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OUTLOOK India, March 15, 2004

'Sir Vidia Gets It Badly Wrong'
William Dalrymple grants Naipaul his eminence, but challenges his jaundiced notions of Indian history


There was some surprise when Sir Vidia and Lady Naipaul turned up at the BJP office last week and gave what many in the press took to be a pre-election endorsement not just of the party but the entire Sangh parivar programme. India was indeed shining, the Nobel laureate was quoted as saying, and yes he was quite happy being "appropriated" by the BJP.

More striking was the quote attributed to Naipaul about the violent destruction of the Babri Masjid: "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—such as the Islamic Revolution in Iran—this might appear to be a surprising volte-face. Indeed, it led one commentator in the Times to wonder if Sir Vidia was not being misquoted or at least misunderstood.

Yet the quotes, especially Sir Vidia's remarks that Babar's invasion of India "left a deep wound", are consistent with ideas Naipaul has been airing for many years now. In 1998, for example, he told The Hindu: "I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the tenth century or earlier disfigured, defaced, you realise that something terrible happened. I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was mortally wounded by those invasions.... The Old World is destroyed. That has to be understood. Ancient Hindu India was destroyed."

A few years earlier, following the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Naipaul told the Times of India: "What is happening in India is a new, historical awakening.... Only now are the people beginning to understand that there has been a great vandalising of India. Because of the nature of the conquest and the nature of Hindu society, such understanding had eluded Indians before...." Such attitudes form a consistent line of thought in Naipaul's writing about India from An Area of Darkness in 1964 through to the present.

Today few would dispute Sir Vidia's status as probably the greatest living writer of Indian origin; indeed, many 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 form a body of work of great brilliance, something the Nobel committee recognised when they awarded him literature's highest honour.

His credentials as a historian are, however, much less secure, and so when Sir Vidia gets something badly wrong, it is important that these errors are challenged.

There is a celebrated opening sequence to Sir Vidia's masterpiece, India: A Wounded Civilisation. It is 1975—a full quarter century before he won the Nobel—and Naipaul is surveying the shattered ruins of Vijayanagara.

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, it is just "a peasant wilderness", but look carefully and you can see scattered everywhere the crumbling wreckage 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 yet 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, is still whole, 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, Vijayanagara was "committed from the start to the preservation of a Hinduism that had already been violated, and culturally and artistically it (only) preserved and repeated; it hardly innovated.... The Hinduism Vijayanagar proclaimed had already reached a dead end".

For Naipaul, the Fall of Vijayanagara 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 (or from which, according to some of his more recent statements, the country is only just now beginning to recover). 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—"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". Time has not mellowed these views: in an interview Naipaul gave to Outlook ("Christianity didn't damage India like Islam", Nov 15, 1999), Sir Vidia 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—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; indeed it takes an unusual perversity to see one of the world's most beautiful buildings merely as a piece of cultural vandalism. Nevertheless, Naipaul's entirely negative understanding of India's Islamic history has its roots firmly in the mainstream imperial historiography of Victorian Britain.

For the Muslim invasions of India tended to be seen by historians of the Raj as a long, brutal sequence of rapine and pillage, in stark contrast—so 19th century British historians liked to believe—to the law and order selflessly brought by their own 'Civilising Mission'. In this context, the Fall of Vijayanagara was written up in elegiac terms by Robert Sewell, whose 1900 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 Vijayanagara 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 ignorant and Islamophobic assumptions which 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*. The essay, titled 'A Sultan Among Hindu Kings'—a reference to the title by which the Kings of Vijayanagara referred to themselves—pointed out the degree to which the elite culture of Vijayanagara 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 Vijayanagara appeared in public audience, not bare-chested, as had been the tradition in Hindu India, but instead dressed in quasi-Islamic court costume—the Islamic-inspired kabayi, a long-sleeved tunic derived from the Arabic qaba, and the kullayi, a conical cap derived from Perso-Turkic kulah—all part, according to Wagoner, of "their symbolic participation in the more universal culture of Islam".

Far from being the stagnant, backward-looking bastion of Hindu resistance imagined by Naipaul, Vijayanagara had in fact developed in all sorts of unexpected ways, taking on much of the administrative, tax collecting and military methods of the Muslim sultanates that surrounded it—notably stirrups, horseshoes, horse armour and a new type of saddle, all of which allowed Vijayanagara 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 Vijayanagara's monuments and archaeology conducted by George Michell over the last 20 years has come to the same conclusion as Wagoner. The survey has emphasised the degree to which the buildings of 16th century Vijayanagara were inspired by the architecture of the nearby Muslim sultanates, mixing the traditional trabeate architecture of the Hindu South with the arch and dome of the Islamicate North.

Moreover, this fruitful interaction between Hindu- and Muslim-ruled states was very much a two-way traffic. Just as Hindu Vijayanagara was absorbing Islamic influences, so a similar process of hybridity was transforming the nominally Islamic sultanate of Bijapur. The landmark study of this fascinating City State is Richard Eaton's Sufis of Bijapur. The picture revealed by Eaton's work is of a city dominated by an atmosphere of heterodox intellectual enquiry, with the libraries of Bijapur swelling with esoteric texts produced on the intellectual 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. The book 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 Adil 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 Saraswati, the Prophet Muhammad, and the Sufi saint Gesudaraz of Gulbarga.

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 Saraswati, 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 instead to the shifting alliances of Deccani diplomacy. In 1558, only seven years before the Deccani sultanates turned on Vijayanagara, the Empire had been a prominent part of an alliance of mainly Muslim armies that had sacked the Sultanate of Ahmadnagar. That year, Vijayanagara's armies stabled their horses in the mosques of the plundered city, and the Emperor Rama Raya had demanded that the Sultan come to his headquarters and eat paan from his hand as the price for peace. Before this Rama Raya had allied with the same Ahmadnagar Sultan in two joint invasions of Bijapur, then with the new Sultan of Bijapur in two campaigns against Ahmadnagar. It was only in 1562, when Rama Raya plundered and seized not just districts belonging to Ahmadnagar and its ally Golconda, but also those belonging to his own ally Bijapur, that the different sultanates finally united against their unruly neighbour.

The Fall of Vijayanagara is a subject Naipaul keeps returning to: in an interview shortly after he had been awarded the Nobel prize, 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 the city's craftsmen merely transferred to the patronage of the Sultans of Bijapur where the result was a major 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 their 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 Indic decoration which curl down from the pendetives like pepper vines, winding their way up brackets and gripping around the cusps of archways.

This picture of Hindu-Muslim hybridity, of Indo-Islamic intellectual and artistic fecundity is important, for it comes in such stark contrast to the RSS-Naipaulian 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 recently been published which goes a long way to develop these ideas. Anyone wishing to understand the complexities and fecund fusions of medieval India would be well advised to go straight out and buy a copy of Beyond Turk and Hindu (edited by David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence, published in India by Bahri). The book shows, from a variety of different articles by all the leading international scholars of the period, 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: that the political groupings we today identify as 'Muslim' were then "construed as but one ethnic community in India amidst many others".

Of course this sort of 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 northern India. Similarly, just as the cuisine of North India combined the vegetarian dal and rice of peninsular India with the kebab and roti of Central Asia, so in music the long-necked Persian lute was combined with the classical Indian veena 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 monumental buildings 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—none of whom Sir Vidia appears to think much of. In the same 1993 Times of India interview in which he defended the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Sir Vidia 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 NCERT history textbooks—such as that on Medieval India by an obscure college lecturer named Meenakshi Jain with its picture of the period as one long Muslim-led orgy of mass murder and temple destruction—are no doubt much more to Sir Vidia'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 a single appearance in Naipaul's work; indeed he appears to be entirely ignorant of the term: "Islam is a religion of fixed laws," he told Outlook. "There can be no reconciliation (with other religions)." 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 practice in a foreign language—Arabic—they rarely understand.He seems to be completely unaware of the existence of such hugely popular Indian pilgrimage shrines such as Nizamuddin or Ajmer Sharif, 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 religious tolerance of the Mughals: neither Akbar nor Dara Shikoh make 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 all monotheism. Such views were far from exceptional and most of the great Mughal writers show similar syncretic tendencies: Ghalib, for example, wrote praising Benares as the Mecca of India, saying that he sometimes wished that he could "renounce the faith, take the Hindu rosary in hand, and tie a sacred thread round my waist".

Yet Naipaul, if he is aware of these shared beliefs and overlapping practices, chooses to ignore it, and continues to envisage medieval India solely in terms of Islamic vandalism: in the interview to Outlook, for example, Naipaul mentioned Akbar in passing, but only as the "terrible" conqueror of Orissa, omitting any reference to the subsequent lifetime of work he put into reconciling India's different faiths. Likewise, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, he continues to talk of Mughal architecture as entirely "foreign...a carry-over from the architecture of Isfahan", wilfully ignoring all the fused Hindu elements that do so much to define its profound Indianness: the jalis, chhajjas and chhattris, quite apart from all the fabulous Gujarati-Hindu decorative sculpture that is most spectacularly seen at Fatehpur Sikri. Yet while genuine architectural historians see a remarkable fusing of civilisations in Mughal buildings, Naipaul, hostile as ever, 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 it took place, and on what scale, is now a matter of intense scholarly debate. Perhaps the single most important essay in Beyond Turk and Hindu is Richard Eaton's fascinating article on temple destruction. It is of course a central nostrum of the rss and the Sangh parivar, bolstered by intellectual fellow-travellers such as Naipaul, that between the 13th and 18th century 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".

Rather than the 60,000 looted temples of RSS myth, Eaton writes that he can find evidence for around 80 desecrations "whose historicity appears reasonable 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 1735, 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."

Eaton sees the attacks on temples not so much as the introduction to India of a new spirit of iconoclasm, so much as the continuation of the existing pre-Islamic practice of destroying or abducting the protecting state deity whose power was politically linked to the sovereignty of the defeated ruler: "Early medieval Indian history (of the pre-Muslim period) abounds in instances of temple desecration that occurred amidst interdynastic conflicts," he writes. "In AD 642...the Pallava king, Narasimhavarman I, looted the image of Ganesha from the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi. Fifty years later, armies from those same Chalukyas invaded North India and brought back to the Deccan...images of Ganga and Yamuna, looted from defeated powers there. In the eighth century, Bengali troops sought revenge on King Lalitaditya's kingdom of Kashmir by destroying the image of Vishnu Vaikuntha, the state deity."

And so on. Paradoxically, by destroying royal temples intimately linked with the protection of Hindu kings, and by abducting the tutelary state deities, Muslim rulers were in fact acting in accordance with Indian tradition, just as they were when they claimed descent from the Pandava heroes of the Mahabharata—as did the Muslim ruler of Kashmir—or portrayed themselves as supporters of the Ramrajya, as was the claim of the Mughals.

None of this should be read in any way as challenging Naipaul's literary brilliance, or as an attempt to diminish his importance as a writer: Sir Vidia's non-fiction about India is arguably the most profound 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 continued malevolent and inaccurate rewriting of textbooks, Sir Vidia's absurdly one-sided and misleading take on medieval Indian history simply must not be allowed to go uncorrected. To quote Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of JNU, writing recently about the NCERT 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."

William Dalrymple's White Mughals recently won Britain's most prestigious academic history award, the Wolfson Prize for History.