Old Delhi’s Temples Reveal a Multicultural Past

But historians warn the priceless monuments to India's cosmopolitan heritage are now at risk of deterioration

Old Delhi’s Temples Reveal a Multicultural Past
The red Digambara Jain Temple and white Sikh temple on busy Chandni Chowk, Old Delhi, India. (Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

What is now called Old Delhi was established as the walled city of Shahjahanabad in 1639, when the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan decided to shift the empire’s capital from Agra to Delhi. It is famous for its grand Jama Masjid — one of the largest mosques in India, surrounded by alleys teeming with some of the best Mughlai restaurants and street food the national capital has to offer. A short walk from the mosque takes one to Chandni Chowk, or the square, where a network of canals once reflected the moonlight; it is now one of India’s largest wholesale markets. Then comes Chawri Bazar, once the abode of courtesans and their patrons, which today operates as a market for paper products.

Deep inside Chawri Bazar, a crowded bylane leads to the yellow door of Charan Das ki Bagichi, literally Charan Das’s garden. An 18th-century temple, it bears features of Mughal architecture, including a bulbous dome and the use of white marble. It also houses paintings depicting the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah Rangeela interacting with the Hindu saint Charan Das, an ascetic from Alwar in Rajasthan.

A small, colorful temple, standing under the shade of a huge Jamun tree, is distinct from a newer and bigger temple built in the garden. It has a dome instead of the “shikhara,” the rising tower resembling a mountain peak that is emblematic of north Indian temple architecture, which helps make the distinction between the two. Inside, the dome bears the shape of an upturned lotus with Mughal-style frescoes of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha dancing. On one of the walls of the older temple, Rangeela is shown celebrating the Hindu festivals of Holi and Diwali. Another depicts the Muslim emperor sitting on the floor, seeking the blessings of Das, who is seated in a cot.

The Emperor Rangeela was known both for his indulgence and patronage of the arts and culture during the almost three decades he ruled the Mughal Empire, from 1719 to 1748. However, there is little historical documentation as to how he became a disciple of Das or when the temple, which also houses Das’ tomb, was built. But both the Mughal influence and the amalgamation of cultures are undeniable.

Charan Das ki Bagichi is one of 100 Mughal-era temples scattered across Shahjahanabad, hidden in plain sight of a bustling metropolis. The Mughal empire was established by Babur, a descendant of the Turco-Mongol conqueror Timur, after defeating and killing the last ruler of the Delhi Sultanate, Ibrahim Lodi, during the First Battle of Panipat in 1526. Over the course of the next two centuries, the empire became one of the world’s greatest until its decline in the 18th century. The courts during the Mughal reign were an amalgamation of different religions and cultures, including Hindus, Muslims and Jains. Immigrants from places as disparate as Italy, Turkey and Iran worked harmoniously at different ranks.

The Indian author and translator Rana Safvi, whose book “Shahjahanabad: The Living City of Old Delhi” was published in 2020, has been highlighting and documenting stories of these Mughal-era temples along with the writer Sam Dalrymple, co-founder of Project Dastaan, a South Asian peacebuilding organization, through Instagram. Using the hashtag #MughalEraMandir (mandir means temple in Hindi), the pair seek to draw attention to this little-known aspect of Mughal history and the deteriorating condition of the temples.

Speaking to New Lines, Safvi said that temple building in the Mughal era started in the late 16th century, during the reign of the third emperor, Akbar, regarded as one of the most benevolent rulers. At the time, many grand structures in cities like Banaras and Mathura were commissioned by Mughal nobles, such as the royal court’s finance minister Raja Todar Mal and military commander Mirza Raja Man Singh. “This was also the case in the mid-18th and early-19th century till 1857, when the indirect support of the Mughal emperor via the patronage of favored nobles led to a similar result,” she said.

Safvi also quoted Catherine Asher, Professor Emerita at the University of Minnesota, who has written on architecture built by Hindus, Jains, Muslims and Sikhs in cities across north India: “Wealthy Khattri Hindu merchants and Jains, including one branch of the Jagat Seth family, played a role in the city’s economic well-being. So, it is not surprising that between 1639 and 1850 Hindus and Jains built over 100 temples that still survive; others must have been destroyed, for example, in the massive rebuilding of Faiz Bazar. Yet for the most part, these temples almost remain invisible to the casual visitor. The question is why?”

The head of the Mughal army during Akbar and Jahangir’s reign, Mirza Raja Man Singh, commissioned thousands of temples across the empire, particularly around Rajasthan, Bihar and Bengal. “One of the problems is that we see the Mughals just as the rulers,” Dalrymple told New Lines. “As if the empire was run just by the emperor, when in reality it was a lot more than just him,” he said. There were Hindu and Jain officers of senior rank, for example, who had a great impact on the final decisions rulers made.

In this part of the city, modernity and India’s rich cultural history are always in stiff competition with each other. The former arises out of the needs of an ever-expanding population, while the latter is increasingly hostage to India’s polarized politics. Mughal rule in particular is becoming a deeply contested part of India’s history. Once celebrated for its rich culture, in ascendant Hindu right wing circles it is now more often considered symbolic of the enslavement and oppression of Hindus by Muslim rulers.

The Hindu right accuses the Mughals — without historical evidence — of destroying more than 60,000 temples. A key feature of this narrative is the demonization of Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor, who ruled before Rangeela, from 1658 to 1707. Aurangzeb is despised by the Hindu right, who believe he was intolerant of Hindus and single-handedly destroyed their religious and cultural centers out of sheer spite. Three hundred years later, in 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi lashed out at Aurangzeb for “his atrocities” and “his terror.” Modi was speaking at the Red Fort in Old Delhi, while marking the 400th anniversary of the birth of the ninth Sikh guru Tegh Bahadur, who was beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam. “Even though Aurangzeb severed many heads, he could not shake our faith,” said Modi.

Since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power for the first time in 2014, Mughal rulers have time and again become subjects of contemporary politics. Cities and infrastructure projects named after the rulers have been renamed. In 2015, Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi was renamed Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road after the former Indian president. In 2018, Mughalsarai railway station, an iconic transportation port, was renamed to Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya station; Upadhyaya was the leader of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a Hindu right-wing political party and forerunner of the BJP. The same year, Allahabad, an important city in north India, which was given its name by emperor Shah Jahan, was renamed to Prayagraj.

There is even a reluctance on the ground in Chawri Bazar to accept Charan Das ki Bagichi’s Mughal roots. “Muhammad Shah Rangeela didn’t do anything. The temple has been made by the followers of Charan Das,” said one devotee of the saint, who did not wish to be named, to New Lines. A careful silence is assumed when it is pointed out that Rangeela too was a disciple of the saint.

One of the largest Jain temples in Delhi, Shri Digambar Jain Lal Mandir, was built in 1656, during the reign of Shah Jahan, in Chandni Chowk, in the honor of Parshvanath, the 23rd Tirthankara or spiritual teacher of the Jains. The foundation of the temple is believed to have been laid after a Mughal soldier found the idol of the Tirthankara at an unknown place, said Naresh Jain, the 70-year-old caretaker of the temple, who has been looking after Lal Mandir for the past four decades. The name Lal Mandir, meaning red temple, refers to the red sandstone from which it is made. When the temple was established, Jain said, it was covered by a tent, but as the Jain community, who worked as treasurers and made the economic decisions of the Mughal empire, amassed more wealth, they built and expanded the temple complex further.

Like Charan Das ki Bagichi, new structures were added to this temple too, but its original sanctum sanctorum remained the same — a ceiling above the idol of Parshvanath is covered with Mughal-style frescoes of Lord Krishna and his consort Radha dancing in colorful clothes. The walls are covered with murals depicting the everyday life of Mughal rulers as they travel on elephants, fight against armies or gather in the royal court. In one painting, a Mughal ruler can be seen worshiping the Shiva linga, a representation of Lord Shiva.

In the current political environment in India, many like Jain deny the role of any Muslim rulers in the creation of these temples.

“The temple’s history speaks of the complex relationship between the Mughal rulers and the temples: erected during Shah Jahan’s reign, persecuted under Aurangzeb, then enlarged and lavishly painted by Akbar II,” wrote Dalrymple and Safvi about Lal Mandir in Live History India, an online platform that documents India’s diverse history and heritage.

Like many others who visit the temple, Jain the caretaker said he has no knowledge about the Mughals’ patronage. “Shah Jahan didn’t make the temple, the Jains did,” he said.

Sarthak Malhotra, a doctoral research student of social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, told New Lines the non-Muslim elites in the royal court of the Mughals possessed a certain degree of power through which they could commission palaces, temples and cultural institutions.

“It wasn’t extraordinary to see Mughal rulers patronizing temples,” Malhotra said. “The first churches in north India were built during Akbar’s reign. In Agra, Akbar’s church, part of the St. Peter’s College complex, dates back to the 1600s. The oldest grave in the premises is of an Armenian person who died in 1602. Jahangir’s nephews were also baptized there. There was a lot of interest in learning about non-Muslim ways of life.”

While Aurangzeb is often called “despotic” or “orthodox,” Malhotra said the ruler was in fact a learned man who believed in a pan-Indian Mughal empire. “Of course, he destroyed temples but that was more of a political act rather than religious,” said Malhotra. He explained that while today a temple or a mosque is widely considered to be a religious place, in earlier times, they were created for cultural and political as well as religious purposes. Therefore, attacking or destroying temples was not merely a religious act the way it is understood today; it was also a political act.

In an interview with the Indian news publication Scroll, Richard M. Eaton, professor of history at the University of Arizona, said, “undoubtedly some temples were desecrated, but the facts in the matter were never recorded, or the facts were recorded but the records themselves no longer survive. Conversely, later Indo-Muslim chroniclers, seeking to glorify the religious zeal of earlier Muslim rulers, sometimes attributed acts of temple desecration to such rulers even when no contemporary evidence supports the claims.”

The Indian historian Swapna Liddle, who has written multiple books on Delhi’s history, told New Lines that Hindus and Jains were so important to the Mughal court that they were granted prime real estate in Shahjahanabad. The Hindus, who were mostly well-off indigo dyers and merchants, built their havelis (traditional Indian townhouses) in an area called Katra Neel, where the small alleys included a cluster of temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. Jains, on the other hand, settled in Dharampura, where the financiers lived. Therefore, the area has clusters of Jain temples. “They flourished with the Mughal empire,” Liddle said.

Liddle, who is also a convener of the Delhi chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage, a nonprofit working for the restoration and conservation of historical monuments, said the destruction of temples needs to be seen in the political and societal context of the era.

“One of the ways of stopping a rebellion would be through destroying temples that had the patronage of the ruler of that place,” she said. “Moreover, while temples were being destroyed in other cities, temples were also simultaneously being built in the Mughal capital.”

Most of the temples built during the Mughal era have one thing in common — the dome-structured roof, commonly found in mosques in the Indian subcontinent and places like Iran, Turkey and Palestine. While Safvi and Dalrymple believe the Mughal emperors did not allow the construction of shikhara, the rising tower in temple architecture and often used in Jain temples, Liddle said “there is no evidence” to back this claim.

Liddle explained that the bulbous dome that defined the Mughal style of architecture was a prominent and fashionable way to build in those times. “Only when the British came to India, they started talking about the Hindu architecture which made Indians feel that architecture has a Hindu or a Muslim style,” she said. While the British arrived in India in 1608 at the port of Surat, the Crown rule was established in 1858. It is widely believed by South Asians that the British created and perpetuated the Hindu-Muslim divide through their colonial project of “divide et impera,” or divide and rule.

In the innermost alleys of Katra Neel, walking past shops glimmering with bright fabrics, amidst the noises of merchants inviting people to take a look at the latest collections, lies one of the most famous Shiva temples of Old Delhi, called Baba Lallu Jas Rai Ji ka Mandir, meaning Baba Lallu Jas Raiji’s temple.

The first sight upon entering the compound is of the temple with a dome, now covered by the first floor of the newly constructed premises, where the patron’s family runs a school. The dome, as in many other Mughal-era temples and mosques, looks like an inverted lotus, with intricate leaf detailing toward the bottom. Below the tomb lies the “Panch Parivar,” or the family of five. The Shiva linga is surrounded by idols of wife Goddess Parvati; Lord Kartikay, the elder son; Lord Ganesh, the younger son and the popular elephant-headed god; and Nandi, the bull who serves as Shiva’s vehicle.

Behind Lord Shiva’s temple, or the Shivalaya, lies the sanctum sanctorum, where Baba Lallu Jas Raiji’s idol is kept under a red cloth. Baba Lalu Jas Raiji is considered the Kul Devta, or the family deity, of the Khatri community that was spread across Katra Neel. Most of them moved out after commercialization of the area.

As per a Sanskrit inscription below the dome, the structure was built by Lala Changamal during the reign of the 19th Mughal ruler, Akbar Shah II. The family has been looking after the preservation of the temple since then, said the 70-year-old caretaker, Pandit Satprakash Tiwari, to New Lines. “They have tried to preserve the original structure of the temple, no changes have been made,” said Tiwari.

In an alley close to Chandni Chowk lies Jhajjarwala Mandir. All that is known is that it was built by a Hardev of Jhajjar, a town in Haryana. Who Hardev was is a mystery. The compound has two temples; one a dome-shaped Shivalaya and the other dedicated to Lord Krishna and Radha, his chief consort. The Mughal frescoes of the ceiling have been painted over. “The domes had paintings from the Mughal era, where people could be seen engaged in music and dance, but they had started to fall off. We couldn’t find the artists who could restore them, so we decided to paint over them,” Pandit Rajiv Kumar, the fifth-generation caretaker of the temple, told New Lines.

Similarly, the frescoes covering the ceilings of Ghanteshwar Mahadev Shivalaya, another Shiva temple in Katra Neel, built under the rule of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, have recently been painted over. Some paintings depicting different gods and goddesses remain on the walls, but they are slowly beginning to fall because of lack of preservation. The same could be said about Mughal history in India.

“These temples make the picture complete,” Liddle said. “When you’re talking of Mughals only as destroyers of temples, these temples act as a corrective to that. In their rule, within their city, there were people who were building temples. That Delhi was a very multicultural cosmopolitan city has always been a part of our history.”

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