Indian Past outside the Lens of Religion

It is interesting to see the history of our country outside the lens of religion. What has been classified as the Hindu period, Islamic period and British period by James Mill is rightly rejected by historians in our days. Historians like Richard Eaton urge us to abandon religion as a trope to view history. Studying the spread of Islam in South Asia, he carefully labours to show how the earlier Islamic rulers were profoundly pragmatic. In this study, I shall present a survey of his study of our past and see how it looks outside a lens of religion. He says that the first Arabic ruler of Sind and by extension India, Muhammad Bin Qasim looked at the then Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as dhimmis which meant people of the book. It meant Indians were given equal juridical status as his subjects along with the Muslims. He also did not touch the then Hindu social order that gave the elitist position to the upper castes. Besides, there was an agricultural enrichment of India just like what the Portuguese will do later during that time. Richard Eaten says that cotton, lemon, lime, orange and sugar came from the Arabic world.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, we find that the rulers of Turkish begin to take control over India. When they come they bring a sense of authority that one finds minted on coins. Authority is hierarchical and flows downward. It flows from God, prophet Muhammad, Caliph, Sultan and the son of Sultan. But when the first Turks conquered North India what we find is astonishing. The first Turkish ruler Muhammad of Ghur follows the Hindu Shahi coins that came (much before the coming of Islamic rulers) between 750-850 as models to mint his coins. This move is significant because Islam does not accept images but the coins of Muhammad of Ghur had a horseman with a bow as was the case with the earlier Hindu coins. Like the earlier Arabic rulers, Turkish rule also accommodated to the reality of our country. What is even more surprising is that Mohammad of Ghur also imitated the coins of Chauhan Rajputs of Ajmer (1110 -20) which had Goddess Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth on one side of the coin with the name of the dynasty in what appears to be Devanagari script on the other side. Low and behold a Muslim Sultan, Muhammad Ghur minted Goddess Lakshmi and his name in Sanskrit on his coins. All this tells us how religion is not the chief rubicon to understanding the past. This is even more striking because the same Muhammad of Ghur minted coins without images for circulation in Afghanistan which was under his rule at that time.

The Delhi sultanate which was founded by Muhammad of Ghur has Qutub Minar (1206-10) to its credit which does not just exhibit Arabic on it but also manifests as Devanagari inscribed on it. This monument does not just have invocations to Allah but to the patron Gods of the Indian craftsmen who built it. It is with the Delhi sultanate, that Delhi emerges as the capital of India. It is from that time all other dynasties that want to rule India had to control Delhi. It is for the same reason, maybe that the British also transferred their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. If we look at Kerala, it was not settled by Turkish or Persian Muslims. It was settled by the Arabs. What is striking is the architecture of mosques in Kerala or Malabar is not modelled on the architectural forms that we are familiar with in North India, what we have is a local adaptation completely in tune with local motifs of that time. We can find this beautifully illustrated in the Mishkal Mosque of 1510 which seems to imitate the Madhur Temple of the 1400s in Kasargod, Kerela. Bengal Mosques also imitate local forms that are found among the Hindu temples there. The same is true of Tamil Naidu as well as areas of Orissa.

1526 Babur established the Mughal Empire. The Mughals had to fight the Rajputs from time to time to protect their empire. Akbar engaged them and took the policy of adaptation to the next level by marring their Princess Joda. From there we have Mughals becoming half Rajputs. As generations moved on Mughals become more Indian or Rajupts through marriage with the princesses from the Rajput princely families. Richard Eaten testifies to this fact in his work. This study reveals what the history of our country would look like if we were to see it outside the lens of religion. At a time when religion has become a site of everything ‘Indian’, it is important to see India outside the lens as it has the power to open our minds and assist us to build harmony and peace as religion has, unfortunately, become a marker of violence and conflict.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao