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Temples in Early Medieval India

Temples in Early Medieval India

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Published by Ramita Udayashankar
Temples during early medieval India in northern and southern India
Temples during early medieval India in northern and southern India

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Published by: Ramita Udayashankar on Nov 29, 2013
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Temples had a central place in the predominantly agrarian economy of medieval India, especially in south India. The Tamil country of South India experienced a flowering of political, economic, and cultural forces during the Chola period (849-1279). The environments supporting this expansion were nucleated settlements focused on temples, surrounded by verdant paddy fields with artificial irrigation networks. Temples began to enjoy a growing sense of power in the Pallava period, and came to occupy a place of seminal importance in the tenure of the Cholas. The Chola temple was the cultural and social centre, where art and literature flourished. Evidence for this can be gathered from the number of land grants made to temples during this period. Great royal temples emerged during this period which symbolised the power of the ruling kingdom. The temples enjoyed royal support as well as had unrestricted access to agricultural produce and came to wield tremendous power and influence in matters of everyday life. Temples came to acquire iconic status in terms of offering employment to countless people in terms of encouraging a culture of usury – temples would make a lot of money by charging huge rates of interests on money loaned out to village assemblies, cultivators, traders, and artisans in return for various articles of use given in lieu of interest ranging anywhere between 12.5 to 15%. Archaeological and literary sources like the Mitakshara, Prayagmanjari and Tahkik-e-Hind offer tremendous help in terms of reconstructing the socioeconomic role of temples. Corroborating evidence is provided by copper plates, stone inscriptions and numismatic findings. Land endowments were the most important source of money and sustenance for temples in medieval south India. Land granted to temples had two functions:  To provide the income required for the ritual services that had to be made in the name of the donor  To provide a productive platform upon which to invest funds required for the performance of services in the name of the donor of the money. The plethora of land and village grants made to temples gave rise to several important developments.  There was a significant increase in the number of temple employees and personnel who were paid either in kind or through the allotment of land. This

resulted in a growth in feudal land tenure which is evident enough from the various epigraphic references made to tenants.  Fiscal concessions which accompanied many grants only succeeded in making the lot of an already disadvantaged peasantry even worse than it already was and weakened the central authority. There were various ritual functionaries attached to the temples who were given monetary endowments by temples. These functionaries included members of educational institutions (mathas), reciters of Sanskrit and Tamil sacred works, teachers, scholars, musicians and poets. They also received their share of the consecrated food offered to the deity.  Distributing consecrated food among devotees began to play a tremendously important role in terms of raising temple funds.  Temples also came to play a part in the field of agricultural development by providing agriculturists with irrigation facilities.  Caste consciousness had become a marked feature in social relationships with society divided between Brahmins and non-Brahmins.  The medium of education in temples was Sanskrit.  Debates were held in various mathas and colleges regarding the tenets of Hindu theology.  Sankaracharya’s ideas continued to be developed and improved upon and diverse schools of thought were also discussed. During the early medieval period, temple rituals in the honour of God became amazingly elaborate and complex. D.N. Jha says that the growth of a heirarchised land-owning leisured class with a king placed at the head articulated itself through the patronage of art, religion, and literature. Kalhana provides interesting references to the construction of temples by the kings and members of the royal family of Kashmir. Construction of and support to temples by kings and feudal lords was common throughout the country. The early medieval Indian landscape was dotted with large numbers of temples, many of which were unrivalled in terms of elegance and grandeur. Therefore, temple architecture entered a new phase of development. Temples, along with religious establishments and centers of education, became the storehouses of the fabulous wealth and gifts and donations that the kings and their feudatories inundated them with.  The Chola king Rajaraja I alone presented the Tanjore temple with articles of gold weighing nearly as much as 4l.557 kalanju or about 484 lbs; jewellery worth 10,000 pan., worth its weight in gold; and as many as fifty-seven villages.

 The temple of Somanatha had the benefit of revenue pouring in from as many as 10,000 villages.  The educational centres at Nalanda and Valabhi were funded by the revenue that accrued from nearly two hundred villages. Thus, temples and religious centres attracted both Indian rulers and foreign invaders. According to Burton Stein, kings encouraged the construction of temples giving all possible help to their feudatories. Before the Cholas rose to political ascendancy, power was divided among small segmentary units. The Chola rulers, by expressing their symbolic and ritual sovereignty through the brahmadeyas and through patronizing temples, tried to integrate the disparate units of power under the Chola dominion. Temples and Brahmadeyas began to play a seminal role in this search for greater social and political cohesiveness. An additional job allocated to them was the maintenance of irrigational works. Many a time regional kingdoms patronized the religion and deities of the tribals and through the construction of imperial temples to the cause of the tribal deities, achieved political integration.

The temples in medieval India, especially those in South India, began to acquire the importance of a tourist industry of modern times. Pilgrims flocked to temples in huge numbers during festival times and this was what generated greater employment possibilities. People could now find jobs as guildsmen, inn-keepers, surveyors, food-shelter supervisors and priests, in fact, temples soon became miniature towns. Temples also encouraged the spread of education.  Larger temples would maintain Vidya mandapams where efficient teachers were employed and free board and lodging was provided to students.  Most Shiva temple during this period maintained a fleet of teachers who taught the Vedas, the Sastras, the Agamas, the Puranas, Itihasas, Kavyas and the Saiva philosophy.  In the Andhra region, mathas existed in Vemulvada where eminent teachers were employed to impart knowledge to their disciples. Kings and nobles made liberal grants of land and villages to provide funds for customary rites and festivals in temples and also for a sound system of education in temples.

The Brahmins who received immense gifts and land grants often made wise investments, particularly those of gold, with the village assemblies and thereby received an additional bonus for the maintenance, worship, burning of the perceptual lamp and similar other purposes. Temples also acted as a tool of urbanisation by fostering commercial activity in and around the centre. Sizeable urban settlements became an adjunct of great temples. The inscription carved in various temples reveal the names of the Vyasa benefactors. Merchant guilds like those of Ayyavolu and Nakaramu in the Andhra region supported temple - building activities. Temples were surrounded by numerous shops selling various articles of worship. Fairs and Santas were conducted around the temple and these gave a lot of impetus to inland trade. Trade and commerce was an additional source of wealth and as a result of this extensive inland and foreign trade the demand for articles of luxury increased and industrial art developed. Many occupations connected with industrial art developed. People found occupation as silversmiths, goldsmiths and sculptors, thereby, collectively forming the Visvakarma community. Various kinds of artisans emerged like oil mongers, pot-makers, barbers, washer-women, merchant and craft and agricultural guilds during this period. The guilds catered to the diverse needs of different strata of society and generated a large amount of wealth. During the early medieval period of a lucrative overseas trade, agricultural and trade alliances and the development of towns and temples were closely interdependent phenomena. The provision of agricultural capital for trade and the influx of gold and copper from overseas trade probably contributed to the establishment and growth of centers of trade in already existing towns, particularly in the ports and also contributed to the development of many minor redistributing centers throughout the peninsula. There was a close relationship between the sectarian movement and the development of commerce. The temple had well become a citadel of economic power located almost at par with the state. Temples directed agricultural development, through the endowments they received. Endowments were made in order to provide funds for the maintenance of temples, for festivals and for food offerings made to the deities. Provisions were made for the donor or someone designated by the donor. Temples did not have ownership rights over land endowments, but had a major share in the revenue and the income. The money received by temples was frequently loaned out to village assemblies and commercial firms for a perceptual interest and this added to the income of the temples. Temples

became the citadel of the socio-economic activities of the people. It was the nucleus around which villages, towns, and commerce flourished. The temple was closely associated with territorial and administrative bodies of local areas. It was both a landlord and an employer. Its treasury was a bank, which received deposits and loaned out money. Its construction and maintenance offered employment to a number of architects and craftsmen who vied with one other in the bold planning and skilful execution of tasks allocated to them. The daily routine especially of the larger temples, gave constant employment to number of priests, choristers, musicians, dancing-girls, florists, cooks and many classes of servants. The practice of adorning images with numerous jewels set with precious stones encouraged the art of jewellery making to a considerable extent. Hence, the medieval period in the Deccan saw a proliferation in the number of temples. Temples were supposed to confer, on their builders, several merits and benefits such as those of longevity, health, wealth, prosperity and religious merit. Kings would have temples constructed as a gesture of gratitude and as a token of appreciation for the attainment of victory. Sometime temples were raised to consecrate the dead or to placate an overlord. The temples were built for parents or preceptors. Thus, there was a total institutionalisation of the temple. These temples flourished because the ruling warrior groups provided them with support and protection. A vast range of officials and warlords came to play an important role in temple functioning.

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