Hindutva and history

Print edition : March 26, 2004

Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History by Romila Thapar; Viking; pages 260, Rs.375.

IN 1989 when Lal Krishna Advani, as the Bharatiya Janata Party's president, took over the Ayodhya movement launched by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad two decades earlier, he did so admittedly with an eye on the general elections. He hoped, as he put it, that the decision would "translate into votes". While doing so, he also took over the false history on Ayodhya written by British historians and kept citing the "precedent" of the Somanatha temple as having been rebuilt by the Nehru government in 1951. This claim was palpably false as this writer pointed out on the basis of authentic material ("Of Somanatha and Ayodhya", Frontline, January 2, 2001).

What one of India's foremost historians Romila Thapar does in this erudite work is to demolish comprehensively a whole set of myths fostered by Muslim, Hindu and British writers on the issue. Despite a basic difference, the Babri Masjid parallel is very apt. There is not a shred of evidence to prove that Babar ordered the demolition of a temple at Ayodhya to build a mosque on its site in 1528 or that his Governor at the place, Mir Baqi Tashqbandhi, did so of his own accord. There is, however, incontestable evidence of the fact that in 1026 Mahmud of Ghazni raided the temple of Somanatha, plundered its wealth and broke the idol. Now comes the parallel. On Ayodhya, British officials gave currency to the falsehood of the demolition of the temple citing no proof but that "it is locally affirmed" in the 19th century. In that century also, British historians led by James Mill periodised Indian history on communal lines ("the Muslim era", "the Hindu era") and depicted Mahmud's raid as having created a trauma among Hindus, whose effects lasted over eight centuries. The motive for fabricating the myth was to show that the British had liberated India from Muslim "oppression".

Romila Thapar's work is an excellent study in historiography. She writes: "My intention in this study is not an attempt at a detailed reconstruction of what happened, but rather to see the sources as presenting various perspectives, either directly or by implication, and to search for clues as to how the event was perceived. Such an assessment results in a different reading of the event from that which has been current so far. It emphasises a number of significant questions: who were the groups actually involved and affected, if the temple did in fact continuously alternate between rebuilding and destruction? What were the relations between these groups and did these change after each such activity? Was it a matter of Muslims desecrating Hindu temples, or were there other motives?" It is interesting to see how interpretations changed over the years.

She draws on six broad categories of sources - narratives and chronicles in Persian and a few in Arabic written largely in the context of Turko-Persian politics; Sanskrit inscriptions from Somanatha and its vicinity; Jaina chronicles and Rajput epics; perceptions about Mahmud in the oral tradition; the British intervention; and recent Indian reconstruction. On the history Persian sources predominate - and created myths.

The British and Hindu revivalist themes coincide. "The Hindus had suffered a trauma through the raid of Mahmud on Somanatha, and that the earlier subservience of India to Afghanistan and to Muslim rule had to be avenged. The raid of 1026 was a defining moment, "a foundational event", which created lasting hostility between Hindus and Muslims. Persian "epics of conquest" and Hindi "epics of resistance" supported this theme as did colonial interpretation of history. Nationalist historians rejected it. But the nationalist movement had to reckon with revivalists in both communities. Jawaharlal Nehru noted in his Autobiography that "many a Congressman was a communalist under his national cloak" (page 136). The author notes the same trait. "There were some among the Indian nationalists who endorsed the colonial readings of Indian civilisation and culture and their application to historical events. They claimed to be anti-colonial yet many aspects of their interpretations of the past were founded on the theories of colonial historians."

Historical research was never too intensive, and analyses never too rigorous. The historian of the Chalukya period, A.K. Majumdar, pinpointed the initial problem when he stated: "But, as is well known, Hindu sources do not give any information regarding the raids of Sultan Mahmud, so that what follows is based solely on the testimony of Muslim authors" - the braggarts (emphasis added, throughout).

The Somnath temple.-

In fact, the raids were a multi-purpose project in which greed for money was mixed with iconoclasm, as was the practice of the times. "What is striking is the resilience with which these areas, such as Somanatha, bounced back to a vibrant economy in a short while. Also, despite hostile sentiments, there were Indians of standing from these areas who were willing to support the ventures of Mahmud and to fight in Mahmud's army not merely as mercenary soldiers but also as commanders. Evidently, these relationships were far more complex than we have assumed and range beyond the concerns of religions and conversions."

Romila Thapar takes the reader through each of the six sources in a fascinating journey. The Turko-Persian accounts are rich in myth and fantasy. The great Persian poet Sa'di even claimed in his Bustan that he had visited the Somantha temple. There is no record of this. There is a basic contradiction in these accounts: "Had the temple been converted to a mosque subsequent to each attack, then logically (and logic is not at a premium in these accounts), apart from the first attack and conversion of the temple into a mosque by Ulugh Khan, the later attackers were each attacking a mosque. Clearly, various people were muscling in on the narrative of the act to get the benefit of claiming to be the destroyers of the Somanatha temple and its conversion into a mosque, irrespective of whether the destruction or the conversion into a mosque, irrespective of whether the destruction or the conversion was actually carried out. To that extent, it could well have been hyperbole in most cases. These claims are not reflected in Jaina narratives, or the Sanskrit inscriptions, and are contradicted by the excavation of the site... ."

Somanatha, however, remained a functioning temple. In the 16th century, "Akbar permitted the worship of the linga in the Somanatha temple and appointed desais/officers to administer it. Abu'l Fazl refers to the raids of Mahmud and makes an interesting comment. ... `fanatical bigots representing India as a country of unbelievers at war with Islam, incited his unsuspecting nature to the wreck of honour and the shedding of blood and the plunder of the virtuous.' This is, at one level, a condoning of the actions of Mahmud but at another, an indictment. Significantly, he does not mention Mahmud laying the foundations of Muslim rule in India. This legitimation was not required by Mughal rulers who were well integrated into the Indian polity."

In the 17th century, Ferishta wrote his fanciful account with an abundance of detail that testified to a fertile imagination. How could Mahmud have struck at the nose and pierced the belly of a lingam? But it is on Ferishta that British accounts drew liberally.

Romila Thapar renders high service in proving to the hilt that no trauma ensured from the raid. "The Jaina chronicles, the Rajput epics and other texts of the period subsequent to the raid on Somanatha, would have been the likely ones recording a Hindu trauma. However, what remains enigmatic is that there is little reference to nor reflection of a trauma. The Jaina texts confidently insist that Turkish raids on their sacred centres have failed to dishonour their images. Sources from Shaiva authors appear not to record an upheaval resulting from the raid on Somanatha by Mahmud. There is a hint in accounts referring to merchants, of reconciliation and negotiation being a way of reacting to Turkish attacks."

Another Ayodhya parallel. Tulsidas' Ramcharitmamas does not mention demolition of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. He was a devotee of Ram.

The historian Prof. Sushil Srivastava has ably documented the British contribution to a false account of the building of the Babri mosque (vide his essay "How the British Saw the Issue" in Anatomy of a Confrontation: The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi Issue; edited by Sarvepalli Gopal). Romila Thapar recalls that "[Alexander] Dow published his History of Hindostan in 1767-72 in which he retold the account as given by Ferishta. Dow was widely read and the story was repeated by Gibbon, Mill, and many nineteenth century historians. Ferishta's version then becomes the hegemonic version... . The court chronicles in Persian were taken as historically accurate by British historians since they had a familiar format of a clear chronology and sequential narrative. Historiography in the nineteenth century did not require enquiring into the intention of the author or the chronicle. Even the contradictions in the sources tended to be glossed over."

The author cites a glaring instance of how religious bigotry was frequently read into the texts translated in the 19th century, which coloured the reading of the Turko-Persian texts. For example, 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".

In short the theory of "a Hindu trauma" is a motivated myth. "There is little evidence of an overwhelming desire for revenge that had been smouldering for the last few centuries, and which is now the explanation for what is perceived as the current Hindu-Muslim antagonism."

Enters the Governor-General of India, Lord Ellenborough into the fray. In 1842 he issued "The Proclamation of the Gates". He alleged that the sandalwood gates of the Somanatha temple had been taken to Ghazni by Mahmud and had been placed at the entrance to his mausoleum. He ordered General Nott, in charge of the British army in Afghanistan, to bring back the gates. There was no mention of the gates in any of the chronicles or records.

"Ellenborough's Proclamation addressed to the Chiefs and Princes of northern and western India speaks of the insult of 800 years finally being avenged, and the gates that were once the memorial of the humiliation (of Hindus) have become the record of Indian superiority in arms over nations beyond the Indus. However, there was little reaction from the Princes and still less from the Hindus" - itself a fact of great significance.

As on the Babri mosque, so on the Somanatha temple, the Sangh Parivar fostered communal hate drawing on falsehoods. Romila Thapar exposes them devastatingly. Recalling the demolition of the mosque and "the genocide in Gujarat", she remarks: "The driving force of this, as of much that the Hindutva ideology reads into Indian history, is the theory - current since the nineteen century and derived from colonial historiography - of antagonism being the dominating relationship between Hindus and Muslims, a theory fanned by and giving support to the communal politics of the last century."

Curiously, the Sangh Parivar studiously ignores another important fact of our history. "The interesting counterpoint in the case of Somanatha is that the construction of the social memory of a Hindu trauma over Mahmud's raid and the destruction of other temples by Muslim rulers is a selection of a `memory' that at the same time annuls the memory of Hindu kings raiding Hindu temples. That there might have been a memory of Mahmud's raid prior to the construction of the one put forward by Ellenborough and in the debate in the House of Commons is not reflected in Sanskrit sources. The amnesia regarding Hindu Kings destroying Hindu temples is of a different order since such attacks are recorded and commented upon in `Hindu' sources. Kalhana for one, does not suppress the fact or the memory of Hindu kings of Kashmir destroying Hindu temples. But this information has been the subject of amnesia among modern historians. The necessity for both the constructed memory in the one case of Muslims alone destroying temples and the amnesia in the other was to give cohesion to a presumed Hindu community in modern times. And further, that the politics of modern times did not require that the amnesia be revoked, thus maintaining that only Muslims destroy temples. This precluded discussion of why in the past, temples were destroyed for reasons other than religious bigotry."

This is a definitive work on the subject. It is written in a lucid style with incontestable documentation.

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