To understand the wider intellectual-political significance of this theoretically nuanced and methodologically sophisticated study of the Deccan’s past, one has to have recourse to a rather precise and systematic interpretive framework. For this obvious reason, the thematic concerns, the conceptual structure, methodological strategies (including the highly innovative use of technology for fieldwork) and the historically informed comments made by the authors on contemporary debates, could be recognized as the possible reference points for engaging with this book.
This plausible interpretative reframing, in my view, introduces us to the three broad objectives of the study: (a) how to situate regional centers as the relevant vantage points to study the discourse of Deccan’s past? (b) How to re-envisage historic architecture as a source to trace the historical imaginations of the ‘memory communities’, which inherited it, imbibed it and reused it in a number of ways? (c) How to employ the Sanskrit and the Persian literary traditions (instead of Hindu and Muslim encounter) for getting into the conceptual universe of Deccani politics?
The first thematic question is about the histories of Kalyana, Raichur and Warangal —the cities of Deccan Plateau, which the authors call the ‘secondary centers’ for obvious analytical purposes. The book looks at the complexities of this regional politics, especially in relation to the conventional geo-political division of India into ‘Muslim-north’ and ‘Hindu-south’ in pre-British era. To counter this grand narrative of civilizational conflict, the book pays close attention to the locally constituted political meanings of statehood and maps out various levels of conflicts over these secondary centers of the Deccan. In this sense, the study not merely examines the usual unadventurous questions of history—who possessed what, when and how—but also looks at the symbolic appropriations of these centers into the political discourse of the Deccan in the period 1300-1600.
Secondly, the book explores the notion of collective memory in a slightly different way. Instead of tracing the contemporary after lives of architectural remains—old mosques, temples, gateways, region specific public buildings of the Deccan, including the famous Charminar of Hyderabad—the book envisages the historic architecture of the Deccan as a multifaceted source and makes a serious attempt to peel off various layers and shades of the past from it. In other words, the book compels us to envisage the imaginations of the past of what Norman Yoffee calls ‘memory communities’. The authors ask a very pertinent twofold question: ‘How and why did the people of Deccan’s past promote certain elements of their remembered past, while forgetting others? (And)…how can the study of the material evidence of the past, notably monumental architecture, shed light on this question?’ (p. xxii).
Finally, the book problematizes the conventional categories of history writing in South Asia. The authors make a powerful claim that the pre-British Indian history cannot be studied simply by employing ‘Hindu-Muslim’ as explanatory categories. The book looks at the intellectual universes of the Sanskrit and Persian literary traditions and their subsequent reception in the political discourse of the Deccan. The authors pay equal attention to the ways in which these traditions amalgamated and produced a highly elaborated region-specific vocabulary of politics. Underlining this kind of reframing, the authors remind us that they ‘analyze …history in terms of an encounter between civilizations defined by Sanskrit or Persian literary traditions…therefore (their study) seeks to understand how an initially military encounter was transformed over the course of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, ultimately resolving the mutual interpenetration of two civilizational traditions’ (pp. xxii, xxiii).
The book, however, does not undervalue the idea of religion and its intrinsic relationship with particular literary tradition(s). The authors are conscious enough to provide an in-depth discussion on this controversial issue. They suggest that the association of religion with literary tradition is not a linear phenomenon, which could only be understood as Hindu-Sanskrit and Muslim-Persian kind of conformist configuration. As an alternative to this oversimplified explanation, the book evokes Sheldon Pollack’s notion of language ‘cosmopolis’. The authors suggest: ‘what seems to be operating are two models of cosmopolitan culture which, while certainly in dialogue with religious systems, embraced a far wider spectrum of culture than religion alone’ (p. 19). The authors claim that Sanskrit and Persian cosmopolises expanded and flourished and somehow acquired a ‘placeless’ quality. Since these traditions were grounded in a prestige language and literature, the political discourse that evolved out of their mutual interaction produced certain claims about the ‘nature and aesthetics of polity’. The authors argue: ‘while both the Sanskrit and the Persian cosmo-polises critiqued religious traditions, neither was grounded in any specific religion, but rather transcended the claims of any one of them’ (p.20).
This reinterpretation of religion/ language tradition relationship helps the author to provide a much refined explanation of the notion of political belongingness in the period 1300-1600 in the Deccan. The authors note:
India-born Muslims had seen themselves as Indians (Hindiyan), struggling to defend their homeland, Hindustan. Within only several decades of living in the Deccan, however, northern immigrants and their offspring had acquired a distinctly Deccan-centric identity, now seeing the Deccan as their natural home, as opposed to the imperial heartland in north India, which they began to construe as a land of turbulence (fitna) and tyranny (p. 27).
The conceptual framework of the study, we must note, is intrinsically linked to a few equally innovative methodological strategies that are worked out for excavating relevant evidences. The book adopts two very creative techniques to approach its research agenda. First of all it focuses on the mapping of secondary centers. Instead of relying on conventional historical maps, the authors move ahead to produce a map by which the delicateness of a particular historical moment as well as the chagrining frontiers of Deccan’s secondary centers could adequately be traced and shown. For this purpose, an elaborate index is prepared on the basis of the text Gulshan-i-Ibrahimi by Firishta; the historical names of various places and sites identified by Firishta are located in the actual maps using the Geographic Information System Software (ArcGIS); and finally, a few outlined maps are prepared not only to show the fixed boundaries of various Deccan kingdoms, but also to visualize the unstable frontiers. In fact, to show the shifting nature of political boundaries ‘maps are plotted at regular ten year interval throughout the course of the sixteenth century’ (pp. 333-334).
The second methodological strategy adopted by the authors is concerned with ways in which a historic building is transformed into an acceptable historical source. It is important to remember that the treatment of historic architecture as a source of history is certainly not a new phenomenon in south Asian archeological/historical discourse. The conservation policy in India, especially in the postcolonial period, is based on the assumption that historic buildings function as an intrinsic link between the present and the past of the nation. Interestingly, however, the historic buildings are imagined as unchangeable static entities in this schema— the past of the building is seen as a well-settled fact and conservation is recognized as a tool to reenact this frozen past in the present. Recognizing such problems associated with conventional modes of historical research, the authors of the book introduce us to an interesting methodological tool to study historic sites namely the ‘building archeology’. According to them:
Building archeology focuses more on those casual chains that unfold after the moment of initial creation. The building archeology will typically investigate how the physical fabric of the building has changed over its lifetime, and how these changes can point to new patterns of use, new modes of understanding the building, and new communities that have used it… In practical terms, building archeology relies heavily on the analysis of discontinuities in material, constructional techniques, and style to reveal a structure’s different ‘strategic units (p. 346).
While employing building archeology to study monumental architecture as a source, the authors remind us that this methodological innovation should not be seen as a denial of the established architectural/art history discourse. They suggest that, ‘a sound knowledge of architectural history is a pre-requisite for success in any building archeology investigation, for the two disciplinary approaches are closely related and often complement one and other in their respective findings’ (p. 346). In any case, the building archeology helps the authors to place ‘the hanging character of the building within its proper chronological context’ and allows them to pose certain higher order questions relating to the changes in building use, understanding, and social context (p. 347).
In my view, the study makes two very broad comments, which emerge directly from its findings and arguments. The first comment is about the naming, categorization and placing of architectural heritage in the existing intellectual-political discourse of Indian history. The study, though rather implicitly, questions the dominant political binary of Hindu-inner/Muslim-outer, which is often evoked to make sense of the essential Islamic character of those buildings, which are associated with Muslim rulers. The discussion on the city design of Hyderabad, especially on the structural configuration of Charminar is very relevant to elaborate this point.
The authors, it seems, are not fully satisfied with the view that the Charminar could simply be described as a gateway of an ‘Islamic city’. Although they do recognize the fact that the Charminar’s appearance—wide central arches and flanking minar towers etc., might be seen as a gateway, its inner construction does not entirely correspond to the given historical meanings of this structure. For them, even the existence of a mosque inside Charminar does not adequately elucidate the given ‘purely Islamic’ character of this building. The authors argue that ‘the building as a whole is clearly neither a mosque, nor simply a grand platform for a mosque’ (p. 223).
This seemingly serious disagreement on Charminar and its architectural character is further probed. The authors do not get into the ‘structural unity of Islamic architectural’ kind of argument; instead they try to locate the Charminar into the realm of the region-specific public buildings. This slight change of gaze helps them to find out the Chaubara—a form of public architecture which evolved in the 13th century Deccan—as an identifiable source that could have inspired the builders of Charminar. The authors note:
The Charminar appears to belong to a well-defined type of Deccani monument, the chaubara or ‘four-fold house’ which is often found at the center of medieval Deccani cities marking the intersection of four cardinal avenues. These chaubaras vary significantly in their design, even while they are identical with respect to their situation and the idea of ‘quartering’ referenced through their names (p. 224).
It is important to clarify here that the authors do not underestimate the influences of Islamic values that expressed rather symbolically in the overall construction of the Charminar. For them, however, the Islamic elements of the Charminar are intrinsically linked to the locally constituted political forms of public buildings that emerged out from the amalgamation of Sanskrit and Persian literary-political traditions in the Deccan. In this sense, the binary of Hindu-inner/Muslim-outer turn out to be rather misleading. In fact, one finds an interesting double movement—the apparent regionali-zation of religious-philosophical ideals and ideas in the Deccan and a simultaneous production of a synchronized region-specific political discourse.
The study also makes a rigorously worked out historical comment on the desecration of Hindu temples debate. This nuanced observation, we must note, should also be seen as an extension of Richard Eaton’s earlier work on the attitude of Muslim rulers towards Hindu temples in pre-British India. Evoking the ‘building archaeology’ technique, the authors trace the multiple responses of rulers—both Muslims and non-Muslims—towards the built environment of the territories they won in the Deccan. They ask: ‘In any given zone of armed conflict, what did victors do with the built landscape of defeated regimes and why? In particular, how did they deal with architectural monuments most closely associated with such regimes?’ (p. 40). This creative re-articulation of the temple-destruction debate makes it possible for the authors to systematically organize a range of reactions of rulers.
Five kinds of responses to the buildings, particularly the religious structures, are outlined in the book. The non-intervention in the built environment was the most common response. The rulers, including the Muslim Sultans, who attacked Deccan from the north, did not show any interest in those temples, which were politically irrelevant and posed no threat to the stability of the new ruling regime. The evasive and non-interfering attitude of Delhi sultans to the thousand pillar temple of Hanamkonda near Warangal is shown as a revealing example in this regard. There was also another, and in fact active, form of non-intervention in relation to temples. The Muslim rulers not merely ignored the temple-buildings completely but also intervened to restore the religious activities in some of them. Mohammad Bin Tughlak’s support to a Shiva temple near Kalyan for restoring regular worship underlines this different kind of patronage.
The complete demolition of temples for certain political purposes might be the most apparent reflection of a direct intervention in the built environment. The Muslim rulers desecrated those temples, which were either supported by the rival ruling regimes or had a much higher symbolic-political significance. Interestingly, this rather aggressive interventionist response to built landscape, the authors suggest, did not entirely relate to Muslim rulers. The demolition of the main temple of defeated ruling power (along with other places and buildings) was a symbolic act which was essentially linked to the accepted political norms and conventions of 13th century Deccan. The authors cite a Chalukya text, Manasollasa, attributed to Someshvara III, in this regard, which says:
The enemy’s capital city should be burned—the palace of the king, beautiful buildings, palaces of princes, ministers and high ranking officers, temples, streets with shops, horse, and elephant stables (p.39).
Redefinition of the entire building with slight modification was the fourth most significant form of engagement with temples. In this case, the new regime did not intervene in the overall structure of the temple building; however, the functional space of the built form was radically redefined to accommodate new publics. The authors discuss the Deval Masjid in Bodhan, where the sanctum of a Kakatiya temple was slightly modified and converted into a mehrab of a mosque.
Finally, the reassemblage or regrouping of architectural remains was the most interesting and somehow the most extreme response to temples in the Deccan. Here, the old structure was completely demolished but the material obtained during this demolition drive was reused for constructing a completely different built form. The authors look at a few structures—the mosques at Devagiri, Bijapur, Warangal, Sholapur, and Manvi—which were built primarily by utilizing the recycled temple elements.
These five possible responses, authors remind us, underline the fact that the demolition of temples cannot be reduced to ‘religious zeal’ of any particular community/ruler. Rather, it shows a range of possibilities—non intervention, patronage, demolition, redefinition, re-assemblage—for rulers who somehow followed the established precedents and contextual wisdom. The authors note, ‘wishing to assert their own claims to possessing the land… the new rulers actually faced a range of options. They might continue to patronize pre-existing structures in the manner their defeated rivals had done. They might rebuild them. They might redefine them. They might imitate them. They might destroy them. Or, they might ignore them altogether’ (p. 40).
The conclusions drawn by the authors cannot completely be confined to academic debates—primarily because the sources, methodologies, re-interpretations and arguments presented in the book go beyond the conventional categories of ‘revisionist history’. Of course, there is an element of revision in a purely intellectual sense; the book undoubtedly responds to the public debates on India’s past. Although the authors rely heavily on their sources/evidences for drawing conclusions (and precisely for this reason, are able to avoid sweeping generalizations!), one also finds an implicit unease with the communal/secularism binary that is often evoked to study India’s past. This carefulness, I argue, must not be seen as rigid neutrality; rather, it represents an intellectual politics of a different kind.
Hilal Ahmed is Assistant Professor with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.