Excavation of a neglected period
Reviewed by Belu Maheshwari

Early Medieval India: A Reader
Ed Upinder Singh.
Oxford University Press. 
Pages 354. Rs 750

History is a vital part of any nation, community or individual’s being and a link which provides rootedness to the present. The way history is understood by most people has to be challenged and modified. It can be questioned and theories and concepts can be open to debate and new formulations. There have been major achievements in the past half century of historical investigation. These include a rigorous analysis of political processes, agrarian relations, social stratification and the formation of regional cultures.

There is a need to broaden the canvas of history writing. Theory building requires a partnership with empirical evidence and also inter-texuality. This means greater attentiveness towards perspectives and voices of text, inscriptions, artifacts and images. Essays in this book edited by Upinder Singh widens the canvas by studying a period that has been neglected in Indian history.

Most of us studied the ancient period till the sixth century and the medieval period started with the invasions of the Muslims around the twelfth century. The interim period was relegated to the backgroud.Upinder Singh has not only provided, in the Reader, the history of the early medieval period but also provided linkages between ancient and later medieval periods.

The essays are well researched and the historiography is of immense value to future scholars. It highlights the complex and multilinear nature of historical processes. The canvas of the book includes link between the humans and their physical environment, filling the gaps in regional histories, reconstructing the profiles of urban societies; including women and gender relations and marginalised groups into integrated social histories.

This involves study of the complexities and pluralities of the religious domain: Adopting a nuanced approach towards literature, art and other elements of the aesthetic sphere; recognising and exploring the rich philosophical and intellectual production of this period. An attempt has been made to break out of insular thinking and to look at the history within the larger perspective of Asia.

The essays in the book are divided into four parts. The first deals with theoretical models and political processes. The first essay is by R.C.Sharma whose writings had sparked off a major debate on the significant changes that happened between seventh and twelfth centuries. He was the one who pointed out that this period saw immense development in most fields. Sharma’s essay is on whether we had a feudal order which can be compared to feudalism as ascribed by most historians. The other two essays are on the segmentery state by Burton Stein and on state formation by Hermann Kulke. The second part is on village, town and society in early medieval India. The focus is on land rights, commerce in towns, society of Kakatiya of Andhra Pradesh, it also hones in on women power in Kashmir. Part three is on religion and culture. It highlights major developments in religious ideas and institutions as well as exceptional vitality in the spheres of art and architecture.

The essay on religion looks at the topic in the historical context, keeping in mind the philosophical and doctrinal undertones and details of religious beliefs and practices. Leslie Orr studies a thousand inscriptions in Tamil Nadu between ninth and thirteenth centuries within a gendered framework. In the Hindu religion there were layered religious domain: One corresponding to distinctive sectarian belief and practice; the other a larger one arising out of a shared cultural matrix. Another analysis is to move away from the assumption of fully formed, mutually exclusive religious identities, they were evolving and interacting parts of larger religious landscapes and historical processes.

The settling of politics, religion, language and literature into an identifiable regional mould is usually seen as one of the significant features of c-600-1300. This has been highlighted in the essay of Kunal Chakarvarty and Kapila Vatsyayan. Development of language and literary production both in Sanskrit and the regional languages called ‘vernacularisation’ has been written about by Pollock.

Upinder Singh’s own essay is on politics, violence and war, which she studies through the writings of Kamandakas-Nitisara. It offers an organic account of the body politic and shows that the state was not king centric. Also brought out is the political importance of the royal household, especially the harem, courtiers, neighbouring rulers and forest people. This perspective accords importance to emotions, such as love, jealousy, anger and hate in its explication of the political world. War was a central feature of the early medieval history and the interplay between violence and non-violence in early Indian thought thus forms an important subject of historical investigation.

A book of incisive and indepth intellectual and historical writing, these essays fill gaps in history writing.