Opinions

The Lonely Planet Misguidebook

They didn't fly down for the Commonwealth Games as some had hoped, but tourists are now thronging the country. I see more each time I visit town, ruddy-cheeked and flustered in the October heat, beset by urchins, hawkers and touts. Most have a guidebook in their hand, and it is usually a copy of Lonely Planet, India.

Not long ago, the Australia-based Lonely Planet was merely one among many travel publishers. Let's Go dominated the young American backpacker market, and Rough Guides had established a strong following among independent British travellers. But those two lagged as Lonely Planet expanded beyond is core Asian destinations and shoestring itineraries. It then began eating into the market share of established continental European imprints, while fending off new entrants on its own turf. Since BBC Worldwide took a majority stake in 2007, LP has bolstered its online presence to supplement its physical ubiquity. It's possible more people today understand India through the Lonely Planet lens than through any other single source. Which is why I find the edition's misguided take on India's history and culture deeply troubling.

India's a tricky place for travel writers because history here often comes encrusted with legends as difficult to pry loose as barnacles on a ship's hull. Having bought Lonely Planet's India guide four years ago, to assist with navigation and lodging during a longish holiday trip, I discovered the writers had done a dreadful job of separating fact from fiction. For example, the entry for Tanjore's Brihadishwara temple read, "Constructed from a single piece of granite weighing an estimated 80 tonnes, the dome was hauled into place along a 4km earthwork ramp in a manner similar to that used for the pyramids." Consulting the relevant Archeological Survey of India publication would have revealed that, while the Brihadishwara shikhara rests on a massive square block of granite, it is not itself monolithic.

These sorts of errors bothered me far less than the constant highlighting of atrocities, often fictional ones, by Muslim rulers. The entry on Konark read, "The massive Sun Temple was constructed in mid-13th century, probably by Orissan king Narashimhadev I to celebrate his military victory over the Muslims. In use for maybe only three centuries, the first blow occurred in the late 16th century when marauding Mughals removed the copper over the cupola. This vandalism may have dislodged the loadstone leading to the partial collapse of the 40m-high sikhara." As a child, I'd heard the tale of a giant magnet holding the Sun Temple's girders in place. By the time I was in my late teens, I knew Indian temples were made of stone and used little metal. The idea of a lodestone atop the Sun Temple keeping the structure together, while making compasses on passing ships go haywire, was manifestly absurd. Not too absurd for Lonely Planet, though, which lays blame for this imaginary vandalism at the door of Mughals, whose only connection with Konark in the late 16th century was a laudatory passage about the structure composed by Abul Fazl in the Ain-i-Akbari.

Temples, even grand ones can collapse from natural causes, as evidenced by the recent fall of the 500 year old gopuram of the Srikalahasti temple.

In India, however, any damage to old Hindu religious structures is reflexively attributed to 'the Muslims'. That phrase itself is objectionable, in my view. Lonely Planet never clubs the British and Portuguese together as 'the Christians', so why place rulers from varied ethnic backgrounds and historical eras into a hold all category such as 'the Muslims'?

The Sun Temple isn't the only instance of Lonely Planet inventing acts of Muslim vandalism. The entry for Himachal's Brajeshwari Temple states, "Famous for its wealth, the temple was looted by a string of invaders, from Mahmud of Ghazni to Jehangir". Mahmud did, indeed, loot the Brajeshwari temple. But Jehangir was neither an invader, having been born and bred in India, nor a plunderer of holy sites. He loved that region of the country, and did much to improve it.

Mughals keep unjustly getting the wrong end of the stick throughout the book. The background to Amritsar and its Golden Temple reads, "The original site for the city was granted by the Mughal emperor Akbar, but another Mughal, Ahmad Shah Durani, sacked Amritsar in 1761 and destroyed the temple." Durrani was, of course, not a Mughal at all. But hey, these guys are all Muslims, right? Mughal, Turk, Afghan, big difference. That attitude is probably why Allaudin Khilji is wrongly labelled a Pathan: "Chittor's first defeat occurred in 1303 when Ala-ud-din Khilji, the Pathan king of Delhi, besieged the fort, apparently to capture the beautiful Padmini, wife of the rana's (king's) uncle, Bhim Singh." Actually, misidentifying a Turko-Afghan as a Pathan is a minor error. The big howler in the sentence is LP's propagation of the myth of Rani Padmini. Back in the early 14th century, Khilji was on a campaign in Rajputana, capturing one fort after another, and Chittor was on his list. He didn't need a special reason to besiege it. The great poet and mystic Amir Khusro, who chronicled Khilji's campaign, made no mention of any Padmini. The story was dreamt up much later to contrast the treachery and lasciviousness of the Muslim ruler against the bravery and chivalry of his Hindu Rajput antagonists. I feel like saying to the Rajputs, "Guys, Khilji won, you lost, get over it."

In Lonely Planet's version of India, 'the Muslims' are never locals. They are by definition invaders: "Over the centuries Madurai has come under the jurisdiction of the Cholas, the Pandyas, Muslim invaders, the Hindu Vijayanagar kings, and the Nayaks, who ruled until 1781." Their invader status must be emphasised even when positive contributions are being enumerated: "India's Muslim invaders contributed their own architectural conventions, including arched cloisters and domes." Not once in the 1200 plus pages is the word 'invaders' associated with anybody but Muslims.

Strangely, LP smuggles in references to Islamic destructiveness even when describing intact sites. "Khajuraho's isolation helped preserve it from the desecration Muslim invaders inflicted on idolatrous temples elsewhere." How can the authors be so sure Khajuraho was unknown to Muslim warriors, or that it would certainly have been desecrated otherwise? Consider that Aurangzeb, who had serious iconoclastic tendencies, camped in the vicinity of Ellora for years, and toured the site at least once, and the place still looks dandy.

Where programmatic destruction of temples and proscription of Hindu rituals is concerned, one region of India probably surpassed all others, and that was Goa in the era of the Inquisition. How often do Portuguese acts of vandalism and forced conversion come up in LP's Goa chapter? Not once. Here's how the history of the state is described in the 2005 edition: "Goa fell to the Muslims for the first time in 1312, but the invaders were forced out in 1370 by Harihara I of the Vijayanagar empire… Blessed as it is by natural harbours and wide rivers, Goa was the ideal base for the seafaring Portuguese who arrived in 1510 aiming to control the spice route from the east.' While Muslims invade, Christians merely arrive.

The new edition has modified one line of the intro, removing the invaders bit and adding something considerably funnier: "Goa fell to the Muslims for the first time in 1312, but they weren't fans of the beach and eventually left in 1370 under the forceful persuasion of Harihara I of the Vijayanagar empire." Not fans of the beach? Those Muslims obviously didn't know a good time when they saw it.

Perhaps the most objectionable passage in the tome is titled 'The Struggle for the Soul of India'. It catalogues battles between the Bahmani Sultanate and the Vijaynagar kingdom, opening with a fabrication and going downhill from there: "Founded as an alliance of Hindu kingdoms banding together to counter the threat from the Muslims, the Vijayanagar empire rapidly grew into one of India's wealthiest and greatest Hindu empires." I have no idea where Lonely Planet got the idea that Vijayanagar was founded as a confederacy of Hindu leaders aligning on religious lines against Muslims. The story isn't even the prevalent myth about the origins of the Vijayanagar era. A few lines later, there's an account of Mohammad Shah, the Bahmani king, slaughtering half a million 'infidels'. This number of deaths is based on the account in Ferishta's history of India. Ferishta was generally true to events in his own lifetime, but is known to have made up or embellished stories of the past. In the case of the Mohammad Shah episode, he was writing about events that happened 225 years earlier, and was therefore not a credible source. That obviously doesn't matter to Lonely Planet's authors, who appear intent on creating a narrative in which genocidal Muslim invaders threaten the soul of India, which is preserved by Hindu kings

Girish Shahane is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. He writes the blog Shoot First, Mumble Later.

Columnist Profiles

Follow Us on Facebook

Blogs