On The Taliban’s Enthusiasm For Mahmud Of Ghazni As Smasher Of Somnath

This would appear to be a case of, as the kids might say – “New School Nikes, Old School Kicks”. But one point absolutely must be made here – Mahmud of Ghazni was a warlord who fought and died of disease a millennium ago. He is, in a word – “history”, a footnote. Cleaved to by people who have little else to comfort them than their dimly-lit memories of once being the center of a great empire.

Somnath, meanwhile, is today a beautifully rebuilt and well-functioning Temple. It has a history, certainly – yet it is not only history. It is quite present – physically and temporally as well. Its place is within an enduring history which shall extend on into the glorious future.

Now, to explain a bit about this, it is necessary to delve into the past. By which I mean my 2019 article upon exactly this subject. To quote therefrom:

“Somnath Itself, is one of the thirteen Jyotirlingam sites sacred to Lord Shiva, situated in Prabhas (Radiance) in modern-day Gujarat. We won’t go into too much detail with the explication here, except to note that there are twelve such sites located across the Subcontinent (with the thirteenth, for … curious reasons relating to the then-reigning King of Nepal’s astrological eccentricities, in modern-day Australia); that they get their name from the Pillar of Light [Jyoti – (celestial) light, hence “Jyotisha”, as in “Astrology”; and Lingam – signifer, ensign, pillar] that Shiva manifested as in the course of the Lingodbhava Incident [for more detail upon which, see my piece on KaalBhairav Jayanti], and which can be taken as the infinity of Brahman intersecting with the material universe, as well as an implicit statement of the supremacy of Shiva and the direct illumination of the highest-beyond-reality as a result. Somnath, meanwhile, is a Shaivite theonym meaning Lord of the Soma – and, in this context, given Soma’s entheogenic properties, also connotes the concept of ‘getting close with’ the imminent, immanent Divine.

It’s not hard to see how all of the above has made it an important pilgrimage site even today; and in the early decades of the 11th century A.D., Somnath was well-renowned for its prominence amidst the pious, and for the richness of its splendor as a result. Naturally, this made it an exceedingly attractive target for the Muslim brigand, Mahmud of Ghazni; who swept down from Afghanistan [whence Ghazni lies] in a frighteningly frequent series of full-scale invasions and rapacious raids through the predominantly Hindu realms to his southeast – a reign of terror which persisted for a full quarter century or more, from about the turn of the century, through to the mid-late 1020s.

There is some debate amongst historians as to just why Mahmud did as he did; whether he was motivated to this rapacious, iconoclastic conduct simply by the age-old gluttony for glittering tribute with which to sustain an ever-larger proto-imperial building army; whether he was a religiously driven man who saw it as a duty to cast down the faiths of those folk and those Gods different to his own, to erase them in proper from his line of sight and from living memory; or whether his declarations and definite actions against Hindus in the religious sense, were ‘cover’ for a political agenda of subjugation and intimidation of those potentially resistant kingdoms which might otherwise have more successfully banded together against him and his depredations.

No doubt, there are other, ‘political’ considerations at play in the presentation of Mahmud as some kind of disinterested-in-religion mere ‘raider’ – rather than taking at something approaching at face value the accounts of himself, his contemporaries, and those who came shortly after him within the Islamic world, who highlighted not only Mahmud’s religiously inflected declarations as to his intent in northern India (indeed, open and outright statements that he would invade India on a yearly basis as acts of devotion – which he just about did, launching 17 incursions overall), but who also recalled the sadistic glee with which he was supposed to have personally smashed the Jyotirlingam of Somnath into fragments, and then sought to install these shards in the steps of a Mosque back in his homeland so that the remnants of this priceless relic could be continuously trodden upon by his people.

[Indeed, as a point of perhaps minor epigraphical interest, a contemporary of Mahmud – Farrukh Sistani – who claimed to have been with the man when the smashing was carried out, deliberately sought to cast Mahmud’s abhorrent actions in that circumstance as having strong echoes of Mohammed’s purgation of the pre-Islamic pagan deities from Mecca – down to directly stating that it was a case almost of ‘unfinished business’ from that previous occurrence nearly four hundred years before.]

Yet it is a curious thing. The campaign which took in Somnath was also destined to be the high-water mark of Mahmud’s efforts into India – the place where the wave finally broke, and began to roll back. On the way back from Somnath, his baggage-train groaning under the weight of ill-gotten spoils, he found himself harried by Jats, who managed sufficient onslaught against both his forces and pillage-loot that he had to forestall any subsequent substantive military efforts for a further two years while he replenished.

In addition to this, during the course of his final incursion into India, Mahmud is said to have become infected by some disease, that would shortly after kill him – although not before he had witnessed his empire begin to crumble and to disintegrate; a process which took place both without through the loss of territories that occurred following the military defeats that characterized his final years breathing, as well as within through the internal divisions and outright internecine conflict that followed Mahmud as a result of the weakness of the son he chose as his successor and the bloody ambition of the other whom he had fathered. Mahmud, therefore, died a failure; and irreversibly enmeshed in what we might term “contrapasso”. He had sought, as a raider from the west, to establish an enduring power via his feats and prowess of arms, and fueled by what he brought back in plunder from India. He found himself dying of what else he had brought back with him from India, losing his martial renown amidst his western provinces, to raiders not unlike himself in a previous era; and with the kingdom, the treasure that he had thusly created, being smashed asunder, his tomb being defaced and its relics carried off by a far grander imperial power from even further west again. Only, unlike the fate of Somnath (repaired, restored, resurrected, reincarnated ,you might say) for Mahmud and the Ghaznavids, there could be no rebuilding.

The Long Arc of the Universe, is a धनु. It is long, but it does bend towards Justice, as surely as Its Bowstring is Rta. And, as the saying goes – Time [Kaal] And I, Against Any Other Two.

Or, to phrase it more clearly again – the chartered course of Mahmud of Ghazni’s fate following his most grievous outrage against Somnath, would appear to be a visible manifestation of the concept of शङ्करचेतोविलास – the subtle play of Lord Shiva’s wit.

Such must be the fate of all those who commit such deliberate and egregious abominable attempts against Ishvara.”

As it happens, there is a Sanskrit term for what had eventuated there – ‘Yatana’ ( यातन ) – which refers to ‘action’ coming back upon one as ‘revenge’; and in just the similar manner to ‘Contrapasso’ (so familiar to us due to Dante), is also the labelling for the torments of the Underworld as inflicted upon the sinners by Lord Yama (the Dharmaraja) and His Personnel.

And do you know one of the more curious points of historical irony to the whole situation? Mahmud of Ghazni was himself powerless to resist a Western intervention – in a manner of speaking, anyway.

The Gates to Mahmud of Ghazni’s mausoleum … they no longer sit upon his tomb. Instead, they were removed and taken back to India by the British in the course of the 1842 invasion of that far-flung mountainous hinterland. This being the successful British invasion under Ellenborough, which also levelled parts of Kabul, rather than the somewhat earlier disaster that had occurred under Elphinstone. Those Gates retrieved by the British were, in fact, only copies of the originals which Mahmud had looted from Somnath, being claimed to be the originals by local Afghan Muslim religious authorities in order to falsely enhance the prestige of the site in the eyes of pilgrims.

Ellenborough brought them back to India with his victorious (and significantly Indian in its force composition) army. Indeed, it was a Bengali Native Infantry regiment that was detailed the especial responsibility of their guard and transportation back to the land of their purported origin, where they were to be Paraded in triumph. As Lord Ellenborough himself put it:

“My Brothers and my Friends – Our victorious army bears the gates of the temple of Somnauth in triumph from Afghanistan; and the despoiled tomb of Sultan Mahmood looks upon the ruins of Ghuznee. The insult of 800 years is at last avenged. The gates of the temple of Somnauth, so long the memorial of your humiliation, are become the proudest record of your national glory, the proof of your superiority in arms over the nations beyond the Indus.
To you, Princes and Chiefs of Sirhind, of Rajwara, of Malwa, and of Guzerat, I shall commit this glorious trophy of successful war. You will, yourselves, with all honour, transmit the gates of sandal-wood through your respective territories to the restored temple of Somnauth. The chiefs of Sirhind shall be informed, at what time our victorious army will first deliver the gates of the temple into their guardianship, at the foot of the bridge of the Sutlej.”

It is a sentiment which is so stirring that we can, perhaps, forgive the Lord Ellenborough his misapprehension that these were actually the original Gates in question. Certainly, it is a welcome development having a British figure of authority who was not innately hostile (indeed, quite actively supportive) to Hinduism. A stance which, of course, got him into quite some trouble with his fellow Englishmen – and I have written at length elsewhere upon the vehement denunciations in the British Parliament he faced for just exactly this. A rather remarkable feature of which being Lord Macaulay declaring that the official policy of the British Empire ought be to favour the “Mahometan” – the Muslim – over the Hindu, because at least the former were monotheistic and felt to be closer in religious sentiment to the Englishmen (in amidst other justifications spuriously advanced). Macaulay then went further, and treated his Parliamentary audience to an amateur diatribe on Hindu theology, making the additional attempt to ‘slander’ Ellenborough as allegedly being a Shaivite – and adding that were he himself forced to choose one of our Gods, he would instead become a Vaishnava. No doubt he felt those to be rather closer to his own English preferences, likewise.

The condemnation did not, of course, cease there – and there are some frankly bewildering lines from English opponents about how “despoiling of tombs and the ruin of cities” were not “actions of which a civilized and a Christian Government has reason to boast”; which I do not disagree with – only noting that it seems a castigation somewhat out-of-keeping with the British Empire’s broader historical record. The same document, presented as part of a petition to Parliament by missionaries for Ellenborough’s censure over the matter, further suggested that the restoration of these Gates to Somnath was actually somehow worse than the looting of them by Mahmud in the first instance. Their “disapprobation” being also motivated by the inference that as Somnath was, at that point in the mid-1800s, in a state of ruination, the reinstallation of the Gates upon the Temple would therefore require the reconstruction of said Temple, potentially enaided by British Indian authorities. And, of course, their perhaps not entirely unreasonable belief that when Ellenborough declared that he was sending the Gates back in the manner of “honour”, that given their intended destination it effectively meant that he was committing the resources at his command to the “honouring” of Lord Shiva, Whose Temple it was (and today is).

Yet I digress.

The plain truth is that Haqqani is, here, lying. Or ignorant. Or most probably both. Just as, assumedly, was Mahmud afore him. They are alike enough in that regard.

Mahmud did not found the Ghaznavid regime. That was his father, the former slave-soldier, Sabuktigin. Sabuktigin did not, either, ‘establish’ Muslim rule in much of the region – but rather came to power in a region which had already been under Islamic rule. Most prominently, at the time, represented by the Samanids who had formerly been his literal masters – and whose implosion in the 900s set the stage for the soon-to-be ‘Ghaznavid’ rise. Although even as applies Ghazni itself, it had effectively been under Muslim rule for up to a quarter of a millennium prior to Mahmud’s death.

Indeed, given that the Ghaznavids outright imploded almost immediately upon Mahmud’s mortality, with Mahmud’s twin sons fighting viciously over their father’s crown and ushering in serious fragmentation for the Ghaznavid conquests … I am not quite sure in what sense this “strong Muslim rule” is intended to be taken. Continual changing hands for much of the territory in amidst quite literally fratricidal conflict (and I say that because this pattern was not confined to Mahmud’s two sons, but recurred subsequent within the dynasts as well, to predictable effect) hardly seems “strong” to me. Indeed, it hardly even suggests “rule”.

In a way, perhaps, Mahmud represents an interesting ‘template’ – a ‘myth’, in a certain sense – for some of these sorts to seek to re-enact and re-immanentize out here into this world of ours. As applies his famed raid upon Somnath, as noted above, there is reasonable evidence to suggest that he knew not what he was attacking – and instead presumed ‘Somnath’ to be a sanctuary of ‘Su-Manat’, a deific that Muhammad was supposed to have ordained the destruction and driving out of the associated cult from Arabia in the 600s. Mahmud was reportedly casting himself in the role of his more illustrious namesake and seeking to ‘finish the job’ by pursuing the adherents’ descendants who had fled eastwards all those centuries afore. And just so happening to massively enrich himself upon the way.

That is to say that he was a man fundamentally confused about where and when he was, and was seeking to act as if he were quite some time earlier, in some other land entirely. It would not be hard to suggest something similar for certain of these sorts such as Haqqani. After all, his ‘family business’, the Haqqani Network, is decidedly more ‘ecumenical’ in its associations than just the Taliban – working with not only Ronald Reagan, but also the Pakistani ISI, Al Qaeda, and ISIS-K. And as applies those latter two, well … what did I say at the outset?

“New School Nikes – Old School Kicks”.

Now to be fair and sure, enthusiastic and ahistorical admirationism for Mahmud of Ghazni is not and has never been an exclusively Taliban pursuit. The Pakistanis are big on it, too – even naming one of their short-range ballistic missiles the ‘Ghaznavi’ in rather pointed symbolic gesticulation at India. Considering the well-attested ‘collegiality’ between the Pakistani ISI and the Taliban, it is perhaps no surprise that this, too, is a point for coterminity betwixt them.

Yet these types never seem to consider that as applies Somnath – this was Mahmud’s ‘high water mark’. The place where his wave of onrushing conquest finally began to break and roll back. At some point, I intend to put to writing some of the truly heroic history of the Hindu Shahi dynasty which continued to fight him (and his predecessors) all the way from Kabul to Kashmir. Continually managing to bring together armies and material support seemingly out of the ether to resist, re-set and re-take at every conceivable turn.

Utbi, Mahmud’s personal secretary until his death, in his chronicling of events records that the Hindu Shahi king Jayapala, whilst eventually being overcome, nevertheless managed to “reduce to despair” Mahmud in heavy fighting; and likewise hails a later Hindu Shahi opponent of Mahmud’s as being “Nidar Bhim [‘Bhima the Fearless’], the enemy of God and the chief of Hind”.

It is not for nothing that the Iranian Muslim writer Al Biruni, who had served under Mahmud and accompanied him into India on various of his later incursions, had this to say of Ghazni’s direst foe:

“The Hindu Shahiya are now extinct, and of the whole house there is no longer the slightest remnant in existence. We must say that, in all their grandeur, they never slackened in the ardent desire of doing that which is good and right, that they were men of noble sentiment and noble bearing.”

And so, we say once again:

Where is Mahmud of Ghazni now? Moldering in a grave – indeed, a ‘graveyard of empires’ where most of the ’empires’ thusly interred have been of the decidedly Islamic variety. A grave that has, itself, been ravaged by both time and the conquests of others; its most storied feature (other than its occupant) having been carried off to India as triumphally taken restitution.

Where is Somnath now? Exactly where it has always been. Rebuilt, restored, and immense in its golden radiancy – a bright beacon of faith and the Light (literally Starlight) that can never be quenched, existing without beginning or ending.

‘Sanatani’ light we might perhaps seek to call it.

ईशानादस्य भुवनस्य , जगताम् पतये , रुद्र;
श्री महाराज्ञी , श्रीमत् सिंहासनेश्वरी , भुवनेश्वरी, देवी दुर्गा

ॐ नमः शिवाय

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