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India: A Wounded Civilization

I

Sometimes old India, the old, eternal India many Indians like to talk about, does seem just to go on. During the last war some British soldiers, who were training in chemical warfare, were stationed in the far south of the country, near a thousand-year-old Hindu temple. The temple had a pet crocodile. The soldiers, understandably, shot the crocodile. They also in some way—perhaps by their presence alone—defiled the temple. Soon, however, the soldiers went away, and the British left India altogether. Now, more than thirty years after that defilement, and in another season of emergency, the temple has been renovated and a new statue of the temple deity is being installed.

Until they are given life and invested with power, such statues are only objects in an image-maker’s yard, their value depending on size, material, and the carver’s skill. Hindu idols or images come from the old world; they embody difficult and sometimes sublime concepts, and they have to be made according to certain rules. There can be no development now in Hindu iconography, though the images these days, under the influence of the Indian cinema and cinema posters, are less abstract than their ancient originals, and more humanly pretty and doll-like. They stand lifeless in every way in the image-maker’s showroom. Granite and marble—and an occasional commissioned bust of someone like a local inspector of police, with perhaps a real spectacle-frame over his blank marble eyes—suggest at first the graveyard, and a people in love with death. But this showroom is a kind of limbo, with each image awaiting the life and divinity that will come to it with purchase and devotion, each image already minutely flawed, so that its divine life, when it comes, shall not be terrible and overwhelming.

Life, then, has to be given to the new image in the once defiled temple. A special effort has to be made. And the method being used is one of the most archaic in the world. It takes us back to the beginning of religion and human wonder. It is the method of the word: in the beginning was the word. A twelve-lettered mantra will be chanted and written fifty million times; and that is what—in this time of Emergency, with the constitution suspended, the press censored—5,000 volunteers are doing. When the job is completed, an inscribed gold plate will be placed below the new idol, to attest to the creation of its divinity and the devotion of the volunteers. A thousand-year-old temple will live again: India, Hindu India, is eternal: conquests and defilements are but instants in time.

About 200 miles away, still in the south, on a brown plateau of rock and gigantic boulders, are the ruins of the capital city of what was once the great Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar. Vijayanagar—vijaya, victory, nagar, city—was established in the fourteenth century; it was conquered, and totally destroyed, by an alliance of Moslem principalities in 1565. The city was then one of the greatest in the world, its walls twenty-four miles around—foreign visitors have left accounts of its organization and magnificence—and the work of destruction took five months; some people say a year.

Today all the outer city is a peasant wilderness, with scattered remnants of stone or brick structures. Near the Tungabhadra River are the grander ruins: palaces and stables, a royal bath, a temple with clusters of musical stone columns that can still be played, a broken acqueduct, the leaning granite pillars of what must have been a bridge across the river. There is more beyond the river: a long and very wide avenue, still partly façaded, with a giant statue of the bull of Shiva at one end and, at the other end, a miracle: a temple that for some reason was spared destruction 400 years ago, is still whole, and is still used for worship.

It is for this that the pilgrims come, to make offerings and to perform the rites of old magic. Some of the ruins of Vijayanagar have been declared national monuments by the Archaeological Department; but to the pilgrims—and they are more numerous than the tourists—Vijayanagar is not its terrible history or its present encompassing desolation. Such history as is known has been reduced to the legend of a mighty ruler, a kingdom founded with gold that showered from the sky, a kingdom so rich that pearls and rubies were sold in the market place like grain.

To the pilgrims Vijayanagar is its surviving temple. The surrounding destruction is like proof of the virtue of old magic; just as the fantasy of past splendor is accommodated within an acceptance of present squalor. That once glorious avenue—not a national monument, still permitted to live—is a slum. Its surface, where unpaved, is a green-black slurry of mud and excrement, through which the sandaled pilgrims unheedingly pad to the food stalls and souvenir shops, loud and gay with radios. And there are starved squatters with their starved animals in the ruins, the broken stone façades patched up with mud and rocks, the doorways stripped of the sculptures which existed until recently. Life goes on, the past continues. After conquest and destruction, the past simply reaserts itself.

If Vijayanagar is now only its name and, as a kingdom, is so little remembered (there are university students in Bangalore, 200 miles away, who haven’t even heard of it), it isn’t only because it was so completely wiped out, but also because it contributed so little; it was itself a reassertion of the past. The kingdom was founded in 1336 by a local Hindu prince who, after defeat by the Moslems, had been taken to Delhi, converted to Islam, and then sent back to the south as a representative of the Moslem power. There in the south, far from Delhi, the converted prince had re-established his independence and, unusually, in defiance of Hindu caste rules, had declared himself a Hindu again, a representative on earth of the local Hindu god. In this unlikely way the great Hindu kingdom of the south was founded.

It lasted 200 years, but during that time it never ceased to be embattled. It was committed from the start to the preservation of a Hinduism that had already been violated, and culturally and artistically it preserved and repeated; it hardly innovated. Its bronze sculptures are like those of 500 years before; its architecture, even at the time, and certainly to the surrounding Moslems, must have seemed heavy and archaic. And its ruins today, in that unfriendly landscape of rock and boulders of strange shapes, look older than they are, like the ruins of a long superseded civilization.

The Hinduism Vijayanagar proclaimed had already reached a dead end, and in some ways had decayed, as popular Hinduism so easily decays, into barbarism. Vijayanagar had its slave markets, its temple prostitutes. It encouraged the holy practice of suttee, whereby a widow burned herself on the funeral pyre of her husband, to achieve virtue, to secure the honor of her husband’s family, and to cleanse that family of the sins of three generations. And Vijayanagar dealt in human sacrifice. Once, when there was some trouble with the construction of a big reservoir, the great king of Vijayanagar, Krishna Deva Raya (1509-1529), ordered the sacrifice of some prisoners.

In the sixteenth century Vijayanagar, really, was a kingdom awaiting conquest. But it was big and splendid; it needed administrators, artists, craftsmen; and for the 200 years of its life it must have sustained all the talent of the land and concentrated it in that capital. When it was conquered and its capital systematically smashed, more than buildings and temples would have been destroyed. Many men would have been killed; all the talent, energy, and intellectual capacity of the kingdom would have been extinguished for generations. The conquerors themselves, by creating a desert, would have ensured, almost invited, their own subsequent defeat by others; again and again, for the next 200 years, the land of that dead kingdom was trampled down.

And today it still shows, the finality of that destruction of Hindu Vijayanagar in 1565: in the acknowledged “backwardness” of the region, which now seems without a history and which it is impossible to associate with past grandeur or even with great wars; in the squalor of the town of Hospet that has grown up not far from the ruins; in the unending nullity of the peasant-serf countryside.

Since Independence much money has been spent on the region. A dam has been built across the Tungabhadra River. There is an extensive irrigation scheme which incorporates the irrigation canals of the old kingdom (and these are still called Vijayanagar canals). A Vijayanagar steel plant is being planned; and a university is being built, to train men of the region for jobs in that steel plant and the subsidiary industries that are expected to come up. The emphasis is on training men of the region, local men. Because, in this land that was once a land of great builders, there is now a human deficiency. The state of which the region forms part is the one state in the Indian Union that encourages migrants from other states. It needs technicians, artisans; it needs men with simple skills; it needs even hotel waiters. All it has been left with is a peasantry that cannot comprehend the idea of change: like the squatters in the ruins outside the living Vijayanagar temple, slipping in and out of the decayed stone façades like brightly colored insects, screeching and unimportantly active on this afternoon of rain.

It was at Vijayanagar this time, in that wide temple avenue, which seemed less awesome than when I had first seen it thirteen years before, no longer speaking as directly as it did then of a fabulous past, that I began to wonder about the intellectual depletion that must have come to India with the invasions and conquests of the last thousand years. What happened in Vijayanagar happened, in varying degrees, in other parts of the country. In the north ruin lies on ruin: Moslem ruin on Hindu ruin, Moslem on Moslem. In the history books, in the accounts of wars and conquests and plunder, the intellectual depletion passes unnoticed, the lesser intellectual life of a country whose contributions to civilization were made in the remote past. India absorbs and outlasts its conquerors, Indians say. But at Vijayanagar, among the pilgrims, I wondered whether intellectually for a thousand years India hadn’t always retreated before its conquerors and whether, in its periods of apparent revival, India hadn’t only been making itself archaic again, intellectually smaller, always vulnerable.

In the British time, a period of bitter subjection which was yet for India a period of intellectual recruitment, Indian nationalism proclaimed the Indian past; and religion was inextricably mixed with political awakening. But independent India, with its five-year plans, its industrialization, its practice of democracy, has invested in change. There always was a contradiction between the archaism of national pride and the promise of the new; and the contradiction has at last cracked the civilization open.

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