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Jay Somnath

Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi
This is what happened several decades ago, when I was a small school-going child. Every summer, accompanied with my mother, I would come down from Delhi to spend the two-month-long holiday at my maternal uncle’s place in the posh Panchvati area of Ahmedabad. Each weekend, my uncle would take us for a ride in his grand old black car. I think it was Chevrolet. I would wait eagerly for the weekend, as I had virtually nothing to do for the rest of the days. In the evenings, I mostly play in the open ground with the neighbouring children, but for rest of the time, as if, I was under strict, almost loving, control of my grandma, whom all of the children of the family called Baa. Especially after the dinner, which would be pretty early, she would make it a point to entertain us – mainly me and my cousin – by playing bezique.
During one such summer, Baa decided to give us a strong injection of nationalism. She took in her hand Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi’s well-known novel “Jay Somnath” and told us that she would read out a few pages daily. Mother of well-known martyr Vinod Kinariwala, a student leader who became the victim of a British bullet during the Quit India movement in Ahmedabad, Baa had every reason to be a proud nationalist. My mother had told me, Baa would organize bonfire of foreign clothes, where friends and relatives were asked to burn the garments made in Manchester, prepared of our own Indian raw material.
I don’t remember must of “Jay Somnath” today, except the chapter she read out where the widows of the scores of soldiers, who died fighting for the cause of Somnath against Mahmud of Ghazni’s barbaric attack, gladly resorted to self-immolation on the pyre of their husbands, thus becoming sati. Baa, I vividly remember, became very emotional while reading out those pages. She told us what great tragedy befell those bold, young, beautiful women. “It was all to save their honour from the uncouth yavanas (literally, meat eaters)”, she insisted.
Around the same time, in our school at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya in Delhi, we had read a chapter on Raja Rammohan Roy, the great 19th century social reformer, on the evil practice of sati. I think I tried asking Baa, why should these women become sati, which was an evil Hindu ritual. It didn’t dwell on me that one should ask this question to Munshi and not Baa. “Keep quiet and listen to me”, she scolded us in her affectionate grandmontherly style. We quietly obeyed, and she continued reading, completely lost in what all “history” Munshi had to tell.
I was reminded of all this when, a few weeks back, I came to know that well-known historian Romila Thapar was in Ahmedabad to speak on Somnath. Because of my heavy preoccupation with ministry formation of the new Narendra Modi government, which I had to report on, I could not come down to Ahmedabad and attend the Thapar lecture. Thapar’s address to the august audience, which mainly consisted of Gujarati intellectuals, litterateurs and activists (very few were historians), related to how the reference to the raid on Somnath is extensively found in the Islamic chronicles of those days with the aim of project Mahmud as a great iconoclast, a destroyer the pre-Islamic pagan idol Manat, which was allegedly brought to Somnath. All of it, she said, came light only after a 19th century debate on Somnath in the British House of Commons, which Munshi and others followed.
A decided to look at her research rather closely, which said there were virtually no references to the attack in contemporary Jain and Sanskrit chronicles! The year of Somnath’s final destruction is said to be 1024. Even then, referring to an inscription of 1264, both in Sanskrit and Arabic, Thapar says, how a big piece of land in Somnath was handed over by the Somnath elite to the local Muslim elite to build a mosque in the vicinity. “The inscription lists the endowments for the mosque. These included two large measures of land which were part of the temple property from adjoining temples situated in Somanatha-pattana, land from a matha, income from two shops in the vicinity, and an oil-mill”, Thapar says, wondering, “Did this transaction, 200 or so years after the raid of Mahmud, not interfere with the remembrance of the raid as handed down in the minds of the priests and the local 'big men'? Were memories short or was the event relatively unimportant?”
While it is for historians to research and find out the truth, the question remains central – should one see Somnath from Munshi’s eyes? Munshi’s most important aim, post-Independence, was to resurrect Somnath as a national symbol, allegedly destroyed by a Muslim iconoclast. Munshi became the motivating force behind the campaign, which led Sardar Patel to seek government fund from Jawaharlal Nehru to reconstruct the temple. It was, instead, rebuilt with public money on advice from Mahatma Gandhi. In the collective consciousness of the Hindu middle class in Gujarat, Munshi remains a great architect of national revivalism. And, in this, his novel “Jay Somnath” has, without any iota of doubt, played a major role.
This led me to decide to return to the “historic” novel, written in 1950, especially to find out the reference on sati, which Munshi had seemingly sought to paint in glowing colours. My friends Gaurang Jani, an excellent sociologist, and Urvish Kothari, a celebrated Gujarati blogger, helped me locate the relevant pages. The chapter of “Jay Somnath” is titled “Ghoghabapa ni Yashgatha” or “The Story of Valiant Ghoghabapa”. It’s about what Kothari tells me the “veteran mythical warrior” who fought for and defended his clan till the very end in the fight against Mahmud’s huge army which raided Ghoghagadh before proceeding to Somnath. The soldiers died in large numbers, and the womenfolk gladly self-immolated to be sati. The warrior is quoted as saying, “Brahmadev, you must give me a word. If brave Chauhans fall, their satis must offer their lives on the pyre of their husbands.” Then he turns to their womenfolk, referred to as veeranganas: “What do you say, young women?” Ghoghabapa, we are told, had smile on his face, as if they was asking the women folk to join in a marriage ceremony. They were asked if they had the strength to follow the warriors right up to Kailash? This made womenfolk’s faces “bloom like the beautiful lotus in acceptance of the invitation… Their eyes were filled with tears of happiness, and the brave soldiers thundered, Jay Somnath.”
Mahmud’s army attacked, leading to death and destruction all around Ghoghagarh. Nandidutt, the royal priest who remains alive to tell the posterity about the dance of death and destruction, says, with “tears in his eyes”, how he “fulfilled my responsibility with trembling hands… In the temple premises, the soldiers went on their last journey on sandalwood pyres. The womenfolk, whom I’d got married, whom I’d taught, whose children I’d educated – all of them came out, fully dressed in the best of attire, even as stood next to the gate. They touched my feet. My eyes were full of tears. I became blindfolded. I applied kumkumchand on their forehead. They offered prayers to the Sun God and the Kuldevta, paid obeisance to me, and were ready to move on their last journey to meet their husbands on the pyre.” Among them was his daughter-in-law, “a sati, touched my feet.”
In a third reference, the “yavanas”, all Mahmud’s men, reached the Ghoghagarh “jumping and dancing”, and shouting “Allaho Akbar”. Nandidutt is quoted as saying, “They had thought that someone would defy. But the doors were wide open. They stepped in cautiously. But they were amazed to find the streets desolate. They moved and moved, and finally reached the temple square. I could see them all, hiding behind the window of a broken house. They saw nothing but pyres. They saw dead bodies of six hundred women. With folded hands, all but two soldiers left the premises.” The two that remained there continued with their spree of destruction of the holy premises, removing the flag and destroying the idol.
Munshi’s supporters, and they are not few, don’t mind this praise of sati either. I will just quote from a book, “Munshi: His Art and Work”, a publication of the Shree Kanhaiyalal Maneklal Munshi Golden Jubilee Celebration Committee, Mumbai, which says how Nandidutt, “the family priest of the royal house, hiding in one of the broken-down houses, narrates the tragic happenings of the last few days… Nandidutt describes in broken-hearted accents how the heroic women of Ghoghagadh prepared for the jauhar; how they prayed to the Gods that they should be joined soon to their husbands who had lost their lives; how the funeral pyres were stacked; how he, the family priest, performed the rites and how the brave women, without exception, cheerfully courted death by fire.”


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