Earlier this month, as PM Narendra Modi inaugurated a range of projects at the Somnath Temple in Gujarat, he cited the number of times it was raided and how it re-emerged every single time. Such forces and empires “can become dominant for some time in a given era, but can never become permanent. They cannot keep humanity suppressed for long,” he said while virtually laying down the foundation stone of the Parvati Temple at Somnath. “This was as true when some tyrannical forces were razing Somnath (temple) as it is today, when the world is apprehensive of such ideologies.”
While Modi’s speech was aimed at the recent takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban forces, the narrative of the Somnath Temple’s destruction and resurrection has indeed served political purposes, both during the colonial period and in an independent India.
Located at Veraval in the western coast of Gujarat, the Somnath Temple is believed to be the first among the 12 jyotirlinga shrines of Shiva. The site, which was part of the erstwhile princely state of Junagadh, was also connected to Lord Krishna. The political history of the shrine is traced back to a thousand years when in 1024 CE, during the reign of the Chalukya king Bhima I it was attacked by Turkik ruler Mahmud of Ghazni. An archaeological report submitted in 1950 by the department of archaeology, headed by B K Thapar, suggests that following the demolition by Ghazni, the temple was rebuilt once again by Hindu rulers. It was once again desecrated in 1297 CE when Alaf Khan, a general of the Khilji rulers in Delhi, attacked it. In the next few centuries, the temple was rebuilt on multiple occasions and desecrated in 1349 CE, 1413 CE and 1459 CE. It was once again demolished in 1699 by Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, suggests the report as cited by anthropologist Peter van der Veer in a 1992 research paper. Finally, in 1783, the Maratha queen Ahalyabai is known to have erected a shrine for Somnath a little distance away from the ruins of the old temple.
Van der Veer explains that this narrative did everything to “fill with tools and vocabulary of modern empirical science some lacunae of a story already well established.” He writes: “The story remains the same, and it is the story of perennial enmity between Muslim iconoclasts and Hindu idol-worshippers.”
The historical account of the Somnath Temple by the department of archaeology was sketched out in response to Congress leader K M Munshi’s proposal to reconstruct the temple in the years soon following the Independence of the country. But even under the British, a narrative of the destruction and rescue of the Somnath Temple was put to use most effectively for political purposes.
By the 19th century, readings of the event from Turko-Persian sources were becoming very popular among colonial interpreters of Indian history. They came to argue that the attack of Somnath by Mahmud was a cause of trauma for the Hindus. Historian Romila Thapar in her book, ‘Somnatha: The many voices of a history’ (2008), suggests that the colonial interest in the story grew out of two factors. “By focusing on the Turko-Persian representation of the event, the antagonism between Hindus and Muslims could be highlighted; and the statement that Mahmud found India a garden but converted it into a desert would require that the colonial power replant the desert, converting it into a garden and, in this process, emphasizing the destructiveness of Mahmud and of subsequent Muslim rule,” she writes.
She notes that while such a reading suited the European understanding of Islam at the time, it ignored the fact that in the historical context the ruling elite was not just acting on the behest of their religion. Thapar argues that unlike what the colonisers interpreted, none of the sources in fact spoke of a hostile reaction from the Hindus or of any such trauma created among them. Other sources in Sanskrit and regional languages too described the event in the traditional manner of battling enemies rather than in religious terms.
In 1852, Lord Ellenborough, who was then the governor-general, issued what came to be known as the ‘Proclamation of the Gates’. “He had heard that the sandalwood gates of the Somnatha temple had been taken back to Ghazni by Mahmud and had been placed at the entrance to his mausoleum. So he decided that the gates had to be brought back to Somnatha,” notes Thapar.
Interestingly, it remains unclear as to how and where Ellenborough found this bit of historical information since no source happens to mention it. When the British retook Kabul and Ghazni in the Anglo-Afghan war of 1942, the gates became a symbol of the conquest of Afghanistan. Ellenborough’s proclamation, which was primarily addressed to the chiefs and princes of northern and western India, emphasised on the “insult” of 800 years that was finally being avenged.
On the instruction of Ellenborough, General William Nott removed the gates in September 1842 and the 6th Jat Light Infantry was tasked with carrying it back to India. However, once they reached India and upon examination, the gates were found to not have been of Indian workmanship. They were also made of Deodar wood which is native to Ghazni, rather than sandalwood. Consequently, they were kept in the Agra Fort where they remain till date.
The colonial interpretation of the Indian past was carried forward by the anti-colonial nationalist leaders as well.
In the years preceding the independence of India, Munshi, on visiting the ruins of the ancient temple, expressed disappointment at the nation’s inability to protect the shrine. Recollecting his visit to the ruins in 1922, Munishi in his book, “Somnatha: The shrine eternal” (1976) writes, “My heart was full of veneration and shame. Millions have worshipped and worship today, Shri Krishna as ‘God himself’. Thousands, in every generation, had gained prestige or made money in his name as his representatives on earth. But the nation had fallen low; no one dared to raise his voice to rescue the sacred spot where once his mortal remains had been consigned to flames.”
Van der Veer in his work explains that Munshi’s writing equated the decline of the temple in 1024CE to the decline of the Hindu nation and the suppression of the Hindu population by the Nawabs of Junagadh. He also declared his desire to reconstruct the Somnath Temple at the site.
At the time of Independence, the Nawab of Junagadh decided to accede to Pakistan, despite the Hindu majority in his kingdom. The Indian National Congress reacted by forming a parallel government that led to an uprising by the people of Junagadh against the Nawab. Consequently, the Nawab fled to Pakistan and his dewan invited the Indian Army to Junagadh and handed over its administration to the Indian union.
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, then the home minister of India, visited Junagadh on November 12, 1947 and in a huge public meeting announced the reconstruction of the Somnath Temple. “On this auspicious day of the new year, we have decided that Somnatha should be reconstructed. You, people of Saurashtra, should do your best. This is a holy task in which all should participate,” he said as Van der Veer cites in his work.
When Munshi along with Patel had approached Gandhi to propose the reconstruction of the temple, the latter is supposed to have agreed but laid out that “let the people and not the government bear the expenditure”. Accordingly, a trust was created with Munshi as its chairman.
Van der Veer notes that while money had indeed not been directly spent by the government of India, there is no doubt about the support the project received from state institutions. “The government of India and the Saurashtra government each had two representatives on the board of trustees. An advisory committee was set up with Munshi as chairman and the director-general of archaeology as convenor,” he writes.
With the death of Patel in 1950, the responsibility of building the temple fell on Munshi’s shoulders. But he was not without opposition in his plans for this new construction. While the archaeologists wished to preserve the ruins, Munshi wanted the site to be a place of worship and living tradition for the ‘Hindu nation’.
Then there was also the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was strongly opposed to Munshi associating the reconstruction of the temple with the government of India. As Thapar notes, for Nehru “such an activity was unacceptable as government activity and inimical to the policy of a secular government ruling a secular state.”
In a letter addressed to the chief ministers on May 2, 1951, Nehru wrote:
You must have read about the coming ceremonies at Somnath temple. Many people have been attracted to this and some of my colleagues are even associated with it in their individual capacities. But it should be clearly understood that this function is not governmental and the Government of India as such has nothing to do with it. While it is easy to understand a certain measure of public support to this venture we have to remember that we must not do anything which comes in the way of our State being secular. That is the basis of our Constitution and Governments therefore, should refrain from associating themselves with anything which tends to affect the secular character of our State. There, are, unfortunately, many communal tendencies at work in India today and we have to be on our guard against them. It is important that Governments should keep the secular and non-communal ideal always before them. (as cited by Thapar).
Nehru was also against president Rajendra Prasad visiting the inaugural ceremony of the temple. “I confess that I do not like the idea of your associating yourself with a spectacular opening of the Somnath temple. This is not merely visiting a temple, which can certainly be done by you or anyone else, but rather participating in a significant function which unfortunately has a number of implications. Personally, I thought that this was no time to lay stress on large-scale building operations at Somnath. This could have been done gradually and more effectively later. However, this has been done. I feel that it would be better if you did not preside over this function,” he wrote in a letter to Prasad.
Prasad, however, ignored Nehru’s advice and participated in the ceremony. In his speech at Somnath, Prasad emphasised on the Gandhian value of inter-faith harmony. He also pointed out that to reconstruct the temple was “not to open old wounds”, but rather “to help each caste and community obtain full freedom”.
Nehru was equally displeased with reports of the Saurashtra government contributing a substantial amount of money to the building of the temple. He believed that at a time when the government had stopped expenditure on education, health and other beneficent services due to lack of funds, it seemed odd for a state government to be spending on temple building.
Thapar writes that Nehru’s concern was not just with the Somnath Temple and it being rebuilt. “He was underlining the larger view of the nature of the Indian state and society after independence and was demanding a commitment to democracy and secularism.”
Peter van der Veer, Ayodhya and Somnath: Eternal shrines, contested histories, Social Research, Vol. 59, No.1, 1992
Romila Thapar, Somanatha: The many voices of a history, Penguin Books, 2004
K M Munshi, Somanatha-The shrine eternal, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1976