The Peculiar State-sponsored Legend of the Tanot Mata Temple

In late March this year, my friend and I travelled to Rajasthan, a western Indian state. Our destination was the India-Pakistan border near Jaisalmer, a small town at the edges of the Thar Desert. Somewhere less than a hundered kilometers from the border, we stopped at a temple. Although I’m not religious, I’m not averse to visiting temples for I believe there is much to be learned about history, art and human behaviour at religious places. This trip was also unavoidable since our car driver insisted that we visit, for it had an interesting story to be told. But first, a little history.

India and Pakistan have been regional rivals since their birth. Both nations have fought three major wars and have had several smaller standoffs and armed conflicts. The war between the two nations in 1971 was the largest in terms of scale and impact. One battle, a part of this war, took place in Longewala. During this battle, the areas around this temple were bombed by Pakistan, for Indian armed forces had been stationed in this general area.

The legend surrounding this temple is that while the bombings destroyed nearly every structure and killed several forces and civilians in this area, the Tanot Mata temple campus – which is relatively large – was left unscathed. Apparently, none of the bombs that fell into the temple campus exploded. The claim is that many villagers and soldiers had taken refuge inside this campus, and they all survived. A few of these unexploded bombs lie inside this temple in a showcase to this day.

“Tanot Mata (goddess Tanot) saved and protected all those who sought shelter in her shrine that day”, said a guide at the temple.

The purpose of this post isn’t to bust this myth (feel free to talk about possible explanations in the comments section below), but to bring to light a larger issue: the government has helped keep this myth alive. The para-military force in charge of the India-Pakistan border officially maintains this temple by keeping up the necessary infrastructure and employing people to work here. It also showcases this temple to all official dignitaries visiting this region.

Interestingly, this temple complex also houses an Islamic shrine. The guide showing us around was proud of this “secular” (Indianism for “inclusive”) symbol.

What is your opinion: is this a “harmless” myth that can be ignored, and must the para-military help propagate this myth?



  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Much as I hate to see taxpayers’ money spent on superstition, anything that reduces tensions and encourages Hindu-Muslim cooperation along the India-Pakistan border deserves significant support.

  2. CaitieCat says

    I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I think Pierce’s point @1 is very cogent. If the amount of money spent on maintaining this superstition can actually manage to keep the tensions along that border down, then I’d say probably that’s a good thing.

    Could be vulnerable to a slippery-slope argument on that one, of course, but unless the amounts are truly staggering, it’d be hard to see how ending it – which might well cause a rise in tensions, given the two countries’ habit of blaming one another long and loud for anything they can – would be a good idea.

    Are temple/mosque grounds in India exempt from property tax, as they are here in Canada? That tends to be a much bigger waste of public funds, I always think, here anyway. The amount of money this government, and local and provincial governments, could raise from taxing them like the businesses they are would be very helpful.

    Never going to happen until the number of believers gets small enough, if it ever does. My best guess is we’d have to be down to less than 15% people who call themselves religious before we’d get through a law taxing churches/temples/mosques/shrines/nunneries/seminaries/madrassas/yeshivas/gurdwaras and so on.

  3. Sunil says

    @CaitieCat – yup, places of worship here are exempt from property tax (I’m not sure if it’s true of every city/urban local body though). And given that some of these places are huge and occupy prime real estate, and property tax is the biggest source of revenue for our city corporations, it’s a huge loss for the corporations. 🙁

  4. CaitieCat says

    @4: Sunil, yes, we’re a bit luckier there in that our cities are less well-established, so the worship-places within them don’t tend to be on the most expensive property much. But there are certainly enough of them, and enough places not paying appropriate taxes for the operation of their business (it takes in money and maintains its physical plant and pays its employees with it; how is that not a business?) to cost us all a fair pile of money in making up their share.

    But, like my personal wish that teaching religion to children under 12 should be illegal, it’ll never happen. Well, not in my lifetime, anyway. I reckon based on family longevity and my own general healthiness I could expect to see 2050, maybe a decade more depending which end of my family’s distribution I’m at. I’ll be very surprised if Canadian religious properties are paying taxes before either of those points.

  5. kevinalexander says

    I assume that the proprietors of the temple are not trusting in the continued protection of Tanot Mata and have removed the explosive materials from the shells.

  6. Phillip IV says

    feel free to talk about possible explanations in the comments section below

    The problem is, it’s not really clear whether there is anything that requires explanation.

    There is always a certain percentage of “duds” – shells that fail to explode – in an artillery barrage. The two main causes are defective fuzes (either production defects or defects from improper storage of the shells) or “soft” impacts – shells impacting on particularly soft (sandy or swampy) ground or at the wrong angle. It’s difficult to state a typical percentage of duds, but depending on circumstances it can range from as low as 3% to more than 15%.

    As far as I can judge, the shells in the display case seem to be three 81mm mortar bombs (one with the tail missing) and six 4-inch shells – if the ground around the temple is soft, obviously it wouldn’t require a particularly intense barrage to end up with nine duds.

    To know whether there really was a statistically significant difference in rate of duds between the temple campus and the rest of the area covered by the barrage, somebody would have had to carefully record all of the impacts and duds on a map, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t done. So my best guess would be that people who wanted to believe in the power of the temple – perhaps spurned on by one particularly spectacular dud close to the temple or a group of fugitives – applied a somewhat flexible definition of the temple grounds, and applied it unevenly to duds and impacts, resulting in a legend that all of the shells hitting the campus were duds, and all of those hitting outside exploded.

    As for the propriety of the para-military supporting the temple, you could probably defend it as a battle memorial, if they only distanced themselves from the specific claim of “Goddess Tanot’s miracle” – just calling it the “so-called miracle” could be sufficient. Although I wouldn’t really say that the display comes over as being particularly well-curated – the rounds seem to have been re-painted after impact in a pretty, but probably not very authentic pattern.

  7. siddharth says

    @Philip IV
    Thank you for your insightful comment. Right there, you have provided a very likely “possible explanation” for the so called miracle. Comments such as yours is what I was referring to; maybe my choice of words was poor.
    @CaitieCat and @Sunil
    On property tax and religious structures: it is true that the exchequer loses significant amounts of revenue because religious structures are tax-free in most economies. There have thus been calls to tax religion (on property, etc). However, there are counter arguments to this, even from the irreligious perspective. The resources that religion commands in society is large (in India and the US, among other countries), and taxes originating from it would occupy a small but relevant section of the revenue pie. The state would thus have an incentive to expand religion in order to increase tax revenue. Or at the very least, the state would lose out if/when religion starts declining. This creates perverse incentives for the state. Of course, it goes without saying that if religious institutions aren’t taxed, then the state ought not to be spending on fostering them either. If it is (as in the case of India), then we ought to be speaking out against it.
    Anyway, this issue is debatable of course, but maybe it isn’t all too bad that state and religion are separate, at least in the domain of taxation.

  8. Harsh Gupta says

    I have not visited the template but what i heard that when none of the air bombing worked, Pakistan tried to use tanks and tanks couldn’t move forward and used to stuck in between. Also when there ground military tried to reach the campus of the the temple, they couldn’t enter inside, since all the border areas of temple used to catch fire. Also pakistan officer said that when they used to air bomb, they could only see the water and the girl at the place of temple and when the war was over, he wanted to visit india to visit this temple and in 1965 he was denied VISA and in 1972, he was lucky to visit the temple and he also brought some silver jewel for the tanot maa.

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