The famous temple at Somnath, with its celebrated idol which was destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni, “the Image-Breaker,” when he sacked the city in 1025–1026 A.D., has been alluded to several times in the Mohammedan section of this History. An account of the wonders of the temple and the optical delusion in connection with the idol is given by the Persian geographer Zakariyah Kazvini, who wrote, however, in Arabic, about the year 1263 A.D. Kazvini, though not a traveller himself, drew upon the works of travellers for his geographical materials, and he gives the following interesting account of the famous Somnath shrine, over whose destruction, two centuries before, he rejoices with the Moslem joy that hailed the downfall of a house of idols.
‘Somnath is a celebrated city of India, situated on the shore of the sea and washed by its waves. Among
the wonders of the place was the temple in which was placed the idol called Somnath. This idol was in the middle of the temple without anything to support it from below, or to suspend it from above. It was regarded with great veneration by the Hindus, and whoever beheld it floating in the air was struck with amazement, whether he was a Mussulman or an infidel. The Hindus used to go on pilgrimage to it whenever there was an eclipse of the moon, and would then assemble there to the number of more than a hundred thousand. They believed that the souls of men used to meet there after separation from the body, and that the idol used, at its pleasure, to incorporate them in other bodies, in accordance with their doctrine of transmigration. The ebb and flow of the tide was considered to be the worship paid to the idol by the sea.
‘Everything that was most precious was brought there as offerings, and the temple was endowed with the taxes gathered from more than ten thousand villages. There is a river, the Ganges, which is held sacred, between which and Somnath the distance is two hundred parasangs. They used to bring the water of this river to Somnath every day, and wash the temple with it. A thousand Brahmans were employed in worshipping the idol and attending on the visitors, and five hundred damsels sang and danced at the door – all these were maintained upon the endowments of the temple. The edifice was built upon fifty-six pillars of teak, covered with lead. The shrine of tile idol was dark, but was lighted by jewelled chandeliers of great value. Near
it was a chain of gold weighing two hundred mans. When a portion, or watch, of the night closed, this chain used to be shaken like bells to rouse a fresh lot of Brahmans to perform worship.
‘When Sultan Mahmud, the son of Sabuktagin, went to wage religious war against India, he made great efforts to capture and destroy Somnath, in the hope that the Hindus would then become Mohammedans. He arrived there in the middle of Zu-l-ka’da, 416 A. H. (December, 1025 A.D.). The Indians made a desperate resistance. They kept going in to the temple weeping
and crying for help; and then they issued forth to battle and kept fighting till all were killed. The number of the slain exceeded fifty thousand. The king looked upon the idol with wonder, and gave orders for the seizing of the spoil and the appropriation of the treasures. There were many idols of gold and silver, and countless vessels set with jewels, all of which had been sent there by the greatest personages in India. The value of the things found in the temples of the idols exceeded twenty thousand thousand dinars.
When the king asked his companions what they had to say about the marvel of the idol, and of its staying in the air without prop or support, several maintained that it was upheld by some hidden support. The king directed a person to go and feel all around and above and below it with a spear, which he did, but met with no obstacle. One of the attendants then stated his opinion that the canopy was made of loadstone, and the idol of iron, and that the ingenious builder had skilfully contrived that the magnet should not exercise a greater force on any one side – hence the idol was suspended in the middle. Some inclined toward this explanation, others differed from it. Permission was obtained from the Sultan to remove some stones from the top of the canopy to settle the point. When two stones were removed from the summit, the idol swerved on one side; when more were taken away, it inclined still further, until at last it rested on the ground.’
By way of supplement there is here appended a description of the Somnath idol by the Persian traveller
al-Istakhri, who journeyed through India and other Mohammedan countries in the first half of the tenth century. His note is as follows:–
‘The idol has a human shape and is seated with its legs bent in a quadrangular posture on a throne made of brick and mortar. Its whole body is covered with a red skin like morocco leather, and nothing but its eyes are visible. Some believe that the body is made of wood, some deny this; but the body is not allowed to be uncovered to decide this point. The eyes of the idol are precious gems, and its head is covered with a crown of gold. It sits in a quadrangular position on the throne, its hands resting upon its knees, with the fingers closed, so that only four can be counted.’
This collection transcribed by Chris Gage