… And that Shivaji, the great Maratha warrior, was also much more cosmopolitan than he’s made out to be today? His grandfather, Maloji, trained under a former Ethiopian slave called Malik Ambar. Just so we have this straight — Shivaji’s fighting antecedents come from a black man who rose through the ranks of the Ahmadnagar principality in the 1550s.
India in the medieval times wasn’t one thing, it was many. So far, we’ve used anodyne words like ‘the middle ages’ to describe this 800-year period of Indian history. Or communally-tinted words that reference current day or colonial era politics such as the ‘Muslim period’.
Now, there is a new and definitive history of this period from 1000 to 1765, written by the historian Richard M Eaton — who once and for all, gives the medieval history of India an identity, and a descriptor that tells you why the Marathas could learn from Ethiopian mercenaries, and that Shah Jahan was the product of a Mughal harem populated by many Rajput women. His grandmother was Rajput and so were his parents – Jahangir was half Rajput by blood. This, Eaton describes wasn’t a ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ period: it was ‘India in the Persianate Age (1000-1765) — incidentally, also the name of his book.
Richard Eaton’s New Book: A ‘Weapon’ Against Today’s Bigotry
It is a path-breaking book for many reasons. Let me begin with the most user-friendly one. It is a ‘weapon’ against bigoted ideas of the present because it presents a world that wasn’t flat. There was a Sanskritic age where people of many different descriptions, religions, cults, tribes and cultures were broadly imbued with a certain over-arching way of seeing and doing things. Post 1000 AD, this Sankritic cosmopolis began to merge and have a conversation with an equally robust and diverse Persianate way of seeing and doing.
Sometimes, this meant that Rajputs colluded with Afghan or Turkic rulers and invaders to defeat their Hindu / clan competitors, and used religious descriptors to make their case.
Just like many rulers of this period used hagiographies and court poets to sell themselves better. Underneath all this robust ‘selling’, were very astute people who never fully bought into anything. And the times temples were destroyed, it was done sometimes by Hindu kings, at other times by Muslim invaders. But it was mostly done for perhaps similar reasons that our politicians do what they do today, when they put out a fake tweet. That sometimes goes viral and at other times gets the sender no traction at all.
Richard Eaton illustrates this in the very first line of the first chapter, titled ‘A Tale of Two Raids: 1022, 1025’. He writes, setting up the drama properly, with Shakespearian flair. “In the early second millennium…two armies…raided north India…” One was led by the Chola king Rajendra I in 1022, whose armies marched 1600 kilometres, from Tanjavur (present day Tanjore) to Bengal. They defeated Mahipala, maharaja of the Pala empire, and carried away from there, a bronze Shiva idol from a royal temple, deities from Kalinga (or modern-day Orissa), and precious gems as war booty.
Three years later, in 1025, Mahmud of Ghazni, “marched out of…eastern Afghanistan with 30,000 cavalry behind him…” and attacked the Somnath temple in Gujarat and had the Shiva idol broken to bits. Why did the Chola king’s desecration of a temple not even appear as a blip on our easily offended radars, but Mahmud of Ghazni’s got written up as the ‘beginning’ of the ‘enslavement and destruction of all things Hindu by Islamic marauders?’
Debunking Communal Tropes
Eaton explains that Mahmud’s invasion first got written up as an “assault on Indian religion” in 1842. The British East India Company was annihilated in the First Afghan War and needed a face saver. So they invented one which went something like this. Mahmud of Ghazni carried away a pair of temple gates from Somnath and took them to Afghanistan. Now, at the exact time of their humiliating defeat, the British claimed to have found these gates and were ‘restoring’ them to India, ‘rectifying’ a grievous wrong.
Fake news was birthed, among other things, and the Somnath story got a completely contemporary spin.
Once you’ve read this account, it’s difficult to go back to the Somnath story in its tired communal trope. And that’s why Eaton’s book is such an important tool for our times. You can wear it like armour. The next time someone whips out the story of the Islamic despot Sikandar ‘Butshikan’ or ‘temple-destroyer’ of Kashmir, voila, Eaton has an answer! Refer them to Sikandar’s son. While the father was pushed to clearly demonstrable despotism, the son, Zain al’Abidin’s fifty-year rule, was written about by contemporaries as a ‘golden age’ in Kashmir, where Vaishnava literature was patronised. And the Atharvaveda was brought from Karnataka to Kashmir to be recited by Brahmin priests.
More to Medieval India than Correcting Current Day Communalism
Looking for syncretic traditions in an age when religion was not separate from statecraft is tiring and a bit pointless. You discover this in Eaton’s writing, but there is so much more to medieval India than correcting current day communalism. Like the fact that the absolute control over the geographical spread of the Indian subcontinent by a monarch – whether by Alauddin Khilji the slave king, or Akbar; wasn’t always the best thing. Chaos, in the intervening period between the decline of the Delhi sultanate and the arrival of the Mughals, was when vernacular languages grew and flourished.
Another fascinating fact is that sometimes, losing a war is the mother of all invention.
Eaton tells us how it led to a “military revolution,” and the development of such sophisticated canon fire and gunpowder technology “that found no parallel anywhere…in the world.” A battle between the Vijaynagar ruler Krishna and Bijapur’s Ismail Adil Khan was the turning point. It was the battle of Talikota. It was the losing side that came out the eventual winner, by deciding to invest in better gunpowder technology, with canons that could swivel and fire at great distances.
Above all, this is the period in Indian history that made us the present-day romantics that we are. Eaton’s book is an emotional journey that takes you to the root of the 13th century Sufi, Amir Khusrau’s, well-sung verses: “Chap tilak sab cheeni re mohse naina milai ke” – “with one glance, you’ve robbed me of my soul, my self, my everything.”
The Arab-Turkic-Indian Idea Which Sells Every Bollywood Blockbuster
Or the 2013 Mukesh Bhatt film – ‘Aashiqui 2’ — still the go-to love song for people with broken hearts.
“Hum tere bin abh reh nahi saktey, tere bina kya wajood mera?” — “It’s impossible to not be with you now; there is no existence without you.”
Existence. Wajood. The big romantic dream of annihilating yourself for your lover. An Arab-Turkic-Indian idea that sells every Bollywood blockbuster, and fills us up with something that is so vital, yet so hard to define. Read this book to sit inside that feeling and locate it’s crazy, fluctuating radar.
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker, and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
. Read more on Books by The Quint.RSS & BJP’s Nehru-Netaji ‘Cosplay’: Irony Dies a Thousand DeathsAs Remand Ends, ED Seeks Judicial Custody of DK Shivakumar . Read more on Books by The Quint.