s temple that once stood there, he never identifies the site with Krishna’s birth. Had local tradition done so, he surely would have reported that, for Growse pays considerable attention to such detail.
Nor does the French jeweler Tavernier, who saw Bir Singh’s temple about 1650 and described it in detail. He calls it the third most important temple in all India and one of the most sumptuous in the realm, even though at the time not many Hindus, he reports, worship there because the Jamuna River, where they would have bathed prior to worship, had shifted course rather far distant, making a walk to the temple inconvenient. Tavernier notes his encounter with the priests and even describes viewing the temple’s main image, but nowhere does he suggest its association with the birth of the god Krishna.11
Bir Singh’s temple was not the first at this site. Many argue that there must have been a temple on the Katra site at the time Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni raided Mathura in 1017,12 although we have no specifics at all, mostly Bada’uni’s claim some 600 years later that Mahmud razed Mathura to the ground and broke all the idols, and Mahmud’s own claim that the images he broke yielded an immense amount of gold and jewels.13 This is an important piece of information because it suggests that this raid and others wrought by invaders who happened to be Muslim sought valuable commodities much more than the satisfaction of engaging in iconoclastic devastation. After all, why would Mahmud of Ghazni engage in the raid in the first place if it were not for profit of some sort. Moreover, we might recall that one way of encouraging and paying an army was the promise of plunder. There is one other issue that we need to keep in mind by way of explanation. That is, in Islam -- as in the other Western Asian religions, namely Christianity and Judaism -- religious structures were gathering places; they were congregational, quite unlike a Hindu temple. Thus it is likely that potential conquerors such as Mahmud of Ghazni must have imagined that by destroying temples they were destroying gathering places for people, an institution fundamental to a social network and thus to the potential for resistance.
The damage Mahmud wrought did not last long, for an inscription found at the Katra Mound dated 1150, that is, 133 years after the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, records the construction there of a temple of the Hindu god Vishnu that was brilliantly white and so large that it was said to be “touching the clouds.”14 Nowhere does the inscription specify either that this temple replaces an earlier destroyed one or that its location marks the birthplace of Krishna. It is hard to believe that if this site were in 1150 believed to be that of Krishna’s birthplace, the inscription would fail to so indicate. What happened to this temple that necessitated its replacement by Bir Singh Deo is not as certain as sometimes reported. Generally, it is stated with considerable confidence that Sikander Lodi (r. 1489-1517) destroyed the temple.15 All that we know, however, is that Sikander Lodi built mosques at Mathura and was pretty tough on Hindus there, for example, prohibiting certain practices that Hindu pilgrims normally would follow. But we certainly don’t know that he destroyed temples. In fact, we learn from the account of a Jesuit who was present from 1580-1582 at the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar, Father Monserrate, that many temples were found in the area, and that huge crowds of pilgrims came from all over India to one temple in particular, one that must have escaped Sikander Lodi’s desecration, if indeed he did desecrate temples. That temple, which attracted crowds of pilgrims, Father Monserrate reported, was situated high on the bank of the Jamuna River, very possibly a reference to a temple on the elevated Katra Mound. Nowhere, however, does he specify that this temple is associated with Krishna’s birthplace.16 What we might imagine is that this temple was not in very good condition a generation later, when Bir Singh Deo took the opportunity to replace it with a new structure, again without reference to the spot as Krishna’s birthplace.
But is historical documentation of consequence for religious belief? The present temples comprising the site now better known as Krishna Janmabhumi than as the Katra Mound shape belief; they do not simply mark or commemorate it. Various versions of a text known as the Mathura Mahatmya, especially relatively late versions of this text on Mathura’s sanctity, conceive of the Katra Mound as the center of the lotus, which is used to map Mathura conceptually.17 But no version of this text explicitly associates the mound with Krishna’s birthplace. That notion seems to have evolved at least in part to strengthen legal claims to the site. The first claim was brought to court in 1878, by Muslims who argued that the mound belonged to the mosque constructed there. While we know little about the background to this claim, we can surmise that it was entered because the Muslim community began to feel that the site of their mosque was being seriously contested. The verdict of the case inserted a great deal of ambiguity into the situation, insuring considerable income to several generations of attorneys. The verdict concluded that the Katra Mound was then not owned but that in 1815 a king of Varanasi named Patnimal had purchased it from the East India Company. At least three subsequent court cases were filed and concluded with decisions that, not very helpfully to present politics, assigned ownership of the mosque to descendants of the Hindu King Patnimal. Then in 1944, Jugal Kishore Birla, from one of India’s leading industrialist families, purchased the land from the descendants of King Patnimal with the express intention of building a temple. What sort of temple is not specified, but clearly it was one commemorating the birthplace of Krishna because almost immediately after the settlement of this case in 1946, a Krishna Janmasthan Trust -- that is, a trust for the birthplace of the god Krishna -- was established and the land sold to it. Work on a temple there commenced in 1953 but was concluded a great deal more recently. The temple includes an underground chamber immediately abutting the qibla wall of the mosque that is believed to be the very spot of Krishna’s birth. The still larger temple at the site was completed within the past decade. It could not have been commenced until one final court case was decided in 1960, one whose verdict concluded that the property was legally owned by the Krishna Janmasthan Trust and that Muslims, in fact, were protected for use of the mosque only on the occasion of Id.18 Thus a legal battle whose parties identified themselves in religious terms managed to transform the space of a temple into the space of a specific sacred locus, that is, Krishna’s birthplace.
That history of the Katra Mound as contested space is only part of the issue. The parallel issue may be asked as a question: Why can't this space be shared by the two communities, Hindus and Muslims, as, let us say, Jerusalem is shared -- however tenuously -- by Jews and Christians and Muslims? The answer is, at least in part, dependent on differing conceptions of space. For those religions formed on West Asian soil, that is, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, religious space is generally conceived as a place where adherents might gather. It may have historic poignancy, even sacred historic poignancy, but it does not have inherent sanctity that goes beyond its function and whatever history that might be associated with it. And while churches might have historical affiliations, for example, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Nativity, as some mosques do as well, for example, the al-Aqsa Mosque adjacent to the Dome of the Rock, which marks the spot believed today by Muslims to be the locus of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven, these structures remain gathering places for worshipers. Thus when religious shrines are desecrated in times of war, it is often imagined that a locus for social gathering and thus an institution that creates the very fabric of society itself has been undermined.
That West Asian concept of a religious structure is quite different from the Hindu conception of sacred space. A temple is conceived as god’s space, not that of mortals, and so the worshiper does not enter the temple’s sanctum, the place where the image is installed, on the right. Rather, the devotee enters a porchway, a liminal space between the mundane world on the outside and the god’s realm in the sanctum. Standing at the threshold, then, the worshiper beholds the deity. It is not just a stone sculpture, the object to which the art historian has transformed it, but a manifestation of god himself who occupies this space. It is thus charged in ways entirely different from space intended to accommodate mortals. For without the temple, can the god Krishna even manifest himself at the site of his birth, an event, though one of antiquity, linked to the present by the temple’s image?
In the case of Jerusalem, the issue is ownership of or dominance in a nation-state or a specifically designated large part of such a modern state. The protests are public and intended to intimidate the opposition, a battle that is most effectively waged in public space such as the streets or marketplace. But in India, where the temple marks god’s space, not that of his worshipers, competing shrines are imagined to diminish the unique power of the deity and his ability to manifest himself in radiating fashion. And if these competing monuments are imagined to be on the very spot where a deity such as Krishna or Rama was born, then they prevent this god from manifesting himself on a spot that is justly his. Thus in India, the lines are not just drawn on the basis of religious identity, that is, along social lines. Rather, they are drawn on the basis of a structure because that structure is not understood simply as a space for the gathering of adherents but rather a place necessary for god’s presence.
Are Hindus and Muslims invariably opposed? Not necessarily. It depends on the currency of identity. In India, identity is generally based on community, which can mean what we’ve come in English to call caste, though even that has shades of meaning. But identity also is, at least in recent times, extended to what we might call religion. It was not always so. The foreignness of people in India who happened to be Muslim was the basis of their identification. That is, we have innumerable written references to Turushkas, or Turks, as the term may be translated, a word that refers to their non-indigenous origin, not their faith. The notion of creating religious-based taxonomies for Indians seems largely a European notion, one that may very well spring from religious contests that afflicted Europe -- the Crusades, the Spanish Reconquest, and much more recently the Holocaust. Even the very term Hindu as a religious designator is essentially of European origin, and recent origin at that.
Will the present balance between temple and mosque remain intact? There are competing discourses, and it is not at all clear which one will ultimately dominate. To the Vishva Hindu Parishad, the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque (or, as they would see it, reclaiming the space of that mosque) was only the first step. Among their other targets is the Mathura mosque. As recently as July, 2003, the head of the VHP, Ashok Singhal, stated that Hindu claim on this structure, along with one other mosque, was “not negotiable” and that Muslims in India, if they want better relations with Hindus, must withdraw their claim on the mosque. Such rhetoric, however, is very different from that at Mathura itself, where both Hindu and Muslim leadership seems intent on preserving the present balance. There, Abdul Haque, who has served as secretary of the mosque since 1991, asserted unambiguously that “there is no problem. It is a political issue only.” This view was reinforced by Kapil Sharma, secretary of the Krishna-Janmasthan Trust, who noted that in 1992, after the destruction of the Ayodhya temple, there was rioting in many parts of India but not in Mathura. He is certain that the mosque and temple will remain intact, noting that “They are doing their religious work. We are doing ours.” How does one reconcile the distinction between the rhetoric of the Hindu nationalists in other parts of India on one hand and those charged with maintaining the contested institutions at Mathura on the other? We need to recognize the pragmatism of the arguments. During the week of Krishna’s birthday in August, 2003 (Krishna Janmashtami), the officers of Krishna’s birthsite maintain, some 5 million visitors descended on the site with 3.5 million on a single day. Even if those numbers are inflated, as likely they are, the number of devotees was enormous by any reasonable measure, and their economic impact on Mathura was substantial. Destruction of the mosque would raise such tension that all Mathura would feel the impact, and it is very likely that traffic to the Krishna Janmabhumi would be significantly curtailed if not terminated altogether. How then should I take the comments I heard at Mathura? With recognition that I was a note-taking outsider, likely one who would report on what I heard. And if what I might write could be used as a tool to promote a sense of harmony, the pilgrimage -- and the money pilgrims spend -- would be undiminished.
Beside this seated figure of the Kushana period, commonly referred to as the Katra Buddha but identified in its inscription as a Bodhisattva, the well-known standing Buddha dated to the year 280 of an unspecified era was found at the Katra Mound. Joanna Williams has effectively shown this to be a work of the early Gupta period. See “A Mathura Gupta Buddha Reconsidered,” Lalit Kalā 17 (1974): 28-32.
See V. S. Agrawala, “Catalogue of the Mathura Museum: III; Jaina Tirthankaras and Other Miscellaneous Figures,” Journal of the U.P. Historical Society 23 (1950): 46, and V. S. Agrawala, “A Catalogue of the Mathura Museum: II; A Catalogue of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva in Mathura Art,” Journal of the U.P. Historical Society 22 (1949): 109-10.
For a vitriolic diatribe against those -- me included -- who see the likelihood that the Vaishnava temples were constructed on the remains of older Buddhist and Jain structures, see Sita Ram Goel, Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them (New Delhi, 1993), chap. 5. This should set to rest any doubt about the political nature of arguments over this space.
Alexander Cunningham, Archaeological Survey of India Reports, reprint ed. (Delhi, 1972), I: 235.
Jean Ph. Vogel, Archaeological Survey of India, Annual Report, 1906-07 (Calcutta, 1907/08): 137.
Much of this history is summarized in Catherine Asher, Architecture of Mughal India (Cambridge, 1992), 162-64.
Rajasthan [District Gazetteers]; Ajmer (Jaipur, 1966), 715, quoting a previous edition of the Gazetteer.
Binoy Bhattacharjee, Cultural Oscillatio: A Study on Patua Culture (Calcutta, 1980).
A. W. Entwistle, Braj: Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage (Groningen, 1987).
F. S. Growse, Mathura: A District Memoir (Allahabad, 1883).
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Travels in India, ed. V. Ball and William Crooke (New Delhi, 1976), 187.
George S. A. Ranking, ed. and trans. Muntakhab-ut-tawarikh (Calcutta, 1898), 24-25.
For a translation of Mahmud’s reference to the conquest of Mathura, see Abu al-Nasr ‘Abd al-Jabbar, The Kitab-i-Yamini: Historical Memoirs of the Amir Sabaktagin, and the Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (London, 1858), 454-56.
Georg Buhler, “The Mathura Prasasti of the Reign of Vijayapala, Dated Samvat 1207,” Epigraphia Indica 1 (1892): 287-93.
Entwistle, Braj: Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage, 134-36.
See, for example, The Commentary of Father Monserrate, S.J. on His Journey to the Court of Akbar (1580-81), trans. J. S. Hoyland and S. N. Banerjee (London, 1922).
Entwistle, Braj: Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage, 320.
This history is summarized from Entwistle, Braj: Centre of Krishna Pilgrimage, 216-17 and the small booklets sold at the site. The mosque is today commonly referred to as the Mathura Idgah. The secretary of the mosque, however, insists that the structure is truly a mosque, not an Idgah, that is a mosque intended specifically for gathering at Id. He asserts that the decree of the Allahabad High Court transformed the structure into an Idgah by permitting worshipers to use it only for Id.