It’s time to put the temple back into its rightful place as a brilliantly devised centre for social and public works
Out of several magnificent traditional innovations that have enriched life in India for millennia, two of the most interesting are in water management and in the use of the temple as a centre of social interaction. These days, as the country reels from an El Nino-related drought, the roles of both these in preventing periodic droughts from turning into famines have come into focus. Every temple had an associated water body like a pond, and agricultural lands that it managed. It was an important part of infrastructure.
Similarly, the system of interconnected tanks, canals and dams—such as the eri system and the Grand Anicut dam built by Karikala Chola almost 2,000 years ago in arid Tamil Nadu—increased agricultural productivity, conserved water, and alleviated drought. Unfortunately, both temples and water networks were damaged by imperialists, and India should reconstruct both as we head into an uncertain future with global warming and water wars.
The link between temples and water was brought to my attention when I lived in Chennai. When a student, I found the tank of the Kapaliswar temple bone-dry. Much later, there was a rainwater harvesting effort, and now the tank, and the surrounding water table, are full, thus showing the interconnectedness of these, as well as of the now-vanished paddy fields. There is still a racial memory of water conservation as demonstrated by Tarun Bharat Sangh in reviving the rivers of the Aravallis by building check dams as suggested by local elders.
The temple played a major role, of course, not only in water management but in most other aspects of traditional life, both rural and urban. In fact, one could suggest that “temple + raja” was the Indian model, not “church vs state” as in Europe: the temple did not attempt to capture temporal power, whereas the Vatican did, intriguing, engaging in warfare and running empires.
The difference shows in the physical manifestations of temples and churches. Churches are typically forts, with high walls designed to withstand sieges. Temples are open, with the offerings being elemental, including fire, water, milk, fruits and vegetables, and in some cases, the rearing of cows. There was typically a harmonious relationship with the raja, and so all sorts of famine relief, flood relief, public works (such as building dams) were done by committees attached to temples (and also to Buddha viharas).
It was considered a matter of civic pride for wealthy citizens to donate to public works managed by the temple or vihara, and for their names to be inscribed in stone. Notably, it was not only wealthy merchants, but even courtesans who sponsored the building of dams and so on. In passing, that shows accomplished courtesans were not considered criminals, but, perhaps like the geishas of Japan, were cultured ladies who could debate with their guests, and entertain them with music and art. Conversely, devadasis, though demonized by prudish imperialists, were probably like the vestal virgins of Greek and Roman temples.
The temple lives on in the racial memory of the Hindus as the place that does civic works, and that explains why rajas, merchants and common folk donated so much in the olden days (which unfortunately made temples the targets of looting), and we still do today. It’s in our DNA to expect a major role for the temple in daily life. In addition to the flood and famine relief works that saved us from natural and man-made disasters (I read an estimate that in 2,000 years there were 13 major famines, but in 200 years of imperial British rule, there were 33), they managed grain storage and also served as centres of education
They certainly were also centres of culture and the arts. This has continued, at least in attenuated and sometimes debased form, to the present day: a feature of all temple festivals in Kerala is a series of performing arts events. The locals converge upon the temple to watch the performances; and in olden days, without TV or radio, this was one of the high points of entertainment for the masses.
Many Kerala temples also have koothambalams, spaces where art forms such as Koodiyattam and Kathakali were developed and performed. Some of these forms may be intended to instruct the lay audience in dharma and correct conduct.
But beyond that, look at the major temple towns: they are buzzing with commerce and are massive centers of activity of all sorts, especially non-religious. You go to Madurai, or Chidambaram, or Guruvayur (and I assume this is true in North India as well), and you see entire classes of people who are dependent on pilgrim traffic, offering everything from weddings to tonsures to funerals, and boarding and lodging to guided tours.
That, you might say, is true of all sorts of pilgrim centres, not just India’s, and you would be right. But there is a difference, for these temples form the age-old cultural fabric of the nation, which most of us modern urban people miss. It was most poignantly articulated by the great historian Dharampal, as quoted with reverence by Claude Alvares:
“Around 1960, I was travelling from Gwalior to Delhi…when I met a group of people and I think in a way that meeting gave me a view of India, the larger India…(T)here was this group of people, about 12 of them, some three or four women and seven or eight men. I asked them where they were coming from. They said that they had been on a pilgrimage, three months long, up to Rameshwaram, among other places. They came from two different villages north of Lucknow. They had various bundles of things and some earthen pots with them.
“I asked, what did they have in those pots. They said that they had taken their own food from home…The women didn’t seem to mind much people trampling over them in the crowded compartment, but they did feel unhappy if someone touched their bundles and pots of food with their feet.
“And then I said they must all be from one jati, from a single caste group. They said,
‘No, no! We are…from several jatis.’…They said that there was no jati on a yatra—not on a pilgrimage. I didn’t know that. I was around 38 years old, and like many others in this country who know little about the ways of the ordinary Indian—the peasants, artisans and other village folks.
“And then I said, ‘Did you go to Madras? Did you go to Bombay?’ ‘Yes! We passed through those places,’ ‘Did you see anything there?’ ‘No, we did not have any time!’…I mentioned various important places of modern India. They had passed through most, but had not cared to visit any.
Then I said, ‘You are going to Delhi now?...You will stop in Delhi?’ ‘No, we only have to change trains there. We’re going to Haridwar!’ I said, ‘This is the capital of free India. Won’t you see it?’…They said, ‘No! We don’t have time. May be some other day. Not now. We have to go to Haridwar. And then we have to get back home.’
“We talked perhaps five or six hours. At the end of it I began to wonder, who is going to look after this India? Which India are we talking about? This India the glorious one of the modern age, built by Jawaharlal Nehru and his people, these modern temples, universities, places of scholarship! For whom are we building them? Those people on their pilgrimage were not interested in any of this. And were representative of India. More representative of India than Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru ever was. Or I and most of us could ever be.”
It profoundly shocked Dharampal, and when he read it, Claude Alvares, and it should, you and me. For this is the real India beyond clichés, for whom the temples are not merely religious, but they form the very fabric of India, tying Lucknow to Haridwar to Rameshwaram in a seamless whole. That cultural continuity is not visible to us modern urbanites, but it is one of the pillars of the survival of Hindu India against all odds. Thus the temples were an innovation for cultural resilience, along the lines of what I suggested that jatis did. (See Jati as Social Horsepower, December 2015)
But that is only part of the whole. If you go to the great ruined capital of Vijayanagar, Hampi, and the Virupaksha temple there, you see a long row of granite structures. This in fact is a shopping mall: over a kilometre long, about 120 feet wide, and it is a row of shops (some of them double-storeyed), from the heyday of the empire about 600 years ago. Based on contemporary records from foreign ambassadors, everything from gemstones to common household items was sold there. I remember seeing this in Bangalore, too: when I lived there, I used to walk to the Someswara temple, surrounded by a teeming market, just a stone’s throw from the Oberoi and the Taj.
In Uttaramerur, Tamil Nadu, the temple walls are inscribed with the rules of the village’s democracy: eligibility to compete in elections, the conditions under which a delinquent representative could be removed from office, and so on. This suggests that, far from being a British import, representative democracy was an indigenous idea, again centred around the temple.
The temples were also major producers of grain, because every one of them was endowed with enough lands to cover operational expenses. This sustainable business model was disrupted by the British. In Travancore, a zealous Christian named Munro, British Resident, coerced the Rani into co-mingling temple lands with government lands, and in some cases quietly granting them to churches. The result is that Travancore has lost some 80 per cent of its temples, as they fell into ruin, and with them went the local hydrological and farming nexus.
A remarkable innovation in Travancore, at the time of Marthanda Varma around 1730, was that the kings declared themselves to be regents, while the land belonged to the deity, Sri Anantha Padmanabha. It is clear there is direct causation between this and the fact that Travancore kings were among the most humble and most citizen-friendly of the kings of India.
As they were merely Padmanabha-dasa (and also matrilineal, so no saving up for the kids), they spent mostly for the welfare of their people, and saved as much as they could: thus the estimated $20 billion worth of gold in the temple. If the British had known about this, they would surely have looted it, as they did elsewhere (see Wilkie Collins’ novel The Moonstone). They did stand by and let Tipu loot Malabar’s temples; then they looted it from Srirangapatnam after Tipu was killed.
Last, but not the least, there is open-source innovation that temples supported. People composed some of the most famous works of literature in India in temples: I can think of Manikkavachakar’s works in Tamil at Chidambaram, and of Narayana Bhattathiri’s classic Narayaneeyam composed at Guruvayur, along with his rival Poonthanam Nambudiris’ Jnanappana. The temple’s role was to provide support and sustenance to those who created new ideas; and then they put these ideas in the public domain, a wonderful method.
Thus, not only was the temple an innovative space, but it was also part of the infrastructure that ensured harmonious social programmes. After the British and later Leftist rulers removed the social role from them, they have been devastated. It’s time to put the temple back into its rightful place as a brilliantly devised centre for social and public works, especially in the arena of water management.