How Central Asia’s links with India fostered a culture that celebrated difference

Historian Farhat Hasan explains why rightwing historians are conflicted about acknowledging the Muslim rulers who came to India from Central Asia.

Professor Farhat Hasan teaches medieval and early modern Indian history at Delhi University. He spoke to about how Muslim rulers who came from Central Asia shaped India’s culture and why Mahmud of Ghazni, billed as the destroyer of the Somnath Temple, didn’t care much about his religious identity.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is travelling to the five -stans of Central Asia this week. The RSS, and historians owing allegiance to it, often portray Central Asia as the region from where “Muslim barbarians” came to conquer India. What are the reasons for such a portrayal? Is it realistic?

It is an absurd portrayal. Central Asia is an extremely composite mixture and has an extremely inclusive history. It was engaged with a large number of cultural traditions including Indian, Chinese, Islamic and Sasanic. Central Asia was actually shaped by incorporating a multiplicity of vibrant cultural traditions.

But why are they perceived as barbarian?

This kind of image comes from the control that Mongols had over Central Asia in the 13th century. The occupation of the region by Changez (or Genghis) Khan has led to a kind of historiography from that time that tends to see the Mon-gols as blood-sucking barbarians. This kind of portrayal emerged from the tremendous expansion that they had undertaken in the Asian world in the 13th century.

The important thing to note is that this image of Mongols was created in the Islamic world. This was because Islam had suffered a serious setback because of Changez Khan’s invasion and expansion, inspiring the cultural, literary and intel-lectual traditions in Islam to portray the Mongols as barbarian. Since Mongol inheritance became an important resource that shaped Central Asia, the image of barbarian stuck to its people even after they and the Mongols had converted to Islam.

Apart from invasions, why did Central Asia become a crucible of cultures?

This was because of the Silk Route, which was an important trading line connecting East Asia, including China, not only to Central and West Asia, but all the way to Europe. This was a flourishing trading route which, no doubt, served the purpose of commerce. But not just commodities, but cultural and civilisational viewpoints were also exchanged.

Didn’t this region also see a high degree of migration?

India was one of the important beneficiaries of the migration from Central Asia.

Beneficiary? That’s not the word the RSS would use.

One of the developments arising from the Mongol invasion and Changez Khan’s massacre in the Islamic world was that intellectuals, poets, merchants and political elites migrated to India in huge numbers. This gave India an important place in the cultural world of that time.

Didn’t this happen when the Delhi Sultanate had already been established in India?

The exchange of people, cultures and ideas between India and Central Asia has been going on for centuries. It was there before the Sultanate came into existence, continued under it and the Mughals; thereafter as well. But the invasion of Central Asia by the Mongols led to the active cultural class coming into India, leading to a cultural renaissance here.

Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad Ghuri and Babur were of Turkish origin, but they came to India after establishing their principalities in Afghanistan. They were also Persianised. What would be their identity then – Turk, Persian, Muslim?

Obviously, they were Turks, but who had been culturally Persianised. In terms of their cultural aspirations, they wrote in Persian, they were fascinated by Persian poets and recited Persian verses. As far as their religious identity is con-cerned, none of them was actually concerned about his religious identity.

Why do you say that? It is just the opposite of what is popularly believed.

Let us take Mahmud of Ghazni, who is trumpeted as one of the icons of Islamic identity, for destroying temples and spreading Islam. Yes, he destroyed the Somnath Temple, but he also has the ignominy of destroying mosques. On the way to Somnath, for instance, he destroyed a mosque in Mansura in Afghanistan. The city of Mansura, a Muslim set-tlement, was sacked. Religious identity didn’t matter to him much. His favourite general was a Hindu; his name was Tilak.

He is also said to have minted coins that…

He minted coins in Kabul and other places on which you find not only kalma [Arabic phrases professing faith in Islam] but also Hindu icons. It is only in the theological literature that emerged much later that we find Mahmud of Ghazni constructed and felicitated as an icon of Islam – that he spread Islam and destroyed temples.

But Mahmud of Ghazni had other motives for invading Somnath. One obvious reason was material – temples then were huge reserves of wealth. Somnath was also crucially tied up with the lucrative horse trade, which he wanted to capture and control. The portrayal of Mahmud as an intolerant Muslim invader who destroyed temples for religious reasons is a latter-day construct. On the other hand, Sanskrit and Jain texts of the time are totally silent about Mahmud’s raids.

Why is it that these texts don’t mention the raids, more so as these were supposed to have traumatised Hindus?

The idea that Mahmud’s raids traumatised Hindus is, again, a modern construct. In the consciousness of the time, tem-ple destructions were means of articulating the successes of imperial conquests. It wasn’t just Mahmud of Ghazni who was destroying the temples. All Indian powers were doing it – the Chalukyas, the Pandayas, the Cholas.

They had this tradition of invading the regions, conquering their temples and, at times, razing the deities or taking them away to their own place. This was the standard practice, because the temple was identified with imperial authority. There was a political connotation to temples, which explains many of these acts of destruction. This was how the contemporaries saw the invasion of Somnath and the destruction of its temple.

Secondly, as Romila Thapar has pointed out, Somnath was an extremely insignificant place of worship. The idea that Somnath was an important place of pilgrimage is a modern construct. It was, in fact, a very minor and a relatively in-significant temple.

But wasn’t it supposed to possess an astonishing reservoir of wealth? I have read tracts claiming that when Mahmud of Ghazni smote the idol or the image in the Somnath Temple with a mace, rubies and pearls tumbled out.

These are all later constructions. Two things happened in modern historiography. One was the insistent need to present this event at Somnath as a manifestation of the perpetual conflict between two religious communities. The second ten-dency was to deny religious overtones altogether – that is, to see it as emerging from the pursuit of plunder and pillage. And though state-formations did depend on plunder and pillage in medieval times, so far as the event of Somnath goes, there was more than one reason, one of which was tied up to Mahmud’s need to control the horse trade route.

If the Somnath Temple isn’t mentioned in Sanskrit texts, what does that imply?

First, it implies that the thesis of trauma that we argue today was certainly absent then. The destruction of Somnath was mentioned 80 years after the event, in a Jain text – that too, without any sense of trauma. It was as if it was like any other destruction that accompanied conquests.

Historian Romila Thapar says that the earliest claim that the Somnath raid resulted in something akin to a trauma for the Hindus was made not in India but in Britain, during a debate in the House of Commons in 1843.

We need to be clear about the meaning of the destruction of a place of worship in the medieval period. Temples were aligned with the state, and, it is for this reason that a successful conquest was followed by the destruction of the temple or the presiding deity of the defeated ruler. Temple destruction, as a means of vindicating a victory, was adopted by both the Indic and Islamic rulers. The destruction of the Somnath temple by Mahmud was also viewed in the period as a political act; it was not seen as an instance of religious iconoclasm, nor is there any evidence to suggest that it generated any feeling of grief and trauma among the people in the region. This is evident from the indifferent treatment of the event in the contemporary and later Sanskrit sources.

It was only in the colonial period that we find a sustained effort on the part of the state, ably supported by indigenous communal forces, to reinterpret the event in blatantly communal colours, as an instance of Muslim intolerance, as a ‘wrong’ that needed to be set ‘right’.

Right-wing historians have no problems acknowledging and appreciating India’s Central Asia link in pre-Islamic days. Why are they so conflicted about Muslim rulers who came from there?

The main problem with right-wing history on both sides [Hindu and Muslim] is a conceptual one. They see the primary line of fracture in Indian history to be religion and ignore the complexities that defined the richness of socio-cultural life in India’s past. Right-wing statesmen and scholars believe that religion was, and continues to be, the primary marker of identity in pre-colonial India, and ignore the role of caste, community and regions in shaping identities in the medieval period. Within this perspective then Muslims become foreigners, for they do not share the Indic faith, even as they share the Indic culture, and as foreigners, they had little to contribute to the Indian civilisation. If anything, they were a source of all that turned out wrong in the history of India: religious conflicts, caste oppression, oppression of women, etc., and for all these disturbing features in our heritage, the blame could squarely be placed on the Muslim rulers. Minus the Muslims, Indian civilisation was a blissful paradise.

What were the predominant influences of Central Asian Turks on India?

One is that the range of cultural diversity in India is certainly a result of its long period of historical interaction with Central Asia. Part of this engagement has led in India to a culture that appreciates difference; not just tolerates, but appreciates and loves it, that sees difference as the core of civilisation. Instead of the view of civilisation as insular, we have a strong element in our culture that promotes diversity and richness [of cultural differences].

Then the political process that was initiated, particularly by the Mughals, under the principles of sulh-e-kul, for exam-ple, arguing that the state cannot and should not discriminate against any religion, that the state cannot afford to be partisan in religious matters and that the state is above religious difference – these have been a very crucial resource for India. Akbar and the Mughals’ ideas of kingship and sovereignty were derived hugely from the Turko-Mongol model of kingship, which was very inclusive and composite.

Third, there was also the administrative element – the system of assignment, which became the Mansabdari system of the Mughals.

From this perspective, do you see an inherent irony in Modi touring the five –stans whose ancestors his party loves to deride and whose contributions are barely considered more than traumatic for Hindus?

It certainly is. I tend to see Central Asia and India as part of an inclusive, composite and cosmopolitan culture. In view of that, I find the ideology of the RSS and that of other right-wing forces to be extremely incompatible with that perception. In particular, I don’t think Modi has the vision that tolerates differences or appreciates diversities that marked the cultures of both India and Central Asia.

Why is Babur celebrated as a hero in Uzbekistan?

I can see why he is a hero there. We don’t know Babur very much in India. In the dominant secular historiography that has developed in India, it is Akbar who takes the privileged place. But Babur was also an extremely interesting perso-nality. He wrote a diwan (a collection of poems), was very poetic, very observant of Indian culture, wrote pages after pages of description of Hindustan. He wasn’t just a warrior. There is a tendency to see him as a conqueror who estab-lished the Mughal empire in India.

Babur’s personality had a charming human dimension. For example, in his memoirs, Babur says he was attracted to women. There was this lady who came to meet him – I don’t remember her name – and Babur says he went barefoot to receive her. Such expression of emotions was missing in Akbar, who was a stern, emotionless personality. Babur was fond of wild parties with his friends, of opium parties. There was an element of tribal humanism in him, an element of aesthetics, and his diwan reflects his poetic sensibilities.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.

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