Architecture associated with religious or political attributes is vulnerable to iconoclasm
Rajkumar Kadam and Sai Deepika Vemulapalli
Iconoclasm can be defined as the intentional destruction of cultural imagery in the backdrop of religious or political motives. In 1926, Bai Chongxi, a Chinese Nationalist Muslim Leader, destroyed all the Buddhist temples and idols in Guangxi, a province of China as a response to his anti-religion policy. He converted the temples into schools and offices. On July 14, 1789 the ‘commoners’ in France attacked the Bastille, a fortress and prison in Paris. The prison stood as a symbol of the abuses of the monarchial powers and hence, its fall indicated the success of the French Revolution as power was restored back to the common people. In Anantnag, Jammu and Kashmir in early 1500s, Sultan Sikander Butsikhan, destroyed the Martand Sun Temple. The temple, dedicated to the Sun God was an example of Hindu Aryan Architecture and its destruction was one of Butsikhan’s attempts to Islamize Kashmir. In response to these examples, distinct both culturally and periodically, this essay claims that architecture associated with religious or political attributes is vulnerable to iconoclasm.
Destruction of Buddhist temples during the Northern Expedition by Chinese Muslim General Bai Chongxi
Iconoclasm is the practice of opposing traditional institutions as being founded on the basis of superstition1. Bai Chongxi was a Chinese General in the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China2. He was of Muslim faith and formulated an anti-religion policy that was completely against superstition. Thus in 1926 during the Northern Expedition of China, Chongxi destroyed almost all the Buddhist temples and idols in Guangxi, a northern province of China. As a Muslim, he did not believe in polytheism, “the doctrine of or belief in more than one god or in many gods.”3 This might have led him to denounce the practices of Buddhism as superstitious, subsequently destroying the Buddhist Temple Architecture of Guangxi (refer to image 1).
It is noteworthy that the practices of Buddhism and Islam are concretely different in terms of idolatry, giving rise to distinct architectural styles. In Buddhism, idolatry is allowed and hence worshipping the Buddha is significant. Contrastingly, Islam strongly prohibits the worship of images or idols in any form. According to Quran, the holy book of Muslims –
“GOD does not forgive idol worship, and He forgives lesser offenses for whomever He wills. Anyone who idolizes any idol beside GOD has strayed far astray.”4
Note the difference between the architecture of a typical Buddhist temple and of a mosque (refer to images 2 and 3). The statue of Buddha is an important element of a Chinese Buddhist temple. It starts defining the shape of the pagoda (a tiered tower) such as its height and circumference. Notice how it starts occupying the central space in an almost symmetric plan of the temple. Thus it is responsible for the clear spatial hierarchy of a pagoda. On the other hand, there is no place for idol worship inside a mosque. Though there is a central space, it is not defined by an idol but rather by the Mihrab, “an ornamental indentation which marks the direction of worship”7. Chongxi exploited this difference of idolatry in Buddhist and Islamic architectural styles and called the design of a Buddhist temple superstitious. The political motive behind his actions was his interest in converting Guangxi into a predominantly Muslim province. Therefore, he destroyed the traditional institutions of the Buddhist.
Storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution
July 14, 1789
Iconoclasm is the practice of opposing political institutions as being found on error. During the French Revolution, the insurgents of the Third Estate6 of France opposed the absolute monarchy of King Louis XVI, the ruler of France that had caused a financial crisis in the state. On July 14, 1789 they attacked the Bastille (refer to image 4), a “medieval fortress on the east side of Paris that became, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a French state prison and a place of detention for important persons charged with various offenses.”7
The commoners demanded the release of ammunitions that were stored in the prison. However when the State Governor declined their demands, they stormed into the Bastille and captured it. It was later “demolished by order of the Revolutionary government.”7 Contrary to Chongxi’s destruction of Buddhist temples in China, the primary motive in this case was solely a political one. The Bastille stood as a symbol of the supremacy of the monarchial Bourbon dynasty and hence its fall indicated that power was restored back to the common people.
The architecture of this building was a symbol of dominance. The building was framed by eight towers of “73 feet high and six feet thick”8, built in masonry and linked by walls of similar height. They were massive structures with minimal ornamentation and only a few small window openings which produced really dark interior spaces (refer to image 5). The rooms that formed the upper story of the towers were called calottes whereas the ones near the foundation were called cachots. Spatially, it can be analyzed that both these room types produced extremely uncomfortable conditions. It was in these towers that prisoners were kept and thus they represented the dominance of the higher classes over the common people.
There was also a moat of around 25ft surrounding the Bastille (refer to image 6). The existence of the moat can be symbolically attributed to the separation of higher and lower classes. These political attributes of the Bastille that discriminated the people of France on the basis of class lead to its iconoclasm. The very foundation of the building was politically incorrect and hence, it was destroyed.
Destruction of the Martand Surya Temple by Sikandar Butshikan
Anantnag, Jammu and Kashmir, India
Early 15th century
Iconoclasm is the practice of destroying images created for religious veneration. Sikandar Butshikan was the ruler of the Shah Miri Dynasty of Kashmir, the northernmost province of India. In early 15th century, he destroyed the Martand Sun Temple (refer to image 7) in response to one of his attempts to Islamize Kashmir. Similar to Chongxi’s iconoclastic actions, Butshikan’s destruction of the temple was brought about by a difference in the Hindu and Islamic styles of architecture. However Butsikhan did not attribute any elements of Hindu Architecture as superstitious. His main political motive instead was the persecution of Hindus and destruction of their religious institutions.
The Martand Sun Temple was built “in honor and dedication to the Sun God, also referred to as Surya”9. Architecturally, the temple followed a style of design that was similar to any other Hindu temple – symmetrical spaces along a central axis (refer to image 8).
Parts of the temple had a trabeated structure – a series of columns holding a flat roof. However, most of the temple roofs were defined by homogeneous sikharas, meaning a mountain peak. This element of Hindu temple architecture is different from the domed roof of an Islamic mosque (refer to image 3). Images of Gods were carved on stones and pediments of the temple (refer to image 9).”10
Similar to Buddhism, idolatry is allowed in Hinduism. This attribute of the temple might have prompted Butsikhan to destroy it. Therefore, architecture built for religious veneration in one culture is usually vulnerable to iconoclasm in another culture.
Overall, it can be said that iconoclasm is generally caused due to cultural or personal differences or both. The practice of iconoclasm itself can be viewed from different lenses. The destruction of Buddhist temples in China was brought upon by its magnification of superstitious beliefs for certain people of other culture. The storming of the Bastille was an attack on architecture that was built with politically incorrect motives. The demolition of the Martand Surya Temple was brought on by the persecution of one culture at the hands of another. Therefore due to the many beliefs, actions and spirits that form the basis of iconoclasm, it can be concluded that architecture that has symbolic attributes of religion or politics is often at risk of being destroyed.
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6 – The lowest class of a society formed by the commoners
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