‘I desire that on the day of resurrection, I should be summoned with the words, “Where is that Mahmud who broke the greatest of the heathen idol?”, rather than by these: “Where is that Mahmud who sold the greatest of the heathen idols?”’

[Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna’s reply when his officers tried to dissuade him from breaking the Shiva lingam, reasoning that the temple priests were offering a ransom to save the idol; during the Somanath campaign at Saurashtra.]

The
Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna – “The Breaker of Idols”.

In 1026 A.D., the Turkic Lord of Ghazna conducted the legendary raid of the prehistoric Somanath temple at Prabhasa Pattana, ransacking its massive riches and sacrilegiously ravishing an idol that stood for the eternal and all encompassing faith of Hinduism. It was an episode in the twenty jihads he (traditionally) presided over against the idolaters of India during his two and three score year of reign; nevertheless – the raid alone went down in history as one of the most decisive moments of Islamic bigotry and iconoclasm; and the prediction of the subsequent domination of Islam over the Hindu civilization, for it made Mahmud of Ghazna the ‘progenitor of Muslim rule in the subcontinent’. More importantly, the banditry signaled the beginning of a lasting legacy of antagonistic controversy and violence that rose from the ‘myth’ of Islamic invincibility and tyranny over the subjugated and victimized Hindus.

 ‘The Great God says in Koran, “O true believers, when you encounter unbelievers, strike off their heads.”’

Since the Arab invasion of Sind in the 7th century A.D., under Muhammad Qasim, India has been subjected to the wrath of Islam, suffering en masse carnage and conversion of religion or the desecration of temples and their demolishment into mosques in their places. Al – Beruni recalls in Al Hind how the victor Ibn Almunibbah  preserved the idol ‘Aditya’ of Multan (which drew much prosperity from pilgrimage) only to defile it by hanging a piece of beef on its neck. The idol later met its destruction in the hands of Ibn Shaiban of the Karmatians. India got her respite from invasions for nearly three centuries till the Ghaznavid invasions of the early 11th century A.D., under Subuktagin and his son, Mahmud who further set the pattern of articulation of Mohammedan religiosity that would transcend the boundaries of time and space. Ferishta states that NasiroodDeen (“Hero of Faith”) Subuktagin chose the calling of the ‘holy war’ to launch several campaigns against King Jayapala of the Hindu Shahi dynasty of Punjab; however contemporary chroniclers emphasize the role of expansionist ambitions over religious zeal behind the instigation of such invasions. But it was Mahmud’s invasions of India that captured the imagination of the early medieval poets and chroniclers, retelling the encounter in a mishmash of flattering encomium, and tendentiousness which swayed in accordance to the politico – religious windswept of the epochs; and fictionalizing, in the process history into a corpus of legendary drivel.

The Ghaznavid empire under Sultan Mahmud.
The Ghaznavid Empire.

‘… The religion of the faithful inculcates the following tenet: “that in proportion as the texts of the prophet are diffused and his followers exert themselves in subversion of idolatry, so shall be their reward in heaven” that before it, beloved him with the assistance of God to root out the worship of idols from the face of all India.

Tarikh – i – Ferishta.

[Ferishta on Mahmud’s Indian campaigns.]

Mahmud’s accession to the throne of Ghazna in 998 A.D. commenced with usurpation against his younger brother, Ismail and the legitimization of his rule by the bestowal of the Caliphate robe of investiture and title of Yamin – ud – Daulah (“Right hand of the empire”): in gratitude of which he avowed to undertake jihad every year against the idolaters of the neighboring states of India. The objective became the exaltation of the ‘standard of religion’ and ‘to root out the worship of idols from the face of India’. To him, the Hindu pride in ignorance was a sin that should be meted with ruthless chastisement. Like father, like son!

Mahmud adorning the Caliphal robes of honor at his accession to the throne of Ghazna.
Mahmud adorning the Caliphal robes of honor at his accession to the throne of Ghazna.

‘Hindu’stan. A Dar – al –Kufr (‘pagan land’) with its central public religious cult of worship of ‘myriad’ temple images, believed to be animated by powerful immanent divinities was a ‘castist’ landscape that confronted the Ghaznavid court at its vicinity, appalling it, for it adhered to a monotheistic, egalitarian and immutable religion. To them, the Hindu practices represented everything anathema to the True Faith – But (idolatry) and Shirk (polytheism). The neighboring mulk came to be viewed as a serious religious threat, and the only remedy to this situation proved to be either conversion of the masses or extirpating those who resisted conversion. But the passion for plunder was an equally strong motive – ‘he fought for god as well as for mammon, but quite possibly more for mammon than for god.’ India was the ideal land for Mahmud to glut both his passions simultaneously, earning him great religious merit as well as vast treasures from the sacked Hindu temples and hence what followed were the horrendous orgies of animal ferocity in major temple towns and Hindu pilgrimage shrines like Benaras, Pukara, Taneshwar, Mathura, Kashmir, Somanath and Multan in the years between 1001 – 1027 A.D. The Ghaznavid invasions also routed heresies against Sunni orthodoxy, particularly the Shi’a, the Isma’ili, the Karmatian, etc. Naturally, a whole genre of panegyrics developed in Mahmud’s court around these thrilling blitzes – weaving elements of bazmiya (court epic) within the fabric of razmiya (war epic) and celebrating the Sultan as the exemplary champion of Islam in a heathen land.

The 'Fifth' Temple of Somanath.
The ‘Fifth’ Temple of Somanath.

Interestingly, it is solely the raid of Somanath that finds much mention in the contemporary and later Turko – Persian Tazkaras of Mahmudian conquest; ignoring earlier instances of iconoclasm. Al – Beruni mentions how the ‘blessed’ Prince Mahmud swept away Hindu rule and dumped the Lord of Somanath (lingam) in the hippodrome in Ghazna with the Cakravamin idol of Taneshwar. The Shahnama of Firdausi and Al – i – Bayhaqi of Bayhaqi make a distant reference to the raid but it is in the eulogistic Qasidas of Farrukhi Sastani that we find emphasis on Mahmud as hammer of the pagan idol – worshippers and thus buttressing his reputation as the defender of Sunni orthodoxy. In his outstanding elegy on Mahmud’s death, Sastani states –

‘Alas and alack! That the Carmathian heretics should now be rejoicing for they will now find security from being showered with stones and gallows. Alas and alack! That the Brahmins of the whole of India should be able to construct a place for their idols afresh in the spring…’

Ibn – al – Athir in his Al – Kamil fi’al – Tarikh records that Mahmud broke the idol to demonstrate that the Hindu claim to it being miraculous and invincible was false – a claim that Mahmud made to Caliph Qadir Billah of Baghdad, undoubtedly, to exaggerate his achievement. Shaikh Farid al – Din Attar prosaically gifts a detailed and delineated picture of Mahmud as a despotic ruler and fighter for Faith in his oeuvres. In his Ilahi – nama, Mahmud is reproached for his vices whereas in Waslat – nama, he is praised as the leader of jihad and the destroyers of idols in India, his role being compared with the Prophet’s cleansing of the Kaba after the conquest of Mecca. The now lost Tawarikh – i – Mahmudi by Mullah Muhammad Ghaznavi states how the Somanath idol was melted into lime and fed in paan to unsuspecting Brahmins. Diya al – Din Barani, writing during the reign of Muhammad Bin Tughluq, in his Fatawi – yi – Jahandari, depicts the historical Mahmud as the ideal Muslim hero within Islam and in the Islamic state and society in India. His raids were publicized as ones seeking to establish “Truth at the Centre” through vigorous efforts to overthrow infidelity and polytheism and he was upheld as the model for the later Muslim rulers of Hind.  The epics of Isami – Futuhu – Salatin and Shah Nama – i – Hind – composed at the Bahmani courts place the Somanath raid in the context of karama (interior miracles bestowed upon friends of God). Isami wrote along the lines of Firdausi but celebrated the legacy of Unsuri, a contemporary of Mahmud –

‘When the potent sovereign made the expedition to Somanath,

He made the working of miracles his occupation.’

The late medieval Indo – Muslim chronicles like Badayuni’s Muntakhab – al – Tawarikh, Ferishta’s Tarikh – i – Ferishta and Mirat – i – Ahmadi provide more refined versions of the event, enveloping a variety of tellings linked to the histories of communities and their identities. The first and the third narratives state that the broken idol was sent to Ghazna to be placed at the entrance of the Jama Masjid to be trod upon by the faithful; whilst,  Ferishta sings how the idol was smashed with a mace and divided into four pieces to be sent off to Ghazna, Mecca and Medina. Kazwini’s colorful 13th century Arabic chronicle describes Somanath as a fabulously rich temple with the idol suspended in mid – air without any support. This feat was skillfully achieved by the use of loadstone; and Mahmud, though initially amazed, smashed the idol to retrieve gems from its cavity and razed the temple to the ground. Regardless of the disparities in this broad category of partisan testimony, certain themes are made to resurge to emphasize the invincibility of Islam over pagan Hinduism. For instance, almost all the accounts contain canonic death tolls for Mahmud’s desecrations and destructions; mendicant Brahmins humbled for the sake of their idol; conversion of the temple into a mosque, the humiliating treatment of the looted deity as a subordinate member of a hierarchized pantheon and the constant repudiation of polytheism. As Stanley Fish observes, certain imperative strategies are designed to make all texts one. In this case, the Islamic chroniclers have reduced the complex world of Hindu images, with their varied iconographic forms and complicated mythological backgrounds to a single criterion of “idols” that are the results of ignorance and deception. The destruction of the Indian idols means the illumination of truth and strengthening of the power of justice to the narrators, and thus this stand is penned with great caution, taking care that it’s neither forgotten nor forgiven.

A corpus of Mohammedan 'conquest' literature grew up around the Mahmudian raid of Somanath to immortalize it.
A corpus of Mohammedan ‘conquest’ literature grew up around the Mahmudian raid of Somanath to immortalize it.

If the above is what Aziz Ahmed identifies as the genre of Islamic ‘epics of conquest’, written in Persian to address a Muslim audience, then the Hindu ‘epics of resistance’ composed in Hindi vernaculars to cater to a Hindu followership are not lagging behind! Nevertheless the Hindu literary spectrum – rasos, prasastis, kavyas, charitas, vamshalis, prabandhas – is of a later period, the earliest being of the twelfth century, involving mostly themes of chivalry and heroism against the Delhi sultanate, and in some cases, of “hidden” or “lost” images miraculously returning to their temples to be re – consecrated. As A.K. Majumdar states:

‘… Hindu sources do not give any information regarding the raids of Mahmud, so that what follows is based solely on the testimony of Muslim authors.’

The Sanskrit inscriptions from Somanath and its vicinity date to the twelfth century, speaking of the temple in terms of renovation and the associated punya (good deed) and the Jain sources draw references of Somanath to stress on the supremacy of their faith over Hinduism. It comes back to the Mohammedan sources to mention the Hindu adversaries of Mahmud who terrified him into flight: the Zain – ul – Akbar of Gardazi and the Tarikh – i – Sorath mention king Parama Deo, Mandalika (the Abhira ruler of Somanath) and the Jatts of Sind in this context. So states wisely the Mirat – i – Ahmadi–

‘Poetry and fable have been alike employed to adorn the narrative and magnify the importance of this conquest. But, if the record of past events borrows more from fancy than memory, and substitutes amusement for instruction, the order of the knowledge is inverted; and where history ought to have commenced, fable has not yet terminated. In this matter, doubt is better than credulity; and if we hesitate to give assent to much that has been said about Somanath, we will not insult the spirit of philosophy.’

Destruction of major temple town economies - a trivial affair?
Destruction of major temple town economies – a trivial affair?

This gives the idea that the raid was just another instance of the many pillaging of temples that hardly left any enduring religious effect on India. This belied Al – Beruni’s claim that the campaigns ‘utterly ruined the prosperity of the country’. Nonetheless, the reason of this quick reverberation to normalcy has deep roots. The Buddhist books had predicted during the Arab invasion of Sind, upon astrological calculations that ‘Hindustan shall be captured by Mohameddans … it is the will of God’. Similar such predictions would have led to viewing the raids in the light of fatalism. Sir Hamilton Gibb and Howard Bowen have made a pertinent remark about how the Indian society viewed this ‘Islamic intrusion’: Indians recognized the existence of ‘purely selfish element of material ambition, common to men in all grades of society’ and the ‘unstable and transitory nature of most forms of authority’. Public opinion had its traditional set of ‘permissible extortions or recognized abuses’ and therefore, the Mahmudian attacks on temples appeared similar as the plunder of sacred places by the Hindu royalty and Mlechchas; the spur being temple treasures. Modern historiography of Early Medieval India contend that at this time no concept of India as a nation existed and consequently no recognition of the invader as an alien disrupting the ‘Indian’ affairs. Ghazna’s endeavors were another ‘normal’ component in the ever rolling political turmoil of the Indian subcontinent, and it is no surprise that the temple towns that fell victim to Mahmud’s iconoclasm were again well – endowed and prosperous within a century.

But if Mahmud’s concerns were iconoclasm and plunder booty, which he achieved by ransacking of numerous temples, why did this particular maraud about Somanath assume such mythical proportions?  The very answer lies in the history of Somanath itself.

‘… the city (Somanath) is to the Hindus as Mecca is to the Muslims.’

Abu Sa’id Gardizi.

The phallic Shiva lingam in present day Somanath temple.
The phallic Shiva lingam in present day Somanath temple.

The shrine at Somanath is traditionally as old as creation and was the most sacred place in the days of the Bharata war. A legend so runs from the nakshtra myth wherein cursed by his father – in – law, Daksha, Soma (the moon God) was forced to ‘become consumative, unable to perform sacrificial rituals and in turn, prevent the growth of plants’. The curse came to be partially lifted as Soma bathed in the Sarasvati at the Pattana, and worshipped Mahadeva (Shiva) to regain his brilliance and– and hence the place was named Prabhasa or “brilliance”. Accordingly, the moon waxes and wanes, eclipses and is rejuvenated through bathing in the waters at Prabhasa every fortnight. The Skandapurana details the five acts that would bestow the highest religious merit – “to visit Prabhasa on a moonless night on a Monday, to undertake a fast, to bathe where the Sarasvati meets the sea and to have a darshana of Somanath.” Prabhasa Pattana is connected to the fertility cult as it is held that from Kailash in the Himalayas where Shiva has His abode and from the twelve eternal shrines of the Jyotir lingaSomanath is the foremost. The Mahabharata is definite that it was the meeting place of Lord Krishna and Arjuna, and it was here, where the Yadavas, Andhakas and the Vrishnis destroyed each other. Krishna’s mythical capital of Dwarka was located at its proximity, and Prabhasa was also the spot of his dehotsarga and Balaram’s demise. Another parallel tradition in the Shivapurana connects Prabhasa with two great Pashupata teachers – Lakulshi and Soma Sharma – thus reinforcing its centrality to the Pashupata cult.

Prabhasa Pattana.
Prabhasa Pattana.

‘ … (the infidels) pretend the ebb and flow of the tides represented the obeisance paid by the ocean to the shrine.’

Tarikh – i – Ferishta.

Even the geographic location of Somanath bears significance. Prabhasa Pattana is located at the triveni sangam (confluence of rivers) of the Sarasvati, Kapila and Hiran, imparting mythical significance to the place. Here Shiva is also considered the God of Fire – for it was here that he appeared as a fiery column of light: a tradition clearly indicative of some geological action. This gave Prabhasa its title of Agnitirtha. The vicinage of Somanth to the Erythraean Sea and its ports might have led to the legend that an idol of Pre – Islamic Arabia – Manat / Lat / Allat – was whisked away through Aden to the Gujarat coast to escape the Prophet’s iconoclasm at Mecca. According to Sastani, she came to be worshipped at Prabhasa as Somanatha (“Su – Manat”). Manat essentially had an aniconic or a female form for which Muslim chroniclers impose fanciful forms on the Somanath lingam to suit their thesis – it was called mukha – lingam and in Muslih al – Din Sa’di’s Bustan, the deity was given hands that could be worked with ‘puppet strings’. Strangely, here the iconoclasm involved was not of a Hindu image, although the concept of Hindu iconoclasm came into dominant identification. The powers attributed by the Hindus to the Somanath lingam– its ability to cure every malady and misery and its power to determine the life, death and rebirth of mortals – might have led to it being confused as Manat, the Goddess of Fate. This confusion might have extended a seductive invitation to Mahmud to destroy the “last vestige of idolatry”. Indeed, one can say that the mythical and symbolic significance of Somanath was manufactured in two stages – the first by Hindu mythology to ornament the site with sacred magnitude; and the second by Mohammedan chroniclers to dramatize the confrontation of Mahmud with the insurmountable of Indian idols.

CONTEMPORARY HISTORIOGRAPHY - A one - sided 'religious' picture of the sacrilege?
CONTEMPORARY HISTORIOGRAPHY – A one – sided ‘religious’ picture of the sacrilege?

Nevertheless, the sack of Somanath was not all encompassing in religious fervor. For all his talk of being the ‘Sword of Islam’, the driving forces in Mahmud’s raids were somewhat political and economic. Inevitably, the biased testimony of religiosity has clouded these visions behind the inhumane ravages!

Mahmud was painfully aware of the slave origins of his dynasty and attempted to shore up the power of the Caliphate at Baghdad to exploit its patronage in making Ghazna a major centre of the Islamic world. He also needed the legitimization for his ‘usurped’ rule from the Caliph to claim himself as the Sultan of Ghazna; as well as the Caliphal confirmation of the status quo in the north-east of the Iranian world, where he had shared with the Qarakhanids, the former Samanid dominions. Although in this age of Buyid domination in Iraq, the direct political authority of the Abbasids was small; their moral and spiritual influence was still great. They could legitimize power by sending to a newly-established ruler a manshur (an investiture patent) and the insignia of royalty, which included alqab (honorific titles). The Caliphate, on its part, hadn’t been harboring well in the years of the latter part of the tenth century and the early part of the eleventh. The energetic Byzantine emperors of the Macedonian dynasty (867-1057) began to recover ground lost to the Arabs, three centuries before: Cyprus, Crete and much of northern Syria were recaptured, and Greek armies almost reached Jerusalem. The blows inflicted on Muslim confidence in these regions are reflected in the pessimistic works of Abul – Ala al Maari and al – Hariri. To balance these reverses in Syria, there came the news of spectacular victories in the Indian sub-continent by Mahmud who built up an image of himself as the faithful supporter of the Abbasid Caliphs. He was careful to send presents from the plunder to the Caliphate at Baghdad and fath – namas (proclamations of victory) to the Caliph, in gratitude of which, he received support for his campaigns as well as fresh laudatory titles, that confirmed him as the ruler of Khurasan, Hindustan, Sistan and Khvarazm

‘Thus after his victory in Khurasan in 999, Mahmud received from Baghdad the titles Yamin ad – Daula “Right Hand of the State”, Amin al – Milla “Trusted One of the Religious Community” and Walt Amir al – Muminin, “Confidant of the Commander of the Faith”; and after the Indian campaign of 1026, which culminated in the sack of Somanath, he received the further one of Kahf ad – Daula wa’l – Islam “Refuge of the State and Islam”.’ – C. E. Bosworth.

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“Refuge of the State and Islam”

The title received after the Somanath raid was the grandest – no wonder, the citation of the event enjoyed the most frequency. The victories, besides endowing the Ghaznavid with an aura of invincibility, blazed forth the fame of Mahmud throughout the Islamic world, so that crowds of ghazis and volunteers flocked to his banner from all parts of the eastern Islamic world, eager to share in the fabulous plunder of India. Also, one can assume the role of politics in the choice of temples, signaled out for raiding. The temples he selected for destruction were the ones that gave legitimacy to local rulers, a legitimacy that Mahmud was attempting to appropriate. Similarly, when confronting the polycentric Indian political and religious order, Muslim chroniclers wished and needed to identify a center, the Indian equivalent of Mecca or the Caliphal Baghdad. The elevation in importance of such a center was a way of giving added importance to the raid as well. They chose to promote Somanath to this pre – eminent position in their accounts, and turned Mahmud’s victory over Somanath into a Synecdoche for the conquest of India. The more magnificent the being, the more tragic would be its downfall, and the more heroic would be its conquistador!

However baronial was the epics of conquest, the booty and tribute from the Indian campaigns were the apple of the Sultan’s eyes and his state. He epitomized a new type of Turkic ruler in Central Asia who was the head of a large, permanent and highly mobile slave army that was engaged in ceaseless warfare throughout his reign of ‘unalloyed despotism’.

Head of a militant - conquest state that employed Hindu slaves for Hindu iconoclasm!
Head of a militant – conquest state that employed Hindu slaves for Hindu iconoclasm!

‘According to Gardizi’s Zain al-akhbdr, Mahmud once reviewed 54,ooo regular troops at the parade-ground or lashkar-gah of Shah-Bahdr just outside Ghazna, and it is recorded that the elephant-stables or pil-khana at Kabul housed I,67o elephants of war. In addition to the regular troops, there were the ghazis, the volunteers and fighters for the faith, who did not receive regular pay but were entitled to shares in the plunder. But all the professional, salaried soldiers, together with their mounts, elephants and equipment, had to be maintained in times of peace as well as war.’ – C.E. Bosworth.

He was the first Muslim ruler in the region to staff his war machine almost entirely with slave officers and soldiers of the line, and to make the maintenance of that force the very core of his rule; thus marking a step forward in the development of a permanent centralized state. Al – Beruni attributes the success of the Indian campaigns to his centralized command structure as opposed to the high degree of decentralization and self – government that characterized the Indian polity. This structure involved a huge expenditure, which was financed by plundered wealth. In this attempt, the riches and exaggeration of wealth made recruitments easier.

The Ghaznavid raids - could they possibly be foreign conquests of survival?
The Ghaznavid raids – could they possibly be foreign conquests of survival?

There are also instances in both Gardazi’s and Utbi’s works that talk of Mahmud’s imperial state based on the primitive extraction of wealth from conquest and from the people it ruled (especially in Afghanistan and Khurasan); and hence, during its brief flowering, it was able to control and demand tributes and taxation from its subordinate provinces to a degree that would have exceeded the Caliph’s wildest dreams. This focus caused him to neglect or, worse, destroy the very social groups that might have sustained it. This also thwarted social development, isolating the Ghazna state from normal commerce and cultural contacts, and rendering it unsustainable.  Contemporaries from the western border of Persia to the Ganges had good reason to think of Mahmud of Ghazna solely in terms of the destruction wreaked by his army during its endless campaigns. Yet, in reality these campaigns were actually ‘foreign’ conquests of survival.

They never lost their value! Because they were
They never lost their value! Because they were “promissory notes from the Treasury of Heaven”.

In the context of the raid of Somanath, his economic motives appear particularly strong. Prabhasa Pattana was a meeting point of many social and economic groups, and hence it flourished on inland as well as maritime commerce and a prosperous agrarian economy.  Somanath, like any other tenth century Indian temple was extremely wealthy and engaged itself in trade. There existed an Arab monopoly over horse trade with Gujarat, and perhaps the Somanath temple financed this trade, thieving in an exchange that might have made Ghazna an Eldorado, had it passed through it. Perhaps, Mahmud attacked the temple in the hope that the raid was bound to destroy the commercial potential of the place, thus redirecting the horse trade toward his capital. The raids were also his source of slaves, people who formed the core of his ‘militarized – conquest state’. Also, provided the temples in India housed vast treasuries, the availability of this temple wealth (especially gold and silver) gave the invading state the potential for monetization. This method was a mechanism for converting loot to a commercial purpose, and hence as Romila Thapar notes from A. Wink’s Al – Hind: the looting is synonymous to a ‘goldrush’. The loot from Somanath alone amounted to 20 million dinars and precious metals and jewels. This worth of plunder booty, coupled with the rigorous taxation of the Ghaznavid state might account for the phenomenal rise of Ghazna in the 10th century from a mere entrepot in Khurasan – India transit trade to an empire, greatest in extent and power, since the early Arab caliphate.

learned men
The lion hunting for learned men.

‘O Shah, we well may call thy hand our jewel,

For from it comes a never ceasing shower of gems;

Though God hath made thy soul of bounty and noblesse,

How, when that soul is fatigued, has it yet the power to breath?’

“Kisai” Abu Ishak of Merv.

The war booty found its utility in his need to maintain one of the grandest capital cities of the age with great architecture and high Persianized culture. This was not uncommon – the Ghaznavid kings were never tired of reminding the world that their rule was based on the sophisticated and cultured model of the Samanids. While true with respect to both the language and culture that Mahmud supported, it did not reflect either the structure or functioning of the state itself; for the claim of Persianization was maintained to divert the painful omnipresent reality of the dynasty’s Turkish slave origins. He was an ardent patron of learning and arts as Ferishta observes, ‘No king ever had more learned men at his court’; and collected poets the same way he collected Hindu temple idols. Mahmud’s “guild of poets” is commonly said to have numbered four hundred versifiers. Nearly all these poets wrote in Persian, although when Mahmud began to cast a covetous eye on the Caliphate, he hired some Arabic writers as well to shed his too ‘pro – Persian’ stand. These luminaries coveted lavish patronage and rewards – Firdausi demanded sixty thousand gold pieces for his Shahnama in 1010 A.D. – and the plundered wealth paid for it all!

Shahr - i - Mahmud: the
Shahr – i – Mahmud: the “Bride of Cities”.

The world’s first sultan may have been born a slave, but he understood a truth as well as any leader before him: architecture proclaims power and conquest. With virtually unlimited resources in the form of plunder from India, Mahmud could indulge his passion for architecture to the fullest, even boasting that he had created “the glitter of the earthly world.” Many of Mahmud’s projects, including his summer capital at Ghazna and his winter capital at Lashkari Bazar, were at strategic points that were to become war zones over subsequent centuries. Obviously, the sultan exploited awe – inspiring architecture to extol his own greatness, in the process turning buildings into what historian Robert Hillenbrand calls ‘huge billboards proclaiming various messages to those who enter them.’ Moreover, war booty was used to settle artisans and craftsmen in Ghazna so that the city and homes of the elite could be beautified, formal buildings, barracks, and royal gardens maintained and irrigation systems improved. In time, Mahmud’s city – Shahr – i – Mahmud – came to be known as the “Bride of Cities” in the Islamic world.

SO IS IT ALL ABOUT RELIGION AND ICONOCLASM?

In popular parlance, the constant cycle of ‘waxing and waning’ of the five temples of Somanath, – dismantled as mosques and re – installed again till the 15th century – reflect the captivating theatrics of the iconoclast’s zeal for its desecration and the devout Hindu’s passionate desire for its restoration. It is only expected of the Islamic adherents to promote the fundamentalism of their religion. And it is only natural that such a temple, located in the heartland of ‘religious psyche’, and associated with Hindu kingship legitimization and the theological definition of being the ‘transcendent and immanent’ should be tenacious in its re – establishment! Nonetheless, this is the single event employed in India to relive the conflicting ‘memories’ of two ‘nations’, as pride in one and as hurt in the other. This sentiment of the event can be seen echoing in K. M. Munshi’s words –

‘… for a thousand years Mahmud’s destruction of the shrine has been burnt into the collective sub – conscious of the [Hindu] race, as an unforgettable national disaster…’

The objective of this essay is not to catalogue Mahmud’s sacrilege against the Somanath idol or how many times ‘divine resurrection’ led to the re – establishment of the temple, time and again; but to demonstrate how the event’s contemporary descriptions gave it its controversial tint, exploiting the conjunction of kingship and religion. I have tried to mention the pre – Mahmudian instances of iconoclasm in India, as all prototypic of the Somanath raid, but unfortunate enough to not receive mention in Tazkaras. By an examination of the content of the literature at the Ghaznavid court, I have tried to show how legends were already growing around Mahmud; and the glorification of Mahmudian iconoclasm in association to Somanath was its invention, with the intention of associating contrary ‘qualitative’ importance to both the raided and the raiding parties – of humiliation to the former and of magnificence to the latter.

REAL Content of the myths manufactured at the Ghaznavid court?
REAL Content of the myths manufactured at the Ghaznavid court?

Written at a time when the Abbasid Caliphate was flawing in its exercise of power, these chronicles shifted their focus on local sultans who were effective agents to their overlord, and made lavish shows of loyalty to mask their de facto autonomy from the Caliph. In fact, their ingredients are bound to be exaggerated. The main objective of these literary giants was to exalt iconoclasm – a crucial element of Islam, backed by Quranic law, and the Hadith. The prophet Muhammad was the exemplary destroyer of idols and the paradigmatic moment was the Prophet’s destruction of the idols of the Ka’ba at Mecca. In order to woo Mahmud’s patronage, he had to be portrayed as the Prophet’s shadow on earth – the ideal Sunni ruler – and his Indian campaigns had to be witnessed in the light of Hindu iconoclasm, to make it appear as the history of the cleansing of Ka’ba repeating itself, and to give Mahmud’s iconoclasm an alike significance.  Somanath temple was chosen amongst the other major temples raided during the invasions because of its profound attachment to the ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ identity. The conquest of Somanath symbolized the subjugation of both India and Hinduism in one stroke of the sword or the pen. The role of Muslim chroniclers is of importance here and it is crucial to examine how they added their own brand of spices to cook up a legend that would glorify their patron, and advance their interests. They were powerful myth – makers, but attached ‘little importance to the sequence (and truth) of events.’ The Islamic chronicles of conquest make sense as a ‘historical attitude rather than as history’, provoking the creation of Hindu epics of resistance; and both gets locked in a combat to represent and further their respective elitist conservative ideologies within settings of religious plurality and debate. In the process they successfully persuade royal audience to adopt vigorous ideological and religious acts of conquest and resistance for territorial expansion and domination.

History is sacred. And explosive. So it should be handled with ‘care’! In cases of the understanding – usage of events such as this, either from a historical perspective or in a historical narrative, one should make proper ‘air – tight compartmentalized’ discrimination of the terms ‘memory’, ‘oral tradition’, ‘narrated fact’ and ‘re – narrated fantasy’, before ‘sinfully inclining’ to corrupt and mold the past. Narratives trammeled within political and religious rhetoric as the historiography of the Mahmudian raid of Somanath should not be treated as transparent history, let alone harnessed in inflammable affairs of politics and nationalism.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

PRIMARY SOURCES

  • Alberuni’s India – Dr. Edward C. Sachau
  • History of the Rise of the Mahomedan Power in India (Till the Year A.D. 1612) – Mahomed Kasim Ferishta (TRANS. John Briggs)
  • Mirat – i – Ahmadi – Mohammad Ali Khan (TRANS. James Bird)

SECONDARY SOURCES

Books

  • Somanath: The Many Voices of a History – Romila Thapar
  • The Lives of Indian Images – Richard Davis
  • Somanath: The Eternal Shrine – K. M. Munshi
  • The Age of Wrath – Ibrahim Eraly
  • Lost Enlightenment – S. Frederick Starr
  • The Rise of Muslim Power in Gujarat (1298 – 1442) – S.C. Misra
  • From Mahmud Ghazni to the Disintegration of Mughal Empire – Sidney Owen

Articles

  • Mahmud of Ghazna in Contemporary Eyes & Later Persian Literature – C. E.Bosworth
  • Farrukhi’s Elegy on Mahmud of Ghazna – C. E.Bosworth
  • Wikipedia Articles – Ghaznavids, Mahmud of Ghazni, Somnath

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4 thoughts on ““Not ‘But – Farosh’ yet ‘BUT – SHIKAN’!”

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