The Eternal Shrine of India, Somnath Temple – Standing Tall Despite Invasions And Destructions

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The Somnath Temple in Gujarat is famous for many religious and historical reasons. Not only is it one of the holiest spots of Lord Shiva, but its history of many demolitions by invaders and the reconstructions by devotees is a powerful symbol of the perseverance and continuity of Indian culture. As the first President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, said, it is ‘proof that the power to create is always stronger than the power to destroy.’

Despite being destroyed several times, the Somnath Temple has always been rebuilt- grander and taller than before, every time – giving it the name ‘The Eternal Shrine’ of India. One really has to admire the perseverance and faith of the devotees who kept rebuilding it!

Why Is This Temple So Holy to the Hindus?

The Somnath Temple is sacred in Hinduism, as it is one of the twelve Maha Jyotirlingas. A Jyotirlinga is one of 64 holy spots where Lord Shiva is believed to have manifested as an infinite, dazzling pillar of light – symbolizing his infinite nature. Of these 64 Jyotirlingas scattered throughout India, there are 12 that are especially holy, and these are called the Maha Jyotirlingas. Hindus revere these Maha Jyotirlingas as places of pilgrimage and spiritual importance. Each one represents a different aspect of Lord Shiva, and the Somnath Temple highlights the importance of the moon in his mythology.

Somnath is another word for the moon. According to this legend, the moon god Chandra Dev was cursed by king Daksha to lose his radiance and lustre. Alarmed and anxious, Chandra Dev prayed to Lord Shiva and bathed in the sacred Saraswati River. Pleased with his devotion, Lord Shiva appeared before him and partially lifted his curse. He would slowly lose his brightness for two weeks but gradually regain it over the next two weeks. This legend is an ancient explanation for the waxing and waning phases of the moon from full moon to new moon and back. In his gratitude, Chandra Dev is said to have built the first Somnath Temple out of pure gold.

A History of Destruction and Rebirth – From Mahmud of Ghazni to Aurangzeb

The first temple- as believed by historians – was built before 0 AD. While the date of the first building is unclear, we do know that this site has been continuously occupied since the Indus Valley Civilization (2000 BC), where images of Lord Shiva in the form of Pashupatinath were found. There are more clues for the date of the second building, which is believed to have been built between 408-768 AD by king Bhimadeva. In medieval times, this area was one of the largest cities in the world, called Patan, and was a famous port for trade across the world. Even in those times, it was very holy, and the great poet Kalidasa mentions it in his writings.

Perhaps the most famous sacking of the Somnath Temple occurred during the raids of Mahmud of Ghazni. Mahmud was the Turkic ruler of Ghazni in present-day Afghanistan, and he conducted several raids into Northern India in the eleventh century. In the year 1026, he invaded and sacked the temple, where he massacred more than 50,000 devotees and defaced the sculptures. The booty from this raid was estimated to be more than 20 million gold coins, and many parts of the temple were carried away to decorate Mahmud’s palace and capital city. This raid has been well recorded in many histories, including by the famous historian Al-Biruni, who strongly criticized it as fanaticism. However, despite the devastation caused by Ghazni, the temple was soon rebuilt.

While this was the most well-known of the sackings of the Somnath temple, it was sacked and rebuilt many more times, with two more being especially notable. The temple was sacked in 1299 by the armies of the Sultan of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji, during his invasion of Gujarat. The Portuguese also demolished the temple after coming to the area to trade and spread Catholicism. However, in both of these cases, again, the temple was quickly rebuilt.

Mirroring this history of religious fanaticism and conflict is also a history of syncretism. For example, the poet Amir Khusrow recorded how medieval Gujarati Muslims would stop at the temple and pay their respects before departing on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

Later, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb again ordered the demolition of the Somnath Temple, along with many others, in 1665, and a mosque was built over it. While in previous times, the temple had always been rebuilt soon after being destroyed, Aurangzeb ordered that anyone who tried to rebuild Somnath would be executed. This was the last destruction of the Somnath Temple, and for a long time, it was not rebuilt.

PM Narendra modi in Somnath Temple

What the Temple Is Like Today

Somnath Temple was finally rebuilt in 1947, after the independence of India, on the orders of India’s first Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. This proposal was also supported by other leaders of Independence such as KM Munshi, Dr Rajendra Prasad and Mahatma Gandhi. In 1951, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, India’s very first President, himself performed the installation ceremony at the reconstructed temple.

The present-day temple is constructed in the classical Chalukya style. In ancient times, the temple was famous for its floating idols through the utilisation of the principles of magnetism, but this was sadly destroyed in Mahmud of Ghazni’s raid. However, that does not mean that the present-day temple is any less of a marvel. Designed by the famous Sompura Salat community of architects, who followed traditional Hindu architectural principles, the sight of the temple standing tall next to the sea is not only picturesque but awe-inspiring as well.

It has three great spires, ornately carved walls, pillars (including some reused from the original temple), two levels, and is over 20 meters tall. One can also visit the nearby Ahilyabai Temple, named after the famous queen of the Maratha Empire, who financed the reconstruction of many temples across India in the eighteenth century. The Baan Stambha is a marvel of ancient India. It’s a pillar which marks a direct line without any land in the middle, all the way to the South Pole! This is a wondrous monument as far as India’s scholastic contribution to the world of geography is concerned.

There are many other places to explore in the vicinity of the Somnath temple; the most well-known tourist spots are Somnath Beach, Somnath Museum, the Triveni Sangam (the confluence of three rivers), numerous temples, and of course, the Gir National Park, which is the only place in the world where one can see the endangered Asiatic Lion in the wild.

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