Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

June 15, 2023

First published June 14, 2023

 in The Hindu

The Story of Stolen Gods

In the 19th century, to motivate Indian soldiers to fight in Afghanistan, the British concocted a story. They said the purpose of war with Afghanistan was to recover from Ghazni the sandalwood doors of Somnath temple stolen a 1,000 years ago, in the 11th century, by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. Doors were found at the sultan’s tomb, but they turned out to be fake.

In the same century that Mahmud of Ghazni was raiding the temple of Somnath located on the Gujarat coast, Rajendra Chola marched up the eastern coast of India conquering Andhra, Odisha and Bengal. He brought back images of Shiva from Bengal. This bronze image of dancing Shiva in the Pala style is housed at Amirthakadeshwara temple, in South Arcot, Tamil Nadu. He also took images of Bhairava, Bhairavi and Kali from Odisha according to scholars. He brought the image of a doorkeeper from Kalyani, the capital of the Chalukyas, to his own capital of Gangaikonda Cholapuram. This image is now found in the Rajendra museum in Thanjavur.

Four centuries before the Cholas, in the 7th century, the Pallava general ransacked the Chalukyan city of Vatapi and brought back an image of Ganesha that was housed at the Uthrapathisvaraswami temple in Tamil Nadu. The general, Paranjothi, renounced violence after the event and became a Nayanmar saint, devoted to Shiva. Nearly a 1,000 years later, this deity inspired Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835) to compose the very popular ‘Vatapi Ganapatim bhajeham’.

In the medieval times, Indian kings declared their victory by bringing back home images of gods that were worshipped in the land they conquered. These gods became minor deities in the victor’s temple, living in the shadow of the victor’s patron deity, just as the defeated king lived in the shadow of the victor. It was not just restricted to Hindus. The Sri Lankan epic Culavamsa narrates that the Pandya kings of Tamil Nadu in the 9th century claimed the golden Buddha of Anuradhapura, which was recovered later by the Sinhalese king Sena II.

From Kanchi to Kalinga
In Puri, Odisha, in the temple complex of Jagannath, there is a small temple enshrining Kanchi Ganapati that the king Purushottam Dev is supposed to have brought from the South, following his legendary confrontation with the king of Kanchi in the 16th century. Kanchi at that time was part of the Vijayanagar Empire that was led by the Suluva dynasty. This is part of temple lore and royal epics such as Kanchi Abhijan.

As per these ballads, sponsored by the Gajapati kings, the king of Kanchi had offered his daughter Padmavati’s hand in marriage to Purushottam Dev but then changed his mind when his courtiers informed him that the Gajapati king was a sweeper, and had been seen in public using the broom. Incensed by this rejection, Purushottam Dev marched to Kanchi. We are told that he received support from Jagannath himself on this expedition. A milkmaid informed the king that two youths had ridden ahead of his army, a dark youth on a white horse and fair one on a black horse. The king knew that they were Jagannath and his brother Balabhadra. During the war, Ganesha fought on the side of the Kanchi army. So Jagannath’s horse took the form of a cat and frightened Ganesha’s rat. As Ganesha tumbled down he was captured and brought back to Puri. To humiliate the king of Kanchi even more, Purushottam Dev declared that he would find a sweeper and get him married to the princess Padmavati. The king of Kanchi was horrified by the suggestion until he realised that that sweeper was none other than Purushottam Dev himself. For, as part of the Ratha Yatra rituals, the king of Kalinga sweeps the chariot of Jagannath in all humility. This ritual continues even today.

Prosperity or misfortune
In ancient India, it was believed that every kingdom, or king, had a god. The power of the god brought prosperity to the king and the kingdom. As per Varahamihira’s Brihatsamhita, composed in the 6th century, if these images are damaged, the priests have to perform purification rites, else the king and the kingdom would suffer misfortune. In the 10th century, Navasahasankacharita, the founder of the Paramara dynasty, got his authority to rule only after he acquired a Shivalinga from Naga-loka that was once worshipped by Vishnu.

This explains stories about how Ganesha stopped Ravana at Gokarna and prevented him from taking Shiva’s atma-linga to the kingdom of Lanka. A similar story is told of Ganesha stopping Vibhishana at Srirangam and preventing him from taking the image of Ranganathaswamy to Lanka. This belief existed in ancient Greece too. During the Trojan war, the Greek hero Odysseus stole the image of Palladium Athena from Troy and thus enabled the city’s eventual demise. If politics and war is seen as a sport, then the deity of a kingdom was the trophy, or mascot, that rival teams fought over.

Perhaps it is the memory of this practice that makes Indians want the Kohinoor back from the British crown. The sight of national images and treasures in foreign museums is a bitter reminder of ancient plunder. Recovery of ancient artefacts then becomes not simply about justice and national pride, but also about recovering the lost spirit of the land.

So should Kanchi Ganapati return to Kanchi, and Vatapi Ganapati be returned to Karnataka, and the dancing Shiva be returned to Bengal? Depending on memory, and where we draw the borders, gods are either in foreign lands, or at home.

Recent Books

Recent Posts