Faculty of Economics

Cambridge Working Papers in Economics

CWPE #1705

Holy Wars? Temple desecrations in Medieval India

Iyer, S., Shrivastava, A., Ticku, R.

We construct a unique geocoded dataset on temples, dynasties and battles in medieval India and propose a test to identify the motive for observed temple desecrations in that period. We test two competing historical narratives of temple desecrations. The first focuses on the idea of iconoclasm, i.e. destruction of religious sites and imagery deemed heretical, as embedded in Islamic theology. The second suggests that desecrations were driven by political considerations and hence occurred mainly during military battles. We use a novel instrument of Muslim ruler assassinations to address the potential endogeneity in our battles related variable. The results show that Muslim states did not desecrate temples because they were there, but only during the course of battle, probably to diminish the authority of the rival Hindu state. The battle events are crucial, the probability of temple desecration increases by over 30% when the Hindu-Muslim battle outcome is in favour of a Muslim state. Whether a temple was within the territory of a Muslim state does not impact the likelihood of its desecration. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that political tactics were the main stimulus of temple desecrations by medieval Muslim states.