Thursday, December 11, 2014

Somnath Temple: a place of pilgrimage

Somnath is one of the holiest pilgrimage destinations in India - one of the "Char Dham" and the "Sapta Puri". Here, Lord Shiva is worshipped as Somnath, "the lord/protector of the Moon". The temple is beautiful and lies on the shore of the Arabian Sea.

View of Somnath temple
Here are a couple of legends associated with the temple, and the history of the temple:

Somnath temple was first built in ancient times (in the era before Christ, exact date unknown). This ancient temple was rebuilt c.650 CE by the Yadava king.

In subsequent years, the temple was ransacked and destroyed multiple times (in 725 by the Arab governor Junayd; in 1024 by Mahmud of Ghazni; in 1296 by Alauddin Khilji; in 1451 by the Sultan of Gujarat; and in 1665 by Aurangzeb). Each time it was rebuilt (in 815 by king Nagabhata II; from 1026-1172 by king Bhoj of Malwa, and Solanki kings Bhimdev I and Kumarpal; in 1308 by Chudasama king Mahipala Deva; in 1783 by the Peshwa of Pune, Raja Bhonsle of Nagpur, Chhatrapati Bhonsle of Kolhapur, Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore and Shrimant Patilbuwa Shinde of Gwalior). In 1947, it was reconstructed under the orders of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

An 1869 photo of Somnath temple. It had fallen into disrepair once again before being rebuilt by Sardar Patel in 1947.

Saadi's story about Somnath
On a side note, in the 13th century, Iranian poet Saadi Shirazi visited India and wrote the following tale about Somnath. Saadi came to the temple to debate the Hindu priests. First he put forth his points about the merits of Islam. In response, the priests prayed to the temple idol, which opened its arms. Shocked, Saadi came back later at night, inspected the idol secretly, and found a mechanism which controlled it arms! Must be a fake story but interesting nonetheless.

Here is a Mughal-era illustration of Saadi's Somnath story. Saadi's book Bustan (Garden), in which he recorded this tale, remained popular for centuries after his death. Many illustrated copies of the book were made.

Saadi at Somnath

A jyotirlinga (jyoti = light) is a linga where Lord Shiva appears in the form of a blinding column of light. What is the origin of jyotirlinga? Legend has it that once, Brahma and Vishnu challenged each other as to who was supreme. Shiva stepped in to arbitrate. He took the form of a column of light and told them to find the end of the column.

Leaving aside the results of the challenge (Vishnu honestly admitted defeat, Brahma lied and was cursed by Shiva), the places on earth where Shiva had manifested as a column of light are known as "jyotirlinga".

The Puranic king Daksha married his twenty-seven daughters to the Moon (Soma). But the Moon showered only one of the daughters with affection and ignored the others, and so they complained to their father Daksha. Daksha cursed the Moon, saying that his beauty and brightness would fade. Soon enough, the Moon began to wane, lost radiance, and all but disappeared.

Panicked, the Moon prayed to Lord Shiva for help. Shiva undid the curse partially - the Moon would not disappear completely, but would now have a waxing phase and a waning phase.

The grateful Moon built a great temple where Shiva would forever be worshipped as Somnath, "the lord of the Moon".
Statue of Somnath near the temple
Images from Wikimedia Commons

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