As the reconstruction of the Ram Janmabhoomi temple begins in Ayodhya, I am drawn to another piece of news, half a world away. The Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul has just been converted back into a mosque. It was a decision by Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, undoing the earlier move to secularise it by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, in 1935.
I had travelled to Turkey two years ago, and could sense that this was an emotional subject for the Turks. I saw their yearning to exclusively pray once again at their holy place, without being surrounded by tourists (prayers had been allowed in the museum in the recent past). From the perspective of most of the Turks, the decision to change Hagia Sophia back into a mosque was understandably fair. However, I also understand the pain of the Greek Orthodox Christians. Pope Francis said that he was “deeply pained”. For the Hagia Sophia was once a church.
In 1453, the Turks conquered Constantinople — the centre of the Greek Orthodox Church for a millennium — erased its very name, birthed the city of Istanbul, and converted the Hagia Sophia church into a mosque. Don’t the Greek Orthodox Christians yearn to pray there as well? And many Roman Catholic Christians too, for the Hagia Sophia was also a Roman Catholic church once, albeit briefly? But I take my brooding further.
The oppression of pagans
The mother of all ironies is that no one feels the pain of the pagan temple upon the foundations of which the Hagia Sophia itself was constructed over 1,500 years ago. So, are we being told that historical wrongs go only this far in time and no further? Why not? Because almost no pagan survives in Europe to feel the pain and hurt from the historical wrong.
Pagan is a pejorative word, used to describe those who are not Abrahamic — that is, those who do not follow either Judaism, Christianity or Islam. I embrace this ‘deprecatory’ term with responsibility. It is forgotten that practically the entire ancient world was ‘pagan’ once; idol-worshipping, Goddess-worshipping, nature-worshipping people who were comfortable with multiple truths and forms of the Divine; even atheists were included. Many would follow multiple ‘religions’, something unthinkable in strict Abrahamism.
All these cultures were wiped out, most of them violently. Judaism was rarely an imperialist religion. But proselytising Christians and Muslims inflicted unprecedented genocidal violence upon pagans, spoken poignantly of in Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age, among many other books. But it must be strongly asserted that not all Christians or Muslims were oppressors of the pagans. There were only a few groups that carried out this violence: most prominently, European Christians and Turkic Muslims. This violent expansionist urge was absent, for instance, in the African Christians and Indonesian Muslims. And of course, modern Europeans and Turks have nothing to do with what their ancestors did.
The only survivors
Why is this historical sweep important for us Indians? Because we are among the few ‘pagan cultures’ to have survived. We are the only pre-Bronze Age civilisation with a living, continuous culture — China, though a ‘pagan culture’, is not pre-Bronze Age. And we suffered, as all pagans did. There were repeated invasions through the 2nd millennium CE, first by various Turkic tribes, and then by European colonialists.
Establishment Indian historians from the old elite refer to the Turkic invasions as Islamic invasions, but they do not call the European conquest the Christian conquest. This reflects their bias. I believe that they should be referred to as Turkic and European invasions; for the foreign invaders had nothing to do with Indian Muslims or Indian Christians. But the foreigners were, self-declaredly, steeped in a deeply iconoclastic doctrine. Thousands of temples were destroyed, and mosques or churches built on the same ground, sometimes re-using the rubble of the destroyed temple.
Sita Ram Goel has recorded many instances in the seminal book Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them, which he co-authored. Tens of universities were burnt to the ground. Many tens of millions of people were massacred over the centuries. American historian Will Durant had said that the Turkic invasions of India “is probably the bloodiest story in history”. But the Europeans were no less brutal, as the true history of the Goa inquisition shows. Notwithstanding, what happened to us was not unique. It happened to almost every single ancient and classical culture in the world. What is unique is that we survived. And one of the main reasons for that, is that our ancestors did not surrender.
The Sun temple in Multan (in present-day Pakistan) was the first major ancient Indian temple to be attacked by a foreign invader in the early 8th century CE. Thereafter, thousands of Hindu and Jain temples, Buddhist viharas, and Sikh gurudwaras were destroyed by invaders, including the holiest — such as Ram Janmabhoomi ji temple in Ayodhya, the Vishwanath ji temple in Kashi, and the Keshav Deva ji temple in Mathura.
Pagan attacks minuscule
Some say that pagan invaders also destroyed places of worship at times, most notably the Romans, who destroyed the Jewish temple at Jerusalem. But history records show that these were rare, and not theologically driven. Equivalences drawn look belaboured and disingenuous, in the face of the overwhelming preponderance of numbers in favour of the iconoclasts. The pagan attacks on other places of worship are less than minuscule when compared to the scale of what the pre-modern Europeans, Turks, and few other invading groups did in the last one-and-a-half millennia. A gruesome murder, heinous as it may be, cannot be equated with wholesale massacre.
It has been theorised by some historians that these barbaric foreign invaders attacked temples only for their riches, and the destruction was an unintended consequence. If that were true, mere looting would have sufficed, and destroying the temples/viharas and converting them into mosques or churches would not have been necessary. And what monetary gain would destroying universities bring? Turkic invader Bakhtiyar Khilji burned so many books at Nalanda University that the event is believed to be the “main cause behind the decline of Buddhism in India”. The conquerors themselves proudly recorded their destructive acts, along with their iconoclastic motives, in texts such as Baburnama and Tarikh-i-Firishta.
Indian kings and queens took some time to understand the nature and character of these invaders. Some discovered the hard way that classical codes of chivalrous honour in battle were outdated against such foes (Prithviraj Chauhan, for example). Many others fought heroically and won (King Suheldev, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Lachit Borphukan, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, King Marthanda Varma, and Queen Abbakka among many others). Many fought hard and lost (Raja Dahir of Sind, Hindushahi Maharaja Jayapala of Kabul). But our ancestors never surrendered. They were the only ones among all pre-Bronze Age pagans who succeeded in protecting that which is most precious: their way of life.
Time to rebuild
I am reminded of these wonderful lines, ironically written by the bugbear of a few in India, Thomas Babington Macaulay, “And how can man die better, Than facing fearful odds, For the ashes of his fathers, And the temples of his Gods.”
Our ancestors did the dying. It is up to us to do the rebuilding.
As we rebuild, we must remember to not dishonour our ancients or their way of life. We must act with dharma. We must speak the truth of what happened to our civilisation, but without engendering hatred. We must act, but with calm collective resolve, not with insecure aggression. We must understand that Indian Muslims and Christians of today have nothing to do with what the pre-modern Europeans, Turks, and other foreign invaders did.
We must rebuild our temples and viharas as one people. With mutual respect, love and inclusion. We must recreate them as not just places of worship, but also as centres of knowledge and social cohesion, as they were in ancient times. We must not stop with the Ram Janmabhoomi ji temple. We should rebuild the Martand ji Sun temple in Kashmir and the university of Vikramshila in Bihar, for instance.
Rebuilding is a civilisational responsibility we owe to ourselves – and more significantly, to our ancestors, as well as to future generations. It is a statement to the world that we will not die. We are sanatan. We are eternal. And most importantly, we are united. All 1.3 billion of us.
Jai Shri Ram. Jai Maa Bharati.
Amish is the award-winning bestselling author of the Ram Chandra series, Shiva trilogy, Legend of Suheldev, and Immortal India. Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.