Delhi Heritage Walks’ Book Club held its second session at Lodi Garden on 6 December. The book chosen for the discussion was Romila Thapar’s Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History and Tanuja Kothiyal, a historian of medieval India at Ambedkar University Delhi, and currently Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum & Library, was the discussant. The choice of the book seemed apt for the day: 6 December is the date of destruction of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya which is believed to have been built on the birthplace of Lord Ram. The act of pulling down the mosque was to avenge the oppression faced by the Hindu community under Muslim rule. Mahmud Ghazni’s raids into India and particularly his raid on temple of Somanatha in the year 1026 is considered the beginning of foreign invasions led by fanatical Muslims who were here to attack the Hindu religion. The Rath Yatra led by BJP leader L.K. Advani which culminated in Babri Masjid demolition, started in 1990, at Somanatha. Romila Thapar’s book notes that the event has been projected as central to relations between Hindus and Muslims in South Asia and explores the interpretations of this event in the last two centuries. The author draws upon a number of sources including local Sanskrit inscriptions, Jain narratives, biographies of kings & merchants of the period, court epics & popular narratives and Persian chronicles to study the different versions of Mahmud’s raids on India.
The event began with Dr. Kothiyal summarizing the main arguments of the book. She remarked that the memorialisation of the event has become more important than the event itself. She pointed out that because the book uses a variety of sources, it allows the reader a larger picture of the relevance of this event for the region of Gujarat and other parts of the Indian subcontinent. And, it is important to understand the context of each of these versions of history. One of the participants noted that while the context is relevant and there can be multiple versions of an event, we must not forget the intent of the raid. He argued that historians should give due credence to the reason why Mahmud raided Somanatha. This point led us to the question of role of historians and history writing in society. One of the participants put forward their view that historians write accounts of the past based on available evidence, using acceptable procedures of enquiry and with a particular perspective. Now, this whole process can result in multiple versions of history and this is acceptable part of historians’ craft. What is unacceptable, are versions of history which are based on prejudice and sentiment. The latter unfortunately leads of popular notions of the past which are not grounded in historical research. Another participant added that while historians establish facts of the past, they also make us aware of the context of each of the facts – why is some information more important than other and gets acceptable as historical fact. This contributes to our understanding of what makes history.
Another issue that came up for discussion was the originality of the site of the temple of Somanath. A site of history will have layers of past and the participants discussed the situation with respect to Somanath. The temple that stands there now is a modern structure, built after Independence. The role of the colonial state and Indian government after Independence was also talked about. Dr. Kothiyal emphasised that the importance of the book lies in its ability to provide us an insight into how memory of a particular event – an event which has contemporary relevance – is developed.
(posted by Kanika Singh, team member, Delhi Heritage Walks)