The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism, Part 3


Delhi Sultanate Architecture
Conical Dome and Qutub Minaret

Apr 08, CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation of the Mughal effect on Vaisnava society.

Yesterday we began to discuss the social environment in Bengal at the time of the Delhi Sultanate's reign, in which the brahmanas were carrying out religious practices under the authority of local rulers. Although politicized by this system of patronage, there was still a semblance of Vedic culture and the dharmic model, which the priests endeavored to follow at least in appearance. The mechanics of rulership being followed by the Turks was very different, however. Their 13th century proposition was this:

The world is a garden, whose gardener is the state [dawlat]
The state is the sultan whose guardian is the Law [shari‘a]
The Law is a policy, which is protected by the kingdom [mulk]
The kingdom is a city, brought into being by the army [lashkar]
The army is made secure by wealth [mal]
Wealth is gathered from the subjects [ra‘iyat]
The subjects are made servants by justice [‘adl]
Justice is the axis of the prosperity of the world [‘alam]

This unified theory adopted by the Sultanate formed the basis for society's moral, political, and economic life under their rule. There is little similarity to the dharmic model, most notably in the fact that God is not present at all in the Sultanate's worldview. Surrender to the Deity had been replaced by surrender to royal justice. Islamic Law, not God's law or even the laws of nature, became the enforcer and the religious sentiments of the people were given no consideration. Of course, such monarchal absolutism was doomed to fail.

Although Sufi religious doctrines from the 11th century eastern Muslim world had traveled into Bengal with the Turks, even these were at odds with the Sultanate's absolute rule, which was much further afield from the Vedic model. So while the Turks ruled, God was essentially driven out of the picture. Of course, the sentiment of sanatan-dharma could not be driven out of the hearts of the Bengali people, or other adherents to the Vedic model across North India. The philosophy of rulership embedded in the mass consciousness of these people followed the Vedic model:

As the earth nourishes all beings, the king nourishes the entire kingdom.
As fire consumes all, the king consumes all opposition.
As the sun draws moisture from the earth, the king exacts a tribute from his subjects.
As rain sustains all life, the king rains forth sustenance upon his kingdom.
As air penetrates the depths of all beings, the king penetrates the hearts of his people.
As ether penetrates space, the Supreme Creator penetrates the heart of the king, and the hearts of all those under his protection.

Although inferior in every way to the Vedic model, the influence of the Sultanate spread across northern India and throughout Bengal. The unfortunate results were evident in the absence of devotional content in paintings and other art, including temple and civic architecture.

Radha Shyam Mandir, Bishnupur, West Bengal

The beauty of Bengal's landscape, dotted with terracotta Vaisnava temples, was disturbed by the appearance of mosques and minarets. Islamic architecture featured domes and pointed arches, some of which were copied from early Bengali structures. But the Sultanate version of them, although architecturally striking, was devoid of bhakti.

The dome initially began as a conical dome under the hand of the Sultanate, and evolved into the onion-shaped dome made famous by the Taj Mahal. The temple architecture of West Bengal was predominantly comprised of brick and mud/adobe or terracotta structures at the time. These shrines often featured a roof with softly curved eaves, a style derived from Bengali huts (bangala), called at-chala. This style was mimicked first by the Turks, and later by the Mughals.

The Taj Mahal

Moving away from these simple, utilitarian and beautiful adobe structures, the Turks encouraged the use of concrete, and trained the local Bengali craftsmen up in Turkish and Persian styles of construction. Although devoid of transcendental imagery featuring the deities, the Turks at least incorporated some of the Hindu motifs, like swans and lotuses.

For their part, the Bengali builders and artisans took the best of the artistic influences from the Turks, and these styles and practices continued to be employed long after the arrival of the Mughals, when they re-emerged in a new form, assimilated once again with traditional Vedic iconography.


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