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

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.