Book Review: Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples – Koenraad Elst

Meenakshi Jain

Dr Koenraad Elst

Even in their hour of defeat, Hindus kept on trying to save as much as possible of their civilization. They didn’t take it lying down. They struggled, and in most of India, they ultimately won. – Dr Koenraad Elst

Dr Meenakshi Jain, Senior Fellow at the Indian Council of Social Science Research and former Associate Professor, Delhi University, has established herself as one of India’s principal historians. Most conspicuous and most relevant to the public debate have been her books on the Ayodhya controversy (judicially not yet ended at the time of this writing) and on Sati, long extinct but still used as a stick to beat Hinduism with.

Her present book, Flight of Deities and Rebirth of Temples, is essentially a sequel to the temple destruction part of her own work on Ayodhya and to the late historian Sita Ram Goel’s list of temple destructions across India plus analysis of their doctrinal justification (Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them, 1990-91). Now that we know about the large-scale and long-lasting campaign of iconoclasm, this book discusses what happened next: what did Hindus do to save what could be saved when unbeatable Muslim armies came in to destroy their society, beginning with their places and objects of worship?

The destruction of Hindu murtis and temples was sometimes met with clever ways of spiriting the deities to safety, and was mostly the beginning of long periods of struggle to somehow maintain or restore the tradition, including the worship of the targeted deities.


For a proper reporting on and analysis of temple destructions and the reaction to it, several fallacies have to be pin-pricked. One is the thesis by Irfan Habib, Richard Eaton, et al. that the perpetrators motive was only economic. This secularist narrative flies in the face of the Muslims’ own testimony ever since Mohammed himself, for whom idol-breaking was a central practice affirming loyalty to Allah alone.

Another fallacy is that Hindu temples were mainly political institutions, which flies in the face of the Hindu awe for the sacred, to be seen with your own eyes in Hindu temples even today. Conspicuous in this analysis is “the absence of any reference to the Hindu notion of the sacred. … What prompted ordinary devotees, far removed from political processes, to endanger their lives to protect deities enshrined in temples? And why were temples rebuilt again and again, even in the absence of Hindu kings?”

Yet another is that Hindu kings practised iconoclasm themselves, as if the handful of cases of idol abduction (to continue the idol’s worship in the victor’s own temple, allowing also the loser to continue the deity’s worship at the original site through a new idol) were the same in magnitude and especially in intention as the millionfold icon destructions as signs of the annihilation of the defeated religion. The ridicule gets complete with the recent addition that the re-use of temple parts displayed in mosques (like the walls of the Kashi Vishvanath or the pillars inside the late Babri Masjid) were nothing but a deliberate and creative “engagement with local traditions of temple architecture” by the mosque builders.

Hiding the icon

The Hindu practices described in this book refute these stories. In literally many thousands of cases, idols from every sampradaya were spirited away and buried. Cases are related of areas where hundreds of idols have been found buried face down, sometimes by temple priests who preserved the memory of their whereabouts, but in the modern age far more often coincidentally by villagers or by construction workers. One case I came across myself is the Brahma Temple in Varanasi, where the murti was hurriedly thrown under water and later re-installed.

The story of many icons is followed in detail. Thus, “during Muslim attacks, many idols … were saved from defilement by being hidden in saddle bags of people fleeing into the desert.” Often they were then re-installed in makeshift temples in still-safe territory. In Mathura, when Aurangzeb ordered mass iconoclasm in 1669, “the royal decree led to a mass migration of deities. … Temples were built for the deity in flight … the images were consecrated in a hurriedly raised structure. … It was the first temple without a shikhara, without a mandovara and without a pitha, all obligatory as per the shastras. The threat from Aurangzeb had made it difficult to adhere to shastric injunctions.”

In auspicious circumstances and in the geographical margins, Hindus sometimes managed to save the essential by means of delays and dissimulations, e.g. when Aurangzeb wanted Jagannath Puri destroyed, the Raja of Khurda prevailed upon the Subedar in Cuttack to mislead the emperor: “some minor structures were pulled down and a replica image of Jagannath was sent to Aurangzeb.” Later the emperor found out about it, deposed the Subedar, but the priests managed to wall in the temple and keeping it closed for years, but allowing a priest in through a secret entrance to continue the daily rituals.

In 1659 Afzal Khan desecrated the Bhavani image in Tuljapur, at least according to the Sabhasad Bakhar, a Marathi chronicle on Shivaji, which adds an apparition of the vengeful goddess correctly predicting his impending death. Probably more credence can be given to another chronicle, the Chitnis Bakhar, which states that “the priests managed to remove the deity to safety … to Pratapgarh fort.” Here, Meenakshi Jain exercises a historian’s caution when she considers both, including the possibility that the finally reconsecrated murti may have been a replica: “Whether the image was old or new, the pitha (place of residence of the deity) was ancient.”

Similar stories can be told of Christian iconoclasm, as when the Portuguese “destroyed an ancient temple called a pagoda”. What happened was that “in 1560, the Temple of Saptanatha was destroyed by the Portuguese and a chapel constructed at the site with material from the demolished temple. A devotee took the linga to Bicholim, where it was consecrated. Subsequently the Maratha leader, Shivaji, had a temple built for the linga.” (p.216-217)

In the easiest cases they could negotiate the return of stolen-but-not-destroyed idols, e.g: Akbar, patron saint of Nehruvian secularism, was not so innocent regarding iconoclasm, but when he needed the military aid of his new ally Rai Singh, the latter “succeeded in obtaining from Akbar the 1050 Jain idols looted from Sirohi in 1576. He dedicated them to the Chintamani Temple in Bikaner.”

Some temples or other centres of worship were reconstructed again and again, or kept alive even if not architecturally. Hindus kept on coming to Rama’s birthplace, celebrating his birth in the open air even when their temple had been demolished. The Somnath Temple was rebuilt eight times. The Kashi Vishwanath Temple was demolished a first time by Qutbuddin Aibak in 1194 but became “the prime symbol of Hindu resistance: they repeatedly rebuilt as Muslims continually destroyed.”

Art smuggling

Sometimes, the story of iconoclasm ends up mixed with a different problem: art smuggling. Thus, villagers found a Nataraja statue buried in Shivapuram (Tanjore) and gave it to the local temple. When sent for cleaning, “a copy was surreptitiously made and returned to the temple as the cleaned image”, while the original was “eventually purchased by the Norton Simon Foundation in 1973”.

In the Danish colony of Tranquebar in 1799, construction workers discovered a series of Chola bronzes buried five centuries earlier during an invasion by the Delhi Sultanate. They were judged too thoroughly desecrated by the local Brahmins and ceremonially entrusted to the local governor, who returned the favour with gifts to the then-existing temples. Later in life he took them home, and they are now in the National Museum of Denmark. ”From being objects of veneration in majestic temples, to being buried for centuries, to being transported to foreign shores, it has been quite a journey!” For once, this expatriate art has no history of being stolen.

Another modern problem is the sorry fate of temples at the hands of “atheists, sceptics, rationalists and unscrupulous idol smugglers”. Lust for financial gain often mixes with ideological motives to usurp temple lands or the income from them, and to siphon off funds meant for their upkeep. But that is another story, one that the ancestors who sacrificed so much to save them wouldn’t understand.

Doctrinal foundation

Like iconoclasm itself, the defence against it had a doctrinal foundation. Temple hagiographies and site histories discuss the issue, that had become an acute problem and an ever-looming eventuality. In the Ekalinga Mahatmya, devoted to the Eklingji Temple in Mewar, Vayu tells Narada that this is part of the eternal struggle between gods and demons, and advises to simply replace a destroyed murti with a newly-consecrated one, for which “stone images should be preferred to costly metal ones”.

The Vaishnava priestly handbook Vimanarcanakalpa “recommended interment of images in times of danger”.  It prescribes ritual rules for this, such as appeasing the Earth Goddess who is asked to give hospitality to Vishnu, and transferring the icon’s energy to a bundle of grass that was to serve as a temporary stand-in.

It was known to temple-destroyers that Hindus had a way of reviving idol-worship, e.g. the elderly Aurangzeb ordered an inspection around Somnath, that he had earlier had destroyed once more, to see whether “Hindus have revived worship”, in which case every trace of it should be uprooted.

Down with defeatism

The theme of this book, the Hindu reaction to temple destruction, is a novelty in Indian historiography. That already would make it a path-breaker, a milestone specifically for historians. But it is of even greater importance for Hindu society as a whole.

Among Hindus conscious of the Islamic atrocities, there is all too often a defeatist streak: “Look what happened to us. We Hindus have always been defeated by foreign invaders. Ultimately it was only yet other foreign invaders, in this case the British, who could defeat our conquerors.” This, of course, is not true. The scenario only happened to work out like that in Bengal, where the Hindu population did indeed applaud the British victory in Plassey (1757) over the Moghul forces. In the rest of India, Moghul power was pushed back by the Marathas, and in their wake the Rajputs, Jats and Sikhs.

But moreover, there was this constant resistance first brought to the attention of us moderns in this book. Even in their hour of defeat, Hindus kept on trying to save as much as possible of their civilization. They didn’t take it lying down. They struggled, and in most of India, they ultimately won.  – Pragyata, 28 March 2019

» Orientalist Dr Koenraad Elst studied at the Katholieke Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium, obtaining MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. After a research stay at Banaras Hindu University, he did original fieldwork for a doctorate on Hindu nationalism. He has earned laurels and ostracism with his findings on hot items like Islam, multiculturalism, the secular state, the roots of the Indo-European, the Ayodhya temple-mosque dispute and Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy.



2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Echoes in the Mist.


  2. Both author and reviewer are to be congratulated for this careful piece of work !


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