Babur [right] and Humayun with Courtiers (Detail), Late Shahjahan Period, ca. 1650.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Nimatnama or The Book of Pleasures: A Cook Book from 15th Century Malwa

After the demise of the imperious Tughlaq dynasty in Delhi, Malwa saw the rise of its own independent sultanate in the 15th century. In 1469, Ghiyath Shahi became the sultan. This heck of man was a bon viveur and eccentric par excellence. As soon as he ascended the throne, he deputed his son, Nasir Shah to run state affairs and promptly busied himself in the pursuit of sensory pleasures and satisfaction. Nimatnama or the Book of Pleasures was the outcome of his unremitting exertions in this direction. The work comprises of recipes of various food and drinks, for preparation of perfumes and essences, as well as for aphrodisiacs and medicines. It also elaborates on the preparation and benefits of betel chewing and provides advice on what to take into battle and instructions concerning hunting expeditions.

The recipes of Nimatnama are detailed and alluring. Take this one for example:

Another recipe for the method of saffron meat: wash the meat well and, having put
sweet-smelling ghee into a cooking pot, put the meat into it. When the ghee is hot,
flavour it with saffron, rosewater and camphor. Mix the meat with the saffron to flavour
it and when it has become well-marinated, add a quantity of water. Chop cardamoms,
cloves, coriander, fennel, cinnamon, cassia, cumin and fenugreek, tie them up in muslin
and put them with the meat. Cook almonds, pine kernels, pistachios, and raisins intamarind syrup and add them to the meat. Put in rosewater, camphor, musk and ambergris and serve it. By the same method cook partridge, quail, chicken and pigeon.

The uniqueness of this text lies in its form as well as its subject matter. The manuscript, preserved in the India Office Library in London, has fifty miniature paintings, prepared after the Persian Turkman tradition of Shiraz, in fusion with more subcontinental styles. Thus many of the faces in the paintings are painted in profile, as opposed to the Persian practice of painting in half-profile. These paintings represent some of the earliest paintings from Muslim courts of the Deccan and hence are early predecessors of numerous paintings of the Dakhni style from later periods. The text is written in bold naskh script, characteristic of Mandu calligraphy. 

As far as content is concerned, the book lies outside the usual gamut of medieval Persian literature, which mostly comprises of political chronicles and pure fiction. As for the field pertaining to the history of cuisine is concerned, the Nimatnama is an invaluable source for obvious reasons. While other Persian sources mention feasts and banquets, and even food, in passing, this is the only text from the medieval period dedicated entirely to the subject.

Have a look at this wonderful text; who knows, some you may fall prey to its charm and end up getting interested in culinary history.
You can download the ebook from any of the following locations: 

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

In context of the discussion on Chola Trade

In a recent post I tried to summarise the views of Tansen Sen and Hermann Kulke, who in respective articles stressed on the larger economic and political relations of South and South East Asia to understand Chola relations with the Sri Vijaya. As an important corollary, China was obviously the major power to be contended with, and Hermann Kulke showed how Chinese documents considered Cholas to be 'tributaries' of their Mandate of Heaven. I here intend to just add a small point as to why the term 'tribute' could be used in the first place.

The idea has two-fold implications: firstly, China's notion of the Middle Kingdom and Secondly diplomatic tactics of other countries.

Firstly, the idea that China was the Middle Kingdom and the Mandate of Heaven was the most essential political theory of China that dominated domestic as well as international relations. Needless to say it was used as a tool of legitimization of Chinese powers over perpetual flow of Barbarians and gradual influxes of European ambassadors. Chinese emperors and extensive bureaucracy assumed that all foreign powers wanted contact with China for their own spiritual upliftment, to have ties with the Superior Civilisation. This is evident even from the Macartney Mission of 1793. The gifts of tools displaying technological advancements of England by Macartney to convince the emperor of the importance of trading relations with England was perceived as 'tributes' (and hence the nature of the relation tributary?).

Therefore, to come to the second point, going back to Chola times, it is possible that the Chinese assumed any trading relation as a 'tribute' because of the inherent Chinese idea, and hence a local document suggest tributary relations with other powers. Also, as a form of diplomatic tactic, foreign powers may have implied the term 'tribute' that does not adhere to the western idea of it per se, to set up trading relations.

I was just reminded of the session on Chola trade while reading some texts on the history of China. These are just assumptions that I thought I might as well put up on the blog.

-Sohini Chattopadhyay, B.A 2nd Year, Presidency University.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Interpreting epigraphic sources referring to long-term commerce and mercantile concerns of Chola State

The articles given deal with the discovery , interpretations and propositions made  over the inscriptions found in the vast geographic expanse ranging from south Asia , South-East Asia to as far as China. They refer to the long-term commercial endeavours of the south Indian mercantile people in the early medieval period. The first two articles are authored by N. Karashima and the last one is penned down by Y. Subbarayalu. Karashima’s first article throws light on the readings of the inscriptions found from south India , Sri Lanka and Myanmar whereas the second article lists total seven inscriptions found from South east Asia and  China . Among them one particular inscription of Sumatra in  Indonesia has been thoroughly dealt by Subbarayalu in the last discussible article .As a whole ,  I would like to look at the matter holistically  keeping in mind that the enormous  commercial expansion in India and abroad  received considerable fillip during the heyday of the Chalukyas and Cholas in Karnataka and Tamil nadu respectively. As Karashima considers that his predecessor in the work of the study of the oceanic commerce in the early medieval period , was Meera Abraham who had dealt with only 150 epigraphs mainly concentrating upon two major guilds which are  Manigramam And Ainurruvar .  Later under the leadership of Karashima , The Taisho university project undertook  a thorough research . Their study is  based on the evidence of total 314 inscriptions from south India and abroad .
From the study it is evident that Ainurruvar was undoubtedly the most significant and wide-ranging merchant guild of this period. The term ‘Ainurruvar’ means ‘the five hundred members’ and the very name proves the enormity of the body of both size and extent. It was primarily an organization of Brahmins known as Mahajans or chaturvedins at that time . Karashima postulates that it is still quite unclear that how this body was formed and formulated and there is a debate as well regarding the original place of its growth . However the findings suggest that it  may be originated in Aihole in Karnataka but it first took its grandiose outlook in Tamil nadu . Mysore , which is now in Karnataka became the pivot of their commercial activities when the  Cholas witnessed their  heyday .  Chola conquerors like Rajendra I or Rajadhiraja I occupied those regions including Mysore  .
In this case the study shows a strange factor in this context that the occurrence of the inscriptions in Tamil nadu seemed to decline in Tamil nadu in 11th and 12th century when the Cholas seemed to have been in the zenith of their  power . I would like to emphasize this point in my own way and what I make out is that it is not always possible to equate the flourish of the commercial sector with the heyday of the chief political power in the throne and we should study the non-agrarian sector without the spectacle of the mainstream politics especially when the mercantile class itself emerges as a separate , independent entity in the society and it had its own course of  origin , growth , expansion and decline . Later I would like to emphasize that the imperial government was not necessarily directly involved in the expansion of oceanic commerce of South Indian people .

Again we come to Karashima’s study where he at length  mentioned about the diversity of the contents of the  inscriptions , their common features and their inherent differences .
As far as the contents are concerned , we get varied epigraphic accounts like- some grants mention patronage to  temple-building or a tank-constructing work (s we find in pagan inscription of Myanmar where a reference was made towards a tank named “ nanadesi-vinnagar’ or in pudukottai inscription where the reference is made to “ainiurruvar –pereri’ ) Some inscriptions declare personal charity , lavish donation to a person or to group . Some declare the resolution or consensus among the merchant groups or  a artisans’ body .
 Actually typologically Karashima categorized all there inscriptions into two sorts . the very first sort consists of the records of earlier century  which mention the conferment of the title “eri-virapattinam’ on a certain town by the Ainurruvar guild itself . the term ‘eri-virapattinam’ itself has been a matter of great attention as there are many interpretations of it by several scholars preceding Karashima and his followers . It has been variedly interpreted as mercantile town , fortified mart , market town protected by warriors , emporium connecting nagaram(town) and pattinam (port) . Champakalakshmi ascribes it as ‘privileged town ‘ . But the interpretations of Karashima is somewhat different from them . He finds from Samuttirapatti inscription that the merchants of Ainurruvar conferred the title of eri-virapattinam ‘ to town where they dwelled along with their guardsmen known as ‘virakodiyar’ . These particular Virakodiyar group was warriors with arms and ammunition who protected the merchants from antagonism posed by rivals . They were employed and remunerated by the townsmen . As , in many cases they were referred to as “our son ‘ or the sons of Ainurruvar , its is clear that they gelled pretty well with merchants of the guild. Karashima seems that these warriors must have some connections with the chola army whose composition is still unclear  as He cites  the famous polonnaruva inscription of Ceylon where a Buddhist temple was to be protected by the virakodiyars and this temple was patronized by the merchants living there . The association with the army helped the warrior protectors to augment their power to control the safety and flow of commercial endeavours in south India and Ceylon .

Now , we come another sort of epigraphic sources according to Karashima and it consists of the epigraphs which record the grant to the temples by the income known as Pattana –pagudi in tamilnadu and Dharamyam in Karnataka of the ainurruvar guild itself . The income or pattana-pagudi was made of by commercial transactions . the greatest examples can be found at the inscriptions of Sarkar periyapalaiyam , Piranmalai , Kovilpatti and miraj .
At the end of this article I   conclude that as the 11th century inscriptions are more vocal about the warriors and the later inscriptions speak more of the Tamil merchant , it can be assumed that primarily the control of that state more extant with employment of the class of warrior-protectors called virakodiyar , but later the control of state declined and Tamil merchants became much more independent .

Karashima’s second article focuses on the Tamil inscriptions found from South east Asia and china . Actually , both in South East  Asia and China , Sanskrit inscriptions are found in greater number than the Tamil ones . As the Sanskrit inscriptions mainly dealt with the eulogy of the local political figures , henceforth the Tamil epigraphs have been considered as the core source of information regarding the commercial activities undertaken by the south Indian merchants living there permanently or not . Among such seven inscriptions , chronologically the oldest one datable to 3rd- 4th c. is found at south Thailand . The epigraph shows a presence of a flourishing bead and jewelry industry whose glory was augmented by a colony of Tamil merchants living their and the collaboration resulted great commercial success. The was discovered in 2nd Tamil inscription to reckon was discovered in  Takua pa and this site yielded some art objects resembling Pallava art tradition. From the transcription of that particular inscription we get to know that a tank named “sri avnainaranam ‘ which a title of pallava king narasimhavarman III  of 9th century was constructed under the patronage of merchants probably of  Manigramam. So this is definitely a good evidence to show the acknowledgement by the merchant class to the supervising political power . But whether this acknowledgement was ritualistic or state-ordained is not ascertained beyond doubt .     The 3rd epigraph of Barus in Sumatra in Indonsian Archipelago has been fairly dealt in detail in Subbarayalu in the third discussible article. The epigraph was found in Loboe toewa and it was issued in AD 1088 . A merchant body called “ the five hundred of the thousand directions met at Velapuram in baros and made a grant to two individual and to a group . The inscription refers to saka era and also to a colony of Tamil merchants in Baros who were as much privileged as to designate a old port town of Barus in  Tamilian manner. So , it can be interpreted as the extension of larger coimmerical activities of the Ayyavole-5oo guild within and beyond south India in 11th c.   (Subbarayalu concluded that this guild is found in several coastal towns including isakhapattinam under the heyday of the Cholas ). The two more epigraphs from Thailand are important to reckon . One stone inscription of a Buddhist temple records a grant made by a a rich merchant named Danma senapati to Brahmins . Another inscription sculpted with head of Ganesha conveys a donative deed by important personage named Dipankara for the merit of a local king . Though the donor seemed to be army commander in designation , but he could be rich merchant who praises merit of a local king by donation. In the 13th c.  The next inscription from Pagan in Myanmar is also related to a merchant guild of Nanadesi who patronized the installation of a front hall in a Vishnu temple there , (and also to the installation of a door and a lamp in the temple ). the last inscription of Guangzhou in china dated to 13th c. reveals the endeavour of a tamil merchant named Champanda Perumal by the permission of Chechchai khan installed an image of lord Shiva in a temple named Tirukkanichchuram . We find traces of Hindu Diaspora in Guangzhou in that time and that was made by the commercial colonization of Tamil merchants there.

 Now in the final review it can be suggested that all these Tamil inscriptions found from South east  Asia and china are however quite silent about factor of the political authoritative control over the mercantile class or the vice-versa. Undoubtedly three major guilds grabbed all the attention –viz.Ainurruvar , Manigramam and nanadesi. We hardly get utterances regarding commitments of these overseas merchants or entrepreneurs to the core political authority of their original homeland  which is south India itself . However with scanty and occasional references to the existing ruling head , the merchants were more vocal about their own deeds, endeavors , arena of their network , their charitable mind and so on. I am quite sure that the nitty –gritty of  the south Indian commerce was not directly dictated by the central ofiice . The central office definitely had their motive of gaining control of the prospectful regions in the maritime space and it is extant from their overseas expeditions where they were eager to control the trade-routes leading to China . The merchants in their turn were great in making their own glorious career !  These nonresident south Indian mercantile people nicely managed themselves to settle themselves in alien lands and they  sustained their livelihood of  trade and commerce pretty well . They were able in such a vigour that they were intent to undertake charitable and constructive work in the foreign land as the signs of colonizing alien land in order to expand their domain of activities .Hence they were able to form diasporas in abroad . They took pride upon these endeavors in their proud utterances in the apparently humble declaration of charitable works which are extant in all these inscriptions. 

- Aritri Chakrabarti

Monday, April 18, 2011

New ideas regarding the Medieval History Club

Dear all,

We sure have got to a flying start and the response that the club has received so far has been extremely heartening. I was wondering how we can make the activities of the club more dynamic and interesting and, may be, also a bit more open to people who are not strictly interested in medieval studies, without hampering our own focus on the period.

These are a few points that came up while discussing the issue with some of my friends.

  • Visual sources:
So far we have only focused on literary sources. But we should keep in mind that sources can be visual as well. As such we need to toy with them as well.

1. We could screen ‘medieval films’ (films dealing with plots set in the medieval times, like Elizabeth, Mughal-e Azam, Rashomon etc.) regularly. There is no need to study beforehand for this. We all can just meet, watch a film and then discuss it. It will be spontaneous – how and why we liked the film, how the film creates its own ‘medieval world’, what are the visuals it uses that convinces us, the audience, that we are seeing a ‘medieval’ film etc.

2. We can study paintings. Paintings, as you know, are a major source for writing histories of the medieval times. A painting throws light on the social context of the times, ideologies expressed through it, how paintings, very much like texts, can be used to fabricate events and present them in the particular way that the patron prefers.

3. We can visit archaeological remnants, or when we cannot manage that, we can see architecture through photographs. Photographs of palaces, temples, mosques, mausoleums, forts etc. can help us understand different styles of architecture, various symbolisms in play, how architecture is used to project visions of power and ideology of the patron, among other things.

  • Literary sources:
We will, of course, continue our exercise of reading primary literary sources, as we have been doing in the past two sessions. Here again, we can invite scholars and young researchers who would not only discuss the area under discussion, but also show us how primary texts are read. This exercise we have been able to doin the last two sessions. We can read various types of documents -- political chronicles like AkbarnamaBaburnama, travelogues like the ones we have already read,religiousi texts like Meera Bai’s bhajans or Nizamuddin Auliya’s Fawaid ul-Fuad, among others. It would also be great if specialists would read and discuss in the club sessions selected portions of the texts like these. We could read with them.

There are some basic ways to deal with sources. These are some universal methods that every historian across ancient/medieval/modern has to learn. Hence workshops of reading visual and literary sources in the above way need not be confined to those specifically interested in the medieval. Thereby we can address a general audience, without losing focus of our medievalist concerns.

  • Finally, the format has to be closely-seated discussion-centric, as in the first three sessions, and not the classroom format, which circumstances pushed us into in the last session.

Please let us know what you think of the above proposals. If you have any suggestions/criticisms, please share them with us.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Chola Expansion in the broader context of trading activities.

I was mainly reading two articles by Hermann Kulke and Tansen Sen and this is a brief understanding of their views, based on their perception as understood from the two articles.

One must broaden the horizon and include the greater geography of south and eastern asia and even the west to understand the Chola maritime expeditions, instead of focusing solely on the south asian peninsula. We need to keep three points in mind while trying to understand the contemporary relations: a potent trading system under Song China, a strategic location of Sri Vijaya and a commercially expanding Chola empire. Tansen Sen views the conflict between Sri Vijaya and Chola as intense competition to access the viable markets in Song China.

One thing must be kept in mind as Hermann Kulke pointed out that Rajendra’s expedition was a unique case in point because otherwise the relation between the peninsula and south east asia was peaceful. Several causes have been put forward ranging from digvijaya to looting and plundering to removing sri vijaya as a hurdle towards commercial expansion, or may be all of them worked at some levels.
The possibilities of a trade war cannot be ridiculed because of sri vijayan diplomatic attempts to stall chola trade with the song market. This is evident in a chinese document from sri vijaya that gives the false data that the cholas were under Sri Vijayan suzereinty.

Hermann Kulke identifies the three major dynasties rising in the 10th century and of major concerns in this context as the Fatimid in Egypt, Cholas, and Song in China. Trade with the gulf and malabar is recorded in documents of Jewish traders of Cairo and Aden. The kingdom of Angkor too extended frontiers dominating part of Laos and Thailand and northern part of Malay Peninsula. The attack of Chola on Sri Vijaya has to be thus seen on the broader context of rise of new powers, shifting trade routes on which all these powers wanted to capitalise upon, and a struggle for market share.
The redifinition of trade routes and growing importance of new states that affected the dynamics of trading networks in south and east asia is evident from various facts: A chinese account suggests the growing military and piracy skills of the Sri Vijaya. Regarding india and china, hermann Kulke suggests that though the former was still the holy land, the latter was arguably the middle kingdom to be reckoned with and most kingdoms tried to win it’s favour by sending tributary missions. Its importance in chinese trade is evident from the meticulous recording of the chinese on tributaries and gifts. The reunification of china under the song dynasty further added to its importance.

Diplomatic relations of Sri Vijaya with the Chola state is evident too, like in the Leiden grant of 1005 where Rajendra granted the revenue of a village to maintain the Buddhist shrine constructed by the Sailendra king at Negapattinam. Initially during the trade rivalry both the states tried to maintain friendly relations. That the conflicts need to be seen from a larger picture is evident from the fact that Sri Vijaya had conflict with Angkor too, though sources are scarce on this.

Kulke has tried to bring in the role of guilds in trying to influence chola court to eliminate trading rivalry in Sri Vijaya. However the chola kings always tried to maintain a diplomatic relation with the south east and east asian powers. Kulottunga tried to do so, and consecrated them also with rituo- political missions.

The decline of cholas didn’t necessarily mean a decline of eastern trade. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries show heightened functioning of Ayavvole and Manigramam merchants in south india and ceylon. In the 13th century there’s evidence of large presence of south indian merchants in china. Muslim rule brought the subcontinent into the fold of international muslim trade in the indian ocean.

-Sohini Chattopadhyay (Dept. of History, Second Year, Presidency University, Kolkata)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A New Taxonomy for the Chola State: Contemplating a Shift from the Agrarian to the Non-Agrarian

As the concept note of the session suggests, the period in question i.e. 600-1300 c.e., witnessed significant political shifts and is marked by the absence of a “centralized” empire congruent to the size and nature of that of the Mauryas.

Hermann Kulke in his introduction to “The State in India 1000-1700”- says that the study of the state in India have been one of the most controversial issues of contemporary Indian historiography. The various opposing and agreeing concepts that have emerged to define the Indian state could be divided into some major groups- 1.Oriental despotism related to the Marxian notion of Asiatic mode of production later used by Karl Wittfogel in his theory of hydraulic bureaucracy where put schematically the state represented by the despot laid supreme and central claim on the agrarian resources; 2. Indian nationalist historiographical model of a unitary, centrally organized empire; 3. The Indian feudalism model of a decentralized and fragmented feudal state that presupposes the existence of an earlier strong state, weakened by the feudalization; 4. The segmentary state model which provides for the condition of transition to a strong state from a multicentred structure.
The central concern of all the mentioned concepts -is the degree of central authority of the state, but the central concern for any conceptual formulation regarding the nature of a polity could not be limited by the concern with aspects of stability in its power structure, the aspects of resource mobilization demanded equal attention, which as B.D. Chattopadhyay says, “logically, cannot be separated from the process of the redistribution of resources to integrative elements within the state structure.”[i]

The apparently disparate approaches- from the Asiatic mode of production to the Indian nationalist model that stressed on the overarching centrality of the state power on the one hand and the feudal and the segmentary state approaches that laid stress on the decentralized nature of the state on the other hand, had a commonality in their emphasis on the aspects of resource mobilization in terms of the agrarian revenue. The nature and scale of appropriation of agrarian revenue and the degree of control on the chief means of production, i.e. the land, the peasantry and the irrigation water made the basis for the classification into centralized and decentralized state structures.

It has been considered that the historiography of the state in “early medieval” South India received a new turn with Burton Stein’s propagation of the model of ‘Segmentary state’- inspired by the 1956 anthropological study of Allur society in Africa by A.W. Southall. B. Subbarao in 1958 distinguished certain segments in the structure of the polity- 1) areas of attraction, 2) areas of relative isolation and 3) tribal areas or areas of isolation. Stein in 1969 elaborated the concept of nuclear areas of corporate institutions, the core components being the Brahmadeya or the Brahman controlled villages and the Perinayadu or Satsudra settlements, situated mainly in the fertile areas of drainage basins of the major rivers and coastal districts of Corromondal coast- having rich agrarian economy. They had highly autonomous and self governing institutions and maintained ‘some relations’ with the Chola rulers in the forms of providing tributes and participating in the plundering expeditions. Stein says that despite considerable revenue earning came from the agrarian sector in the areas around Tanjore, the major royal income came from the looting expedition.[ii] Therefore for him yet again-somehow correlated to the degree of control on the land revenue resources, the Chola state was invariably a multicentred state.

Critics of Stein like Subbarayalu or James Heitzmann have stressed on the fallacies of treating the entire Chola rule as a single historical unit and for applying the segmentary concept for the whole period. Subbarayalu suggests the segmentary idea can be applied only for the phase up to 985 c.e. James Heitzmann in his 1987 article “State formation in South India 850-1280”[iii] elaborated on the line of Subbarayalu and his scale for classifying the nature of the polity were, “the relationship of state institutions with local and intermediate areas of power and their ultimate relationship with forms of production and control of resources in an agrarian world.”[iv] The core political geographical areas of Heitzman’s work were:
a) Kumbakonam taluk- near the capital always under direct control of the Chola kings. The economy was based on rice production with elaborate artificial irrigation system dependent on the Kaveri and its effluents.

b) Tiruchirapalli taluk on southern banks of kaveri with elaborate riverine irrigation and rich rice producing economy.

c) Tirrruturaippundi taluk situated near ocean facing to the south east. He calls this a ‘political backwater’ integrated within Chola Empire but having no impact on political affairs.

d) Tirukkoyilur taluk-a poorly waterd land area with tank irrigation and having a mixed economy of some agricultural production and animal husbandry.

e) Pudukottai- a dry cultivation area with some man made lake irrigation.

Heitzmann classifies the first two areas as central political areas, the third as intermediate and the last two as peripheral. Suggesting in his methodology of analyzing the ‘progressive move from segmentary to a more centralized state’- the control on agrarian resources was the deciding factor.

In such schema of analysis that operates on a given ontological position of the central importance of the agrarian resources in classifying a state, mercantilism sustains only as a marginalized concept and naval expeditions as in George Spencer’s 1976 article churns no explanation other than that of an arbitrary act of plunder, which if we recall-according to Stein was perhaps the main source of royal income.

However for being the chief source of income the plundering acts do not remain arbitrary anymore, they acquire an urge of systemization. The earlier explanation therefore needs to be reviewed.

An alternative approach was suggested by B.D. Chattopadhyay in the presidential address of the 1983 session of the Indian History Congress. He proposed that the segmentary state approach tends to relegate different foci of power to the periphery and does not really see them as components of the state structure. This allows us only to see the politics of plunder and not the state which acts for the integration and control of the growing networks of trade and exchange that could diversify and expand its resource bases enormously and also redefine the given role of the peripheral regions like that of Tirruturaippundi.
The alternative epistemological approach thus proposed and the emerging works identifying the importance of the contribution of the non-agrarian sector of the economy to the making of the state, like Champakalashmi, B.D. Chattopadhyay VK Jain have led to the turn of conceptualizing the importance of maritime commerce in the making of state and society in South India (Karashima, Subbarayalu, Kulke, Prof. Ranabir Chakrabarty).
This has prompted redefinitions for the acts of maritime violence from arbitrary plunders to an act of manipulating control on the oceanic trade, where as Neil Streensgard says the use of violence would be subordinated to the rational pursuit of profit. James Tracy[v] in this mode of analysis suggests-the great invasion of Srivijaya by the Cholas in 1025 was not directed by impulses of unrestrained violence and arbitrary loot but coordinated by concerns of trading monopoly with the Chinese empire which preferred dealing with a single power in a given region and the act of the Cholas have been explained by Tracy as that of a newcomer to the trading activities in the region, reacting to hostilities by show of force just as the European interlopers would do many centuries later.

The rethinking of the given alternatives of resource mobilization therefore not only redefines the acts of a state from plunder to controlled mercantilist concerns but also questions the allotted taxonomies for the nature of the state by rethinking the relation of the Chola centre with its various components that had been considered as peripheral.

[i] Political processes and the structure of polity- B.D. Chattopadhyay (from The State in India 1000-1700 (ed.) Hermann Kulke; Oxford University Press; New Delhi 1995.) p. 225.
[ii] Kulke; p.20.
[iii] Kulke; pp. 162-194.
[iv] Kulke; p.163.
[v] The political economy of Merchant empires: State power and world trade 1350-1750- (ed.) James D. Tracy.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Timing and venue of the Fourth Session changed

Due to some technical difficulties, the upcoming Fourth Session of the Medieval History Club has been postponed by two days to Wednesday, 13 April. The session will happen in the Department of Ancient Indian History and Culture, University of Calcutta, 1, Reformatory Street, Alipur, Calcutta - 700027 between 2 pm - 5 pm. For details, please see the link below.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Concept Note of the upcoming fourth session of the Medieval History Club

(9th-13th centuries CE)

Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

The early medieval period in Indian history, usually referring to the phase spanning from c. 600 to 1300 CE, is marked by the presence of a large number of regional, supra-regional and local powers and the invisibility of a paramount power in north or south India (like the Guptas in north India during c. 335-550 CE). There were several formidable political entities both in north and south India, the ‘regional imperial kingdoms’ of Kulke, e.g. the Gurjara Pratiharas, the Palas, the Rashtrakutas, the Chalukyas (both Badami and Kalyani) and the Cholas. Significant shifts in political historiography are noticeable.

If nationalist historiography invariably looked for centralised, expansive empires, thereby negating the possibilities of changes beyond dynastic shifts, Marxist historiography stressed on the traits of decentralized, fragmented polity which itself spoke of some structural changes in political life from the scenario prevailing prior to c. 600 CE. The salient feature of Marxist approach is to identify the institution of landgrants – initially in favour of religious donees, but later to secular donees – as the principal agent of change, bringing in parcellised sovereignty which sought to explain the multiplicity of political powers in the absence of a handful number of centralized, imperial entities. In this perspective, early medieval polity is equated with feudal polity that emerged as a result of the breakdown of centralized polity.

The feudal model, largely constructed by using Puranic and epigraphic data pertaining to north India, was sharply criticized by the model of segmentary state, drawing from the anthropological researches on the east African Alur society and the vast body of Pallava and especially Chola inscriptions. Although the feudal and the segmentary models of polity were mutually critical of each other, there is a commonalty in their approaches. Both the explanatory models emphasized on the rampancy of political disintegration and therefore argued for political crises and ritual sovereignty. Both these positions have received major critiques from ‘non-aligned’ historians who have ably demonstrated the distinct elements of integrative polity. Integrative polity facilitated the emergence of state societies at local and supra-local levels as a result of local formation, developments from within, and not because of external stimuli like the perceived decline of long-distance trade and incursions from without.

Amidst these scholarly debates, which have immensely enriched the study of political history of early India, have also emerged a few points of convergence. The principal and pre-eminent empirical basis of the above formulations has been epigraphic records, including copper plate charters documenting transfer of landed properties. The other common point is the historians’ constructions of the linkages among i) agrarian expansion (particularly in hitherto uninhabited tracts), ii) increasing social stratification through the varna-jati institution, iii) growing popularity of the sectarian Bhakti cults and iv) absorption/ appropriation of ‘tribal’ cults into Brahmanical pantheon. The most significant outcome of the impact of these four factors on society and polity is the spread of the state society, proliferation of monarchical polity, the fading out of non-monarchical political institutions. Historians of the state in early medieval India have routinely explained the emergence of local, supra-local and regional powers in terms of a) agrarian spread that provided the most significant resource base for the monarchies and b) rulers’ affiliations to various sectarian Bhakti cults which offered the most important ideology to the state society.

Significantly enough, a few historians—without minimizing the importance of agriculture as the principal material basis of emergent state societies—have also been alive to the contribution of the non-agrarian sector of the economy to the making of the state. Although the majority of such works relate mostly to the north Indian scenario (e.g. Chattopadhyaya and V.K. Jain), Champakalakshmi, Hall and Abraham have highlighted vibrant artisanal productions, commercial exchanges and urban formations (cf. Chattopadhyaya’s ‘Third Urbanization’) in south Indian experience. Both Champakalakshmi and Abraham took into account the stellar role played by several mercantile organizations in south India. Taking the cue from them, two of the foremost experts on south Indian state and society, viz. Karashima and Subbarayalu, have drawn our attention to the importance of maritime commerce in the making of the state and economy in south India during the early medieval times. Both the historians have so far been primarily focusing on agrarian history and rural society as integral components of south Indian polity. Their principal data base remains inscriptions which are staple sources for political and agrarian history. Yet, by bringing into light and recognition many known and unknown inscriptions, directly related to the numerous mercantile bodies, they have established how south Indian inscriptions offer a wonderful spectacle of commerce and merchants. As the peninsular India opens out to long coastal stretches, it is hardly surprising that they have also given due attention to maritime trade, especially in the Bay of Bengal arena which provides crucial commercial and cultural connections with both mainland and maritime south-east Asia. In this context, the sustained Chola interests in the matters maritime have been revisited by Kulke, Karashima, Subbarayalu and Tansen Sen. That the Chola aggressive and diplomatic designs were not merely manifestations of the digvijaya model, nor symptomatic of the segmentary polity, nor prompted by plunder dynamics, but largely because of their lively interests in and admirable awareness of the Indian Ocean world, now looms large in the current trends of research. At this juncture the Chola maritime expeditions in the Bay of Bengal area require a re-look, which is why this exercise should be undertaken here.

A Select Reading List:

K.A. Nilakantha Sastri, The Colas (esp. chapters on Rajaraja, Rajendra), 1955
K.R. Hall, Trade and Statecraft in the Age of the Cholas, 1980
R. Chamapakalakshmi, Trade, Ideology and Urbanization: South India c. 300 BC—AD 1300, 1996
------ ‘State and Economy: South India, c. AD 400-1200’ in Romila Thapar ed., Recent Perspectives of Early Indian History, 1996
B.D. Chattopadhyaya, The Making of Early Medieval India, 1994
N. Karashima ed., Ancient and Medieval Commerce in the Indian Ocean: Evidence of Inscriptions and Ceramic Sherds. 2002
Meera Abraham, Two Medieval Merchants Guilds in South India, 1988
H. Kulke ed., The State in India 1000-1700 (esp. Introduction and Annotated Bibliography), 1994
H. Kulke and others eds., From Nagapattinam to Suwarnadwipa, 2010
Ranabir Chakravarti ed., Trade in Early India (introduction, annotated bibliography and Champakalakshmi’s article therein), 2005
Ranabir Chakravarti, Exploring Early India, 2010 (especially, ch. VII)
Ronald Inden, Daud Ali and Jonathan Walters, Querying Medieval India, 2003 (particularly Daud Ali’s paper).
Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India (last chapter), 2008
Romila Thapar, Early India from the Origins to c. AD 1300, 2002 (two chapters on south Indian situation during 600-1300)

Photo: King Rajaraja Chola (right) and guru Karuvurar, fresco in Brihadesvara temple, Tamil Nadu, 11th century.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Bits and pieces from a Persian Ambassador's travelogue!

My observations of Abd-ur Razzak's, if I may call it 'voyage' into Hindoostan tends to focus upon the socio-cultural and economic conditions prevailing in the country in the 15th century, and in course of doing this I'll try to bring forth certain points which hints upon Razzak's political purpose in the country.

Abd-ur Razzak happened to be a native of Samarqand, and was entrusted with an embassy by the Persian monarch Mirza Shah Rukh to Calicut. It was during his stay in Calicut that he received an invitation of visiting the great ‘Hindu’ kingdom of south, Vijayanagara or Bidijanagar as he called it. He commenced his journey on 13th of January 1442, which was the first day of the month of Ramazan. Razzak was a devout Muslim and believed the role of creator in every occurrence, and thus the commencement of his journey on that particular day might have been a sign of good omen. He took the route of Kohistan and arrived at Ormuz by mid February. Ormuz was essentially a port & Razzak had produced a graphic description of the bustling commerce of Ormuz. He had the impression that there was no other equivalent port, however after reaching Calicut, this notion of his changed. Razzak found Ormuz inhabited by persons of all religions, even ‘infidels’ in great numbers,and found it rather astonishing of how no injustice was permitted towards any person, irrespective of their religion, and because of this the city was also called ‘Daralaman’ or the ‘abode of security’. This might have been an indicator of the treatment of ‘infidels’ in his part of the world. Also, Lakshmi ma’am had rightly suggested that this might have hinted towards the amount of security provided to merchants of various religions in West Asia.

Razzak despite climatic adversities continued upon his journey and reached Calicut sometimes in around May 1442, and was awed by the thriving commerce around the port. He called it a ‘secure harbour’ and compared it with Ormuz. However, the description of the inhabitants of Calicut made by Razzak portrayed a rather dismal picture. Razzak’s tone hinted upon a racially biased sentiment, as he called the black skinned people neither ‘men nor devils’, who were nearly naked except for a ‘lankoutah’, whereas the Muslims there wore magnificent dresses.

It was from Calicut that Razzak set sail for Vijayanagara, the kingdom whose grandeur awestruck Razzak. He reached the port of Mangalore, which formed the frontier of the kingdom, sometimes in April 1443. He did not fail to describe explicitly a beautiful temple in Mangalore. From there he continued his journey via the land route. In Vijayanagara he saw a place extremely large, densely populated, and having prosperity which dazzled observers, with a king possessing greatness & sovereignty to the highest degree. Razzak’s narrative surprisingly presented a pretty picture of Vijayanagara, despite the kingdom being pre-dominantly occupied by ‘infidels’, and having a ‘Hindu’ monarch at the crown. Razzak’s stay in Vijayanagara was during the reign of Deva Raya II.

Razzak’s narrative described in great detail of the seven lines of fortification, which uniquely enclosed the total agricultural fields, a feature absent in most medieval kingdoms. This was probably a measure against sieges which were very frequent during the period under view. Usually kingdoms opted for large granaries to store food grains during sieges, but it looked like Vijayanagara chose a more expensive and difficult process of protecting its complete agricultural belt instead.

Leaving aside the obvious amount of exaggeration that Razzak’s account might have had, we get a mavellous description of Vijayanaraga’s numerous palaces, shops and bazaars which openly sold precious stones and jewels. According to Razzak, the inhabitants, both of those of exalted rank & of an inferior class wore pearls or rings adorned with precious stones, and the colour of their skin was olive, unlike the blacks of Calicut. We also get a glittering description of the King’s throne, which was of extraordinary size, made of gold, & enriched with precious stones of extreme value. Razzak had also provided a graphic description of the sacred centre of Vijayanagara, consisting of numerous magnificently carved temples, which displayed exquisite works of delicacy and perfection. Abd-ur Razzak had also pointed out that the books of ‘Kalilah’ and ‘Dimna’, were the most beautiful Persian works, depicting stories of a rai (king of Vijayanagara was called a rai) and a Brahmin , and was probably a product of the talent of the literati of the country. These Persian works might have had influenced Razzak’s notion of Vijayanagara and its people.

Razzak had also talked of the political conflict and tension between the Vijayanagara rulers and the Mohammedan rulers of the neighbouring Bahamani kingdom, and the military might of the former, who used a large number of elephants in all their battles. Elephants were also a magnifier of royal authority. He had also given vivid description of the festival of ‘Mahanadi’.

Abd-ur Razzak’s stay in Vijayanagara not only brought out the highs of the kingdom, it also elaborately described the house of prostitution.
The portrayal of the kingdom’s military strength, prosperous economy and territorial expanse, might have been an indicator of the necessity of being in good terms with such a mighty kingdom for the Persian monarch, as Razzak being a diplomat would have had wanted friendly terms with such a potentially, if I may call it, beneficial kingdom. Maybe that’s why despite being a condemner of ‘infidels’ he had described the temples in glowing terms, but one must also not overlook an observer’s objectivity which often takes over his pre-conceived notions, as Razzak had also praised whole-heartedly the beautiful work of craftsmen.
Even many more bits and pieces put together would not suffice Razzak’s elaborate narrative of Hindoostan. However, I’ve tried to encompass my favourite bits here.

Rituparna Das,
Second Year, Presidency University