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Everything Wrong With ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,’ According to Archaeologists

An international team of experts helped me uncover how the 1984 film totally blew it — from monkey brains to Indy’s whip

Perhaps you’re wondering, of all the Indiana Jones movies, why the hell should I examine Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? If anything, the second film in the series is now the least notable: The first and third movies are generally considered to be far better, and the fourth movie is so atrocious that it warrants discussion purely because of its pronounced shittiness. So, why Temple of Doom

Well, while every Indiana Jones movie is chock-full of historical inaccuracies, the other films are mostly about punching Nazis in the face (or Soviet Russians, in the case of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Temple of Doom, however, uses a hodge-podge of Indian culture, theology and folklore to have Indy face off against the Thuggee, a cult that worships the supposedly evil goddess Kali. 

Unsurprisingly, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom gets a lot wrong about India. In fact, the movie is so jumbled and confused that I needed an international team of archaeological experts just to make sense of how wrong it is. So, when they found a little time off from treasure-digging, booby-trap-dodging and outrunning giant boulders, here’s what the archaeologists had to say. 

On Indiana Jones

Larry Coben, archaeologist and founder/executive director of the Sustainable Preservation Initiative: Indiana Jones isn’t really an archeologist except in name. He doesn’t excavate in any of the movies, he doesn’t do surveys — he’s a treasure hunter, and archaeologists aren’t treasure hunters. The only thing I think I can say is that a lot of archaeologists would like to punch Nazis too, but that’s really the only similarity.

That said, it’s a great adventure story and Indiana Jones is fun. It’s inspired people to get interested in archaeology — I would say that Indiana Jones has inspired a whole generation of people to be archaeologists. Archaeologists always say that it’s awful and it’s terrible and it is all those things. But I suspect there would be far less public interest in archaeology and far less funding for archaeology if not for the interest that he attracted. Saying that might get me in trouble with some of my colleagues, but I think it’s true.

Paul Duncan McGarrity, archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology and host of Ask an Archaeologist podcast: I watched all of the Indiana Jones films when I was frankly too young to watch them and that’s what had the impact in making me want to be an archaeologist. Over time, I found out that it wasn’t quite as much punching as I’d imagined, but I do like learning about the past as well. 

Abhijit Dandekar, professor of archaeology at the Deccan College in Maharashtra, India: I don’t see any archaeology from Indiana Jones. He could be anybody. As an archaeologist, I wouldn’t get involved in things like this — we are normal people! I’m not an adventurer, I’m not a savior. I study the past. I wouldn’t get involved with saving children from caves. I would go to a police station and say, “Such and such things are happening, please have a look at it.” If I get involved, it would only get more complicated.

On Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Coben: I spent a little time trying to remember Temple of Doom because I didn’t remember there being any archaeology in it, and after taking a look at it, I’m sure I was right. I also remember it being the worst of the three movies — the original three, I don’t count the fourth one. 

McGarrity: Temple of Doom is tough because Indiana Jones is always at his best when he is unabashedly the good guy. That’s why the other two movies are so much better, because he’s the natural enemy of Nazis, which don’t really need to be explained — they’re Nazis — and punching Nazis in the face is an unambiguous good. But in Temple of Doom, there’s a lot more heavy lifting to explain who the Thuggees are and why they’re bad, which really complicates the racial politics of the film. Really, Temple of Doom is the lost, broken doll of that franchise, only saved by that tragedy of a fourth film, which is why I claim there are only three films. 

Arati Deshpande-Mukherjee, professor of archaeology at the Deccan College in Maharashtra, India: Temple of Doom was really quite a doomed movie. The first one was better. 

Danika Parikh, archaeologist with the University of Cambridge: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a colonial fever dream! Churchill said Indians “are a beastly people with a beastly religion,” and this is a movie about our imagined beastliness in how we eat, how we worship and so on. The lens is very colonial. All the Indian people are helpless or monstrous, and all of the white people are saviors. That’s what makes it racist.

Dandekar: It’s a very bad movie. It’s also a very typical “White Man’s Syndrome” type of movie where someone from the outside has to come — and he has to be white — and he has to save the poor brown Indians. And — excuse my language — but he has screwed Indian archaeology completely. For example, this fellow, his plane crashes and the landscape is absolutely not Northeastern India. Then, he comes to a place that’s an Indian village, but the people are speaking the language of Sri Lanka — they’re speaking Sinhalese. It’s a whole other language! 

Also, in 1935, people didn’t travel on elephants. An elephant is a very expensive animal — only the kings and the courtiers of the kings would be able to maintain an elephant

On Indian Cuisine

Deshpande-Mukherjee: Eating monkey brains and eating snakes, that just doesn’t happen in India. We have beef and lamb and chicken — nobody ever ate snakes and insects. Monkeys especially — nobody eats monkeys, nobody even kills monkeys because we associate them with Hanuman, the monkey god. Even if, by some chance, you kill a monkey, you’re supposed to give it a good burial. 

Parikh: I still hear archaeologists unthinkingly make racist jokes about eating monkey brains, because people have internalized these movies as part of the lore of our profession. I hate how Indian food is presented in the movie as this freakish nightmare feast! 

Dandekar: There is much more that is incorrect, but the biggest problem is the feast. We definitely don’t eat bugs, and we don’t eat monkey brain for dessert. We have very elaborate dishes, for God’s sake! Indian cuisine is famous for its intricacy and its nuance. Yes, it may be an acquired taste, but we don’t eat this food. I have nothing against people who choose to eat monkey brain or bugs, that’s their habit, but Indians do not have that habit. The movie was banned in India for this reason, because India is shown in bad taste — pun intended.

On Indian Architecture

Dandekar: When it comes to the sacred cave that’s shown, we don’t have that architecture. We have very elaborate caves. There is a very beautiful cave site called Ajanta, and it’s a 2,000-year-old cave complex. Beautifully decorated, beautifully painted — we still have fresh paintings after 1,500 years. Also, Ellora is a site carved out of a single rock — beautiful, elegant architecture. We don’t have this architecture in the movie, we have beautiful, elaborate caves. And we don’t have a bloody lava-boiling [pit] inside a cave. Nobody can afford to have it! They would just get burned alive! It’s ridiculous! Ridiculous!

On the Thuggees

Deshpande-Mukherjee: Well, the movie makes mention of a cult known as the “Thuggees.” That group did exist in 19th century India, and they were big worshippers of the goddess Kali, which was shown in the movie. They were bandits who used to rob people and very often they would kill people as well. Some of these cults — which may have been the descendants of the Thuggees — lasted all the way up until the 1970s, when they eventually laid down their arms and gave themselves up to the government. 

Dandekar: Thuggees basically raided the British, so the British were against them. They were a small community, and they weren’t into such cannibalistic, esoteric practices. And the goddess shown isn’t an evil goddess. Indian theology is very, very complex, and Kali can be ferocious, but she isn’t evil. Kali is power — she symbolizes power, so there are groups who worship her who vie for such power. 

On the Sankara Stones

Parikh: Sankara stones are Shiva lingas, or representations of the Hindu god Shiva, and they’re considered phallic because Shiva is a creator as well as a destroyer. They’re fairly common in India, I’ve never heard anyone refer to them as “sacred stones” outside of this movie. 

The theme of the village losing their stone really resonates, though, as today Hindu idols are still trafficked out of India and Nepal to collectors and museums in the West. When communities lose an ancestral icon — often considered a living manifestation of the god — it can be devastating. In reality, the historic and current-day looting is in service of white people, and Indiana Jones is one of the looters. Raiders of the Lost Ark literally opens with him stealing an idol from a temple! Maybe, since Indy is rescuing the stone for them in this terrible movie, it actually represents some professional growth for him.

On How an Archaeologist Dresses

Coben: You wear something lightweight that you don’t mind getting dirty. I wear hiking stuff and long sleeves and a big-brimmed hat with earflaps because I don’t want a lot of sun exposure. It’s quite casual though. I don’t dress up in a leather jacket or anything like that. I do have one, but I wear it on Halloween. 

McGarrity: Back in 1935 [when Temple of Doom takes place] maybe some archaeologists dressed like that, but here in the U.K., they wore suits and ties. Back then, archaeologists mostly looked like that image people have of what all British people look like, which makes sense really, because archaeology was an industry essentially invented by the British empire to excuse our kleptomania.

On If They’re Bringing a Gun on Their Archaeological Digs

Deshpande-Mukherjee: No way. In India, we don’t have firearms, so no.

Dandekar: We are scared of guns, why would we use guns? We don’t use any weapon for that matter. We have tools — a small knife and a trowel. No guns.

Coben: Most of the time we would hire security if we were in an area we were concerned about. I do know a few folks who have, from time-to-time, carried guns when they were excavating tombs because they were concerned robbers might show up and make their lives difficult, which can happen. 

McGarrity: Sometimes even today, when an archaeologist works in a dangerous area like Lebanon or Iraq or something like that, they recieve arms training beforehand. I haven’t, but I was threatened with a machete once while I was on a dig in Uganda, which is probably the closest I’ve ever been to an Indiana Jones-style adventure.

On How Handy They Are With a Whip

Parikh: Not very! Indy famously slashed his face open the first time he used it, so I haven’t really been tempted to try, let alone put in the hours to get really good at it.

Deshpande-Mukherjee: Oh no, no, no. I’ve never used a whip. I don’t know why they gave him that.

Coben: I’m getting better. Someone gave me one as a joke and I can crack it, but I need practice. Give me a couple of years and I’ll be effing awesome with it. 

McGarrity: Passable. Better than your average man.

Dandekar: Whip? Why would I use a whip? This archaeologist seems to do everything else but archaeology. He is like James Bond. Why is he an archaeologist? I don’t understand. We don’t use whips. Why would we use whips?

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