New Delhi“There were five idols of pure gold five cubits high in the air,” amazed 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 1031 CE. There was “one that if the sultan had seen it exhibited in the bazaar, he would have considered it undervalued at fifty thousand dinars.”

The ending was predestined: “They devastated this whole city and moved from there to Kanauj.”

In 1953, the temple now called Krishna Janmabhoomi began to rise – the result of the efforts of scholar and Congress leader Madan Mohan Malviya, and 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 center of a bitter legal battle. Last Thursday, a court opened hearings on a petition asking that the Shahi Idgah mosque which stands next to the temple be sealed.

The story of the Krishna Janmabhoomi temple, like those of others currently in the midst of community controversy, is complex – a story that almost cannot be told in the heat of legal action or charged political debates over historic grievances. and cultural. .

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The king and the temple

Little is documented of the temples destroyed by Mahmud – or even if there was one specifically identified with the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna.

After the death of the third Mughal emperor, Jalaluddin Akbar, in 1605, the Rajput ruler of Orccha, Vir Singh Dev, began work on a large temple in Mathura. Vir Singh’s father, Madhukar Shah, had been an ally to the Mughal throne – but the new king, for reasons central to the story, was hostile to Akbar.

After Madhukar Shah’s death, 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 disgruntled 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 recordedhad a problem.

To dispel doubts about the legitimacy of this rule, he spent part of the fortune he had amassed in the service of the Mughal flag for charity and building temples. He also commissioned hagiographic poetry about himself, justifying his accession to the throne.

However, evidence linking Vir Singh’s Kesavadeva temple to Krishna’s specific birthplace is thin. From the 1st century CE, Mathura had become a center of Vaishnavite art. Even though Mathura was a major pilgrimage site, neither surviving inscriptions nor travellers’ accounts show that there was any particular site connected with Krishna’s birth.

However, there is little doubt that the new temple – built at a cost of 33 lakh in the currency of the day – was magnificent. The physicist Nicolas Manucci wrotein a contemporary account, “that its golden pinnacle was seen from Agra, eighteen leagues away”.

This show has not been seen for a long time. In 1669, Emperor Aurangzeb ordered Kesavadeva to be razed and a mosque built in its place, laying the groundwork for the dispute that now rages in the court of Mathura.

Faith or politics?

Of words from its chronicler Muhammad Mustad Khan, it is clear that religion had at least something to do with Aurangzeb’s decision.

“In a short time, through the great efforts of his officers,” noted Khan, “the destruction of this solid foundation of infidelity was accomplished and on its site a high mosque was built through 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 continually trampled on.”

However, looking into the medieval mind with eyes conditioned by the modern world can be misleading. Aurangzeb might have been a fanatic – but he had been, the scholar Aniket Chhetry has checked ina warm relationship with some Hindus.

“Aurangzeb,” writes Chettry, “renewed the land grants of several temples in 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 bestowed eight villages and significant tax-free land to support the Balaji Temple. In 1698, he granted land to a Brahmin named Rang Bhatt in Khandesh.

Historian Richard Eaton, in his seminal work on the desecration of templesnoted that the immediate cause of Aurangzeb’s rage against the Kesavadeva temple may also have been political.

In 1669, the Jat rebels had gone to war against the state of Aurangzeb, and the demolition could have been intended as an act of collective punishment. The incisive opponent of the Mughal state, Shivaji Bhonsale I, was reportedly helped to escape from incarceration by Brahmin families in Mathura.

And, perhaps worst of all, Aurangzeb’s anger might have been sparked by ties between certain Hindu communities and his rebellious brother, Dara Shikoh.

Eaton noted that Mughal records contain warnings about Brahmins “engaged in teaching false books”, adding that “Hindu and Muslim ‘admirers and students’ had traveled great distances to study the ‘disturbing sciences’ taught by this ‘deviant group’.'”.

In 1687, the Jat rebels whom Aurangzeb sought to suppress engaged in their own act of iconoclasm – part of a long insurrection that contributed to the eventual downfall of the empire. The bones of Emperor Akbar, writes Mannuci, were dug up and set on fire. In all the centuries it had stood, no greater insult had ever been meted out to the house of Tamerlane – the ancestors of the Mughals.

“Against his life they could do nothing”, concluded Mannuci, “therefore they reaped revenge on his sepulchre”.

By the 19th century, however, the countryside around the destroyed temple was quiet again and worship was restored. Local rulers, according to the manuscripts, refer to a new dwelling place for the priests, two temples and a pond.

(Editing by Poulomi Banerjee)

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