Tuesday, May 24, 2016

'Somanatha': The Temple, Mahmud of Ghazni, Romila Thapar and Hating Thapar

From Will Durant to Stanley Wolpert, including Hindu nationalists like K.M. Munshi and the current crop of Hindutva fundamentalists, identify the raid of Mahmud of Ghazni in 1026 AD and his desecration of the Somanatha temple in Gujarat as a event that left a traumatic imprint on Hindus for ages to come. The trauma, it was said, put Hindus and Muslims into antagonistic sets. Nearly a millennia later, circa 1950, the reconstruction of the temple became matter of pride for a section of Hindus. Nearly four decades later, circa 1990, a Hindu nationalist leader tore India asunder in another quest to avenge a similar insult to Hindu pride, only now there was little or no historical basis. In that backdrop the grande dame of Indian history Romila Thapar questions what became an article of faith, that the desecration of Somanatha temple traumatized Hindus.

Romila Thapar's "Somanatha: The Many Voices of History" is polemical history at it's best. Thapar explicitly states the purpose of the book. 'The event itself is not questioned here'. 'The intention of this study', adds Thapar, 'is to explore the inter-relationship between an event and the historiography that grows around it by placing the narratives in a historical context'.

Colonial Historians and Periodization of Indian History

V.A. Smith's classic "History of India" divides Indian history into three periods; Hindu, Muslim and Colonial. Thapar assails this 'erroneous periodization' and further criticizes the selective sources used for each period. Thapar, unerringly, points out that Hindu period is often portrayed drawing upon, almost exclusively, Sanskrit sources while Muslim period is sourced from, again, almost exclusively, from Turko-Persian sources. This analysis is well borne out if one considers the books by doyen's of Indian philosophy. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan and S.N. Dasgupta in their respective magisterial survey's of Indian philosophic traditions completely ignore any tradition that is not Sanskrit. Dasgupta, after professing complete ignorance of regional languages then proceeds to confidently characterize that the famous Bhakti traditions of the South are not systematic philosophy. The Murty Classical library project that Harvard has undertaken under the leadership of Sheldon Pollock has as it's objective to present an India that is beyond the traditional focus on Sanskrit heritage.

In addition to establishing a narrative of perpetual conflict between Hindu and Muslim communities the Colonial era history telling added a more toxic influence to how Muslim era is perceived by Hindus. Thapar points out "the British encounter with Islam in India has not received the same analytical attention as the encounter with Hinduism since Islam was treated as an alien intervention untouched by Indian civilization". Western Historians from the Colonial era to present day are more accustomed to infuse their ideas of Islam formed in the background of their clashes in the Middle East to the study of Islam in India. Thapar highlights how "religious bigotry was frequently read into the texts translated". "Where Utbi says, 'He (Mahmud) made it obligatory on himself to undertake every year an expedition to Hind', the translation of this passage in Elliot and Dowson's work reads, 'the Sultan vowed to undertake a holy war to Hind every year".

                                            Romila Thapar                                                                                                                      (Image: http://thewire.in/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/Historian-Romila-Thapar-in-her-study-New-Delhi-1.jpg)

Teaching Indian History and Administrator-Historians

Dipesh Chakrabarty, professor of history in the University of Chicago, in his "The calling of history: Sir Jadunath Sarkar & His empire of truth" draws attention to a very important fact about colonial era historians like Smith and the study of Indian history as a subject in British and Indian universities in the early 20th century. V.A. Smith and Henry Miers Elliot (of the Elliot-Dowson duo cited above) are referred to as historians and their books have become modern classics and standard texts from which Indians still quote. Yet, by any modern sense of the word 'historian' neither Smith nor Elliot would qualify for it. They are not 'academic historians', in other words they were not trained to be historians. Chakrabarty points out that they were administrators in the service of the colonial regimes and wrote history as hobby.

Chakrabarty further underscores how little attention was given to the study of Indian history. "Indian history was not taught at a British university until the formation of the School of Oriental studies in 1917". He quotes Tapan Ray Chaudhuri on 1950s Oxford, "the university made no other formal provision for the instruction of graduate students working on Indian history beyond appointing a supervisor". To make matters worse the Colonial government severely restricted access o research material for independent researchers. "Denied access to official sources and relegated to a low status in the Western academic world, Indian enthusiasts of scientific history at the beginning of the twentieth century turned, understandably, to colonial administrator-scholars in search of mentors".

In this backdrop we've to admire the services of Romila Thapar, Nilakanta Sastry, A.L. Bhasham and their colleagues. Thapar's research into the Mauryan empire and the edicts of emperor Ashoka are without a doubt landmark groundbreaking studies. Chakrabarty's observations of administrator-scholars highlights how essential it is to carefully consider books by Smith and others. 

Arrival of Arabs, Mularaja and Somanatha Temple

Arabs invaded the throbbing city of Valabhi in the Saurashtra peninsula in 8th century and then gradually settled down in the vicinity as traders. The Arabs married local women and observed local customs. 'Rashtrakutha inscriptions', Thapar says, 'speak of Arabs' as Tajiks' and of appointing them as administrators to serve the kingdom.

The story of Somanatha illustrates a little spoken, but well documented, aspect of Hinduism, the nexus of temple and state. The Hindutva brigade often present Hinduism as a benign alternative to the blood soaked history of the Middle East and Europe where religion was a cause or pretext for many a war. The legitimation of a ruling dynasty by establishing places of worship, asserting control over such places, taxing general public for temples, the intertwining and clashing of interests between a privileged clergy and the lay public was all too common in India's history very akin to the European experience. Temples were constructed and became vehicles of sovereign authority of kings.

A narrative claimed that nearly 10,000 villages supported the temple but Thapar casts aspersion by comparing Somanatha to Nalanda, supported by 200 villages and Brihadeesvara temple, supported by 300 villages.

John Cort in "Open boundaries: Jain communities and cultures in Indian history" traces the history of how Somanatha was probably built by Mularaja, a Saivaite who was supportive of Jains too. Cort records "this is the most important Saiva temple in Western India, and its possession and endowment was an important mark of sovereignty for regional kings, just as its destruction was a matter of important for Muslim Kings from Mahmud of Ghazni onwards". Cort further quotes another source:"the building of the temple was, for example, as much an act of war as it was an act of peace, as much a political act as it was a religious act". The temple was undoubtedly a political statement by Mularaja who was seeking to establish the Chaulukya dynasty. While Mularaja and his successor Jayasimha were tolerant of Jains occasionally the tussle of superiority did rear its head. Jayasimha, according to chronicler Merutunga, cited by Cort, "on the occasion of setting up the flag on the temple, he had the flags of all Jaina temples lowered".

Mahmud of Ghazni Plunders Somanatha. Desecrated or Destroyed?

Thapar approaches the central theme of whether the desecration of the temple traumatized the Hindu psyche by drawing upon various sources, historical and literary, and subjecting them to a surgical scalpel looking for contradictions, embellishments and nuances. 

In 1026 Mahmud Ghazni invaded the port city of Somnath and desecrated the Saivaite temple. Ghazni plundered the city and the temple. Turko-Persian narratives gave, Thapar points out, grossly exaggerated claims of the quantum of loot and people killed, a 'formulaic 50,000'.

Thapar opens a contentious but relevant inquiry into whether Ghazni's ransack of the temple and desecration was motivated purely by religious hatred and how relevant was the religious angle to the desecration. Like Cort suggests above Thapar too questions the simplification of the desecration as a typical Islamic act. If the temple represented not just a religion but the sovereignty of the ruler too then it's destruction is less an act of religious tolerance and more an act of an invader asserting his suzerainty. While Ghazni's own letters to the Caliphate emphasize destroying the place of worship of the infidels Thapar contextualizes it as the boast of a feudal king to the Caliphate to embellish his valor.

The claim that the temple was 'destroyed' is completely untrue proves Thapar. Desecrated? Yes. Destroyed? No. Thapar cites an edict, circa 1038, of a Goan king who undertook a pilgrimage to the temple. Most notedly the Chaulukya king Kumarapala, according to an inscription circa 1169, renovated the temple on the advice of a Jain Hemachandra. He then appointed Bhava Brihaspati as chief priest.

Most historians, Indian and Western, cite, unfailingly, Al Biruni's book on India to substantiate the above referred claims. Wolpert's hurriedly written shoddy history, "India", cites Turko-Persian sources to say that the "bitter shock of such acts" were "more painfully amplified in the memories of those who had watched helplessly as friends and family were slain".

Al-Biruni had accompanied Ghazni and wrote a contemporaneous record of the events and his impressions of India in what is now a revered classic. Thapar raises an important objection to repeating Al-Biruni's recording. Al-Biruni left India soon after the invasion and ransacking by Ghazni. Other sources, Thapar cites, shows that the economy of Gujarat had an 'upward swing' until the 13th century, well after the invasion but Al-Biruni was not there to witness the revival of the economy. Also when trade did wane it was hastened by shifts in economy that was fueled by new trade routes.

A far less known but very important event was the sale of land belonging to Somanatha temple to an Arab by Hindus, including administrators of the temple. A parcel of land was sold in 1264, barely 200 years after the Ghazni invasion, to one Nur-ud-din Firuz to build, nonetheless, a mosque. The sale contract executed was recorded in both Sanskrit and Arabic with 4 dating systems. The Sanskrit and Arabic version of the contracts differed in one interesting aspect. The Arabic version included a sentence expressing the "desirability of Somanatha-pattana becoming a city of Islam with no infidels and no idols. A wish that is tactfully omitted in the Sanskrit version". This sale goes to the heart of whether the invasion cleaved the society into Hindus and Muslims as Wolpert and many others conclude.

A commingled society and contextualized texts

It is ironic that the Hindutva brigade often bristles at Western scholars like Wendy Doniger as lacking sufficient understanding Indian nuances and important localized variations but completely ignore such an argument by Thapar in this regard. Throughout this book Thapar repeatedly looks at events as an Indian historian fully aware of important nuances that Westerners often ignore and misconstrue. An important nuance is that Thapar refuses to use the homogeneous label 'Muslim' for all. The Jain sources differentiate between Turkish invaders and Arab settlers. Even amongst the Arab settlers there were sects like the Bohras who assimilated Vaishnavite beliefs. Thapar equally objects to clubbing all locals as 'Hindus'. 'Jagaducharitra', a local tale of a merchant and chieftain named Jagadu, recounts the shifting alliances, strange bed fellows, amongst sects of Hindus and Arabs when facing an enemy like the Sumra Muslims in defending Bhadreshvar. If the Turko-Persian accounts were miscast as 'epics of invasion' the epic poems of Rajputs are mistakenly categorized as 'epics of resistance'. The Rajput epics 'Prithviraja-Raso' and 'Prithviraja-vijaya', stunningly, omit mention of the Somnath raid.

Duly Thapar concludes that these competing narratives should not be seen as Hindu vs Muslim but more appropriately as "Chauhans/Chahamana" vs "Turks.Ghuris and Khaljis". "Many groups were competing for power and/or for economic resources. Can we then continue to speak of a 'Hindu' reaction to the event created by the 'Muslim', or should we not attempt to sift the actions and the reactions according to social groups and specific situations". That question shatters prejudices of a contentious event and calls upon the reader to re-investigate the conclusions, question the sources and re-interpret the evidences.

Jain philosophy and attitudes towards desecration of temples. Rajendra Chola's expedition

That the desecration of the temple irreparably divided the people along religious lines is the most repeated nonsense that has practically become truth. Historians like Durant and Wolpert wrote sweeping histories of a very complex and foreign civilization that would not conform to any paradigms they were used to and therefore, mostly unintentionally, errors crept into their narratives. In seeking to understand history we should repeatedly choose specialists in an area to understand the true complexities.

Paul Dundas, author of critically acclaimed 'Jains', provides an important clue to Thapar. The Jains, Dundas shows, took a sanguine stoic attitude towards the desecrations and destructions of temples by invaders and the occasional Indian king who becomes a zealot in service of his chosen sect. The Jains shrugged it off as 'Kaliyuga'. An account "written in 1336 by Kakka Suri" shows, Dundas says, Jain attitudes towards temple destructions. Kakka Suri "shows no interest in the motives behind the Muslim desecration (of Satrunjaya temple), stressing instead that such occurrences are to be expected in the irreligious Kali Yuga". "Kaka Suri's real concern is in describing the lavish renovation of Satrunjaya by which the Jain community demonstrated its prosperity".

India always presents a conundrum to any narrator. Was India a colonial construct that came into being on a certain date? Of course not. But it is equally true that what we call India today did not exist so from time immemorial. It was and it was not. India can only be best explained in terms akin to wave-particle duality of light. Does India have a pan-Indian cultural heritage that binds all in a shared heritage? It sure does. That does not, however, mean that a Kashmiri Hindu will go to war over what befalls a Kanyakumari Hindu or vice versa. To be sure, the same applies to other religions too and that is often lost sight of by the Hindutva brigade as much as the former is not realized by those alien to India's labyrinthine history.

Rajendra Chola undertook an expedition across the Eastern Chaulukya Kingdoms at exactly the same time as Mahmud of Ghazni was ransacking Somanatha. Thapar points out that Rajendra was not only unconcerned about Somanatha despite being a Saivaite king he was blissfully unaware of such an event. The expedition by Rajendra is remembered by Tamils as the conqueror of the Gangetic kings and for bringing back the waters from Ganga. K.A. Nilakanta Sastry's legendary history of the Cholas bears out Thapar's information. Interestingly Sastry cites another historian who completely discounts Rajendra's exploits and characterizes the entire expedition as a mere pilgrimage like exercise to bring a jug of water from the Ganges. A.L. Bhasham, Thapar's mentor, discounts the jihadi narrative of Turko-Persian sources for the raids by Ghazni and suggests it was less about religion and more about conquest and plunder. History has always been and will be a battlefield of embellishments and discounting of exploits whether it is Ghazni's jihad or Rajendra's pilgrimage.

From all available evidence that Thapar marshals and pummels the reader with, the conclusion is that the raid on Somanatha did not only not divide the country along religious lines, it also did not leave a traumatic scar on the Hindu psyche. A cursory look across history actually bears out Thapar's perspective.

Conflicts and attitudes in world history

A recent Facebook post by an Israeli shocked many because he had invited Israeli's to move from high expensive Tel-Aviv to, lo behold, a more economical city like Berlin. Yes, you read that correct. Arab regimes and Israel cooperate behind the scenes, Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda have moved beyond the horrific genocide, Vietnam just inked a major defense deal with US, America is Japan's staunchest ally, Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils are patching up, India's Congress party made a Sikh it's Prime Minister. Past is not prologue. Cataclysmic events that tear asunder peoples have, more often than not, failed to divide in perpetuity. While an Advani or Jinnah or Golwalkar would capitalize on division a Gandhi or Nehru will stand athwart the primordial flood of hatred and architect a better destiny by appealing to the better angels in the human soul.

The fabled eastern indifference to history could be a redeeming virtue after all by refusing to dwell on the past and instead moving on with a shrug. Jawaharlal Nehru quoted the beautiful lines of Matthew Arnold in his 'Discovery of India':

The East bowed low before the blast
In patient deep disdain and
Plunged into thought again

If contemporary texts show a sanguine stoicism to an epochal event and if further evidence shows a society that not only lived and conducted commerce with co-religionists of the invader but also sold land that belonged to the temple to construct a mosque then how and where did this narrative of a traumatized Hindu soul arise?

Lord Ellenborough, 'The Proclamation of the Gates'. Divide and Rule.

On 9th March 1843 a debate in the British House of Commons asked why was the Indian Governor General Lord Ellenborough obsessed with returning supposedly stolen 'gates of Somanatha' from the gravesite of Mahmud of Ghazni to India. Lord Ellenborough had issued what is now known as 'Proclamation of the Gates' in 1842. The backstory is convoluted with an Afghan exile seeking help from Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh and a tripartite negotiation that included those two and the British in which Ranjit Singh reportedly asking for the return of the gates supposedly stolen from Somanatha. Whether Ranjit Singh used the cooked up story of stolen gates to stall negotiations or sincerely wanted and even if so did he 'demand it' or did he just mention it are all not known with any certainty today. Ellenborough who was trying to salvage British misadventure in Afghanistan made a fetish of returning the gates and justified it as an important pre-requisite to comfort the wounded Hindu pride. Thapar also justifiably suggests that Ellenborough was probably using the pretext to assert British suzerainty over Afghanistan. Whatever Ellenborough's motivations maybe the narrative of the raid of Somanatha creating a wound between two religions that remained raw over centuries came to be established. V.A. Smith' 'History of India' corroborates Thapar's characterization of the episode. Smith writes "the farcical episode of the return of the supposed gates of Somnath from Ghazni"

While the nationalist struggle under the Mahatma's leadership was trying for a unified nation religious nationalism, both Hindu and Muslim, sought to emphasize differences and repurpose revisionist history to regurgitate the past only to inflame the present. K.M. Munshi, a Hindu fundamentalist in the Nehru cabinet, had written a novel titled 'Jaya Somanatha' that was of predictable content. As minister Munshi made it his life's mission to reconstruct the Somanatha temple. Sitting president Rajendra Prasad happily consented to inaugurate the new temple. An incensed Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Prasad, reminding of the very raw wounds of partition, of the inadvisability of his attendance. Prasad ignored the sagely advice of Nehru.

A political backdrop to history is not a demerit. History and Polemics

"Somanatha" is a work of painstaking scholarship with a political backdrop. While the hooliganism of Advani's 'Ram-janma-bhoomi' movement and it's perversion of history prompted Thapar to write this important book this is NOT a political book. Thapar is often tarnished by her naysayers as 'Marxist' whereas this book is anything but Marxist. Unlike Marxists she does not focus on the fault lines of a society or the cleavages but instead, backed by evidence, she proves that societies live in a more intermingled manner and perceptions of centuries old irreparable frictions that beg for vindictiveness are mere propaganda.

History, especially polemical history, written in response to a political upheaval makes an important intellectual contribution to the discourse and should not be brushed aside childishly as "it's a political work". Richard Hofstadter, a very Marxist American historian, responded to the McCarthy-Nixon era with influential and timeless classics "The Paranoid style in American politics" and "Anti-intellectualism in America". The books are now often cited, a half century later, in response to the rise of Donald Trump. When history has devolved into propaganda and scholarship is rare to come by Thapar's book is a welcome salvo to combat the reactionary forces that are now sweeping across India.

If anyone has a problem with Thapar's book they'd do well to write a detailed counter disputing her sources, interpretations and conclusions anything outside of that is mud-slinging. The most ironical part of the criticism against Thapar is that it is done mostly by Hindutva brigade whereas Thapar actually writes this book to debunk colonial era history telling, calls for nuanced understanding of the complex societies in India, emphasizes how India was not torn apart and sets the conflict in the ebb and flow of time. If anything the Hindutva brigade should be celebrating Thapar's book.

As I've shown above with quotes from books by other authors Thapar's conclusions are largely corroborated. More than offering conclusions Thapar has questioned what has now become popular understanding. Many Indians are unaccustomed to a book of history that mostly has 'would have, should have and could have' and this leads many to debunk this book as "not historical". That's wrong. Any book on an era that is buried in layers of myths and multiple narratives can only be conjectured from diverse sources and a plausible picture is presented. Again, if one wishes to debunk "Somanatha" one would need to show that Thapar was intellectually dishonest in selective sourcing or willful misinterpretation of the sources. Of course, that's not only a tall order but, given how other sources corroborate her, well nigh impossible.

A fart obsessed Tamil blogger charged that Thapar's history was unquestionable and that her book was filled with mistakes. He said that to Thapar herself. The gentle lady very politely suggested that the book is dense and he may not have understood it. The book is certainly not dense but it is no easy read either. The book lacks the verve and flow of, say, Drew Gilpin Faust's 'Republic of suffering' or the many popular history books by American professors. Many of those books deal with a theatrical theme that facilitates lush story telling unlike a book that seeks to reconstruct social attitudes of a people a millennium ago based on textual reading, contextualizing little known sources, references to ancient texts with exotic names and patient analysis of each source for motives all make it almost impossible to write an easy to read book. The book could've used a good editor to excise some repetitiveness. Thapar's writing style is very akin to Nilakanda Pastry, V.A. Smith and other doyens of the colonial era. Indian non-fiction writing is still trapped in colonial style. Probably a healthy dose of Americanization could help.

"Somanatha" is a compelling work to be read by anyone for whom pursuit of truth is not an avocation but a calling.


  1. The Oxford History of India (3rd ed) - V.A. Smith
  2. The Colas - K.A. Nilakanta Sastry
  3. The Wonder that was India - A.L. Bhasham
  4. The Jains - Paul Dundas
  5. Indian Philosophy - Volume 5 Surendra Nath Dasgupta
  6. India: A Wounded Civilization - V.S. Naipaul
  7. A New History of India - Stanley Wolpert
  8. Our Oriental Heritage (Volume 1 of 'Story of Civilization) - Will Durant
  9. The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar & His Empire of Truth - Dipesh Chakrabarty
  10. Open Boundaries: Jain communities and Cultures in Indian History - John Cort
  11. Somanatha and Mahmud (possibly appeared in Frontline as an excerpt) http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00islamlinks/txt_thapar_somnath.html
  12. Romila Thapar's interview on Somanatha https://youtu.be/HdX0Xe6fC14


Pranidhi said...

"Gentle lady, "impossible to refute her", "no historical basis to the Ayodhya claim" etc etc.
Any comments on this book and the allegations on Thapar and co therein? I expect not. Or you'll probably dismiss KK Muhammed also as a Hindutva lackey like you always do the "minority" members who happen to have a view that aligns even occasionally with the Hindus'.
Also R. Thapar knows neither sanskrit nor Persian to any degree expected of a professional historian who presumably goes through original sources and inscriptions.

Anyway, to me atleast, the destructions of temples is of seondary concern and in many instances may well be attributed to political rather than religious motives. But the scars are deeper. The Ghazis' standard template of mass slaughter of entire male populations of cities and sex-slavery of Hindu women (the case of the Yazidis being a ready modern day parallel), all gleefully chronicled by islamic writers and attested by several other sources is too deeply entrenched in the ancestral memory of Hindus for any amount of whitewashing by Thapar, Pollock and their disciples to have any real effect.

Any views on the Madurai Sultanate? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madurai_Sultanate#Rule
What about the Kashmir sultanate?
I hope you don't dismiss all this also as colonial or HIndutva re-writing. The brazen claim by those like Thapar and Truschke that historical sufferings of Hindus at the hands of ghazis is mostly imagined than real and that communal troubles in modern India are due to Hindus and Hindutva alone flies in the face of evidence and ancestral memory.

Have a good day.

Pranidhi said...

Btw, one apologia that we come across often is that all medieval kings including Hindus were brutal and barbaric in their methods. You have also implied this assertion here. Eg. ". The Hindutva brigade often present Hinduism as a benign alternative to the blood soaked history of the Middle East and Europe where religion was a cause or pretext for many a war........"

Show me one instance where a Hindu king indulged in mass sex-slavery of non-Hindu women and I'll reconsider.

Anilkumar Kurup said...

"Somanatha" is a compelling work to be read by anyone for whom pursuit of truth is not an avocation but a calling.:
The bottom line here "is any one in pursuit of truth"!
Well, what if a hatched-up view of the past is what suits the contemporary clan of Nationalists?
Ms Thappar becomes an anathema , a persona non grata, a Commie like Wendy Doniger.
I must say your analysis is quite enriching.

IsP EqualToNP said...

Her inference that Sanskrit contract didn't contain text that was in Arabic version is biased. An unbiased historian would've presented the other interpretation as well.

Also, judging Rajendra Choza as someone unconcerned about Somanatha esp, when being unaware reeks. Even if he was aware, calling him unconcerned is preposterous. We all know, that even with things one is concerned, there are far fewer things they can exert control on.