Trapped in the ruins

VS Naipaul caused controversy in Delhi recently when he apparently endorsed
the ruling Hindu nationalist party. While his credentials as a writer are
unchallenged, argues William Dalrymple, his historical grasp is less sure,
marred by a grave failure to recognise Islam's contribution to India

Saturday March 20, 2004
The Guardian

There was some surprise last month when Sir Vidia and Lady Naipaul turned up
at the office of India's ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya
Janata Party (BJP), and gave what many in the Indian press took to be a
pre-election endorsement not just of the party but of the entire far
right-wing Hindu revivalist programme. India was indeed surging forward
under the BJP, the Nobel Laureate was quoted as saying, and, yes, he was
quite happy being "appropriated" by the party.
More striking still was the quote attributed to Naipaul about the
destruction of the Babri Masjid, Babur's mosque, in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh,
a decade ago: "Ayodhya is a sort of passion," he said. "Any passion is to be
encouraged. Passion leads to creativity." For a man whose work contains many
eloquent warnings of the dangers of misplaced political passions - the
Islamic Revolution in Iran to take just one example - this might appear to
be a surprising volte face, especially when one considers the horrific
anti-Muslim pogroms that followed Ayodhya, when BJP mobs went on the rampage
across India and Muslims were hunted down by armed thugs, burned alive in
their homes, scalded by acid bombs or knifed in the streets. By the time the
army was brought in, at least 1,400 people had been slaughtered in Bombay

It might seem unlikely that a Nobel Laureate would put himself in a position
of apparently endorsing an act that spawned mass murder - or commend a party
that has often been seen as virulently anti-intellectual. Indeed, one
commentator in the Times of India wondered if Naipaul had not been
misunderstood. The paper pointed out that Naipaul told his hosts at the BJP
in Delhi: "You cannot carry the past with you or you will not progress.
Leave this behind in history books and move on."

Yet Naipaul's earlier statements, especially his remarks that the first
Mughal emperor Babur's invasion of India "left a deep wound", are consistent
with ideas Naipaul has been airing for many years now. In 1998, for example,
he told the Hindu newspaper: "I think when you see so many Hindu temples of
the 10th century or earlier disfigured, defaced, you realise that something
terrible happened. I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was
mortally wounded by those invasions ... The Old World is destroyed. That has
to be understood. Ancient Hindu India was destroyed." Such attitudes form a
consistent line of thought in Naipaul's writing from An Area of Darkness in
1964 through to the present.

Few would dispute Naipaul's status as probably the greatest living writer of
Indian origin; indeed some would go further and argue that he is the
greatest living writer of English prose. For good reason his views are taken
very seriously. He is a writer whose fiction and non-fiction written over
half a century forms a body of work of great brilliance, something the Nobel
committee recognised in 2001 when it awarded him literature's highest
honour, and singled out his analysis of the Islamic world in his prize
citation .

Naipaul's credentials as a historian are, however, less secure.

There is a celebrated opening sequence to Naipaul's masterpiece, India: A
Wounded Civilization. It is 1975 - a full quarter century before he won the
Nobel - and Naipaul is surveying the shattered ruins of the great medieval
Hindu capital of Vijayanagar, the City of Victory.

Naipaul leads the reader through the remains of the once mighty city, its 24
miles of walls winding through the "brown plateau of rock and gigantic
boulders". These days, he explains, this part of south India is just "a
peasant wilderness", but look carefully and you can see scattered everywhere
the crumbling wreck age of former greatness: "Palaces and stables, a royal
bath ... the leaning granite pillars of what must have been a bridge across
the river." Over the bridge, there is more: "A long and very wide avenue,
with a great statue of the bull of Shiva at one end, and at the other end a
miracle: a temple that for some reason was spared destruction, and is still
used for worship."

Naipaul goes on to lament the fall of this "great centre of Hindu
civilisation", "then one of the greatest [cities] in the world". It was
pillaged in 1565 "by an alliance of Muslim principalities - and the work of
destruction took five months; some people say a year." It fell, according to
Naipaul, because already the Hindu world it embodied had become backward
looking and stagnant: it had failed to develop, and in particular had failed
to develop the military means to challenge the aggressive Muslim sultanates
that surrounded it. Instead, Vijayanagar was "committed from the start to
the preservation of a Hinduism that had already been violated, and
culturally and artistically it [only] preserved and repeated; it hardly
innovated ... The Hinduism Vijayanagar proclaimed had already reached a dead

For Naipaul, the fall of Vijayanagar is a paradigmatic wound on the psyche
of India, part of a long series of failures that he believes still bruises
the country's self-confidence. The wound was created by a fatal combination
of Islamic aggression and Hindu weakness - the tendency to "retreat", to
withdraw in the face of defeat.

Naipaul first developed the theme in An Area of Darkness. The great Hindu
ruins of the south, he writes there, represent "the continuity and flow of
Hindu India, ever shrinking". But the ruins of the north - the monuments of
the Great Mughals - only "speak of waste and failure". Even the Taj and the
magnificent garden tombs of the Mughal emperors are to Naipaul symbols of
oppression: "Europe has its monuments of sun kings, its Louvres and

But they are part of the development of the country's spirit; they express
the refining of a nation's sensibility." In contrast, the monuments of the
Mughals speak only of "personal plunder, and a country with an infinite
capacity for being plundered". In a recent interview, Naipaul maintained
that "the Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is
painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of
the blood of the people."

Not many other observers have seen the Taj Mahal - built by the emperor Shah
Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, and usually perceived as the world's
greatest monument to love ("a tear on the face of eternity", according to
Tagore, an earlier Indian Nobel Laureate) - in quite such jaundiced terms.
Nevertheless, Naipaul's entirely negative understanding of India's Islamic
history has its roots firmly in the mainstream imperial historiography of
Victorian Britain.

The Muslim invasions of India tended to be seen by historians of the Raj as
a long, brutal sequence of pillage, in stark contrast - so 19th-century
British historians liked to believe - to the law and order selflessly
brought by their own "civilising mission". In this context, the fall of
Vijayanagar was written up in elegiac terms by Robert Sewell, whose 1900
book Vijayanagar: A Forgotten Empire , first characterised the kingdom as "a
Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests", a single brave but doomed
attempt at resistance to Islamic aggression. This idea was eagerly
elaborated by Hindu nationalists, who wrote of Vijayanagar as a Hindu state
dedicated to the preservation of the traditional, peaceful and "pure" Hindu
culture of southern India.

It is a simple and seductive vision, and one that at first sight looks
plausible. The problem is that such ideas rest on a set of mistaken and
Islamophobic assumptions that recent scholarship has done much to undermine.

A brilliant essay published in 1996 by the respected American Sanskrit
scholar, Philip B Wagoner, was an important landmark in this process.
Entitled "A Sultan Among Hindu Kings" - a reference to the title by which
the kings of Vijayanagar referred to themselves - pointed out the degree to
which the elite culture of Vijayanagar was heavily Islamicised by the 16th
century, its civilisation "deeply transformed through nearly two centuries
of intense and creative interaction with the Islamic world".

By this period, for example, the Hindu kings of Vijayanagar appeared in
public audience, not bare-chested, as had been the tradition in Hindu India,
but dressed in quasi-Islamic court costume - the Islamic inspired kabayi, a
long-sleeved tunic derived from the Arabic qaba, symbolic, according to
Wagoner, of "their participation in the more universal culture of Islam".

Far from being the stagnant, backward-looking bastion of Hindu resistance
imagined by Naipaul, Vijayanagar had in fact developed in all sorts of
unexpected ways, adapting many of the administrative, tax collecting and
military methods of the Muslim sultanates that surrounded it - notably
stirrups, horse-shoes, horse armour and a new type of saddle, all of which
allowed Vijayanagar to put into the field an army of horse archers who could
hold at bay the Delhi Sultanate, then the most powerful force in India.

A comprehensive survey of Vijayanagar's monuments and archaeology by George
Michell over the past 20 years has come to the same conclusion as Wagoner.
The survey has emphasised the degree to which the buildings of 16th-century
Vijayanagar were inspired by the architecture of the nearby Muslim
sultanates, mixing the traditional trabeate architecture of the Hindu south
with the arch and dome of the Islamicate north. Indeed some of the most
famous buildings at Vijayanagar, such as the gorgeous 15th-century Lotus
Mahal, are almost entirely Islamic in style.

Moreover, this fruitful interaction between Hindu - and Muslim-ruled states
was very much a two-way process. Just as Hindu Vijayanagar was absorbing
Islamic influences, so a similar process of hybridity was transforming the
nominally Islamic Sultanate of Bijapur. This was a city dominated by an
atmosphere of heterodox inquiry, whose libraries swelled with esoteric texts
produced on the philosophical frontier between Islam and Hinduism. One
Bijapuri production of the period, for example, was the Bangab Nama , or the
Book of the Pot Smoker: written by Mahmud Bahri - a sort of medieval Indian
Allen Ginsberg - it is a long panegyric to the joys of cannabis:

"Smoke your pot and be happy -
Be a dervish and put your heart at peace.
Lose your life imbibing this exhilaration."

In the course of this book, Bahri writes: "God's knowledge has no limit ...
and there is not just one path to him. Anyone from any community can find
him." This certainly seems to have been the view of Bijapur's ruler, Ibrahim
Adil Shahi II. Early in his reign Ibrahim gave up wearing jewels and adopted
instead the rudraksha rosary of the sadhu. In his songs he used highly
Sanskritised language to shower equal praise upon Sarasvati, the Hindu
goddess of learning, the Prophet Muhammed, and the Sufi saint Gesudaraz.

Perhaps the most surprising passage occurs in the 56th song where the Sultan
more or less describes himself as a Hindu god: "He is robed in saffron
dress, his teeth are black, the nails are red ... and he loves all. Ibrahim,
whose father is Ganesh, whose mother is Sarasvati, has a rosary of crystal
round his neck ... and an elephant as his vehicle." According to the art
historian Mark Zebrowski: "It is hard to label Ibrahim either a Muslim or a
Hindu; rather he had an aesthete's admiration for the beauty of both
cultures." The same spirit also animates Bijapuri art, whose nominally
Islamic miniature portraits show "girls as voluptuous as the nudes of south
Indian sculpture".

This creative coexistence finally fell victim, not to a concerted communal
campaign by Muslim states intent on eradicating Hinduism, but to the
shifting alliances of Deccani diplomacy. In 1558, only seven years before
the Deccani sultanates turned on Vijayanagar, the empire had been a
prominent part of an alliance of mainly Muslim armies that had sacked the
Sultanate of Ahmadnagar. That year, Vijayanagar's armies stabled their
horses in the mosques of the plundered city. It was only in 1562, when Rama
Raya plundered and seized not just districts belonging to Ahmadnagar and its
ally Golconda, but also those belonging to his own ally Bijapur, that the
different sultanates finally united against their unruly neighbour.

The fall of Vijayanagar is a subject Naipaul keeps returning to: in an
interview shortly after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2001, he talked
about how the destruction of the city meant an end to its traditions: "When
Vijayanagar was laid low, all the creative talent would also have been
destroyed. The current has been broken."

Yet there is considerable documentary and artistic evidence that the very
opposite was true, and that while some of the city's craftsmen went on to to
work at the Meenakshi temple of Madurai, others transferred to the patronage
of the sultans of Bijapur where the result was a significant artistic

The remarkable fusion of styles that resulted from this rebirth can still be
seen in the tomb of Ibrahim II, completed in 1626. From afar it looks
uncompromisingly Islamic; yet for all its domes and arches, the closer you
draw the more you realise that few Muslim buildings are so Hindu in spirit.
The usually austere walls of Islamic architecture in the Deccan here give
way to a petrified scrollwork indistinguishable from Vijayanagaran
decoration, the bleak black volcanic granite of Bijapur manipulated as if it
were as soft as plaster, as delicate as a lace ruff. All around minars
suddenly bud into bloom, walls dissolve into bundles of pillars;
fantastically sculptural lotus-bud domes and cupola drums are almost
suffocated by great starbursts of Indic deco ration which curl down from the
pendetives like pepper vines.

This picture of Hindu-Muslim hybridity, of Indo-Islamic intellectual and
artistic fecundity, is important, for it comes in such stark contrast to the
Naipaulian or BJP view of Indian medieval history as one long tale of defeat
and destruction. Today most serious historians tend instead to emphasise the
perhaps surprising degree to which Hinduism and Islam creatively
intermingled and "chutnified" (to use Salman Rushdie's nice term); and an
important book has been published that goes a long way to develop these

Anyone wishing to understand the complexities and fusions of medieval India
would be well advised to look at Beyond Turk and Hindu, edited by David
Gilmartin and Bruce Lawrence, (University Press of Florida, 2000). A
collection of articles by all the leading international scholars of the
period, it shows the degree to which the extraordinary richness of medieval
Indian civilisation was the direct result of its multi-ethnic,
multi-religious character, and the inspired interplay and
cross-fertilisation of Hindu and Islamic civilisations that thereby took

The historians do not see the two religions as in any way irreconcilable;
instead they tend to take the view that "the actual history of religious
exchange suggests that there have never been clearly fixed groups, one
labelled 'Hindu' and the other - both its opposite and rival - labelled
'Muslim'." Indeed, as one author points out, there is not a single medieval
Sanskrit inscription that identifies "Indo-Muslim invaders in terms of their
religion, as Muslims", but instead they refer more generally in terms of
"linguistic affiliation, most typically as Turk, 'Turushka'". The import of
this is clear: the political groupings we today identify as "Muslim" were
then "construed as but one ethnic community in India amidst many others".

Of course this approach is not entirely new. From the early 1960s until only
a few years ago, Indian history textbooks emphasised the creation in
medieval India of what was referred to as the "composite culture".

This cultural synthesis took many forms. In Urdu and Hindi were born
languages of great beauty that to different extents mixed Persian and Arabic
words with the Sanskrit-derived vernaculars of north India. Similarly, just
as the cuisine of north India combined the vegetarian dal and rice of India
with the kebab and roti of central Asia, so in music the long-necked Persian
lute was combined with the Indian vina to form the sitar, now the Indian
instrument most widely known in the west. In architecture there was a
similar process of hybridity as the great monuments of the Mughals
reconciled the styles of the Hin dus with those of Islam, to produce a
fusion more beautiful than either.

These Nehruvian-era textbooks were the work of left-leaning but nonetheless
internationally regarded scholars such as professors Romila Thapar, Satish
Chandra and Nurul Hasan - of whom Naipaul does not appear to think much. In
the same 1993 Times of India interview in which he defended the destruction
of the Ayodhya mosque, he remarked that "Romila Thapar's book on Indian
history is a Marxist attitude to history, which in substance says: there is
a higher truth behind the invasions, feudalism and all that. The correct
truth is the way the invaders looked at their actions. They were conquering,
they were subjugating." The new set of far right-wing history textbooks
recently commissioned by India's National Council of Educational Research
and Training at the behest of the BJP government - such as that on medieval
India with its picture of the period as one long Muslim-led orgy of
mass-murder and temple destruction - are no doubt more to Naipaul's taste.

Thanks partly to the influence of the earlier textbooks on generations of
students, there is still a widespread awareness in India of the positive
aspects of medieval Islam - aspects noticeable by their absence in Naipaul's
oeuvre. It is widely known, for example, that Islam in India was spread much
less by the sword than by the Sufis. After all, Sufism, with its holy men,
visions and miracles, and its emphasis on the individual's search for union
with God, has always borne remarkable similarities to the mystical side of
Hinduism. Under Sufi influence it was particularly at the level of village
folk worship that the two religions fused into one, with many ordinary
Hindus visiting the graves of Sufi pirs - some of whom are still considered
to be incarnations of Hindu deities - while Muslim villagers would leave
offerings at temples to ensure the birth of children and good harvests. To
this day, Sufi dargahs still attract as many Hindu, Sikh and Christian
pilgrims as they do Muslims.

Yet Sufism, clearly central to any discussion of medieval India, barely
makes an appearance in Naipaul's work. "Islam is a religion of fixed laws,"
he told Outlook magazine. "There can be no reconciliation [with other
religions]". In this one sentence he dismissed Indian Islam's rich 800-year
history of syncretism, intellectual heterodoxy and pluralism. The history of
Indian Sufism in particular abounds with attempts by mystics to overcome the
gap between the two great religions and to seek God not through sectarian
rituals but through the wider gateway of the human heart. These attempts
were championed by some of south Asia's most popular mystics, such as Bulleh
Shah of Lahore:

Neither Hindu nor Muslim
I sit with all on a whim
Having no caste, sect or creed,
I am different indeed.
I am not a sinner or saint,
Knowing no sin nor restraint.
Bulleh tries hard to shirk
The exclusive embrace
of either Hindu or Turk.

In Beyond Belief (1998) Naipaul writes of Indian Muslims as slaves to an
imported religion, looking abroad to Arabia for the focus of their
devotions, which they are forced to practise in a foreign language -
Arabic - they rarely understand. He seems to be unaware of the existence of
such hugely popular Indian pilgrimage shrines such as Nizamuddin or Ajmer
Sharif, the centrality of such shrines to the faith of Indian Muslims or the
vast body of vernacular devotional literature in Indian Islam, much of it
dedicated to the mystical cults of indigenous saints.

Also notably absent in Naipaul's work is any mention of the remarkable
religious tolerance of the Mughals: neither Akbar nor Dara Shukoh makes any
sort of appearance in Naipaul's writing, and his readers will learn nothing
of the former's enthusiastic patronage of Hindu temples or the latter's work
translating the Gita into Persian, or writing The Mingling of Two Oceans, a
study of Hinduism and Islam which emphasises the compatibility of the two
faiths and speculates that the Upanishads were the source of monotheism.
Such views were far from exceptional and most Mughal writers show similar
syncretic tendencies: the greatest of Urdu poets, Ghalib, for example, wrote
praising Benares as the Mecca of India, saying that he sometimes wished he
could "renounce the faith, take the Hindu rosary in hand, and tie a sacred
thread round my waist".

Yet Naipaul continues to envisage medieval India solely in terms of Islamic
vandalism. Likewise, he continues to talk of Mughal architecture as entirely
"foreign ... a carry-over from the architecture of Isfahan", ignoring all
the fused Hindu elements that do so much to define its profound Indianness:
the jalis, chajjas and chattris, quite apart from the fabulous
Gujerati-Hindu decorative sculpture that is most spectacularly seen at
Akbar's capital, Fatehpur Sikri. Yet while architectural historians see a
remarkable fusing of civilisations in Mughal buildings, Naipaul thinks "only
of everything that was flattened to enable them to come up".

That destruction of Hindu monuments did take place is undeniable; but in
what circumstances, and on what scale, is a matter of intense scholarly
debate. Perhaps the single most important essay in Beyond Turk and Hindu is
Richard Eaton's fascinating account of temple destruction. It is of course a
central nostrum of the Hindu far right that between the 13th and 18th
centuries, Indo-Muslim states, driven by a combination of greed, intolerance
and a fanatical iconoclasm, desecrated as many as 60,000 Hindu temples. This
claim is examined in detail by Eaton, who concludes that "such a picture
[simply] cannot be sustained by evidence from original sources".

Eaton writes that he can find evidence for around only 80 desecrations
"whose historicity appears reasonably certain", and that these demolitions
tended to take place in very particular circumstances: that is, in the
context of outright military defeats of Hindu rulers by one of the Indian
sultanates, or when "Hindu patrons of prominent temples committed acts of
disloyalty to the Indo-Muslim states they served. Otherwise, temples lying
within Indo-Muslim sovereign domains, viewed as protected state property,
were left unmolested."

Indeed Indo-Islamic states involved themselves directly in the running of
their Hindu temples, so that, for example, "between 1590 and 1735, Mughal
officials oversaw the renewal of Orissa's state cult, that of Jagannath in
Puri. By sitting on a canopied chariot while accompanying the cult's annual
festival, Shah Jehan's officials ritually demonstrated that it was the
Mughal emperor who was the temple's - and hence the god's - ultimate

None of this should be read in any way as challenging Naipaul's importance
as a writer: his non-fiction about India is arguably the most brilliant body
of writing about the region in modern times, and it is precisely because of
this that it is important to challenge his errors.

In the current climate, after the pogroms of Gujerat and the inaccurate
rewriting of textbooks, Naipaul's misleading take on medieval Indian history
must not go uncorrected. To quote Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya of
Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, writing recently about the new BJP
history textbooks: "When history is mobilised for specific political
projects and sectarian conflicts; when political and community sentiments of
the present begin to define how the past has to be represented; when history
is fabricated to constitute a communal sensibility, and a politics of hatred
and violence, then we [historians] need to sit up and protest. If we do not
then the long night of Gujerat will never end. Its history will reappear
again and again, not just as nightmare but as relived experience, re-enacted
in endless cycles of retribution and revenge, in gory spectacles of blood
and death."

· William Dalrymple's White Mughals (Harper Perennial) recently won the
Wolfson Prize for History