The Somnāth temple is the first of the ‘12 Jyotirlingas’ (earthly representations of Lord Shiva). The temple is located on the Western coast of Gujarat, near Junagadh at the ‘Prabhāsa Kshetra’ in the Saurāshtra (also known as Kāthiyāwār) region. It is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Gujarat and India.
Somnāth in the Hindu sciptures
The first reference of Somnāth occurs in the Mahabharata, wherein it is alluded to as the ‘Prabhāsa region’, in which the moon worshipped Lord Shiva. Somnāth is also mentioned in other Puranas, such as the Shiva Purāna. The Prabhāsa Khanda portion of the Skanda Purana, describes Somnāth and its legends. The ‘Sparsha Linga’ is described as an effulgent Linga (impersonal form of Shiva to be worshipped) beneath the ground, which was later worshipped and consecrated by Soma/Chandra – the moon.
The Legend of Somnāth
According to the Puranas, Chandra (the moon) was married to the 27 daughters – the Nakshatras (constellations) of Daksha Prajapati. He favoured Rohini over the other wives. Due to his favoritism, Daksha cursed him to lose his all his lustre. With Rohini, Chandra came to Prabhāsa to worship the Lord Shiva through his Linga. Lord Shiva rectified his curse, and blessed him to wax for the former half of the month, and wane for the latter half of the month. The city was named as ‘Prabhāsa’ as the moon regained his lustre here. The Linga named ‘Somnāth’ to refer to Lord Shiva as the ‘Lord of the Moon’. Lord Brahma, installed the ‘Brahmashīla’ (foundation of the Shiva-Linga), and paved way for the construction of the temple. At the behest of Chandra and the other deities, Shiva decided to reside at Somnāth eternally, in the form of ‘Someshwara’ (Lord of the Moon). Chandra is emblematic of dynamic social activism. Through his redemption by self-realisation (symbolised by Shiva), Chandra exemplifies the traits of a true ‘Karmayogi’ (perfection through action), by: being immersed in action, shown in the ‘waxing of the moon’, yet being detached from the fruits of action by offering one’s efficiencies to society, shown by the ‘waning of the moon’.
Historical records of Somnāth
Throughout its history, Somnath has been an important economic center in South Asia. Being on the coast, this city had a structured port, connecting to both Africa and West Asia. Between 641-644 AD, the Chinese scholar – Hiuen Tsang – visited the Somnath, and remarked of its dense population and its tremendous progress in economic and religious activities. This was also noted by the traveler ‘Marco Polo’ in the 13th century. The 7th century writer, Dandin, in this Dashakumaracharita, recounts the tale of a wealthy trader, who possessed many ships, from Somnath. In the 11th century, The Arab writer Jaun-ul-Akbar of describes Somnath as, ‘On the coast of Hindustan lies a big city named Sammath; it is as important to Hindus as is Mecca to Muslims.’ This firmly establishes the religious significance of the Somnath temple in Hindu traditions.
Architecture of Somnāth
The expertise of the ‘master masons of Gujarat’, the Sompura Salat Brahmin community, is observed in the Chalukya (Kailas Mahameru Prasad) style of temple architecture. The temple is divided into three prominent regions: the Garbhagriha (inner sanctum), Sabha Mandap (temple front) and Nritya Mandap (dancing hall).
The speciality of this temple is its ‘uninterrupted sea route’ (Abadhit Samudra Marg). An inscription on the ‘Bānastambha’ (arrow pillar), on the sea protection wall, is found. It states that, in a straight line of 9936 kilometres, from the coast of Somnath to Antarctica, there is no land to be found in between at that specific longitude. This is a testament to the phenomenal geographical and mathematical insight of the ancient Indians, and the tactical placement of the Shiva-Linga. Magnificent Indian art adorns the exterior of the temple, with meticulous designs and carvings. The ‘Jyotirlinga’ installed on the ‘Brahmashīla’ is 1.22 metres high and is covered with sandalwood.
Destruction and Reconstruction
The Somnāth temple extends over three regions, its effervescent shikara glowing over its domain. The initial construction of the temple alludes to the revered intellect of the ancient Indians, with specific markers and precisely detailed architectural manifestations located throughout the temple. However, with its magnanimous beauty, came with a very grave price: places of worship in the Indian subcontinent were subject to invasions.
Prior to Somnāth’s first invasion, the temple was surrounded by antiquity. The carved stone pieces, bricks, the idols of Lord Shiva and various other deities had been dated back to the 6th and 7th century. Somnāth is believed to have been carved by the moon itself, featuring a waning and waxing pattern eminent on the temple. What is eerily poetic about the waning and waxing movement is that it symbolizes the deconstruction and reconstruction of the Somnāth temple, as if it predicted these events were a “natural” part of its life cycle.
The first invasion of the Somnāth temple was in 1026 CE. The Mahmud of Ghazni had raided the surrounding area of what is considered modern-day Gujarat, and broke the idol central to the Somnāth temple. During the time of its invasion, King Bhoj (the ruler of the area around that time), gathered resources and made sure to instill a reconstruction by 1050 CE; it is noted that a Swarna Tula ceremony (practiced by those of Hindu faith) was conducted in 1045, indicating the completion of the first reconstruction. Between this time period and the late 13th century, Somnāth did not face any major attacks against its stature, however it did receive a wide-set of reconstructions. Kumarapala (the emperor of Gurjaradesha in 1150) instilled a strong-fort wall to the north and south ends of Somnāth, as well as rejuvenated the entire town; the Bhava Brihaspati placed gold pinnacles on the temple as well. However, the time period of peace for Somnāth soon came to an abrupt halt in 1297, when general Alaf Khan marched to the area of Kathiyawar, and destroyed the illustrious foundations of the temple; it soon faced reconstruction once again.
The invasions conducted upon Somnāth were largely Islamic in conquest, and the stretch of attacks from 1026 to 1753 were namely by the Mughal regime, in hopes to deface the religion of Hinduism in light of Islam. In the 14th century, All-Ud-din Khilji attacked the temple of Somnāth; it was then restored by the King of Junagadh, Mahipala. Later in the 14th century, Zaffarkhan (the governor of Gujarat) exacerbated the issue of deconstruction by building a mosque within Somnāth; his attempts to convert the Hindus in the area to Islam failed, as they found a way to revolt Zaffarkhan and attain independence. What is interesting to note is that Akbar, the Mughal ruler in 1573, did not attack the Somnāth temple, but simply annexed the temple to his empire; it is the only instance in times of Islamic conquest that the temple was safe. Akbar is noted as ‘Akbar the Great‘ in modern-day historical texts, as he advocated for co-existence of Hindus and Muslims (this is evident in Kashmir as well); this does not, however, excuse the attacks done in the name of their religion.
In the last sets of invasion, the ruler that tended to the totality of Somnāth’s beauty was Aurangzeb. This Mughal ruler was no stranger to destruction of temples dedicated towards the Hindu deities: his rule encompassed the destruction of Somnāth beyond repair, as well as destructions of many other temples in the Indian subcontinent. After the Mughal rule had ended, Somnāth saw peace till British rule; while it did not face any destruction, the sites of pilgrimage were blocked off and restricted until India’s freedom in 1947.
Reconstruction after the various sets of destructions took time and energy from its architects, but the major theme it alludes is something to be noted. Constructed by the moon as it is said, the features of the lunar cycle can be alluded towards its reconstructions and destructions, consisting of waning, waxing, a new and a full moon. Even after the independence movement in India, the Somnāth temple eventually saw a full moon, it attained peace and it shines bright with every passing day. Its current reconstruction effects, pushed by Mahatma Gandhi during the Independence movement, the cabinet of Prime Minister Jawarhlal Nehru in the 1950s, as well as efforts by the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows the meaning of the Somnāth temple; its rich history stemming from the Mahabharat conveys the beauty of the temple and its ties to Lord Shiva.
Finally, the moon’s curse at Somnāth has ended. Somnāth no longer waxes and wanes, but has had its brilliance restored. It shines brightly, as pilgrims flock the site in thousands daily, proving the strength of devotion towards Lord Shiva and the ‘Mecca of the Hindus’. This site teaches us the importance of Tejasvitā (brilliance) in our activism (Kartritva) as shown by the moon. With each passing day, the beauty of Somnāth shines ever-so brightly: the golden shikara reflecting the rays of both the Sun and the Moon. Similar to the changes in the lunar cycle, the invasions and reconstructions that Somnāth has endured is an ultimate testament to the sheer gracefulness of the temple; Somnāth is a beautiful ode to Lord Shiva himself. The illustrious beginning, climactic middle, and brilliant end of the invasions of Somnāth temple is quite poetic in historical nature, reminding us that in spite of times of peril, Dharma truly obtains peace.