Technology, History, and Place

Tag: memory (Page 6 of 6)

Forgetting the Mutiny

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Red Line of the Delhi Metro runs on an elevated trackway north of Shahjahanabad, or Old Delhi. Two stops west of Kashmere Gate, at Pul Banshgah, the view from the station platform takes in a forested hill that rises above the city. Close to the top of the hill, a Gothic spire rises incongruously out of the trees. From the metro station, it is just possible to make out a cross at the top of the spire. It looks like a steeple that has been separated from its church.

The structure is actually a purpose-built memorial. It was built by the British to commemorate the greatest armed revolt against their rule in India, the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857-58.

In 1857, the British-owned East India Company (EIC) ruled India as company property, in cooperation with local kings. Although the EIC had a trade monopoly granted to it by the British Crown, the company’s leaders were not under the authority of anyone but themselves. The EIC functioned as India’s government, because it had the authority to levy taxes, develop infrastructure, and raise an army. The company army consisted mainly of native troops known as sepoys (from the Hindustani word sipahi, soldier) serving under British officers.

The Sepoy Mutiny broke out after the EIC army introduced new gun cartridges that were more efficient to use because the soldiers tore them open with their teeth, leaving one hand free for holding their guns. A rumor circulated among the troops that the cartridges were greased with cow and pig fat, thus making them ritually unclean for both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. When the EIC officers refused to recall the new cartridges, sepoys across north India revolted. Rallying behind Bahadur Shah, the Mughal Emperor in Delhi, the sepoys managed to gain the upper hand temporarily. Ultimately, though, the EIC, with the help of local kings who had remained loyal, managed to defeat the rebellious sepoys. Bahadur Shah was deposed and sent to Burma to spend the rest of his life in exile. Since the EIC had done a poor job managing India, the British Crown stepped in to rule India directly. This was the beginning of the British Raj, which lasted until Indian independence in 1947.

The Sepoy Mutiny was a bloody conflict, and both sides committed atrocities. The Mutiny Memorial commemorates the British soldiers and loyal native troops who died defending Delhi against the rebels in 1857. In contemporary Indian memory of the Mutiny, the rebels were the heroes while the British troops were the villains. Indian history textbooks portray the Mutiny as the “First War of Indian Independence,” with the implication that Gandhi’s movement against British rule was the second. This portrayal is based on a selective reading of historical evidence, since large portions of India remained loyal to the EIC throughout the Mutiny.

Modern India has an ambivalent relationship with its memory of the colonial past. On the one hand, Indians are still proud that the British are gone and they are their own masters. But it has proven difficult to forget that during the colonial period, most Indians collaborated with the British most of the time. In some instances, statues of British monarchs and other embarrassing reminders of colonial rule have been moved to museums or sold to other Commonwealth countries such as Canada. Other colonial relics, like the colossal architecture of New Delhi, are too big to move, and therefore these relics have been adopted as symbols of independent India’s government.

The Mutiny Memorial in Delhi falls somewhere in between these extremes. In most cases, Indians after independence have not cared to tear down colonial monuments out of spite. This benign neglect has saved the Mutiny Memorial from destruction, and as of 2015 the monument still rises above the modern city of Delhi. But just because it still stands does not mean it is accessible or interpreted. When I visited in February of this year, it took me a while to locate the monument in the ridge park, as there were no signs pointing to it. When I reached it, I was disappointed (albeit not really surprised) to find that the gate at the base of the monument was locked and thorn-forest had grown up around it. Although it would be too extreme a measure to actually tear down the Mutiny Memorial, the British casualties on the side of the conflict have no meaning for modern Indians, so why bother making the monument accessible?

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

The Mutiny Memorial, North Ridge, Delhi.

Reconstructing (and deconstructing) the temple

While studying up on the Knights Templar for a recent class presentation, I came across a book called The Jerusalem Temple, by Simon Goldhill.1 This interesting little book (small format, less than 200 pages) tracks the idea of the Temple from it construction through its destruction and continued reimagining by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. The book explains how the idea of the Temple has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout the ages by people of different faiths.

Some background is in order here. The term “Jerusalem temple” refers to three different buildings that were constructed atop a hill known as Mount Zion. The first temple was built around 1000 BC by Solomon, the third king of Israel. The Babylonian army under Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple in 587 BC, when they carried the Jews off into their first exile. Following the overthrow of the Babylonian Empire by the Persians in 539 BC, some Jews returned to Jerusalem and built a lower-budget second temple. This rebuilt temple stood until 19 BC, when Herod the Great replaced it with a much larger and more opulent structure. In addition to an enlarged central sanctuary, Herod’s building project involved the expansion of a natural hill into a massive elevated platform, the Temple Mount.

The sanctuary of Herod’s Temple did not even last a century; the Roman army destroyed it during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70. The Temple Mount survived, in part. Later it served as the foundation for two Islamic structures, both built in the seventh century: the Dome of the Rock, in the center of the Mount, and al-Aqsa Mosque, on its southern edge. These two structures continue to stand on the Temple Mount to this day.

A particularly interesting part of Goldhill’s book is his discussion of reconstructions of the Temple. For reasons ranging from fervent piety to detached scholarly interest, countless individuals over the ages have attempted to reconstruct Solomon’s or Herod’s Temples. (Although it stood longer than any of the other temples, the lower-budget second temple has not captured the imagination of reconstructors in the same way as its predecessor and successor have.) Reconstructions made by Christians in the Middle Ages showed temples built in Gothic style. During the Renaissance, reconstructed Temples looked like Italian palaces. Although literary descriptions of the temples describe them as rectangular buildings, some artists used the round shape of the extant Dome of the Rock to represent the Temple. It was only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that reconstructors started to pay attention to archeological evidence in the interest of making their reconstructions more authentic.

Goldhill’s descriptions of reconstructions interested me, in part, because I am one of the countless people throughout the ages who has attempted to reconstruct the Jerusalem Temple. In 2003, when I was in high school, I set to work reconstructing both Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples. My model of Solomon’s Temple was a simple affair of polystyrene foam based on the descriptions in I Kings. By contrast, my model of Herod’s Temple was much more ambitious. I drew up the plans for it based on the description found in Flavius Josephus’s The Jewish War (only one of several sources I could have used). Over the next four years, off and on, I worked on my model, until I finally finished it in 2007.

My model of Herod’s Temple, built in 1/250 scale.

My model of Herod’s Temple, built in 1/250 scale.

I also made a few different digital models of Herod’s Temple. One of them included the entire Temple Mount, placed on the terrain of Google Earth:

One of my digital Herod’s Temples, placed in Google Earth. The view is from the southeast.

One of my digital Herod’s Temples, placed in Google Earth. The view is from the southeast.

Reading Goldhill’s book has made me want to make another reconstruction of Herod’s Temple, based on literary sources besides Josephus, as well as all of the latest archeological scholarship. I probably won’t be able to do that when I’m still in grad school, though.

Goldhill argues that all reconstructions belong to their times, and they tell us as much about the time they belong to as they do of the period they attempt to represent. This is obvious in the case of the medieval and Renaissance reconstructions that used the currently fashionable architectural styles to represent buildings that were supposed to have been built thousands of years ago. But it is also the case with the more recent reconstructions—including my own. They tell us that they belong to a time that values rational analysis and trusts the work of scholars such as archeologists. They also tell us that interest in the Jerusalem temples still has not faded, more than 1900 years after the last one was destroyed.

  1. Simon Goldhill, The Temple of Jerusalem (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). []

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