Revisiting Somnath–A Review

I am cross-posting my book review of Romila Thapar’s Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History (Verso 2005). This review was originally published on The South Asian Idea in July 2014.   I am re-posting it here because BP readers clearly have a deep interest in ancient “Indian” (or South Asian) history.

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.