On December 6, 1992, over 200,000 karsevaks from across the country flocked to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh and brought the Babri Masjid down. The demolition was a culmination of the communal mobilisation by the Bharatiya Janta Party. Party ideologues claimed that the mosque was built over the remains of a demolished Ram temple. The fact that the mosque – built in the 16th century under the aegis of the Mughal king Babur – had reused the pillars of a structure that was possibly a Hindu temple further strengthened the claim.

The binaries of Hindu and Muslim, employed by the BJP to describe historical monuments, has its roots in India’s colonial historiography. Thomas Metcalfe, in his book An Imperial Vision: Indian Architecture and Britain’s Raj, notes, “The British had from the very outset imposed upon India… categories of analysis derived from religious affiliation.” The categories were Mohammedan and Hindu (initially called Gentoo). The British used these categories to define the subcontinent’s entire society, so much so that “the distinguishing characteristic of an Indian was his membership in one of the two religious communities”. Having reduced the subcontinent’s complex history into two superficial categories, it was inevitable that architectural styles were conceived of as expressing the values of one of the two religious communities.

Besides linking architecture to religious categories, the historians of the British Raj had a general contempt for the subcontinent’s architecture. James Fergusson, a colonial surveyor, in his book The History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, made constant comparisons between the Classical architecture of Europe and that of the subcontinent, a comparison the latter almost always lost. The colonial historiography of the subcontinent was also wrought with the larger debate on race. This is why, to the likes of Fergusson, the most ancient architectural specimens were the best. The story of Indian architecture thereafter, having been made by people of mixed races, was of constant decline. The Hindu sculptures were “vulgar and grotesque”, with the temples of Madurai “the most barbarous” and the “most vulgar to be found in India”.

Mohammedan architecture was better than Hindu architecture since its dome and arch were reminiscent of Classical architecture. Yet, to surveyors such as Fergusson, it also signified brutal and barbaric conquest, much like the image of a “fierce and bloody” Mohammedan warrior, a stereotype rooted firmly in the memory of the Crusades. Conquest was also what defined Mohammedan monuments made out of Hindu material. Like everything else, the process of making monuments out of reused material was also interpreted in purely religious terms, where Islam triumphed over Hinduism.

Ancient practice

This shallow understanding of the subcontinent’s history and architecture precluded the understanding that reuse was a fact of Indian history and a practice followed by rulers much before the establishment of dar-ul-Islam (rule of Islam) in the subcontinent. In the 10th century CE, Rashtrakuta king Indra III destroyed the Kalapriya temple built under the aegis of his enemy, the Pratiharas, and recorded this in glowing terms. Similarly, the Chola ruler Rajadhiraja I, in 1044 AD, not only sacked the Chalukya capital, Kalyani, and destroyed several Chalukya temples but also carried with him a stone sculpture of a temple door guardian and displayed it in his capital as a trophy of war.

One of the most telling phenomena, however, was the reuse of Jaina shrines by Virashaivas, a movement born in the 12th century. Julia Hegewald and Subrata Mitra in their paper, The Past in the Present: Temple Conversions in Karnataka and Appropriation and Re-use in Orissa, show how the Megudi temple in Karnataka’s Hallur, a Digambara Jaina shrine built between the 7th century CE and the 9th century CE, was converted into a Virashaiva shrine. The conversion involved uprooting the Jina Parsvanatha idol from the sanctum sanctorum, smearing it with sacred Virashaiva ash and placing it next to a pillar in the central aisle of the temple. In its stead, a stone Shivling was placed and outside the temple sat Shiva’s vahana (vehicle), the bull Nandi. The uprooted Jina idol was not removed from the temple altogether but retained and placed in the main access route to the sanctum sanctorum so that it could be seen by every devotee entering the temple.

The idea was to send a “strong message of intrusion and desecration and would cause great anxiety to Jaina devotees… used to venerating this as one of the most sacred objects of the temple before its conversion”. This message was reinforced by mutilating the sculptures adorning the temple’s entrance even as other wall sculptures inside the shrine were left untouched. Converting a Jaina temple and using the Jina idol as a war trophy was necessary to demonstrate the “strength and vigour” of the newly found Virashaiva movement, in a terrain that had hitherto been dominated by the Jaina elite.

Misconception that persists

Thus, by the time the Babri Masjid was being built, reuse of older building material would have been common practice in the subcontinent. Yet, colonial historians subsumed this rather complex phenomenon to narrow religious binaries. Since architectural reuse, to the British, was only a religious exercise, signalling nothing but the triumph of one religion over the other, examples of Hindu rulers destroying Hindu temples of other rulers never made sense. Moreover, architectural reuse vis-à-vis mosques reusing temple material signified to the Raj’s historians the triumph of “Mohammedan invaders” and the subjugation of the “original Hindu” inhabitants, a narrative that helped them convince Indians that their history was always one of subjugation by outsiders.

It has been more than 60 years since India gained freedom from the British, but the interplay of the Hindu and Muslim categories that brought the Babri Masjid down 24 years ago still continues to fester in public memory and define the subcontinent’s popular history. As long as we shy away from questioning the silos of Hindu and Muslim manufactured by the Raj, these will continue to be perpetuated, dumbing down the complexity of the architecture of India in particular and its history in general.