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Ruins of the Hindu Rashtra

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In this piece, the author reflects on his recent trip to Hampi, and on what its ruins say about the rise of Hindutva.  

What does the Hindu Rashtra look like?

Every time I return home to India, I’m on the lookout for how it has changed, seeking a different visual repertoire for what seems like a painfully different country. Between those visits, it always feels like every six-month period away has marked a new nadir. But as Modi’s India grows older, so do I—and that fact sometimes makes me wonder if the country was always this way. Perhaps I am the only one that has changed, my eyes more sensitive to visible signs of majoritarian impulses that had in reality long lurked in our midst.

With Bangalore, I am never quite sure. The city has for a while resembled the messy paradox that it is: at once a hippie paradise, a futuristic neoliberal dream whose skyscrapers mask environmental destruction and rising inequality, and, yes, a BJP stronghold. But in its quaint bookshops, vegan restaurants and social movements, Bangalore always has enough to suggest that its elites have some appetite for solidarity.

This winter, with the conditions of the pandemic restricting my movement, I wondered if this visit might pass by without the opportunity to dip my toes into goings-on around me. I have still seen very little of Bangalore outside my neighbourhood, but I nevertheless received my biannual reality check from an unexpected source—a four-day vacation to Hampi.

Hampi is a UNESCO World Heritage site in central Karnataka on the banks of the Tungabhadra river, around 350 kilometers north of Bangalore. Once the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, Hampi is a fascinating historical site, with an array of forts, temples and royal complexes built around a rocky, hilly terrain. The terrain also makes it a wonderful trekking and bouldering destination, labelled by Lonely Planet as “the undisputed bouldering capital of India.”

It’s something of a shame, therefore, that most visitors to Hampi only treat it as a site of pilgrimage. But it is perhaps a bigger travesty that the religiosity that shapes the site’s economy has also come to define its nature as a historical site, transforming it into a public repository of the narratives that undergird the Hindu Rashtra. That is the obvious but inescapable answer to what the Hindu Rashtra looks like—an entity where the macro forces of an ideology have seeped into the banalities of everyday life. In fact, this theme was starkly visible before we could even reach Hampi itself.  

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Visitors to Hampi typically find a hotel in the nearby city of Hosapete, around 10 kilometers away, before driving to what is known as “Hampi Bazaar,” where sightseeing and pilgrimage activities begin. We were no exception, making the drive between Hosapete and Hampi at least twice a day.

For eyes tired of the relentless onslaught of concrete, rural and semi-rural India appears quite idyllic, a calming sea of green that urban dwellers like me fetishize. But the greenery along the road between Hampi and Hosapete found itself overshadowed by a different color: an often-unending stream of neon orange. Not a minute went by without the sight of at least one coterie of saffron-robed men on the road, often with enormous saffron flags in their hands. 

Later in the trip, I learned that a nearby hill, in the town of Anegundi, right across the river from Hampi, was believed to be the birthplace of Lord Hanuman, the Hindu deity. The thousands in saffron were likely devotees of the deity, making a pilgrimage to the top of the hill. But the color had permeated well beyond these devotees. At local eateries, for example, employees wore saffron shirts as uniforms, together with “Jai Shree Ram” embroidered on them. Saffron flags were draped on various buildings, not merely Hindu places of worship, and large clotheslines on the banks of the river seemed to hang robes of only a single color—an almost blinding saffron, its fluorescence jarring to the eye.

The stream of saffron—now a color thoroughly appropriated by Hindutva—that welcomed us to Hosapete would also come to define the way in which the monuments at Hampi were displayed.  A clear separation between the secular and the religious proved to be impossible; moreover, our guided tour of the city was marked by a fluidity between fact and fiction, one where Hindu religious myths were weaved alongside narratives of the “invaders” who left Hampi in ruins. The “invaders,” I soon realized, were integral parts of the story told about Hampi, perhaps even more so than the Hindu religiosity itself. 

The stories we were told of Hampi’s history correspond closely to the Hindu Right’s metanarratives of Indian civilization: a golden, Hindu past; the dark centuries under the tyranny of Muslim “invaders;” and an imagined, resurgent future marked by the re-assertion of Hindu supremacy. In the eyes of our guide, seemingly every blemish and crack could be blamed on the looting of the “invaders.” The ruins of Hampi are what I would like to call capital-R “Ruins,” a particular aesthetic enmeshed in the Hindu Right’s stories of the past, and their plans for the present. “Ruins” are ruins because they have been curated to be so, carefully restored in line with the desire to produce certain forms of knowledge. The Hindu Rashtra requires a great deal of cultural work, since its histories must be constructed. But it is not working from scratch; on the contrary, it has an existing arsenal to build upon. Most of the stories we were told about Hampi predate the Modi government, and indeed the BJP, returning to practices of colonial archeology.

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To be clear, the historical record is unambiguous. In 1565, a coalition of Muslim sultanates defeated the Vijaynagara Empire at the Battle of Talikota, and proceeded to destroy much of the city. Hampi does not appear as it would in its heyday. These are all facts.

But in today’s India, facts like these have been instrumentalized to vicious effect, ripped out of their original contexts and placed as stand-ins for modern debates about religion, representation, and belonging. This allows the stories of our political communities to be framed in terms of “we” and “they,” insiders and invaders, citizens and infiltrators. It is an incredibly dangerous frame of thought to think about the present in—and to fully escape. My parents, for their part, tried to point out to our guide that the Vijayanagara Empire had Muslim generals, and that the ruins of Hampi included mosques and shrines that had been conveniently erased from our itinerary. 

Perhaps the tropes of the “good Muslim” are preferable to a country where it is fast becoming increasingly difficult to be any type of Muslim at all. But I remained torn throughout the visit due to a deeper, nagging truth: that as long as the “Hindu” civilizations of the past are taken as proxies for the political communities of the present, we will be left making apologies for bigots. We can point out, as my parents did, that the sacking of ancient capitals carried a political and economic logic largely divorced from religion. We can even point out examples where “Hindu” kings pillaged capitals of Hindu, Muslim (or, in a previous millennium, Buddhist) rulers. But our responses to Hindutva continue to be constrained by a discursive frame where “we” is taken to be implicitly Hindu, where identities are read to be rigid, undifferentiated, and anachronistic, and where minorities are continuously asked to prove their loyalty.

In this context, the Ruins of Hampi offer a fascinating and frightening example of the power of premodern history—and of its modernity. By this, I mean that the truly politically relevant history is not an empirical narrative (if it exists) of some series of events in the 15th century, but the history of how this history was written—in other words, its historiography. Perhaps the only route that remains to contest the past—and, by extension, the future—is to be self-reflexive about it.

As magnificent as Hampi’s monuments might be, a glance into the history of its curation as a historical monument reveals a rather arbitrary process. This is largely true of India as a whole; after all, what is said of Hampi can be said for hundreds of other cities in the subcontinent, some larger and more famous than Hampi today, others still decrepit without archeological restoration.

One does not have to look very far for an example. The town of Anegundi, barely 5 km away across the river, houses ruins that predate Hampi by multiple centuries. But Anegundi contains ruins, not Ruins, and remains largely forgotten by archeologists and the state’s tourism industry. In fact, the irony is revealing—Anegundi today houses a community that once used to inhabit the site of Hampi itself, and that was displaced when the excavation of Hampi began in the late 1980s. Its inhabitants rue both their eviction from their homes and their exclusion from the tourism industry that has emerged over the past couple of decades. After all, the political economy of the Ruins of Hampi only allows for locals to exist in specific ways: as labor that facilitates tourism and pilgrimage, but hardly as inhabitants of a site whose claim to fame is its own emptiness.

The contrasting fortunes of Hampi and Anegundi make clear that archeological categories are neither natural nor timeless. Not only are these locations seldom uninhabited ruins, but this arbitrariness means that there is also a huge degree of agency exercised in deciding how sites are curated. In the case of Hampi, as is true for much of Indian archeology, these decisions were first made by colonial archeologists steeped in the theories of Orientalism.

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Arguably the most interesting building in Hampi is not any of its physical monuments, but a tiny museum that lies collecting dust near a parking lot. The museum has a range of photos that chronicle the development of Hampi as a historical site, offering a revealing insight into its curation, and the ways in which this process continues to be deeply enmeshed in the logics of colonial knowledge.

The photos in the museum span three dates: 1856, when Alexander Greenlaw, a British colonel and amateur photographer, took photographs of the ruins; 1983, when the photographer John Gollins attempted to take the same photographs with the same angles and light conditions; and in 2004, when the ASI took another set of photographs in the same style. In all cases, as in the photo below, contemporary photographers arranged to take the photograph in the exact same aesthetic as their predecessor, down to having men pose in the same fashion as the figures in the 1856 photograph.

Whatever the reasons for the photographic mimesis, the outcome is rather clear. Art historians classify the sort of photos on display at the museum under the genre of the “picturesque,” an aesthetic ideal popularized in England and linked closely to the ways in which the Orient was imagined and represented. The genre of the “picturesque” was closely linked to Orientalist discourses that framed the colony as a site of a civilization in decay, and in need of rescuing. Its key features—clearly visible in these photos and their modern counterparts—typically involved the use of subtle pastel colors, a single native or a piece of foliage as a mark of scale, and detailed representations of buildings without the people that often inhabited them. Together, these helped create the impression of emptiness, of the image of an “empty land” in decline and ready for colonization by the white man, who was necessary to revive this civilization.

Hampi first gained attention in the late 19th century, soon after Greenlaw’s photos were taken. British archeologists working for the newly established Archeological Survey of India took an interest in the site. In 1885, Alexander Rea, an officer for the ASI, published his survey of the site. Fifteen years later, Robert Sewell published the book A Forgotten Empire in 1900, bringing Hampi to the widespread attention of scholars. Rea and his successor, A. H. Longhurst, embarked on the first attempt to clear and repair the monuments at Hampi. But as the photographs themselves show, Hampi’s descent into ruins was hardly the product of a single act after 1565; in fact, between 1856 and the 1980s, when the ASI took a renewed interest in the site, Hampi appears to have fallen further into disrepair.

Throughout this process, the distinct frame in which Hampi was imagined—and that is epitomized by the gaze of the picturesque in which its photographs were taken—lingered. Hampi, like many other ancient monuments, had to be imagined as ruins, and certainly not as active sites of inhabitation with their own living presents.

These frames of seeing and curating continue to shape how Hampi is viewed today—as is epitomized by the ways in which photographs of Hampi continue to be taken in the same style. Nearly every site in Hampi has seen a curatorial touch, but restoration has always taken a specific form, never going so far as to challenge the integrity of the site as a Ruin. The only exceptions, tellingly, are the temples within the ruins themselves, whose value as “complete” structures bring an influx of money that outweighs the value of a ruin. 

For both British colonialists and Hindutva ideologues, the Ruin has carried deep political value—first, as an instrument of the colonial project, and today, as a physical embodiment of the metanarrative of the Hindu Rashtra. They might live in different moments and serve different political purposes, but that the two overlap so deeply is revealing of the ways in which the Hindu Right’s version of history carries a distinctly Orientalist tinge. After all, the periodization of Indian history into distinct Hindu, Muslim and colonial eras was a distinct feature of Orientalist histories. Our rulers today have only found new uses of these narratives, and more aggressive ways of distorting, disseminating and politicizing them.

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The rewriting of history is central to the Hindutva project, as it is to all (violent) nationalisms. But the political value of the past for the Hindu Right has its own peculiarities: by emphasizing narratives of the past, its ideologues are able to bypass the present. This allows its supporters to ignore material realities that might hint at a far less utopian future, like India’s stuttering economy, but also to retain an amnesia towards the inherent incompleteness of the Hindu Rashtra. India’s wide diversity—and, in particular, its 175-million-strong Muslim population—means that the ethnically pure nation imagined by the likes of Savarkar will never be fully attainable.

Some liberals, like Aakar Patel, have interpreted this as a fundamental weakness of Hindutva. They say that a Hindu Rashtra will never exist, and point to its various contradictions. But this has hardly been a source of much consolation recently. With the spate of discriminatory laws passed since 2019, India is on the path to becoming an apartheid state, institutionalizing and deepening religious and caste-based hierarchies that have been baked into its founding. And as the visuals of Hampi attest, the Hindu Rashtra is quite firmly baked into our public visual culture. 

More importantly, the stories and visuals of Hampi likely predate the Modi regime itself. The narratives offered by our guide were likely decades old; the only difference, I reminded myself, was that I had now been socialized into a vocabulary that allowed me to make sense of what I saw. To see or not to see the Hindu Rashtra—whether as dissident or supporter—is also a choice.

Hampi, therefore, also speaks to a deeper truth: that, as a range of academics would tell us, nation-states, particularly those as messy as India, are never settled. As essentially mental constructs that need to be reinforced in the minds of their citizens, nation-states, including a Hindu Rashtra, are always mired in a process of becoming. They are constantly made and unmade by micro-level acts, from maps that assert their coherence to migrants who expose the myth of their borders. The process of state formation—in our case, a process that is congruent with Partition—is inevitably violent, and inevitably ongoing. (The process is also certainly not teleological, and the Hindu Rashtra is neither inevitable nor permanent.)

Public monuments, in many ways, mirror this process. Five centuries ago, the monuments at Hampi did enormous political work as symbols of power—so much so that the Vijayanagara Empire’s political enemies saw it fit to raze the city to the ground. But in its future reincarnations, successive powers have found it strategic to curate Hampi as a Ruin, for various reasons. Today, in the Hindu Rashtra, the Ruins of Hampi tell their own story, curated rather than timeless, but not entirely original. At Hampi, the theoretically secular technology of a public monument fuses with religious myth, and sightseeing and pilgrimage become indistinguishable. Our fellow tourists—whether clad in saffron or not—offered a repeated reminder of this fact.

The Hindu Rashtra will never exist as the pure political idea it was imagined as. This is a relief, but also has the makings of a tragedy. The incompleteness of the Hindutva project is also its lifeblood, offering a permanent minority at which the violence of the state can be directed. Similarly, the Ruins of Hampi, also by design incomplete, offers an inexhaustible resource, perennially pregnant with political material.

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