Comment on this article |
Email this article |
Observations of Romilla Thapers's Medievel History of India (english)
by Manju Desai
03 Jan 2003
Romilla Historian of JNU
New Page 1
observations on “Medieval India,”
History textbook for Class VII by Romila Thapar.
also for “Medieval India,” History textbook for Class XI by Satish Chandra,
which is simply an enlarged version of the first text and shares all its
The year 800 AD cannot rightly be regarded as marking the
beginning of the medieval period in Indian history. The ancient civilization of
the land continued to flourish as before at this time and underwent no dramatic
discontinuity or change to warrant the closure of one era and the heralding of
another. The Indian creative genius scaled new heights in the period between the
8th and 12th centuries, as is evidenced in the profusion
of religious thinkers (Shankara and Ramanuja, among a host of others), the
hectic pace of temple construction (examples include the Rajarajeshwara temple
at Thanjavur, the Kandariya Mahadeva temple at Khajuraho, the Jagannath temple
at Puri and the Sun Temple at Konarak), and the spurt in the development of
A number of discerning scholars abroad have questioned the
application of the western concept of feudalism to the Indian society of this
period. In particular, they have refuted the Marxist contention that there was a
paucity of money and coins in the post-Gupta period and that this triggered off
feudal conditions in India. On the contrary, they say, India had a thriving
money economy and the evidence in the shape of the abundant coinage found has
been deliberately overlooked by Indian Marxists in order to fit Indian history
in the Leftist mould.
all the processes that India was under going in this period in the realms
specially of religion, language and literature were internally generated and
internally rooted, it is difficult to comprehend the connection between this
period (8th to 12th centuries) and the ensuing one (13th
to 18th centuries), which clearly marked the ascendancy of external
forces and culture.
the forced clubbing together of highly disparate eras has been motivated solely
by the desire to downplay the cataclysmic nature of the Muslim advent in India.
the circumstances, the second era in Indian history should properly begin with
the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 AD. Instead of focusing on the
Hindu states of the 8th to the 12th centuries, which were
in any case anathema to the Muslims, the introductory chapter should discuss the
rise of Islam in Arabia, the basic tenets of the Muslim faith, the Islamic
expansion, the Arab-non Arab tussle within the expanding Muslim polity, the
status it accorded to its non-Muslim subjects, its treatment of the ancient
civilizations and cultures in conquered Iran, Iraq, Egypt and Syria. The
exclusivist nature of Islam and its rejection of pre-Islamic states, scripts,
languages and cultures in the entire Middle East need to be adequately
Since the Islamic advent was the real story of medieval India,
it is wrong to forcibly bring the Cholas into the picture. The Cholas belonged
neither to the feudal nor the Dark Age, nor did they share any features with
There is also a deliberate attempt to interpolate caste tensions
into Hindu society as is evident in the off-hand reference to Shudras. In
reality, the so-called Shudras were dominant castes in many areas, they
controlled large amounts of land and were a force to reckon with. Ethnographic
studies have also recorded the pride they took in their Shudra status till as
late as the 19th century when caste underwent a series of changes as
a result of colonial intervention. The
noted historian, Burton Stein has alluded to the close Brahmin-peasant
partnership in the extension of cultivation in the south.
In the discussion on religion, there is little attempt to
highlight the fact that the reformist impulse came from within Hindu society and
that many of its proponents were Brahmins.
Misrepresentations about Indian society abound in this chapter
as well. There are the standard stereotype references to the caste system with
absolutely no appreciation of the elasticity that was its essential feature. In
the context of the period under discussion, this elasticity is most vividly
illustrated in the elevation of several nomad-pastoral communities into Agnikula
Rajputs created by the Brahmins to specially defend the land against the
invading mlechhas. Needless to say, this finds no mention in the text.
The inclusion of Mohammed Ghazni alongside the Rajputs in the
discussion on the kingdoms of North India is surprising unless, of course, the
intention is to blur the distinction between the two. The rest of the chapter is
a continuation of the half-truth and untruths in which the book abounds. There
are again the motivated statements on land grants to Brahmins, the intention
obviously being to reinforce the negative stereotypes of the latter. The
pertinent point, however, is what percentage of such grants were actually given
to Brahmins and what percentage to other sections of Hindu society. The
references to the miserable plight of the peasants and the assertion that it
mattered little to them whether they were ruled by Rajput or Turk flies in the
face of later statements made by the authoress herself wherein she concedes that
the land tax increased from one-third to almost half of the produce by the later
Mughal period. Romila Thapar’s views here seem to be colored by her commitment
to the Marxist ideology of dividing the human societies to classes, real or
imaginary, as a basis for all analysis.
The section on society presents a distorted view of the Indian
social scene. It has long been conceded that the essential constituent of the
Indian village community was its mutually dependent nature. The system was
reciprocative in regard to services and redistributive in regard to agricultural
produce. There was joint enterprise to raise the crops, to defend life and
property from free-booters and natural calamities, there was even joint
celebration of festivities. Outside observers, in fact, often noted with
amazement that villages containing a sizeable number of caste groupings, could
nonetheless exist as a unit. None of this finds mention in the text.
The section on religion creates the impression that it was only
with the advent of the Bhakti movement that the lower castes were
brought into the Hindu spiritual ambit. This is incorrect. From the outset, only
Vedic literature was outside the purview of the common people but the
philosophical truths contained in it were popularized and made easily
comprehensible through the wide dissemination of the Agamas, Ramayana
and Mahabharata which incidentally also contained the Gita.
The momentous fact that for the
first time in Indian history the religion of the rulers was different from that
of the ruled is not mentioned in this chapter. Nor the fact that from thence on,
the economic exploitation of the peasantry was systematized as never before,
courtesy, the system of measurement of land and record of actual production.
The extremely closed nature of the
governing class, with entry being restricted to immigrant Muslims, is also
glossed over. There is no reference to Balban’s well-advertised repugnance for
even Hindu converts to Islam, nor the fact that the first Indian-born Muslim to
accidentally stray in was soon executed. References to Hindu participation in
the system are misleading. The so-called Hindu involvement was restricted to the
clerical level, much as it was under the British. If Indian participation at the
lower levels of the administration did not make the colonial state an
Indo-British venture, surely the same logic should hold good here as well.
The word jaziya does not occur even
once in the discussion on the entire Sultanate period. Firozshah is described as
interested in the ancient culture of India when the fact is that it was during
his region that jaziya was levied on Brahmins for the first time.
The pan-Islamic dimension of the
political philosophy of the Sultanate has not even been alluded to. All the
Sultans, without exception, looked to the Caliph as the source of their
legitimacy. Even after the Caliph has been murdered and the Caliphate abolished
(1258), his name continued to appear on the coins of the Sultans of India. They
continued to swear allegiance to a “hypothetical Caliph.”
The attempt to sanitize the
activities of every Muslim ruler is particularly glaring in the case of Muhammad
bin Tughlaq. The intensity of Hindu resistance is ignored, the savagery involved
in the conversion of Kashmir is not even hinted at. Similarly, the religious
dimension of the Vijaynagar-Bahmani dispute is totally missing in the narrative.
The entire exercise is reminiscent of the attempts to white-wash Nazi history by
their modern apologists.
Despite the misleading assertions, there is simply no concrete
evidence of Hindu-Muslim rapprochement in the Sultanate period. It is grossly
improper to include Hindu princes, landholders and priests as constituents of
the new aristocracy that arose at this time. The author should be asked to
furnish the actual details of such participation. Leaving aside the ruling
houses of Rajputana, Rajput resistance even in the neighbouring Katiher region
(remained Rohelkhand after the Afghans) remained intense even throughout Mughal
rule. Similarly, the participation of landholders in the ruling class remained
restricted even under the Mughals, a point conceded by the late Prof. Athar Ali.
To assert that the involvement of such groups was intense in the Sultanate
period is a blatant form of dishonesty.
It is also grotesque to talk of the respect of the Delhi Sultans
for Brahmins and to suggest that both Brahmins and the Ulema were equally
permitted to spread their faiths in the subcontinent. Nor is there any mention
of the infamous pilgrimage tax. Aside from the reference to Mohammed Ghazni,
there is no mention of temple destruction in this period.
The talk of intermarriage between Turks, Afghans and Hindus who
had been converted ignores the deep racialism of the rulers and the contempt
they had for Indian Muslims. It is not mentioned that the non-Muslim partner of
the marriage always had to convert to Islam.
There is similar dishonesty in the discussion on the Sufis.
There is no evidence to suggest that the Sufis advised Hindus to be better
Hindus as the authoress alleges. Indeed, in the popular Indian folklore, Sufis
are viewed as pioneer Muslims who ventured out to claim fresh territory for
their faith. “Warrior Sufis” were active participants in frontier warfare.
Moreover, Sufis did not challenge any of the precepts of Islam and always
remained within the Islamic tradition.
Contrary to the impression given, Muslims had no role in the
development of the regional languages discussed here. Also, the architectural
style remained distinctly Islamic and did not deviate from Islamic forms in the
slightest, despite the addition of a few Hindu frills.
Babur’s well-known dislike for Hindustan is not mentioned, nor
his association with the Ayodhya temple. The Renaissance and the Reformation in
Europe are not relevant here.
There is no hint at the complex processes that went into the
shaping of Akbar’s policies, nor the fact that he started his reign as a
conservative Sunni Muslim monarch. He, after all, re-christened Hindu holy
cities (Prayag being the most notable), imposed the jaziya and pilgrimage tax,
and even indulged in forcible conversions in the early part of his reign. Though
he ultimately did seek a more neutral legitimation, at least by way of
supplement, the state under him remained unmistakably Muslim. 70% of his
nobility consisted of foreigner-Muslims. The Hindu representation was confined
to the Rajputs, there being just four other Hindus in the upper echelons of the
nobility. These were Birbal, Todar Mal, his son, and another Khatri.
An alien tongue remained the court language and the language of
administration. The translation of Hindu epics into Persian was intended to wean
away the Hindu administrative elite from their own languages, and thrust Persian
on them. Akbar’s so called patronage of Hindu writers also needs to be
examined afresh, in view of the fact that the greatest Hindu writer of the age,
Tulsidas, certainly received no state funding.
The section on the Mansabadari system is poorly formulated and
incapable of being comprehended by the students.
The write-up on the Din-i-Ilahi smacks of total intellectual
dishonesty. In the western world, it is by now generally accepted that the Ilahi
was not influenced by, nor a concession, to Hinduism. In fact, nine of the ten
virtues it enjoined were derived directly from the Koran, while the tenth was a
commonplace basis of all Sufi thought. It should be noted that even his Hindu
wife Jodhabai, was converted to Islam and buried with him in the manner of a
Muslim at Sikandra.
The omission of Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, the leading revivalist
thinker of the time, is also indicative of the political agenda of the writers.
There is almost total silence on the growing powers of orthodoxy
in the reigns of Jehangir and Shah Jehan. The intention is to present them in as
favourable a light as possible. Thus, Jehangir’s revolt against his father,
and his suspected involvement in the murder of Abul Fazl, who was a relatively
liberal Muslim, find no mention in the text.
The lengthy treatment given to the mythical chain of justice at
Jehangir’s palace further confirms the deliberately biased treatment of the
The cursory discussion on Aurangzeb, which is also appended to
this chapter, is not only a masterly exercise in evasion, but also
incomprehensible on its own terms. After reading the text, it still remains
unclear why according to the authoress herself, the Sikhs, Marathas and Jats
revolted against the Mughal domain. She further talks of Aurangzeb having
trouble with the Rajputs, rather than vice versa. Incidentally, the word jaziya
is used for the first and last time here (page 109 of the book), but the reader
is not even told what this tax was all about. To further confuse matters, Sheikh
Ahmad Sirhindi is discussed in the middle of Aurangzeb, while there is no
mention of Shah Waliullah.
The most important characteristic of the post-Aurangzeb period
was that the successor states continued to uphold and propagate the Mughal
system and its Muslim values, and made no attempt to link with the indigenous
ethos. Needless to say, this finds no mention in this chapter.
reviewer’s name has been withheld as per his request.)