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The Life of John Wilson
Appendix II. Dr. Wilson on the Somnath Gates


TO SIR BARTLE FRERE.

“5th December 1842.—My dear Sir—I have much pleasure in replying to your letter of the 3d instant ; and I beg you to assure the honourable the Governor, that any reference of a similar character will at any time meet with my promptest attention. It was in the year 1835 that I repaired to Puttun Somnath with a view to an investigation of its antiquities and traditions ; and since that time I have had many opportunities of comparing the result of my observations and inquiries with the notices which I have observed in the Muhammadan histories, and the narratives of other visitors. Mr. Westergaard, a learned Dane who has been sent to this country on a literary mission under the auspices of his Sovereign, and who is at present staying under my roof, visited the place a few months ago ; and I learn from his account that matters connected with the temples there remain nearly in the same state in which they were at the time of my visit.

“The town of Puttun is now in a condition very different from that in which it was when it was assaulted by Muhammad of Ghuznil As mentioned by Sir John Malcolm, it is described by Persian historians I as being a lofty castle,’ ‘ on a narrow peninsula, with its three sides defended by the sea,’ and it was famous as a stronghold of power as well as the seat of a celebrated shrine. The difficulties encountered by Muhammad in its attack clearly prove that this was the case. At present, however, there is nothing connected with it deserving the name of a fortification, though part of the town, which is very inconsiderable in point of size, is enclosed within a wall. Verawul, in its neighbourhood, is a port where mercantile transactions are pretty extensive, and where a body of respectable Banyas and Jain merchants are to be found.

“There are only two temples belonging to the Hindoos of any consequence at Somnath. One of these is that built some fifty years ago by Alya Bai, the famous Ivanee of the Holkar family, of whom such interesting accounts are published in Sir John Malcolm’s History of Central India. The other is that which is declared by all the natives of the place to have been the special object of the anti-polytheistic ire of Muhammad. The latter is now utterly forsaken by the natives as a place of worship. There was much filth accumulated in it when I saw it. It was traversed by the village swine, the common scavengers of India, which were attracted to it by its being occasionally a place of resort by the natives after their morning meal. The greater part of the building, which is of oolite sandstone, is still standing ; and the remains of its external ornaments, though much defaced by the violence of the Mussulmans, bear witness to a respectable state of advancement in the art of sculpture at the time that they were formed. The name of the temple, as well as its construction, indicates its connection with the god Shiva. The idol destroyed by Muhammad is declared by the natives to have been a ling a, and of this fact there can be no doubt entertained by any person who attends to the form of the temple. The principal notices of the destruction of the idol taken by the Mussulman historians are the following: -‘The temple in which the idol of Somnath stood,’ says the Rauzat-as-Safci, ‘ as of considerable extent, both in length and breadth, and the roof was supported by fifty-six pillars in rows. The idol was of polished stone ; its height was about five cubits, and its thickness in proportion : two cubits were below ground. Muhammad having entered the temple broke the stone Somnath with a heavy mace; some of the fragments he ordered to be conveyed to Ghuzni, and they were placed at the threshold of the old mosque.’ In the TabJcat-Akbari, a history of the Emperor Akbar, we have the following passage agreeing on the point referred to with that now quoted :—

“‘Muhammad,’ says Eerislita, who is evidently guilty of gross exaggeration in his general account of Somnath, ‘entered Somnath accompanied by his sons, and a few of his nobles and principal attendants. On approaching the temple he saw a superb edifice built of hewn stone. Its lofty roof was supported by fifty-six pillars, curiously carved and set with precious stones. In the centre of the hall was Somnath, a stone idol five yards in height, two of which were sunk in the ground. The king, approaching the image, struck off its nose, lie ordered two pieces of the idol to be broken oif and sent to Ghuzni, that one might be thrown at the threshold of the public mosque, and the other at the court door of his own palace. These identical fragments are to this day (now 600 years ago) to be seen at Ghuzni. Two more fragments were reserved to be sent to Mecca and Medina.’

“In the second of these extracts it is declared that the temple was ‘ levelled with the ground.’ The Rauzat-as-Safa, the more respectable authority, however, does not notice this circumstance. The unanimous testimony of the natives of Somnath, so far as I could read it, is in favour of the representations of those who say that Muhammad contented himself with the destruction of the idol and the partial injury of the shrine.

“Sir John Malcolm, I may here ’mention, attributes the destruction of the temple to Sultan Mahmoud Begoda, who came to the throne of Goojarat in the year 877 of the Hijra, ‘he marched,’ he says, ‘against Somnath, razed the temple to the ground, and with the bigoted zeal of a Muhammadan conqueror, built a mosque on the spot where it stood.’ He adds, ‘The mosque has fallen into ruin, and Alya Bai, the widow of a prince of the Maratha family of Holkar, has lately erected a new temple on the exact spot where it stood.’ This last statement appears to me incredible, for Somnath has remained in the hands of the Mussulmans ever since the days of Malimoud Begoda, and for long they were so much addicted to obstruct the Hindoos in their worship that the British Government begged on their behalf the freedom of pilgrimage from the Joonagurh State, to which the town of Somnath belongs. The natives of Somnath, so far as I could learn, universally declare that the site of Alya Bai’s temple is not that of the ancient temple, and that the temple to which I have already alluded as forsaken is the ancient temple. In a case of this kind I am disposed to lay considerable stress on the local tradition. Alya Bai’s misguided zeal for Hindooism could find many spots near the ancient Somnath where it could find its expression without its selecting the ruins of a mosque. The whole neighbourhood, indeed, is sacred, according to the Hindoo mythology. It is the reputed field of one of the most celebrated engagements mentioned in the Mahabharata. The god Krishna, according to the Bhagawata, received his mortal wound at a spot not very far distant from its enclosure.

“In the course of my reading I have found no notice in any of the Mussulman histories of ‘gates’ having been taken from the temple of Somnath. If such articles formed part of the trophies of Muhammad of Ghuzni, it is probable that they were connected with the ancient fort of the town, for it is not likely that the Mussulmans would devote an article contaminated by idolatry to an ornamental purpose connected with either their mosques or tombs, though they might dispose of them for any purpose of degradation that might occur to them. The author of the Rauzat-as-Safa, as we have seen, says expressly that it was some ‘fragments’ of the idol which were ordered to be sent to Ghuzni, and that ‘they were placed at the threshold of the great mosque.’ The author of the Tabkat-Akbari speaks of one ‘fragment’ of stone having been sent to Ghuzni, ‘ where it was laid at the threshold of the principal mosque, and was there many years,’ With these testimonies that of Eerishta agrees. The story of the gates has originated, it appears to me, with some of our late travellers ; perhaps with erroneous information given to Mr. Elphinstone.

“The ancient temple of Sonlnath was devoted to Shiva. The distinctive followers of this god in Kathiawar are now few and uninfluential. There are no Brahmans in charge of the old temple to which I have referred. That of Alya Bai is under the care of the Sompada Brahmans, one of the smallest of the eighty-fonr sects into which the Goojarat Brahmanhood is divided, and who are seldom met with elsewhere than at Somnath, from which they derive their name. The great body of the pure Hindoos in the province are now Yaishnavas. It is the legends relative to Krishna, who is one of the incarnations of Vishnoo, that principally attract the Hindoo pilgrims to Somnath, and neither the celebrity nor supposed sanctity of the old or the new temple. The Sompada Brahmans exist principally by the practice of mendicity. They are the Poojarees of the temple.

“Somnath, as I have already hinted, belongs to the Mussulman State of Joonagurh. That State has claims for zortalabi, or black mail, recognised by us, upon most of the petty States of the peninsula. It is at present particularly well affected to the British Government, as I saw last year when residing in Kathiawar, but it is jealous of the Gaikwar and some of the British and Baroda Hindoo tributaries. I question if it will cordially welcome the gates should they ever enter its boundaries. The Mussulmans throughout India will, I believe, be not a little hurt in their feelings by their public exhibition on their progress, and they, of all classes of the community, require to have their feelings most conciliated on this occasion.

“On reflecting on the present circumstances of Somnath, I see not how the gates can be conveniently disposed of, even should they reach Somnath, unless it be by planting them in some triumphal arch or monument entirely disconnected with any of the sacred edifices of the Hindoos. The Hindoos, so far as they would make any interpretation of their being presented to any of their temples, would conclude that the gift is the voluntary homage of the British Government to their religion, and a token of our espousal of their cause against the Mussulmans, their former foes. This cannot be the design of the Right Honourable the Governor-General. His grand object is to consecrate the spolia opima to the commemoration of British and Indian valour. From what I have observed of the Natives during the most intimate intercourse with them for fourteen years, I am led to the opinion that his Lordship’s desires of benefit from tbe disposal of the gates can be accomplished only by their being kept entirely distinct from the temples. From his Lordship’s late exemplary recognition of divine Providence in connection with our successes in Afghanistan and the preservation of our troops, and the bounty of God toward our native subjects in general, I am sure that his Lordship would revolt from inadvertently originating any measure which would appear to him to be in any way derogatory to our holy Faith, or adverse to that gradual divorcement from superstitious observances wliich is now becoming apparent throughout the bounds of our Eastern Empire.

“I respectfully beg you to ask the Governor to pardon my venturing on a single allusion extending beyond the inquiries of your letter. It proceeds from one who has no common desire to witness the continuance of the distinguished prosperity of my Lord Ellenborough’s administration—the blessing of peace which, under God, his Lordship has been so instrumental in earning for us, and his expressed determination nobly to consecrate the principal resources of India to its own improvement and social and moral elevation.”


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