“The Knowledge Library”

Knowledge for All, without Barriers…

An Initiative by: Kausik Chakraborty.

“The Knowledge Library”

Knowledge for All, without Barriers……….
An Initiative by: Kausik Chakraborty.

The Knowledge Library

OUR PASTS PART – II Ancient India


Al Biruni wrote Kitab ul Hind an account of his travels, He was a Uzbekistani who was captured by Sultan Ghazni and brought to his kingdom. This is where he developed his affection for India. Another traveler Ibn Batuta, of Moroccon descent, also wrote extensively about his journey to India and then China. Each traveler described India from a different view. While the accounts of ibn batuta are that of wonder, the accounts of French traveler Bernier paint a grim picture and give an account of the backwardness compared to Europe.

Sir John Strachey – Author of India (Book)

    • Strachey had spent many years in the subcontinent, ultimately becoming a member of the Governor General’s Council. Now in retirement in England, he set his Indian experience against the background of recent political developments in Europe.
    • He had a theoretical argument to the effect that ‘India’ was merely a label of convenience, a name which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries’.
    • In Strachey’s view, the differences between the countries of Europe were much smaller than those between the ‘countries’ of India. ‘Scotland is more like Spain than Bengal is like Punjab.’ In India, the diversities of race, language, and religion were far greater.
    • Unlike in Europe, these ‘countries’ were not nations; they did not have a distinct political or social identity. This, Strachey told his Cambridge audience, ‘is the first and most essential thing to learn about India – that there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India possessing, according to any European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious.
    • Strachey thought it ‘conceivable that national sympathies may arise in particular Indian countries’, but ‘that they should ever extend to India generally, that men of the Punjab, Bengal, the North-western Provinces, and Madras, should ever feel that they belong to one Indian nation, is impossible.
    • Strachey’s remarks were intended as a historical judgment. At the time, new nations were vigorously identifying themselves within Europe on the basis of a shared language or territory, whereas none of the countries that he knew in India had displayed a comparable national awakening.
    • There were also many others who argued that, unlike France or Germany or Italy, there was here no national essence, no glue to bind the people and take them purposively forward. From this perspective stemmed the claim that it was only British rule that held India and the Indians together.

The most important ‘Stracheyans’ was undoubtedly Winston Churchill. In the 1940s, with Indian independence manifestly round the corner, Churchill grumbled that he had not become the King’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.

After Gandhi’s ‘salt satyagrafra’ of 1930 in protest against taxes on salt, the British government began speaking with Indian nationalists about the possibility of granting the colony dominion status. This was vaguely defined, with no timetable set for its realization. Even so, Churchill called the idea ‘not only fantastic in itself but criminally mischievous in its effects. Since Indians were not fit for self-government, it was necessary to marshal ‘the sober and resolute forces of the British Empire’ to stall any such possibility.

He also claimed that if the British left the subcontinent, then ‘an army of white janissaries, officered if necessary from Germany, will be hired to secure the armed ascendancy of the Hindu’. Three months later, speaking at the Albert Hall on ‘Our Duty to India’ – with his kinsman the Duke of Marlborough presiding – Churchill argued that ‘to abandon India to the rule of the Brahmins [who in his opinion dominated the Congress Party] would be an act of cruel and wicked negligence. If the British left, he predicted, then the entire gamut of public services created by them – the judicial, medical, railway, and public works departments – would perish, and ‘India will fall back quite rapidly through the centuries into the barbarism and privations of the Middle Ages’

Devotional Cults

The 8th century saw an increase in the representation of deities in texts and sculptures. This was attributed to the composition of devotional texts into simple language easily accessible to all and the second reason was brahmans were reworking the social practices and beliefs in these. People started viewing their gods as supreme and this led to conflict between Jains and Buddhists.

Early Bhakti Traditions of South India

The Bhakti movement started with the emergence of poet-saints. While the role of Brahmans in the society was still high these saints started getting their own league of followers. The Bhakti movement had two forms: Nirgun [formless – believed in worshiping an abstract form of god] and Sagun – believed in Deity worship.

The lower castes, women, and categories considered ineligible for upliftment in the Brahmanical order were attracted to the Bhakti movement.

Alvars – Vaishnavaites and Nayanars – Shaivaites were early Bhakti movement leaders who lived in Tamil Nadu and praised their gods by hymns. They recogniZed sacred places for their gods and these became pilgrimage sites. The worship in such temples was done by hymns of the saints.

The members of this movement also belonged to lower castes of the society. Women too were allowed and the leaders criticized the Caste system and dominion of Brahmins.

The Alvars and Nayanars were critical of other religious movements like Jainism and Buddhism.

Virshaiva tradition – Karnataka

Basavanna a Brahman founded this tradition. His followers were called Virshaiva [heroes of Shiva] or Lingayats [ wearers of linga]. Women and marginalized sections were attracted to this movement as it attacked the caste order and approved rituals like post-puberty marriage and widow remarriage.

Bhakti Movement-North India

In North India, the Bhakti movement didn’t develop till the 14th Century even though deities like Shiva and Vishnu were worshiped. This is because of the emergence of Rajputs states. The position occupied by Brahmans in these states was high as they performed ritual and secular functions. No challenge was made to their position directly or indirectly.

However religious groups like Naths, Jogis, and Siddhas emerged that challenged the authority of the Vedas and called for equality amongst all. However, they never gained a position of favor amongst the ruling classes. This situation changed when the Turkish rulers entered and the position of Rajput states and their Brahmans was undermined. The emergence of Sufism played an important role here.

Sufism in North India

Islam emerged in the 8th century in the Middle East and through contacts from trade and conquer by Generals reached the Northwest region of the Indian subcontinent. Due to the poor military tactics and disunity amongst members, the Muslim rulers emerged in Delhi and South India too. Theoretically, these were to be guided by Ulemas who were Islamic scholars who ensured rule was according to Islamic principles. In India, the Muslim rulers not only were ruling over Muslims but other communities as well. The other communities were called protected and had to pay Jiziya tax. These Emperors were most generous in grants and reliefs to Non-Muslims too.

Although Islam came from the Middle East it had followers in all classes. It had become adopted to local traditions and practices e.g. Arab merchants residing in South India adopted Malayalam and matrilinity.

Sufism emerged as a group of people moved towards asceticism and mysticism in protest over the materialism of the Caliphate as a political organization. They disliked the interpretation of Islam by theologians and believed in worship through devotion. They believed Prophet Muhammad to be the perfect human being.

Sufi’s then formed Khangah’s or communities and had followers. These were led by Sheikh or Pir who appointed a successor. The silsila’s were formed which signified an unbroken chain from master to pupil. Another extreme form of Islam emerged where followers ignored rituals and completely left all worldly attachments and observed mendicancy/celibacy. These were the called be-sharia cults.

The pilgrimage to tombs of Sufi saints and qawwalis was introduced by Sufism. In Deccan, the Bhakti movement also inspired Sufism and it led to devotional songs being created. Islam found following in Deccan due to this. Through Sufi’s maintained a distance from politics they accepted donations from rulers. Rulers sought their support in order to become seen as legitimate rulers of the lands. Conflicts also were seen between Sultans and Sufi saints as both asserted their authority by addressing themselves with titles.

Vijaynagar empire

The ruins of the Empire were discovered by Colin Mackenzie. The Empire at its zenith occupied land from the Krishna river in the north to the southern tip of India. It was ruled by the Sangam dynasty followed by Saluvu and then Tuluvu. King Krishnadev Raya of the Tuluvu dynasty was the most powerful and famous ruler. The military chiefs became more powerful after Krishnadev rayas death and the rule was passed on to the Aravidu dynasty. King Rama Raya tried to pit one sultan against another and so the Sultans united against him and defeated him. The armies of the Sultan’s then sacked the Vijaynagar empire.

Another reason for the decline of central control in the Empire was the formation of Amar Nayak systems. These were military commanders who were responsible for governing forts and maintaining a contingent of soldiers. But later they asserted authority by forming independent kingdoms.

A unique feature of the kingdom was the enclosure of agricultural tracts within walls of the kingdom. This was to keep agriculture production during sieges. Temples of this period also had tall Gopurams or Gateways.

Gopuram of a Vijaynagar Temple

Fig 1: Gopuram of a Vijaynagar Temple

Peasants and Agriculture production in Medieval India

Peasant conditions are not known as they never wrote an account of their lives. Ain I Akbari gave an account but from the rulers’ point of view. Since the purpose of cultivation was food security most of the crops were for consumption like rice, wheat, and millets. Areas receiving high rainfall cultivated rice. Rural life was self-sufficient but not egalitarian as a few elites exercised control over assets and lower classes were denied access to places and housed outside the cities.

The place of women was important as child-bearers but the high mortality rate amongst them meant the emergence of varied practices like widow re-marriage or divorced women remarriage. Women were also guarded as households were male-dominated and any infidelity was cruelly punished.

Zamindars occupied a dominant position in rural society. They had access to assets and decided privileges of others to them. They also cultivated lands indirectly through hired labor. The zamindars often kept a contingent of armed forces to serve the king and held forts. They also collected revenue on behalf of the state.


Mahajan is a merchant community in Ancient India represented by their chief called Nagarsheth.

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