India from the archives

Medieval India
Like other social sciences, history has also become victim of two post-1945 trends. One is the transformation of the expert into a popular writer. The other is the transformation of the popular writer into a expert.


This, in turn, has had two other consequences. One is the emergence of the generalised history where details are ignored as a nuisance. The other is the submergence of the real scholar in a murky pond of charlatans. That, regrettably, includes people like me and my friends.


Without overtly seeking to do so, this book somewhat corrects that imbalance. Until he retired, the author was an assistant director at the National Archives. In this book, he brings to bear his expertise on some of the micro details of how India was in the five centuries till 1800.


It’s entirely based on a painstaking study of archival material. The author’s commentary is minimal and designed to guide rather than influence. And that’s why it’s a pleasure to dip into it from time to time.


Of course, all of it happened long, long ago. And the nano details can be very forbidding. This is a book for the experts amongst experts.


The book has 28 chapters in nine sections: the Tughluqs, Mughal diplomacy, Mughal documents, politics in the Empire, contemporary powers, administering the Deccan, society and culture, decline of empire, and 1857. Each chapter deals with some micro detail.


There is no central theme aimed at proving a point. It’s simply what it was. You are not asked to approve or disapprove. It’s enough if you just know.


Did you know?


Thus, it turns out — thanks to a new farman of 1541 discovered by the author in the National Museum in Delhi — that Babur’s other son, Mirza Kamran, had declared himself a sovereign after his brother Humayun lost a major battle at Chausa. He had also issued coins.


So what, you might ask. Nothing really, except that it’s good to know how fragile sovereignty was till so recently. We have forgotten that in 1947 India had nearly 600 “sovereigns”, plus British India which was the paramount power controlling these fellows.


Harassment of businessmen by petty officials was also common. Indeed, at one point Shah Jahan even had to issue a farman saying the transportation of elephants would henceforth be totally tax free and harassment free.


One also discovers that land grants were then what government jobs are now, a way to ensure regular incomes to the poor and needy, including women in some cases. Doubtless it was this that led Aurangzeb to exclaim towards the end of his reign  “Ek anaar, sad [100] “ bimaar”. Like governments now, he too had run out of patronage.


Mr Husain also informs us that Gorakhpur was renamed Muazammabad by Aurangzeb. Prince Mu’azzam was one of his sons. But the old name stayed on except in official documents for a few decades.


Then there is the chapter on Dost Mohammad Khan who founded the state of Bhopal. He was an Afghan adventurer who came here from near Peshawar after murdering the boss’s son. The story of his ascent with all the killing, treachery and deceit is fascinating. The house he founded lasted for nearly 200 years. One of India’s best cricketers was his descendant.


And the Taj Mahal. How was this magnificent mausoleum built? There’s an utterly fascinating chapter on it, despite the author’s warning that very few of the official documents pertaining to its construction have survived. The details of procurement of land and materials are all there. The author also refers to correspondence between Aurangzeb and his father about maintenance issues.


To sum up, this is not a book that you read on a flight. It’s something every educated Indian should keep on his desk or near his bed to read during a lull in the day. It reveals how the Mughal empire was run as a well-oiled machine.


It was only towards the end of Aurangzeb’s reign that things started to fray. The author has devoted an entire chapter to the last decade of his rule in the Deccan, which, the received wisdom says, was the undoing of the Mughal empire.


He has gone through the archives, especially Aurangzeb’s personal orders. It becomes clear that the cost soon became unsustainable. The annual financial statement for 1701 shows an excess of expenditure over revenue of Rs 10,32,054.


The deficit had to be made up by fiscal transfers from north India to the south, an exact reversal of the current situation. A substantial portion of the cost of electorally dominating the north is today being borne by the south.

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