September 25
For our first meeting we are going to discuss the role of history and memory in the
politicization of communal identities in South Asia. After you have read the assigned
texts by Thapar, Davis, Ernst (reading them in this order might be helpful for the
background information in each reading), try to take notes on the following questions
which we will discuss in class. The “maps” link on the class website can take you to
maps of S. Asia at the time of Mahmud of Ghazni’s last invasion around 1030 and the
later Sultanate period. If you have questions about anything, note it down, and we will
tackle them together in class.
Some background information:
In order to get a sense of what each of the authors is trying to address keep in mind that
the temple of Somnath has a highly disputed and politicized past (quickly google
“somnath” to get a sense of some popular perceptions). These popular perceptions arose
from long years of British colonial and Nationalist writings about the events surrounding
Somnath and are enshrined in textbooks, novels, tourist material. It is only recently that
scholars have started examining the origins of the stories around Somnath, the actual
sources, and even the broader understanding of Royal temple patronage and the concept
of Iconoclasm in medieval India. Not surprisingly, the scholarly narratives on these
subjects are not unified nor do they support the more popular colonial or nationalist
accounts. In part the varying approaches have to do with the vast period being covered in
these projects—the actual invasion of western India by Mahmud of Ghazni (1026), the
long period of regional kingdoms that followed with rulers of various ethnic and religious
persuasions (1000s-1200s), the beginning of the Delhi Sultanate (1200-1526) during
which four different dynasties of Turkish and Afghan ancestry would rule North India
and five other dynasties would rule of the South, and finally the Mughal period (1526—
mid 1700s) during which much of South Asia would be incorporated into a single
Empire. For a long time scholars did not distinguish between Mahmud, a lone raider
from Central Asia, versus the later dynasties that became rooted in South Asia and
persisted for many generations. Starting with early British works, it became common to
lump all these dynasties into the “Muslim or Medieval Period.” Thus, Mahmud’s raids
appear in these early histories not as events connected to the politics and economy of
Central Asia (an expanding Ghaznavid kingdom that desperately needed cash to pay for
its expansion in Central Asia), but as an inevitable prelude to the dynasties that follow
some two centuries later. Although, it is quite clear that Mahmud never meant to
incorporate S. Asia into his empire—the raids were not expansionist but intended to
amass wealth.
In these three readings we have a different approach taken by three scholars of very
different training—Thapar is a historian of Ancient India, Davis a Religious Studies
scholar specializing in Hinduism, and Ernst, a Religious Studies scholar who is an expert
in South Asian Islam and Persian texts. Thapar is writing for a popular audience in the
magazine Frontline and using a chronology that sweeps from the 10th century to the 20th.
Davis is mainly concerned with translating and contextualizing a Sanskrit inscription
associated with Somnath when the temple was rebuilt in 1169. Ernst, on the other hand,
wants to broadly approach and de-center the very idea of an “Islamic” iconoclasm. Let
us try to use the following questions to dwell further into the readings:
1. What is the context each of the authors provides to explain the problem that they
will examine? How useful is the context in understanding the issues that the
author explores—in each case how complete is the information the author
2. When we examine the early sources about Somnath, or the text by Shirazi used by
Ernst, what can we surmise about the audience that each text addresses, the
perspectives that each source reveals?
3. How have local politics dictated the ways in which the history of Somnath or the
issues of temple/idol destruction have generally been presented in South Asian
history? What similarities and differences separate the early narratives from the
modern ones?
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