Who destroyed Somanatha? An alternate history

ali.zaidi@dunyatv.tv'Posted by

Somanatha has been a subject of discussion for ages in the Indian subcontinent. It was destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni in 1024 and for the last few centuries it has been used to define the Hindu-Muslim relations in the region for the last thousand or so years. While the iconic event of Somanatha’s destruction has, on one hand, provided the extremist Hindus and the British historians with a reason to criticize the Muslim rule in India, it has also been a reason for the extremist Muslims to feel proud of their savagery.

Somanatha temple destroyed

These Muslims have taken pride in the destruction of the temple of the Somanatha as they felt that Mahmud did something for which God had bestowed Islam upon humanity. But the British, who replaced Muslims as the rulers of India, portrayed this event as a proof of Muslim barbarity and thus the British historians always referred to the history written by the Turkish and Persian court narratives that idolized Mahmud for his action.

Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni
Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni

Romila Thapar, an Indian historian and author of the book ‘Somanatha – The many voices of a history’ has discussed in detail the many aspects of the history related to the destruction of the temple by Mahmud in the eleventh century. Thapar examines all the three kinds of sources related to the subject i.e. Turko-Persian, Sanskrit-Jaina and the British.

Romila Thapar, historian
Romila Thapar, historian

In the book, Romila Thapar explains how Mahmud’s court historians tried to prove that the destruction was one of the most important events in Islamic history by claiming that the temple belonged to Manat, one of the three daughter goddesses of the Allah of the pre-Islamic Arabia. The legend in the Arabia was that while the idols of the other two daughters, Laat and Uzza, had been destroyed, the third one, Manat, had been transferred to some other place where idolatry wasn’t prohibited. So when Mahmud destroyed the temple of Somanatha, he claimed it to be the temple of Manat and thus tried to seek legitimacy among his own people and the Muslim kingdoms/caliphates of the Middle East. However, the writer says that the court historians probably did not know that the Somanatha temple just had a lingam instead of the idol of the goddess, which means that it was a male god’s temple and not of a female one. This, therefore, annuls the theory that it was Manat’s temple since Manat was claimed to be a daughter of the God and thus was a female.

Romila Thapar goes on to explain how the Muslim historians continued to claim this as one of the most iconic moments of Muslim rule over India. She tells in her book how after every hundred years or so the temple was destroyed by some Muslim ruler just to get legitimacy among his subjects and sometimes by the bands of armies in order to get close to the rulers.

On the other hand, she says that the Jain and Hindu writers were not writing much of the destruction of the temple. Though they discuss the repairing of the temple in their texts, there are hardly any historians who have mentioned the destruction of the temple by Mahmud or any of the Muslim rulers later on. Thapar thinks that this proves that the event wasn’t as important in their view as it was in the eyes of the destroyers. Moreover, there is ample evidence that the Arab Muslims also lived in Gujarat at the time of Mahmud’s raid and in the later years when there were raids by other Muslim rulers on the same temple, local Muslims fought against the intruders instead of siding with them.

The British texts, she says, over-emphasize the raids just because the British have always tried to portray themselves as the saviors of the local communities in their colonies. In order to portray themselves as the saviors, the British vilified the Muslims, who ruled the subcontinent before them. In this way, the British tried to prove before the Hindus that they saved them from the ‘oppressive’ Muslim rule. They focused on Firishta’s account of history because it suited them and they ignored the history written by other historians who wrote about the business tradition between the Indians and the Muslims living in the Central Asia and Arabia. They ignored the local ties between the Hindus and the Muslims, portraying the Muslims as intruders despite knowing that most of the Muslims living in India were the local converts and were sons of the soil.

Somanatha - book by Romila Thapar
Somanatha – book by Romila Thapar

The Hindu politicians of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, especially those from Gujarat, were highly influenced by the histories written by the British who deliberately wanted to create divide among the local population. They bought these theories and thus started idolizing Somanatha event as a symbol of Hindu resistance against foreign occupation. Thapar rejects the ‘resistance’ theory, saying that it is completely baseless since the Hindu and Jain writers believed the era to be a dark one, Kaliyug, in which the idols are broken and thus the Hindu community was, in their eyes, destined to lose and the idols were destined to be broken because it was a dark period they were going through. Their couldn’t be any resistance offered under such a situation.

Romila Thapar’s theory, therefore, is that the history of Somanatha has to be reevaluated. She believes that the history was distorted in order to suit the needs of the historians and their patrons. She says that the Somanatha was not as important an event as it was made by the court historians. She believes that the temple was an important one only because of the overemphasis of the Muslim historians over its destruction and later of the British historians who wanted to create a divide among the local Indians.

Nehru's letter to Rajendra Prasad, excerpt from Romila Thapar's book
Nehru’s letter to Rajendra Prasad, excerpt from Romila Thapar’s book

She goes on to mention the post-partition politics as well. The Congress politicians belonging to Gujarat believed it to be a highly important issue for their politics. The reconstruction of the temple was celebrated with much fanfare. Sardar Vilabhbhai Patel was personally present at the inauguration of the temple when it was reconstructed. President of the country Dr. Rajendra Prasad also ignored Prime Minister Jawahralal Nehru’s advice to not to attend the ceremony. Nehru wanted the government of India to stay away from such an event not only because he was himself a secular politician but also because he did not want the state’s secular ideology to be challenged. He rightly noted in his autobiography later on that there was “only a small explicitly secular group in the Indian National Congress”.

The book is recommended for reading especially if the readers are interested in the historiography. It not only challenges the dominant historical perspective but also highlights how religion was used by the historians and the rulers to gain legitimacy, completely ignoring how their iconoclasm might impact the relations of a people with another in the centuries to come.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *