KM Shrimali is a professor of History at Delhi University
It is well known that right from at least the mid-nineteenth century, many European scholars, British administrator-cum-historians, art critics, etc. have, while writing on Indian arts and culture, used terms and expressions that emanated from their basic grounding in western art forms. Alternatively, their greater familiarity with the West Asiatic or Middle Eastern arts well before encountering cultural developments of the Indian sub-continent also directed them to see the latter in a somewhat preconceived mould. Thus, the Ashokan columns had to be Persepolitan, Kalidas could be described only as the Shakespeare of India and Samudra Gupta was Napoleon of India.
It is possible that some of the terminology generated in the last more than one hundred years may have been the result of ignorance about the Indian cultural traditions. Sometimes, the coining of specific terms may even have been necessitated by special needs. But it is no less probable, may be even more than likely that art terms created by the European scholars might have had vested imperialist designs.
To illustrate, James Mill’s tripartite periodisation of Indian history into ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’ and ‘British’ epitomized in his infamous The History of British India was not an innocent exercise. It is well known that throughout Indian history the frontiers of the religion/s of ruler/s did not overlap with those of the people. If at all the defining criterion of Mill was ruler’s religion, the logic of such a formulation demanded that the third period had been designated as ‘Christian’. It is now recognized that Mill’s periodisation stemmed from the imperialist objective of fomenting a religious divided in India (no wonder Mill’s History was one of the prescribed texts at the Haileybury College, where the prospective English officers received their training before coming to India). It is, therefore, not impossible that similar motivation determined the coining of such terms as ‘Hindu architecture’, ‘Buddhist architecture’, ‘Muslim architecture’, ‘Indo-Islamic architecture, etc.
It is a matter of regret that the so-called ‘nationalist’ historians of India writing in the early decades of the twentieth century had neither questioned such vocabulary nor the assumptions lying underneath. The appearance of such monographs as Hindu Polity – A Constitutional History of India in Hindu Times and History of Mediaeval Hindu India in the 1920s by stalwarts of the ‘nationalist’ breed must have been received by Mill’s descendants with winking eyes. Indeed, much of such terminology, specially in arts and culture, has remained in currency even after India’s independence ! As recently as 1995, the renowned journal World Archaeology brought out a special issue entitled ‘Buddhist Archaeology’. A lone Cambridge-based Indian contributor to the volume, who dons the mantle of a true nationalist and occasionally indulges in outbursts against ‘Colonial Indology’, did not say a word against this neo-colonialist paradigm. In the early 1980s, the same journal had also brought out an issue on ‘Islamic Archaeology’. The two volumes of The Penguin Guide to the Monuments of India (published in 1989/90) deal with Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, Islamic, and ‘Rajput’(as if these were different from ‘Hindu’, ‘Buddhist’, ‘Jain’…) monuments, but when it comes to the period of the British rule, the nomenclature becomes ‘European monuments’. Apparently, notions and motives have not changed since the days of Mill. It’s time that such stereotypes are questioned.
It would be impossible to believe that religion did not provide inspiration for arts of European nations. And yet, we never come across religion-centered vocabulary even for distinctively religious structures. Terms are invariably functional, region-specific or people-specific. Thus, we get to read about ‘Roman’ (not pagan or Christian) arch, Gothic, or Roman lettering (contrast this with ‘Islamic’ calligraphy), Doric or Ionic columns. We do not use Catholic spire, Protestant steeple or a Methodist vault. Each city-state in ancient Greece paid particular honour to one god who was regarded as its special patron. Athena was the paramount deity at Athens; Poseidon held a similar position at Corinth; Apollo at Miletus, and so on. But have we ever asked: why pillars originating from Corinth were designated as Corinthian and not Poseidonian? Why do we then use ‘Hindu architrave’ and ‘Islamic dome’?
It would be incisive to look at the numerous terms used in Indian writings on architecture. It is rather significant that in describing details of structures, ground plans, supportive members such as beams, arches, pillars, columns, caryatids; decorative motifs, building materials, etc. specific sectarian religion-based terms are never invoked. Thus, terms for temples are invariably in the sense of ‘abode of god/s’, i.e., devagriha, devaayatana, devaalaya, devasadana, devaagaara, devabhavana, surasthaana, etc. Mandir in the sense of a ‘temple’ does not figure in any inscription before the 18th century, and in literature, too its varied meanings include palace, town, camp, and even ‘a stable for horses’. Praasaada as a common word for palace and temple, especially in north India, has parallels in the use of koyil for both palace and temples in south India. Pillars / caryatids get their terms on the bases of the material used (ishtaka- or ashma-stambha, brick or stone pillar respectively; ayasthoona, iron column) or decorative motifs, e.g., gaja-vyaala, simha-vyaala (elephant- or lion-based caryatids). The components of the structure are also named after their functional purposes: ranga-mandapa (dancing hall), yagyashaalaa (quarter for performing sacrifices), pradakshinaapatha (path of circumabulation), santhaagaara (assembly hall), and so on.
Even in situations of conflict between followers of different sectarian beliefs, as happened very often amongst inhabitants of Karnataka and Tamilnadu between the sixth and the thirteenth centuries, architectural terminology did not undergo any substantive change to acquire any sectarian overtone. One can surely identify enormous borrowings of ideas, motifs, shapes, etc. in course of interactions amongst different regions, dynasties and people. Styles did acquire regional specificities: Naagara and Dravida for north and south India respectively or those of Gujarat and Malava; but never does one come across any imposition of religious identity on architectural and sculptural delineations.
There is no European nation that has not gone through culture-contact situation. Encounters of distinctively different cultural groups are known throughout European history. Influences from outside Europe have also been quite conspicuous. The Egyptian art forms affecting sculptures of Greece and Rome and the movement of Germanic tribes in different parts of Europe are well documented. The pre-Christian Europe was marked by a plethora of religious beliefs and practices --- paganism was just one of these. It is significant that cultural interactions in varied spheres rarely acquired any religious marker. Imagine Anglo-Saxon (the language brought to Britain by Germanic tribes) being called Anglo-Wooanazian after the main god of the Germanic pantheon, viz. Wooanaz (Latinised as Mercurius or Mercury; English Wednesday being a derivative of Germanic Wooanizdag); or the Greek statuary (specially the form of Apollo) being called Egyptio-pagan.
The use of the term ‘Indo-Islamic architecture’, therefore, to characterise the fusion of the two different cultural streams is rather jarring. A combination of unrelated components (geographical region and religion in this context) is a contrived formulation. Isn’t it significant that for Indian paintings of comparable vintage we use Indo-Persian, Persian or specific region-centered terms, such as Bundi, Basohli, Pahari paintings, etc.? Again, it is erroneously believed that Persian was the language of Muslims alone. At best, it could be called the language of the ruling elite which comprised not only the Muslims but a substantial number of literate non-Muslims as well. In fact, major contributions in Persian lexicography, grammar, etc. from the seventeenth century onwards have been made by the non-Muslims. Has any language of Europe been designated after religion of its speakers? But in India, following the divisive colonial legacy, we continue to perpetuate the nefarious link between cultural manifestations and religions.
Just after the publication of this piece a debate ensued in the pages of The Hindustan Times (HT), which is being reproduce here.
Nayanjot Lahiri’s Rejoinder
(HT: June 9, 2001)
KM Shrimali states that a Cambridge-based Indian contributor to a World Archaeology special issue on ‘Buddhist Archaeology’ did not say a word about the use of such a term. As a member of the Advisory Editorial Board of World Archaeology, let me quote from the article which Dilip Chakrabarti of the Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, wrote in that issue and which Shrimali is mentioning: “ …let it be clearly understood that there was no Buddhist period of Indian history; Buddhism provided only a segment – albeit an important segment of the composite religious culture of India.
“The kings and members of their families who donated villages for the upkeep of the monasteries need not have been Buddhist themselves; the Satavahanas and the Ikshvakus of the Deccan, who must be counted among the great donors to Buddhist monastic organization, were not Buddhists. They, in fact, were great believers in Brahmanical rituals… More Hindu gods and goddesses were sculpted in eastern India than in any other earlier or later periods under the Pala rulers, who introduce themselves in inscriptions as ‘great devotees of Sugata’ or the Buddha.”
This clearly shows that the “lone Cambridge-based Indian contributor” to the particular issue that Shrimali mentions did, in fact, underline the importance of viewing Indian religious culture as a composite one.
Rejoinder to Nayanjot Lahiri’s ‘Composite Culture’:
Aesthetic Deceptions Again
(HT : June 12, 2001)
Nayanjot Lahiri’s defence of Dilip Chakrabarti in response to my contribution (Aesthetic Deceptions, June 7) was quite expected. But the citation of ten patchy concluding lines from a 17-page article, which in any case do not flow from the main text, do not controvert my basic argument. My focus was not on demonstrating Cambridge-based scholar’s convictions or otherwise about ‘composite religious culture’. I wish Ms Lahiri had also cited from the ‘Introduction’ to “the sketchiest of a sketchy outline”, as Chakrabarti describes his article under reference. Here he clarifies “a number of preliminary historical issues”, which in his priority are : the chronology of the Buddha, the archaeological evidence of his historical authenticity, the basic political and economic milieu in which he preached his religion, archaeological context of the development of Buddhism, and finally, identifying features of a Buddhist site in South Asia. Nowhere does he show his concern for the colonialist implications of “Buddhist Archaeology”. Isn’t it curious that one, who sees ‘politcs’ in the recent debates on the dating of the Buddha, is completely insensitive to the monstrosity called “Buddhist Archaeology” ? No wonder, the Cambridge-based editor (Gina L. Barnes) of the special thematic issue of the journal (World Archaeology) frequently invokes Dilip’s article to justify its usage.
As a member of the Advisory Editorial Board of World Archaeology, Lahiri would perhaps know better that as and when another issue is planned on “Hindu Archaeology”, there would be no dearth of scholars of the Indo-US school of archaeologists, who would sustain the neo-colonialist designs in the name of ‘Indian (read ‘Hindu’) Nationalism.’ After all, hadn’t the ‘nationalist’ historians of the 1920s also given a fillip to similar nomenclatures?
Nayanjot Lahiri’s Second Rejoinder
'Of Labels and Indian History'
(HT, June 22, 2001)
KM Shrimali's letter Aestheic deception again (June 12) is unconvincing for various reasons. The problem in history writing is not so much with labels as with the ways in which they are frequently used and misused. Consider a term like ‘Ancient India’. This is supposed to designate the early history of our land in all its geographical components, from prehistory till the late centuries AD. Yet the term has been used for much smaller areas and periods of time.
For example, ‘Ancient India’ for R.S.Sharma in his book Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India means the Indo-Gangetic plains in Vedic and post-Vedic times. Similarly, the World Archaeology issue on ‘Buddhist Archaeology’ is not about a Buddhist way of doing archaeology or a Buddhist period in world history. Instead, it explores a few aspects of this world religion and the manner in which these impacted upon different areas ranging from India to Japan.
Shrimali’s argument that western scholars do not use religious labels while describing their own histories is incorrect. The World Archaeology itself published a volume on ‘Archaeology and the Christian Church’. Among other writings, a work on ‘Archaeology and Christian Sacred Space at Walsingham’ was recently published. Walsingham is an old pilgrimage spot in England (North Norfolk) and it is ‘sons of the soil’, that is, British archaeologists, who have designated it in this explicitly religious way. One can certainly question such designations but these writers can hardly be described as perpetrators of a neo-colonialist paradigm.
Finally, I have been asked to make my position clear on the issue of religion and archaeology in relation to Hinduism. As in the case of other world religions, I do think that an archaeology of the systems of belief and ritual that came to be later recognized as Hinduism is possible. Hopefully, such an exercise would highlight the changing character of the religion. It would also counter attempts to erase its rich history for narrow political ends.
My Response to Nayanjot Lahiri’s ‘Of Labels and Indian history’
(HT, June 30, 2001)
Nayanjot Lahiri’s defence of ‘Buddhist Archaeology’ (June 22) makes a distressing reading, specially as it comes from one, who has in recent years, rightly unfolded the imperialist designs of such stalwarts of Indian archaeology as Cunningham, Marshall and Curzon. It’s elementary knowledge that not the ‘labels’ per se but their use / misuse often sets the tone of history writing. But Lahiri’s convoluted manner of justifying the notion of ‘Buddhist Archaeology’ defies simple logic. Since the World Archaeology (WA) had the precedent of an issue on ‘Archaeology and the Christian Church’ (I find a qualitative difference between this nomenclature and ‘Christian Archaeology’), couldn’t it be ‘Archaeology of the Buddhist Sites’? I agree with Ms Lahiri that WA’s issue on ‘Buddhist Archaeology’ “is not about a Buddhist way of doing archaeology”. It is indeed the British (I’ll still prefer to call it the colonialist) way of doing archaeology in the non-European world.
Forging ‘identities’ constitute an important task of history writing. Incidentally, the special issue on ‘Archaeology and the Christian Church’ coincides with the years (late 1980s) which mark the beginning of a trend amongst some European archaeologists to purge off the non-European , specially the so-called ‘Islamic’ elements of the ‘European’ culture. Also, the colonialist mindset familiar with ‘Hindu Church’ (e.g. mathas of Shankaracharya) and the ‘Buddhist Church’ (i.e. the samgha), needed to be different and distinctive. ‘Church’ alone would not do. Hence the ‘Christian Church’. Notwithstanding this, question remains: why wasn’t the issue entitled ‘Christian Archaeology’?
There is certainly a case for archaeology of religions – not just of Hinduism but of all religions, irrespective of their history being ‘rich’ or lamentable. But let there be no mistaking about the purposes of undertaking such ventures. Will Ms Lahiri tell us if the ‘Archaeology of Ayodhya’ undertaken by ‘sons of the soil’ in the early 1990s was for demonstrating the ‘rich history of Hinduism’ or to ‘erase’ an important archaeological monument for “narrow political ends”? Or was it a prelude to ‘Hindu Archaeology’?
Three Essays Press for books on history, education, culture, media, society and politics with a South Asian accent and a contemporary slant.