Timur invaded northern India in 1398 but returned to Samarkand a year later. In 1555 the Timurid emperor Humayun came back to India after being forced into exile in Persia and re- established Mughal rule in northern India. Between these two significant dates stretches an era largely consigned to oblivion-the 'long' fifteenth century.
The Mughal dynasty has long occupied a pre-eminent position in research on Indian history. It has also been credited with ushering in a radically new age of innovation in art, literature, and statecraft. But what of the period before the Mughals?
With the empire-centred study of history privileging periods of political centralization, the multi-centred fifteenth century has remained relatively unexplored and undervalued.
After Timur Left presents a path-breaking interdisciplinary set of writings on the politics, languages, religions, literatures, and arts of the fifteenth century. Together they reveal it to be a period of considerable political and social mobility, of cultural connectivity and consolidation, of innovation in literature and language choices, and of new forms of religious organization and expression.
Francesca Orsini is Professor of Hindi and South Asian Literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Her research spans modern and contemporary Hindi literature, cultural history, popular literature and the history of the book, and multilingual literary history. She is the author of The Hindi Public Sphere ( I920-1940) (2002) and Print and Pleasure (2009).
Samira Sheikh is Associate Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. Nashville. Tennessee. She is the author of Forging a Region: Sultans, Traders and Pilgrims in Gujarat, 1200-1500 (2010). Her current research is on Vaishnavism in Mughal Gujarat, an eighteenth- century Gujarati politician, and early modern Indian maps.
Literature and Writing
THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE MUGHALS throw into deep shadow the kingdoms and cultures that preceded them in north India. The Mughals are assumed to have changed everything: politics, literature, religion, even language. But how can we know what the Mughals changed when we know so little of what happened before? What was South Asia like before the Mughals? Most of us associate the preceding period with the 'high' Delhi sultanate with its idiosyncratic rulers, bureaucrats, and historians. But this had come to an end soon after Timur's bloody invasion of north India in 1398. Was the invasion the end of an era? What happened after Timur left?
The 'long fifteenth century' between Timur's invasion and Humayun's return to India in 1555, a time of remarkable change and invention in literature, culture, and politics, forms the chronological core of most of the essays in this volume. This is a period too often masked by the centralizing categories of the Mughal, colonial and postcolonial bureaucracies that were to follow. A quarter century ago, historians began to reveal the eighteenth century as a time of cosmopolitan ferment and experimentation; it is now time to unveil new scholarship on another century too long regarded as backward and interstitial. The conventional periodization that blanks out the long fifteenth century from histories is not because nothing happened then. Quite the opposite; it is the diversity and intensity of politics and culture in this period that have rebuffed scholars searching for singular ideologies or narratives. This was a time of cultural production in languages and idioms that ran into each other, in vernaculars 'literized' for the first time, in the old classical languages modulated for new patrons. There was a certain 'democratization' of written culture: arriviste patrons could have genealogies and tales composed; performers could reinvent the epics for the new world; upwardly mobile chieftains could lay claim to languages and forms from which they were previously excluded. Spiritual yearnings were expressed in new vocabularies: some expressed the injustices of the present, others the worldly and other-worldly aspirations of the new patrons. Political turmoil meant that people travelled: in search of employment or business opportunities, for pilgrimage, war, or pleasure. Thanks to travel, a north Indian vernacular-bhakha-was disseminated and literized across north India while the transregional High Languages of Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian continued to wield cultural cachet. The decentralization of power also meant that there was a demand for literary specialists as chieftains and merchants all sought poets, composers, and scribes. Many of these specialists were multilingual and travelled widely in search of patrons and opportunities. It is this hybrid, restless, multilingual ferment that nation -centred, monolingual scholarship has been unable to comprehend. How does this plethora of voices and texts relate to fifteenth-century polities? The contribution of this volume is that, for the first time, it foregrounds and embraces the diversity of what we have called the long fifteenth century and investigates the links between politics and cultural production.
Literature as History
Textbooks generally start from ‘hard’ evidence and documents such as coins, inscription, and historical chronicles typically compiled in centres of political power, to which literature and the arts are added as supplementary ornaments, usually under the rubrics of 'patronage' and, in the case of vernacular devotional literature, of an undefined 'popular culture'. But for a richly fluid time like the fifteenth century in north India, literary texts are often the only way we have to write social history, to write individuals and groups, their self-representation and worldview into the picture, which is otherwise a largely empty and dichotomous one of court and people, rulers and dynasties, Muslims and Hindus, men and, of course, hardly any women at all. To study these voices and texts, and to study them in relation to each other and within a wider comparative framework, means attempting to write a thicker and more comprehensive history than that usually available in textbooks. For this reason we have tried to include in this book the widest possible range, not just of cultural production but also of social contexts and types of self-expression, and to connect and intersect them in all possible ways.
The long fifteenth century was not a canon-making period. As Delhi after Timur became just one of many regional power centres (although always one with great symbolic importance), it becomes necessary to adjust our lens and look not for the great bureaucratic projects, imperial histories, or central linguistic and literary experiments of the Mughals, but for other genres of recording and remembering. Simon Digby remarks in this volume that after the relative stability of the greater Delhi Sultanate, the 'lesser' was a time during which few histories were written and from which even fewer survive. This remark is true only if we consider political histories from Delhi-Persian court histories continued to be written in Malwa, Jaunpur (although these do not survive), Gujarat, the Deccan, and in smaller sultanates such as Kalpi. Nevertheless, once we begin to look at other literary survivals and acknowledge how profuse and diverse they are, we find that each genre marks history in its own way. One basic assumption underlying this book is that producing literature in the form of heroic narratives, genealogical accounts, local or caste puranas, or biographies and hagiographies was a way of producing one's own history or inscribing oneself in larger histories. A large and varied body of texts in this period do exactly that-Aparna Kapadia's local Sanskrit narratives, Ramya Sreenivasan's vernacular ones, the Jain genealogies in the Apabhramsha texts of Eva De Clercq's essay, or the Persian texts by provincial Sufis in Francesca Orsini's. These are deliberate attempts by kings, merchants, and spiritual figures, through the medium of professional poets or members of their circles, to create narratives that become the history of their family or lineage and insert their protagonists or patrons into the history of a place or of a wider group. Some such histories are in book or manuscript form, while others are carved on stone inscriptions that record individual achievements and family trees on civic and religious buildings. History can also be found in other genres of texts, including in the many glossaries and dictionaries produced at this time, some that offer etymologies and lexical histories in their explanations, others that signal the linguistic needs of their commissioners and compilers. In the visual realm too, painters represented their surroundings even when they deliberately relocated 'classical' tales to local landscapes and climates, turning them into records of their own times. Many such conceptions of history are explored in this volume.
In addition, the long fifteenth century saw the emergence of the powerful voices and personalities of Ramanand (whatever his historicity), Kabir, Nanak, Raidas, Mira Bai, and Surdas, to name but a few. Although their words (bani) did not attempt to produce history in the same way as the ones mentioned above, they produced history all the same. Through their distinctly new forms of articulation, the rapid circulation of their words, and in a few cases, their active proselytizing, these figures prefigured the creation of widely shared discourses and new groups (called panths). If a new form of literature and its textualization is always linked to the emergence of a new power (with consequent realignments in the field of power), the emergence of these voices denotes a changed polity and the confident assertion of new historical subjects. Even though the words and songs of these charismatic figures were textualized only a century later, they marked as well as produced important socio-historical change. In the century following this textualization, their biographies and hagiographies followed in great number as their followers systematized the memorialization of both panth and bani.
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