Cultural History of Medieval India

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Item Code: NAJ558
Author: Meenakshi Khanna
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2012
ISBN: 9788187358305
Pages: 282
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 250 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

This anthology of reading seeks to explore Indian culture in the medieval period through five themes: kingship traditions, social processes or religious devotion, inter—cultural perception, forms of identities, and aesthetics.

Written by well-known scholars, the ten essays in this book present sub-cultures in diverse regional settings of the subcontinent. The articles suggest that culture does not exist as fragments of the ‘great’ and ‘little’, or ‘classic’ and ‘folk’ in any given tradition, In fact, variants within a given tradition interact with one another and assimilate new characteristics over time. These interactions also take place across boundaries of different religious and cultural spheres, and in the process, give meaning to notions of the ‘self’. These readings introduce a new way of understanding medieval Indian history by engaging with interdisciplinary methods of research on issues that are significant to everyday existence in a plural society like that of India.

This book will be great value to students of history, as well as to other readers interested in the culture of the medieval period in India.


About The Author

Meenakshi Khanna is Associate Professor in History, Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi.

Preface and Acknowledgements

The purpose of this volume is to make available to wide audience some of the most recent scholarship on diverse aspects of culture in medieval India. As explained in the Introduction, this volume is organized thematically, rather than by chronology or tradition, and indicates two concerns of historians in recent times. First, the rubrics under which the essays are collated point to the shift in thematic focus of historical enquiry from politics and economy to culture, belief and ideology. These features represent the trends in cultural histories.

Secondly, there are many ways of studying past cultures and civilizations, but most contributors to this volume suggest, a preferred means of doing so is by studying the oral and written texts produced by the people in the past. These scholars have encouraged greater sensitivity to alternative texts and readings, and have made audible the multiple voices within these texts by application of tools derived from cultural criticism—especially post-colonial discourse and feminism—which reveal dimensions to medieval Indian history that would otherwise remain unseen. This does not mean that aspects of material would otherwise remain unseen. This does not mean that aspects of material culture have been ignored; epigraphy, painting and music have been examined as part of the medieval past as well.

In other words, cultural histories need to establish a correlation between the reading of the text and its multi-layered historical perspective that include political that include political and economic contexts as well. The essays in this book seek to establish such interconnections between the text and history. The readers are then required to seek these connections by interlinking across themes.

Inevitably, there are gaps in what could be covered in the present volume. This partly due to restrictions of space but also due to editorial constraints, We do not have, for example, essays on religious traditions other than Hinduism and Islam; or on architecture, dance, drama, culinary etiquette, etc; and we could re-produce only some of the images in Ebba Koch’s original article. Despite these limitations, this collection serves well to represent the diverse aspects of cultural history, deludes the fallacious notions of the ‘medieval’, and articulates the connection between the past and the present day construction of identities.

The contributors to this volume have drawn on a wide variety of linguistic sources. The editor has not tried to impose any standardized system of transliteration, and has reproduced these essays according to the authors’ preferred style.

In preparing this volume for publication, I am indebted to all the scholars and their publishers who generously granted permission for reprinting their essays. My sincere thanks to David Dean Shulman, C.M. Naim, J.R.I. Cole, B.D. Chattopadhyaya, Carla Petievich Aditiya Behl and Brian Silver; more specifically R. Champakalakshmi for writing a new preface to her essay; Richard M. Eation for his help in securing permission for copyright; and Ebba Kock for her encouragement and advice. Thanks are also due to W.H. Siddiqui for securing us permission to reproduce the two images from the manuscript of the Jahangirname preserved in the Rampur Raza Library.

I also wish to acknowledge the Committee members of the B.A. Concurrent Course of the University of Delhi, in particular, Dilip Menon, Sunil Kumar, Shahid Amin, Upinder Singh and B.P. Sahu under whose auspices this volume was conceived. My special thanks are due to Kunal Chakrabartim Kumkum Roy ad Stephan popp who were extremely generous with their time and have commented on the draft of my Introduction; to Professor Muzaffar Alam I owe gratitude for his encouragement; and I am grateful to Bharati Jagannathan and Archana Verma helping me with references.

My sincere appreciation is due for the publisher—Esha Beteille for her patience, and Meenakshi Chawla for her technical expertise and constant support I numerous ways, all through the production of this volume.

Without the support of my Family and moment of indulgence shared with Sahiba, Mishri and Chotti, it would not have been possible to work on any project. Even as we miss Sahiba, I must record my sincere gratitude to all of them.



THE ESSAYS IN THIS BOOK WERE WRITTEN OVER THE LAST TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AND PRPRESENT some of the finest scholarship of medieval India. Students of India history will be familiar with many of these essays. Our attempt is to make available in a single volume articles and extracts dispersed in journals and books to facilitate teaching and reference, to introduce to non-historians and specialists some aspects of cultural traditions that developed in the medieval period from, roughly, the eighth to the eighteenth century.

The contents of the volume are organized under five rubrics dealing with kingship and the court, devotionalism, perceptions of cultural representation, diverse from the social science. The sources in include written texts reflecting the concerns of literate political elites and religious specialists, oral narratives of peasant communities, poetry attribute to women, inscriptions, paintings and musical compositions that continue to be orally transmitted until today. Two themes—identity and culture—are pivotal to these essays, wherein these are conceptualized as flexible, changing and inclusive rather than as set, unchanging and exclusive.

Kingship and Court: The Classic and the Folk

In recent years Indian kingship has received considerable attention from scholars. This scholarship has created certain models to study the structures of authority and functions of state in ancient and medieval India.' These models generally view the state as a sort of administrative or bureaucratic polity suspended above a society composed of various social groups. The major debates in this historiography have revolved around the extent to which the state was centralized or decentralized, as well as its administrative structures. As far as the ideological sphere is concerned, scholars have developed theories of ritual and religious kingship, often visualizing the king, whether Hindu or Muslim, as a 'sacred' or 'divine' figure locked in a perennial struggle with and ideologically dependent on, his brahmana priests or the ulama (scholars of Islam).

Currently, the notion that the 'state' is made up of specific activities and the ideas of individuals who compose it, rather than a self-evident functional structure, has encouraged an alternative approach to kingship that focuses on the activities of the royal court. In this view the king's court is not merely 'symbolic' of the state but the activities of the court were the activities of the state. The courtly people and their activities extended to the forging of relationships beyond the royal household. Thus the court actually stood at the apex of social relationships that were also constantly being reformulated by it. The essays selected reflect on and elucidate these possibilities.

The two essays in this section explore folktales about Tenali Rama and Birbal, two court jesters belonging to distinct courtly traditions, namely, that of Krishnadevaraya the ruler of Vi jay an agar a in south India between AD (1509- 1529); and the Mughal emperor Akbar who ruled between AD (1556-1605). At the level of 'common sense' these entertaining stories appear as satires about the political, social and religious systems. However, both essays probe beyond such commonsensical perceptions from different perspectives: David Dean Shulman from that of comparative religion, and Choudhri Mohammed Naim from the perspective of scholarship on Urdu literature. Despite these differences these essays enrich our understanding of kingship and courtly culture through the comic mode of the jester, and make us think about some of the larger issues stemming from our present preoccupation with narrowly-defined identities.

The essay on Tenali Rama is an extract from a larger work on myths and tales of south Indian Hindu kings, The King and the Clown in South Indian Myth and Poetry published in 1985. Until the 1970s most historians had characterized medieval kingdoms of India either as bureaucratically-centralized unitary states or as decentralized feudal systems. In 1980 Burton Stein innovatively applied the 'segmentary state' model, developed by the anthropologist Aidan Southall in his study of the Alur society of East Africa, for the Chola and Vijayanagara kingdoms. According to Stein, south Indian society and polity possessed a segmentary structure which lacked fixed boundaries. The basic socio-political segment in such a kingdom was a local territory; localities were grouped into zones; these into major sub-divisions and the latter in turn into macro-regions which encompassed the kingdom. Stein distinguished two kinds of kingly authority in these kingdoms. While 'little kings' in their immediate localities exercised direct control or 'political sovereignty', the king at the top of the pyramidal segmentary structure used 'ritual' or 'symbolic sovereignty' to maintain loose and custodial hegemony over the localities. Both kinds of authority were 'ritual' in nature and based on the relationship of the ruler to the divine.' In other words, these kingdoms basically had a weak centre, and although the king had immense symbolic importance he lacked coercive power.

Shulman agrees with Stein's overall understanding. He however, realizes that this model does not explain the structural weakness of the medieval polity. Nor does it explain why it remained so salient a feature for centuries. Shulman tries to develop a cultural explanation. While conventional historians, including Stein, had used inscriptions as their primary source material, Shulman explains the structural weakness of the Chola (ca. ninth to thirteenth centuries) polity and the 'ritual' nature of its kingship by examining literary sources in the classical languages of the South-mainly Tamil and Sanskrit, Tamil epics and Puranas, drama and folk literature in Telugu (occasionally in Malayalam) primarily because literature helps to reconstruct the social and cultural universe in a way that inscriptions do not.

A cardinal principle of medieval south Indian culture derived from classical Tamil poetics, is the division of the world into the 'inner' (akam) world of emotions and fantasy; and the 'outer' (puram) world of action and kingly deeds, a conceptualization that goes back to the Sangam period in the early centuries of our era. In a sense, the 'inner' and 'outer' worlds of Tamil poetics represent different notions of reality that are separate but never finally divorced. The boundary between the two realms, feeling and fact, fantasy and reality is permeable. In other words, the boundaries of social categories are permeable and allow transformation of social types into diverse forms. The interrelationships among social categories are also in a flux and reflect instability.

To this is added a second contrast which is basic to Shulman's approach and this is conceptualizing human experiences in two different modes, namely, the 'tragic' and the 'comic'. Both terms are taken from Western poetics and applied to the cultural context of south India. According to this perspective, the 'everyday' experience of life is 'tragic' as it is suffused with the experience of ‘separation' or viraha from transcendent. The view from the transcendent, from where our separation is a playful diversion is called lila or in Tamil vilaiyatal. The 'tragic' worldview of bhakti also entails a basic acceptance of worldly existence with its boundaries of conventional order, hierarchical claims, defined roles and limitations. In contrast to the predictable experience of 'everyday' 'tragic', the unpredictability of the transcendent is 'comic: These two modes of experience are not isolated but are in interaction with each other. In the realm of polity, the 'tragic' and the 'comic' modes represent two distinct, yet interactive paradigms of kingship.

What does this have to do with the problem of medieval kingship, or for that matter, stories of the king and the clown? In the south Indian symbolic order, the king and the brahmana are two dominant categories who represent temporal power and religious authority respectively. Shulman observes that if the symbolic order of the society has no boundaries, then so it must be with the king and the brahmana. The two figures transgress boundaries and interpenetrate. Also more significantly, each persona carries within itself its own antithesis, and disintegrates into something else. These transformations are reflected in stories about the multiple roles performed by the king and the brahmana, and how they are locked in an irresolvable tension with each other.

Theoretically speaking, this tension has been viewed as the problem of legitimation of the king's authority and its contestation between the 'transcendent' authority of the brahmana and the worldly power of the king. The literary sources reveal how this tension becomes convoluted in the context of medieval south India as the king and the brahmana undergo several transformations, and reversal of roles. In Shulman's understanding the ambiguous roles of the king and brahmana are responsible for creating weak structures that explain the vulnerability of centralized administrative authority in the medieval state.

Let us first consider the persona of the king. Ideally, the myths project the icon of a dharmic king who is possessed of power and works within the limitations of temporal authority that is controlled by the brahmana to maintain proper order in society.' However, the ideal undergoes transformation when the king breaks out of the normative pattern of everyday life, leads his armies on raids, and opens himself and his kingdom to disorders of excessive kingly action undermining the societal order. In breaking the normative arrangement the king challenges the hierarchical structure of authority headed by the brahmana. In the symbolic universe of south Indian culture the ideal matrimony between the king and brahmana, thus, disintegrates into a fractious marriage of the real. The king moves back and forth between the two phases of the royal paradigm that is symbolically represented as the 'tragic' and the 'comic' modes of kingship.

The inner law of transformation applies not only to the king but also to the other persona of polity, the brahmana. His principal function is as the guardian of samskara. That is, as the highest order in his society and by virtue of his knowledge, the brahmana defines rituals, societal order, and norms for all kinds of socio-political and religious activity. He however, has no iconic persona in myth and legend." In literary sources, the personality of the brahmana is riddled with contradictory images representing ideals of santa (literally, extinguished, free from passion, at peace), sannyiisa (renunciation) and purity on the one hand, and the use of violence for the pursuit of power on the other Stepping in and out of his principal function as guardian of samskara, the brahmana is like the gatekeeper who stands on the border between the temporal order and transcendence. It is then not surprising for the brahmana to say, ' ... for 'me everything becomes reversed, like a reflection in the mirror; left seems to be right, and right becomes left.' In one mirror image, the brahmana becomes a clown. Once again, the 'tragic' and the 'comic' aspects of kingship in medieval south India become symbolically manifest in the diverse roles performed by the brahmana.

These ideas provide the backdrop against which the theme of brahmana clowning and its relation to kingship has been explored in the folktales of Tenali Rama. Shulman has shown a historic link between the brahmana and the clown which is traced to the 'high' or 'classical' traditions of Sanskrit drama and the Tamil Sangam literature. He proposes a continuity of this theme, although in variable 'folk' forms as in Kerala's dramatic tradition of Kutiyattam, and in the present day village clowns in south India. These comparisons draw our attention to the fact that a tradition from the past never wholly dies; that it continues to survive to the present in transformed ways.

Shulman observes such a transformation in the comic roles of the brahmana when he compares the radical jester in folk culture with the constrained character of the vidusaka in Sanskrit drama. The vidusaka or the clown is one of the many comic characters known to the Sanskritic (i.e., forms derived from Sanskrit) tradition. Dramaturgical texts like the Natyasastra emphasize the vidusaka's grotesque appearance characterized by deformity and ugliness, heightened by his makeup and attire. He is unrefined, obsessed with food, insensitive to the erotic mood of his companion the play's hero, often a king and is foolish.

The relations of the vidusaka and the nayaka are defined in a way that make the clown a counterfoil to the royal hero in order to heighten by contrast, the dignity of the chief protagonist. In other words, the contrastive characteristics of these two figures complete the composite image of the hero. But their mutual dependence is unequal: the nayaka can get by without the vidusaka, but the latter does not stand alone. One also notices the incongruities in the vidusaka's brahmanical identity, such as his Prakrit speech, his ignorance and foolishness and his accidental mockery of the world ordered by samskara rather than its active criticism. These features indicate that the vidusaka is symbolic of the brahmana who stands on the boundary between the inner (imaginary, transcendent) and the outer (conventionally ordered, samskaric) meaning of experience. But as his concerns are earthly and wedded to the 'tragic' existence of the everyday, he is incapable of leading the hero or audience to any deeper or transcendent meaning. The vidusaka is clearly not the central character of the plot, and he is unable to sway the action in the drama in any meaningful way with his limited 'comic' effect. One therefore laughs at the vidusaka rather than with him.

The 'comic' role of the brahmana however, undergoes a transformation as the clown becomes the court jester in the folktales of Tenali Rama. These stories represent the folk vision of the Vijayanagara court. In this vision the jester's presence is as crucial to the court as that of the king. This is because a jester such as Tenali Rama provides the necessary corrective to the king's human inadequacies and deviations from the truth. Although the relation of interdependence between the king and comic figure continues to be asymmetrical, as with the nayaka and vidusaka's, the balance has now shifted. Krishnadevaraya cannot survive without the jester, nor can the latter exist without the court. Yet, it is the jester who always triumphs over the king. Consequently, the jester becomes the central character of the plot, orchestrating the action in the story that revolves around his unrestrained 'comic' ingenuity.

The basic theme running through the stories is Tenali Rarna's wholesale violation of norms of both the kingship and the samskaric order upheld by the brahmanas. Unlike the vidusaka, the jester is entirely aware of his role as an iconoclast of all forms of 'privilege, pretence and convention' by using his extraordinary command over language to draw us toward the higher, transcendent and 'comic' mode of experience. The folk perception of the king requires the presence of his indomitable jester. 'Whatever the king constructs together with his ministers, his wives, his brahmana priests and advisers, his poets-the jester can be counted on to undermine or to unravel: In the ideal world the brahmana is the upholder of orderly existence; but in the folk perception the brahmanical association with comedy and reversal is seen as integral to this paradigm. The jester is truly speaking, a reflexive brahmana.

A different set of anonymous popular folktales told originally in Hindi and Urdu in north India, are the focus of C. M. Nairn's essay. These are commonly known as 'Birbaliana' or anecdotes of Birbal and contain stories, riddles and jokes concerning the intimate association of Akbar, and his brahmana companion Mahesh Das, alias Birbal. Some stories in this assortment (and also independently of this corpus) include a third, but imaginary, character of Mulla Do- Piyaza.

In the Birbaliana the characters of the king and comic figures belong to two different religious traditions, Hindu and Muslim. These folktales have often acquired a communal hue in the hands of their tellers and interpreters who have victimized Akbar and made him a butt of jokes and admonitions. Such antagonism was also expressed in contests between the two comic figures themselves; the fate of the contest depended on the religious identity of the teller. These stories propose a highly antagonistic and exclusively communal relationship between Akbar and his Hindu masses.

Nairn argues that such a view is historically incorrect and results from projecting onto the past, our present concern with communal identities. Secondly, he suggests that these stories have multiple contexts, which cannot be located within the confines of political history alone. Therefore he proposes to re-locate these stories within the generic context of folkloric literature. From this point of view the stories about Akbar, Birbal and Mulla Do- Piyaza are similar to those of Krishnadevaraya and Tenali Rama of Vi jay an agar a, as both sets of stories poke fun at the human imperfections in the character of the king, and suggest a corrective to his behaviour. This in fact, is a universal feature of folktales concerning kings and comic figures in diverse cultural traditions all over the world.

Simultaneously, Nairn draws attention to the fact that the generic context is also specific to cultural traditions within which the folktales are conceived. For example, in the Indic tradition the stories about the king and the jester are symbolic of the normative scheme of Hindu kingship where the brahmana priest holds legitimating and corrective powers over the kshatriya king. But in the Islamicate tradition there was no caste distinction between the jester and the king. Nor did the jester have any legitimizing authority over the king. When the folk stories about Muslim kings and their comic companions were conceived, storytellers were mindful of these cultural characteristics. Akbar was the most powerful of all Muslim rulers in India, even apotheosised in popular Hindu literature, and therefore an appropriate choice as the royal protagonist in the anonymous jokes and stories. Birbal was chosen to be his favourite companion because he was a brahmana and fitted into the Indic symbolic type of these stories. While the Mulla also appeared as a companion to the king, he lacked any social basis of power. The triad appears to be unique in the cultural history of the subcontinent.

The reader might wonder if 'story' is taking place of history. After all there were no real jesters in the medieval south Indian courts, and although Mahesh Das alias Birbal was a favoured officer at Akbar's court, we do not hear about his comic role until much later. So what are the historians looking for in these stories? The stories do not mention empirical kingship but recount the symbolic ordering of society in great detail. They also tell us about how newer cultures may be adapted within the pre-existing symbolic order. All this is not to deny the value of empiricist historiography. Rather, the purpose is to use sources that are popular among the people because they are culturally significant to them. The stories contain the meaning of kingship for the people. In other words, these stories help us to understand the meaning of culture in the medieval milieu when kingship played a dominant role in the everyday lives of the people.




Preface and Acknowledgements vii
Introduction ix
Section 1: Kingship and Court Mixing the Classic with the Folk  
A Kingdom of Clowns: Brahmins, Jesters, and Magicians 3
Popular Jokes and Political History: The Case of Akbar, Birbal and Mulla Do-Piyaza 24
Section 2: Devotionalism  
Patikam Piituviir: Ritual Singing as a Means of Communication 47
Popular Shiism 72
Section: 3 Perceiving Cultures  
Images of Raiders and Rulers 101
The Articulation of Islamic Space in the Medieval Deccan 126
Section 4: Negotiating Identities  
Gender Politics and the Urdu Ghazal: Exploratory Observations 145
The Magic Doe: Desire and Narrative in a Hindavi Sufi 173
Section 5: Painting and Music  
The Hierarchical Principles of Shah-Iahani Painting 203
The Adab of Musicians 237


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