Friday, July 15, 2022

Nirad C. Chaudhuri: The Lost Temples of North India

Photograph of the ruins of Somnath Temple
taken in 1869
In ancient texts there are references to several glorious temples and universities which used to flourish in the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent—the heartland of Hinduism. Most of these temples and universities were destroyed by invaders during the Middle Ages. However, in South India, some ancient temples have survived.

In his 1979 book Hinduism: A Religion to Live By, Nirad C. Chaudhuri talks about the lost ancient Hindu temples of North India. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 2, “Religion and Social Diversity,” of Chaudhuri’s book (page 125-126): 

“in the south the temples have survived, and in the north they have not. Over seven centuries from the eleventh to the end of the seventeenth all the great cities of northern India dating from Hindu times were sacked by the Muslim invaders and conquerors of India. All the temples there and in all other centres of Hinduism were systematically destroyed. None were left standing at Ujjain, Ajmere, Delhi, Mathura, Brindaban, Kanauj, Prayag, or Benares—which were the centres of the political, cultural, and religious life of the Hindus. In most of these places mosques were built on the sites of the temples, and in some with pillars taken from them. This religious vandalism also worked its fury on the Buddhist centres. Moreover, it was not simply that the great temples in the cities were destroyed; so were the village temples. For most of the period of Muslim rule, there was a ban on building new temples and rebuilding the old in the regions the Muslims controlled. 

“The ban was lifted by Akbar, but this was a short respite. It was then that one of the most original and beautiful temples of northern India was built. It was that of Govindaji at Brindaban. It could not be finished, but like the Unfinished Symphony of Schubert it remains a great work of art. The ban on temples was re-imposed, and a period of iconoclastic fury was witnessed under Shah Jahan (himself the son of a Hindu princess) and Aurangzeb, when even the rebuilt temples were again razed. It was only with the rise of Maratha power in the latter half of the eighteenth century that the destruction ceased and rebuilding began. The Marathas rebuilt Benares. The new temple of Visvanath—the old having been converted into a mosque by Aurangzeb—was built by the Maratha princess Ahilya Bai of the Holkar family, and the famous waterfront of Benares was the creation of other Maratha princes and one Rajput prince.”

Chaudhuri laments that due to the vandalism of the invaders, it is “impossible to judge what Hindu temple architecture was like in its homeland in the greatest age of Hindu civilization. We can only guess from scattered references in secular Sanskrit literature.”

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