‘India in the Persianate Age’ review: The syncretic age of Persia in India

A historian questions the notion of seeing the vibrant and diverse culture of the subcontinent between 1000 and 1765 through a religious lens

December 14, 2019 05:03 pm | Updated 05:03 pm IST

Richard Eaton, who teaches history at Arizona University, argues that India was never a self-contained stagnant civilisation as is often believed but one that evolved over centuries of intense engagement with other peoples and cultures. Starting from the conquest of Mahmud Ghazni to the exploits of Nadir Shah, Eaton reconstructs the most compelling but consequential historical accounts, from 1000 to 1765, which produced a hybridised composite civilisation that has sustained its distinct identity.

India in the Persianate Age defines these seven centuries as an epic period of engagement with other regions, especially the Persian, which had contributed to producing a rather harmonious society. It was the British who reduced it to the Hindu-Muslim binary, thereby inflicting a deep divide that has continued to dominate the socio-political discourse ever since.

In his brilliant exposition spanning the prolonged medieval period in history, Eaton questions the convention of seeing a diverse and vibrant culture through a religious lens. “Imagining geographical spaces through religion limits our understanding by imposing and justifying an ideology at the cost of ignoring its inherent richness.” The reading of history in terms of mutually exclusive religions has only helped one form of nationalism, however, at an enormous recurring cost to society. Decoupling history from such an assumption alone can provide an unbiased measure on acceptance of the political authority, notwithstanding a ruler’s own religion, by a socially, linguistically and religiously diverse Indian society.

What the colonial historians read as ‘Muslim conquest’ was indeed a period in history that had consolidated multiple ethnic identities like Rajputs, Marathas and Sikhs, and empowered them to define their terms of collaboration with the then rulers. Far from acknowledging it, the self-serving Anglophone historians sought to paint the entire period as despotic and unjust to lay unilateral claim on pulling India from centuries of so-called Muslim subjugation towards modernity. It is no less than a historical conspiracy to erase that part of history as ‘dark and backward,’ with the sinister aim of justifying the brutal suppression by the British as ‘mild and equitous.’ Curiously, the colonial takeover was not branded as a ‘Christian conquest.’

Challenging the colonial claims on introducing India to modernity, the book provides a comprehensive account of the cultural exchanges between Sanskrit literary traditions and the Persian cosmopolitan outlook that led the Mughals to rationalise their empire by applying the secular outlook to the religious traditions of their subjects. Noticeable is the fact that both Sanskrit and Persian were not the ‘language of place,’ and consequently expanded over much of Asia not by force of arms but by emulation, and without any governing centre. This is a significant take-away from the book which provides a perfect backdrop to medieval India becoming the centre for the patronage of Persian literature and scholarship.

Biryani and a melting pot

What makes Eaton’s assessment of the medieval history distinct and insightful is its treatment of the otherwise illustrious period on its own terms without today’s biases. From architecture to science and from trade to cuisine, the assimilation of the Sanskritic universe with its Persianate counterpart is well evident. The persistence of several Persian words including hukm (God’s command), langar (communal meal) and biryani (flavoured rice cuisine) in everyday usage signifies that it was a neutral language for daily correspondence and literary expression. Covering vast swathes of the Persian influence on the making of India, Eaton pays a fine tribute to the evolution of India as a compassionate civilisation.

Ambitious in its undertaking, India in the Persianate Age has enough to ruffle feathers of today’s nationalists. It is a thick but immensely readable volume that elaborates the long-term process of cultural interaction and assimilation that is reflected in language, literature, attire, science, art, music, governance and warfare. It goes to the rich cultural traditions of India that those who came to conquer it, in the end, were conquered by it.

India in the Persianate Age; Richard M. Eaton, Allen Lane, ₹999.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

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