Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Symbols, Temples and the Goan Connection

This column is written from the in-the-middle-of-nowhere Bihari village of Maksudpur where the wedding of a dear friend is about to take place. Maksudpur may today be an insignificant dot on the map, but the buildings in this village testify to a possibly significant past as a centre of military might and revenue collection. The brief for this column has often been that it be focused on Goa, contributing to issues local. For this reason one may wonder what distant and Bihari Maksudpur has to do with Goa. Some Goans enamoured of their mythic (and) Aryan past would like to see an argument develop that stresses the Bihari (Gaud desh) and Goan (Gaud Saraswat) connection. Unfortunately for them though, this is not the argument that will develop. The argument I seek to develop though is nevertheless one that haunts the Goan and their relation to Indian authenticity.

Maksudpur that was once presumably focused on its fort -destroyed in the earthquake of 1934 - is now firmly focused on the Kali temple that is the family deity of its Raja. And this is not the only temple though, but one of a few dozen temples clustered around this central temple. What is interesting about this Kali temple though is that the goddess resides in a mansion that comes straight out of colonial British-Indian tradition, completely neo-classsical in style. And this is not the only example of an important deity residing in a European neo-classical temple, such an example being present once again in the Bihar town (and former zamindari) of Darbhanga. There is similarly an interesting temple in Bangalore that looks more like a Greco-Roman temple than a Hindu temple. To return to Maksudpur, parts of the interiors of the temple sport Indo-Sarcenic pillars and arches, employing the Mughal idiom that the British Raj used to legitimize its rule in India. No matter how weak the Mughal emperors following Aurangzeb, the recognition of the Emperor was central to the legitimacy of local powers continuously vying for power in the subcontinent. Which explains why even the Marathas (supposedly sworn Hindu enemies of the Muslim emperor) when in control of Delhi never contemplated dethroning him, but rather controlling him. The British recognizing the value of the Emperor and Mughal custom attempted to harness these symbols of legitimacy. Mughal custom defined power and legitimacy to such an extent that temples too adopted many of these symbols of power, as one sees in the architecture of the Maksudpur temples and temples across the country, in the jewelry of the deities and their other symbols of power. The Mughal court of course likewise borrowed from temple vocabulary in their attempt to indicate just who was boss.

What all of this indicates to us is a much more complex relationship between local culture and power than we normally recognise. As symbols of sovereignty temples borrowed from the royal courts and similarly royal courts used the imagery of temples to shore up their legitimacy. This understanding smashes to smithereens the idea of an authentic and pure Hindu culture that stands discreetly apart from the Persian influences in this country. Members of British-Indian Hindu elite will recount stories of their ancestors with Persian names and trained in Persian and Urdu and not in Sanskrit- options made out of choice and not force. The recognition of this mixing is not unique and rather routine, even though conceptually the tendency is to often go back to discrete Hindu and Muslim categories. We need to recognize that reality has never really had space for these discrete and authentic categories, but on the contrary recognizing and pressing forward the mixed as the favoured child.

In Goa much is made of our temples which look like secular, Portuguese-influenced mansions. Oftentimes this fact operates as a matter of shame- indicating our lack of Indian authenticity, our apparent cultural corruption. What we should realize is that this is not a unique phenomenon and that the secular- both European and Persian- has influenced temples across the land to create various local Indian idioms. In Goa where political power vested in the Portuguese it was only natural and normal to mimic the styles of the ruler. Recognition of this would help us appreciate the context of Goan temples, and arrest the multiple attempts to ‘purify’ them. If however the changes continue, no matter, cultures must necessarily move on if they are to remain alive. However if we recognize this principle of the exchange between secular and religious, it would help us see more clearly what political ideology influences us and just how we are attempting to remake ourselves, since the temple while the residence of the deity is also a testament of our cultural selves.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 21st November 2007)

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