Of temples and terracotta (Outlook Traveller)

I dawdled through the dingy gullies, passing by and catching sight of a few tea stalls, sheltered from the afternoon swelter by some half ripped up thatch covers on top, and treaded on the steps of Shyamal, my tour guide here at Bishnupur. I knew I could’ve done well without a guide for sure but then, I didn’t know every trivial thing about the place, and local guides are as much a source of knowledge as some British gazetteer compiled in the colonial era. Shyamal, my guide, was an old man, possibly in his sixties but the enthusiasm with which he led me forward, narrating the history of every single rock and shrub in the region, did catch my attention, for not many a man is able to keep his interest in cultural sites unceasing with age. Pacing forward for another ten minutes or so, we ended up in front of a big, blue ASI board, the information written on which had surprisingly evanesced and the name of the monument we had turned up near, changed from ‘Gumgarh’ to ‘Gumghar’, a most unfortunate act of vandalism by local residents.
Behind the board was a steep mound, enveloped with a heavy undergrowth of entwining vines, spinose bushes and a few jumbo creepers that served to be the only route upto the monument.
“There are snakes out there, babu! Don’t climb”, alerted Shyamal, convincing me not to amble up. Instead, we saw the monument from the road below. It was not necessarily a marvel but more of a reddish brown cube, without a window or a door in sight. There must’ve been a door somewhere but it didn’t show up the way we expected it to.
“They say people were tortured here to death! Hence the name Gumgarh. Don’t venture anywhere near! It’s haunted”, further informed Shyamal. I loved local folklores and could well guess that this was one of them, for going by the walls of Gumgarh, all that appeared to me was that this could’ve been some sort of a water storage tank or granary during the medieval times. Nevertheless, not wasting much time in contemplation, we turned right onto the central Rajbari road and strolling on for another ten minutes, stood in front of the Shyamrai temple. At the gates were a few local vendors selling handicraft terracotta items. I bought a pair of horse statuettes for myself, that costed me around two hundred Indian rupees, which in-fact is a meagre price for a terracotta item, going by the intricacy that could equal the ones designed by the Mallas themselves. The Panchachura (local term for the ShyamRai temple owing to the five shikharas on top) complex was well preserved, the architectural genius having been boisterously highlighted at every terracotta carving I could spot, the most beautiful of them being the Rasa-chakra that depicted the Hindu god Krishna playing flute at the centre, surrounded by the devout gopinis, dancing around him in circles, to the tune of his flute. It was divine and symbolised eternal love and reverence for the holy one.
Meanwhile, Shyamal pointed out a three pillared structure in the middle of the monument and informed me that it was here where the deities were usually kept. Bishnupur’s architectural pattern is quite similar all throughout, so one can easily expect to come across a three pillared garbagriha at every other temple as well.
Following this, we wended our way to the famed Rasa-Mancha. It took us an approximate twenty minutes by car, probably because of the huge traffic that had jammed our way owing to extensive travels in the post lockdown period and some sort of a local festivity being near hand. Forcing ourselves in with the help of the digital ticketing service introduced by ASI and a little bit of effort, I stood gaping at the architectural marvel that was extant in front of us. The upper half indubitably resembled a pyramid and the lower half was so intricately carved out of fine terracotta that it never seemed any inferior to the grandiose Indo-Saracenic monuments in the north. Observing the various Vaishnavite motifs on the walls, I enquired Shyamal on why terracotta was what the Mallas had used, instead of some other building material around, and was told of the acute shortage of marble and sandstone during the period, most of these monuments were built in.
In case you’re visiting Bishnupur for the very first time, it is of prime importance that you get to relish the delicacy of a typical Bengali lunch in a local dhaba nearby and purchase a Baluchari silk saree that has embroideries depicting stories from the mythical legends and costs you somewhere around Rs. 10,000 to Rs. 2,00,000 though the one I bought for my mother costed me 25,000.
Diving back into the journey, once you have visited Rasa-Mancha, Shyamrai temple and the Gum-Garh, it is well expected that guides will lead you to the JorBangla temple complex, the name for which literally translates to an ‘amalgamated roof’, Bangla being the architectural term of the Do chala sloping style the roof was built in. This Bangla style is very significant in the Indian history as it was later replicated by Emperor Shah Jahan in building the famed Naulakha Pavilion at the Lahore Fort premises.
In addition to the amalgamated roof on top, carvings on the walls of the JorBangla depict the first ever recorded accounts of Portuguese merchants and the European artillery in the province, that was then called the Sultanate e Shahi Bangla. The other ornate carvings in general include scenes from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Krishna Purana and other such sacred Hindu scriptures and holy texts.
Footslogging from the JorBangla temple premises, my guide led me forward to the RadhaShyam temple (the entrance to which had two terracotta peacocks welcoming us and the uniqueness it possessed was the worship of the Radha Krishna deities inside the temple garbagriha, till this day) and then, moving on some more, to the fortified Lal Jiu mandir, a spectacular Laterite structure built in the ekaratna style of architecture, with a single shikhara surmounted on top. You can still find a half desecrated, winding pillared building on the rearer side of the temple complex, corroborating the Malla panache. Some metres ahead, lay the now closed Garh Darwaza, outstanding all others as an allegory of what the locals referred to as a “spectacular royal gateway”. Although the intricate detailings inside have certainly faded with passing time, the royal ambience fails not to enchant.
Apart from these, there are several other places of cultural interest in Bishnupur that you can visit, some of the popular ones being the Dalmadal Cannon, the haunted Lal-bandh and the magnificent stone chariot into the interiors, besides the dilapidated fort remains of the Malla kings and a towering obelisk called the Hawa Mahal on its outskirts. After dark, when you bid Bishnupur an adieu, passing through the Rajbari road and driving straight into the nearby jungles of Joypur, you can (or at-least I did) visualise the vainglorious Malla warriors on their horsebacks and the triumphant king on his regal elephant, all riding back once again, in unison, to the citadel of their dreams, to Bishnupur, and it is then that you get to realise how much the cultural splendour of this place of heritage leaves one intoxicated!

‘Banalata Sen’ original translation in English by Souhardya De, 2021


হাজার বছর ধরে আমি পথ হাঁটিতেছি পৃথিবীর পথে,

সিংহল সমুদ্র থেকে নিশীথের অন্ধকারে মালয় সাগরে

অনেক ঘুরেছি আমি; বিম্বিসার অশোকের ধূসর জগতে

সেখানে ছিলাম আমি; আরো দূর অন্ধকারে বিদর্ভ নগরে;

আমি ক্লান্ত প্রাণ এক, চারিদিকে জীবনের সমুদ্র সফেন,

আমারে দুদণ্ড শান্তি দিয়েছিলো নাটোরের বনলতা সেন।

চুল তার কবেকার অন্ধকার বিদিশার নিশা,

মুখ তার শ্রাবস্তীর কারুকার্য; অতিদূর সমুদ্রের ‘পর

হাল ভেঙে যে নাবিক হারায়েছে দিশা

সবুজ ঘাসের দেশ যখন সে চোখে দেখে দারুচিনি-দ্বীপের ভিতর,

তেমনি দেখেছি তারে অন্ধকারে; বলেছে সে, ‘এতোদিন কোথায় ছিলেন?’

পাখির নীড়ের মত চোখ তুলে নাটোরের বনলতা সেন।

সমস্ত দিনের শেষে শিশিরের শব্দের মতন

সন্ধ্যা আসে; ডানার রৌদ্রের গন্ধ মুছে ফেলে চিল;

পৃথিবীর সব রঙ নিভে গেলে পাণ্ডুলিপি করে আয়োজন

তখন গল্পের তরে জোনাকির রঙে ঝিলমিল;

সব পাখি ঘরে আসে—সব নদী—ফুরায় এ-জীবনের সব লেনদেন;

থাকে শুধু অন্ধকার, মুখোমুখি বসিবার বনলতা সেন।


Jibonando Das

Translation by Souhardya De

A thousand years have I been walking upon this terrestrial soil, (present continuous in ‘jaitechi’)

From the sea at Ceylon to that of Malaya, in the darkness of the night;

Much have I wandered in the faded realms of Bimbisara and Ashoka,

Where I was; Still faraway, in the darkling city of Bidharba.

A tired soul am I; I see frothy waves ‘round my vision,

Yet I found peace in her who’s from Natore, in Banalata Sen.

Her hair, the blackness that a night in the ancient Vidisha possessed,

Shravasti’s craftsmanship, her face;

When it is dark, I see her

The way an aimless sailor with a broken rudder on the faraway sea

Stares at the grass-green Cinnamon isle;

She hath told me, “Whereat had you been?”

Her eyes raised, in the likeness of a bird’s nest,

She who hails from Natore, she, Banalata Sen.

When, at the end of the day, with the dew, comes eve,

And when the Kite cools its sunburnt wings

And the colours of the Earth fade

To give way to the fireflies to illustrate the manuscript of life;

When the birds too fly back home, and the rivers,

And all the dues of the worldly life I live are met,

What remains is darkness, as I sit face-to-face with her, Banalata Sen.

The Dying Princess

The scene depicted in the ‘Dying Princess’ takes place after Buddha’s arrival at Kapilavastu.

The Buddha had, by the time being talked about, attained enlightenment, amassing, in due course, a wide number of followers who had been indoctrinated in the Buddhist teaching, the very pragmatic way of life as the former prince of Kapilavastu saw it. Given that the srāvakas (direct disciples) had been engaged in fanning out these Buddhist teachings far and wide, it was indeed no wonder that Suddhodana, the reigning Sakya king at Kapilavastu (and the father of the Buddha), having heard of his son’s presence at Rajagriha, planned on sending out emissaries to bring him back to the place of his birth.
Nine messengers were sent as a result; each one of them, with the very simple task of conveying the invitation extended by the father, their King, to the son, the Buddha.
These nine emissary leaders, on reaching Rajagriha, and having already had a conversation with the Buddha, were so impressed with the way of life. He put forth, that they, renouncing the royal titles and their noble dynastic identities, and vowing to put an end to all worldly attachments and desires, entered the order of the Sangha, becoming srāvakas, or direct disciples of the Buddha himself, in quest of attaining arahant-hood.
Back at Kapilavastu however, with none of the emissaries or their retinues having returned, and no communication having been made from their end, a dejected King Suddhodana decides to send out Kaludayi, an efficient administrator, son of another of his most prominent nobles, and a childhood play-fellow of the Buddha, to bring his son back, or if he himself doesn’t return (joining the Sangha was what even Kaludayi demanded the kingly imprimatur for, beforehand), to at-least convey the invitation to the Buddha, asking Him to return to Kapilavastu as and when possible, and to, as noted in a dialogue between Kaludayi (also called Udayi) and the Buddha in the 13th-century Buddhist text (written in Sri Lanka) Jinacaritam, a poem by Ven Medhankara, (translated into English by Anandajoti Bhikku, under the auspices of, and published by the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, Singapore) “be of assistance to his relatives”.
Upon reaching Rajagriha, Kaludayi, unlike the other emissary leaders who had joined the Sangha, and having been ordained thus, disobeyed their King’s command, did succeed in conveying His father’s message to the Buddha. “Reverend Sir, your father the famous and excellent King Suddhodana wishes to see you; let the Sole Protector of the World’s Benefit, the Realised One, be of assistance to his relatives”, he says.
The Buddha, “He who delights in the World’s Benefit”, having heard his childhood companion inform him about this invitation extended to him by his father, set out with a group of 20,000 arahants in order to accompany him on his travel. “Sixty leagues”, he walked at peace, followed by his disciples, covering the land distance between Rajagriha and Kapilavastu, His destination, within two months.
The scene depicted in the ‘Dying Princess’ (Cave 16 at Ajanta) takes place after Buddha’s arrival at Kapilavastu. Sundara Nanda, the protagonist of Ashvaghosha’s literary work ‘Sundara-nanda’ and the groom-to-be of the ‘Dying Princess’ (Janapada Kalyani Nanda) in question, was, by his identity, a prince of the Sakyas, inheritor to the Sakya throne at Kapilavastu (since Buddha, the ceremonial crown prince, had renounced all worldly attachments and become an ascetic), son of Buddha’s father Suddhodhana and his foster mother Mahapajapati Gotami, and therefore, a half brother of the Lord himself.
Regarding the painting at Ajanta, John Griffiths, a British painter, and one who was a part of the reproductions of the Ajanta murals, popularly says, „For pathos and sentiment and the unmistakable way of telling its story, this picture cannot be surpassed in the history of art.” However, what is more appealing here, is the deep-rooted psychological insight it provides, into the minds of a family member or one to be (specifically here, a lover), when the one, the person in question cares for, decides to renounce his/her worldly attachments, severe all ties and bindings that hold him/her back to this mortal world, and joins a sangha, taking an oath of affirmation to the great monastic vows under the directions of the Buddha himself!
Even the great Sakya king Suddhodhana, after getting to know (from Buddha’s wife Yashodhara) that the “Lord of Gods” had been moving from house to house, begging for alms, approaches his son, and resents. “Noble Sakya, this is not the way of your lineage! Do not roam about, do not roam about! In our lineage, Son, not even one King in former times roamed about for alms”, he says. Buddha however responds saying, “Great King, that is your lineage! But my lineage is the lineage of the Buddhas!”
The feeling of belonging is perhaps better justified through the renunciation of Buddha’s half-sister Sundari Nanda. By the time the Buddha would leave Kapilavastu, he would have already ordained Sundara Nanda (Buddha would make him join the sangha, but very soon, weary of the life led by monks and his desire to meet his bride Kalyani, Nanda would want to go back and live the life of a layman. Thus, the Lord would take him on a journey to the Trāyastriṃśa, the world of maya where the thirty-three devas lived, ruled at the helm by Sakra, the Buddhist equivalent of Indra (the Hindu king of the pantheon). On the way up, they would find a scalded she-monkey “who had lost her ears, nose, and tail in a fire, clinging to a burnt-up stump in a scorched field” and then, once up on top, celestial nymphs and beautiful maidens (somewhat similar to the concept of an apsara in Hinduism). Buddha would then ask Nanda who he thinks is more beautiful; Janapada Kalyāni or the celestial nymphs. Nanda would then make a choice no one would have ever expected him to. “Venerable Sir, Janapada Kalyāni is like the singed monkey when compared to those celestial nymphs, who are infinitely more beautiful and fair.”, he would reply. Buddha would, in turn, take this opportunity to entice the young prince to perform penance and strive to attain arahant-hood, which he would succeed at, sometime later. “I guarantee that you will possess them if you persevere as I bid you”, the One true Lord of the Cosmos would reply), the prince Rahula (when in Kapilavastu, Rāhula, urged by Yashodhara, went to claim the Sakya throne for himself from the crown prince Buddha, who, in turn, passed onto him the knowledge of a true arahant, and consecrated him to the monastic order, thus making him the youngest Bhikkhu) and some of the other members of the royal family in the likes of his first cousins Ananda, and Dibbacakkhukānań Anuruddha, both of whom would go on to be renowned ascetics themselves. Mahapajapati Gotami (the first Bhikkhuni), princess Yashodhara, and the “dying princess” Janapada Kalyani Nanda (who attained arahant-hood later, on hearing to the Buddha’s discourse of Kayavicchandika Sutta) would soon, after the death of the great King Suddhodhana, accept the Garudhammas and enter the monastic order of life. Interestingly now, the Buddha’s sister, Sundari, accepted the Garudhammas not because she was drawn to the monastic way of life, but because everyone she cared for, had renounced worldly attachments, and become an arahant.
Coming back to the hagiography of the person of our interest (Sundara Nanda), it was the Buddha who personally admitted his younger brother into the monastic order on the third day of his visit. The entire story has been vividly narrated in ‘the Buddha and his relatives’ by the Sinhalese Theravada monk, Narada Mahathera.
Shifting the focus back to the painting at Ajanta, one is able to, with a closer look, in the background, find erected plantain leaves that might have been meant for the mandapa decorations on the day of the wedding. The bedecked princess, who had, sometime earlier, seen the young prince follow the Buddha with a bowl in his hand (as detailed by Narada Mahāthera, the young bride ran “with tears streaming down her cheeks and hair half-combed, as fast as she could and said to him: “Return quickly, O noble Lord!”), reclines back on what seems to be a bed, supported by a female attendant and some bereaved relatives around, her eyes half-closed, her body low-spirited but otiose, and her swarthy head hung down in despair and despondency. The complexion however, could have, for clarification, been inspired by the artistic depictions of women in what scholars call the Dakshinapatha.
Nonetheless, the perspectives that the Ajanta artist has so verily tried to highlight through this painting, using finite pigments in hand and yet creating a perfect blend of shades and colours to bring about a multi-dimensional aspect of asceticism as seen through the lenses of psychology, make it well defensible that there has been a greater heuristic focus on the emotional and spiritual side of things, rather than on the aesthetic theory concerning the proportion of the use of colours (although the appreciation of what has been penned down in the Vishnudharmothara is seen), for that has clearly been driven by an extramundane demand.
Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author, columnist and podcaster. He is the recipient of the Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, and the honorary Colonelcy of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, US, for his contributions to art and culture. De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in

God, Para Brahman and Hindu Henotheism

The word ‘Hindu’ stems from the Persian equivalent for ‘Sindhu’, meaning Indus, making a somewhat direct reference to inhabitants who belong to the other side of the Indus in the land we call India today.

Hinduism, unlike the major Abrahamic religions that exist in the known world, is not a decisive dharmic conduct or way of life, as made known by a single holy scriptural text, but an ever evolving, self-sowing seed, with newer dimensions of the religious order ever opening up to sectarian adherents that follow. Being precise, Hinduism is hence, in itself, not such a generalised religion at all. The word ‘Hindu’, as is popularly known nowadays, stems out of the Persian equivalent for ‘Sindhu’, meaning Indus, denoting the populace of a particular race, and making a somewhat direct reference to inhabitants that belong to the other side of the Indus, in the land we call India today.
‘What is ‘God’ (in the Hindu point of view)’ would, for instance, have a multi-dimensional answer, the similar way there exits diversified perspectives when it comes to reality, the soul, and the world of being. Before analysing the aforementioned question however, there is a need to note the difference that exists between ‘God’ and ‘Brahman’, so frequently talked about, in the Hindu literary corpus, and shed some light on the concepts of immortality, rebirth, incarnation (avatara) and the way of moksha (that is again so varied, with different paths of attaining salvation having been, so vividly, talked about in the soteriological frameworks, set by the orthodox philosophical schools (the shad darshana), each of which took its own turn in interpreting ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (the dharmic way of life as preached by the Vedic corpus) in a different light.
Verse 1.2.11 of the Bhagavata Purana, as translated by AC Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, reads, “Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this non-dual substance Brahman, Paramātmā or Bhagavān”, which, irrespective of what it philosophically talks about, concludes that the relationship between the jivatman (atma or soul in a living entity) and the Paramatma (or the Brahman) is ‘non-dual’ and advaita, symbolic again of the fact that the entire material world, with all the humans, gods, and gargoyles in it, is an illusionary semblance (maya) of the Brahman, and that the soul (atma), in the spiritual level, is a part of, and equated with, the ultimate reality or Brahman. This theory, moving back to the Hindu philosophy, outlines the foundational concepts of the Advaita-Vedānta school, as laid down by Shankaracharya.
However, it would be incorrect again, to talk about the world in Advaita Vedanta as entirely ‘illusionary’ or a form of maya, for it can somehow be perceived in three different ways: pratibhasika (apparent), vyavaharika (empirical), and paramarthika (which is similar to the concept of transcendental idealism, laid down in the west by German philosopher Emmanuel Kant, in his work ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. Transcendental idealism, in a line, talks about perceiving objects not only the way they are, but also, the way our sensory abilities make us perceive them).
The attributes of this highest Hindu God (Param Brahma) are, as pointed out in the Taittirīya Upanishad (verse 2.1.1), “the highest and the eternal truth (satyam), omniscience (jnanam), and the all pervading infinity (anantam).”
It would again be interesting to note that God, also referred to as Ishvara, is svatantra (independent of external influence or intimidation), unlike Jiva and Jagata (being and the world), that are paratantra, i.e., controlled by a superior being or an external agency, and has no independence of action in the metaphysical dimension.
Nevertheless, these concepts somehow delineate the attributes of the ultimate Hindu God, that, in the Christian terminology (bringing back the comparative part into play), resembles eternity, omniscience, the omnipresent infinity, and aseity (that God is independent and, as stated in Acts 17:25 of the New International Bible published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, “is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”)
Now, there also exists a misunderstanding with regard to the concept of ‘deva’ in Hinduism and the way it is related to, or directed by (considering its subservience) the Paramatma. Deva denotes a deity, and not necessarily the ‘Ultimate God’. In the Hindu pantheon, or what we can also liken to henotheism (worship of a single ‘God’ while accepting the existence but subservience of the other ‘deities’, in the process of illustrating which “Driven by the prosperities of nature, they who fall from knowledge desire worldly pleasures and in imitation of the prevailing customs, worship other gods (personified deities) instead of the one single God” from the Bhagavad Gita (7/20) can be brought in), this Paramatma manifests itself in various forms, hence giving rise to the Hindu Sampradayas (sects within the religion) that so exist. For instance, to Sri Ramanujacharya, the propounder of the Vishishtadvaita philosophy, and a Vaishnavite, Madhava or Vishnu is that Supreme God, while, to Goraknath and Matsyendranath, Shaivite saints who led the Nathpanthi order during the Bhakti reformation, Shiva is the ultimate reality. Similarly, there is the Shakti sampradaya that recognises Devi or the feminine power to be the highest absolute, and thus, worships her as one would, for the sutradhar of the entire cosmos.
Smartism is supposedly a bit different from the aforementioned sects however. Smartas (followers of the Smarta ideology) believe in the worship of Vishnu, Shiva, the Devi, Surya, and Ganesha (the union of the Devi and the Devadideva (a term that might not mean omnipresence, but presence before the Vedic religious hegemony) with equal importance, on the same pedestal. This can thus be likened to the polytheistic theology.
Nonetheless, ‘Deva’ is different from ‘Paramatma’ because it is from the latter (whatever form that Ultimate One be manifested in) that the Universe, and with it, the nature and the living beings, find their existence, and ‘Deva’ is but personification of a natural force. For illustration, if Vishnu (or Shiva, or Devi, as the case might be) is taken to be the Ultimate One, it is from Vishnu that the universe, the world and every living entity that resides in it, finds existence. It is Vishnu who gives rise to the forces of nature. It is he who strikes thunder, he who burns the jungles, he who lets the streams and the rivers flow, he who causes the winds to blow, and he who controls (as a sutradhar does) the living beings of the world he created, with the threads of the sattva, raja, and tamas.
Thus, in simplified terms, Vishnu is the preserver and the protector of this Universe, while Gods like Indra, Varuna, Agni, and everyone that so comes in the ‘swarga’ pantheon, are mere personifications of the natural forces and the cosmic worlds he gave rise to. Taking on further from here, questions could easily be raised on the attributes of the Vishnu talked about. Is Vishnu immortal? Does he suffer no pain? If he is that one great and good god, why do humans (at times, even His devotees) suffer from disasters and calamities brought about by the natural forces, in this world that is his creation?
The first two answers are in the Gita itself. Krishna tells Arjuna that “all the worlds from Brahmalok downwards are, O Arjun, of a recurrent character, but, O son of Kunti, the soul that realises me is not born again.” This statement, when analysed in the light of cosmic theology, brings up two not-so-distinct but independently important concepts of Hinduism. When he writes “the soul that realises me”, the poet presents a direct reference to the soteriological angle. A soul (atman) realises the One God (Para Brahman) only when it merges with Him, in religious terminology, after attaining what is called ‘moksha’ or ‘mukti’. The ultimate goal of life hence, is to realise the purpose of one’s existence, and do deeds that will earn one ‘moksha’ and not simply a place in heaven, for even Brahma and the swargic deities are mortals.
The conclusion drawn above is seconded by Verses 3.7 to 10.3-7 (that deals with the concept of Transmigration of Souls) of the Chhandogya Upanishad, a translation of which by F. Max Mueller, reads, “they who…practise sacrifices, works of public utility and alms, they go to the smoke, from smoke to night, from night to the dark half of the moon to the six months when the sun goes to the south…From the months they go to the world of the fathers, from the world of fathers to the ether, from the ether to the moon. That is Soma, the king. Here they are loved by the Devas, yes, the Devas love them. Having dwelt there, till their works (karma) are consumed, they return again that way as they came…”
In order to make it more simplified, it would be best befitting to use a rechargeable battery as an example. When a person does ‘good’ work on the earth (the place of his action), his karma meter is filled. He is uplifted to the heavens (swarga) as a result, and enjoys the pleasures of swarga as long as his karma lasts. It is to be noted however, that being uplifted to devaloka or swarga is, in no way, similar to realising the Paramatma. When a person realises the Paramatma, he is free from all worldly attachments. He has no feelings; no sorrow, no elation, no pleasure, no hunger, no thirst, and most importantly, no desire. As a result, he ascends to the highest of all lokas: the Vaikuntha loka, where, in the Ocean of Milk (can be likened to Milky Way galaxy), Lord Vishnu and the Goddesses Sri-devi and Bhudevi (moksha-patni and bhoga-patni) reside, around whom coiled, is the primal being of creation, the Adi Ananta Sesha (the Serpent God who doesn’t have a beginning or an end). However, for those who have done benevolent deeds, but have not yet attained moksha, swarga-loka is the place of ascent. They get to enjoy the comforts of swarga and the heavenly pleasures so long as their karmic charge lasts. When the charge is over, they are tossed back into the world to refill their battery, and so, the process goes on and on, in that never ending cycle called samsara.
This world that we live in, is a creation of the God. What would then make God want to wreak havoc and bring in natural calamities devastating his most precious creation (humans) with the forces of nature that find their origin in Him?
The answer to this lies in the far off West, in a series of letters exchanged between Genevan philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, his French counterpart, in the wake of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. While Voltaire, a strong critic of Christianity and a practitioner of the pessimistic faith, blamed God for letting the natural forces loose on the thirty thousand civilians that perished, Rousseau (whose ideals are of interest here) defended God and the optimistic faith, and taking on from the views of Leibniz and the Pope, advocated the outlook that the world is a creation of God, and that it is the best world that he could possibly create, but even in a world created by him, there are bound to be imperfections. “Most of the physical evils we experience, are of our own making”, he added, thus bringing about the now very relevant sociology of disaster into play, reminding humans that it is not God who is at fault, but humans themselves, for nature reacts the way one interacts with it.
Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author, columnist and podcaster. He is the recipient of the Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, and the honorary Colonelcy of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, US, for his contributions to art and culture.

De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in

Bhakti ideals, the Nirguna movement and rise of Sikhism

At a time when north India had immersed itself into the fathomless waters of practising orthodox evils in the likes of the obdurate four-fold societal division (in this context, the division is based on birth; originally however, social division was occupation-based in nature) into the varnashramas (Rig Veda, hymn 10.90), polytheism, untouchability (chandals and doms, who were ostracised as outcastes) and bowing down to the unassailable supremacy of the Brahmanas (priestly class, who effectuated the sacred rituals, as stated in the scriptures, in order to help a devotee attain salvation [moksha or mukti: the ultimate goal of life]), a more just and humane approach towards divine dharma and the ideal human karma, came from far flung south.
What is known to us as the Bhakti movement today, was actually a series of reformative (in the sense that the varna system, in every way, was rejected, polytheism opposed, and the so very authoritative rituals were questioned) doctrines inside Hinduism, as had been propagated by the medieval Indian saints, especially poet-seers that came from the south, the earliest examples of them being the Saiva Nayanars and their contemporary, the Vaishnava Alvars. Their message was simple and effortlessly construable: salvation is a path that all men, irrespective of what societal background he may belong to, can stride on, solely through love and faithful devotion (bhakti) to their (movements were, at times, divided with regard to the Hindu sampradaya (sect) they would follow) venerate Amighty (Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Smartism and Shaktism had all (except for Shrautism, that followed the teachings of the Purva Mimansa ideology) come under the Bhakti influence).
As a consequence, scholars Karine Schomer and WH McLeod, in their work entitled ‘The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India’ have come to observe that “Salvation, once considered unattainable except by men of the three upper castes, came to be seen as the prerogative of all, and spiritual leadership shifted from the Brahman priest knowledgeable about ritual and Sanskrit scriptures to the figure of the popular poet-saint who composed fervent songs of devotion in the regional vernacular.”
The consequent impact of this movement, on the society, was three-fold: A socio-religious, in the sense that the societal division, often taken to be one of the greatest legacies of the Vedic age, was forsworn, and Hinduism, after the reformation, became acceptable to the people anew, leading to the gradual decline of Buddhism, Jainism and the other shramana schools in the Indian landmass, b. politico-administrative, and, c. a sudden outpour of a lot of Hindu religious works and the popularisation of the vernacular languages in which they were usually composed.
The Bhakti movement was diverse and although regionalised in nature, widespread. Its roots stemmed out of the Peninsular plateau in around the 7th century AD, and within another four centuries, the branches of the ever-expanding tree had resolutely extended to, and established their ideals in the likeness of parasols over the Central, Northern and Eastern Indian populace (Jainism continued to be preached, as it is preached even today, in the Western Indian kingdoms, for their patronage was extended mostly by the detested mercantile class. Even then, Bhakti poet-saints like Mirabai, Rajjab, Charan Das, and the Dadupanthis were not a very uncommon sight).
The word ‘Bhakti’ has its origins in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (hymn 6.23), which, as translated by Paul Deussen in his ‘Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1’, reads, “He who has highest Bhakti (love, devotion) of Deva (God), just like his Deva, so for his Guru (teacher), To him who is high-minded, these teachings will be illuminating.”
Every ‘guru’ that so came into being, had his own path to moksha. As they gradually emerged, with their gospels, in hundreds and thousands, the basic framework of Hinduism, as people knew it until then, was altered. If a closer look is taken at the divisions of the Hindu sampradayas that now exist, it would be amusing to observe how each of them revere (taking the non-Puranic Saivite philosophy as an example) the Shiva as the common Lord of the Universe, notwithstanding which the ‘how to worship Shiva’ is so varied and so discrete. For an illustration, while the Nathpanthis, who adhered themselves to the teachings of Goraknath and Matsyendranath revered the sattva (goodness) qualities of Shiva, the Kapalikas and the Aghoris worshipped Lord Bhairava, a tamasic incarnation of the Shiva. Yet, their destinations remained the same, the ultimate goal of life and that of their teachings being the attainment of moksha or salvation, through paths that differed, not only in terms of the ‘how to worship’ but also, ‘which incarnation to worship’. The same holds true for the Vaishnavite sects as well, though it is to be noted that, most, and not all of the sects, however subsistent they might be, (in both Shaivism and Vaishnavism) trace their origin to the Bhakti times.
The two broader and more popular dimensions of the Bhakti movement that encompass most of the above talked about regionalised movements under their parasols, include the Nirguna Bhakti and the Saguna Bhakti. In his work ‘Talks on the Gita’, eminent philosopher and the man behind the Bhoodan Movement, Acharya Vinoba Bhave notes that the “discussion of bhakti is going to be completed in the Twelfth Chapter. Arjuna has asked a question here, which is similar to what he had asked in the Fifth Chapter, when the exposition of the science of life was concluded. He asks: “Some devotees worship you in saguna form, while others worship you in nirguna form. Whom do you like more?”
Nirguna and Saguna hence, as can be inferred from the aforesaid interpretation of verses in the Bhagavad Gita, be said to, in generalised words, represent the forms in which a devotee worships the Almighty. A more contextual explanation for the same has been provided by Bhave himself, in the following paragraphs, where he states that, “It is just like asking a mother having two sons, “Whom do you love more?” The younger son is a little child, deeply attached to his mother. He is happy only in her company and is restive if she is out of sight even for a moment. He cannot bear separation from her even for a moment. Without her, the world is like a big void for him. The elder son too is full of love for the mother, but he is grown up and mature. He can stay away from her. He serves her and takes all the burden and responsibility upon himself. Being absorbed in work, he can endure separation from her. He is admired by the world and his reputation pleases his mother. If you tell this mother that she can have only one of these two sons and she will have to choose between them, what could she do? How can she make a choice? Try to understand her plight. She will be totally nonplussed and may mumble, “I can bear separation from the elder one if I cannot help it.” It is more difficult for her to tear away the younger son from her bosom. His special attachment to her will weigh with her and she may reply accordingly. But it cannot be said to be the real answer to the question as to which of the two sons is dearer to her. She will reply, if she must; but it would not be proper to take her words literally…The question of choice between saguna and nirguna is similar. The saguna devotee serves the Lord through his organs, whereas the nirguna devotee thinks of the good of the whole world…These two types of devotees may appear outwardly different, but they are intrinsically one and the same. Both of them are dear to the Lord…Bharat, Rama’s brother, is an example of nirguna devotee and Lakshman, another brother, is an example of saguna devotee.”
Sikhism, a way of life, founded sometime in and around 1500 AD by Guru Nanak Dev, a spiritual preacher originally associated with the Nirguna Bhakti movement, discarded, as observed by Eleanor Nesbitt in her work ‘Sikhism: a very short introduction’, the Saguna theory of avatara and instead stressed on the formlessness of God and his universal existence, as was propounded by the thirteenth century Vaishnavite poet-saint Namdev.
“I long not for a kingdom or for mukti but only for the lotus feet of the Lord”, a statement from the holy Guru Granth Sahib makes it more manifested.
The Sikh Encyclopaedia tries to shed some light on the underlying features of Sikhism that seem similar to the Bhakti cult and the major differences, if any, between the two. “For the Bhakti cults, bhakti is the be-all and end all of everything; for Sikhism two other crucially important ends are ethical living and spiritual liberation. The cultivation of moral qualities, in Sikhism, is the requisite precondition for bhakti.” “Without morality bhakti is not practicable”, is what the Guru Granth Sahib states on the same.
That the Bhakti movement has had no effect, whether it be implicit or explicit, on Sikhism, would be factually incorrect to state, for major Sikh tenets like formlessness of God, universality, openness to willing followers without discrimination, and the blatant rejection of the Saguna concept of avatara and personification, have been primarily drawn from the Nirguna Bhakti movement, of which Guru Nanak Dev himself, was an important part. For instance, in the Guru Granth Sahib itself, besides the writings of the six Sikh gurus (Guru Nanak, Guru Amar Das, Guru Angad, Guru Arjan Dev, Guru Ram Das, and Guru Teg Bahadur), there is a separate section (Bani Bhagtaan Ki) devoted entirely to the teachings of fifteen important Bhakti saints, some prominent names amongst them being Kabir, Namdev, Surdas, Ramanand, and Jaidev.
However, besides the aforesaid Sikh tenets, there does exist a specific Nanakpanthi (philosophy first propagated by Guru Nanak Dev) ideology that includes the practice of fearlessness, the five K’s (Kesh (uncut hair), Kangha (a wooden comb), Kara (an iron bracelet), Kachera (cotton underpants) and Kirpan (an iron dagger)), the practice of not living on alms but on what a Sikh would earn from his own labour (kirt), and the selective acceptance of bhajans and kirtans, while rejecting the rigid Bhakti practices of tantras, sacrifices and upasanas, thus forming a very valid reason as to why Sikhism cannot simply be taken to have emanated out of, without change or modifications, the Bhakti principles. How Sikhism came into being is actually a process that can be, in the generalised terminology, called evolution, amalgamating some of the widely practiced Nirguna Bhakti ideologies with, and incorporating in them, additions somewhat based on the socio-political ambience of their times, helping followers of the faith to choose a life of dharmic practicality and not one that would simply encompass the dimensions of devotional mysticism and spirituality.
Note: In this article, I have refrained myself from using ‘caste’ in order to replace ‘varna’. Although the aforesaid use has been generalised by most scholars and academics now, ‘caste’ when seen in the Hindu standards, transliterates to ‘jati’, a concept that is entirely different to and at times, a subsidiary of the ‘varnashrama’. For instance, among Brahmins (which is a varna), Kulina Brahmin is a ‘jati’ or a caste. Hence, it is to be kept in mind that every varna has a separate hierarchy of jatis and that not all castes under the Brahmana varna enjoyed equal dominance in society.

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author, columnist and podcaster. He can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in

Worshipping Bhoota: the Deccani Ritualistic Dances of India

Indian primitive traditions (that can usually, on an average, be traced back to hundreds, if not, thousands of years) are, from the most ancient of times, often considered to have been a syzygy blend of animism, mysticism and ritualistic spiritualism, if the ‘Adi-vasi’ theology, as propagated by the various regional scriptural clairvoyants, talked not simply about gods and demigods but were equally aware of every supernatural force that could be channelled into a spirit or even had one within, back then.
The most primeval form of such animism (a definitive interpretation of which, in the opinions of scholar Pegi Eyers, would be “the way humanity has been deeply connected to the land and its seasonal cycles for millennia, in rapport and conversation with the animals, plants, elements, ancestors and earth spirits”) as a discernible framework of worship would be best seen in the Indus Valley culture, one of the earliest civilisations on the face of this earth, that rose to its zenith in the mature Harappan phase, usually delineated somewhere in the timeline ranging from 2600 to 1700 BCE.
The story of the Deccani regions (or what the colonial settlers, starting with Robert Caldwell, collectively referred to as ‘Dravida’-varta) is a lot dissimilar however. North India has shown how open and flexible it has always been in terms of intermingling with and adapting to various cultural additions and modifications, whether that be the influence of the Persian court costumes on the Kathak classical dance or the, to some extent, blasphemous (in the sense that it did not commit itself to the architectural standards of a single religion, Islamic styles in Kashmir and Malwa, not even possessing the minarets and overly rounded arches that were symbolic of the Arcuade style of monument building) Indo-Saracenic architectural pattern.
Talking about Theyyattam, a popular ritual worship dance from the Deccan, the cultural pattern of which dates back to almost, in the opinions of scholars Raymond Alchin and Bridget in their work ‘The Birth of Indian Civilization’, “the earliest periods of Neolithic, Chalcolithic settlement and expression” and Carnatic music, one which had evolved from the ancient Hindu traditions and had successfully ‘restrained’ itself from intermingling with the Islamic traditions in the medieval era (unlike that of the Hindustani classical music in the north), are interestingly seen to be somewhat rigid in nature, preserving in their utmost abilities, the very primary cultural traits and attributes till this day, without any apparent defection or extraneous influence on its beliefs and practices, the corollary being their consideration as more ‘homogeneous’ and more ‘intellectual’ when compared to their ‘secular’ counterpart.
Unlike the other major dances of the south like Bharatnatyam and Chakyarkoothu, ritualistic worship dances in the likes of Theyyam and Aali Attam (demon dance from the state of Kerala and Tamil Nadu) neither have an ornamental backdrop nor a green staged background that corresponds to the theme being danced upon. Rather, these are performed in open air theatres with the performance of the practices that usually depict, as noted down by historian KKN Kurup, ‘spirit-worship, ancestor-worship, hero-worship, masathi-worship, tree-worship, animal worship, serpent-worship, the worship of the Goddesses of disease and the worship of the Gramadevata (deity of the village)’. Besides the dance, face painting, that sets the characterisation for the Theyyam peformers, is in itself a very essential depiction of the Keralite folk culture. Performed mostly by the erstwhile lower caste males (Devakoothu being the only exception performed by females at the Thekkumbad Kulom temple) in the societal hierarchy, the dancers seek blessings from Theyyam since it is their belief that Theyyam serves to be their only channel to the Lord Almighty. Out of the 456 Theyyakkolams that purportedly exist, certain popular ones include the Vishnumoorthi (Vaishnavite), the Madayil Chamundi (Shakti), Kathivanur Veeran (hero worship) and the Muthappan Theyyam (partly Vaishnavaite and partly Shaivite, given that both gods of the Hindu trinity make an appearance). On Theyattam being often considered to be a synthesis of the beliefs that pervaded through the Deccani society, acclaimed horror author and screenwriter K. Hari Kumar opines that, “From the days of spirit (bhuta) worshiping, it has went on to include the religious beliefs that were embraced by the indigenous people over the course of time. So, it is right to say that Theyyam has evolved with time but if it is looked at carefully, the dance is more of a cathartic form of storytelling.”
In Aali Attam (demon dance), which is a subsidiary of the more widely known Mayilattam (peacock dance in veneration of Lord Subrahmanya) and performed in the Kolathunadu region as Theyyam, people (usually young girls in case of Mayilattam) are dressed up with opulent headgears and furs that make them look like the character they represent and when that is done, they’re sent out to dance, in a pattern that likens one with a demon, the more popular term for which would be an ‘asura’. The performances (Aali Attam, Mayilattam, Pampu Attam and Karadi Attam) are usually organised on the occasion of the Aaraattu or the bathing of the divine idols by the erstwhile royal family of Travancore, for which surprisingly, the Trivandrum airport halts its operation to let the procession pass through the runway to its final destination, the Shankumugham Beach.
A somewhat similar dancing pattern is observed in the Bhoota Aradhane (devil worship), one very popular ritualistic dance form from the coastal districts of Karnataka. Once the idols resembling bhootas are kept on the temple pedestal or plinth, dancers who have roles that deal with imitation of the devil being (theologically possible either by becoming a god oneself or by getting possessed by one), dance frantically amid the ‘beating of drums and bursting of firecrackers’. The dancer is then worshipped by the local community as he is believed to have been sent as a representative of the Lord himself, the purpose of which he fulfils by providing people with answers to their questions and solutions to eradicate the root causes of their ‘dukkha’. Interestingly however, ‘bhoota’, in the rural parts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts where the dance is organised, does not denote ‘ghost’ as is more widely believed in the north. Rather, it literally denotes ‘god’ or a benevolent spirit who is called in to show people the way to end their suffering or problems and is hence, feared and respected throughout the region. Some of such popular bhutas deified and worshipped during the dance include Pilipoota, Kalkuda, Kalburti and so on. As per the Karnataka Tourism, Bhoota Aradhane is also “said to have some influence from Yakshagana (Yaksha meaning natural spirit from the cosmos), a more popular and widely performed folk dance in coastal Karnataka. Some of the Bhootada Kola rituals also involve walking on a bed of hot coal.”
Bhuta Kola, another ritualistic dance that has been influenced by the Yakshagana folk theatre and is indirectly related to the Theyattam performance, has distinct characteristics in that it is performed in worship of the bhuta cult by the non Brahmin Tuluva (Tulu is a Dravidian language spoken by the Tuluvas) people belonging to the region of Tulu Nadu. In his work entitled “Text Variability and Authenticity in the Siri Cult. In Flags of Fame” edited by Heidrun Brücker, researcher Peter J. Claus tells us about matriarchal Paddanas written in Old Tulu which are used as historic recitations, in association with music, dance, elaborate costumes and festivities!
The speciality in organising a Bhuta Kola is that the celebrations are usually taken care of by a former ruling family or a well to do household which is inclined towards the worship of the Lord and hence takes the responsibility of organising the performance, forms of which include but are not limited to Kola, Bandi, Nema and Agelu-tambila. On the Bhuta Kola, K. Hari Kumar, someone who belongs to the region himself, adds, “So, the spirits or bhutas as we like to call them, are closely associated with the particular region or area where people had settled in ancient times. In the light of the limited scientific knowledge of those times, they associated every force of nature with a bhuta. So, there are bhutas that will tell you the truth while others that can cause robbery in your house if not pleased. When these beliefs are strongly rooted in a person’s mind, they can lead one to worship the spirit in the form ofa ritual dance and give rise to a ritualistic environment, with all the fumes and everything. For those pious men who believe, it becomes divine. I am sure the late Narendra Dhabolkar (social activist and rational thinker from Maharashtra) would disagree strongly. Nevertheless, it is a folk dance form and a part of our culture that should be well preserved and respected.”
To bring about a conclusive peroration to what the devil worship actually deals with, even though most of these dance forms have, for time immemorial, often criticised for having been too much of an animistic ritualism and away from the practical nature of life, it would be best befitting to quote author Sabina Magliocco who aptly says, “Understanding the physiological and neurological features of spiritual experiences should not be interpreted as an attempt to discredit their reality or explain them away. Rather, it demonstrates their physical existence as a fundamental, shared part of human nature.”
Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture.De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in

When the Tagores painted

Amongst the very influential families that led at the forefront of reformist movement were the Tagores. Indubitably the most illustrious of all families to have had its roots in Bengal, the Tagores produced a number of luminary scholars, beaming champions of the modern Bengali culture and way of life.

After a decisive victory of the British at Plassey and a widespread penetration of the European way of life into the stereotypical Bengali customs by the early nineteenth century, Brahmanism, that preached the doctrine of the superiority of the Brahmanas alongside social evils in the likes of child marriage, sati and polygamy (many of which, as pointed out by reformers like Raja Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar, were in fact unscientific and never, in whatever manner that be, backed by the original Hindu sacred texts), was supplanted by a very popular reformist movement that aimed to supersede these evil ideals, in order to bring about a gradual amelioration in the minds of the orthodox Bengali Hindu, who had until then, kept his life and his means of life surrendered, to the ritualistically demanding and hierarchically ‘superior’ Brahmana.
The ‘Bengal Renaissance’ as it was termed by scholars, can broadly be considered to be a radical transformation in the late nineteenth century Bengali society (in the light of the Western ideals), that gave rise to what we call the Indian intelligentsia, besides in the words of Lord William Bentinck, “a vast body of rich landed proprietors deeply interested in the continuance of the British Dominion and having complete command over the mass of the people.” Amit Chaudhuri, in his “The Vintage Book of Modern Indian Literature” further states that the Bengal Renaissance “represents, largely, a record of the intellectual, and above all, the creative response of Indians coming to terms with, and shaping, changes in their history and identity. It involved, on the one hand, unprecedented leaps in technique and of the imagination of literature, and, on the other, issues of social and religious reform, of nationalism, education and the mother tongue.”
Amongst the very influential and well admired families that led and stood at the forefront of this reformist movement then, were the Tagores. Indubitably the most illustrious of all families to have had its roots in Bengal, the Tagores, through the centuries that taught the Bengalis to detach themselves from the orthodox societal norms, produced a number of luminary scholars, among them prominent literary geniuses, beaming champions of the modern Bengali culture and way of life, fabled philosophers and astounding painters who expressed more interest in the facets of humanism than the venerate divinity of the theological Hindu!
While Rabindranath, probably the most revered of all the Jorasanko Tagores, penned down an approximate fifty volumes of poetry, composed around two thousand songs and wrote another fifty dramatic masterpieces besides taking upto casual painting and prose writing at times, in his career spanning nearly six decades, Abanindranath, Gaganendranath and Sunayani Devi, his nephews and one among his many multifaceted nieces, led the avant garde movement in the Bengali painting (which Rabindranath himself also popularised), giving rise to the nationalistic Bengal School of Art and the Indian Society of Oriental Art, later accepted, lauded at and promoted by the British administrators of their time as well.
Abanindranath Tagore, fondly called ‘Aban Thakur’ in his close circles, was an artist whose primary ambitions lay in reviving the lost glory of the medieval Rajput and Mughal paintings and revitalising them in the light of the Western models of art, thereby enhancing the prestige of the native Indian schools of art and in support for the Swadeshi movement, including in it the nationalistic designs inspired from the Caves at Ajanta.
Art historian and critic Dr. Debashish Banerji, himself a great grandson of the artist and an exhibition curator, in his book ‘The Alternate Nation of Abanindranath Tagore’ has sought to establish Abanindranath’s paintings as being “embedded in communitarian practices like kirtan, alpona, pet naming, syncretism and story telling through oral allegories”, thereby making “a hermeneutic negotiation between modernity and community, geared toward the fashioning of an alternate nation, resistant to the stereotyping identity formation of the nation state.”
Among the many popular paintings of his, Abanindranath is widely known for the famed Bharat Mata, which in the words of his great grandson again, “is particularly significant for our consideration, since it becomes one of the keynotes of political activity in turn-of-the-century Bengal, Bankim’s poem Vande Mataram (hailthe Mother) becoming the anthem of Bengali revolutionary extremism. Significant too, since as part of the anti-partition movement of 1905, Abanindranath’s iconizing of the figure of Bharat Mataand the utilization of his painting in a political rally, has been held as a sign of his complicity with the project of Hindu Nationalism. This form of unthinking monolithic Hindu inclusivism would leave the Muslim alienated and disenfranchised, it is argued, leading inexorably to communal confrontation and national fragmentation.” In the painting, Tagore shows Bharat Mata to be a saffron clad (saffron being the epitome of strength and courage) divinity, holding a sheaf of paddy (symbol of love for nature) in her lower right hand, a rudraksha rosary (Hindu spiritual bead; often used to mean teardrops of the Lord Rudra) in the lower left, a manuscript (representing education) in the upper right, and a piece of white cloth (white symbolising peace) in the upper left. Drawn in 1905, in the backdrop of the Bengal partition and the rise of Swadeshi sentiments among the intellectuals and the commoners alike, the Bharat Mata indirectly highlights the then socio-cultural economy (education, agriculture, spinning), besides evoking the Hindu divine imagery with the central figure having four hands and a rudraksha rosary, as aforementioned, being held in her lower left.
Another of his most well heard of paintings is ‘The Passing of Shah Jahan’, a miniature artwork drawn in 1902, that depicts the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan on his deathbed at the Muasamman Burj with his daughter Jahanara at his feet and the emperor’s head slightly bent towards the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum of his beloved wife Mumtaz and a “tear-drop on the cheek of time” as the artist’s uncle Rabindranath profoundly called it! The painting has been acclaimed by critics for bearing one of the finest ever depiction of ‘the Mughal marble inlay work decoration and complex railing patterns’.
Abanindranath’s inclination towards the European naturalistic style, apart from the Mughal and Rajput styles, had been indoctrinated in him after his meet with the great painter and his later mentor EB Havell, which had been, for this purpose, set-up by Jnanadanandini Devi, another member of the Tagore family, herself a well acknowledged social reformer (pioneer of the modern day Bengali saree draping called the Brahmika) and spouse of the first Indian ICS officer, Satyendranath Tagore.
Abanindranath’s brother Gaganendranath Tagore is another equally renowned painter and cartoonist of the Bengal school of art. Collectively, the brothers are considered to have been two of the earliest modern painters in India. Having been the mind behind the publication of the influential journal Rupam (published by the Indian Society of Oriental Art), Gaganendranath is also reputed for being the first to use Japanese brush techniques in his illustrations. This technique, admired worldwide by art historians, was seen in illustrations of Rabindranath Tagore’s autobiography ‘Jeevan Smriti’ and others such as Kabuliwala, Phalguni, besides some poems from the Nobel winning Gitanjali.
It is said that Gaganendranath initially started from pencil sketches, as evident from the sketch studies of his sister Sunayani Devi, art critic Dr. Ananda Coomaraswami and Okakura, the man behind his atypical interest for Chinese and Japanese art (more precisely, for the Ink wash or the SUMI-E type of monochrome painting, introduced during the Tang Dynasty in China). Other than the illustrations in his uncle’s autobiographical work, the ‘Crow’, ‘Abanindranath Tagore Painting while smoking hooka’ and ‘Portrait study of Mrs. Gaganendranath Tagore’ are some notable examples of the SUMI-E style painting.
At one point, probably as scholars dement, after the illustrations of the ‘Jeevansmriti’ had been done, Gaganendranath embarked on telling stories through paintings and sketches and one of the finest works produced during this period was the Chaitanya Charitamala, throughout which the artist narrates the tale of Sri Chaitanya Prabhu’s life and times, in the form of pencil sketches.
Although more sketches than any other style, can be observed among Gaganendranath’s collections today, he did practise three other methods of painting as well: the first, watercolour, the second, density painting and the third, cubism, of which he has been regarded to be the first Indian proponent.
The most famed of his watercolour paintings is the Pratima Visarjan, published in the ‘Rupam’ in 1922. As for density painting, the ‘Banyan tree of Jorasanko’ proves to be the finest of all illustrations. The Banyan tree, a realistic painting, is a pencil sketch diagram which had been drawn by the application of the exact proportion of darkness (through shading) as it was, on the original tree, thereby upheaving it to be one of the most well known works of his time!
In his work ‘The Triumph of Modernism: India’s Artists and the Avant-garde, 1922-47’, Partha Mitter calls Gaganendranath ‘a poetic cubist’ and goes on to describe him as “the only Indian painter before the 1940s who made use of the language and syntax of Cubism in his painting.” Notable cubistic paintings made by him included ‘the City of Dwarka’, ‘Aladdin and His Lamp’ and the ‘House of Mysteries’ (earliest of them all).
After years reviving the Bengal School of Art, like his brother and sister Sunayani (who, as described by Stella Kramrisch, was the first modern painter in India and the founder of the Bengal School of Art, inspirited by Sister Nivedita and the Pata style of cloth painting, for which she usually painted on topics pertaining to the Indian folklores, mythical tales and narratives), Gaganendranath disassociated himself from the society and took up what he is most well known for, today: his satirical lithographs. The first few of his cartoons were published in The Modern Review in 1917, followed by a series of satirical books that included Birupa bajra, Naba Hullod and Adbhut Lok.
From 1925 until his death in 1938, Gaganendranath, almost abandoning his satirical lithographs, focussed more on modernist patterns and tried experimenting with the complex geometrical cubistic style, a form of painting also made popular by his contemporaries, the Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and the French artist Georges Braque.
This avant garde Bengali school of art (a style that incorporated the earlier Mughal and Rajput styles with European naturalisation and Japanese brush techniques, hence being truly globalised in its character) that emerged from the plafonds of the Jorasanko mansion and was incorporated into the Shantiniketan syllabi, went on to influence and be practised by people in Bengal as well as throughout independent India (being truly nationalistic in its nature and style), also paving the path for the rise of the successive Modern Indian Schools of Painting and affirming that art, for its own rationale (l’art pour l’art), is what Rabindranath aptly described as “the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Real.”

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture.De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in

The towering ‘God-Kings’ of Persian empire

Historian Amélie Kuhrt upheaves the ancient Babylonian text Nabonidus Chronicle to be ‘the most reliable account of the fall of Babylon’. The initial formation of the Achaemenid kingdom of Persia was in fact the result of a unison planned by Cyrus the Great.

If the ancient Babylonian text Nabonidus Chronicle (compiled in between 556 BCE and 539 BCE) were to be trusted in the manner historian Amélie Kuhrt upheaves it to be ‘the most reliable and sober [ancient] account of the fall of Babylon’, Cyrus the Great, usually taken to be the founder of the later great Achaemenids, was initially the king of a considerably small territory called ‘Ansan’, given that the time talked about is not one of Cyrus’ birth and upbringing (that is shred in many a folklore, few of which are rather mystical in nature) but one of when, as detailed by the chronicle, the last Median king Astyages, invaded the newly crowned Cyrus, under the superior command of General Hypargus, who through his defection was however, as credited by Herodotus, the one most responsible for stabilising the rule of the Median adversary.
Astyages (in the inscriptions of Nabonidus, named ‘Ishtuvegu’), the ultimate Shahanshah of Media, for his part, was very soon overthrown by the young king and taken to his court, either as a later governor of a satrapy or someone in charge of a court faction (both of which denote the level of ‘clemency’ shown by the young king), while the empire’s capital at Ecbatana was annexed and Lydia, having risen up under one Croesus conquered and made a part of the initial Achaemenid crown by early 546 BCE.null

Darius from Naqsh e Roshtam

The initial formation of the Achaemenid kingdom of Persia was in fact the result of a unison planned and executed well by Cyrus and his bureaucratic officers. With the defeat of the Median king, Cyrus’ relatives (among whom notably were Hystaspes, the emperor’s second cousin and a later governor of Parthia and Phrygia and Arsames, the father of the later ‘God-king’ Darius and then, a governor of the territory of Parsa) deflected and extended their allegiance to him, the consequential upshot of which was the great kingdom of Persia, an amalgamation of the two Achaemenid territories of Parsa and Anshan.
Cyrus’ ultimate conquest was that of the neo-Babylonian empire under King Nabonidus, a conflict that was successfully accomplished by the Persian, somewhere around 540 to 539 BCE, the reasons for his steadfast victory partially being the exceptional command of his generals (some of the greatest known military officers in the then world) and partially because of the huge unpopularity (among the civilians) the Babylonian king had heightened for himself! As is inscribed in the Cyrus cylinder, presently kept at the British Museum in London, it was after this victory of his that Cyrus came to regard himself as the first Persian “king of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad and the king of the four corners of the world”, having established the largest known extensions of an empire in that point of time, in recorded history.
As documented by the British Museum, the cylinder further reads, “‘I, Cyrus, king of the world …‘.He presents himself as a worshipper of Marduk (the chief deity of the Babylonian Pantheon) who strove for peace in Babylon and abolished the labour-service of its population. The people of neighbouring countries brought tribute to Babylon, and Cyrus claims to have restored their temples and religious cults, and to have returned their previously deported gods and people.The text ends with a note of additional food offerings in the temples of Babylon and an account of the rebuilding of Imgur-Enlil, the city wall of Babylon, during the course of which an earlier building inscription of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria (668-627 BC), was found.”
As for the later part of his life and his ultimate fate, Herodotus, the historian from Halicarnassus, puts forward a version of his research wherein he details us on the death of Cyrus, while battling against one Tomyris, the queen of the Massagetae.
Russian historian Muhammad Dandamayev accepts this version and details one further with his own presumptions of Tomyris having been a wife of Cyrus himself. Whether this statement is factual is debatable because as far as a mariticide is concerned, why would a woman (especially when she is the wife of the greatest emperor in the then known world), however ambitious she herself might have been, murder her husband, and in the process, abandon all the rights and privileges she ever enjoyed (there exists no evidence to prove that Tomyris ever ascended the Persian throne, be that as a queen or as a regent, after the death of Cyrus)?
The canonised ‘God-king’ phrase, taken up by the Persian rulers after the defeat of the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus III (last monarch of the 26th dynasty of Egypt) at the hands of the mighty successor of Cyrus, his son and the second Achaemenid King of Kings Cambyses II (at the decisive Battle of Pelusium in 525 BCE), is, in noted historian Irfan Habib’s words, ‘closely allied with the priesthoods’ and enforced in order to ‘bound people in allegiance to rulers’.
Cambyses died of mysterious circumstances in 522 BCE, Herodotus ascribing his untimely death to an accident, Ctesias to a suicide and modern historians blaming the later king Darius and his supporters for the same. Nevertheless, with the demise of the ‘god-king’ Cambyses II, his younger brother and political rival Bardiya ascended the imperial throne, only to be replaced by the son and successor of his father’s uncle, Darius, in a neatly organised manner, documented well in ‘Histories’ by Herodotus.
“Otanes asks his daughter Phaidyme – who is a member of the harem and thus has access to the king – to check whether the man has ears. Phaidyme does as asked, and one night while the king is asleep, confirms that the king does not in fact have ears. His suspicions confirmed, Otanes then gathers six noblemen and plots to get rid of the false Smerdis. A seventh nobleman, Darius, arrives at the capital shortly thereafter, and is then included in the group. The seven conspirators charge into the chambers of the king, and while five deal with the guards, Darius and Megabyzus kill the false Smerdis and a companion.”, says Herodotus, detailing the assassination of the king and of how it had been organised. “Five days later, after the tumult has died down, the seven meet again to discuss a suitable form of government (3.80–82). After some discussion over the merits of democracy (proposed by Otanes) and oligarchy (proposed by Megabyzus) and monarchy (proposed by Darius), four of the seven vote in favour of a monarchy. They then decide to hold a contest whereby whichever of them got his horse to neigh first after sunrise shall become king. Darius cheats and ascends the throne”, adds the Halicarnassian.
Even if Darius did cheat and kill both Cambyses and Bardiya, this only adds up to show how diplomatic he was as a person. In those times, there were powerful nobles, military officials and governors who continually suspected and kept check on the ruler’s activities, even if he be one self proclaimed ‘god king’.
And amidst all this, a man who succeeds in luring every societal class to believe in his fabricated version of the story and weds the daughter (Parmys) of the magiophani he had allegedly killed, does deserve to be an emperor!
Ascending the throne in 522 BCE itself, Darius became the warlord of the greatest empire in all of Asia, the Achaemenid. His territories extended from the Greek country of Macedonia and Thrace to as far as the Central Asian Indus Valley, spanning over three definite continents (Egypt, Libya and Sudan being regions of Africa) and numerous regional kingdoms that zealously expressed their utmost allegiance to the new ‘god-king’.
Parts of Indus, for which Darius is read about in the Indian history today, had already come under the Persian hegemony in as early as 535 BCE, the first invasion to the subcontinent having been led by the vainglorious Achaemenid godfather, Cyrus, himself!
After Cyrus’ death and the commencement of the war with the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus, most of these allied vassals who resided here in the Indus region had likely been called back to fight alongside their emperor Cambyses (although it is a presumption and dubitable because the first recorded accounts of Indians in Greece was during the Battle of Marathon, waged by King Darius in the later part of his reign [490 BCE] and commandeered by generals Datis and Artaphernes) and the Persian sway in the region may have dwindled, as is evident from the campaigns of the newly crowned Darius into the Indus region (probably to revive the lost Persian hegemony) and the establishment of satrapies at Gandara, Hindush, and Sattagydia (the names of the territories are found in the Naqsh-e Rustam inscription on the tomb of Darius I), that were then placed under the probable governorship of a Greek sea captain called Scylax of Caryanda though there exist very few primary resources, so as to firmly establish this point of view, Scylax’s own accounts as a geographer having been completely lost.
With regard to the Indian tribute to the Achaemenid administration, Greek historian Herodotus quotes that “The Indians made up the twentieth province. These are more in number than any nation known to me, and they paid a greater tribute than any other province, namely three hundred and sixty talents of gold dust”, corroborating the Indian wealth and grandiosity on a globalised scale, from a very ancient time.
Nevertheless, inspite of Darius’ great successes in the east, Greece did not falter and kneel before the ‘god-king’. The Battle of Marathon (also known as the First Persian invasion of Greece) ended in a decisive defeat for the Persians and resulted in a lowered stature for the God king himself, for it was now known to his subjects that even an accoutred opposition as a ‘god-king’ stands vincible!
Darius, a man who also saw many a building project accomplished during his reign (notable among them being the ones at Susa, Persepolis and his coronation centre at Pasargadae) died (486 BCE) in despondency, bearing a failed invasion next to his godly name and although prophesying a second rampage, never managing to make it happen in his lifetime, a project that was later undertaken by his son and successor, the ruler of the immortals and of almost every known territory on earth at the time, the fifth Achaemenid king of kings, Xerxes! Ascending the throne in 486 BCE and in order to avenge the humiliation incurred by his father, Xerxes the Great launched the second wave of Persian invasions to Greece, this time a Brobdingnagian force with an estimated four lac soldiers of the empire!
Although the Persians did succeed initially in displacing a few kings and defeating some more formidable ones (notable among them being the King of Sparta Leonidas I), it soon suffered severe setbacks against the unified Greek hoplites at the Battle of Plataea and its inviolable navy was left scattered and dented at the Battle of Mycale, a result of dissatisfaction for the proud Persians, the consequence of which had probably been seen in the assassination of Xerxes at the hands of his royal bodyguard, himself (in 465 BCE).
Although many other Xerxeses, Artaxerxeses and Dariuses succeeded the dead king to the Persian throne, none of them could ever revive the glory that the empire’s gonfalons fluttered with once, under the reign of the grand ‘God-kings’.
Eventually in 330 BCE, with the siege of the Persian capital at Persepolis owing to the superior military display on the part of the Macedonian phalanx led by Alexander, an empire that once stood out as an example for all others, was itself turned into rubbles, the last king Darius III being known in history for not being true to what his name meant: the rich and the kingly!

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture. De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in

A Diversified Urbanisation: mini-European Bengal

Portuguese Explorer Vasco Da Gama

Amongst myriad imperialists, the Portuguese were the first to eye the profitable region of Bengal, in as early as the 1520s. Following the Portuguese steps, in came the English, the Dutch, the Danish and finally the French.

The Portuguese, in an expedition led by the naval explorer Vasco da Gama, were the first of all European powers, to have docked at the shores of Calicut (a domain then under the hegemony of the tribal king zamorin) and establish temporary governance by displacing the zamorin in 1502, three years before Dom Francisco de Almeida was officially sworn in as the first Portuguese Viceroy in India (Vice-rei da Índia Portuguesa), bringing along-with himself, as stated in William Logan’s ‘Malabar Manual’, fifteen hundred men on twenty two vessels and instructions to construct four forts at Anjediva, Cannanore, Cochin and Quilon.
Following the Portuguese steps, in came the English, the Dutch, the Danish and finally the French, although with trading rights and privileges of that of a company (the English East India Company, the Dutch East India Company, the Danish East India company and the French East India company respectively) and not under a direct kingly patronage like the Portuguese.
Amongst these imperialists, the Portuguese were the first to eye the profitable region of Bengal, in as early as the 1520s. Then, it was extant as the Sultanate of Shahi Bangla all by itself, the foetal Mughal Empire under Babur still struggling to secure its stands, against vicious oppositions in the north. At its zenith, the boundaries of the imperial territory of Shahi Bangla extended to as far as Jaunpur in the north, Tripura in the west and the Arakan in the east and yet, a presumptive half of the annual revenues of the Sultanate depended upon trading activities of the port of Chittagong. As such, it was way more than expected that the Sultan would heartily grant the Portuguese with exclusive trading rights in the region. And so he did! The first Portuguese factory was set up at Chittagong in 1517, after exchanges of several diplomatic envoys between the Portuguese king and the Sultan of Shahi Bangla, who eventually agreed to their request and ceded a part of Chittagong, in order to help them continue their trading activities without hindrance. In an article titled, “The Portuguese on the Bay of Bengal”, Marco Ramereni details one on how the port-banks soon grew into a garrison and finally into a settlement, with the development of an urbane cultural pattern, the establishment of a naval base and eventually a fort, transforming the Port Grande into one of the major Eurasian ports in the then Indian subcontinent.
Trade continued profitably, besides slave trafficking, relentless piracy and forced conversion of Mussalmans into Christianity, until, as per a brief description from ‘Travels in India’ by French merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the then Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, angered by the Portuguese resistance to his dominance, expelled the traders in 1666, annexing the port city with the help of a formidable Mughal force led by governor Shaista Khan, as a result of which thousands of people were massacred and the remaining communities moved on to settle in other parts of Bengal, most notable among them being Satgaon (“the Little Haven”), Dhaka and Bandel.
Having lost what was their greatest source of revenue, the Portuguese focus moved on to Hugli-Chuchura, a town settlement they had earlier founded in 1579, under the orders of governor Luís de Ataíde. Ugulim, as it was known to the Portuguese, was a moderately profitable zone, located on the right banks of the river Bhagirathi and composed of fertile alluvial soil, hence forming a part of the Gangetic Delta.
Soon after the Portuguese activities commenced in Chinsurah, they were driven out by the Mughal governor of Bengal, who was enraged with political disturbances in and around the city. Sentenced to death but pardoned and restored to their old position by Shah Jahan, the Portuguese established a church named the Basilica of the Holy Rosary in a piece of land given by Shah Jahan in Bandel, that remains to be the most significant Portuguese monument in the region, having been recognised as a Basilica, by Pope John Paul II, in 1988. A brief but well known history of the church is quoted by the famed historian Evan Cotton, in his work, “Calcutta Old and New” where he states, “the Portuguese church, which is now the great sight of modern Bandel. This, the oldest Christian place of worship in Bengal, India, was founded in 1599, the year in which Queen Elizabeth sanctioned the establishment of the East India Company. It was burnt in the sack of Hooghly by the Moors in 1632, but the keystone with the date 1599 was preserved and built into the gate of the new church erected by John Comes de Soto in 1661. It is dedicated to Nossa Senhora di Rosario and contains a monastery once occupied by Augustinian friars, the last of whom died in 1869… Some 380 bigghahs of land, out of the 777 granted rent-free by Shah Jehan, are still enjoyed… Every November the church is thronged with pilgrims during the Novena of Notre Dame de Bon Voyage.”
Twenty six kilometres away from Chinsurah stood the garrison town of Frederiknagore (modern name: Serampore), a Danish colony. Secured through a firman granted to them by Nawab Alivardi Khan of Bengal in around 1755, the Danes were the ones responsible for the rapid urbanisation of Serampore, establishing factories, godowns, administrative buildings and a bazaar, furthering industrial development focused on cotton and silk and ultimately changing ‘Serampore’ to ‘Frederiknagore’.
However, Danish power waned in India by the early nineteenth century and Frederiknagore was sold to the British by 1845, who took to restoring the former Bengali name and included Rishra and Konnagar within its administrative jurisdictions, besides bringing about the Serampore renaissance, with the introduction of the Serampore mission press, the first printed copy of the Bible in Bengali, papers that included the Friend of India (precursor to the Statesman) and Samachar Darpan, paper mills and the publication of ‘212,000 copies of books in 40 different languages’, with great efforts by the four significant English missionaries that included Joshua Marshman, Hannah Marshman, William Carey, and Willam Ward, even before the English officially established their authority over the region .
Within five kilometres of Chinsurah was another locale called Chandernagore, a French colony and probably one of the most well known non English colonies in the province. History has it that this location was bought by Frenchman Boureau-Deslandes from a Mughal Subahdar for some 40,000 coins (probably in the Mughal currency). Chandernagore came to be well known for it became a renowned trading zone, exports of opium, indigo, silk, rice and rope being very frequent. The French initially set up a trading organisation (consisting of a director and five council members), a fort that was called the Fort D’Orleans and some two hundred houses, built under Governor General Joseph François Dupleix, in the Cartesian grid plan with scientific architectural designs and simple facades, a style that later came to be recognised and practiced as the ‘anonymous design’.
The French Governor’s palace, the Chandernagore Strand, the Sacred Heart Church and the Chandernagore French cemetery are places that ebulliently highlight the French architectural designs in the town, to this day. Although the French indubitably brought about a praiseworthy level of urban development in the city, they could not resist the British war machine in the battle of Chandernagore that broke out in 1757, resulting in the English dominance in the region (although governorship changed hands in 1763 when it was restored to the French but once again in 1794, due to the Napoleonic wars, won back by the British) and the eventual eclipsing of Chandernagore’s importance as a commercial hub, overshadowed by that of the more eminent Calcutta.
(Note to the readers: In this column, I have attempted to provide a generalised but comprehensive detailing of the sequential history of mini-European colonies in Bengal. By ‘mini-European’, I refer to places that came under the hegemony of a European power (either the French, the Dutch, the Danish or the Portuguese) but not the English, since they were, at this particular point of time in history when the incidents took place, the overlords of the entire subcontinent and didn’t focus on the urbanisation centred around a particular city or town in itself.)

Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture.

Development of the Sultanate Architecture in Hindustan

The article in print in the Sunday Guardian (14-03-2021)

With the advent of Islam in Hindustan, came the voguish Arcuate style of architecture which was notably first observed in the imperial designs of the monuments commissioned by the Mamluk Sultans.

Northwestern India, as it primarily prevailed until the early medieval times, was a country with well delineated territories, each of which was ruled over by an autonomous royal and at times, a semi-royal ‘Raj-poot’ (in the more widely known term, a Rajput), who belonged to the majority Hindu community and the more popular religious division that came later, was then limited, only to the various dimensions of Hinduism itself. Architectural patterns followed in the different states that existed, were quite similar, if not in their entirety.
Hinduism was the primary faith practised, followed by Buddhism and Jainism, all of which had carved out architecturally similar temples to revere their respective lords. As scholar Julia Hegewald has put the postulate forward in her book ‘The International Jaina Style? Māru-Gurjara Temples Under the Solaṅkīs, throughout India and in the Diaspora’, a characteristically similar style can be found in all the Hindu and Jaina temples throughout Gujarat and Rajasthan that correspond to or widely resemble the Maru-Gurjara style of architecture, the reason behind this probably being the fact that these religious ideals were mostly patronised together by a local ruler or chieftain, who was often a Hindu himself!
Thus, as art historians have concluded, furthering the research and moving on to investigate the various regional styles as well, it can be demented that the same carvers or masonry workers were commissioned to build temples for both of these faiths. As for Buddhism however, most Buddhist viharas and stupas remain a bit unique due to them having been built ages ago, mostly under the Mauryan and the Kushan hegemony in the ancient Indian timeframe.
Trabeat was an architectural pattern that came to be popularised around the late 7th century CE and the massive usage that followed, soon made it universal, for almost every Hindu rajah had taken up to this style by the end of the 8th century CE.
Temples began to be constructed with a shikhara (generally a towering conical or curvilinear structure on top), the entrance to the doors and windows with an additional support or lintel and commissions mostly made for building stone monuments (possibly due to the durability and the strength stone provides).
Within the next five centuries that followed, Trabeat was everywhere: from temples and palaces and forts to noble mansions and royal retreats and rest houses!
However, Islam, a considerably newfound religious order that had been eyeing the throne of Hindustan for centuries, marched on forward in 1192 CE, for an ultimate face off against the mighty Prithviraj of the Chahamana dynasty, under the able leadership of Muhammad Ghori of Ghur as his generals (slaves as they were better known: Qutbuddin Aibak, Nasiruddin Qabacha, Yalduz and Ikhtiaruddin Bakhtiyar Khilji) swept through the northwestern boundaries and devastated any relic that would belong to a belief that was not theirs.
A decisive victory against Prithviraj in 1192 CE formally marked the Islamic ascendancy to the throne of Hindustan. With that, came in the voguish Arcuate style (in historical terms called the Indo-Saracenic architecture) that replaced the existing Trabeat pattern and was notably first observed in the imperial designs of the monuments commissioned by the Mamluk Sultans (Aibak and his successors, as they were referred to).
Although the Delhi Sultans never really commissioned a project that could match the grandeur and the imperiousness of the later Mughals, their structures do boast of a number of architectural elements that were previously outlandish in the Indian perspective.
The initial developments of architecture during the Mamluk phase can be most prominently found in certain significant monuments that include the Adhai din ka Jhopra in Ajmer, the free standing brick minaret (Qutub Minar) at Delhi and the Quwat-ul-Islam mosque, constructed in the premises of the Qutub Minar complex, again at the imperial capital. A crucial feature observed in the Mamluk design was that it tended to remodel the already existing Hindu and Jain temples (the way Quwat-ul-Islam mosque had been converted into a mosque from a Jain place of worship and the Qutub Minar complex had been built from the ruins of a pre-existing Hindu temple) but evidences also prove that the towering Qutub Minar was an original concept laid out by the first Sultan Qutbuddin Aibak (in reverence of a learned Sufi mystic named Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki) and completed later by Iltutmish, his son-in-law and another of the most influential Sultans of Delhi (who had also, surprisingly, built his own tomb), which is why the importance of the Mamluks in laying the basic foundations of the Indo-Islamic architecture in Delhi, cannot be completely negated.
A widely recognised feature (and probably the most popular) of the Islamic architecture is however, its hemispherical dome, constructed atop a monument, supplying it a symmetrical look as well as durability, strength and protection, the first example of which was observed in the Alai Darwaza, constructed around 1311 CE under the auspices of the second Khalji and one of the most powerful rulers that ever ruled Delhi, Alauddin! The Alai Darwaza, first of its kind to have been constructed completely out of red sandstone and white marble, can rightly be referred to as a three dimensional cube (although it appears to be a cube, the dimensions slightly differ from one another) with a hemisphere on top. Arches are seen in the interior with extensive arabesque calligraphy on the walls and marble lattices for the windows. With his coronation in 1296 AD, Alauddin formulated plans for the construction of regal doorways on all the four directions of the Quwat-ul-Islam mosque, in an attempt to further sanctify its image as one that was revered by the Seljuk royals (Seljuk was the Turkish ancestry of the Khaljis in the similar way as Ilbari was for the Mamluks and Qaraunah for the Tughlaqs). But before his demise in 1316 CE, the ambitious Alauddin could only complete constructing the southern gateway to the mosque, the one that we today, know as the Alai Darwaza.
Alauddin’s other projects included the defensive and well battered Siri Fort at Delhi (on which Mongol premier Timur, in his memoir, stated, “the Siri is around city. Its buildings are lofty. They are surrounded by fortifications built of stone and brick, and they are very strong – from the fort of Siri to that of Old Delhi, which is a considerable distance – there runs a strong wall built of stone and cement. The part called Jahanpanah is situated in the midst of the inhabited city. The fortifications of the three cities (old Delhi, Siri and Tughlaqabad) have thirty gates. Jahanpanah has thirteen gates, Siri has seven gates. The fortifications of the old Delhi have ten gates, some opening to the exterior and some towards the interior of the city.”) and the fragmentary Alai Minar (originally intended to be double the height of Qutub Minar but completed only up to a height of 80 feet and abandoned soon after Alauddin’s death in 1316 CE).
The batter (strength giver) system, first employed by Alauddin in building up the Siri Fort, was popularised later by the Tughlaqs who succeeded the Khaljis and were the ultimate Turks to rule the Sultanate. Although Nitin Singhania IAS, in his work entitled ‘Indian art and culture’ refers to the time period of the Tughlaq dynasty as the ‘crisis period’, it should be taken into consideration that Orientalist James Marshall, in his work entitled, “Cambridge History of India” points out that the Tughlaq monuments and tombstones, besides employing the orthodox Turkish architecture, did have Hindu influences in it as well. The trabeat lintels again came to be used instead of the more popular arches and windows.
Although there is no denying the fact that architecture took a back foot during the Tughlaq hegemony, tombs built out of grey sandstone and certain cities like Tughlaqabad and Ferozabad continued to be commissioned.
The last Tughlaq ruler Nasiruddin Mahmud and his warring nobles faced and were overthrown by the invasions of the vicious Mongol leader Timur who left conditions ripe for the accession of Khizr Khan, the governor of Multan, to the throne of Delhi, hence establishing the Sayyed dynasty, the first Afghan and the penultimate royal dynasty to rule the now crumbling Sultanate.
The Sayyed dynasty is well noted for its negligence towards architecture since the only monuments commissioned then were the tombs of the emperors, his family and his friends. Yet still, in the premises of the Hauz Khas lies an underrepresented, a faceless and a nameless 15th century Timurid monument: the Makhdum Sabzwari Mosque (not to be confused with the Ziyarat Makhdum Sahib shrine dedicated to Sufi preacher Hamza Makhdoom Kashmiri in Jammu and Kashmir) that, as historian Rana Safvi has noted in her travel blog, has a “lovely fluted dome on the gateway.” She further states that “the curious might want to venture in and would be greeted by a single aisle mosque with a big quadrangle”, somewhat resembling the double domed Lodi mosques of the period.
The double dome was essentially included to provide the mosques (the only monuments commissioned by the Sayyeds and the Lodis, apart from the tombs and mausoleums) with a greater strength as well as to reduce the inner height of the central dome (may have been an attempt at lessening echo). However, the most interesting feature observed in these monuments was the absence of any intricate detailing or lavish ornamentation, as had been practiced by the Khaljis and the Tughlaqs. The carvings had possibly been abandoned because of a lesser interest of the Lodi kings in architectural styles and not possibly because of the absence of revenues, since it is well known that the Lodis had laid out certain royal gardens for their recreation besides Sikandar’s programme of shifting the capital from Delhi to Agra, which did incur huge expenses on the royal treasury.
By the mid sixteenth century eventually, most of the Sultanate territories had revolted against the administration of the Sultans and his viziers and self-proclaimed the autonomy of their provinces. Northern India became the bone of contention between powerful kings and ambitious feudals as it was, in the times before the Sultanate hegemony was established. However, with Babur’s victory at Panipat in 1526 and the subsequent retreat of the local aspirations, the Indo-Saracenic architecture, if not the Sultanate as a whole, continued to influence the Indian cultural customs but in a more grandiloquent, a more splendiferous manner, a pattern that scholars generally refer to as the opulent design of the Mughal style!
Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author and podcaster. He is the recipient of the 2021 Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, for his contributions to art and culture. De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in