Skip to Content

Lead book review

As English spread over the subcontinent, India lost forever its rich Persianate literary heritage

Richard M. Eaton describes the successful merging and diffusion of Sanskrit and Persian cultures after 1000 — until the arrival of the East India Company

7 December 2019

9:00 AM

7 December 2019

9:00 AM

India in the Persianate Age 1000–1765 Richard M. Eaton

Allen Lane, pp.488, £30

In the seventh century, the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang made an epic journey through the Gobi desert and over the Himalayas to the holy places of Buddhism in India. On the way, he noted to what extent the world he passed through was dominated by Indic ideas, languages and religions. ‘People of distant places, with diverse customs,’ he wrote, ‘generally designate India as the land they most admire.’

The account that Xuanzang wrote of his journey, Buddhist Records of the Western World, makes it clear that the places he saw on his 17-year, 6,000-mile pilgrimage looked to India as the centre of world learning. In particular, its huge Buddhist universities, such as Nalanda and Vikramashila, with their tens of thousands of learned monks, were regarded with deepest reverence — as though they were a sort of cross between Oxbridge, the Ivy League and the Alexandria Library.

For around 1,000 years, from c. 200 to 1200 AD, India was a confident exporter of its own civilisation in all its forms. At the same time, the rest of Asia was the willing and eager recipient of a startlingly comprehensive mass transfer of Indian soft power — in culture, religion, art, music, technology, astronomy, mythology, language and literature. Just as Greece had radiated its philosophies, political ideas and architectural forms over an entire continent — first to Aegean Turkey and Rome and then to the rest of Europe — not by conquest but by sheer cultural sophistication, so at this period the sophistication of Indian civilisation and thought won devotees not just in south-east and central Asia but also, to some degree, in east Asia too.

Out of India came not just artists, sculptors, traders, astronomers and the occasional fleet of warships, but also missionaries of three rival Indic forms of religion:

Shaivite and Vaishnava Hinduism, and Buddhism. Sanskrit, ‘the language of the gods in the world of men’, was the lingua franca across the region, as is still clear from place names dotting the map all the way from Kandahar (Sanskrit: Gandhara) to Singapore (Sanskrit: Singhapura), and such fabled Indic monuments as Angkor Wat and Borobudur.

If the scale and breadth of this extraordinary cultural diffusion is not as well known as it should be, then that is partly due to a tendency to study the process as two separate disciplines, each the preserve of a different group of scholars. The many Buddhist monuments scattered around Afghanistan and the Taklamakan desert, through which Xuanzang passed, are usually viewed today as the first step in the story of the spread of Buddhism, or as a dog’s-leg in the history of the ‘Silk Road’, a term only coined in the late 19th century to describe the trade routes linking China with the Mediterranean.


Conversely, the spread of Indian, and especially Hindu culture, literature and religion south-eastwards to Burma, Thailand, Sumatra, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, Java and the Malay peninsula tends to be studied as part of the story of the Sanskritisation of Indo-China. Separated from each other by different university and museum departments, one extraordinary civilisational story has come to be polarised into two very different historical narratives.

India’s golden age as the centre of the Indophilic Sanskrit cosmopolis lasted an entire millennium. From 1200 onwards, however, it was India’s fate to be drawn into a second transregional world. The first Islamic conquests of India happened in the 11th century, with the capture of Lahore in 1021. Persianised Turks, from what is now central Afghanistan, seized Delhi from its Hindu rulers in 1192. By 1323, they had established a sultanate as far south as Madurai, towards the tip of the peninsula, and other sultanates were founded all the way from Gujarat in the west to Bengal in the east.

Today, the 13th-century conquests of the Persianate Delhi sultans are usually perceived as having been made by ‘Muslims’, but medieval Sanskrit inscriptions don’t identify India’s Central Asian invaders by that term. Instead, the newcomers are identified by linguistic and ethnic affiliation, most typically as Turushka — Turks — or as ‘the lords of the horses’, which suggests that they were not seen primarily in terms of their religious identity. And although the conquests were initially marked by carnage and by the mass destruction of Hindu and Buddhist temples and places of learning, India quickly transformed the new arrivals.

Within a few centuries, a hybrid Persianate, Indo-Islamic civilisation emerged out of the meeting of these two worlds. As Richard M. Eaton writes at the beginning of his remarkable new book India in the Persianate Age 1000–1765:

The story of … the encounter between the Persian and Sanskrit worlds is both rich and complex. Much of India’s history between 1000 and 1800 can be understood in terms of this prolonged and multifaceted interaction.

For the next few hundred years, India was not just the centre of what remained of its own Sanskrit cosmopolis, but also part of a transregional Persianate world, dominated by Persian language and culture and bound together by a canon of texts that circulated through ever-widening networks across much of western Asia. As Eaton writes:

India would quickly grow to become a major centre in its own right for the production, and not just the reception, of Persianate culture. Over the course of the next 600 years, India — not Iran — would become the world’s principal centre of Persian dictionaries. The first major anthology of Persian poetry would be compiled not in Central Asia or the Iranian plateau, but in the southern Punjab… By 1700, India was probably the world’s leading centre for the patronage of Persian literature and scholarship, with an estimated seven times more people literate in Persian than Iran.

By 1264, a bilingual inscription carved on a newly founded mosque in Veraval, near the great Hindu temple of Somnath in Gujarat, gives a picture of a town where two worlds were coming into intimate contact. The Persian text refers to the deity worshipped in the mosque as Allah, and describes the patron who raised it as ‘the sultan of sea-men, the sun of Islam and the Muslims’. By contrast, the Sanskrit text identifies the deity worshipped in the mosque as Visvanatha (‘lord of the universe’) and Sunyarupa (‘one whose form is the void’) and Visvarupa (‘having various forms’), while the patron is described as dharma-bhandaya — a supporter of dharma, the righteous cosmic order of justice and duty, as understood in classical Indian thought.

At the same time, in the eastern Gangetic plains, the earliest genre of Hindi literature — the so-called premkhyans, or Sufi romances — were being written in the Persian script. These

narrated the seeker’s mystical quest for union with God, but did so using characters who were ostensibly Hindu in name and cultural and religious practices, in a landscape saturated with Indian deities, mythology, flora and fauna.

Before long, in medieval Hindu texts from south India, the sultan of Delhi was being talked about as the incarnation of the god Vishnu.

This cultural mixing took place with ever greater thoroughness and complexity throughout the subcontinent over the next 600 years. Entire hybrid languages — notably Deccani and Urdu — emerged, mixing the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars of India with Persian, as well as Turkish and Arabic words. It was a process that went both ways. The great Hindu rajas of Vijayanagara described themselves as ‘sultans among Hindu kings’, and adopted Islamicate dress: Persian tunics of Chinese silks called qabas, and tall, brocaded, brimless Persian headgear called kulahs. At the same time, the Mughal Emperor Akbar ‘adopted a vegetarian diet and shortened his hair in the manner of religious ascetics’. He also abolished pilgrimage taxes on non-Muslim institutions and the jizya head tax on non-Muslims, banned the killing of cows and peacocks, and began giving generous land grants to Hindu temples.

In his court, Persian translations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana from Sanskrit were commissioned, just as elsewhere Persian romance narratives such as Nizami’s Layli va Majnun and Jami’s Yusuf va Zulakha were being translated into numerous Indian languages. By the 17th century, Akbar’s great grandson, the crown prince Dara Shikoh, had composed a singular study of Hinduism and Islam, The Mingling of Two Oceans, which stressed the affinities of the two faiths, and what he believed to be the Vedic origins of the Koran.

Under the Mughals, India grew to be an industrial powerhouse, overtaking China as the world’s leading exporter, notably of manufactured textiles. The global success of Mughal weavers attracted European traders, among them the East India Company. ‘India is rich in silver,’ noted the English merchant William Hawkins in 1613, ‘for all nations bring coyne and carry away commodities.’

In the 19th century, following the expansion of the Company across India, English gradually replaced Persian, and south Asia was drawn into a third transnational world: the westernising Anglosphere. Mastering English now became the route to advancement, and Indians who wished to get ahead had to abandon, or at least sublimate, much of their own culture, both Sanskrit and Persian, becoming instead English-speaking ‘brown sahibs’, or what V.S. Naipaul called ‘Mimic Men’. Literacy in Persian has now been lost to most Indians. Richard Eaton’s brilliant book stands as an important monument to this almost forgotten world.


Show comments
Close