The Idea of India
The Winding Road From Somanatha To Ayodhya Or How Colonial Historiographies Continue To Bewitch, Bewilder and Bedevil


Because of the dominance of … ‘fundamentalist’ knowledge at the level of the establishment and those in power …[they] find themselves – in spite of all the changes of the past centuries – moving on a stage where history is repeating itself with just one objective; the continual actualization of the past.

Adonis, Arabic Poetics

Trepidation and anxiety marked the days prior to the court’s verdict. The timing of it could not have been more inconvenient. The Indian state placed its para-military forces on high alert and instructed the various local law enforcement agencies to not tolerate any breach of public order. The court was about to release its decision on a two hundred and fifty year old religious dispute that had become mired in historical mythologies and had frequently resulted in sectarian violence. The world’s attention was on India, not so much because of the events taking place in the back rooms of a court in Allahabad, but because the Commonwealth Games were under way in Delhi. This international sporting event had not only bought the athletes from across the world to Delhi, but had dragged the world’s media along as well. As the moment of the verdict arrived it was as if the two faces of India – one speaking of the perfections of an imagined past and using violence to recreate it, the other desperately working to recast the nation in the colors of an imported modernity and sophistication – were on a collision course and threatening to derail the nation’s efforts to earn a place at the table of emerging modern powers.

When on September 10th, 2010 the court in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh finally announced its verdict on the dispute over the Babri mosque complex, its decision was met with overwhelming relief. The court had decided to divide the disputed land into three equal parts between the Muslim Waqf board, the Ram devotees who had torn down the Babri mosque in 1992 and been demanding the construction of the Ram temple, and a Hindu sect called the Nimora Akara. Using arguments that relied on presumptions of the majoritarian faith, and the fait accompli of a vandalized mosque and the forced occupation of the land by Ram devotees, the court simply put its stamp on the status-quo. It chose to appease the dominant parties concerned concerned in the issue, without recourse to questions of justice and constitutionality, in the hope that this would convince everyone to retreat to neutral corners and move forward.

But what appeared to be an equitable decision was riddled with inequities and injustices, and worse, it was riddled with contradictions and capitulations. The reactions to the verdict were almost immediate.

A group of India’s most eminent historians, including Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and D.N. Jha, issued a statement challenging the decision, pointing out that their most significant concern was that:

…the judgement is the legitimation it provides to violence and muscle-power. While it recognizes the forcible break-in of 1949 which led to placing the idols under the mosque-dome, it now recognizes, without any rational basis, that the transfer put the idols in their rightful place. Even more astonishingly, it accepts the destruction of the mosque in 1992 (in defiance, let it be remembered, of the Supreme Court’s own orders) as an act whose consequences are to be accepted, by transferring the main parts of the mosque to those clamoring for a temple to be built.

In a separate essay written in The Hindu newspaper, Romila Thapar highlighted the questionable faith-based justification for the court’s decision, stating that:

The court has declared that a particular spot is where a divine or semi-divine person was born and where a new temple is to be built to commemorate the birth. This is in response to an appeal by Hindu faith and belief. Given the absence of evidence in support of the claim, such a verdict is not what one expects from a court of law. Hindus deeply revere Rama as a deity but can this support a legal decision on claims to a birth-place, possession of land and the deliberate destruction of a major historical monument to assist in acquiring the land?

Over the course of the following weeks, several people – writers, intellectuals, academics, and citizens- voiced their dismay at the decision and the dangerous precedence it set for the nation’s future. There were statements from ANHAD, a civil society group, writers like Mukul Kesevan chimed in, and academics like Prabhat Patnaik warned of the verdict’s threat to Indian democracy in a piece in the Telegraph newspaper. And many more can be found at sites like Communalism Watch.

However, those who had argued for the temple had been directly involved in tearing down the Babri mosque in 1992. were discreetly jubilant. L.K. Advani, the man who had led a cross-country campaign for the construction of the temple at the site of the Babri mosque, was retrained and stated:

…this judgement has given judicial recognition to the fact that millions in the country do believe that the makeshift temple where Ram Lala is presently installed is Ram Janma Bhoomi –the birthplace of Rama. The situation no longer is ‘Faith versus Law’, it is ‘Faith upheld by Law’.

His sense of vindication was understandable. The court’s ruling had helped complete a journey that L.K. Advani and his Hindutva cohorts – whose political and civilized face he represented, had begun in 1989 from the site of another temple, famously reconstructed and reconsecrated some sixty years earlier. The story of this other temple, standing on the desolate shores of Gujarat with the waters of the Arabian sea crashing against its lower walls, had been transformed into a symbol of anti-colonial activism and reawakening of Hindu racial pride and honor.

It was the temple at Somanatha.

Somanatha has long had a powerful hold on the imaginations of Indian nationalists and historians. Mahmud of Gazni’s famous raid on the temple is considered to be a watershed event in Indian history, and the moment of the beginning of the subjugation of the Indian people by the forces of an aggressive ‘Islam’. K.M. Munshi, an influential post-independence politician and a writer whose work Jai Somanatha captured the popular imagination and later led to a well-financed campaign to rebuild the Somanatha temple, argued that:

…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 BJP’s campaign to construct the Ram temple in Ayodhya echoed similar sentiments. It used the same language of a golden classical age bought to its knees by Muslim tyranny, and the need to avenge the humiliations inflicted on the Hindu nation. Somanatha, its desecration and reconsecration, provided the theatrical backdrop for the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign. L.K. Advani’s speeches were riddled with references to Somanatha, Hindu humiliation and the restoration of honor that the Ram temple at Ayodhya would promise. His words had a powerful effect – violence shadowed his journey along its entire route, leaving hundreds dead and communities divided. Two years later, in 1992, the mosque was attacked by Hindutva volunteers and activists in what can only be described as act of historical vandalism. Others saw it as the much awaited re-awakening of India, as Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul expressed in an interview in ‘The Times Of India’ (July 18th 1993):

What is happening in India is a new, historical awakening…Today, it seems to me that Indians are becoming alive to their history…Only now are the people beginning to understand that there has been a great vandalizing of India…What is happening in India is a mighty creative process…the sense of history that the Hindus are now developing is a new thing.

Some years later a Government appointed commission (See Liberhan report) to investigate the event condemned it as illegal and unconstitutional. However, such condemnations have come too late. For the proponents of the Ram temple what lies buried under the Babri mosque is the collective humiliation of the ‘Hindu’ race at the hands of the ‘Muslim’ invaders and desecrators. Only the reconstruction and reconsecration of a Ram temple at the site would heal these wounds. Perhaps that is why the court in Allahabad awarded the area over which the central dome of the Babri mosque once stood to the Hindu claimants.

As the debates and opinions on the court’s verdict raged across the airwaves and the Internet, I was left asking a more basic question: where did this idea of a thousand years of humiliation ‘burnt into the collective sub-conscious of the [Hindu] race’ come from?

My search for answers would not only take me to Ayodhya and Somanatha but reveal how much South Asia remained chained to the shackles of a colonial historical and cultural imagination and that despite liberation, independence and economic progress, these imaginations continued to define our people’s self-image and historical understanding.

The orientalist impact on the way Indians perceived themselves is…far-reaching. The orientalist saw India as an ancient Hindu civilization, in which Brahmanical authority was paramount. On the one hand, they stressed that Western and Hindu civilization had the same Indo-European roots…On the other hand they emphasized the decline of Hindu civilization under Muslim rule and saw themselves as protectors of their Hindu ‘brethren’ against the oriental despotism of Muslims…It is fair to say that Indian Islam was simply regarded as part of the great Islamic civilization centering on the Middle East, while Hindus were the true natives of India, whose ancient, pre-Islamic civilization was worth attention but whose present condition was deplorable.

van der Veer, P Religious Nationalism, Page 20

Ellenborough’s introduction of the idea that Indians would harbor a grievance continuously over eight centuries was consonant with the developing British ideas about Indian society as unchanging and timeless. Moreover, he situated the British as the unbiased observer to Indian religious disputes, able to maintain justice and restore the ancient order of things even after eight hundred years.

Davis, R, Lives of Indian Images, page 202

The story of the transformation of the temple at Somanatha into a symbol of ‘Muslim’ tyranny that laid low a golden Hindu age, and the need to reconstruct it to restore Hindu honor begins in the offices of a British colonial administrator. In 1841 Britain’s reputation was seriously damaged as a result of a the military defeat in Afghanistan. As the army limped back from Afghanistan, the then governor-general of India, Edward Law, earl of Ellenborough, was faced with the task of upholding British honor and image of infallibility. The defeat in Afghanistan had to be turned into a triumph. The earl of Ellenborough, much like every other member of the British administration, had read James Mill’s highly influential text History of British India – one of the first works that divided Indian history into three chronological periods arranged in ascending order of civilization; Hindu, Muslim and British. Texts such as History of British India were a central part of all colonial training and determined how the country and its people were seen and understood. It was in Mill’s work that Mahmud’s attack on Somanatha is first presented as a pivotal moment in Indian history and as the start of the ‘transition’ from one political and cultural order, i.e. Hindu to another, i.e. Muslim.

Legend also had it that after destroying the idol at Somanatha, Mahmud had torn out the gates of the temple and taken them back to the city of Gazni in Afghanistan where they now adorned the entrance of Mahmud’s tomb. As the British army returned in shame, Ellenborough ordered it to detour via the city of Gazna and carry back the gates. He would use the pretext of the gates – an icon pillaged from India and now being returned to its rightful owners, as the excuse to receive this returning army with great fanfare. The gates were to be carried with great fanfare across the cities of the nation and finally bought to the temple of Somanatha and restored.

Despite the protests and sorrow of the caretakers and the town’s citizens, a set of gates was promptly removed from Mahmud’s tomb and taken back to India. Ellenborough soon issued his ‘Proclamation of The Gates, ‘ declaring the ‘triumph’ of the British campaign in restoring India’s honour and avenging the nearly 1000-year insult.

You see how worthy it [British government] proves itself of your love when, regarding your honor 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 subjugation to the Afghans.

Unfortunately for Ellenborough, no one seemed to care. The symbolism of the act was lost on the Indians themselves, who were mainly left unmoved by his gesture. The gates torn from the tomb in Gazna proved to be of Afghani rather than Indian origin and were soon forgotten. Abandoned in the Agra fort, they were mockingly called “Ellenborough’s Folly.”

But the dye had been cast.

The few glimpses we have…of Hindus slain for disputing with Mohammedans, of general prohibitions against processions, worships, and ablutions, and of other intolerant measures, of idols mutilated, of temples razed, of forcible conversions and marriages, of proscriptions and confiscations, of murders and massacres, and of the sensuality and drunkenness of the tyrants who enjoined them, show us that this picture is not overcharged, and it is much to be regretted that we are left to draw it for ourselves from the mass of ordinary occurrences.

Elliot & Dow, The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians

A conviction about the tyranny and oppression of Muslim rule had come to color most all works produced by 19th century British histories of India. The British historian Alexander Dow had published his History of Hindostan in 1767 – 72 where he had told of Persian court historian Ferishta’s account, presented in his Gulshan-i-Ibrahimi/Tarikh-i-Ferishta, of Mahmud’s raid. It was a fantastically exciting account of Mahmud’s raid, the attack on the icon, the massive wealth of precious stones and jewels that was transported back to Afghanistan. It was the same account that was then later repeated by Mills, Gibbon and many other 19th century historians and become the dominating narrative of this event. These histories not only highlighted the ‘historical’ and ‘time immemorial’ antagonisms between the region’s Hindus and Muslims, but also provided the justification for the benign and necessary presence of the British in India and the many benefits it bestowed upon the natives.

In 1849 Elliot and Dawson’s magisterial work The History of India as Told Its Own Historians appeared in print. This vast and intellectual work was based on a close study of Persian sources, including those of Amir Khusrau and Isami, from which the authors were able to identify a whole series of temple desecrations and reconsecration’s. These Persian court chronicles were taken as history, sifted for facts that fitted this picture, while the actual context of their writing and the intention of their authors ignored. The intent and attitude that informed the writing of this work, a work that would become the principal source of history for Indian nationalist historians, was explicitly described by the Elliot and Dawson themselves in the preface to the work:

They [British histories of India] will make our native subjects more sensible of the immense advantages accruing to them under the mildness and equity of our rule…We should no longer hear bombastic Babus, enjoying under our Government the highest degree of personal liberty, and many more political privileges than were ever conceded to a conquered nation, rant about patriotism, and the degradation of their present position. If they would dive into any of the volumes mentioned herein, it would take these young Brutuses and Phocions a very short time to learn, that in the days of that dark period for whose return they sigh, even the bare utterance of their ridiculous fantasies would have been attended, not with silence and contempt, but with the severer discipline of molten lead or impalement.

Indeed. It was a lesson learned well not only by the administrators of the British empire in India, but perhaps most ominously, by Indian anti-colonial nationalists who absorbed unquestioningly the chronology of classical glory, medieval decline and modern renaissance as it appeared and was presented by modern British historiography. As Pariah Chatterjee reminds us in his book The Nation And Its Fragments that for the Indian nationalists

…ancient Indian had to become the classical source of Indian modernity, while ‘the Muslim period’ would become the night of medieval darkness. Contributing to that description would be all the prejudices of the European Enlightenment about Islam. Dominating the [history book] chapters from the 12th century onwards in the new nationalist history of India would be a stereotypical figure of ‘the Muslim,’ endowed with a ‘national character’: fanatical, bigoted, warlike, dissolute, and cruel.

The same ‘stereotypical figure of the ‘Muslim’ would later emerge in another city, at the site of another temple: the Ram temple in Ayodhya believed to have once stood where the Babri mosque had been constructed. Here a small mosque constructed in the name of the Emperor Babur, would become the latest site for the contestation of history, and identity. And Babur, a eclectic ruler who was a poet, a writer, a builder and an adventurer, would be transformed into a despot and despoiler – fanatical, bigoted, dissolute and cruel.

By the end of the 19th century, the dominant strand in colonialist historiography was representing religious bigotry and conflict between people of different religious persuasions as one of the more distinctive features of Indian society, past and present.

Pandey, G The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India

The division of the Indian population into religious communities was an aspect of colonial thought from the beginning…This conceptual division was further institutionalized in the census operations, which established a Hindu ‘majority’ and a Muslim ‘minority’ that in turn became the basis of electoral, representative politics.

van der Veer, P Religious Nationalism

The first to refer to Ayodhya as a ‘Hindu’ city was a man called Montgomery Martin who had been asked by the British East India Company to compile the history and topographic data of towns in Eastern India. His report, published in 1848, refers to Ayodhya as a “Hindu’ city and the neighboring town of Faizabad as a ‘Muhammadan’ town. Both these judgements were strange not only because Hindus were the dominant population in both towns, but that each had a mixed population of Hindus, Jains, Muslims (largely Shia), Sikhs and even some Buddhists. Furthermore, even a cursory study of its history would have revealed that mere enumeration of a majority was not enough to define the city.

The emergence of Ayodhya as a center of Hindu devotion was a distinctly modern phenomenon, occurring largely in the 18th century when the town was under the administration of the Mughal empire. Raja Naval Rai, a minister in the court of Nawab Safdarjang of Awadh, encouraged the construction of temples in Ayodhya. But Ayodhya was also an important pilgrimage and religious center to many other religions – the Jains believed that the first of their preceptors, Rishabdev, was born in Ayodhya, Buddhists came there because of a belief that the Buddha had meditated there and identify it with the town of Saketa mentioned in Buddhist scriptures. The Moslems believed that Noah was buried there and also associate Hanuman with Hathile one of the five pirs (Sufi saints) whom they venerated on Hanuman hill.

At around the same time as Montgomery was studying the towns of North East India, British travelers, scholars and administrators begin to hear stories of Babur’s destruction of a temple to construct the Babri mosque. The legends, rumors and myths soon gets transcribed into reports, books and opinion. In 1819 John Leyden translates Babur’s autobiography The Baburnama and suggests that Babar had camped near Ayodhya during the campaigns in Bihar. In 1826 Erksine claims that he has documents that prove that Babur had remained near Ayodhya for two weeks and that building activities were carried out. In 1866 H.M Elliot makes the claim that Babur destroyed a famous temple in order for the mosque to be built. After this the story takes on factual garbs and is repeated by most all British scholars and administrators. But this would still not be enough to transform this situation into a sectarian confrontation. It would take a different myth to achieve that.

In one of the great ironies of Indian history, the site of the Babri mosque was contested after a group of Muslims attempted to storm the site of the Hanumangarhi temple claiming a right to pray there. Sufis had once worshipped on the hill where Hanumangarhi mandir now stands, believing it as the site of the pir Hathile. A mosque or shrine had stood there, and they claimed that it had been destroyed to make way for the temple. The confrontation turned violent and the first Hindu occupation of and claims to the Babri mosque site occurs in reaction to this attack on Hanumangarhi. The Nawab of Awadh turned to the British for mediation on the dispute and the colonial administration judged that there was no mosque at the site and that the claims of the Muslims were invalid. A jihad was called by Maulvi Amir Ali Amethavi, and the Nawab’s forces met them in battle and routed them. The site of the Babri mosque f was then opened to both parties and the adjacent devotional areas created – the Hindus worshipped at a platform on the East wall of the mosque, while the Muslims prayed within.

And then the British built a fence and made concrete what had largely been mythical. In 1857, fearing violence between the city’s Hindus and Muslims the colonial administration decided to erect a fence between the two devotional sites. The Hindus could now only enter from the East gate, the Muslims only from the North. It was a seemingly simple decision that was to have terrible consequences of India.

There is much more to be said about the timing of the decision, and its relationship to the great ‘mutiny’ that broke out in Awadh in 1857. At this time I will only suggest that the broader political situation, and the colonial prejudice that viewed India’s people as a collection of separate, conflicted and antagonistic religious communities, can’t be separated from the policies and decision they made. Decisions such as the fence at Ayodhya only exacerbated community divisions, and made concrete otherwise hypothetical and academic issues and increasingly erased the accommodations and adjustments India’s communities were accustomed to.

There is no textual, historical, poetic, literary, administrative or archaeological evidence of any temple having ever existed at the site where the Babri mosque once stood. There is no proof that Babur ever visited Ayodhya, or gave the order to construct a mosque at the site it was once located. If the Muslim ‘invaders’ were the single-minded iconoclasts that they were accused of being, then their masnavis (panegyrics), court documents and poems would have celebrated the event of the destruction of a temple to construct a mosque. But no such documents or masnavis exist. In fact, Tusildas, one of Rama’s greatest followers, author of the Ramacaritmanas – the retelling of the Ramayana in Hindi, and architect of North Indian Vaishnavism never mentions any such act of destruction of what would have been to him and to his devotees a tremendously traumatic and sorrowful act.

But fences can protect, divide and make concreate what until then was only imagined and mythical. As historian Sushil Srivastava points out in his work ‘How The British Saw The Issue’, from Anatomy of A Confrontation: Ayodhya And The Rise Of Communal Politics In India.

The British played a significant role in strengthening the claim by providing the local stories with a historical basis. It is certain…that the attempt of the British writers to provide a historical basis to the circulating local myths fostered the Babri mosque – Ram Janmabhoomi issue in Ayodhya.

And if the British played a significant role in creating and then exploiting the divisions between India’s religious communities, India’s nationalists, trained and educated under a British education program determined to ‘civilise’ them and ‘prepare’ them for modernity, found in British historiography material rich for their later claims for nationhood and independence.

The curricula of Western education contained not only theoretical tools, resources, and techniques which could be applied to historical material critically to appraise and control them; they also contained and pressed upon their students a narrative of universal history, assigning values and places to civilizations. The whole story appeared very close to showing how human history was a preparation for the present Western colonial dominance…It was the legitimizing discourse of imperialism which made the question of the past so political. In order to justify its claims imperialist discourse, often assisted by missionary writing, had to advance a picture of the Indian past as one of indifferent civilizational achievements. On that depended the credibility of its claim that colonialism was the bestowal of the benefits of modern civilization by a distant and not wholly self-interested people, A favorable view of the accounts of British rule by the Indian intelligentsia depended on the acceptance of this picture of their past by the new elite, and their carrying it down by a relay of ideological common sense to the lower orders.

Kaviraj, S The Imaginary Institution of India, page 68

The idea that ‘Indian nationalism’ is synonymous with ‘Hindu nationalism’ is not the vestige of some premodern religious conception. It is an entirely modern, rationalist, and historicist idea…Its appeal is not religious but political. In this sense, the framework of its reasoning is entirely secular. In fact, the concept of ‘Hindu-ness’ in this historical conception cannot be, and does not need to be, defined by any religious criteria at all. There are no specific beliefs or practices that characterize this ‘Hindu’, and the many doctrinal and sectarian differences among Hindus are irrelevant to its concept. Indeed such anti-Vedic and anti-Brahmanical religions as Buddhism and Jainism count here as Hindu…But clearly excluded from this jati are religions like Christianity and Islam.

Partha Chatterjee The Nation And Its Fragments, page 110

Kanaiyal Maneklal Munshi was a leading lawyer at the Bombay Bar, editor of the journal Gujarat, founder of the Sahitya Samsad Literary Academy and actively involved in the anti-colonial civic and political activities aimed at wresting a new, independent nation from the clutches of the British. He later served as a cabinet minister and state governor, founding the important cultural organisation Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

He was also Gujarat’s most famous writer of historical fiction, with over fifty works of fiction, history, current affairs, and biography.

Like most other nationalist writers and historians, Munshi was keen to give a concrete historical foundation to the new nation and in particular counter the degrading and denigrating representations of India’s classical past that the British had taught them. And he was deeply influenced by the historiography of the British, reflecting in his writings an understanding of Indian history and classical heritage straight out the textbooks he had read. Munshi’s sense of shame at the degradation of India, and the ruination of its classical Hindu glory at the hands of the tyranical ‘Muslims’, was profound and personal. Richard Davis in his work Lives Of Indian Images, tells of Munshi first visit in 1922 to the then abandoned temple at Somanatha after he expressed his outrage at the sight:

Desecrated, burnt and battered, it still stood firm – a monument to our humiliation and ingratitude. I can scarcely describe the burning shame which I felt on that morning, as i walked the broken floor of the once-hallowed sabhamantap littered with broken pillars and scattered stones. Lizards slipped in and out of their holes at the sound of my unfamiliar steps, and – Oh! The shame of it – an inspectors’s horse, tied there, neighed at my approach with sacrilegious impertinence.

Munshi, K.M.  Somanatha – The Shrine Eternal

From that moment on Munshi began to cast the glories of India’s classical past by representing the Muslim presence as the singular destroyer of Gujarati greatness. It was a way of thinking assumed by a number of important nationalist historians and writers, including Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and others. The nationalist historians sought their ‘perfection’ in the classical age, before the ‘impurity’ of the Muslims entered the ‘realm’ of India and led to an age of darkness and tyranny. Munshi believed that the people of Gujarat were unaware of the greatness that was there inheritance, and turned to writing historical novels as a way to educate them about this heritage. Today these are the same ideas and prejudices echoed by the likes of V.S. Naipaul.

In 1937 Munshi penned his most famous historical romance – Jaya Somanatha. The book is centered around Mahmud of Ghazni’s raid on the temple of Somanatha, and the brave efforts of King Bhima to defend and later rebuild and reconsecrate the temple. It fictionalizes the narrative of repeated Muslim destruction and Hindu re-construction that had by now become ‘fact’ thanks to the work of colonial historians. The novel presents the temple of Somanatha as symbolic of the pride and glory of Gujarat, and echos the earl of Ellenborough’s claim of a historical, thousand year old humiliation that remains burnt into the collective sub-conscious of the nation. But Munshi’s positing the centrality of Somanatha to the culture, heritage and honor of Gujarat went beyond justing writing novels – it soon became a campaign to rebuild, and reconsecrate the temple. In his book Somanatha- The Shrine Eternal Munshi explained why this had to be done:

It lived in the sentiment of the whole nation, and its reconstruction was a national pledge. Its preservation should not be a mere matter of historical curiosity.

But this was going to be a complex undertaking, riddled with political and cultural complexities. And it may never have occurred had it not been for yet another quirk of history. At the moment of creation of the newly independent nation of India, the princely state of Junagadh, where the Somanatha temple is located, chose to join Pakistan. Its nawab, a Muslim, ruled over a state that was predominantly Hindu and his announcement was met with a popular revolt and the creation of a parallel government. As the situation got out of control, the state’s divan invited the Indian Army to suppress the disturbances. Junagadh was quickly absorbed into the new India but faced with a restless polity it became imperative to quickly integrate this region into the new Indian nation. The dilapidated, unused temple of Somanatha offered the theatrical foil for this necessity.

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the minister of states, announced the project to reconstruct the temple at Somanatha. The population could now be distracted with a project that paralleled the birth of the nation of India – a project aimed at reclaiming the greatness that was once Hindu civilization, and that was not only being born in that hot August of 1947, but that whose spiritual and ancient soul would be reconsecrated at that symbolic site of Somanatha. The temple made concrete the not only the integration of Junagadh into Hindu India and also the very ideal of the Hindu nationalist re-awakening long fought for.

For Munshi, it was a moment of triumph, and in a letter to Nehru, who had expressed his reservations about this project and refused to have anything personal or official to do with it, he would go on to say:

…my historical novels have brought the ancient history of Gujarat vividly before modern India, and my novel Jaya Somanatha has had a great appeal in the country. I can assure you that the ‘collective sub-conscious’ of India today is happier with the scheme of reconstruction of Somanatha sponsored by the Government of Indian than with many other things we have done and are doing.

The temple and its reconsecration were completed in 1951 and presided over by the then-President of India, Rajendra Prasad. Today, it stands gracefully and powerfully on the shores of the Arabian Sea, a reminder of the emergence of a new India, a new national consciousness, and resurgent and articulate Hindu nationalism.

It can, however, also be said that it stands as a reminder of the failure of Indian (and Pakistani, for that matter) intellectuals, politicians and artists, who may have managed to shake off the political and economic shackles of a colonial regime, but remained trapped in a prison house of intellectual and historical ideas that pitted them against each other.

It is a prison house from which the citizens of South Asia continue to struggle to escape.

Creating a memory involves claiming that what is being remembered actually happened in the past. The other side of the coin to remembering is forgetting and setting apart that which is not to be remembered. If remembering has its own politics, so does forgetting.

Thapar, R Somanatha – The Many Voices Of A History

It is a simple fact that contemporary Hinduism as a living practice would not be what it is if it were not for the devotional practices initiated under Mogul rule

Ghosh, A From the Introduction to The Baburnama

Hinduism flourished under the rule of the Mughals. The dynasty that Babar left in India experienced under it a flourishing of Hindu practices that effectively define Hinduism as it is experienced today. Tusildas’ Ramacaritmas, the central text of North Indian Hinduism, was written during the reign of the Mughal Akbar. Ayodhya’s Hanumangarhi temple itself was constructed from funds provided by the Nawabs of Awadh. One of Bengal’s greatest Vaishnava leaders Chaitanya, considered an incarnation of Krishna, flourished during the Mughal reign as did the Bengali poet Chandidas. The Mughals extended support to a large number of Hindu scholars and commissioned translations of many Hindu works from Sanskrit into Arabic and Persian. The Panchatantra was translated into Arabic, as was the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Elaborately decorated translations of the Harivamsha were produced and the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh himself translated the Yoga-vasishtha. Brajbhumi, a region central to Krishna bhakti, flourished during Mughal reign, with most of its most important temples constructed with the support of revenue and land grants from the Mughal court.

It is even believed that Babar may have been the first to fund the construction of a Rama temple in Ayodhya.

Such details and interpretations were mainly missing from colonial historiographies and are determinedly erased from both Indian nationalist and Hindu extremist re-writings of India’s heritage. So is evidence of tolerance, compromises, accommodations, and acceptance of India’s genuine cultural legacy and heritage.

(Writers Note: Such erasures are also central to the project of Pakistani nationalism, based on the highly tenuous ‘Two nation theory’ – more a construction than a theory. A separate post will discuss its effect on Pakistan and its post-independence history. Suffice it to say, my comments here apply just as equally to the Muslim nationalists who argued for a separate ‘Muslim’ homeland.)

Two hundred years after Mahmud of Gazni’s desecration of the Somanathan temple – a desecration that is claimed to have left a deep humiliation in the collective sub-conscious of the Indian nation, a land deed is signed between the then ruler of the region, the Chaulukya-Vaghela king Arjunadeva, and an Arab merchant and ship-owner from the straits of Hormuz, Nur-ud-din Firuz. The deed is recorded in a Sanskrit-Arabic inscription, dating to 1264, and goes into great detail about the nature and responsibilities of the contract. The deed has the approval of the pancha-kulas (administrator) of the Somanatha temple itself, and is witnessed by some of the most prominent and important members of the town’s business and commercial community. Decades of peaceful commercial and business activity had bred familiarity between the Arab and Hindu communities, and possibly even mutually beneficial commercial contacts.

The deed is an agreement to sell lands belonging to the Somanatha temple to an Arab Muslim trader from Hormuz to construct a mosque.

This is of course not the complete story. British colonial historiography and its continuing influence does not explain all. Furthermore, the trauma of partition continues to influence the nature of the nation’s antagonisms, including issues such as Kashmir, and the place of the country’s minorities particularly the ‘Muslims’. As the historians Ayesha Jalal and Sugata Bose have argued, India’s majority still hold Pakistan and its creators as responsible for the destruction of the sacred unity of Bharatmata – ‘mother India’. The memories of partition inform the campaigns for the reconstruction of both the Somanatha and Ayodhya temples. These campaigns are as much about India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ as they are about India’s colonial legacy.

However, it would be egregious to discount and underestimate the continuing influence of these colonial historiographies. As Ayesha Jalal and Sugata Bose themselves have pointed out in their work Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy:

Post-colonial South Asian history and historiography have shown an inability to discard colonial definitions of majority and minority based on a system of enumeration privileging the religious distinction despite being overtaken by events.

Such definitions underpinned the logic, method and presumptions of the court in Allahabad. Their verdict was yet another example of a failure to catch up with events in India. We can’t ignore the fact that there were no riots in the aftermath of the Allahabad court’s verdict and a near indifferent quiet surrounded the entire affair. However, the fear of riots had been there, but not the organization or leadership. The quiet made the the court’s decision – announced with great fanfare and media attention, appear anachronistic, arriving as it did at a time of waning BJP and Hindutva power, and a nation’s waning interest in communal-centered political mobilization. It was a judgment from another time, another political moment now long gone. India had not only voted the sectarian parties out of power in the previous elections, but has remained indifferent to their more recent attempts at divisive and sectarian politics. The nation was looking elsewhere and had little time left for such issues which seemed irrelevant to the broader project of a new India. One can only hope.

The desecration of the temple of Somanatha by Mahmud of Gazni is part of India’s ‘official’ national history, enshrined in textbooks and official narratives of the nation. The destruction of the temple to construct the Babri mosque, however, has so far avoided this fate. The danger now is that the court’s verdict will facilitate making it so.


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Partha Chatterjee, The Nation And Its Fragments, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1993

Richard H. Davis Lives of Indian Images, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1997

Romila Thapar, Somanatha: The Many Voices Of A History, Verso Books, London & New York, 2005

Wendy Doniger The Hindus: An Alternative History, Penguin Press, New York, 2009

Srivastava S, Gopal, S (Ed.), Anatomy of A Confrontation: Ayodhya And The Rise Of Communal Politics In India, Penguin Books, 1990, 1991

Kaviraj, S The Imaginary Institution Of India, Columbia University Press, 2010

Munshi, K.M. Somantha – The Shrine Eternal, Somnath Board of Trustees, 1951

van der Veer, P, Religious Nationalism: Hindus And Muslims in India University of California Press, Berkeley, 1994

Jalal, A & Bose, S Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy Routledge, London & New York, 1997

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