Over the centuries, tens of thousands of temples were desecrated across India, the carnage not stopping even after 15 August 1947, especially in Kashmir and in parts of eastern and southern India. However, the desecration of Gobind Dev temple in Vrindavan is unique; it was neither complete nor was it converted into a mosque. The structure was cut into half—horizontally. And why? Because whenever Aurangzeb happened to be in Delhi or Agra, at night he would see a mashaal, or torch, lighting up the sky. How can any light shine higher than mine? It must be put out once and for all, felt the emperor. By 1669 he lost his patience, sent his men and had the Gobind Dev temple cut in half, four storeys reduced to two. On the truncated roof he had a mehrab erected so that he could pray there on his visit.

Probably, no other desecrated temple had been the subject of so much repair and refurbishment by British rulers. Of supreme importance was the fact of the temple being “restituted” to Hindu devotees. It was the greatest act of shuddhi, or purification, although performed before Swami Dayanand Saraswati reintroduced Vedic procedures. For this act of restitution, F.S. Growse, the magistrate of Mathura district in the 1870s, deserves a place in the hall of Hinduism. The Gobind Dev temple is indeed massive; its plinth is 105 feet by 117 feet. It is estimated that the original height was about 110 feet, without which it would not have been possible to see the mashaal or torch either from Agra or from Delhi. The temple was built in 1590 AD by Maharaja Mansingh of Jaipur.

The temple is also unique for several other reasons, but we shall come to these a little later. For the satisfaction of its desecrators, the sanctum sanctorum was destroyed. Fortunately, the idol of Sri Krishna or Gobind had been removed to Jaipur by the priests in anticipation of Aurangzeb’s proposed visit in 1670 AD; the emperor was already notorious as an iconoclast. The roof of the truncated edifice was to be reserved for namaaz. No sooner had the mehrab been constructed, as illustrated in the photograph in History of Indian and Eastern Architecture by James Fergusson, Aurangzeb inaugurated it himself by offering prayers.

All except two statuettes were defaced, including the one at the door of what is now the temple, after crossing the foyer hall. The destruction was not confined to the upper floors. It extended to hundreds of statuettes that even today adorn the temple walls—outside as well as inside, the ceilings or doors. The iconoclast overlooked two small statuettes, one of Sri Krishna and the other of Radha, on the outside on the left as one faces the temple.

An American historian of Indian architecture, George Mitchell has concluded that the original sanctum sanctorum was destroyed. In his own words, “Once the garbhagriha has been torn down, there was little point in further wreckage… It seems to me that only those with some understanding of the ritual significance of the garbhagriha would have been capable of desecrating a temple in this careful manner.”

Prof R Nath introduces the subject of the Gobind Dev temple by quoting Aurangzeb’s decree of April 1669. It said: “Eager to establish Islam, (Aurangzeb) issued orders to the governors of all the provinces to demolish the schools and temples of the infidels and with the utmost urgency put down the teaching and the public practice of the religion of these disbelievers.” The great temple of Gobind Dev fell victim to iconoclastic vandalism within a year of the decree. Its inner sanctum and its superstructure were almost entirely destroyed. The main hall was also damaged. Sculpted figures on the dvarasakha were literally defaced.

According to an article in the Calcutta Review quoted by Growse: “Aurangzeb had often remarked about a very bright light shining in the far distant south east horizon and in reply to his enquiries regarding it, was told that it was a light burning in a temple of great wealth and magnificence at Vrindavan. He accordingly resolved that it should be put out and soon after sent some troops to the place who plundered and threw down as much of the temple as they could and then erected on the top of the ruins a mosque wall where, in order to complete the desecration, the emperor is said to have offered up his prayers.”

Incidentally, the canopy standing on four pillars, which must have acted as a shed for the burning torch or mashaal, is lying on the ground at the back of the present sanctum sanctorum. It was so fixed, presumably by Growse in the 1870s. It has no relevance to the temple’s architecture. This reinforces the belief that this canopy belonged to the top of the once towering temple.

While Aurangzeb’s ego might have been gratified, the desecration took with it what is described by Fergusson as one of the most elegant temples in India, and the only one perhaps, from which a European architect might borrow a few hints. Growse added that “It is not a little strange that of all the architects who have described this famous building, not one has noticed its most characteristic feature—the harmonious combination of dome and spire—which is still quoted as the great crux of modern art, though nearly 300 years ago the difficulty was solved by the Hindus with characteristic grace and ingenuity.” Fergusson, in his Indian Architecture, speaks of this temple as “one of the most interesting and elegant in India, and the only one, perhaps, from which a European architect might borrow a few hints. I should myself have thought that ‘solemn’ or ‘imposing’ was a more appropriate term than ‘elegant’ for so massive a building, and that the suggestions that might be derived from its study were ‘many’ rather than ‘few;’ but the criticism is at all events in intention a complimentary one.”

A nineteenth century architect, Henry Hardy Cole, who had toured India widely, wrote: “I am not sure that the restoration of the upper most parapet is correct and think that it would have been better to leave the superstructure, as it appeared when I first saw it, with all the evidence of Aurangzeb’s destructive hand.”

A number of motives have been attributed to the invaders who desecrated temples, such as looting of treasures, subduing the populace by arousing dread, informing the area that a sultan had replaced the raja. There is, however, no other instance of a temple being desecrated because it defied the fragile ego of an emperor drenched in hate for those not subscribing to his worldview.