मृत्योर् मामृतं गमय – Part III

We dealt with the idea of excellence and how institution building is an inalienable part of pursuing excellence. A widespread misconception is that Indians did not indulge in institution building, and also didn’t have the concept of excellence. This is no different from the racist trope that brown natives had to be civilized by the invaders. Popular and academic corpus of work often starts the story of India’s civilization with the advent of Mughals. This is both fallacious and malicious. Here we will see specific examples of how excellence was practiced in Ancient India – and how it is better explained by institutional pursuit rather than personal endeavor.

Excellence as a social habit is best exemplified by the quality of temples built in pre-Islamic India. The comparison is made starker when we compare a 1000-year-old temple [Brhadeeswara, Tanjavore] to a European icon built a century and a half later – the Leaning Tower of Pizza. In more than 11 centuries, the Brhadeeswara temple has barely shifted. The foundation remains rock solid, and the structure is strong enough for it to be a living temple. This architectural masterpiece is built entirely from granite – a stone that is known both for its density and hardness.

In contrast, the leaning tower started leaning a century after it’s construction. So much so, that the later architects [14th century] were forced to build lopsided floors to reduce the skew. Today, it stands because of counterweights added. This isn’t the only case. The leaning tower of Zaragoza [Spain] built much later [16th century] also had the same problem. Brussels Town Hall [in the Grand Place], built circa 1401-1455 is iconic for its architectural mistake: the door frame is off to the side of the middle line of the spire. The local tale is that the architect was so ashamed of it, that he committed suicide after the piece was completed. Similarly, the failed architecture of Al-Nusr mosque [Iraq; destroyed by ISIL] became a tourist attraction. While it is clearly a tourist novelty to see an ancient monument self-destruct in slow motion [leaning towers eventually break], the understated success of Indian architecture in defeating time has to be appreciated.

In fact, even within South India, the Brhadeeswara temple is by no means an outlier for its longevity and structural stability. Aavudaiyar Kovil is another example that defies time. Built in the 9th century [I believe it is older], this temple is both an architectural and religious feast. Hidden away in a non-descript town of Aavudaiyar kovil [Aavi [steam] + udaiyar [lord who has / feasts] + kovil [temple] – temple of the Lord who feasts on steam] – the temple shares its name with the town. The stonework in the temple has to be seen to be believed. More importantly, it still stands. Needless to state is the longevity of Pallava architecture in both Kanchipuram and Mamallapuram.

Starting from Pallavas [and possibly earlier] and continuing well into the Nayakkar times [17th Century], Tamil Nadu temples provide a glimpse into a continuing tradition of pursuing excellence. Each of these temples tells the story of a people who built institutions that propagated both their sacred belief and their excellence. Such excellence was neither restricted to building temples nor does it start with the Pallavas. As the existence of Kallanai proves, the pursuit of excellence in this land was established long before the advent of Christianity as a major player in the world. It was truly a civilizational badge.

We will look at our scientific and academic traditions of excellence in the next part.


This essay is part II of a four-part essay on institutional thinking and excellence in societies
Part I: https://kreately.in/from-mortality-to-immortality-accidental-success/
Part II: https://kreately.in/from-mortality-to-immortality-institutional-design/
Part III: https://kreately.in/from-mortality-to-immortality-excellence-in-pre-islamic-india/

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