Somnath temple

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By editor - 7.2 2020

The Somnath temple located in Prabhas Patan near Veraval in Saurashtra on the western coast of Gujarat, India(Gurjar) is believed to be the first among the twelve jyotirlinga shrines of Shiva. It is an important pilgrimage and tourist spot of Gujarat. Reconstructed several times in the past after repeated destruction by several Muslim invaders and rulers, the present temple was reconstructed in Chaulukya style of Hindu temple architecture and completed in May 1951. The reconstruction was started under the orders of the Home Minister of India Vallabhbhai Patel and completed after his death.

The site of Somnath has been a pilgrimage site from ancient times on account of being a Triveni sangam (the confluence of three rivers: Kapila, Hiran and Sarasvati). Soma, the Moon god, is believed to have lost his lustre due to a curse, and he bathed in the Sarasvati River at this site to regain it. The result is the waxing and waning of the moon, no doubt an allusion to the waxing and waning of the tides at this seashore location. The name of the town Prabhas, meaning lustre, as well as the alternative names Someshvar and Somnath ("The lord of the moon" or "the moon god") arise from this tradition.

History of the temple

According to popular tradition documented by J. Gordon Melton, the first Shiva temple at Somnath is believed to have been built at some unknown time in the past. The second temple is said to have been built at the same site by the "Yadava kings" of Vallabhi around 649 CE. In 725 CE, Al-Junayd, the Arab governor of Sindh is said to have destroyed the second temple as part of his invasions of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The Gurjara-Pratihara king Nagabhata II is said to have constructed the third temple in 815 CE, a large structure of red sandstone.

However, there is historical record of an attack on Somnath by Al-Junayd. Nagabhata II is known to have visited tirthas in Saurashtra, including Someshvara (the Lord of the Moon), which may or may not be a reference to a Shiva temple because the town itself was known by that name.The Chaulukya (Solanki) king Mularaja possibly built the first temple at the site sometime before 997 CE, even though some historians believe that he may have renovated a smaller earlier temple.

Ruined Somnath temple, 1869

In 1024, during the reign of Bhima I, the prominent Turkic Muslim ruler Mahmud of Ghazni raided Gujarat, plundering the Somnath temple and breaking its jyotirlinga despite pleas by Brahmins not to break it. He took away a booty of 20 million dinars. Historians expect the damage to the temple by Mahmud to have been minimal because there are no records of pilgrimages to the temple till 1038, for 12 years no pilgrim due to damages  However, powerful legends with intricate detail developed in the Turko-Persian literature regarding Mahmud's raid,[23] which "electrified" the Muslim world according to scholar Meenakshi Jain.They later boasted that Mahmud had killed 50,000 devotees. The devotees had tried to defend the temple from being vandalised and looted.[4][25]

The temple at the time of Mahmud's attack appears to have been a wooden structure, which is said to have decayed in time (kalajirnam). Kumarapala a Jain king, (r. 1143–72) rebuilt it in "excellent stone and studded it with jewels," according to an inscription in 1169.

The temple was again destroyed by the Delhi Sultanate's army in 1299 CE.During its 1299 invasion of Gujarat, Alauddin Khalji's army, led by Ulugh Khan, defeated the Vaghela king Karna, and sacked the Somnath temple.Legends in the later texts Kanhadade Prabandha (15th century) and Khyat (17th century) state that the Jalore ruler Kanhadadeva later recovered the Somnath idol and freed the Hindu prisoners, after an attack on the Delhi army near Jalore.[30] However, other sources state that the idol was taken to Delhi, where it was thrown to be trampled under the feet of Muslims.[31] These sources include the contemporary and near-contemporary texts including Amir Khusrau's Khazainul-Futuh, Ziauddin Barani's Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi and Jinaprabha Suri's Vividha-tirtha-kalpa. It is possible that the story of Kanhadadeva's rescue of the Somnath idol is a fabrication by the later writers. Alternatively, it is possible that the Khalji army was taking multiple idols to Delhi, and Kanhadadeva's army retrieved one of them.

The temple was rebuilt by Mahipala I, the Chudasama king of Saurashtra in 1308 and the lingam was installed by his son Khengara sometime between 1331 and 1351.As late as the 14th century, Gujarati Muslim pilgrims were noted by Amir Khusrow to stop at that temple to pay their respects before departing for the Hajj pilgrimage.

In 1395, the temple was destroyed for the third time by Zafar Khan, the last governor of Gujarat under the Delhi Sultanate and later founder of Gujarat Sultanate. In 1451, it was desecrated by Mahmud Begada, the Sultan of Gujarat.

By 1665, the temple, one of many, was ordered to be destroyed by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb.In 1701, he ordered the destruction of temple in such a manner that it can't be reconstructed again. So, the temple was destroyed and a mosque was built at its place in 1706.

Somnath is also known by several other names -- Deo pattan, Prabhas Pattan or Pattan Somnath -- which it acquired during its long and eventful history. Somnath was once the most revered shrine in the country, for it had one of the twelve pre-eminent Jyotirlingas (the glowing Lingas) which held a special significance for the Hindus. Somnath's glory and fame are legendary. It is said that people from the remotest parts of the country came to worship at the shrine; revenues collected from ten thousand villages was spent on the maintenance of the temple. Two thousand Brahmins (priests) served the idol and a golden chain attached to a huge bell plate announced the commencement of prayers.

Somnath rose and fell many a time and the amazing drama of the iconoclast's zeal for its desecration and the devout Hindu's passionate desire for its restoration continued till the 15th century, when the Hindus finally gave up in sheer despair and built a new temple nearby.

The present site of Somnath is a pile of ruins and little is known of the early history of this place. It is believed to have been erected by the Vallabhi Kings in about 480-767 A.D. The temple is dedicated to Someshwara, the Lord Shiva with moon in his head. The destruction brought upon this temple by Muhammad of Ghazni in 1025 A.D.  is an important event in Indian history (see also: a time-line of India). In his blind fury, not only did he despoil an object of beauty but tore up the pages of history, which Somnath bore on its walls. It is said that the temple was supported by pillars which bore the names of its sculptors; this information has been lost to history forever.

In its external design the Somnath temple compares well with the temple of Rudramala at Siddhapur and is more or less of the same size in length. The dome, however, is as large as any other built in this period. The temple faces to east and once had an enormous central hall with three entrances, each protected by a lofty porch. The fragments that lie scattered at a short distance from the site give some idea of the sculpture decorating the temple. The richly carved doorways, the sculptured representations of Nandi, Siva's bull, and the figures of goddesses and their female attendants must once have presented a grand ensemble of great beauty. In the recesses of the balconied corridor, there is a mutilated form of  Nataraja, the dancing Shiva. Although essentially a Brahmanical temple, the influence of Jain architecture is clearly discernible.

The Kathiawar style of temple architecture in the 11th century was so widespread that instances of it can be found in Rajasthan too. There is a group of five badly damaged temples at Kiradu in the Mallani district of Marwar, each of which displays many characteristics of the Solanki style of building. Certain Gupta influences are also apparent, obviously arising from their proximity to Gupta territory.

Of these five temples, the one dedicated to  Lord Vishnu is probably the oldest, but the best preserved is the elegant shrine of Someshwara. The skeleton of a magnificent pillared hall still bears testimony to the intense devotion with which these deserted structures must once have been built. The square shafts of the richly wrought pillars end in the foliage motif so characteristic of Gupta decorative art, and above this is a circular disc and capital, consisting of four brackets.

The ruins of the Rudramala temple at Siddhapur on the banks of the Saraswati river testify to the ornated grandeur that the Solanki style had achieved when it was nearing its decline in the 12th century A.D. Clearly, this temple must have been one of the biggest and most lavishly decorated structures of its time.

Present State (1997)

Soon after independence (in 1947), India's first president Rajendra Prasad commissioned the restoration of the Somnath temple remarking -- "The Somnath Temple signifies that the power of reconstruction is always greater than the power of destruction."  It was completed in 1995 and the then President of India rededicated the services of the great Somnath temple, restored for the seventh time on the original location to the people of India. 

Today, it can be visited in the State of Gujarat by pilgrims and students of history.

First published as Temples of North India, Dept. Information and Broadcasting, Government of India 1975. All Rights Reserved.