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The Historiography of the Medieval in South Asia

  • DAUD ALI (a1)

Colonial scholars and administrators in the latter half of the nineteenth century were the first to subject South Asia to modern historicist scrutiny. Using coins, inscriptions, and chronicles, they determined the dates and identities of numerous kings and dynasties within an apparently scrupulous empiricist framework. From the 1930s, with the widespread rise of nationalist sentiment, South Asian scholars began to write about their own past. The particular configurations of colonial and early nationalist historiography of South Asia have proved immensely consequential for subsequent generations of historians. Not only did this historiography value certain types of evidence, particularly Indic language epigraphy, Persian chronicles, and archaeology (while at the same time devaluing others like literature and religious texts), it set some of the enduring thematic and topical parameters which have shaped the course of the field. The initial focus was on the careers and personalities of rulers or the genius of races as the key causative forces in history, but eventually dynastic history became the dominant mode of writing about the past.

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1 Discussed at length in Thapar, Romila, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations (Delhi, 1978); idem. Early India: from Origins to AD 1300 (Harmondsworth, 2002), pp. 136; and Inden, Ronald, Imagining India (Oxford,1990).

2 See for example, Vaidya, C. V.History of Mediaeval Hindu India: being a history of India from 600 to 1200 A.D, 3 vols. (Poona, 1921–26), and Ray, H. C., The Dynastic History of Northern India, 2 vols. (Calcutta, 1931–36).

3 Kosambi, D. D., An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (Bombay, 1956); Habib, Irfan, The Agrarian System of Mughal India (Delhi, 1963); Sharma, R. S., Indian Feudalism (Calcutta, 1965).

4 See the collection of essays included in Mukhia, Harbans (ed.) The Feudalism Debate (Delhi, 1999).

5 See Sircar, D. C., “Indian Landlordism and European Feudalism,” in Studies in the Political and Administrative Systems of Ancient and Medieval India (Delhi, 1974), pp. 1332.

6 Chattopadhyaya, B. D., “Urban Centres in Early Medieval India: An Overview,” in Bhattacharyya, S. and Thapar, Romila (eds.) Situating Indian History (Delhi, 1986).

7 See Deyell, Richard, Living without Silver: The Monetary History of Early Medieval North India (Delhi, 1990). More recently, Kennet, D., “The Transition from Early Historic to Early Medieval in the Vakataka Realm”, in The Vakataka Heritage: Indian Culture at the Crossroads, edited by Bakker, Hans T. (Groningen, 2004), pp. 1117.

8 Stein, Burton, Peasant State and Society in Medieval South India (Delhi, 1980); Dirks, Nicholas, The Hollow Crown: Ethnohistory of an Indian Kingdom (Cambridge, 1987).

9 Chattopadhyaya, B. D., The Making of Early Medieval India (Delhi, 1994); Kulke, Hermann, “The Early and Imperial Kingdom: A Processural Model of Integrative State Formation in Early Medieval India”, in The State in India 1000–1700, edited by Kulke, Hermann (Delhi, 1995).

10 Chattopadhyaya, B. D., “Introduction,” in Chattopadhyaya, The Making of Early Medieval India, pp. 3436.

11 Thapar, Romila, The Mauryas Revisited (Calcutta, 1987). See also Fussman, G., “Control and Provincial Administration in Ancient India: The Problem of the Mauryan Empire,” Indian Historical Review 14. 1–2 (1987–88), pp. 4372.

12 Thapar, Romila, Mukhia, Harbans and Chandra, Bipin, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History (Dehli, 1969).

13 See Thapar, Mauryas Revisited and Lorenzen, David, “Historians and the Gupta Empire,” in Reappraising Gupta History: for S. R. Goyal, edited by Chhabra, B. C., et al. . (Delhi, 1992), pp. 4760.

14 See the very influential works of Irfan Habib, including his path-breaking early study, The Agrarian System of Mughal India, his remarkable An Atlas of the Mughal Empire (Delhi, 1986) and later essays collected in Essays in Indian History: Towards a Marxist Perception (Delhi, 1995). See also the works of Ali, M. Athar, The Mughal Nobility under Aurangzeb, 2nd rev. ed. (Dehli, 2001) and The Apparatus of Empire: The Award of Ranks, Titles and Offices to the Mughal Nobility (Delhi, 1985), and Habib, Irfan (ed.) Medieval India: Researches in the History of India 1200–1750 (Delhi, 1999).

15 See for example, the important study by Kolff, Dirk, Naukar, Rajput, Sepoy: The Ethnohistory of the Military Labour Market in Hindustan, 1450–1850 (Cambridge, 1990).

16 For a review and analysis of Mughal historiography which advances a critique of the military fiscalist model of the Aligarh school with a call for opening up Mughal studies to wider fields of Ottoman and Safavid studies, see Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, L’État moghol et sa fiscalité (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles) (Paris, 1994). On the historiography of Indian maritime trade and during Mughal times, see Subrahmanyam in Gupta, A. Das, The World of the Indian Ocean Merchant (Oxford, 2001). For reviews of the debates on the eighteenth century, see the introductory essays in the edited collections by Alavi, Seema, The Eighteenth Century in India (Delhi, 2002) and Marshall, P. J., The Eighteenth Century in Indian History: Evolution or Revolution? (Delhi, 2003).

17 See for example, Goldstone, Jack, “The Problem of the ‘Early Modern’ World,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41. 3 (1998), pp. 249284.

18 Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, Penumbral Visions: Making Polities in Early Modern South India (Ann Arbor, 2001) and Rao, Velchuru Narayana, Shulman, David, and Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, Textures of Time: Writing History in South India, 1600–1800 (Delhi, 2003).

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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