You can mend a broken Temple, but not a broken heart


An Indian Epic in three parts to match the Indian holy trinity. It begins by asking why so many UK Indian foods places are called Muhgal ? Well, next time you look in the eye of a pretty punjabi girl you might just catch a reflection, maybe a trick of the light but it could be a …

Shiva – The Destroyer

… tiny image of the Taj Mahal or maybe it was a sumptuously dressed, turbaned man, sitting in a Peacock throne, probably the richest man in the world at that time, who could afford a monument in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, the favourite of his many wives who had died in childbirth having already produced eighteen children, and next to whom he himself would be buried.

He was Shah Jehan and his family had come to power one hundred years earlier; whilst King Henry the eighth  of England was chasing Anne Boleyn through the corridors of Hampton Court Palace, an ambitious Prince of Fergana, in modern day Uzbekistan, launched a raid from his base in Kabul to plunder the rich lands of northern India. In 1527, near a small Punjab (‘five waters’) village he came up against the vast host of India’s ruler, the Sultan of Delhi, forty thousand strong and with one hundred war elephants. The Prince, a descendant of Chingiz Khan (Genghis Khan), through Timur (Tamburlaine), could muster only fifteen thousand against him. But he had an advantage; his men were armed with pikes and arquebuses and had twenty field cannons. A few volleys from these frightened the elephants and sent them stampeding back through the Sultan’s men. By late afternoon it was all over; among the dead lay another Afghan adventurer, Ibrahim Lodhi, the last Sultan of Delhi. The name of the village where this Indian Agincourt was fought was Panipat, and the victorious prince was Babar Padishah (Babur); the first Mughal Emperor of India.

While Elizabeth the first presided over Tudor England, the Mughal domains under Babar’s grandson, Akbar, where spread across the whole of northern India to create an empire that rivalled Ming China in wealth and sophistication; Europe, on the verge of the Thirty Years war, simply had nothing like it. By the time of Akbar, Mughal India was an economic and military superpower, but one that had discovered stability through a tolerance of India’s religious traditions. Although the empire was officially Muslim, the emperor encouraged an open, moderate and Sufist interpretation of Islam and had no difficulty engaging with followers of other religions, even taking Hindu Rajput  princesses as his wives.

Many of his reputed achievements are down to obsequious biographers, but the reality was impressive enough. The stability he brought created not only an economic boom, but a cultural flowering also as the artistic traditions of Islam and Hinduism came together in architecture, portrait painting, calligraphy and Persian verse, Persian being the lingua franca of India before English. He actively engaged in discussions with religious figures; not just Muslims and Hindus, but Christians and Jews also. He even founded his own religious movement, called Din i Ilahi; achievements all the more remarkable for the fact that Akbar was completely illiterate.

By the time Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jehan, built the Taj Mahal, Europe had been through the convulsions of the wars of religion. Its richest country, Germany, had been shattered into so many pieces that it would take three centuries to put them back together again – his English contemporary was Oliver Cromwell. Mughal rule now reached its zenith, extending over most of India from the capital at Agra and is remembered alongside the Abbasid Caliphate as one of the great Islamic civilizations.

Shah Jehan is remembered as the builder of the greatest monument to lost love, yet that was not the end of his sorrow by any means. Whilst Henry Tudor was reduced to furtive assignations with the Boleyn sisters, the Mughal emperors solved the same underlying problem by having a harem. The greatest problem that this created however, was a surplus of male claimants to the throne in the event that the emperor died. The usual outcome of this was to produce a civil war whenever that happened. In Shah Jehan’s case his sons didn’t even wait for him to die, and started fighting among each other anyway. The two rival claimants were the emperor’s favourite Dara, and his younger brother Aurangzeb. Jehan had groomed Dara for power; well educated and urbane, he would have been a modernising force for the empire and is one of the great might have been’s of history. Despite his intellectual gifts however, he was no soldier; and so Aurangzeb, a dour puritanical man, won. He imprisoned Shah Jehan and then had Dara paraded through the streets of Delhi before having him beheaded and the head brought to him; further, according to legend, he had it presented to Shah Jehan on a silver platter at dinner. Jehan died a broken man in 1666, in the same year that a spark in Pudding Lane, London lit a conflagration that grew to engulf the entire city and burned for 3 days. By the time it had finished, medieval and Roman London had been obliterated and had to be rebuilt from scratch.

Aurangzeb, last of the great Mughals, rolled back the tide of moderate Sufism and imposed a stricter interpretation of Islam, even reintroducing the jizyah (tax on non Muslims). He succeed in securing stability, but at the cost of spending most of his remaining life campaigning with the army in the Deccan. Aurangzeb’s peace brought stagnation for the empire, at time when Europe, newly equipped with Protestantism and printing presses, was undergoing an intellectual renaissance. You see, Aurungzeb’s contemporaries were Gottfried Leibnitz, René Descartes and Isaac Newton.

Vishnu – The Preserver

Isaac Newton was more than just a mathematician, he should more accurately be described as a scientific mystic. His writings cover not just physics, but Christian mysticism and Alchemy; the latter being not just an early form of chemistry, but a whole philosophy and belief system. ‘Solve et coagula’ are the two alchemical processes in nature, Dissolve and Coagulate, given mathematical expression as Differentiate and Integrate. In later life, the nation’s greatest brain was put in charge of the nation’s most important asset; he was made head of the Royal Mint. There was a great deal of money around, due to burgeoning trade with India and America, thanks to the effects of a document signed by Elizabeth Tudor, during the reign of Akbar. This allowed the incorporation of a company to conduct trade with the Indies and China. Its first representatives arriving at the court of Akbar failed to make any impression at all on the records of the time; little did the great Mughal know, but those oddly dressed, uncouth ferengi (foreigners) would one day be his dynasty’s nemesis. They were the world’s first global corporation, the British East India Company.

From its early beginnings in the reign of Akbar’s son Jehangir, the Company extended its operations from its first factory (as trading posts were then called) on the Coromandel coast. As the Empire crumbled under the succession of weak emperors that followed Aurangzeb, the Company’s holdings expanded; they established local monopolies and fought off rivals, either Indian or other Europeans – their imperial strategy wasn’t Roman, it was Phoenician. Before long, the Company had become a force within the politics of the Mughal state, and a wealthy one at that. By 1757, they were vying for control of a Mughal province, Bengal. At Palashi (Plassey), a small Company force of one thousand squaddies and two thousand sepoys (from sephai, Persian for soldier) faced the fifty thousand men of the army of the Nawab of Bengal across the flooded Hoogly river. They were led by Robert Clive, a man who had, like many Company men, been shipped out to India as a teenager and had lived most of their adult lives there. Prior to this he had been a notorious juvenile delinquent who had been expelled from three schools and accused of running a protection racket in his home town of Market Drayton, in Shropshire. Thus ideally educated for a career in Mughal politics, Clive achieved victory by launching a surprise attack across the flooded river with his tiny army, whilst at that same moment half the enemy army deserted, the result of an enormous bribe that he just paid to the Nawab’s main ally, Mir Jafar. Not for nothing did Nehru say that Palashi ‘left an unpleasant taste in the mouth’, but alas such were the noble and gentlemanly antecedents of Company rule in the sub continent.

With control of Bengal, they obtained a firman (imperial decree) giving them the right to collect taxes, and their rise became unstoppable. From the presidency towns of Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai) they grew to become the single most powerful force in Indian politics. Their defeat of the Hindu power of the Maratha Confederacy removed their last significant military opponent and they were left in control of the country; in effect, the old Mughal empire, but run by a Governor General and a board of directors  after what was, in effect, a board room takeover; creating a  global company with shareholders in London and a vast Indian workforce. In fact, this corporation had not just become the most powerful  force on the sub continent – with the vast resources of the former Mughal state at its disposal, Company India by the 19th century was the most powerful entity in eastern hemisphere. A company that not only ran a government, it had its own army, its own navy and even its own flag (the stars and stripes, with the stars replaced by the union flag). It had done so by working within the Indian system and in so doing had become Indian. This was a time when Company officials, many married to Indians, would attend Hindu temples and give offerings for the success of a venture. It was the time of the White Mughals; men like James Kirkpatrick, the Company agent to the Nizam of Hyderabad who played a deadly game of cat and mouse with his French Jacobin opponents during the Napoleonic wars and conducted a tragic love affair with a teenaged Muslim noblewoman, Khair ul Nissa, for whom he converted to Shia Islam; or John Nicholson, a colonel in the Company army in the 1850’s, whose story is the strangest of all.

When, in 1857 at Barrackpore, Mangal Pandey was ordered to bite into a cartridge that he considered unclean, a whirlwind was unleashed that led ultimately to the Company’s demise. The conflict came about because the Company forgot its own golden rule – always respect Indian religion; it was known as ‘the Great Mutiny’ to the British and the ‘First Independence war’ to the Indians . A bitter and viscously fought conflict, in which both sides gratuitously killed civilians,  it ended when Nicholson led a Company army of four thousand Scottish highlanders, Sikhs and Ghurkhas against twenty thousand rebels holed up in the fortress of Delhi. Although at first purely a mutiny among Hindu troops, the rebellion had quickly spread to other religious groups; if I tell you that a reading of the contemporary accounts soon turns up words like “mujahideen” and “jihad”  then you get a fair idea of what it developed into.

Nicholson is perhaps unique among Britons in having personally inspired a religious cult. The Company policy of employing high caste Hindus as sepoys produced not only Mangal Pandey, but also a group of soldiers in Nicholson’s unit who had decided, after due deliberation, that the commander was an incarnation of Vishnu, and founded a cult called Nikal Seyn based on it.  Nicholson, the man, was a charismatic and authoritarian Dubliner with lush, swept back dark hair and a long thick beard that reached down to his chest, feared for his ferocious temper; and who considered this sort of behaviour as pagan idolatry. Apparently, he tolerated them if they kept it private, but when they started chanting and ringing bells on parade he lost his rag and had them whipped and thrown in the stockade. This didn’t put them off however, and for a while the cult flourished among his men. I’d love to be able to tell you that Nicholson repaid this touching devotion, but it wouldn’t be true. The truth was that he didn’t like India very much; its climate was unspeakably hot, the food unbearably spicy and the locals apparently divided into those who wanted to kill him and those wanted to dedicate cults to him. Nicholson was a brave man though; he died in the final assault and was known in Victorian Britain as the Hero of Delhi.

Inside the city, the rebels had proclaimed the elderly Bahadur Shah Zafar, last of the Mughals, as emperor and rallied round him. Bahadur, then a frail old man in his eighties, was a prisoner in his own palace, so completely stripped of power that he was little more than a puppet of the Company Resident (Ambassador). He devoted his few remaining days to composing some of the finest Persian verse of Mughal era, whilst making feeble attempts to prevent the mass adultery of his harem with the palace guards.

With its military victory secure, the Company staged a show trail in which Bahadur was accused of leading the rebellion and arraigned for treason; a ludicrous charge, since he had tried everything to dissuade the rebels from proclaiming him their leader and had wanted nothing to do with them; quite apart from which the Company was technically the vassal of the Mughal emperor and if anyone were guilty of treason, it was them. But such legal niceties were considered unnecessary, and Bahadur was duly convicted and sent into exile in Burma, where he died shortly after. Thus did the Mughals arrive on a stallion carrying a matchlock musket and depart in a palanquin, clutching a book of verse.

As it turned out however, the Company fared little better. Despite its victory, such was the shock in Britain at the death and mayhem that the war had unleashed that demands for reform resulted in the liquidation of the Company and the imposition of direct rule from London; thus did that unique experiment in the blending of two cultures, Company India,  become that magnificent, but oh-so arrogant, symbol of Empire, the Raj.

As for Nicholson, his grave can still be found; close to Delhi’s Kashmiri Gate, which he died trying to capture. He is referenced in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, when Kim meets an elderly Sepoy, a veteran of the mutiny, who sings the song of Nikal Seyn as they walk the great trunk road from Umballa to Delhi. Perhaps he was a Pandie (rebel), or maybe he was a Company man who had served under Nicholson, and still bore the mark of the punishment he received.

But what of the cult members, what was it that had led them to believe that Nicholson was an incarnation of Vishnu ? I recommend the following – first strip to a loincloth then get tied to a wooden post in the blazing Indian sun. To your left the Colonel is standing stony faced next to a blonde drummer boy in a red tunic who beats a tattoo. Behind you a gigantic Scottish sergeant says “can you embrace this pillar if your Vishnu is in it also ?” who then sends a river of pain down your back with a leather whip.

In those circumstances, Im advised that the Colonel’s head turned to that of a lion and razor sharp claws extended from this fingers as he holds up the broken body of the tyrant demon king Hiranyakashipu; for he is the avatar Narashima, the fourth incarnation of Vishnu.

Brahma – The Creator

In England, in 1469, the armies of the Red and the White roses, that would later join to form the Tudor rose, fought each other at Edgecott Moor near Banbury in Oxfordshire.  In Punjab however, that year saw the birth of a son to Mata Tripta, whose husband Mehta Kalu was an crop accountant for a Muslim landlord in a town forty miles west of Lahore called Rai Bhoi di Talalwandi (Nankana Sahib in modern Pakistan); both were Hindus of the Vedic Kshatri caste. From an early age the boy had a precocious talent, showing an interest in divine matters at the age of five and at the age of seven, amazing his teacher by likening the single penstroke that is the first letter of the Persian alphabet to the unity and singularity of God. He studied Arabic and Persian at  Madrassa, and mastered the latter so quickly that he again surprised his teachers by composing an acrostic in Persian at the age of ten.

After marriage the young man settled into domestic life, working by day, and by evening meditating and composing hymns with his musician friend Mardana, a Muslim, which they performed to the townsfolk. One day, at the age of twenty seven he went down to the river Bain to bathe and was not seen again for three days. When he finally emerged he had undergone a spiritual revelation, and was at first unable to speak; when he finally did it was to declare “na koi hindu na koi musalman” (there is no Hindu, there is no Muslim). From this moment began his missionary work as a Guru, to spread the message of his divine revelation by preaching and the singing of hymns. He travelled widely throughout India and the Middle East, preaching and singing, accompanied by Mardana. In Benares (Varanasi), he watched Hindus, bathing in the sacred Ganges, throw water at the moon “If your water can reach the Moon, can it reach my farm also, which is only a few miles away ?” he asked them; In Mecca, he was upbraided by an Imam for sleeping with his feet pointing to the Kaaba “then can you point my feet to the direction where there is no God ?” was his reply. He preached of a single God, and of a realisation of God that came from the singing of his virtues and the leading of a good and just life. The three pillars of his faith where Naam Japna (meditation on God by singing and chanting), Kirat Karni (moral rectitude and the earning of an honest living) and Vand Chakna (share and consume together). As he travelled and preached, his following grew, drawing members from all sections of Punjab society, but most frequently from among the Jat peasantry; a vegetarian, pacifistic community who not only opposed sati (widow burning), but actually allowed women to join;  all castes and all religions came together to “See the brotherhood of all mankind as the highest order of Yogis; conquer your own mind, and conquer the world.”. This revolutionary new faith managed to combine the humanity and compassion of Buddha and Mahavira, with the ecstatic spirituality of Bhakti Hinduism and the casteless, monotheistic, community of Islam.

In 1527, now an old man, he was in the Punjabi city of Saidpur (Eminabad in present day Pakistan), when it was attacked and looted by Babar Padishah’s troops. He was captured and imprisoned, and while there he sang to his fellow prisoners; as with many of the Guru’s songs he sang not only of the virtues of God, but also of what he saw around him; and what he saw around him there was the invasion; his song was a divine hymn about the slaughter of innocents by the Mughals. A man passing the dungeon heard the beauty of his singing and had the singer brought before him. The man was Babar Padishah himself and, impressed by the Guru’s bravery and dignity, as well as the beauty of his singing, asked his forgiveness and offered him a traditional Afghan remedy for a troubled soul – a large lump of hashish. This was politely declined, with the words that he was “…already intoxicated with the love and name of God”. Twelve years later, in 1539, when he passed from this world, the community he founded was a growing force for religious and political change within Punjab, at a time when it was entering one of the most turbulent phases in its long history. His name was Guru Nanak Dev and his European contemporary was Martin Luther; the community he founded took its name from the Punjabi word for disciple – Sikh.

The early Mughal emperors enjoyed good relations with the small Sikh community, but as it grew and became more prominent it was drawn into the murky, back-stabbing world of Mughal politics. Of the nine gurus who succeeded Guru Nanak, two were brutally murdered by the Emperors; the fifth Guru Arjan Dev was put to death in 1606 on the orders of Emperor Jehangir on the apparent grounds that he either favoured Khurasu in the pre-succession war or that he had refused, or been unable, to pay a sizable ransom – or most likely, both. Similarly, the ninth, Guru Tegh Bahadur was executed by Aurangzeb in 1665 for his alleged support of Dara.

As Mughal power faded in the years after Aurangzeb, the Punjab again became vulnerable to attack from Afghanistan. During the years of the late Mughal empire, Punjab was first invaded by Nadir Shah of Persia in 1738, on his way to Delhi where his troops slaughtered 30,000 inhabitants in a single day and carried off the Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-Noor diamond; the Koh-i-Noor is now in the British Crown Jewels, whilst the original Peacock Throne was stolen and probably broken up, during the civil war that followed Nadir’s assassination in 1747; the Peacock Thrones that subsequent Persian Shahs used were copies of it. The death of Nadir Shah came just a year after the Battle of Culloden in Britain – many a dispossessed Jacobite took ship to India – and in the same year as series of raids were launched from Afghanistan by Ahmad Shah Abdali.

Abdali had been a cavalry commander in Nadir Shah’s army during the 1738 invasion, leading a body of 4,000 elite Pashtun horsemen. After Nadir’s death, he returned to Kandahar to build a power base and launched his first attack into India. In 1749 he forced the Mughals to give him Punjab which added to his holdings in Afghanistan became the short – lived Durrani Empire, run from his base in Kabul. In the following years there would be eight further invasions from Kabul as Abdali fought against first the Mughals, then the Marathas and, towards the end, the Sikhs.

In 1756, the year before Palashi, the fourth Afghan invasion was underway – by now an almost yearly occurrence; and Abdali’s forces ravaged the Punjab and then pushed on to Delhi. After the city had fallen, his army set out on an orgy of looting that lasted an entire month and was only halted by the onset of a heatwave and a cholera epidemic. In the Punjab, as on many other Afghan invasions, the city of Amritsar was plundered and the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) demolished by gunpowder and the lake befouled by throwing animal carcasses into it.

Through most of this period the Sikhs, who made up only about 10% of the population of Punjab, which was 75% Muslim, remained neutral, waiting to see which side would prevail; but as the mayhem and destruction continued it became clear that pacifism in the face of such terror was untenable. And so it was that the sixth Guru, Hargobind, son of the murdered Arjun, began the establishment of a military tradition and set of martial arts, that would later find expression in such as the Akali Nihang (“crocodile”) Military Order, famous for its feats against more numerous foes.

Abdali succeeded in consolidating his empire in the Punjab, fighting off first the Mughals, and then later his neighbours to the south, the Maratha Confederacy. Both sides were wary of the growing power of the Company, expanding from Bengal and tended to avoid conflict with it by not expanding too far into the interior of India. This led to a series of military standoff’s between the Durrani and the Marathas in the following years. Abdali would defeat the Marathas eight times, but his greatest victory over them was at the epic third battle of Panipat in 1761. Fought over a front of twelve kilometres it had 170,000 combatants,  divided between 100,000 mostly Muslim troops of The Durrani, the Nawab of Oudh and the Rohillas who opposed 70,000 mostly Hindu Marathas. Thus it can be said that the largest battle fought anywhere in world in the eighteen century was the standoff between Hindu and Muslim at Third Panipat; the largest battles in Europe at that time were Malpaquet in 1709 (160,000 combatants); or at Leydt in the same year as Abdali’s first invasion, 1747, where 80,000 French fought 60,000 Dutch, Austrian and British.

After Hindu and Muslim had exhausted each other fighting over the Punjab, the Sikh Community began to exert it’s own control of some areas, and succeeding in consolidating them into a single entity that briefly ruled the Punjab. In 1809, Ranjit Singh was crowned Maharajah of the Punjab by Sahib Singh Bedi, a descendant of Guru Nanak Dev; and so began the Sikh Empire where a Sikh aristocracy ruled over a largely Muslim population – although the Empire was known for the unusual practice of allowing persons of other religions to occupy prominent posts. Much of the gold decoration and stonework of the current Harmandir Sahib date from the time of Ranjit Singh’s rule.

Sikh independence was to be short lived however. Between 1777 and 1818, whilst the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing, the Company fought, and won, three wars against what was left of the Marathas, before turning their attention to the Punjab. The first and second Anglo-Sikh wars of 1845 and 1848 destroyed the Empire, which was broken up into a series of Princely States and the Raj provinces of Punjab and Northwest Frontier, one of the last areas of India to fall under Company rule. And there, truly, was the greatest beneficiary of the war between Hindu and Muslim – The British East India Company.

And so if the image of those times that has persisted in our memory is that of a magnificent Sikh warrior in distinctive blue turban and chain mail and bearing a Tegh (a long curved sword) and a Toradar Bandook (a matchlock musket) when it should be that of a heavenly singer who was both a religious and political visionary then it is through no failing of the vision, but rather a failure of humanity in the rest of us not to recognise the beauty of that vision and to let it live in the peaceful and productive spiritual bliss that it had always intended; and so it comes to be then that it was seventh Guru, Har Rai, who said … “you can mend a broken temple, but not a broken heart.”   

Copyright ©2012 Savereo John