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Somnath Temple and Ghazni

Kamilu-t Tawarikh of Ibn Asir
Selections translated in “History of Ghazni”, The History of India as Told by its own Historians. The Posthumous Papers of the Late Sir H. M. Elliot. John Dowson, ed. 1st ed. 1867. 2nd ed., Calcutta: Susil Gupta, 1956, vol. 14.

1. Overview

The Kamilu-t Tawarikh is an influential and early history.  Composed by Ibn Asir (b. 555 H., 1160 CE), it is a general history of the world ending in 628 H. (1230 CE), the date of the work’s completion.  It is particularly valuable for the information it provides concerning Sultan Mahmud’s reign.  Regarding its account of Mahmud’s raid on Somnath Dowson wrote:

The account given of this expedition by Ibn Asir is the oldest one extant, and has been largely drawn upon by later writees.  Firishta must have used it.  Kazwini copies his account of the temple from it and the extracts which. follow this show how much other authors are indebted to it.  The whole account is more specific in its details than those of its copyists.  For these reason the Editor has inserted if here in full.1

The excerpt included here is a translation of precisely this, Ibn Asir’s narration of the raid on Somnath, which is the last and best known raid undertaken by Mahmud.  Sultan Mahmud began the raid December 1023 CE, and did not reach the fort until March 1024 CE.  This resulted in the destruction of the celebrated temple complex, and the accruement of a vast amount of wealth  by Sultan Mahmud.  Mahmud succeeded his father to throne of Ghaznî, in what is now Afghanistan, in 997 CE, and ruled until his death in 1030 CE.  His numerous incursions into India were largely raids designed to capture spoil in material wealth, slaves and livestock.  He is portrayed as a zealous Muslim eager to destroy “idol temples”, but this was probably justification for pillage, since these activities contravened the earlier Arab policy of granting Hindus and Buddhists protected dhimmi status.  These raids generally were not conquests resulting in annexation of territory, with the exception of the Punjab, most of which he did annex.  Ghaznivite control even of the Punjab passed away with Mahmud.  His incessant raiding over the course of almost thirty years, however, clearly destabilized Northern India and paved the way for the Muhammad Ghűrî’s invasion of northern India in 1175 CE, which led to the establishment of the Delhi sultanate.

2. Excerpt

[bottom p. 49]

"In the year 414 H. Mahmud captured several forts and cities in Hind, and he also took the idol called Somnat. This idol was the greatest of all the idols of Hind. Every night that there was an eclipse the Hindus went on pilgrimage to the temple, and there congregated to the number of a hundred thousand persons. They believed that the souls of men after separation from the body used to meet there, according to their doctrine of  [p. 50] transmigration, and that the ebb and flow of the tide was the worship paid to the idol by the sea, to the best of its power.  Everything of the most precious was brought there; its attendants received the most valuable presents, and, the temple was endowed with more than 10,000 villages.  In the temple were amassed jewels of the most exquisite quality and incalculable value. The "people of India have a great river called Gang, to which they pay the highest honour, and into which they cast the bones of their great men, in the belief that the deceased will thus secure an entrance to heaven.  Between this river and Somnat there is a distance of about 200 parasangs, but water was daily brought from it with which the idol was washed.  One thousand Brahmans attended every day to perform the worship of the idol, and to introduce the visitors.  Three hundred persons were employed in shaving the heads and beards of the pilgrims.  Three hundred and fifty persons sang and danced at the gate of the temple.  Every one of these received a settled allowance daily.  When Mahmud was gaining victories and demolishing idols in India, the Hindus said that Somnat was displeased with these idols, and that if he had been satisfied with them no one could have destroyed or injured them.  When Mahmud heard this he resolved upon making a campaign to destroy this idol, believing that when the Hindus saw their prayers and imprecations to be false and futile, they would embrace the faith.

"So he prayed to the Almighty for aid, and left 'Ghazni on the 10th Shaban, 414 H., with 30,000 horse besides volunteersm and took the road to Multan, which place he reached in the middle of Ramazan.  The road from thence to India was through a barren desert, where there were neither inhabitants nor food.  So he collected provisions for the passage, and loading 30,000 camels with water and corn, he started for Anhalwara.  After he had crossed the desert, he perceived on one side a fort full of people, in which place there were wells.  People came [p. 51] down to conciliate him, but he invested the place, and God gave him victory over it, for the hearts of the inhabitants failed them through fear.  So he brought the place under the sway of Islam, killed the inhabitants, and broke in pieces their images. His men carried water away with them from thence and marched for Anhalwara, where they arrived at the beginning of Zi-l Ka'da.

The chief of Anhalwara, called Bhim, fled hastily, and abandoning his city, he went to a certain fort for safety and to prepare himself for war.  Yaminu-d daula again started for Somnat, and on his march he came to several forts in which were many jmages serving as chamberlains or heralds of Somnat, and accordingly he (Mahmud) called them Shaitan. He killed the people who were in these places, destroyed the fortifications, broke in pieces the idols, and continued his march to Somnat through a desert where there was little water.  There he met 20,000 fighting men, inhabitants of that country, whose chiefs would not submit.  So he sent some forces against them, who defeated them, put them to flight, and plundered their possessions.  From thence they marched to Dabalwarah, which is two days' journey from Somnat.  The people of this place stayed resolutely in it, believing that Somnat would utter his prohibition and drive back the invaders; but Mahmud took the place, slew the men, plundered their property, .and marched on to Somnat.

"He reached Somnat on a Thursday in the middle of Zi-l Ka'da, and there he beheld a strong fortress built upon the sea shore, so that it was washed by the waves.  The people of the fort were on the walls amusing themselves at the expense of the confident Musulmans, telling them that their deity would cut off the last man of them, and destroy them all.  On the morrow, which was Friday, the assailants advanced to the assault, and when the Hindus beheld the Muhammadans fighting, they abandoned their posts, and left the walls. The Musalmans planted their ladders against the walls and [p. 52] gained the summit: then they proclaimed their success with their religious war-cry, and exhibited the prowess of Islam.  Then followed a fearful slaughter, and matters wore a serious aspect.  A body of Hindus hurried to Somnat, cast themselves on the ground before him, and besought him to grant them victory.  Night came on, and the fight was suspended.

"Next morning, early, the Muhammadans renewed the battle, and made greater havoc among the Hindus till they drove them from the town to the house of their idol, Somnat.  A dreadful slaughter followed at the gate of the temple.  Band after band of the defenders entered the temple to Somnat, and with their hands clasped round their necks, wept and passionately entreated him.  Then again they issued forth to fight until they were slain, and but few were left alive.  These took to the sea in boats to make their escape, but the Musulmans overtook them, and some were killed and some were drowned.

“This temple of Somnat was built upon fifty-six pillars of teak wood covered with lead, The idol itself was in a chamber; its height was five cubits and its girth three cubits.  This was what appeared to the eye, but two cubits were (hidden) in the basement.  It had no appearance of having been sculptured, Yaminu-d daula seized it, part of it he burnt, and part of it he carried away with him to Ghazni, where he made it a step at the entrance of the jami'-masjid.  The shrine of the idol was dark, but. it was lighted by most exquisitely jewelled chandeliers.  Near the idol was a chain of gold to which bells were attached.  The weight of it was 200 mans.  When a certain portion of the night had passed, this chain was shaken to ring the bells, and so rouse a fresh party of Brahmans to carry on the worship.  The treasury was near, and in it there were many idols of gold and silver.  Over it there were veils hanging, set with jewels, everyone of which was of immense value.  The worth of what was found in the temple exceeded [p. 53] two millions of dinars, all of which was taken.  The number of the slain exceeded fifty thousand."-lbn Asir


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