Temple architecture

A gift that keeps on giving

April 16, 2022 | 05:15 IST

Rebuilding the Temple: A Gift that Keeps Giving

Amita Kanekar

Twenty million rupees of public money was earmarked in Pramod Sawant’s state budget to “rebuild and restore temples and heritage sites destroyed by the Portuguese”. The words “and heritage sites” seem almost inclusive, as the government is actually thinking beyond Hindu temples – except it’s the party itself that has campaigned widely and violently against the historic Babri Masjid site. What legacy would such a party rebuild? But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment.

Goa was an important Bijapuri colony at the time of the arrival of the Portuguese, most of whose architectural monuments were quickly erased. So, how about also taking back the many mosques that were destroyed by the Portuguese long before any temple? And what about indigenous heritage? Given that the RSS claims that the indigenous communities are all originally Hindus, shouldn’t the loss of their sacred sites worry the BJP? Apart from the countless such sites destroyed in the past, many others are now under threat, such as the sacred groves of Mopa. But even they don’t count. Victimization – and reparations – belong uniquely to the Hindu Brahmanical world.

Even here, however, despite all the talk of restoration and reconstruction, they are less interested in the actual physical heritage of a temple. Goa has a distinct and unique Hindu temple architecture, a creatively heterogeneous style that drew inspiration from the churches of Goa as well as the Maratha-Mughal world. But this architecture is now disappearing under the onslaught of reconstruction. Old temples, some over a century old, are being demolished almost daily and replaced with new ones that are twice the size and resemble ancient temples in northern or southern India. The reason for this is that the heterogeneity of the Goan temple form is no longer considered appropriate for a Hindu temple. And many of these reconstruction and ‘beautification’ projects have taken place with the support and blessing of successive governments in Goa. Where the early post-1961 decades under the MGP and Congress saw the replacement of Goan temple forms with modest imitation cement concrete Indian temples, the BJP era served up huge extravaganzas, but with some supposed touches of Goa – for the consumption of the tourist sold to “Indo-Portuguese” architecture. Those faux Goan sloping roofs and weird domes will soon be all that will pass for Goa in its temples.

Except, of course, for caste culture, which is as strong in new temples as it is in old ones. Scholar and activist Bharat Patankar recently made an interesting distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, describing the former as never hiding (even promoting) caste and hierarchy, while the latter tries to hide caste, claim that caste does not exist, and that Hindus are one. Therein lies the importance of the temple for the BJP. The Congress also used temples for politics, while in Goa the first post-1961 government was led by Dayanand Bandodkar, a strong advocate of temple building and reconstruction. Temples have therefore been part of the politics of Goa and India for a long time. What is different now is the centrality of their importance, in uniting Hindus for the Hindutva project. Attempts to ignore caste could be seen in the early days of Ayodhya’s turmoil, when Dalits were given prominence, even ritual prominence. But how far can this go? Can Goa’s restored temples abjure caste? Will Brahmins play drums and Dalits become priests? All of this would mean an upheaval in religious tradition, which many BJP supporters would hardly support.

So, if the restoration of temples is not about their architectural heritage, nor can it create a more inclusive Hindu society, what is the point? During the recent election season, when every non-BJP candidate was a fierce warrior against the government, we asked MGP’s Sudin Dhavalikar if there was a community agenda in this particular Pramod Sawant election pledge, given that the destroyed temples were rebuilt during the Portuguese regime itself.

Forget today’s destruction: the groves and orchards of Mopa, the forests of Mollem, the heritage trees of Colvale, the eruption of buildings destroying every plateau and coastline, not to mention the destruction of small-scale agriculture, mass education, survival jobs, and public health…forget all that, but not the temples destroyed by the Portuguese.

“I said Hindi should be the national language. Now they won’t even notice the next price hike,” says a familiar bald figure to an even more familiar bearded figure, in a recent cartoon by Angela Ferrão. Yes, distraction is vital, especially when aggressive. Like the hijab row in Karnataka, followed by the banning of non-Hindus from doing business near temples; the violence that followed Ram Navami celebrations in many places; the incessant hate speech, etc.

But the reconstruction of the temple is the best. In one fell swoop, the BJP hopes, the colonial past will be targeted (diverting from present-day colonialism), minority communities will be blamed for the actions of long-dead co-religionists, and – hopefully – new lands. – Dumpsters and construction projects can be started. Just bread and circuses – bread (or dough, rather, and plenty of it) for themselves and their bosses, and circuses, the more violent the better, to keep everyone busy.

(Amita Kanekar is an architectural historian and novelist