Published on 22nd April, 2023, in Times of India.
Somnath, on the Gujarat coast, is the spot where the moon-god, Soma, prayed to Shiva when he suffered the wasting disease. He was waning and feared he would disappear. But Shiva placed him on his forehead and thus helped him regenerate or wane. This is where a great Shiva temple was built. As per legend, the sacred Shiva-linga would float in air, between ceiling and floor, making it a wonder of the world.
A thousand years ago, it was raided and desecrated by Mahmud of Ghazni. As per Persian lore, it was believed this is where the pre-Islamic goddess stone ‘Mannat’ had taken refuge.
The attack on Somnath is traditionally believed to be the incident that marked the transition from the Hindu Age to the Islamic Age.
Temples that fell
Three centuries before this incident the Arabs had established themselves in Sindh. However, the Thar Desert kept them at bay for a very long time, as well as the determined military actions of the Pratihara dynasty, which from 7th to 10th century ruled Gurjara-desh, the heart of Gujarat, watered by the Sabarmati river.
The southern part of Gurjara-desh is called Saurashtra. To the west is the barren Rann of Kutch and to the east is Lata-desha, marked by estuaries of the Mahi, Narmada and Tapti rivers into the Gulf of Khambata.
Before the Pratiharas, Gujarat was dominated by the Chavdas. After the Pratiharas, came the Solankis, Vaghelas and Chudasamas. These kings gave shelter to the Parsis escaping persecution by Arabs in Iran around this time. On their request, the Parsis assimilated with the local population, adopting Gujarati customs, and even caste practices, while keeping alive their unique Zoroastrian faith. But the kings could not stop Allauddin Khijli from plundering the ancient capital of the land, Anhilwara, in the 13th century.
Five centuries after the Somnath incident, another Mahmud conquered two prominent hilltop fortresses of the region, Junagarh in the south and Champaner on the north, and earned the title of Begada, conqueror of two forts, and became the most renowned Sultan of Gurjara-desha.
He destroyed the spire (shikhar) of the Kalika temple at Pavagarh. The temple was saved by a local saint who converted to Islam, and whose dargah was built atop the goddess temple, until it was relocated in recent times, allowing Hindus to rebuild the shikhar and fly the Hindu flag. Begada also broke the temple of Dwarkadhish dedicated to Krishna.
So we have in Gujarat, stories of Muslim invaders destroying temples of Shiva (Somnath), Vishnu (Dwarkadhish) and the goddess (Pavagarh). This violent historical relationship with Muslim warlords explains the deep Islamophobia that is exploited by politicians in the state of Gujarat
Wrath of goddesses
Curiously, in local Gujrati lore, the reason for the success of invaders is attributed to the lust and loose character of the local kings, which makes the local deities deny them protection.
For example, the novel Karan Ghelo speaks of how the lust of Karan, the last Vaghela ruler of Anhilwad, for a courtier’s wife was responsible for his defeat at the hands of Khilji. In the temple lore of Pavagarh, the local chief Patati Jaisingh lusted after the goddess herself when he saw her dance garba in the temple courtyard, and tried to force himself on her despite her refusal. That is why he lost to Begada. A similar story is found in Kutch where a local king incurs the wrath of the goddess Randhal-ma, when he sees as a young woman living amongst local shepherds, the Maldharis.
The mountains of Gujarat are full of temples linked to various goddesses, often identified as Kula-devi of many warrior and merchant clans. For example, there’s Ashapura Devi of Kutch, Chamunda of the Chotila hills, Radhal-maa of Bhavnagar, Bahuchara of Ahmedabad, and Ambaji of Pavagad near the Aravalli mountains in the north.
This is why garba, which means the song and dance of the pot or the womb, is popular amongst the women of Gujarat. These goddesses stood on mountains guarding the land. They rode lions into battle, their hair unbound. Many like Randhal-ma, Chamunda and Kalika are accompanied by female companions. They are fierce independent female deities. Many goddesses became vegetarian with the arrival of Jain and Krishna culture.
While most Jain Tirthankaras attained nirvana in Bihar, the Tirthankara Neminath attained liberation at Girnar mountains of Gujarat, making this an important Jain pilgrimage. As per Jain lore, Nemi is the cousin of Krishna. Krishna migrated to Gujarat after Jarasandh of Magadha burnt the city of Mathura to the ground, following the killing of his son-in-law Kamsa by Krishna. The story of Yadava migration is found in Hindu, Jain, as well as Buddhist literature.
We find Krishna being worshipped at Dwarka and Dakor as a four-armed Vishnu. He is called Rannchod Rai,the one who ran away from the battlefield. This story draws attention to how the Magadhan empire established a trade link with the lucrative seaports of Gujarat.
The Gujarat coast has been trading with West Asia for thousands of years, since Harappan times. So on the coast of Gujarat one finds many temples associated with Sikotar Mata and Vahanvati, a very unique goddess who takes care of ships and sailors. Sikotar refers to an island called Sikor, off the coast of Yemen, where there have been inscriptions found in the Brahmi script as well as the Gujarati script, indicating that there was widespread trade between Gujarat and the Arabian regions.
While everyone talks about the temple at Somnath on the western corner of Saurashtra, few know the other temples that faced the onslaught of iconoclastic Muslim warlords. Nor do we know much about the Barwada (outsider’s) mosque in the eastern corner of Saurashtra, at Ghogha, in the Gulf of Khambhata. This is the oldest mosque in India, older than the ones in Kerala, as it points to Jerusalem, suggesting the merchants who built it knew Muhammad in his early years at Medina when he had not yet started praying in the direction of Mecca.