Trapped in the Ruins

THERE WAS some surprise when Sir Vidia and Lady Naipaul ealier this year turned up at the office of India’s Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and gave what many in the Indian press took to be a pre-election endorsement not just of the party but of the entire far right-wing Hindu revivalist programme. India was indeed surging forward under the BJP, the Nobel Laureate was quoted as saying, and, yes, he was quite happy being “appropriated” by the party.

More striking still was the quote attributed to Naipaul about the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Babur’s mosque, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, a decade ago: “Ayodhya is a sort of passion,” he said. “Any passion is to be encouraged. Passion leads to creativity.” For a man whose work contains many eloquent warnings of the dangers of misplaced political passions – the Islamic Revolution in Iran to take just one example – this might appear to be a surprising volte face, especially when one considers the horrific antiMuslim pogroms that followed Ayodhya, when BJP mobs went on the rampage across India and Muslims were hunted down by armed thugs, burned alive in their homes, scalded by acid bombs or knifed in the streets. By the time the army was brought in, at least 1,400 people had been slaughtered in Bombay alone.

It might seem unlikely that a Nobel Laureate would put himself in a position of apparently endorsing an act that spawned mass murder or commend a party that has often been seen as virulently anti-intellectual. Indeed, one commentator in the Times of India wondered if Naipaul had not been misunderstood. The paper pointed out that Naipaul told his hosts at the BJP in Delhi: “You cannot carry the past with you or you will not progress. Leave this behind in history books and move on.”

Yet Naipaul’s earlier statements, especially his remarks that the first Mughal emperor Babur’s invasion of India “left a deep wound”, are con- sistent with ideas Naipaul has been airing for many years now. In 1998, for example, he told the Hindu newspaper: “I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the 10th century or ear lier disfigured, defaced, you realise that some- thing terrible happened. I feel that the civilisa- tion ofthat closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions . . . The Old World is destroyed. That has to be understood. Ancient Hindu India was destroyed.” Such attitudes forni a consistent line of thought in Naipaul’s writing from An Area of Darkness in 1964 through to the present

Few would dispute Naipaul’s status as probably the greatest living writer of Indian origin; indeed some would go further and argue that he is the greatest living writer of English prose. For good reason his views are taken very seriously. He is a writer whose fiction and non-fiction written over half a century forms a body of work of great brilliance, something the Nobel committee recognised in 2001 when it awarded him literature’s highest honour, and singled out his analysis of the Islamic world in his prize citation .

Naipaul’s credentials as a historian are, however, less secure.

There is a celebrated opening sequence to Naipaul’s masterpiece, India: A Wounded Civilization. It is 1975 – a full quarter century before he won the Nobel – and Naipaul is surveying the shattered ruins of the great medieval Hindu capital of Vijayanagar, the City of Victory.

Naipaul leads the reader through the remains of the once mighty city, its 24 miles of walls winding through the “brown plateau of rock and gigantic boulders”. These days, he explains, this part of south India is just “a peasant wilderness”, but look carefully and you can see scattered everywhere the crumbling wreck age of former greatness: “Palaces and stables, a royal bath … the leaning granite pillars of what must have been a bridge across the river.” Over the bridge, there is more: “A long and very wide avenue, with a great statue of the bull of Shiva at one end, and at the other end a miracle: a temple that for some reason was spared destruction, and is still used for worship.”

Naipaul goes on to lament the fall of this “great centre of Hindu civilisation”, “then one of the greatest [cities] in the world”. It was pillaged in 1565 “by an alliance of Muslim principalities and the work of destruction took five months; some people say a year.” It fell, according to Naipaul, because already the Hindu world it embodied had become backward looking and stagnant: it had failed to develop, and in particular had failed to develop the military means to challenge the aggressive Muslim sultanates that surrounded it. Instead, Vijayanagar was “committed from the start to the preservation of a Hinduism that had already been violated, and culturally and artistically it [onlyj preserved and repeated; it hardly innovated … The Hinduism Vijayanagar proclaimed had already reached a dead end.”

For Naipaul, the fall of Vijayanagar is a paradigmatic wound on the psyche of India, part of a long series of failures that he believes still bruises the country’s self-confidence. The wound was created by a fatal combination of Islamic aggression and Hindu weakness – the tendency to “retreat”, to withdraw in the face of defeat

Naipaul first developed the theme in An Area of Darkness. The great Hindu ruins of the south, he writes there, represent “the continuity and flow of Hindu India, ever shrinking”. But the ruins of the north – the monuments of the Great Mughals – only “speak of waste and failure”. Even the Taj and the magnificent garden tombs of the Mughal emperors are to Naipaul symbols of oppression: “Europe has its monuments of sun kings, its Louvres and Versailles.

But they are part of the development of the country’s spirit; they express the refining of a nation’s sensibility.” In contrast the monuments of the Mughals speak only of “personal plunder, and a country with an infinite capacity for being plundered”. In a recent interview, Naipaul maintained that “the Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people.”

Not many other observers have seen the Taj Mahal – built by the emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, and usually perceived as the world’s greatest monument to love (“a tear on the face of eternity”, according to Tagore, an earlier Indian Nobel Laureate) in quite such jaundiced terms. Nevertheless, Naipaul’s entirely negative understanding of India’s Islamic history has its roots firmly in the mainstream imperial historiography of Victorian Britain.

The Muslim invasions of India tended to be seen by historians of the Raj as a long, brutal sequence of pillage, in stark contrast – so 19thcentury British historians liked to believe – to the law and order selflessly brought by their own “civilising mission”. In this context the fall of Vij ay amagar was written up in elegiac terms by Robert Sewell, whose igoo book Vijayanagar: A Forgotten Empire, first characterised the kingdom as “a Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests”, a single brave but doomed attempt at resistance to Islamic aggression. This idea was eagerly elaborated by Hindu nationalists, who wrote of Vijayanagar as a Hindu state dedicated to the preservation of the traditional, peaceful and “pure” Hindu culture of southern India.

It is a simple and seductive vision, and one that at first sight looks plausible. The problem is that such ideas rest on a set of mistaken and Islamophobic assumptions that recent scholarship has done much to undermine.

A brilliant essay published in 1996 by the respected American Sanskrit scholar, Philip B. Wagoner, was an important landmark in this process. Entitled “A Sultan Among Hindu Kings” – a reference to the title by which the kings of Vijayanagar referred to themselves – pointed out the degree to which the elite culture of Vijayanagar was heavily Islamicised by the 16th century, its civilisation “deeply transformed through nearly two centuries of intense and creative interaction with the Islamic world”.

By this period, for example, the Hindu kings of Vijayanagar appeared in public authence, not bare-chested, as had been the tradition in Hindu India, but dressed in quasi-Islamic court costume – the Islamic inspired kabayi, a longsleeved tunic derived from the Arabic qaba, symbolic, according to Wagoner, of “their participation in the more universal culture of Islam”.

Far from being the stagnant, backward-looking bastion of Hindu resistance imagined by Naipaul, Vijayanagar had in fact developed in all sorts of unexpected ways, adapting many of the administrative, tax collecting and military methods of the Muslim sultanates that surrounded it – notably stirrups, horse-shoes, horse armour and a new type of saddle, all of which allowed Vijayanagar to put into the field an army of horse archers who could hold at bay the Delhi Sultanate, then the most powerful force in India.

A comprehensive survey of Vijayanagar’s monuments and archaeology by George Micheli over the past 20 years has come to the same conclusion as Wagoner. The survey has emphasized the degree to which the buildings of 16th-century Vijayanagar were inspired by the architecture of the nearby Muslim sultanates, mixing the traditional tra beate architecture of the Hindu south with the arch and dome of the Islamicate north. Indeed some of the most famous buildings at Vijayanagar, such as the gorgeous 15th-century Lotus Mahal, are almost entirely Islamic in style.

Moreover, this fruitful interaction between Hindu – and Muslim-ruled states was very much a two-way process. Just as Hindu Vijayanagar was absorbing Islamic influences, so a similar process of hybridity was transforming the nominally Islamic Sultanate of Bijapur. This was a city dominated by an atmosphere of heterodox inquiry, whose libraries swelled with esoteric texts produced on the philosophical frontier between Islam and Hinduism. One Bijapuri production of the period, for example, was the Bangab Nama, or the Book of the Pot Smoker: written by Mahmud Bahri – a sort of medieval Indian Allen Ginsberg – it is a long panegyric to the joys of cannabis:

Smoke your pot and be happy

Be a dervish and put your heart at peace.

Lose your life imbibing this exhilaration.

In the course of this book, Bahri writes: “God’s knowledge has no limit … and there is not just one path to him. Anyone from any community can find him.” This certainly seems to have been the view of Bijapur’s ruler, Ibrahim Adii Shahi II. Early in his reign Ibrahim gave up wearing jewels and adopted instead the rudraksha rosary of the sadhu. In his songs he used highly Sanskritised language to shower equal praise upon Sarasvati, the Hindu goddess of learning, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Sufi saint Gesudaraz.

Perhaps the most surprising passage occurs in the 56th song where the Sultan more or less describes himself as a Hindu god: “He is robed in saffron dress, his teeth are black, the nails are red … and he loves all. Ibrahim, whose father is Ganesh, whose mother is Sarasvati, has a rosary of crystal round his neck … and an elephant as his vehicle.” According to the art historian Mark Zebrowski: “It is hard to label Ibrahim either a Muslim or a Hindu; rather he had an aesthete’s admiration for the beauty of both cultures.” The same spirit also animates Bijapuri art, whose nominally Islamic miniature portraits show “girls as voluptuous as the nudes of south Indian sculpture”.

This creative coexistence finally fell victim, not to a concerted communal campaign by Muslim states intent on eradicating Hinduism, but to the shifting alliances of Deccani diplomacy. In 1558, only seven years before the Deccani sultanates turned on Vijayanagar, the empire had been a prominent part of an alliance of mainly Muslim armies that had sacked the Sultanate of Ahmadnagar. That year, Vijayanagar’s armies stabled their horses in the mosques of the plundered city. It was only in 1562, when Rama Raya plundered and seized not just districts belonging to Ahmadnagar and its ally GoIconda, but also those belonging to his own ally Bijapur, that the different sultanates finally united against their unruly neighbour.

The fall of Vijayanagar is a subject Naipaul keeps returning to: in an interview shortly after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, he talked about how the destruction of the city meant an end to its traditions: “When Vijayanagar was laid low, all the creative talent would also have been destroyed. The current has been broken.”

Yet there is considerable documentary and artistic evidence that the very opposite was true, and that while some of the city’s craftsmen went on to to work at the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, others transferred to the patronage of the sultans of Bijapur where the result was a significant artistic renaissance.

The remarkable fusion of styles that resulted from this rebirth can still be seen in the tomb of Ibrahim II, completed in 1626. From afar it looks uncompromisingly Islamic; yet for all its domes and arches, the closer you draw the more you realise that few Muslim buildings are so Hindu in spirit The usually austere walls of Islamic architecture in the Deccan here give way to a petrified scrollwork indistinguishable from Vijayanagaran decoration, the bleak black volcanic granite of Bijapur manipulated as if it were as soft as plaster, as delicate as a lace ruff. All around minars suddenly bud into bloom, walls dissolve into bundles of pillars; fantastically sculptural lotus-bud domes and cupola drums are almost suffocated by great starbursts of Indie decoration which curl down from the pendetives like pepper vines.

This picture of Hindu-Muslim hybridity, of Indo-Islamic intellectual and artistic fecundity, is important, for it comes in such stark contrast to the Naipaulian or BJP view of Indian medieval history as one long tale of defeat and destruction. Today most serious historians tend instead to emphasise the perhaps surprising degree to which Hinduism and Islam creatively intermingled and “chutnified” (to use Salman Rushdie’s nice term); and an important book has been published that goes a long way to develop these ideas.

Anyone wishing to understand the complexities and fusions of medieval India would be well advised to look at Beyond Turk and Hindu, edited by David Gilmartin and Bruce Lawrence, (University Press of Florida, 2000). A collection of articles by all the leading international scholars of the period, it shows the degree to which the extraordinary richness of medieval Indian civilisation was the direct result of its multi-ethnic, multi-religious character, and the inspired interplay and cross-fertilisation of Hindu and Islamic civilisations that thereby took place.

The historians do not see the two religions as in any way irreconcilable; instead they tend to take the view that “the actual history of religious exchange suggests that there have never been clearly fixed groups, one labelled ‘Hindu’ and the other – both its opposite and rival – labelled ‘Muslim’.” Indeed, as one author points out there is not a single medieval Sanskrit inscription that identifies “Indo-Muslim invaders in terms of their religion, as Muslims”, but instead they refer more generally in terms of “linguistic affiliation, most typically as Turk, ‘Turushka'”. The import of this is clear: the political groupings we today identify as “Muslim” were then “construed as but one ethnic community in India amidst many others”.

Of course this approach is not entirely new. From the early 1960s until only a few years ago, Indian history textbooks emphasised the creation in medieval India of what was referred to as the “composite culture”.

This cultural synthesis took many forms. In Urdu and Hindi were born languages of great beauty that to different extents mixed Persian and Arabic words with the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars of north India. Similarly, just as the cuisine of north India combined the vegetarian dal and rice of India with the kebab and roti of central Asia, so in music the long-necked Persian lute was combined with the Indian vina to form the sitar, now the Indian instrument most widely known in the west In architecture there was a similar process of hybridity as the great monuments of the Mughals reconciled the styles of the Hindus with those of Islam, to produce a fusion more beautiful than either.

These Nehruvian-era textbooks were the work of left-leaning but nonetheless internationally regarded scholars such as professors Romila Thapar, Satish Chandra and Nurul Hasan – of whom Naipaul does not appear to think much. In the same 1993 Times of India interview in which he defended the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque, he remarked that “Romila Thapar’s book on Indian history is a Marxist attitude to history, which in substance says: there is a higher truth behind the invasions, feudalism and all that. The correct truth is the way the invaders looked at their actions. They were conquering, they were subjugating.” The new set of far right-wing history textbooks recently commissioned by India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training at the behest of the BJP government – such as that on medieval India with its picture of the period as one long Muslim-led orgy of massmurder and temple destruction – are no doubt more to Naipaul’s taste.

Thanks partly to the influence of the earlier textbooks on generations of students, there is still a widespread awareness in India of the positive aspects of medieval Islam – aspects noticeable by their absence in Naipaul’s oeuvre. It is widely known, for example, that Islam in India was spread much less by the sword than by the Sufis. After all, Sufism, with its holy men, visions and miracles, and its emphasis on the individual’s search for union with God, has always borne remarkable similarities to the mystical side of Hinduism. Under Sufi influence it was particularly at the level of village folk worship that the two religions fused into one, with many ordinary Hindus visiting the graves of Sufi pirs – some of whom are still considered to be incarnations of Hindu deities – while Muslim villagers would leave offerings at temples to ensure the birth of children and good harvests. To this day, Sufi dargahs still attract as many Hindu, Sikh and Christian pilgrims as they do Muslims.

Yet Sufism, clearly central to any discussion of medieval India, barely makes an appearance in Naipaul’s work. “Islam is a religion of fixed laws,” he told Outlook magazine. “There can be no reconciliation [with other religions]”. In this one sentence he dismissed Indian Islam’s rich 800-year history of syncretism, intellectual heterodoxy and pluralism. The history of Indian Sufism in particular abounds with attempts by mystics to overcome the gap between the two great religions and to seek God not through seer tarian rituals but through the wider gateway of the human heart. These attempts were championed by some of south Asia’s most popular mystics, such as Bulleh Shah of Lahore.

In Beyond Belief (1998) Naipaul writes of Indian Muslims as slaves to an imported religion, looking abroad to Arabia for the focus of their devotions, which they are forced to practise in a foreign language – Arabic – they rarely understand. He seems to be unaware of the existence of such hugely popular Indian pilgrimage shrines such as Nizamuddin or Ajmer Sharif, the centrality of such shrines to the faith of Indian Muslims or the vast body of vernacular devotional literature in Indian Islam, much of it dedicated to the mystical cults of indigenous saints.

Also notably absent in Naipaul’s work is any mention of the remarkable religious tolerance of the Mughals: neither Akbar nor Darà Shukoh makes any sort of appearance in Naipaul’s writing, and his readers will learn nothing of the former’s enthusiastic patronage of Hindu temples or the latter’s work translating the Gita into Persian, or writing The Mingling of Two Oceans, a study of Hinduism and Islam which emphasises the compatibility of the two faiths and speculates that the Upanishads were the source of monotheism. Such views were far from exceptional and most Mughal writers show similar syncretic tendencies.

Yet Naipaul continues to envisage medieval India solely in terms of Islamic vandalism. Likewise, he continues to talk of Mughal architecture as entirely “foreign … a carry-over from the architecture of Isfahan”, ignoring all the fused Hindu elements that do so much to define its profound Indianness: the jalis, chajjas and chattris, quite apart from the fabulous Gu jara ti Hindu decorative sculpture that is most spectacularly seen at Akbar’s capital, Fatehpur Sikri. Yet while architectural historians see a remarkable fusing of civilisations in Mughal buildings, Naipaul thinks “only of everything that was flattened to enable them to come up”.

That destruction of Hindu monuments did take place is undeniable; but in what circumstances, and on what scale, is a matter of intense scholarly debate. Perhaps the single most important essay in Beyond Turk and Hindu is Richard Eaton’s fascinating account of temple destruction. It is of course a central nostrum of the Hindu far right that between the 13th and 18th centuries, Indo-Muslim states, driven by a combination of greed, intolerance and a fanatical iconoclasm, desecrated as many as 60,000 Hindu temples. This claim is examined in detail by Eaton, who concludes that “such a picture [simply] cannot be sustained by evidence from original sources”.

Eaton writes that he can find evidence for around only 80 desecrations “whose historicity appears reasonably certain”, and that these demolitions tended to take place in very particular circumstances: that is, in the context of outright military defeats of Hindu rulers by one of the Indian sultanates, or when “Hindu patrons of prominent temples committed acts of disloyalty to the Indo-Muslim states they served. Otherwise, temples lying within Indo-Muslim sovereign domains, viewed as protected state property, were left unmolested.”

Indeed Indo-Islamic states involved themselves directly in the running of their Hindu temples, so that, for example, “between 1590 and 1755, Mughal officials oversaw the renewal of Orissa’s state cult, that of Jagannath in Puri. By sitting on a canopied chariot while accompanying the cult’s annual festival, Shah Jehan’s officials ritually demonstrated that it was the Mughal emperor who was the temple’s – and hence the god’s – ultimate protector.”

None of this should be read in any way as challenging Naipaul’s importance as a writer: his non-fiction about India is arguably the most brilliant body of writing about the region in modern times, and it is precisely because of this that it is important to challenge his errors.

In the current climate, after the pogroms of Gujarat and the inaccurate rewriting of textbooks, Naipaul’s misleading take on medieval Indian history must not go uncorrected. To quote Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, writing recently about the new BJP history textbooks: “When history is mobilised for specific political projects and sectarian conflicts; when political and community sentiments of the present begin to define how the past has to be represented; when history is fabricated to constitute a communal sensibility, and a politics of hatred and violence, then we [historians] need to sit up and protest If we do not then the long night of Gujarat will never end. Its history will reappear again and again, not just as nightmare but as relived experience, re-enacted in endless cycles of retribution and revenge, in gory spectacles of blood and death.”

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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