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Perspectives of a history

SOMANATHA — The Many Voices of a History: Romila Thapar; Penguin Books India (P) Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Enclave, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 375.

"LISTEN TO the many voices of a history" before assessing the nature of a historical event is the main refrain of Romila Thapar's present book on Somanatha. The book makes a re-appraisal of the sources on the most challenging of historical events, i.e. the raid of Mahmud of Ghazni on Somanatha (Prabhas Pattana) in 1026 A.D. which has been repeatedly misrepresented and abused for political ends and raises serious questions of methodology in the existing histories and offers fresh readings of the narratives and fresh insights into the nature of the event through a highly rigorous and nuanced analysis of six categories of sources, most of which have been either ignored or marginalised by communal approaches, privileging one set of sources over the others as reliable and hegemonic.

The work underlines the need for an uncompromising pursuit of the context in the analysis of the complexities of historical processes, which are beyond simplistic, mono-causal explanations and literal reading of sources of different periods, which have their own agenda of how an event is to be represented.

Juxtaposing six categories of sources and situating them in their historical contexts i.e., contemporary to the raid down to the Mughal and the colonial, Thapar shows through a comparative analysis, how and why their perspectives are varied, diverse and even contradictory, not only from one another but even within a single category of sources. Her findings are most revealing and worth serious consideration.

The dominance of the Turko-Persian narratives and chronicles of Al- Biruni (Kitab al-Hind) through Firdausi to Ferishta in the construction of the event, is attributed by Thapar not only to their large number, but also to the erroneous periodisation of Indian history into the Hindu, Muslim and the British and the languages in which their major sources are available, i.e. Sanskrit, Persian and English. Diverse and often ambiguous, their most significant strategy of representation is the politicisation of the event, creating a deep divide in the identities of the Hindu and the Muslim. Of greater significance is the identification, by a near contemporary source (Zain al- Akhbar), of the idol (supposedly desecrated by Mahmud) with a pre-Islamic Arabic female deity, Su- Manat of the Semitic pantheon, which was believed to have been secreted away to Kathiawar for safety from Islamic iconoclasm. Continuing contradiction as to whether the idol was that of a female goddess or an aniconic linga or an anthropomorphic Siva, further embellishments and fantasies about the age of the icon and its size and description, the curious claim that the temple was converted into a mosque and that there were repeated attacks (on the mosque?) by later Muslim rulers (e.g. Khaljis) show that the temple itself became part of the rhetoric of conquest as a symbol of political authority and legitimacy.

Hence Thapar emphasises the need to situate the event in the larger context of Central Asian politics, the crises in the Caliphate leading to a shift in the representation of Mahmud from an iconoclast, looting and plundering for financing his Central Asian empire, to Mahmud glorified as the ideal Islamic ruler, who laid the foundation of Islamic rule in India, which is historically inaccurate. The receding Central Asian context turned the event into a confrontation between Hindus and Muslims projected as two monolithic communities. This version was adopted by all subsequent narratives like those of Barani, Isami and later Ferishta, hailing his rule as protector of Islam through the Sharia both from the Muslim heretics (Shia) and Hindu infidels.

The Turko-Persian sources chose to ignore the perceptions of the non-orthodox Islamic communities in India and their multi-cultural and regional backgrounds, such as the Ismailis, Khojas, Bohras and Navayats, many of whom were converts.

That the Somantha temple never ceased to function as a temple is established by another category of sources i.e., the Sanskrit and bilingual Sanskrit and Arabic inscriptions dating from the 11th to 15th Centuries A.D., which maintain a puzzling silence about the raid. On the contrary they attest to the continuing importance of Somanatha as a pilgrimage centre under royal patronage, recording the reconstruction of a smaller structure dilapidated due to ravages of time (and the sea) and its enlargement with fortifications under the Chaulukya Kumarapala (12th Century A.D.).

Located near the port of Veraval, Somanatha was important for Gujarat's commerce even from the Mauryan times. In the early medieval period (6th-13th Centuries A.D.), its commercial potential was enhanced by the close relations among the Jains, Arabs and Turks apart from other sects in Gujarat, royal patronage to the building of Jain temples and mosques, the most significant being the mosque built in 1264 A.D. on land belonging to the Somanatha temple (recorded in a bilingual Sanskrit and Arabic inscription), with the approval of powerful elite groups of Somanatha, including the merchant community, who had close relations with a Persian ship owner (Noradina Piroj or Nur-ud-din Firuz from Hormuz).

Thapar draws attention to the social and cultural dimensions of such interaction. The most pertinent question which Thapar raises is, "Should we not attempt to sift the actions and reactions according to social groups and specific situations," and not as, "a `Hindu' reaction to the event created by the `Muslim'?"

A far more diverse picture emerges from the third major category of sources viz., the Jain biographies and chronicles from 11th to 15th Centuries A.D., which are more concerned with the Jain Sangha, the commercial significance of the region and negotiations with other traders including the Muslims, while only passing references are made to the Somanatha event. The Rajput chronicles and epics like the stories of Prithviraja Chauhan and Hammira, Thapar argues, are not to be read as epics of resistance by the Hindu to the Muslim conquests, but as derived from the genre of heroic literature of pre-Islamic times insisting on the values of a warrior aristocracy such as loyalty and honour, condemning deceit, irrespective of whether it was a Muslim or a Hindu. The use of terms such as Yavana, Turushka, Saka and Tajikas (Arabs) in Indian literature point to their geographical and ethnic associations similar to Al-Biruni's term al-Hind, for the inhabitants beyond the Indus. The religious connotation came later.

Oral traditions recorded in Colonial ethnography provide popular perceptions of Mahmud and his raid. The popular ballads and Sufi literature convey different sentiments, which are an assertion of the magical power of piety over actual power. The stories revolve round places of pilgrimage (Muslim and Hindu) and saints, who performed miracles, like pirs, faqirs, wali, sadhu, gurus, siddhas, figures that cut across formal religious boundaries between the Muslim and the Hindu, creating new religious articulations, drawing from the grass root religious forms, using mixed languages, an area which has not been explored systematically. As Thapar points out, in all this the character of Mahmud has changed with his submission to and incorporation into an ethos of piety, magic and defence of the poor.

Colonial interpretations, following the dominant Turko-Persian sources, constructed the memory of a trauma among the Hindus, depicting Muslims as uniformly tyrannical and oppressive, even inventing the false story of the sandalwood gates of Somanatha being carried away to Ghazni, when "the Proclamation of the gates" was issued in 1842 for their retrieval, instigating the Hindus to avenge the Muslims' insult of 800 years, the background to which was political i.e., British interests in Afghanistan. After the discussion in the House of Commons on the gates, the traumatic memory of the event became an established fact. "British interventions due to ideological and administrative needs and their misrepresentations of history wiped out the nuances of community relationships and particularities of each occasion and the varying identities of people involved." The hegemonic colonial version was nurtured by the communal politics of the 1920s, eroding the anti-colonial, inclusive mainstream nationalism of the late 19th Century and fostering communal ideologies and the religious nationalism of the 20th Century. The view of segregated monolithic communities emerged.

The rebuilding of the Somanatha temple in 1951, wiping out all medieval vestiges, despite protests from archaeologists and historians, was carried out by K.M. Munshi as Central Minister, by claiming the consent of Sardar Patel and the sanction of the Government, which was vehemently denied by Jawaharlal Nehru. Munshi's views equating Aryan with Hindu culture and his understanding of Indian culture and nationalism, turned a regional or specific incident into a national one. The secular credentials of society and state were challenged by the communal politics of recent years, the two Ratha yatras (ending in the destruction of the Babri Masjid, 1992), all of which are part of a "Hindutva" campaign for mass mobilisation and for power, causing riots and leading to the genocide in Gujarat in 2002.

In social memory this event has been consciously constructed as a trauma to the Hindus, "which has superscribed the history of an event." Its opposite, i.e., " structural amnesia" was selective and ignored the destruction of Hindu temples and mosques by Hindu rulers.

As for the temple of Somanatha, a natural process of decline may have occurred, says Thapar, due to technical aspects like poor foundations and weight bearing devices, pointed out by Henry Cousens, as also a shift in the region of commercial potential after the 15th Century A.D.

Thapar cautions against the use of the past to legitimise present concerns. She points out that the relation between religion and politics has complex dimensions and institutions like temples, monasteries, mosques, Khanqahs, churches, synagogues and gurudvaras have multiple roles. Their functions were not only religious but clearly also social and political.

Thapar's re-look at the Somanatha event is a strong proof of the need for "more accurate and sensitive insights into the Indian past."


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