Playing Politics With History - Somnath, Rajendra Chola And Romila Thapar's Absurd Inferences

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How Romila Thapar attempts to minimize Mahmud Ghazni’s raid on Somnath Temple despite ample historical evidence going against her conclusions.

One of the most heartening recent developments is an open letter written by 53 historians and archeologists of unimpeachable credentials lamenting the portrayal of Indian history by those “anchored in Marxist historiography and leftist ideology.” Celebrating Tipu Sultan is but one example of our leftist historians’ long-standing project of manufacturing a moral equivalence between periods of Hindu and Muslim history in India. Another brazen example of this project is Romila Thapar’s book on the Somnath temple.

The primary thrust of the book is the need to discount contemporary Islamic narrations of Mahmud Ghazni’s raid on Somnath for being motivated by religious frenzy and to consider much later Hindu and Jain documents (none of which are historical accounts) to conclude that Hindus themselves did not take the incident too seriously and therefore the incident could not have been so horrific as is widely believed. The book does merit a elaborate response. What is interesting however is that the book contains casual observations on historical events that cannot be explained as anything but political points.

One such observation is –

…at approximately the time of the (Somnath) raid, the Chola King, Rajendra I, was marching his armies up the eastern coast, claiming conquests and declaring his triumph by bringing back water from the Ganga…..

One could have probably ignored this irrelevant reference if not for the fact that Ms. Thapar has chosen to repeat it in her recently published book, which is not a historical but a collection of disjointed essays on ‘the public intellectual in India’. Unlike her previous works this book is overtly political. So much so that one of its contributor-essayist attributes BJP’s electoral drubbing in Delhi to the impact of “Thapar and like-minded intellectuals” on “political-choice that people have made.”

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Ms. Thapar’s linkage between Rajendra Chola and the Somnath raid is loaded with political meaning. It could imply that the Somnath raid did not happen at all or at least not at the scale which is widely believed, for otherwise the country’s greatest Shaivite king could not have been unaware or unconcerned by it. If not, it could also be a reiteration of one of Ms. Thapar’s favourite theme- the lack of national-level cultural consciousness in pre-modern India, as evidenced by Rajendra Chola’s refusal to be bothered by the destruction of Shaivism’s holiest shrine simply because it stood outside his kingdom. Whatever may be the implication, the statement itself is factually wrong and could not have been made by a historian of Ms. Thapar’s learning if not for a political motive.

To begin with Rajendra Chola was not marching his armies up the eastern coast at the time of the Somnath raid. His expedition to the Ganges through east India concluded by 1024. It is probable that when Ghazni conducted one of his not so successful raids into India against the Kachapaghatas of Gwalior and the Chandela Ganda Raja of Kalinjar in 1021-1022, Rajendra Chola was either moving through east India towards the north or was fighting the western Chalukyas. Both rulers proved themselves to be capable of tackling Ghazni and both battles ended in dead-heat.

There is nothing to show that either King attempted to form alliances with other rulers, as they did on other occasions including against Ghazni himself at the 2nd battle of Waihind in support of Anandpal Shahi. This could have been due to paucity of time caused by the swiftness of Ghazni’s raids. Unfortunately we have no detailed accounts of these raids. The only eye-witness to record Ghazni’s raids, Al-Utbi, stopped doing so after his previous raid in 1020. So to blame other Kings such as the Cholas for not getting involved in the fights with Ghazni without knowing anything about the contemporary circumstances doesn’t appear to be credible narration of history.

Fortunately we have more information about Ghazni’s raid on Somnath. The Somnath raid was so sensational that it caught the attention of more writers, both contemporary and later ones, than any of his other raids. It is well accepted that Ghazni’s raid on Somnath happened at least five years after his previous raid against Gwalior and Kalinjar i.e. in 1025-1026. By now Rajendra Chola had begun his famous expedition to South East Asia and was nowhere close to the tragic events unfolding in Saurashtra. There is agreement among all contemporary/ near-contemporary commentators on the Somnath raid that it happened in Hijra 416 (1025 AD) . Al-Beruni in fact refers to how the local Hindus calculated the year of Somnath’s destruction as 1025 AD through a round about mathematical technique employed by a Multan-based Hindu mathematician of the time called Durlabha.

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The only writers who date the Somnath raid to years before 1025 (i.e. to the years in which Rajendra Chola was fighting in north) are the authors of the famous book “History of India as told by its Historians”, Elliot and Dawson. As pointed out by Mohammaed Nazim in his equally well known book on Ghazni (The Life and Times of Sultan Mahmid of Ghazna, CUP, 1931) this was because of a “careless mistake” committed by Elliot and Dawson in translating Ibn-Ul Athir’s account of Ghazni’s expedition. Romila Thapar herself treats 1026 to be the year of the Somnath raid. Inspite of acknowledging this, one can only wonder why she chose to draw a linkage between the Somnath raid and Rajendra Chola’s expedition to the Ganges – events that were several years apart.

More importantly, even if Rajendra Chola was in north India at the time of the Somnath raid, a careful look at the manner in which Ghazni carried out the raid would show that there may not have been much the Chola or anybody else could have done to prevent the destruction of the grand temple. Unfortunately, Romila Thapar does not spend much effort in throwing light on the particulars of the raid such as the route of Ghazni’s approach to Somnath, the duration of his stay, the manner of his return etc. Having noted that there are conflicting accounts, she does not deem it necessary to make a scientific enquiry of the relative veracity of each source.

She discredits the only two accounts of the event written by contemporary commentators, simply because both of them represent the Somnath Linga to be an idol of the Arab diety Mannat (for obvious reasons). Out of the two writers Farukhi Siestan was a court poet of Ghazini and the other , Gardizi, was one of the most noted historians of his time. Farrukhi, in his famous qasida (poem) on the Somnath raid gives the most detailed account of Ghazni’s approach route to Somnath. It appears that between Multan and Anhilwara (Patan, Gujarat) Ghazni had to face resistance only in two paces- Ludarva and Chikudar- both desert towns of uncertain identity.

Up to Multan, Ghazni could come seamlessly and most probably without being noticed because after the liquidation of the brave Hindushahis the entire north western frontier and punjab was under his direct control. Ghazni chose to come to Somnath swiftly through the desert avoiding conflict with any of the major Rajputs. As described by Mohammed Habib (Sultan Mahmud of Ghaznin, S. Chand & Co, 1967)

His marches into Hindustan hitherto had been through a fertile territory and he was never in danger of starvation. In moving southwards Mahmud for the first and last time threw his caution aside, defied the inclemencies of nature as well as the spears of his opponents and ventured into a territory where the slightest mishap would have meant complete ruin.

 Ghazni chose stealth even if it meant taking a treacherous route. This becomes clear from the fact that Raja Bhim Dev Solanki, the ruler of Ahilwara and the most powerful patron of the Somnath deity, fled his city on knowing Ghazni’s arrival. This could only have been due to the surprise involved in Ghazni’s appearance. That Bhim Dev was not a coward and was fully capable of taking on Ghazni, if prepared, becomes clear from the account of Gardizi. Contrary to some later accounts which suggest that Ghazni stayed in Anhilwara for sometime after the Somnath Raid, installed local rulers etc, Gardizi says Ghazni headed straight back home through the most treacherous route after looting Somnath.

The reason for this” he says “was that Bhimdev, the king of Indians, was blocking the way. Amir Mahmud said ‘no stroke of ill fortune must mar this mighty victory’” (E. Bosworth, Ornament of Histories, I.B. Taura & Co, 2011). Gardizi provides a detailed account of the tribulations faced by Ghazni and his troops in trying to head back home through unknown routes in the desert. It is noteworthy that though in Bosworth’s translation Gardizi refers to Bhimdev as the Hindu king from whom Ghazni fled after looting Somnath, in a much later historical account called Tahmat-i-Ahbari written by Nizam ud-dm Ahmad it is stated-

When Mahmud resolved upon returning home from Somnath, he learned that Parama Dev, one of the greatest Rajas of Hindustan, was preparing to intercept him. The Sultan, not deeming it ad-visable at the time to contend with this chief, went towards Multan, through Sind. In this journey his men suffered much (Elliot & Dawson, The History of India as told by its own Historians: The Mohammadan Period, ,Vol.II).

‘Parama Dev’ referred to in this account was none other than Raja Bhoja of the Parmar Dynasty in Malwa. This is important because Bhoja, who was well known for his military prowess was also a longtime ally of Rajendra Chola and could probably have got the later involved in any full blown conflict with Ghazni. However as is clear from both these accounts, Ghazni chose to flee rather than face a major Hindu ruler after his loot of Somnath. If these indeed were the circumstances in which Ghazni raided Somnath, Romila Thapar’s doubts on why other Hindu kings especially the Cholas did not get involved against the raid on Somnath, appear specious.

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It should be noted that rarely did the rulers of north India came together in such a strong alliance as they did against Ghazni at the 2nd battle of Waihind. In fact Ghazni’s raids created such a fervor among Hindu rulers that it caused probably the only occasion in Indian history when a kingdom was invaded by neighbouring kings and its ruler put to death not for territory but only for failing to fight a foreigner and allowing hundreds of Hindu temples to be destroyed. Indeed, submission to Ghazni without a fight was the only reason why Ganda of Kalinjar and the Kachapaghatas of Gwalior invaded Kanauj and put its ruler Rajyapal to death. This is what prompted Ghazni to attack both these Kingdoms on his next raid.

No one can deny the fact that the Hindu rulers of the time showed no sense of unity and displayed total lack of foresight in failing to take back the north-west even when Ghazni was away. One must equally remember that the last truly imperial Hindu kingdom disappeared at least 3 centuries before and the country had no central authority.

The Rajputs could not get over petty differences. But to say that there was absence of a cultural consciousness cutting across clans and kingdoms is far from truth. Historians like Romila Thapar have tried hard to prove to the contrary and most of the evidence they present is as shallow as her attempt to draw inferences from Rajendra Chola’s supposed indifference to Ghazni’s raid on Somnath.