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The creation of a community and a sharper articulation of identities in India are widely seen as a consequence of colonialism. As Gyanendra Pandey argues, the pre-colonial society was too fragmented by sub-caste and local loyalties to have allowed larger allegiances to emerge (Pandey 2006). However, it has been noted by Cynthia Talbot that supra-local identities did indeed exist in pre-colonial India, but these identities themselves were historically constructed and not static. The identities of the two major communities of India, the Hindus and the Muslims, she notes, were not formed in isolation. The impact of the “Other” molded the “Self” for both the groups (Talbot 1995). However, any antagonism between the two classes was not strictly religious. This paper argues that with the establishment of colonialism in India, static identities were formulated through the ‘construction of knowledge’.

The Sanskrit literature of ancient and medieval India uses the term “mlechha” [1],which was applied to aliens as well as indigenous tribes as a general category into which all social groups which did not adhere to Brahmanical norms were put into. She emphasizes on the destruction of existing socio-political networks, feeling of crisis and uncertainty, and an advancing frontier zone. Inscriptional eulogies of Tuluva kings of Vijayanagara’s second dynasty, for example, list the Turk and non-Muslim enemies conquered by the dynastic founder. This shows that the Muslims were seen as respected political rivals, just like the other major Hindu powers of the peninsula. Even among the elite population of both groups, alliances were formed which ignored religious differences and common people also sometimes converted to the other religion. Widespread knowledge of each other’s ways led to a substantial degree of acculturation and an overlap between the two societies (Talbot 1995). Hence, the British conception of the Indian past as infested with religious strife is not the only facet of interaction between religions.

Moreover, many structures at the Vijayanagara capital exhibited an original Indo-Islamic style of architecture with domes and arches (Talbot 1995). As we have seen earlier, the process of identity formation in pre-colonial India was not static. The threat of foreign aggression did indeed sharpen the boundaries of identities but they were still fuzzy[2] or not clearly defined. Constant contact and confrontation also resulted in an inter-mixing of cultures and practices which blurred the boundaries between the groups. However, with the advent of British colonialism in India, “officializing”[3] procedures were undertaken (Cohn 1996). The representation of societies as a series of self-evident “facts” empowered the administration to govern.  Knowledge of history and practices of Indian states were seen as valuable forms of knowledge to build the colonial state. Religious identity became the basis for the formulation of such knowledge. The ideological construction of the nature of Indian civilizations gave rise to a legitimizing discourse about Britain’s “civilizing discourse” (Cohn 1996).

Most of the Oriental studies conducted in India during the 18th century categorized the people as Hindus and Muslims. The former became synonymous with the “great Classical civilization” while the latter was termed as interlopers whose “empire” coincided with the decline of the “Classical Indian civilization”. The Sultans of Delhi were termed as iconoclasts who were “static” and “dogmatic”. Islam was labeled with repellant “Otherness”. Thus, the constructed “knowledge” created and perpetuated myths and conjured stereotypical images of people and countries in order to fortify the Empire’s ideological edifice (Hasan 1997).

In order to understand the Indian society they depended on the Classical texts and ignored the complexities of Indian present (Robinson 1998). Thus, Indian literature was translated to provide concrete and reliable sources of Indian history. Some Orientalists like R. Gough, Thomas Maurice, and William Hunter gave importance to the study of Indian architecture as a reliable approach to study Indian history. A common feature of all their works was stress being laid on ‘non-polluted and authentic Hindu culture’ that flourished before the ‘Muslim invasion’ (Ahmed 2015). Delhi became an important site as it provided the ‘missing link’ between the classical Hindu past and the medieval ‘Muslim rule’ through its historical buildings. These buildings were used, in the later period, to sustain the communal categorization of Indian historical sites (Ahmed 2015). The early European reactions to Indian art and architecture are useful to understand the ways in which Indian buildings were initially perceived. The accounts of European travelers illustrate two significant points. First, the early European travelers applied European artistic ideals to understand the architectural styles and complexities associated with these buildings. Second, because political domination was not yet established by any European company or political power (except the Portuguese of Goa) yet, the notions of superiority or inferiority in these accounts were different from the later colonial writings (Ahmed 2015).

As the East India Company became a dominant player in India a change in the notion of European superiority and the nature of colonial historical research was seen.  Systematic explorations began to fix issues of ‘authenticity’, ‘verification’, and ‘objectification’. The focus was on discovering the ‘original’ past through ‘objective’ resources. The establishment of the India Museum in 1814 by the Asiatic Society of Bengal which used to collect the scientific and historical objects later became a ‘knowledge producing apparatus’. Since historical buildings could not be preserved in the Museum, they were to be conserved in their original locations. Two legal initiatives can be cited as examples to this order: (i) Bengal Code of 1810, and (ii) Madras Code of 1817 where the functionality of the buildings was given emphasis on. The functional sites, especially the religious sites of worship, were seen as ‘religious endowments’ and managing boards or boards of trustees were established for the maintenance of these sites (Ahmed 2015).

Moreover, these Acts empowered the administration to ‘protect’ the ‘public buildings’ of historical importance. Since religion was an important and dominant identity in colonial India, the architectural designs and patterning of Indian buildings reflected an orientation towards particular religious philosophies to the early historians and archaeologists as they also accepted religion as a broad analytical category. However, this categorization reinforced the colonial notion of Indian history in two significant ways: firstly, the listing and categorization of buildings as a source of history on a religious basis established a foxed communal identity of Indian historic sites. It legitimized the colonial discovery of ‘Muslim invasion’ and ‘Hindu resistance’. Secondly, a new kind of self-perception was introduced by informing the subjects about their collective existence. Thus, the conception of a homogenous community became possible (Ahmed 2015).

As the powers of the colonial state to identify, select, and protect any historical building increased through the Ancient Monuments Preservation Act (1904), separate spheres of religion and state were defined. Thus, the state became the one and only authority which could determine the historic relevance of a particular Indian building and the religious classification of protected historical sites acquired a fixed and permanent religious identity. The Indo-Islamic sites also acquired a new contested ‘public’ character i.e. they became the ‘public edifice’ of Muslim conquest and the ‘neutral’ conservation of these monuments by the state also justified the colonial rule as the protector of Indian civilization. The Indo-Islamic buildings were either linked to the desecration of Hindu temples or seen as symbols of Islamic dominance in order to signify the conflicting nature of India’s past. This can be well demonstrated in Thomas Maurice’s description of the Somnath Temple by Mahmud Ghazni as an important ‘critical event’ which according to him led to the establishment of Muslim rule in India as well as the pollution of ‘original and pure’ Hindu religious traditions. He also described in detail the destruction of Hindu temples by Aurangzeb at Benaras and Ahmedabad in order to ruin the Hindu traditions (Ahmed 2015).

From the above discussion it can be concluded that the above-mentioned British conception of Indian past as plagued with communal strife and religious antagonism and interpretation of desecration of temples as a symbol of Muslim domination can be contested. As Cynthia Talbot’s reading of Richard M. Eaton concludes that the destruction of temples by Turks and other Muslim rulers throughout India, was motivated by political considerations rather than religious domination. A royal temple symbolized the king’s power in Hindu political thought and destruction of these structures signified the king’s utter humiliation. Moreover, the destroyed temples were situated either in kingdoms which were in the process of being conquered or within the realm of rebels. Her analysis of the territory that is now called Andhra Pradesh suggests that the violence to temples often involved the appropriation of movable property rather than the actual demolishing of idols and building (Talbot 1995). A simplistic interpretation of events occludes the acknowledgement of the diverse sources which contributed to the event. In this case, the simplistic religious interpretation of Indo-Islamic architecture, by the British, not only stagnated the nature of the architecture but also changed the relationship between the people and the structure by assigning them the symbol of ‘Muslim conquest’ and ignoring their syncretic nature.



Ahmed, Hilal. Muslim Political Discourse in Postcolonial India: Monuments, Memory, Contestation. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Cohn, Bernard. Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Hasan, Mushirul. Legacy of a Divided Nation: India's Muslims since Independence. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Pandey, Gyanendra. The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Robinson, Francis. "The British Empire and Muslim Identity in South Asia." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 8, 1998: 271-289.

Talbot, Cynthia. "Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu-Muslim Identities in Pre-Colonial India." Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 37, No. 4, 1995: 692-722.

Image Credit: https://kanikajainblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/22/indo-islamic-architecture/



[1] The best possible English translation provided by Cynthia Talbot for this word is barbarian which connotes a lack of culture and civilization.

[2] The term used by Sudipta Kaviraj in “The Imaginary Institution of India” this denotes fuzziness as in a lack of territoriality and enumeration.

[3] By ‘officializing’, Cohn refers to the procedures of defining and classifying space, making separation between public and private spheres, and the like which were used to establish control by the European states to make their power visible.

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Written By Suvasree Dutta

M.A. in Political Science (Pursuing)

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