The legend of Somnath Temple

Somnath temple has an extremely chequered past. This temple has seen glorious days as well as devastating attacks of brutal iconoclastic invaders. It is believed that after death, soul comes to Somnath for the final judgement and only after His orders enter a new body. Even the Sea God is believed to worship Somnath as is evident by the waves that tries to reach the temple at the time of high tides. At one time, a trip to Somnath was considered the biggest pilgrimage among the devout Hindus.

Somnath temple in background

Somnath temple in background

Its history fades into a legend. Daksh Prajapati, manas-putra of Brahma and father-in-law of Lord Shiva, married his twenty-seven daughters to Somraj – the Moon God. Somraj promised his father-in-law that he would treat all of them equally. However, he fell in love with the fourth daughter Rohini. He started overly favouring her and ignored the need of other wives. The biased treatment angered the other wives and they complained about it to their father. Daksh warned Somraj not to neglect them and reminded him of his promise. Somraj did not pay any heed to the warning. This infuriated Daksh and he cursed Somraj that he would remain childless forever, and his beauty and radiance would disappear.

As his condition deteriorated, Somraj got scared. He requested Brahma to cure him. Brahma expressed his helplessness and suggested him to worship the Sparsha Linga at current Somanth. Somraj devotedly worshipped it for six months. It pleased lord Shiva. He blessed Somraj immortality and also partially relieved him from Daksh’s curse. He told Somraj because of the curse of Dakhsa, his radiance would wane in Krishna Paksh, but with his blessings it would start waxing in Shukla Paksh attaining the complete self on the full moon day (Poornima). After receiving Shiva’s blessings Somraj requested Lord Shiva to reside there eternally and bless his devotees. Shiva accepted his request. Somraja then built a temple in gold and dedicated it to Someshwara (Lord Shiva with moon on his head) and from that time itself the place started to be known as Somnath, a place where the master(nath) of Somraja resides.

This legend is described in Skandpurana. Somnath is the most sacred of twelve Jyotirlingas of Lord Shiva. These Jyotirlingas are also mentioned in the ancient sacred books like Shivpuran, Rigveda, Ramayana and Mahabharata.

It is believed that the twenty-seven daughters of Daksha are the twenty-seven Nakshatras(Pleiades). Rohini is brightest among them and is considered the queen of love and the beauty. As per Hindu astrology, the time when moon enters the house of Rohini, is considered the most auspicious time for marriage. I wonder, is this legend a creative brain child of someone who had keen interest in astrology and he devised this story to remember the name of all Nakshatras and their peculiarities! Of-course the complete story have the characteristics of all the twenty-seven Nakshatras (wives) and many more stories attached to it.

This temple in gold was rebuilt by Ravan in silver. It is believed to be built-in sandalwood by Lord Krishna and in stone by Solanki kings Kumarpal and Bhimdev.

Somnath is sacred for the Shaivites as well as for the Vaishnavites. It is believed that the curse of Gandhari destructed Yadu-Vansh. And from there Lord Krishna moved to Prabhaspatan (an area in the vicinity of Somnath). One day while Lord Krishna was sleeping under a tree wearing deer skin, a hunter Jara, mistook him for a deer and wounded him with a poisonous arrow. This proved fatal. The place where Lord Krishna was hit by the arrow is known as Bhalka Tirth and the place where his body left his soul, today stands Geeta Mandir. Balram, Lord Krishna’s elder brother, also died at a nearby place. Bhalka Teerth and Gita Mandir are within one kilometre distance from Somnath.

Below is the excerpt of “Andha Yug” by Dharamveer Bharti – stanzas where Gandhari curse Krishna of dying like an animal

यदि मेरी सेवा मे बल है,
संचित तप में धर्म है
तो सुनो कृष्ण

प्रभु हो या परातपर हो
कुछ भी हो
सारा तुम्हारा वंश
इसी तरह पागल कुत्तों की तरह
एक दूसरे को परस्पर फाड़ खाएगा

तुम खुद उनका विनाश करके कई वर्षों के बाद
किसी घने जंगल में
साधारण व्याध के हाथों मारे जाओगे
प्रभु हो
पर मारे जाओगे पशुओं की तरह

Symbols of Shiva - Trident, Damru and Bow.

Symbols of Shiva – Trident, Damru and Bow.

In its past, Somnath has been destroyed and re-constructed many a times. After the first temple that existed from the Common Era, it was rebuilt by Vallabhi kings in 5th century. Around 725 AD it was destroyed by the Arab Governor, Al-Junayd, of the Sindh. This temple was built for the third time by Nagabhatta II, a Pratihaar king with red sandstone.

In tenth century the shrine was endowed with ten thousand villages to meet its expenses. This enriched Somnath temple much more than any Indian kingdom of that time. Not even one of them could even boost of one tenth of its treasure. There were around two-thousand Brahmins, three-hundred barbers, five-hundred dancers and three-hundred musicians living in that temple. Expenditures of all these was met through the donations of the devotees.

The temple was supported on fifty-six pillars that bore the name of the kings who got them constructed. All these pillars were studded with precious stones and diamonds.

These stories of people’s faith and Somnath temple’s splendor and grandeur reached Gazni (now part of Afghanistan). The possibility of looting enormous treasure of Somnath prompted Mahmud Gazni, the cruel iconoclast of Gazni, to attack. In 1024, he arrived with a big army to desecrate the temple, to loot its bounty and to destroy the faiths of hundreds by damaging the idol.

Mahmud’s invasions were always bloody and ruthless affairs. He captured the temple and the town within two days of battle and around fifty thousand devotees were butchered and hundred of thousands of people were taken as slave. Mahmud and his troops carried away around 6.5 tons of gold and the intricately carved doors of the temple.

Prior to my trip, to know more about Somnath I read, “Somnath” by Acharya Chatursen. This book describes the attack of Mahmud Gazni on Somnath. It beautifully analyzes the political scene of that time – the attack by Mahmud and the defence of Somanth by Bhimdev and the events that followed the attack. It is largely a fiction. I am not sure that is it a total fiction or Acharya Chatursen had done some research as well. If the book is supported by facts as well then it was not a one-sided battle. In the battle Mahmud’s forces also became weak and also after getting enormous treasure he was keen to avoid any further clash and instead of taking the normal route back he followed the way through Kuchh Kaa Rann. It is believed that he was misled on the way by a devout devotee of Lord Shiva and many of Mahmud’s soldiers perished in the water-less desert. His army was also attacked on by the Jat-armies. However, Mahmud managed to reach Gajni in the spring of 1026 with an enormous booty.

There are evidences that even after this attack the royal, social and religious fabric of Gujarat remained intact. Even after this loot there was no change in Gujarat’s monetary power (isn’t it surprising!). In 1032, just a few years after Mahmud’s return, Vimalshah, the prime minister of Gujarat constructed the famous Vimal Vasahi temple (Dilwada temple) of Mt Abu. I had seen this temple. Undoubtedly, the intricate work done on marble in this famous temple is incomparable in the whole world and it costed him around more than eighteen crore Rupees.

Some historians doubt that may be the attack was all a folk-lore and that invasion never happened, or if happened, it was not so destructive. In support of their view they point to the construction of Dilwara Temples in Mt Abu and also to the fact that a few Jain literatures, supposedly of the same time, totally neglected and did not even mention Mahmud’s invasion once. Romila Thapar, the prominent historian, is among these historians.

After Mahmud’s invasion a pattern of destructions by iconoclastic invaders and re-construction by devout Hindus started. In the end it was demolished by Aurangzeb and was not rebuilt until 1950.

After independence, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel vowed to reconstruct it to wipe the scares of defeat and destruction. He strongly backed the suggestion that even the government should not shy away from bringing back the lost glory of this pilgrimage.

Below is an excerpt from the movie “Sardar”, based on Sardar Patel’s life, where he is shown elaborating on his decision to back reconstruction of the temple.

The important role in the reconstruction was played by Sardar Patel, and Mr. KM Munshi (who was minister of food and civil supplies in Jawahar Lal Nehru’s cabinet). KM Munshi was a litterateur and is also credited with widely popular “Jai Somnath” written originally in Gujarati (Though it is also fictionalized version of the war). These two ministers, with other colleagues in Congress, also met Gandhiji expressing their desire of reconstructing the Somnath Temple. Gandhiji gave his blessings for the same, but suggested that the fund for the reconstruction should be collected from public and state should not fund it.

Soon, both Gandhiji and Sardar Patel died and task of reconstruction fell on KM Munshi, who worked over with a mission and got the temple reconstructed. The installation ceremony was attended by Dr Rajendra Prasad, even after Jawahar Lal Nehru expressed his reservations.

Brutal destructions and trumpets of iconoclast could not keep Somnath down for ever. Somnath resurrected itself with a strange but a strong will. This is the music of Indian life that has proved that the power of construction is always greater than the power of destruction. Long Live this spirit and Long Live the Somnath.

Somnath Temple (photograph courtesy: Poonam Ranka)

उसके फरोग-ए-हुस्न से
चमके है सब में नूर
शममे-हरम हो
या की दीया सोमनाथ

उसी के सौन्दर्य का प्रकाश
चाहे वो काबुल में जलता हुआ दीया हो
या सोमनाथ का चिराग

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  1. Yes nothing could keep the Temple down forever. On my visit to the temple in the year 2010, I saw the light and sound show there. It showed the history of the Temple, attacks on it and all were said through the voice Late Amrish Puri. I got goose bumps listening him in the light and sound show. Perhaps that was the best light and sound show I have ever seen.

    Your story refreshed my memories of Somnath Visit. Thank you for presenting it so beautifully, Manish!

  2. Dear Anupam

    The light and sound show was not there when we visited the temple. I can imagine the high-bass-ed voice of Amrish-Puri creating a magical effect.

    Thanks for sharing the experience 🙂

    1. Hi Anupam

      While working on the next and the final post on Somnath, I realized that even at the time of our visit the sound and light show was there, however, we could not visit it since Rachit was not well.

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