The process of rejecting western notions about India has acquired speed, pushing aside anyone who dares to question the intellectual rigour of the new interpretations. This is particularly so in the case of Indian science and how advanced it was in the days before the Islamic conquest began.

Lets take the case of the idol at Somnath. As we know, Mahmud of Ghazni is supposed to have destroyed the famous temple in 1025 CE. He is supposed to have decamped with tons of gold and jewels and put 50,000 people to death.

A friend of mine, known to be a high IQ physics buff and deeply involved in emerging technologies like Internet of Things, sent me a quote that indicated a very deep knowledge of magnetism in ancient India and specifically about the idol at the Somnath temple before it was smashed to pieces allegedly by Mahmud.

When the temple fell, said my friend, “the king directed a person to go and feel all around and above 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 [a magnetized rock], and that the idol was iron and that the ingenious builder had skillfully contrived that the magnet should not exercise a greater force on any one side — hence the idol was suspended in the middle. When two stones were removed from the summit the idol swerved on one side, when more were taken away it inclined still further, until it rested on the ground.”

This quote has been doing the rounds amongst the Hindu faithful. I asked my friend for attribution. I was surprised to get a response from him that said he did not need some white man to provide validation for knowledge about India, and that there are facts and there are facts. So I did some digging around of my own and this is what I found.

The quote in italics is taken from an obscure work on history by Sir H M Elliott and Prof John Dowson published in London in 1869[1]. The two English gents were Persian and Arabic scholars, and they compiled a reference work of histories of India written by others, especially Arabic and Persian writers. They have translated many Arab writers and compiled it into two volumes. Serious historians know of this work but it is largely unknown to the common man.

The passage cited is taken from Abu Yahya Zakariya’ ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, an Arab geographer and astronomer. He was born sometime in around 1230 CE or so. He was not a traveller but compiled his work from the works of others. He is mainly known for “ʿAjā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt” (The Wonders of Creation).  This is a book on cosmography and was apparently immensely popular the Arab world. In the work under reference,  This quote is from a book called Asaru Al Bilad wa Akhbaru-l Ibad (“Monuments of Countries and Memories of Men”) . Qazwini apparently quotes from another work by an earlier Arab writer called Misar Bin Mulalhil in this work.

Everything stated by Qazwini may be true.  And then again not. Since he never actually saw any of this, as Ghazni destroyed Somnath in 1025 CE and Qizwani wrote his book in 1263. It is indeed true that the Susruta Samhita does show the ancients knew all about magnetism, and therefore it is entirely possible that the suspension of the idol with magnets may have been done.

I thought about this and wondered how the Somnath phenomenon could be possible.  For a huge iron idol to be suspended in mid air would need industrial magnets. A loadstone (which is a naturally occurring weak magnet that was used in compasses of old) would not do the job (unless these loadstones were huge and very powerful). Does it mean our ancients knew how to build industrial magnets,  for which they would need access to electrical engineering technology.

Not satisfied, I wrote to Prof Subhash Kak, who is an Emeritus Professor of Electrical Engineering at Oklahoma State University and a member of the Indian Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. He is also an expert in matters relating to ancient Indian science, and has written extensively about the mathematical knowledge contained in ancient Indian scriptures.

He replied saying the iron idol and its suspension by magnets does not seem likely, but persistent reports of such suspension in Hindu temples in Java could lead us to conclude that perhaps dark ropes were involved. Which I can accept.

My larger point is this – why do we suspend our scientific faculties just because we wish to reject the unfair characterization of India as a land that did not know science until the white man arrived? The foremost scientific tool we have is Occam’s razor. Unless otherwise proved, reject something fanciful as the explanation for a hypothesis. In this case, clearly Qazwini was making it up.

Is our inferiority complex so deep-rooted that we have to reject in entirety anything Western?

[1] History of India By Its Own Historians Vol I & II. Edited from the posthumous papers of Sir H M Elliott by Prof John Dowson. London, Trubner & Co. 1869

6 thoughts on “The Somnath Idol

  1. The instinct to reject all things western is borne out of a lack of appreciation for the universal roots of eastern civilisational values.

    This is a land blessed with a sophisticated understanding of the abstract truth of who we are and what life is. This is embedded in our culture through yoga and folklore, but most directly through the living manifestation of saints who walk amidst us.

    The Bhagwad Gita read by a 7 year old boy through an Amar Chitra Katha as a compelling drama on the battleground has an entirely different meaning to the spiritual aspirant. This is a beautiful aspect that has allowed our civilisation to endure – the ability to transmit the profound in a mutilayered way that reaches out to all of us.

    The truth itself is not our preserve. It does not need to be fought over to safeguard. It endures unchanged amidst all the constructive activities, technological breakthroughs and lofty ideas of mankind.

    And the most basic quality it reminds us to let go of is the idea of agency. When Bob Dylan was asked why his songs had dried up after a long spurt of prodigious writing, he said they arose from nowhere and ceased just as mysteriously.

    Did the Bhagwad Gita arise from the mind of Ved Vyas? Or were they brought forth from a divine source? I would ask the same questions about the detached melodies of Dylan.

    As they say, the truth is what sets us free. What binds us in fear is our distance from it.


    1. Anand, this is a profound reply and I will treasure it.

      The nature of truth is the question to be asked, and the willingness to believe. Your response is itself is so multilayered that I had to read it a few times to appreciate it. You do me a great honour.

      Thank you so much.


  2. There is always a certain tension between matters of faith and matters of reason. That tension is inherent and will never go away.

    When matters of faith are sought to be tested by reasoning from a person who is not of that faith, it is likely that it will be rejected off hand. It’s because there is a natural predeliction amongst the faithful that what is being challenged is not that particular issue in question but the entirety of the faith.

    This is why the evangelists argue for inclusion of divine creation in schools and the absolute truth of everything in the Bible. This is why people of the Islamic faith are quick to consider something blasphemous. This is why Hindus react the way they do when the faith of the Somnath idol is questioned.

    The literal truths of any of the scriptures of any religion, I suggest, are unimportant. What is important is the meaning you ascribe to it, the values you derive and the solace and comfort that you draw in what is often a difficult world. Many people seem to take offence when any part of the faith is challenged. So why challenge ? More tolerance towards beliefs, even if they are not entirely true will make the world a better place.

    I am fond of Neil Degrasse Tyson’s views on this. He is a scientist , atheist and has strong views on rationality. However his stand is people can believe whatever they want and he is comfortable with that. Where he objects is when it becomes a matter of government or public policy – like teaching creation in schools.


    1. Thank you for leaving a thoughful comment in the middle of your cycling trip!

      I am a big fan of de Grasse Tyson and like him and you, I believe you should leave matters of faith alone. It is only by that separation can a man who lives by his wits believe in a God. The two need to be kept separate, however, because it is the spirit of inquiry that has brought mankind so far and not just belief. I think that the spirit of inquiry is proof that God exists. But enough of that – this is not a blog on religion.

      My concern is exactly that which Tyson talks about. I find people in public life regressing all too often into making crackpot assertions, boasting about non-existent rockets to the moon and complex surgery being the accomplishments of ancient Hindu sages. Had these remarks been made by people not in public life I would have let it pass. I need to call it out because these dangerous views may one day be taught in schools.

      There needs to be greater sensitivity to matters of faith because one’s beliefs are one’s own, as long as they don’t intrude into the commons. However a line needs to be drawn.

      My post here has invited ire from close friends who allege that believing in the Somnath Idol’s magic capability is the same is believing in the Resurrection. If the Resurrection is acceptable belief then why not the magnetic idol of Somnath.

      They have a point.


  3. An interesting story indeed. This is the first time I am hearing about the idol of Somnath. Your ever curious mind has spared me digging further on this phenomenon by giving me all the details I needed to know. I am truly intrigued. Alas! you dashed what seemed to be good evidence of Indian ingenuity which I have always admired alongside the shrewd business acumen of the Chinese. Anyway, religious truths cannot always be rationalised. Those which surpass explanation is accepted on the realm of faith. Even if I cannot rationalise some truths in my faith, I am reassured at the wealth of truths that can be and I do not hanker after those that can’t be. I believe and so I am and if I cannot believe than who am I? If you are challenged on the truth of the Somnath idol, then it could only be because you have touched that raw nerve, called religious belief.

    On Fri, Jan 3, 2020 at 9:41 AM The Exclusion Principle wrote:

    > theexclusionprinciple posted: ” The process of rejecting western notions > about India has acquired speed, pushing aside anyone who dares to question > the intellectual rigour of the new interpretations. This is particularly so > in the case of Indian science and how advanced it was in the d” >


    1. Thanks for leaving a comment Metilda.

      It seems you need to suspend your disbelief in order to believe in religion. The foundation stories of all religions is full of myths and stories that need to be taken at face value. Anyone found questioning the disbelief faces the ire of believers. In my understanding of the Hindu faith, there are schools of thought that encourage disbelief – even agnosticism or atheism. I am disappointed that the backlash of Hindus against 800 years of political domination by Muslims and Christians leads them accept some of these tall stories. I am sure the situation will correct itself.


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