Telangana’s Yadadri temple artisans hammer away at religious divides
Mohammad Jabbar, 45, is a devout Muslim from Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur district. He hasn’t read any Hindu mythology. Nor does he have any historical knowledge of the Chola, Pallava or Vijayanagara dynasties. Nor, for that matter, of the Kakatiya style of architecture.
But when Jabbar sits in front of stone, he chisels the images of Hindu gods and structures of temples with such dexterity that it is difficult to believe they have been shaped by the hands of a non-Hindu.
Like Jabbar, at least 40 Muslim sculptors are engaged in carving out images of Hindu gods and structures of temple from slabs of stones in makeshift sheds at the foothills of Lord Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy (lion god) temple at Yadagirigutta, in Telangana’s Yadadri-Bhuvanagiri district.
The Telangana government is giving a complete makeover to this ancient temple, about 60 km from Hyderabad, on the lines of Tirumala, the richest temple in India, which had gone to residuary Andhra Pradesh after the bifurcation of AP in 2014 and the carving out of the separate state of Telangana. Renamed Yadadri, the temple is now being developed as a major pilgrim and tourist centre at a cost of Rs 1,800 crore.
Around 800 sculptors are racing against time to complete the temple project by October this year. A large number of pillars, stone lotus pedestals, images of gods and goddesses and Yali sculptures (images of lions, elephants and horses carved out on pillars) are an integral part of the temple architecture.
One of the most interesting aspects of the project is the involvement of Muslim sculptors, most of them from the Turakapalem hamlet of Mangalagiripadu in Guntur district. “For the last several generations, our families have been involved only in sculpture works, mostly in temples. It has become our family profession and none of the men know any other work,” said Sheik Rabbani, 36, who has worked on more than 30 temples in the past 15 years. He has no reservations about working on Hindu temples. “For me, any work that provides me livelihood is god. Work is my Allah.”
Temple authorities have no reservations about hiring non-Hindu workers either. “We strongly believe that work is worship. Religion does not come in the way of doing one’s profession,” said Chiranjeevi Aditya, a deputy sthapathi (architect) of the Yadadri temple.
The Muslim sculptors have not studied any Hindu scripture to understand the philosophy of Hindu temple architecture. They only follow the designs provided by the chief sthapathi of the temple, Soundara Rajan of Srirangam in Tamil Nadu. “We guide them at every stage. Since they are all experienced, they do their work with perfection,” Aditya said.
The temple authorities do not impose any restrictions on the religious freedom of these Muslim sculptors. They regularly do namaaz thrice. During the holy month of Ramzan, they strictly follow the roza. “Though they are working on a Vaishnavaite temple, we also provide them non-vegetarian food once a week but away from the work spot and they do not take up sculpting on that day,” said G Venkat Reddy, the contractor for the work.
Apart from food, each sculptor is paid ₹800 to ₹1,000 per day, depending on his level of skills.
Sheik Jani, 35, who worked on nearly 30 temples, has developed an affinity towards Hindu shrines. “I have worked even on sculpting presiding deities in the sanctum sanctorum in various temples,” he said.
G Kishan Rao, CEO of the Yadadri Temple Development Authority, said the involvement of Muslim sculptors in the project showed the true spirit of unity in diversity of India.