History has perhaps never been quite interesting to most Indians until we started clamouring for our glorious past from atop the Babri Mosque’s ruins, and amidst the rath yatras. That nostalgia has made us pay lip service to history, but ever so selectively — few of us study the subject, but many of us have become experts thanks to WhatsApp University.
In our understanding of the past, we have blurred the lines between facts and fiction, historical incidents and myths.
This is one major issue that comes to mind when examining the Supreme Court’s verdict, exonerating and rewarding vandals while selectively arranging facts to make the case for the temple to be built in Ayodhya.
Hindus have successfully demanded a temple where the Babri Mosque once stood. However, the events of December 6, 1992 are a continuation of a medieval practice, which we thought we had left behind when we became independent. As it has been pointed out by many, in the medieval era, the destruction of one religious structure to build another was not unique to the Muslim rulers, recently dramatised as barbaric by the historians in Bollywood. Countless rulers of all faiths across the sub-continent have done the same. Hindu kings too destroyed Hindu temples, and more often than not, Jain and Buddhist sites as well.
If each religious group asked for their heritage to be reinstated, the Jains and the Buddhists may have a lot to ask of the Hindus — but they wouldn’t know whom to ask, given that the Hindus themselves never self-identified under this unified category, as has been pointed out by several scholars.
However, let us direct our attention to just one such conflict. While such demolitions and conversions of religious sites have happened in various parts of India, they are particularly stark in the South, which had a large indigenous Jain population in the first millennia. Tamil Jains, for example, had an expansive built heritage that survived for most part of the second millennia, even after Shaivism and Vaishnavism took over the region. Today, only around 460 Jain sites survive in Tamil Nadu. This is particularly evident across South India, where Jain and Buddhist heritage is all but gone, with their indigenous population either diminishing or obliterated.
Tamilians who are Jains are not the same as north Indian Jains settled in Tamil Nadu. With just over 25,000 people, they are a minority within the Jain minority. There is enough evidence to point out that at one point, the Jains and Tamil Buddhists may have been the majority in this region.
While some historians say there was a gradual decline in the numbers due to the rise of the Bhakti movement, Vaishnavism and Shaivism, earlier historians believed that the end of the Jains and the Buddhist was swift and bloody.
From Shaivite hymns referring to a massacre and fleeing of the Jains to local lore, such narratives are not hard to find but should be hard to believe in the absence of actual evidence.
Till date, news reports of centuries-old Jain statues found in fields, houses and temples are a regular feature in local newspapers in Tamil Nadu. Tirthankar statues and sites have often been converted into Hindu sites, with Tirthankars dressed as Hindu deities or entire temples converted as Hindus’.
As historian EH Carr wrote in What is History?, “the facts of history never come to us ‘pure’, since they do not and cannot exist in a pure form. They are always refracted through the mind of the recorder. It follows that when we take up a work of history, our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains but with the historian who wrote it.” Something many armchair, citizen-experts who take up “facts” supporting the existence of the Ram temple before the Babri Mosque was built, do not take in to account. They want to be objective when recording historical wrongs done by Muslims, but selective when discussing what went on before and after.
Take for example the case of Kazhugumalai, a small village near Tirunelveli. The place has one of the largest collections of bas reliefs of Jain Tirthankars built in the 8th–12th century AD. There’s an unfinished Siva temple of the same period — this confluence of religions was a few hundred feet apart, supposedly during a period which 20th century historians thought the Hindus had “finished” the Jains in the region after Pallava and Pandya kings converted to Shaivism and Vaishnavism. This theory has since been re-examined by scholars such as Richard Davis.
Such standard narratives (such as casting Muslims as invaders, Jains as outsiders in South India) collapses social and religious interactions and conflicts into a short period and, in this case, quickens the pace of the end of Jainism at the hands of the Hindus. It also considers the two opposing religions, Jainism and Hinduism, as ‘cohesive’ and with fixed traditions, doctrines and practices. He argues that this de-emphasises the continued presence of Jainism in Tamil Nadu. So the standard narrative, while easy to digest and pass on as WhatsApp forwards, often limits our understanding of the complex past.
As if Kazhugumalai wasn’t already complicated enough, in the last fifty years, an Ayyanar temple has sprung up there encroaching a protected monument. The temple’s compound walls cover some of the bas reliefs and until a few years ago, many locals mentioned that animal sacrifice was rampant.
While the practice was slowly stopped through sensitisation programmes by NGOs and Tamil Jain groups promoting the architectural heritage there, is it possible for the Tamil Jains to ask for the Ayyanar temple to be demolished?
Of course not. The few-decades old Ayyanar temple too is now part of that structure; it lets us understand the complexity of our times and our past. It makes a case for this to not be repeated again, and one can only hope.
Finding singular meanings and interpretation of sites and events from the contemporary perspective is a folly all of us must avoid. But this raises the larger question of why we seek facts about who we are and where we come from through archaeology and history?
“From its inception, archaeology was riddled with the question — who owns the country’s past? For the colonial historian, the evidence provides a necessary alibi to rule a foreign people, for the nationalists, marks of a once glorious, now lost heritage,” wrote Ratnabali Chatterjee in The Making of History: Essays presented to Irfan Habib.
The various narratives of Tamil Jain and the few Buddhist sites pose the same question of who exactly owns the history of that place. The right answer would be all three: the Shaivites, Jains and the local worshippers of the Ayyanar temple.
There are many multi-religious sites like Kazhugumalai — Aihole, Badami, Ellora, to name a few. Lisa Owen, who studied Kazhugumalai, noted that once a site was deemed sacred by one tradition, other religions or sects often contribute to its sanctity by establishing devotional spaces as well. Many of India’s ancient and medieval sites, particularly rock-cut monuments, clearly demonstrate multi-religious interests in their artistic expressions, she notes.
Similarly, the case of Babri Mosque, although now settled, would have been more justly understood if we were open to multiple claims, perspectives and understood history as a complex web of events. Unfortunately, nuance is deficit in our times.
(Mahima A. Jain is a writer and editor based in Bengaluru. She writes on environmental, socio-economic and cultural issues. She has extensively researched the lives and heritage of Tamil Jains for her masters dissertation and as the Nehru Trust for India Collection at V&A Jain Art Fellow in 2015 and Sahapedia-UNESCO Fellow in 2018. You can see her work here, and she tweets @theplainjain.)