The Indian past outside the prism of religion

August 03, 2022 | 05:50 IST

The Indian past outside the prism of religion

It is interesting to see the history of our country outside the prism of religion. What was called the Hindu period, the Islamic period and the British (Christian) period by James Mill is rightly dismissed by historians today. Historians like Richard Eaton urge us to abandon religion as a trope for seeing history. Studying the spread of Islam in South Asia, he carefully tries to show how deeply pragmatic early Islamic leaders were. In this article, I will present an overview of his study of our past and see what it looks like outside the prism of religion. He says that the first Arab ruler of Sind and by extension of India, Muhammad Bin Qasim considered the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains of the time as dhimmis, which meant people of the book. The people of the book are those who follow the Abrahamic religion. Now this religious status is freely extended to all people under his rule. This meant that the Indians were given equal legal status as his subjects along with the Muslims. Nor did he touch the then Hindu social order which gave the elitist position to the upper castes. Moreover, there was an agricultural enrichment of India in the image of what the Portuguese will do later at this time. Richard Eaton says cotton, lemon, lime, orange and sugar came from the Arab world. If we look at history only through the narrow prism of religion, we will miss this rich history of exchange that occurs under Islamic rule as well as under other colonial rulers. My effort is simply to see the story outside of this narrow religion-centric view.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, we see rulers of Turkish origin beginning to take over India. When they come, they bring a sense of authority found on coins. For them, all authority is hierarchical and flows downward. It stems from God, the Prophet Muhammad, the Caliph, the Sultan and the Sultan’s son. But when the first Turks conquered North India, what we discover is astonishing. The first Turkish ruler Muhammad of Ghur follows the Hindu Shahi coins which were used (long before the arrival of Islamic rulers) between 750 and 850 as models to mint his coins. This decision is significant because Islam does not accept images, but coins of Muhammad of Ghur had a horseman with a bow, as was the case with earlier Hindu coins.

Like the first Arab rulers, Turkish domination has also adapted 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 dynasty name in what appears to be Devanagari script on the other side. Low and behold a Muslim Sultan, Muhammad Ghur minted Goddess Lakshmi and her name in Sanskrit on his coins.

All of this shows us how strict religion is not the main key to understanding our past. This is all the more striking as the same Muhammad of Ghur was minting coins without images for circulation in Afghanistan which was under his rule at the time and the people there were followers of Islam.

The Delhi Sultanate which was founded by Muhammad de Ghur has Qutub Minar (1206-10) to its credit which not only exhibits the Arabic engraved on it but also manifest Devanagari inscribed on it. This monument has not only invocations to Allah but to the protective gods of the Indian craftsmen who built it. It is with the Delhi sultanate that Delhi established itself as the capital of India. It was from this time that all the other dynasties that wanted to rule India were to control Delhi. It is for the same reason, perhaps, that the British also moved their capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911.

If we look at Kerala, it was not colonized by Turkish or Persian Muslims. It was colonized by the Arabs. What is striking is that the architecture of the mosques of Kerala or Malabar is not inspired by the architectural forms that we know in North India. What we have is a local adaptation completely in tune with the local motifs of the time. We can find this beautifully illustrated in the 1510 Mishkal Mosque which appears to mimic the 1400s Madhur Temple in Kasargod, Kerala. The mosques of Bengal also imitate local forms found among Hindu temples. The same is true for Tamil Naidu as well as regions of Orissa.

In 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 politics of accommodation to the next level by marrying their princess Joda. From there, the Mughals genetically become half of the Rajputs

As the generations passed, the Mughals became genetically more Indian or Rajput through marriage with the princesses of 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 prism of religion. At a time when religion has become a site of all things “Indian”, it is important to see India outside of this lens as it has the power to open our minds and help us build the harmony and peace because religion has unfortunately become a marker. of violence and conflict. We in Goa are also challenged to see our past outside the framework of Goa Dourada (Golden Goa, the Rome of the East) as well as Konkan Kashi. Perhaps we need to see history from the people’s point of view and embrace what we can call Goa Rustica, which can allow us to squeeze in the religious connotations of Goa Indica.

(Father Victor Ferrao is a

independent researcher attached to Saint Francis

St. Xavier’s Church, Borim)


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