Ideas and Institutions in Medieval India

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Item Code: NAG062
Author: Radhika Seshan
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9788125051756
Pages: 240
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 350 gm
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Book Description

About the Book

The medieval, in history, not only refers to an age but also to a set of beliefs that governed that age. It is usually seen as an era dominated by 'great' wars, empires, rulers and religion. But that would be only one side of the story. Ideas and Institutions in Medieval India begins with the question 'What is the medieval'? Is it an age or a mentality or both? While the predominant mindset about the medieval in India owes its origins mostly to colonial historiographers, the book goes beyond that prism to examine in considerable detail the changes in the systems of state and society during the medieval period. The author analyses not just the political structures extant in the era but also various aspects like kingship, administration of the state, society, judiciary, economy and the ideas that they were built around. The volume has looked at political philosophers of the time like Farabi, Ghazzali, Barani and others and their concept of a state and contrasted it with the more modern idea of a medieval state. It examines the state of flux in the country with the rise and fall of kings and empires, changes in the nature of trade, and emergence of new classes, castes and centres of power. It also an analyses these changes in the south of India and looks at the trajectory that the region


About the Author


Radhika Seshan is associate professor, department of History, University of Pune.




What is the 'medieval'? Is it an age or a mentality, or both? Is it a mentality associated with an age, or attributed to it? If it is an age, then when did it begin? Equally important, when did it end? Did it end at all? The same question can be asked about mentality also-did a particular kind of mentality emerge with the 'medieval'? Is 'medieval' different from the 'middle ages', or are the two terms synonymous? And finally, if there was a transition into and out of the medieval, what did it involve? All these are questions that are asked, often without getting any conclusive answers, because the answers invariably lead to more questions.


The medieval is generally believed to be both an age and a mentality, i.e., it is believed that there is a characteristic, or a set of characteristic beliefs about certain things, which can be termed 'medieval'. When it is linked to the mindset of the time, the word 'medievalism' is often attached to it, and in itself tends to carry a great many connotations. This belief is both of and in the period that is being talked about. So, there is an understanding that, in the period considered the medieval, there were certain ideas, which, when carried forward into another time, were labelled 'medieval'. It is necessary to understand here that these beliefs are very often about the time, and are not necessarily ones that were prevalent in the time under consideration; after all in the period that we call the medieval, people certainly believed they were living in a modern age. But precisely because the belief is about the age, it becomes more difficult to actually identify the 'medieval'. One therefore, has to look at three distinct, but related themes, for answers. These are historiography, socio-economic structures and political institutions. As stated above, these are inter-related themes, but, to a certain extent, can also be studied separately from each other.


Depending on the audience one is addressing medieval would mean castles, swords, horses and chivalry when one is talking of medieval Europe; and for India, it would probably be the Mughals their pomp, luxury, decadence, architecture, the size of their empire, and almost certainly their religious policies. Included in the last two would have to be warfare. I have divided the ideas about the medieval into three: As such ideas have come to us through historiography, it is necessary to emphasise that it is an important consideration in understanding how time has been divided in history and the hidden connotations of the time that is under discussion and then to begin to define the term 'medieval' through historiography.


The word medieval is of comparatively recent usage. The term used earlier was 'Middle Ages'. It was generally used in the sense of ' in the middle of' ancient and modern. When we use words like ancient and modern, we are also attaching a particular significance or meaning to the age to which these terms are not attributed. This sense of the 'middle age' emerged not in the context of Indian history, but in Western European writings of the Renaissance period. The spirit of enquiry and the emphasis on science and rationality, along with the questioning of the Catholic Church and the renewed interest in classical antiquity or the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome, all led to a new mindset that emphasised the importance of rationality over faith, of questioning over belief, and of nation as the greatest creation of human beings. Any period in which these aspects were not given priority was seen as inferior, and therefore, unworthy of sustained study. These ideas are most visible in the writings of Thomas More, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (in English); Lope De Vega (in Spanish); Desiderius Erasmus and Hugo Grotius (in Latin); and Rene Descartes (in French).


It was in this context that primacy began to be given to the idea of the medieval being dominated by religion, and therefore, an essentially illogical time. In an age where science and rationality were the new gods, belief in a dogmatic, universal faith, based on faith alone" and not on reason, and therefore, incapable of being verified logically and scientifically, was naturally looked down on. This, however, gradually began to change. Over a period of time, the concept of the 'middle age' itself began to give rise to a new and more detached sense of historical time, and therefore of detachment from the period that one was studying. Thus, the study of this middle age itself led to the development (in subsequent times) of the idea of objectivity in history, to be achieved through the distance that existed between oneself and the past that one was studying.


Along with all these questions, there was also a general lack of consensus on the time frame of the medieval. When actually was the period of the medieval? In Western Europe, did the medieval period begin after the decline of Rome, in the Dark Ages, 2 or later, with the Carolingian Empire," or still later, with the re-establishment of the Holy Roman Empire" under Otto," or later still, when feudalism had been firmly established? Linked to this would be another question was the medieval period to be defined in social, political or economic terms? Could/can these be separated? Periodisation is necessarily relative and can never be fixed, but the tendency has always been to search for a fixed starting or ending point; and in history, this has to be a specific date. This is equally true of both medieval Europe and medieval India. So, the starting point for medieval Europe has been variously seen (in addition to those mentioned above) as Alaric's sack of Rome," Constantine's conversion to Christianity, the destruction of Carthage," the shift from Rome to Constantinople," the establishment of the Merovingian monarchy," or the assumption of the title of Holy Roman Emperor by Charlemagne. On the other hand, while the beginning of the medieval age is still fairly nebulous, the date of the end of the period in Europe has been much less debated, for, by what seems to be virtually unanimous consent, it is dated to the fall of Constantinople; though how a single event in a single year can be so drastically transforming is open to question.


It is necessary to repeat that ideas about the medieval began to emerge in the context of the Renaissance," and that an important aspect of such ideas was the role of religion. The latter can perhaps be seen to have two aspects to it. One is that of the role of the Church which was seen as standing in the way of progress, and the other being the presence of Islam. It should be remembered that one of the most important features of the Renaissance was giving primacy to rationality over religion. Under such circumstances, the Church, the controls that it exercised, and the visible corruption in many aspects of its practice were all seen as standing in the way of progress. Islam too was seen as problematic. More importantly it had already been cast as the 'other';'!



The medieval European world had seen the construction of several 'others', the most important of which were Islam and Byzantium. The Christianity of Western Europe, the Christianity of Byzantium and Islam did share a certain common heritage, and in the process of shap illg itself, the first of those listed above did tend to treat the other two as heresies. The Crusades'? were one manifestation of this attitude. There were also many other aspects-e-political, social and economic. But the idea of 'rooting out' heresies undoubtedly played its part. Byzantium" ceased to be a political and economic threat fairly early in the age defined as medieval, in fact in precisely the same period that Islam garnered strength. All of this contributed to the ways in which the 'medieval' was conceptualised in European historiography.



When studying medieval India, one faces all these problems, along with a few more. It is now well known that modern methods of writing history came to India along with colonial rule. In the twentieth century, historiography itself began to be classified into primarily 'colonial' and 'nationalist' and later, 'right-wing', 'subaltern', and 'Marxist' were added to these divisions. Colonial historiography was the first and very often the most dogmatic, even though path-breaking. Colonial administrators including the famous William Jones and the rather less known Colin Mackenzie" contributed substantially to the collection of Indian literary texts which could be used for Indian history writing. But this historiography was also influenced by some of the needs of colonial rule. Colonial historiography became part of the colonial project, and was an important component for justifying colonial rule. It is necessary to remember that like colonialism itself, colonial historiography was always a project-in-process. While this aspect may be taken into account by some, what is more often ignored Is the legacy of both, the ideas about medieval Europe and the immediate pre-colonial past of the colony, and the role of these in shaping mlonial historiography. It is these that I would like to focus on briefly.



In the course of the eighteenth century, the British acquired more possessions and political muscle. At the same time the power of the Mughals was declining. While it is true that the British did not enter into any direct conflict with the Mughals in the eighteenth century, it is equally true that the Mughal Empire had by now begun to be accepted as the dispenser of legitimacy. This could be seen in the states that arose with the fragmentation of the Mughal Empire, where almost all the new rulers claimed to be ruling in the name of the Mughal Emperor. Crucial to the basis of British power in India was the grant of the Diwani or the right to collect taxes, which they got by the Treaty of Allahabad in 1765. It is noteworthy that in this, the only treaty signed with the Mughal Emperor, the British designated themselves the 'Company Bahadur', and in the process, staked a claim to a share in the structure of the Empire. Not surprisingly, they then set about denying that legitimacy, to justify their own position and power.


Some of the writings that became part of colonial historiography need to be seen in this light as well. For example, when rule of law was emphasised as the cornerstone of British policy, and when the judicial structure was revised (in Bengal to start off with), implicit in both the idea and the re-organisation was the belief that, first, British systems 'were intrinsically superior, and second, in the absence of such a system earlier, the British system was revolutionary and therefore change-inducing. The question of the theocratic state will be dealt with later, but what is being emphasised here is that there was, from the beginning, an association of religion with the nature of rule. As the belief in the essentially irrational foundation of religion had already gained wide currency, any state based on religion had necessarily to be condemned on the grounds of irrationality, and of religion being discriminatory. Such beliefs would have added to the prejudice that had begun to gain currency about bloodshed and rapine supposedly being characteristic of Islamic political power in India. The second is a question that has not yet been asked. If religion is the criterion that defines the beginning of a period, should that criterion not be applied to the time when Islam first made its (political) appearance in India? This would mean that the 'Muslim period' would have to be pushed back a few centuries, to the eighth century, CE when the Arabs conquered Sind. Alternatively, it may also be identified as beginning at the time when Islam became much more visible in India, and so, perhaps following Mulla Abdul Qadir Badauni's framework laid down in the sixteenth century, one would have to agree that the Muslim period began with the Ghurid and Ghaznavid invasions. When such ideas became part of colonial historiography, they added to the perception of the essentially political and warlike nature of the Muslim period, which began with conquest and retained throughout the emphasis on warfare.


If the start of the medieval period is problematic, then equally important is the question of when the medieval came to an end. As said earlier, 1757 has traditionally been seen as the end of the medieval and the date when the British began to establish their dominance over India, but what precisely the British gained at this time is rather uncertain. They did interfere in the local politics of a kingdom, and were successful in replacing the existing ruler with one (supposedly) more amenable to their demands. On the other hand, they did not get control over the entire region, nor did they assume any administrative duties. If one must assign a date, then 1765 is much more defensible, for it was then that, with the grant of the Diwani of Bengal, they got the right to collect the revenue of the province. For the English, this marked the beginning of the transformation of the company itself, for they now actually began to rule the country rather than just conduct commercial activities.


From the point of view of the Mughal Empire, this was the first time that control over a province had gone to a group that was not indigenous; more importantly to one that had, not so long ago, been supplicants rather than the dictator of terms. But the symbolic authority of the Mughals remained till 1857, when the mutinying troops rallied around the ageing and ineffective Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar. The Mughal rule over India officially came to an end only in 1858. Therefore, if the medieval period is to be linked to political rule, especially that of the Mughals, then the medieval came to an end only in 1858, when India passed officially into the hands of the British Crown. Other possible dates for the end of the medieval could be the traditional 1707 (death of Aurangzeb), at which time Mughal power visibly begin to decline, or 1739, when Nadir Shah's invasion made the weakness of the Mughal Empire explicit. Yet another possible date is 1761, the year of the Third Battle of Panipat.


There are other problems about the medieval, which are mainly to do with India's own regional variations. Was the medieval period the same in both north and south India? In some ways the answer would have to be yes, for in both the beginning of the medieval period can be traced to the eighth century or thereabouts. While these centuries saw the emergence of regional kingdoms in the north, the south saw a move to larger and more centralised ones. There are differences even in the sources. The ancient period in north India saw a predominance of epigraphic sources and in the course of the medieval these began to be gradually replaced by literary sources. South India, on the contrary, has an abundance of literary sources for the ancient period (Sangam literature) and a wealth of epigraphic ones in the medieval. Inscriptions in fact, constitute the major source of information for medieval south India.


Some of the questions that have been raised about dates would apply to the south as well. When did the medieval begin in south India? With the Pallava rule which came to an end in the sixth century (approximately 560 CE), with the ascending of Vijayaiaya Chola to the throne in 848 CE, from 907 CE when Chola power began to expand or with the establishment in 1336 of the Vijayanagar Empire? Or do we begin with the coming of new religions into the south: the Vedic or Christianity or Islam? When did the medieval end? In 1505 with the establishment of Portuguese power on the Indian coast, in 1565 with the famous Battle of Rakshas-Tangadi (Talikota), when the combined forces of the Deccani sultans defeated the Vijayanagar Emperor, in the seventeenth century with the end of the Vijayanagar Empire, or in 1687 when with the seizure of the Golconda Sultanate by the Mughals, the independent regional kingdoms of the south finally vanished?


Dates, thus, become a very problematic way of identifying a period. Does this then mean that the periodisation of history is itself meaningless? The answer to this would be in the negative, for while periodisation through dates may not make much sense, there are necessarily some elements of difference between one age and another. Thus, the ancient, medieval and modern periods need to be studied more through ideas and institutions than through dates and political events. Changes in society and economy, forms of exploitation and the nature of access to power change over time. These then form the basis of different periods of history, rather than political events. There is a need to study history as a whole, and in this case, the medieval in particular, from the perspective of ideas and institutions rather than a rigidly structured timeline corresponding only to political events. Institutions are obviously easier to identity than ideas, for the institutions and their functioning would have generated some amount of writing. But in the writings, the ideas. That shaped the functioning of these institutions can also, to some extent be identified. Thus, we have statements about taxes being the wages of sovereignty or of the king being the representative of his age if not the 'reason' of his age. What is unspoken in such phrases are both the reality and the ideal of kingship, as well as a clear understanding of the functions of king and administration. Institutions obviously do not change overnight; but over the period of the medieval one can see changes in the different institutions, and so one would have to look for the ideas that led to both the changes and the continuities. It is these factors which define a period.


I have argued here that while there may not be a clear identification of the medieval as so far outlined, there was undoubtedly a medieval period. The characteristics of this period need to be understood both in the context of time and place and in relation to other periods. All descriptions of an age are necessarily relative and comparative, but each age also has its own defining characteristics. This work is an attempt to understand the medieval, to try and locate it in its own contexts of time and place in India.




List of Maps and Photographs




Introduction: Defining Medieval India



Sources for the study of medieval India



The State



Modern perceptions of the medieval state






Administrative Systems



Society and social change: Social stratification Social Mobility, Religion






The Transition out of the Medieval









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