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Sunday, November 15, 1998
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Holy monuments, unholy squabbles

By Manohar Malgonkar

RAM janmabhoomi and Babri Masjid. Whoever had so much as heard of either place only a dozen years ago? But now they have become incendiary words, capable of arousing instant passions, a stain upon the nation’s conscience, a pulsating pressure point for hothead vigilantes of two religions.

It is the function of places of worship to radiate peace and serenity. In many religions they have also served as centres of learning, of art and music, dramatic performances and dances. They were the chief memorials of their age and examples of the highest reaches of man’s architectural aspirations and decorative effects in stone and plaster. They were the repositaries of the best paintings, best statuary in stone and wood and metals. They were richly, indeed extravagantly, endowed.

Throughout the ages, all places of worship have been the primary targets of invading forces. The destruction of a shrine caused a salutary shock effect; plundering a temple yielded rich rewards. Then again, for some, it was a religious duty.

In the Middle Ages, India was the hunting ground of waves of invaders from the Islamic warlords of the North-west. They razed hundreds of temples to the ground, leaving behind heaps of rubble. What these temples looked like before they were turned into ruins is not easy to imagine — except in isolated places where, by some freak chance, there are undestroyed edifices of the same period in the vicinity.

In a place called Halebid in interior Karnataka, you wander round for hours and see nothing but pile after pile of broken stones. And then, only a few minutes’ drive away, you’re standing before a temple that is whole, Belur, which makes you gasp in awe at its sheer audacity of planning; an amazing synthesis of architecture and sculpture — how hundreds upon hundreds of statues of a dancing girl of all sizes in dancing postures have been dovetailed into pillars and walls and spires to make a shimmering black temple which seems to throb with life as the light shifts.

But then India was not alone in suffering a wholesale destruction of its religious monuments. Indeed all the battles of medieval times and even earlier were between invading hordes and local defenders. The winner took all, (including the wives and daughters of the losers) killed off all the soldiers, enslaved all the non-combatants, and destroyed all monuments.

After all, Baghdad is built close to the ruins of Babylon, and that famous rock that towers over the entrance to the Mediterranian Sea, Gibraltar, is named after the legendary Muslim general, Tarik, who had conquered much of this area in Spain and Portugal in the year 700, in the very first onrush of the spread of Islam.

For centuries, this part of the Iberian Peninsula must have resembled today’s Afghanistan. Maurice Collis tells us that, from the 10th to the 15th centuries there were "at least 3,700 battles between the Christian tribes and the Arabian Emirs."

The principal targets of this religious warfare were the places of worship of either side. We only have to follow in the steps of the crusaders to get a fair sampling of the havoc this religious hysteria caused.

When one of the crusades crossed into Asia, "they killed all the Muslims who fell into their hands, stormed Jerusalem, massacred the Mohammadan population, and marched into the Holy Sepulchere to give praise and thanks amidst tears of piety and gratitude," Henrik Van Loon tells us.

But their joy was shortlived. Within months the Turks regrouped and struck back. They retook Jerusalem with ease and in turn, "killed all the faithful followers of the Cross."

What is Ram janmabhoomi/ Babri Masjid to us, Jerusalem is to Israel, except that in Jerusalem the hatreds are alive, and provocations and crackdowns daily occurrences. Here above all, the problem is much more complex because three faiths are involved, not just two as in our ease: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Between them they have made Jerusalem a metaphor for religious conflict. A hairtrigger flashpoint.

Both Judaism and Christianity were born in or around Jerusalem, with the result that the sacred monuments of both faiths are crowded in a small area and some are indeed common to both religions — and to Islam, too.

For instance the Al-Asqua mosque, built in the 8th century and thus infinitely older than any Islamic monument in either India or Pakistan. And there is a bare, rocky hill in Jerusalem, Mt Moriah which is the holiest monument of the Jews who believe that God once lived here and will one day come and occupy it again.

But Mt Moriah is almost equally holy to the Muslims, too, for they believe that it was from its slopes that the Prophet Muhammad took off for heaven on his final journey, riding on his winged horse, Al-Buraq. And they show you proof of this, too, in an oblong mark on the face of the rock, made by Al-Buraq when he took that great leap into the skies.

Jerusalem must have seen more savagery, brutality, destruction, than any other city in the world. Symbolic of its convulsive past is a low hill not far from the centre of the town which the Jews and Christians call the Temple of the Mount and the Muslims call Haram al-Sharif. That mound has been formed by the debris of the temples that were once built on it, the first of them by King Solomon, nearly a thousand years before Jesus Christ was born. It was sacked and wrecked by the army of Nebuchedrezzar. Years later, a second temple was built, which King Herod renovated and extended to make it the greatest monument on earth. that temple, in turn, was destroyed by the Romans.

So it went on. That Jerusalem has survived these blood-baths as an inhabited city, that some of its ancient monuments should still be around even as ruins, is itself something of a miracle. But the Jews, for their part, were no more than spectators of these convulsions. They were a scattered race without a homeland, let alone a standing army. It was only in the early 1920s that Britain created for them a homeland, and the separate Jewish state came into existence in the late 40s Israel.

And that was when, after some 2000 years, Jews became the owners of half of Jerusalem; the other half belonged to Jordan.

In the summer of 1967 came the six-day war between Israel and Egypt in which, Israel’s forces, under their spectacularly capable military commander, Moshe Dayan won every battle they were engaged in. Israel not only managed to help itself to extra territory, but also marched in and took over Jordan’s half of Jerusalem. The battle for the holy city was a bitterly fought action and the casualties of both sides were disproportionately high. But at the end of the day Moshe Dayan offered a ritualistic prayer at the famous Wailing Wall which, in the past, had been denied access to all Jews.

And then Dayan made his historic pronouncement: That even though the city now belonged to Israel, its monuments would remain in the hands of those who had been their traditional keepers. So Haram al-Sharif would go on as a sort of island of Islam in a Jewish city, and that while both Jews and Christians to whom the same monument was known as the Temple of the Mount would be allowed to visit it as tourists, they could not offer prayers there.

It is that decree that has somehow managed to keep a sort of uneasy peace in Jerusalem. Actually the law courts in Israel have overturned it again and again, but the Government has gone on enforcing it nevertheless. Jews and Christians can visit the Mount. They cannot pray there.

Might not that be the solution for our own Jerusalem, too: the Ram janmabhoomi/ Babri Masjid dispute? Declare the place open for touring but not for prayers, for either side?Back

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