For sheer grandeur and exuberance – the Akshardham Swaminarayana Temple complex is the largest temple in the Indian state of Gujarat. However – for history, spiritual significance and emotional bonds that Hindus carry, Somnath is by far the most important temple in Gujarat, and indeed one of the most sacred sites in the whole of India. From 1026AD it has been destroyed (by Muslim invaders and rulers) and rebuilt seven times, before its final destruction in the 15th century, when Hindus finally abandoned the temple. It was the one holy site of Hindus which was successfully reclaimed and rebuilt after India’s Independence, due to the efforts of Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Jam Saheb and K. M. Munshi. The newly reconstructed temple was reopened in 1951.
The accounts of the destruction of the temple by the likes of Mahmood Gazni and Allaudin Khilji are well known, and has been one of the traumas that has stayed burning in the Hindu mind for many centuries. Even many 2nd generation Gujarati children in Western countries may know it, which shows how the Hindus kept their history simmering throughout the ages.
The temple is situated right on the coastline in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat, and in its long and eventful history has carried several different names, including Deo Pattan, Prabhas Pattan or Pattan Somnath. The temple is dedicatied to Lord Shiva, and contains one of the twelve principle Jyotirlingas, which are the sites where the interaction between Mahakal (the Ruler of Time, one of Lord Shiva’s names) and the temporal world is most intense. This has made it an important pilgrimage site for many centuries – as visiting the twelve Jyotirlingas is believed to bring great religious merit.
The original temple was built from silver and contained huge images built of gold and other precious materials. It was perhaps the foremost pilgrimage centre in the entire India at one point. Its fame spread well beyond India – and took pilgrims from many countries – including even Arabia. That is why the invading Muslims singled it out especially for desecration, even more so than every other Hindu temple they encountered. There are many descriptions of the temple in historical texts and sacred texts. Many features of the old temple are established, for example that the bells hung on chains of pure Indian gold, lamps burnt in diamond studded stands, the pillars and gates were studded with gold and jewels. The finest dances in the land used to take place in dedication to Lord Shiva and there were schools and cow shelters associated with the temple. Only a few remains of the original temple remain, and these are preserved within the current temple.
Today the temple is once again thriving as a centre of worship, pilgrimage and of intense historical interest. A testimony to the determination of human nature, not to give up in the face of oppression.