Monumental Absence

The destruction of ancient Buddhist sites

01 June, 2018

Over his decorated career as a historian, DN Jha has devoted himself to examining flawed views of India’s ancient and medieval past—many of them produced by colonial thinkers—that sustain the Hindu nationalist project. One of his most notable books, The Myth of the Holy Cow, documents the widespread prevalence of beef-eating in ancient India. Another, Rethinking Hindu Identity, argues that the notion of Hinduism as a religion is a colonial construct.

Jha’s new book, Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History, is a collection of essays that, as he writes, “are addressed to the people vulnerable to the balderdash peddled by the Hindu Right.” In this essay, excerpted from the volume, he applies his characteristic combination of polemic and rigour to a greatly disregarded part of Indian history, and points to evidence that shatters the Hindutva notion of a pre-Islamic idyll on the subcontinent.

HINDUTVA IDEOLOGUES look at the ancient period of Indian history as a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence, and portray the middle ages as a phase of a reign of terror unleashed by Muslim rulers on Hindus. Central to their perception is the belief that Muslim rulers indiscriminately demolished Hindu temples and broke Hindu idols. They relentlessly propagate the canard that 60,000 Hindu temples were demolished during Muslim rule, though there is hardly any credible evidence for the destruction of more than 80 of them. On the other hand, even a cursory survey of historical evidence shows that the demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam.

There existed many Brahminical and non-Brahminical religions and their sects in ancient India. Their adherents were not always friendly and mutually accommodative, but were, in fact, very often hostile to one another. The two Brahminical sects, Vaishnavism and Shaivism, fought among themselves, and they both were constantly at loggerheads with the followers of the Shramanic religions—Buddhism and Jainism. Here, I present a limited survey of the desecration, destruction and appropriation of Buddhist stupas, monasteries and other structures by Brahminical forces.

Evidence for such destruction dates as far back as the end of the reign of Ashoka, who is credited with making Buddhism a world religion. A tradition recorded in a twelfth-century Kashmiri text, the Rajatarangini of Kalhana, mentions one of Ashoka’s sons, Jalauka. Unlike his father, he was a Shaivite, and destroyed Buddhist monasteries. If this is given credence, the attacks on Shramanic religions seem to have begun either in the lifetime of Ashoka or soon after his death. Other early evidence of the persecution of Shramanas comes from the post-Mauryan period, recorded in the Divyavadana, a Buddhist Sanskrit work from the early centuries of the Common Era, which describes the Brahmin ruler Pushyamitra Shunga as a great persecutor of Buddhists. He is said to have marched out with a large army, destroying stupas, burning monasteries and killing monks as far as Sakala, now known as Sialkot, where he announced a prize of one hundred dinars for every head of a Shramana. Added to this is evidence from the grammarian Patanjali, a contemporary of the Shungas, who famously stated in his Mahabhashya that Brahmins and Shramanas are eternal enemies, like the snake and the mongoose. All this taken together means that the stage was set for a Brahminical onslaught on Buddhism during the post-Mauryan period, especially under Pushyamitra Shunga, who may have destroyed the Ashokan Pillared Hall and the Kukutarama monastery at Pataliputra—modern-day Patna—in his bid to obliterate an important symbol of Mauryan power.

The possibility of a Shunga assault on Buddhist monuments is supported by the layers of debris and the evidence of desertion found at many centres of Buddhism, notably in Madhya Pradesh. For example, Sanchi, in Raisen district, which was an important Buddhist site since the time of Ashoka, has yielded evidence of the vandalisation of several edifices during the Shunga period. Similar evidence comes from nearby places such as Satdhara, in Katni district, and Deurkothar, in Rewa district.

The destruction and appropriation of Buddhist sites continued in Madhya Pradesh even after Shunga rule ended. At Ahmedpur, for instance, a Brahminical temple seems to have been constructed on a stupa base in the fifth century, and icons have been found at several sites around Vidisha, which were transformed into Shaivite or Jain places of worship around the eighth century. More than 250 kilometres north-east of Vidisha, a Buddhist establishment existed at Khajuraho before it emerged as a major temple town from the tenth century onwards, under the Chandellas. Here, the Ghantai temple appears to have been built on the remains of a Buddhist monument in the ninth or tenth century by the Jains, who also may have had a strong presence in the region.

Outside Madhya Pradesh, there are many sites where the destruction and appropriation of Buddhist sites and monuments seems to have taken place in the post-Mauryan centuries. For example, at Mathura, a flourishing town in western Uttar Pradesh during the Kushana period, some present-day Brahminical temples, such as those of Bhuteshwar and Gokarneshwar, were Buddhist sites in the ancient period. Here, the Katra Mound, a Buddhist centre during Kushana times, became a Hindu religious site in the early medieval period. More than 500 kilometres to the south-east, at Kaushambi, near Allahabad, the destruction and burning of the great Ghositaram monastery has been attributed to the Shungas—more specifically to Pushyamitra. Less than 150 kilometres to the east, Sarnath, near Varanasi, where the Buddha delivered his first sermon, became the target of Brahminical assault. This was followed by the construction of Brahminical buildings, such as Court 36 and Structure 136, probably in the Gupta period, by reusing Mauryan materials in front of the so-called Main Shrine. This shrine itself was built above the ruins of a large Ashokan stupa. Towards the end of the Gupta period the site was occupied by the Buddhists, and then reoccupied by non-Buddhists again.

Other towns associated with the Buddha were also either vandalised or appropriated. The Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien, who visited India in the early fifth century, during the Gupta period, presents a rather dismal picture of Sravasti, where the Buddha spent much of his life. Here, Brahmins seem to have appropriated a Kushana Buddhist site, where a temple with Ramayana panels was constructed during the Gupta period. In fact, the general scenario of Buddhist establishments in what is today Uttar Pradesh was so bad that in Sultanpur district alone no less than 49 Buddhist sites seem to have been destroyed by fire when, as described in a paper by the archaeologist Alois Anton Führer, “Brahminism won its final victories over Buddhism.” In north Bihar, Vaishali was an important city associated with the Buddha, where he had spent a few years before proceeding to Kushinagar. Fa-hsien does not seem to have spent much time there, and merely mentions the existence of a stupa erected by the courtesan Amradarika. But another contemporary Chinese account, the Waiguo Shi of Zhi Sengzai, describing the situation prior to his visit, reports that the house of the Buddhist upasaka Vimalakirti at Vaishali was destroyed.

In the post-Gupta centuries, several Brahminical thinkers and philosophers, of different schools of thought and from various parts of the country, launched a massive ideological onslaught against Buddhists, which coincided with sustained attacks on their establishments. The Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and traveller Hsüan Tsang, who visited India between the years 631 and 645, during the reign of Harshavardhana, states that the sixth-century Huna ruler Mihirakula, a devotee of Shiva, destroyed 1,600 Buddhist stupas and monasteries and killed thousands of Buddhist monks and laity. He further tells us that 1,000 sangharamas in Gandhara were “deserted” and in “ruins,” and describes 1,400 sangharamas in Uddiyana as “generally waste and desolate.” Although he does not specifically attribute the desertion and destruction of these monuments to any particular individual, much of this destruction was possibly wrought by Mihirakula, whom Chinese sources describe as “the incarnation of a devil intent on destroying the True Dharma,” and to whom Kalhana’s Rajatarangini refers to as “a man of violent acts and resembling Kala (Death).”

In some parts of the country, as in Kashmir, the rulers ordered the demolition of temples and Buddhist establishments, both as personal vendetta and a matter of policy. Kalhana makes an interesting reference to the king Nara, who, angered by a Buddhist monk who seduced his wife, “burned thousands of viharas” in revenge. He also speaks of the tenth-century king Kshemagupta, who destroyed the Buddhist monastery of Jayendravihara at Srinagar and used its materials for the construction of the Kshemagaurishvara temple. Among the Kashmiri kings mentioned in the text, Harshadeva, who ruled from 1089 to 1111, was the most notorious. He systematically plundered and demolished Hindu and Buddhist temples for wealth, and appointed one Udayaraja as devotpatanna-nayaka—a special officer to supervise the destruction of temples and uprooting of idols.

Sources provide evidence of the Brahminical vandalism of Buddhist monuments also in the eastern region of the Indian subcontinent. Hsüan Tsang tells us that the king Shashanka of Gauda cut down the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya in Bihar—the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment—and removed a statue of the Buddha from a local temple, ordering that it be replaced by an image of Maheshvara. According to one view, however, Shaivites had already appropriated the site, and Shashanka merely restored Shiva’s worship. Bodh Gaya came under Buddhist control again during the period of the Pala rulers, who were Buddhists, and the place has, in fact, remained a site of religious contestation throughout Indian history. Traditional accounts and archaeological evidence suggest that the Mahabodhi temple there was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. At nearby Gaya—which figures prominently as a pitritirtha, where ancestral rites could be performed, in early medieval Puranic texts—a site was appropriated in the mid-eleventh century to establish a Vishnu temple, with its floor and railing made of reused material. The modern Vishnupada temple there was, however, built by the queen Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore, in the late eighteenth century.

The Chinese traveller Hsüan Tsang tells us that at Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the Gauda king Shashanka had the Bodhi tree cut down. ERNST HASS/GETTY IMAGES

Less than a hundred kilometres north-east of Gaya was located the internationally reputed Buddhist university at Nalanda, with a vast monastic complex where Hsüan Tsang spent more than five years. Here, a Brahminical temple, probably Shaivite, was constructed in the mid seventh century—soon after Hsüan Tsang’s visit—behind Monasteries 7 and 8 on the eastern row of viharas. Unlike the Buddhist buildings, which were all built of brick, this temple was built entirely with dressed stone. It was completely out of place with regard to the general layout of the monasteries, and occupied what was essentially a Buddhist site. Evidence reveals, according to the archaeologists Krishna Deva and VS Agarwala, a “complex history of destruction, abandonment and reoccupation” also at Monasteries 1 and 4.

At the Kamakshi temple in Kanchipuram, the discovery of several Buddha images around the site suggests that it was constructed over a Buddhist building. DE AGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

But the ultimate destruction of the Nalanda Mahavihara was, as I described in a 2006 address to the Indian History Congress, caused by Hindu fanatics who set fire to its library. The popular view, however, wrongly attributes this conflagration to the Mamluk commander Bakhtiyar Khilji, who never went there, but, in fact, sacked the nearby Odantapuri Mahavihara at modern-day Bihar Sharif. Bakhtiyar is also believed to have destroyed the Vikramashila Mahavihara—a centre of Vajrayana located at modern Antichak, near Bhagalpur in Jharkhand, and founded in the eighth century by the Pala ruler Dharmapala. But this, too, is not borne out by evidence, which seems to attribute the destruction to a conflagration and an attack probably by the Sena rulers of Bengal, who were inimical to Buddhism. Like them, the eleventh-century Kalachuri king Karna, who was also hostile to Buddhism, had earlier destroyed many Buddhist temples and monasteries in Magadha. In this region, according to the seventeenth-century Tibetan scholar Taranatha, 84 temples were destroyed, including at Nalanda. The Senas, in fact, invaded Buddhist establishments also in Bengal. For example, at Somapura Mahavihara—a monastery founded by Dharmapala in present-day Paharpur, Bangladesh—the presence of huge heaps of charcoal and ashes in the remains, as well as an epigraphic reference to a fire caused by “an approaching army” and to the death of a monk in the conflagration, have been interpreted as evidence of its destruction by the orthodox forces represented by the Senas.

Ancient Bengal provides several other instances of the transformation or appropriation of smaller Buddhist sites by Brahminical elements. At Bankura, for example, the Siddheshwar temple was built on stupas, and at Gokulmedh, now Mahasthan, and Birampur, in what is now Bangladesh’s Dinajpur district, Buddhist monuments were converted into Brahminical temples around the twelfth or thirteenth century. An instance of the Brahminical appropriation of a Buddhist temple came to light recently at Bochaganj, in Dinajpur.

South-west of Bengal, on the eastern coast of the subcontinent, Buddhism struck root in Odisha during the reign of Ashoka and remained greatly influential in the region for centuries. It faced a setback during the seventh century, when the king Shashanka conquered Utkal and Kongoda, in northern and southern Odisha, and Shaivite groups of Pashupatas possibly made their first attempt to convert Bhubaneswar into a tirtha. But Buddhist influence seems to have been much undermined after the end of Bhaumakara rule, around the middle of the tenth century. This is evident from the destruction and abandonment of Buddhist structures, and the mushrooming of Brahminical buildings over or near them during the rule of the Somavamshis, between the ninth and twelfth centuries, and the Eastern Gangas, between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries. Even the Jagannath temple at Puri, one of the most prominent Brahminical pilgrimage centres in eastern India, built in the twelfth century during the reign of the Eastern Ganga ruler Anantavarman Chodaganga Deva, is said to have been constructed on a Buddhist site.

While the Buddhist antecedent of the Jagannath temple may be contested, there is hardly any doubt that the temples of Purneshvara, Kedareshvara, Kanteshvara, Someshvara and Angeshvara, all in Puri district, were either built on Buddhist viharas, or made of material derived from them. This is true also of the Dakshineshvara temple at Bagalpur and Taila Math near Madhava—both in Cuttack district. Similarly, the Agikhia Math, in Puri district, and Kandhei Math, in Khorda district, and a Shiva temple in Kopari, in Balasore district, were all built on Buddhist buildings or their ruins. Examples of similar Brahminical appropriations are available also in neighbouring Chhattisgarh. At Sirpur or Shripur, in Raipur district, a temple and an attached monastery built by the monk Anandaprabhu, during the reign of the eighth-century king Mahashivagupta Balarjuna, were appropriated by Shaivites, who carried out extensive repairs and changes and took over other monasteries in the area as well.

In Maharashtra, which is home to nearly a thousand rock-cut caves and temples, there may be many sites where Buddhist monuments were either destroyed or appropriated, but in the absence of a comprehensive study only three of them may be mentioned here. They are Ter, or ancient Tagara in Osmanabad district, Karle, near Lonavala in Pune district, and Ellora, in Aurangabad district. At Ter, an apsidal temple was converted into a Hindu temple of Trivikrama, whose damaged stone image there dates to the early Chalukyan period. At Karle, the votive stupa in the rock-cut monastery was reconstructed into a large lingam so that the Buddhist site could become a Shiva temple. And at Ellora, iconography reveals that an “enormous amount of violence” took place there during the Rashtrakuta period, according to the archaeologist Giovanni Verardi, and that the original Buddhist caves were converted into Brahminical temples.

In Andhra Pradesh, there are several instances of the Brahminical appropriation of Buddhist sites. At Chezerla, in Guntur district, a Buddhist monastery was converted into the Kapoteshvara temple during the early medieval period. At Nagarjunakonda, there seems to have taken place what Verardi describes as a “ruthless” and “appalling” destruction of buildings during the time of the Guptas—though the local tradition attributes it to the followers of Shankaracharya. At Amaravati, where a Shaivite presence is attested during the Eastern Chalukya period, a Shiva temple was built a few metres away from the Great Stupa on the banks of the Krishna, which was possibly an encroachment on a Buddhist site. Not far from here, at Dhanyakataka, now Dharanikota, Hsüan Tsang tells us, “numerous sangharamas were mostly deserted and ruined,” possibly indicating violent changes in the region. To all this may be added the Buddhist caves at Undavalli, near Vijayawada, which seem to have been appropriated by Brahminical sects.

In the neighbouring state of Karnataka, which had been a centre of Buddhism from the time of Ashoka, we come across two important places where Buddhist monasteries were clearly appropriated by the Shaivites. One is Aihole, in north Karnataka, the cultural capital of the Chalukyas. Here, the Lad Khan temple, dating to the sixth century, was originally a simple square hall, and possibly served as the central hall of a Buddhist vihara. But it was transformed into a temple devoted to Surya-Narayana, with walls, windows, a cellar and a roof shrine. The other example of such appropriation comes from the vicinity of Mangaluru, in south Karnataka, where a Buddhist monastery and temple called Kadarika Vihara was transformed into a Shaivite temple in 1068.

The situation seems to have been somewhat confusing in the far south, because Hsüan Tsang mentions Chola country as distinct from Dravida country. The former, according to him, “is deserted and wild … the sangharamas are ruined and dirty,” and the latter’s capital, Kanchipuram, was home to “some hundred of sangharamas and 10,000 priests.” There may be some confusion due to Hsüan Tsang’s allusion to the “Chola” and “Dravida” as two distinct regions, but there is hardly any doubt that in the southern region Buddhism suffered a major setback as a result of the Brahminical movement led by Shankara, who is believed to have set up one of his four maths at Kanchipuram. The discovery of several Buddha images around the Kamakshi temple there leads one to believe that it was constructed on a Buddhist building. It has been suggested that this well-known temple was in all probability originally a shrine of the goddess Tara, associated with Buddhism, and it was here that the monastic Kamakoti Pitha was established. Another known example of appropriation comes from Tiruppadirippuliyur, near Cuddalore, where the Gunadharishwara temple was built on Buddhist ruins. An interesting example in the appropriation and reuse of Buddhist images is that of the Vaishnava poet-saint Tirumankai, who stole a large gold image of the Buddha from a stupa at Nagapattinam, and had it melted down for reuse in a temple that he was said to have been commissioned to build by the god Vishnu himself. Appropriations may have taken place at several other centres of Buddhism in south India, and need to be examined.

Our survey does not cover the entire country, nor can it claim to cover fully even the smaller areas it has touched upon. But it shows that Brahminism never came to terms with Buddhism—though there is much evidence of interaction and mutual borrowing between them, which has been discussed by many scholars. Contrary to the Hindutva view of the ancient period of Indian history as a golden age marked by social and religious harmony, our survey provides evidence of violent religious conflict before the advent of Islam. It shows that the demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments was fairly common. Not only did Brahmins vandalise and appropriate Buddhist sites and monuments, they targeted Jain monuments as well—but that is a different story.

This text is adapted from Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History, published by Manohar Books.