An event takes place. It impresses different people in different ways. Situated at different points in time and with differing interests, they talk about it or ignore it variously in their writings. These writings form a whole body, or several bodies, of literature. Historians – not innocent observers but having their own predilections – use them as their “sources”. Their writings form one more “representation” of the event. Romila Thapar’s new book is about how different narratives grew around the raid of Somanatha and the breaking of the idol by Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century. She discusses the nature and purposes of these narratives and shows the fallacy of looking at one of them as representing the truth. This book is, thus, less a reconstruction of what happened than an exercise in historiography, demonstrating how historical writing is about dealing critically with varieties of narratives. In discussing the factuality and causality of an event, the historian should also accept that different narratives can represent it differently. Although it is not possible to change the past or liberate ourselves from it, we can constantly engage with it through a process, legitimated by proper method, of continuous re-examination and reassessment of the sources.
The book is relevant not merely for this primary lesson in historiography; drawing from that lesson, it exposes the politics of hate, with its ideology based on particular versions, and specially manufactured images, of the past. Not surprisingly, the book has already caused some grimace: “Thapar’s scholarship is difficult to fault”, concedes a reviewer before caricaturing the book, for “She has meticulously studied various accounts…” But he is still sure: “nobody is going to believe her” (India Today, February 16, 2004, pp. 88-9). Yes, the problem is that of belief, not the evidence and the way in which it is examined. Luckily, Villa Serbelloni is not, unlike the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, located in Pune! Can the quotation from the XIIth Rock Edict of Asoka on p. v of the book, making a plea for respecting, and refraining from disparaging, others’ religion be more relevant than in India today?
The Prabhasa-tirtha of early historical times became Somanatha-Veraval in the early medieval period. A temple of importance came to be built there; so also a trading centre was opened with maritime contacts with the Arab world. Naturally, the centre received immense patronage from many sects and political authorities. Political patronage also meant its converse – destruction, for both are statements of power in their own ways. The wealth of the temple was huge and hugely attractive to the greedy. The raid by Mahmud, himself coming from a culture of plunder and raid, is to be placed in this context. This is not as if he had no religious agenda; he believed that breaking the idols of those who went against the teaching of the Prophet gave him religious merit – hence the descriptions of his refusal to return the idol for tempting considerations. But Thapar’s point is that to privilege a source that looks at the raid on Somanatha as just an act of breaking an idol with a single agenda, to the point of denying all else, will be to miss the complexities of the past.
Persian and Arabic documents have acquired a hegemonic character among the sources. However, not all of them tell the same story, there being wide variations in presenting the deeds and intentions of Mahmud. They range from the somewhat sober accounts of Al-Biruni to the fantastic and fanciful stories of others, exaggerating the powers of the icon, the magnitude of the loot and so on. Some link the temple with Manat, the pre-Islamic Arabian goddess, while others look at the raid as motivated by religious enthusiasm or greed or political ambition. The accounts encompass such a wide variety that one has to ask a question about the context and relevance of each of them. There are even accounts which are silent about the entire episode. Yet, what adds to the complexity is the attempt, the result of which has almost attained the status of the truth, to project a single version drawing on the late accounts of Ferishta as authoritative. The discourse of power makes use of the power of discourse! A masterly survey and analysis of texts demonstrates the way in which Turko-Persian narratives have gone on changing their tone and message. In highlighting all these, the historian is not whitewashing what happened or exonerating Mahmud; she is only suggesting that the preference shown for one narrative is not without its implications. The rich corpus of inscriptions, mostly Sanskrit, from the environs of Somanatha tells an altogether different story. Worship went on in the temple in the century of the raid and long after; and patronage continued, too. An important bilingual record – promptly blacked out in K.M. Munshi’s book on the subject – in Sanskrit and Arabic, barely 200 years after the raid, even shows how a Persian trader from Hormuz built a mosque on the estates of the temple, with the trustees and priests of the temple, together with the jama’t, looking after it. This record, arguably the first to use the expression Musalman in any Indian language, shows the extremely cordial relationship between Muslims and those who managed the temple of Somanatha. In fact, there is only one record mentioning the raid of the temple and that, of doubtful authenticity and untraceable. A Sanskrit inscription quoted from a hero-stone is moving. Opening with the formulaic benediction Bismillahi’r Rahimani’r Rahim, it commemorates the death of Bohra Farid, son of Bohra Muhammed, who died fighting the Turushkas who attacked the temple of Somanatha. Did the raid itself cause the “trauma”, or did politicians in a later period cause it by their melodramatic writings?
Literary texts in Sanskrit and the “vernacular” languages paint a similar picture. They are concerned more with competing claims by Shaiva and Jain groups as to the greater efficacy of each; patterns of patronage among Rajput rulers and such like, where the destruction or deterioration of the temple, while still present, is marginal. The varied folklore of Gujarat and Rajasthan does have references to the event, the image available in it being so very different from what the Turko-Persian narratives project. In the traditions of Nathapanthis, there is even a suggestion of Mahmud being associated with the pious qualities and magical powers of the Sufis, Sants and Gurus! There are a number of similar stories prevalent in the popular lore of northern India. It is from out of these many images that just one is taken out, exaggerated and presented as the truth.
It all began with the colonial masters with their own politics. The western world had accepted Alexander Dow’s History of Hindostan, basing itself on Ferishta, as authentic history. The familiar image of India as constituted by permanently inimical Hindu and Muslim communities was gradually taking shape. In the context of the complex politics of the triangular relations among the British, Afghans and Punjab, Lord Ellenborough ordered the gates of Somanatha, supposed to have been carried off to Ghazni and used on the tomb of Mahmud, to be brought back. This caused a debate in British Parliament, much of which in support of the Governor-General also went into the making of the idea that Mahmud’s raid was instrumental in causing a trauma in the Hindu mind, from which it never recovered – incidentally, a picture never met with in the sources thus far. This mischievous image was carried forward in later “nationalist” writings, attempts at sober analyses by historians such as Mohammed Habib notwithstanding. K.M. Munshi played up the communal reading. Excavations were done at the site; but as the results were not encouraging, they were pushed under the carpet. The movement for rebuilding the temple and its installation further strengthened it. It was in the same pattern that Somanatha was used to launch the rath yatra to Ayodhya in 1990. That, as they say, is history.
The raid of Somanatha has meant many things to many: iconoclasm and championship of Islam, greed and political ambition, superiority of Jainism over Shaivism, profits of trade, confrontations of Rajput and Turkish politics, esoteric experiences in popular culture, an excuse for constructing Hindu/Muslim bipolarity, and, finally, Hindu “nationalism” contesting secular values through a politics of hate. Memory being a social construct, the elite of society becomes responsible for the construction of such memories. Thapar has once again earned our debt by redeeming history’s social and scientific obligation through this thoroughgoing analysis, by showing what constitutes the “memory” of Somanatha. To present a straight-line picture offering a monocausal explanation will be to deny history the complexities of the past. As a critical engagement with the past, history will have to listen to and place in perspective the many narratives regarding events, structures and processes of the past. Suppressing the many voices and projecting just one, because it serves you better, will make history “mythology’s wicked sister, propaganda”.
Kesavan Veluthat teaches history in Mangalore University and has a special interest in the history of early medieval India, particularly the South. Among his more important publications are Brahman Settlements in Kerala: Historical Studies and Political Structure of Early Medieval South India.