Even romantic poets aren’t immune to the mental health consequences of gazing soulfully at ancient monuments: too much time with Greek ruins left George Byron bleating on in execrable verse about dancing virgins and Turkish hordes. Heritage sites are best left to teenagers who imagine they’re in love: they’re gentler on parental wallets than malls, and the kids have been crazed by their hormones anyway.
No one, though, has ever learned from someone else’s mistakes.
The latest victim: L Suryanarayana Tejasvi, Bengaluru South’s newly-elected Member of Parliament, whose encounter with the vandalised mausoleum of the great medieval logician and saint Vyāsatīrtha in Hampi ended up devouring what should have been a relaxed weekend.
Hampi, Tejasvi righteously raged, showcased “Hindu civilisation's rich spiritual heritage and knowledge”; the vandalism was “an attempt to insult and destroy our cultural heritage...Such destruction happened 5 centuries ago by Bahamani Sultans!”, he tweeted, grammar and good sense both overwhelmed by emotion.
Tejasvi’s tweets point to a national malaise, one which cuts across our faultlines of caste and faith. India is drowning in a great tide of tears, unleashed by a congealed mass of resentments more appropriate to an infant just spanked by its mother than a grown-up democracy.
Laudable as Tejasvi’s concern for Hindu heritage is, it isn’t entirely clear why he thought the damage to Vyāsatīrtha’s mausoleum had something to do with the Bahmani Sultans. The Karnataka Police have arrested Pollari Murali Manohara Reddy, D Manohara, K Kummata Keshava, B Vijayakumar and T Balanarasaiah—none, note, is the son of any Sultan—for digging up the mausoleum, in the hope they would find treasure there.
The fact that no jihadis were involved in the making of this drama will, likely, disappoint some of Tejasvi’s followers: Mahadev Bharadwaj was certain it was the work of those fearsome beasts.
For those without melodramatic sensibilities, of course, non-jihadi vandalism isn’t startling. The last case of vandalism at Hampi involved RA Raja, Rajbabu, Rajesh Chowdhury and Ayush Sahu, who thought knocking over ancient pillars was a pleasant way to pass the time after writing an exam.
Indians excel at peeing inside historical monuments. We’re also reasonably good, these stories show, at vandalising them. For the most part, though, a calm look at the history of historical monuments is not among our talents.
Part of the story behind Surya’s tweets might just be the kind of communal dog-whistle politics we’ve all become familiar with. There is more to this story, though. For millions, a maudlin obsession with centuries-old grievances, real and imagined, has become the sole lens through which the world around them is understood.
Like other medieval rulers, the kings of Vijayanagara achieved great heights in culture, the arts and sciences. From an inscription found in Tamil Nadu’s south Arcot, written in 1446-1447 CE, we also know life wasn’t always great: “the ministers had been taking presents (by force) from all ryots belonging to both the right hand and left-hand classes at the commencement of each reign. In consequence of this, all the ryots were harassed and ran away to foreign countries”.
“Worship and festivals ceased in the temples”, the inscription goes on, “the country became full of disease, all people either died or suffered”.
Like other contemporary rulers, Vijayanagara’s kings were ruthless in stamping out dissent—quite literally, since punishment for treason was under the feet of elephants. In 1622, the traveller John Nieuhoff even discovered that the Nayak, or governor, of Madura kept the wives and children of his governors incaracerated in a fort, under the guard of 300 eunuchs, to ensure their loyalty.
Famine and political upheaval sent great numbers of people into slavery. The rebellion of the Nayaks of Tanjavur, Senji, and Madurai against Vijayanagara overlordship in 1645—soon before the empire’s final collapse—saw brutal reprisals against the populations of Tanjavur, leading to a boom in the Dutch-run slave markets of Coromandel.
The kingdom’s sophisticated legal system, scholars have found, was capable of nuance and compassion—but also barbarism. In 1580, barbers and washermen petitioned a governor, demanding potters not be allowed to pare their toenails and wear an upper-cloth at the time of marriage.
Eventually, the dispute was settled by having the chiefs of both sides dip their hands in boiling ghee—ordeals being an important part of that legal system, too. For those curious about the outcome: the potters got to pare their toenails.
True, Vijayanagara polity had many features the modern world could learn from. From the Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa, we know the king allowed “freedom that every man may come and go and live according to his own creed without suffering any annoyance and without any inquiry whether he is a Christian, Jew, Moor or Heathen.”
But there’s also this: Following the defeat of Firuz Shah’s forces in 1417 CE, the chronicler Firishtah tell us, the armies of Vijayanagara “made a general massacre of the Mussalman, (and) erected a platform with their heads on the fields of battle”. The Hindus, he goes on, then began “putting their horses in mosques, and performing their abominable idolatrous worship in the holy places”.
Firishtah also tells us this: Ahmad Shah Bahmani, in 1422 CE, “put to death men, women and children without mercy.” “Wherever the number of the slain amounted to twenty thousand, he halted three days and made a festival in celebration of the bloody event.” “He broke down also the idolatrous temples, and destroyed the colleges of the Brahmins”.
Hampi was sacked by Muslim warlords in 1565; its king’s head was impaled on a stake, and women and craftsmen sold into slavery. The sad truth, though, is that for most, life went on as usual for the 100-odd years that the kingdom limped on.
From the point of view of a peasant being kicked in the head, after all, it probably mattered very little if the boot was worn by a Hindu, Muslim or Christian.
Few in the generation who fought for this country’s independence had the time to argue about historical culpability for the sack of Hampi; there were more important things to worry about. There is no shortage of things to rage about even today: too many Indians have too little food, too few jobs, too little education and too little water.
Endless whining about the past—a refrain that’s in some danger of becoming our real national anthem—reflects a deep lack of self-confidence in our ability to build a present worth having. Like pigs wallowing in excrement, we’ve come to enjoy the warm slime of victimhood.
The history of Hampi does, indeed, tell us that our grand-ancestors were wronged. It also tells us that they, in turn, wronged: no peoples’ stories are free of stain. Lachrymose rage about historical grievances pays political dividends, perhaps—but for a nation like India, self-obsessed tantrums are a certain road to perdition.
Updated Date: Jul 22, 2019 22:02:04 IST