Revisiting Somnath – A Review

By Kabir Altaf

In 1026, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni raided the Hindu temple of Somnath (located in the present-day Indian state of Gujarat).  In retrospect, this event has had tremendous repercussions for contemporary South Asian history and is traditionally regarded as marking Hindu-Muslim animosity in the region from the outset. To this day, perceptions of Mahmud continue to be polarizing. While many Indians regard him as an iconoclastic invader bent upon loot and plunder, their counterparts in Pakistan view him as a conqueror who “established the standard of Islam on heathen land.” The Pakistani attitude is perhaps best exemplified by the fact that the country’s military has named the Ghaznavi missile in honor of Mahmud.  However, despite this conventional understanding, modern historians are attempting to question the received wisdom surrounding Somnath.

One of the modern scholars attempting to arrive at a new understanding of Somnath is Romila Thapar, considered among India’s most eminent historians. In her book Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso 2005), Thapar argues that the dominant view that Mahmud’s raid caused great psychological trauma to the Hindu community is largely a colonial construction that gained prominence during the British Raj. She goes beyond the Turko-Persian histories favored by colonial historians to examine contemporaneous Sanskrit inscriptions, biographies of kings and merchants, and popular narratives. Studying these sources complicates the traditional view, posing important questions about how one version of the event became hegemonic.

Colonial historians divided Indian history into three periods: Hindu, Muslim, and British.  Study of the “Hindu” period focused on Sanskrit sources while study of the “Muslim” period focused on Persian texts. According to Thapar, this classification scheme was illogical and led to a piecemeal history in which links and connections could not be made. It also discouraged comparative analysis of different sources and an examination of the contradictions and interconnections between them.  In the case of Somnath, historians focused on the Persian sources to the exclusion of others, never inquiring why the event is seldom referenced in the Sanskrit temple inscriptions. In addition, the Persian texts were read at face value, discounting their internal contradictions. Various texts assigned Mahmud different motivations with some emphasizing his religious zeal and others focusing on his interest in plunder.

The dominance of the conventional view of Somnath can also be explained by the retrospective need to justify the 1947 Partition of British India into two nation-states: India and Pakistan. This was justified by claiming that, since the arrival of Islam, the Hindu and Muslim communities had been two distinct “nations” that were largely antagonistic to each other. In this view, the raid on Somnath became “a foundational event that created hostility between Hindus and Muslims since the raid could neither be forgiven nor forgotten” (Thapar 12). Post-independence, the conventional view of the event has become central to Hindutva politics. Thapar notes that the 1990 rath yatra that preceded the destruction of the Babri Masjid began at Somnath. The destruction of the mosque itself was seen as the Hindu reply to Mahmud’s iconoclasm. Thus, the received wisdom about Somnath served not only the aims of the British but continues to serve those of contemporary religious nationalism.

Thapar focuses in depth on the debate that took place in the British House of Commons in 1843 after Lord Ellenborough, the Governor-General, issued “The Proclamation of the Gates,” arguing that the sandalwood gates of the Somnath temple had been taken by Mahmud to Ghazni and placed at the entrance to his mausoleum and that they had to be brought back to India.  In Thapar’s view, Ellenborough’s actions had multiple intentions.  He wanted to symbolize British control over Afghanistan despite the poor British showing in the Anglo-Afghan wars as well as to appeal to Hindu sentiment in order to further divide Hindus from Muslims and make Hindus more loyal and eager to join the British Indian Army. The rhetoric of this debate established the pattern for future readings of the event. The destruction of Somnath was seen a traumatic humiliation of the Hindu community which could only be avenged by bringing the gates back to India. Ironically, when found, the gates turned out not to have been of Indian workmanship after all and were placed in the storeroom of the Agra Fort.

This colonial reading of the event subsequently influenced a segment of nationalist opinion, particularly among those who would now be referred to as “religious nationalists”. When India became independent, a demand arose that the Somnath temple be rebuilt. Among the most important proponents of this idea was K.M. Munshi, who wrote extensively about Gujarat’s history.  For Munshi, the “glory of Gujarat lay in the contribution of the Gurjaras who were indigenous, steeped in Aryan culture, and active in the Indian resistance to the alien Muslim. Somanatha was a symbol of this” (185).  According to Thapar, “[Munshi] converted Somanatha into an icon of the resurgence of Hindu religious nationalism, and of freedom from ‘foreign’ Muslim rule. This is evident from the objectives of the Somnath Trust that supervised the building and functioning of the temple and which stipulated that non-Hindus could not perform acts of worship in the new temple” (188).  For religious nationalists such as Munshi, the rebuilding of Somnath was an emblem of Hindu “revenge” for Mahmud’s iconoclasm.

In the final chapter of the book, entitled “Constructing Memory, Writing Histories,” Thapar sums up her argument that multiple sources have to be studied in order to understand the context of any particular event. Describing the impact of trauma on communities, she argues that the traumatized population either exorcises it by referring to it repeatedly or suppresses it by withdrawing and refusing to have anything to do with the perpetrators. She writes: “There is little evidence of either of these reactions to Mahmud’s raid in the sources. There have been traumas related to hostilities between communities in the last hundred years and we are familiar with the aftermath of these. They do not reflect what happened a thousand years ago but emerge out of contemporary origins. We should be wary of projecting onto the past that which emerges out of the experiences of the present” (222, italics added).  She concludes by stating: “I have tried to suggest that the event of Mahmud’s raid on the temple of Somanatha did not create a dichotomy. There were varying representations, both overt and hidden. A deeper investigation of these representations could point to concerns quite other than the ones to which we have given priority so far, both in this and similar events in Indian history. An assessment of these may provide us with more accurate and more sensitive insights into the Indian past” (225).

Somanatha: The Many Voices of A History is an extremely important scholarly work that raises important questions about the significance of an event that has previously been examined through one dominant point of view serving colonial and religious nationalist ends. It is essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary South Asia and the complexity of relations between communities, the creation of identity, and the politics of mythologizing differences.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.

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  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 16:59h, 16 July Reply

    Kabir: I read this book when it came out and don’t have my copy at hand so my memory might play some tricks. I think it made some of the following points that added to my understanding of the event:

    1. Temple raids were common at that time. Even various Hindu dynasties attacked each other’s temples. The reasons were that temples were the storehouses of wealth and they were the symbols of a ruler’s authority and power. Religion was not the driving motivation for such raids.

    2. Note the following: “Contemporary records suggest that one of his [Mahmud’s] most notable generals was a Hindu by the name of Tilak.” (Just as Akbar had many highly ranked Hindu generals in his army who helped him defeat Muslim potentates.)

    3. The monolithic Hindu or Muslim identity did not exist at that time. There were caste groups on one side and ethnic groups on the other with all kinds of cross alliances and conflicts. The Muslims were identified much more as Afghanis, Iranis, Turanis, and Turks. The ethnicities were often arrayed against each other in alliance with caste groups.

    4. This reality persisted till very late in India. Without appreciating that one cannot explain the devastating raids of Nadir Shah and Abdali on the Mughals or even Babar establishing the dynasty by defeating the Lodi Afghans. There was no sense of Muslims uniting for any purpose.

    5. In fact, note this observation from a 2010 description of life in an Indian village: “The Muslims, or Turks, as they are known locally, in many ways mirror their Hindu neighbours.”

    6. The monolithic identities were created much later after the mutiny of 1857 and were cast in stone by the introduction of the census in 1871 and electoral politics soon after. We have often referred on this blog to the excellent work of Kamalajit Bhasin-Malik on the creation of religious identities in India.

    I hope you can look at the book and corroborate or contradict some of these claims.

  • Kabir Mohan
    Posted at 01:46h, 17 July Reply

    South Asian,

    Thapar does discuss the desecration of temples in some depth and points out that Hindu rulers also destroyed temples–for some of the reasons you have articulated. She writes: “There were multiple reasons for attacking temples–establishing political supremacy, legitimizing succession, obtaining fiscal benefits, demonstrating religious differences–and it would be worth examining the Turkish attacks on temples in the light of these many reasons. What remains unexplained is that, in the process of creating a memory of temple destruction in modern times, only the temples desecrated by Muslim rulers are remembered, those desecrated by Hindu rulers are forgotten” (pg. 218).

    Regarding the lack of a homogenous “Muslim” identity, Thapar does point about the distinction between Yavanas, Turuskhas, etc. In her discussion of the Sanskrit inscriptions, she writes: “Did the local people make a distinction between the Arab traders and the Turks? The Arabs, who were initially invaders, had now come to be accepted as partners in trade and the trade brought large profits. Were the Turks unacceptable because most of them were still coming as invaders? Clearly, they were not all homogenized and identified simply as ‘Muslims’, as we would do today” (96).

  • Vikram
    Posted at 20:41h, 17 July Reply

    It might help to keep the bigger Asian picture in our mind.

    Take China for example, by 1115 the semi-nomadic Jurchens (who were based in Manchuria) attacked the Han Song dynasty and took over the Northern part of China. The Jurchens in turn, were attacked by another semi-nomadic peoples, the Mongols, who ended up conquering the whole of China, Tibet and some neighboring areas.

    By 1200, the settled Chinese were under attack by a more mobile people, who went on to take political control of the Chinese state. This non-native rule lasted till 1368 when the Han Ming dynasty took control. They were again displaced by the non-Han Manchus (descendants of the Jurchens) who went on to take complete control of the Chinese state in the the form of the Qing empire, which ruled China for nearly 300 years. The Manchus forced the Han to maintain a particular hairstyle (the ‘queue’ ponytail), the punishment for not obeying was death.

    One can conjecture that the river based Asian civilizations that shared frontiers with the more rugged Central Asian lands, faced a concerted invasion from those peoples.

    Therefore, what happened in India starting in 1026, with Ghaznavi’s sack of Lahore can be seen as a particular instance of this broader Asian trend, which continued till the 1700s, with long periods of non-native rule, just like in China.

    There are a few major differences between India and China though:

    1) Because China was a centralized state, with an established principle of political consolidation (the mandate of heaven), a single foreign population managed to take over the entire country relatively quickly.

    In contrast, India did not have any principle of political consolidation, but an underlying spiritual unity. This actually made conquest more difficult, places like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Assam did not come under foreign rule till being subdued by the British in the 1800s. It also meant that the mass of even the elite population, people like traders, mercenaries and priests, were not greatly affected by the incoming populations.
    We must bear in mind here, that even in 1901, 1200 years of Bin Qasim’s conquest of Sindh, Muslims in the whole of India were only 20 % of the total population.

    2) Unlike the Jurchens, and even the Manchus, who shared religion and culture with the Han Chinese, and were eventually absorbed into Han society, the invaders in India had two key differences with the Hindus. Islamic religion and Persianate culture. Once they established political control of the Indian state(s), their existing networks and the turmoil in the Muslim world, ensured a migration of administrators, relatives and artists to India. Even though, the incoming Muslim populations did get absorbed into Indian society, they maintained distinct identities through this network and the new religion. Some locals also absorbed the cultures and traditions of the incoming populations and combined them with their existing ones.

    Then, once the age of nationalism came, the presence of a third party, the British, aggravated these differences, resulting in the formation of religious nationalism(s) in India, and a consequent reappraisal of history along religious lines.

    • Kabir Mohan
      Posted at 15:41h, 18 July

      Thanks Vikram, for placing Ghaznavi’s invasions in a broader context. This just reinforces the point made earlier on this blog that these types of raids and invasions were normal behavior in premodern times. There was no such notion of “sovereign boundaries” of nation-states. Those who could looked to expand their kingdoms by conquest.

      Your point that even in 1901, Muslims were only 20% of India’s population seems to suggest that the nominally “Muslim” conquerors were not primarily interested in conversion–if they had been, they would probably have been more successful. We have discussed earlier on this blog that most conversions to Islam were not via the sword but through the efforts of Sufis. Also, some people converted to gain economic and social benefits from the new regimes.

      On your second point about the maintenance of distinct identities, I disagree with you to some extent. It is true that the Muslims kept a sense of themselves as Muslims. However, what is now considered “Indian” culture (certainly North Indian culture) largely arose because of a mix of “native” and “foreign” influences. Just to take a few examples: Urdu, Hindustani music, the Taj Mahal, Mughlai cuisine. Just for argument’s sake, at what point can one begin to think of the Mughal dynasty as “Indian” rather than Central Asian? After all, Jahangir was half-Indian and this pattern continued in the succeeding generations.

      I agree with your conclusion that it was the British presence that sharpened the “Hindu-Muslim divide” and led to an understanding that two monolithic communities had always been in conflict– an understanding that differed in some important ways from the historical record.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 15:49h, 18 July Reply

    Is there any argument to suggest that rebuilding Somnath Temple was an act of revenge rather than restoring what was a glorious monument. If tomorrow Babri mosque is rebuilt would it be an act revenge?

    • Kabir Mohan
      Posted at 22:52h, 18 July

      Anil, there is no doubt that Somnath was rebuilt not simply to restore a glorious monument but as a deliberate political act. Similarly, the act of rebuilding the Babri Masjid would also be a political act.

      In her discussion of K.M. Munshi’s reasons for advocating the rebuilding of the temple, Thapar writes: “In terms of a wider context, Munshi was concerned to show the greatness of Aryan culture in India, which for him was Hindu culture and which he felt was being overturned by the presence of Islam. In the ideology of Hindu religious nationalism, the Aryans were equated, then as now, with present-day Hindus” (181).

      Also, before the new temple was built, the ruins of the medieval temple were cleared from the site. Thapar comments: “The removal of the medieval temple can be viewed as an attempt to annul its history. If the iconoclasm of the Turks and of Aurangzeb symbolized Muslim tyranny and, more than that, the inability of Hindus to challenge it, then the symbol of this inability had to be removed. Replacing the old temple with a new one was an act of legitimizing the new politics and the power of Hindu nationalism” (187).

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 09:30h, 19 July

      Anil: To me this comes across as a case of terminological confusion. Revenge implies an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth perspective. In that sense, it could be argued that the razing of Babri mosque was an act of revenge for the destruction of Somnath temple – instituted a thousand years later based on a revisionist history.

      The rebuilding of Somnath temple and Babri mosque would be acts of restoration. Of course, we would need to guess or decipher from records the intentions behind the restorations – they could be portrayed as simple restorations or as acts of defiance but the category of revenge would be misplaced for them.

      It was this perception of defiance that motivated Jawaharlal Nehru to bid the Government of India stay away from the restoration of Somnath in 1951 and also the same consideration that drove LK Advani to start the rath yatra to Ayyodhya in 1990 from there.

      For the description of the former by Romila Thapar, see the postscript to the following:

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 14:10h, 25 December Reply

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