Ellenborough’s Somnath Temple

Print edition : February 02, 2018

BRITISH historians’ effort at religious periodisation of Indian history is well known. Not so well known is a clumsy attempt at divide and rule by a Governor General Lord Ellenborough. In 1838, the British dethroned Dost Mohammed and occupied Kabul. The brave Afghans rose in revolt and captured or slew the British army of 16,000 under General Elphinstone. A punitive expedition followed in 1842. The “Gates of Somnath” were taken at Ghazni. They had, however, no connection with the temple at Somnath.

After weeks of deliberation, Ellenborough issued a proclamation dripping with criminal folly. It was “translated into the Hindee language and finally published in its English dress” on November 16, 1842 (John William Kaye, History of the War in Afghanistan, Vol. 2, pages 644-652). It read thus:

“From the Governor-General to all the Princes and Chiefs, and people of India. MY BROTHERS AND MY FRIENDS:

Our victorious army bears the gates of the temple of Somnauth in triumph from Afghanistan, and the despoiled tomb of Sultan Mahomed looks upon the ruins of Ghuznee.

That insult of eight hundred years is at last avenged. The gates of the temple of Somnauth, so long the memorial of your humiliation, are become the proudest record of your national glory; the proof of your superiority in arms over the nations beyond the Indus.

To you, Princes and Chiefs of Sirhind, of Rajwarra, of Malwa, and of Guzerat, I shall commit this glorious trophy of successful war.

You will yourselves, with all honour, transmit the gates of sandal-wood through your respective territories to the restored temple of Somnauth.

The chiefs of Sirhind shall be informed at what time our victorious army will first deliver the gates of the temple into their guardianship, at the foot of the bridge of the Sutlej.

MY BROTHERS AND MY FRIENDS,

I have ever relied with confidence upon your attachment to the British Government. You see how worthy it proves itself of your love, when, regarding your honour as its own, it exerts the power of its arms to restore to you the gates of the temple of Somnauth, so long the memorial of your subjection to the Afghans.

For myself, identified with you in interest and in feeling, I regard with all your own enthusiasm the high achievements of that heroic army; reflecting alike immortal honour upon my native and upon my adopted country.

To preserve and to improve the happy union of our two countries, necessary as it is to the welfare of both, is the constant object of my thoughts. Upon that union depends the security of every ally, as well as of every subject of the British Government, from the miseries whereby, in former times, India was afflicted through that alone has our army now waved its triumphant standards over the ruins of Ghuznee, and planted them upon the Balla Hissar of Caubul.

May that good providence, which has hitherto so manifestly protected me, still extend to me its favour, that I may so use the power now entrusted to my hands, as to advance your prosperity and secure your happiness, by placing the union of our two countries upon foundations which may render it eternal.”

As Kaye remarked: “No document that ever emanated from the bureau of a statesman has been overwhelmed with so much ridicule as this.” A motion debated in the House of Commons on March 9, 1843, called it “unwise, indecorous, and reprehensible”. It was lost.

It was left to Macaulay to condemn Ellenborough in his majestic prose for recalling a centuries-old outrage for a political purpose—to please Hindus, insult Muslims—and keep them divided.

A.G. Noorani

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