The town of Somnath consists of little more than a few streets between the bus stand and its giant temple, famed across India as the first of the twelve jyotirlinga of Shiva. The temple is visible from all over town, towering over a reclaimed beach, which now has a great market selling nautical trinkets and offering camel rides.
Legend has it that the site of Somnath Temple, formerly known as Prabhas Patan, was dedicated to Soma, the juice of a plant used in rituals and greatly praised for its enlightening powers (and hallucinogenic effects) in the Rig Veda. The temple itself is believed to have appeared first in gold, at the behest of the sun god; next in silver, created by the moon god; a third time in wood at the command of Krishna; and finally in stone, built by King Bhimdev, the strongest of the five Pandava brothers from the Mahabharata epic. The earliest definite record, however, dates the temple to the tenth century when it became rich from devotees’ donations. Unfortunately, such wealth came to the attention of the brutal iconoclast Mahmud of Ghazni who destroyed the shrine and carried its treasure off to Afghanistan. The next seven centuries saw a cycle of rebuilding and sacking, though the temple lay in ruins for more than two hundred years after a final sacking by Aurangzeb before the most recent reconstruction began in 1950. Although very little of the original structure remains, the latest reconstruction follows the elegant style of the Solanki period, and merits a visit for its physical and spiritual grandeur.