New Delhi: “There were five idols made of pure gold of the height of five cubits in the air,” marvelled the chronicler Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Jabbar ‘Utbi, as the armies of his master — the warlord Mahmud of Ghazni — marched through the streets of Mathura in 1031CE. There was “one that if the Sultan had seen it exposed in the bazaar, he would have considered as underpriced at fifty thousand dinars”.
The ending was predestined: “They devastated all that city, and passed therefrom towards Kanauj.”
In 1953, the temple now called Krishna Janmabhoomi began rising — the result of the efforts of scholar and Congress leader Madan Mohan Malviya, and the prominent businessmen Jugal Kishor Birla and Ram Krishna Dalmiya.
Like the Kashi Vishwanath temple, and the Ram Janmabhoomi temple before it, Krishna Janmabhoomi is now at the centre of a bitter legal fight. Last Thursday, a court began hearings on a petition demanding that the Shahi Idgah mosque that stands alongside the temple be sealed.
The story of Krishna Janmabhoomi temple, like those of the others now in the midst of a communally-charged controversy, is intricate — one that almost can’t be told in the heat of courtroom battle, or charged political debates over historical and cultural grievances.
The king and the temple
Little is documented on exactly which temples Mahmud destroyed — nor even if there was one specifically identified with the birthplace of the Hindu God Krishna.
Following the death of the third Mughal emperor, Jalaluddin Akbar, in 1605, the Rajput ruler of Orccha, Vir Singh Dev, began work on a grand temple in Mathura. Vir Singh’s father, Madhukar Shah, had been a sometime-ally of the Mughal throne — but the new king, for reasons critical to the story, was hostile to Akbar.
Following the death of Madhukar Shah, his eldest son, Ram Shah, was appointed ruler of Orrcha by the Mughal crown. Vir Singh rebelled against his brother, eventually joining the armies of Akbar’s malcontented son, Nur-ud-Din Muhammad Salim — the future emperor Jehangir. Among other services, he killed Jehangir’s enemy, the courtier Abu’l Fazl.
Vir Singh bet well in this Mughal game of thrones. Jehangir gave him the kingdom of Orrcha, even though his brother was still alive. But the new king, historian Heidi Pauwels has recorded, had a problem.
To address doubts about the legitimacy of this rule, he spent a part of the fortune he had amassed in service to the Mughal flag on charity and temple-building. He also commissioned hagiographic poetry about himself, justifying his accession to the throne.
Evidence to link Vir Singh’s Kesavadeva temple to the specific birthplace of Krishna, however, is thin. From the 1st century, CE, Mathura had emerged as a centre of Vaishnavite art. Even though Mathura was a major place of pilgrimage, neither the surviving inscriptions nor accounts of travellers show there was a particular site linked to the birth of Krishna.
Little doubt exists, though, that the new temple — built at a cost of 33 lakh in the currency of the time — was magnificent. The physician Niccolo Manucci wrote, in a contemporary account, “that its gilded pinnacle could be seen from Agra, eighteen leagues away”.
This sight was not seen for long. In 1669, the emperor Aurangzeb ordered Kesavadeva levelled, and a mosque built in its place — laying the foundations for the dispute now raging in the Mathura court.
Faith or politics?
From the words of his chronicler Muhammad Mustad Khan, it is clear religion had at least something to do with Aurangzeb’s decision.
“In a short time by the great exertions of his officers,” Khan recorded, “the destruction of this strong foundation of infidelity was accomplished and on its site a lofty mosque was built by the expenditure of a large sum.”
The temple idols, he wrote, were “buried under the steps of the mosque of the Begum Sahib in order to be continuously trodden upon”.
Looking into the medieval mind with eyes conditioned by the modern world can mislead, though. Aurangzeb might have been a bigot — but he had, scholar Aniket Chhetry has recorded, a warm relationship with some Hindus.
“Aurangzeb,” Chettry writes, “renewed the land grants of several temples at Mathura, Allahabad, Brindavan (now Vrindavan) and elsewhere. In 1687, the emperor gave land to Ramjivan Gosain to build houses for pious Brahmins and fakirs. In 1691, he conferred eight villages and substantial tax-free land to support the Balaji temple. In 1698, he granted land to a Brahmin named Rang Bhatt in Khandesh.”
The historian Richard Eaton, in his seminal work on temple desecration, has noted that the immediate cause of Aurangzeb’s rage against the Kesavadeva temple might also have been political.
In 1669, Jat rebels had gone to war against Aurangzeb’s state, and the demolition might have been intended as an act of collective punishment. The Mughal state’s trenchant opponent, Shivaji Bhonsale I, was, by some accounts, helped to escape incarceration by Brahmin families in Mathura.
And, perhaps worst of all, Aurangzeb’s ire might have been aroused by links between some Hindu communities and his rebellious brother, Dara Shikoh.
Eaton has noted that the Mughal archive contains warnings about Brahmins “engaged in teaching false books”, adding that “both Hindu and Muslim ‘admirers and students’ had been travelling over great distances to study the ‘ominous sciences’ taught by this ‘deviant group'”.
In 1687, the Jat rebels Aurangzeb was seeking to suppress engaged in their own act of iconoclasm — part of a long insurgency that contributed to the eventual downfall of the empire. The bones of emperor Akbar, Mannuci wrote, were dug up and set on fire. In all the centuries it had stood, no greater insult had ever been delivered to the house of Tamerlane — the forefathers of the Mughals.
“Against him living they could do nothing,” Mannuci concluded, “hence they therefore reaped vengeance on his sepulchre”.
By the 19th century, though, the countryside around the destroyed temple was quiet again, and worship was restored. Local rulers, manuscripts record, refer to a new dwelling place for priests, two temples, and a pond.
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)