Richard Eaton is the Wikipedia, the Google and, many would argue, the last word on medieval and Islamic history in India. His bibliography is too vast to list, but the vast repertoire includes Islamic History As Global History, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 and Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives. After the destruction of the Babri Masjid and a myriad speculative conversations around how many temples Muslim rulers had destroyed in India, Eaton decided to count. That became a book titled Temple Desecration and Muslim States in Medieval India. In other words, he is the best myth-buster there is and that’s precisely what he did to the audiences at THiNK. Eaton explains why it’s crucial today for us to get our history right. Especially on the period he writes about.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
You are now working on a magnum-opus history of medieval India, often construed as ‘the Muslim period’. Can you explain why the descriptor ‘Muslim period’ doesn’t work for you?
The book I’m working on now is called The Lion and the Lotus. The lion represents Persia and the Lotus, India. It’s the story of two intersecting megapolises — Persian and Sanskrit. The idea is to escape the trap of looking at this period as the endless and dreary chapter of Hindu-Muslim interaction, if not conflict, which is the conventional and historically wrong approach.
Can you explain why this is historically wrong?
Because religion is anachronistic. Contemporary evidence does not support the assumption that religion was the primary sign or indicator of cultural identity. That is a back projection from the 19th and 20th centuries, which is not justified by the evidence. For example, a word that was typically used to describe rulers who came from beyond the Khyber Pass was not ‘musalmaan’ but rather Turushka or Turk. An ethnic, not religious, identity. What’s fascinating is that the early Turkish rulers, the Ghaznavids, began as foreigners and conquerors; over time, they were behaving more and more like Rajput dynasties. Like Mahmud of Ghazni, for instance. He took the basic credo of Islam — “There is no god but Allah” — translated that into Sanskrit and put it down on the coinage to be freely minted in north-western India. It was an attempt to take Arabic words and structure them into Sanskrit vocabulary. This is a history of assimilation and not imposition. In Vijayanagar in the Deccan, you will find that most of the government buildings were built with arches and domes. You think you are inside a mosque but you are not. Vijayanagar had Hindu kings. This means that the aesthetic vision of Iran has seeped into India so much now that it’s accepted as normal.
What about the masses in this period from 1000 to 1800 AD, who were Hindu?
Okay, let’s talk about ordinary people. You find that languages like Telugu, Bengali, Kannada and Marathi have absorbed a huge amount of Persian vocabulary for everyday concerns. Take another example from the Vijayanagar empire in the south. I talk about south India because that’s where Islam did not have as long a penetration as in the north. The Vijayanagar kings had these long audience halls described as hundred-column and thousand-column palaces — hazaarsatoon. A concept that goes all the way back to Persepolis where you literally do have a hundred columns. You take the floor plan of Persepolis, Iran, in the 4th century BC, which is pre-Islamic, and place it side by side with the floor plan of a palace at Vijayanagar. It’s exactly the same. Neither was built by Muslims. Persepolis was built by Zoroastrians in the 3rd or 4th century BC. And Vijayanagar was built by Hindus in the 14th century AD. Neither has anything to do with religion, but both have everything to do with power. It’s like the present day spread of Coca Cola or Tuborg beer. It’s aspirational but not religious. And it all happens over a period of time.
Which is why you also don’t like the use of the word ‘conversions’ for this period? You say conversions suggest a pancake-like flip, which is not how Islam spread. What do you mean by that?
I hate the use of the word ‘conversions’. When I was studying the growth of Islam in Punjab, I came across a fascinating text on the Sial community. It traces their history from the 14th to the 19th century. If you look at the names of these people, you will find that the percentage of Arabic names increased gradually between the 14th and 19th centuries. In the early 14th century, they had no Arabic names. By the late 14th century, 5 percent had Arabic names. It’s not until the late 19th century that 100 percent had Arabic names. So, the identification with Islam is a gradual process because the name you give your child reflects your ethos and the cultural context in which you live. The same holds true when you look at the name assigned to god. In the 16th century, the words Muslims in Bengal used for god were Prabhu or Niranjan etc — Sanskrit or Bengali words. It’s not until the 19th century that the word Allah is used. In both Punjab and Bengal, the process of Islamisation is a gradual one. That’s why the word ‘conversion’ is misleading — it connotes a sudden and complete change. All your previous identities are thrown out. That’s not how it happens. When you talk about an entire society, you are talking about a very gradual, glacial experience.
You also examined at length the destruction of temples in this period. What did you find?
The temple discourse is huge in India and this is something that needs to be historicised. We need to look at the contemporary evidence. What do the inscriptions and contemporary chronicles say? What was so striking to me when I went into that project after the destruction of the Babri Masjid was that nobody had actually looked at the contemporary evidence. People were just saying all sorts of things about thousands of temples being destroyed by medieval Muslim kings. I looked at inscriptions, chronicles and foreign observers’ accounts from the 12th century up to the 18th century across South Asia to see what was destroyed and why. The big temples that were politically irrelevant were never harmed. Those that were politically relevant — patronised by an enemy king or a formerly loyal king who becomes a rebel — only those temples are wiped out. Because in the territory that is annexed to the State, all the property is considered to be under the protection of the State. The total number of temples that were destroyed across those six centuries was 80, not many thousands as is sometimes conjectured by various people. No one has contested that and I wrote that article 10 years ago.
Even the history of Aurangzeb, you say, is badly in need of rewriting.
Absolutely. Let’s start with his reputation for temple destruction. The temples that he destroyed were not those associated with enemy kings, but with Rajput individuals who were formerly loyal and then become rebellious. Aurangzeb also built more temples in Bengal than any other Mughal ruler.