Remembering Satish Chandra (1924-2013): The History Guru who influenced a generation
History of Medieval India by Satish Chandra, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1988.
When I was in school in the 1980s, there was not much talk about India before the 20th century. Our textbooks started with the British colonial era in the late 1700s and ended with the partition of India and Pakistan in 1949. In between were a few pages on ancient Indian history and a lot on the rise of European nations such as France and Great Britain.
Those skinny pages on medieval India were often filled with stories of Muslim rulers, their wars of expansion, and conquests. There was also a lot about the invasion of South Asia by mlecchas—the lowest class of people in Vedic society, according to Hindu texts—and the heroics of Hindu kings who fought to protect the land of the god-born. One phrase which came frequently up in these stories was that used by a 12th-century Hindu king to describe Muslims: yavana or Yavans, a generic name the Romans had used to identify themselves.
Many historians now see the period of Muslim rule in South Asia as part of the long history of the region. But in the 1980s, many Indian schoolchildren were told that the Muslim conquest was only about a few foreign rulers and their armies. So when I came to college and started reading history from multiple perspectives, my first question was: What exactly happened 13 centuries ago? And why?
Satish Chandra provided some of the answers in his 1988 book, History of Medieval India. Originally published in 1983 as A History of Medieval India: 1200-1761, Oxford University Press reissued it in 1988 with a new author’s introduction—and added more than 100 pages. It remains one of the most detailed accounts of India’s medieval history, covering political develop write a text for college students but Oxford University Press suggested that he publish it for college ents from the 12th to 17th centuries.
Chandra, a retired professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, was one of India’s leading medieval historians. He wrote dozens of books and edited many more, including The Successors of Mohammad Beg Triggers: The Muslim Interlopers in medieval India (1997) and The History of Medieval India (2007), both published by Orient Blackswan.
In his introduction to History of Medieval India, Chandra writes that he was motivated to write the book after he encountered a high school textbook that “gave a totally distorted picture of the Muslim invasions and their aftermath.” Despite “all that has been written and published on the subject since 1921, when the first comprehensive history of medieval India appeared,” such simplistic views remain common today, he notes.
The first two chapters of History of Medieval India cover the Muslim invasions and the rise of the Delhi sultanate.
According to Chandra, the Muslim conquests in India were neither sudden nor unexpected. The Hindu kingdom of Sindh was overwhelmed in 711, during the time of Mohammed’s death, but most peoples—such as the Punjabis, Baluchis, and Pashtuns; the Kashmiris, Brahmans, and Kshatriyas; the Gurjars, Yadhavas, and Palas; and the Thakurs, Senas, and Chauhans—fought back successfully.
It was only after about two centuries that “the Muslims began to make considerable territorial gains on a permanent basis,” Chandra writes. That was in the 13th century when Turkish invaders from Central Asia established a sultanate in Delhi.
Chandra devotes two chapters to Sultan Ghazi Qutub-ud-D Inah, who briefly became the first Muslim ruler of India.
“It was in the 14th century that the Muslims made their first great advance into the interior, conquering Sindh in 1329 and establishing their rule over Gujarat in 1351,” Chandra writes. Sultan Qutub-ud-Din Bahadur Shah, who ruled Delhi from 1389 to 1390, is best remembered for his taste for poetry and music. But he also “displayed extreme cruelty” when he killed more than 70,000 Hindu prisoners after retaking Chittor in 1388, Chandra notes.
The Mughal emperor Babur is known for his memoir, the Kabul Diary, but not much for his “iconoclastic destruction” of a large statue of Buddha in Ajmer in 1526, Chandra notes. This marked the beginning of a campaign by Muslim rulers to spread their faith by destroying temples and idols throughout India, he writes.
Babur’s son and successor, Humayun, is best remembered for his exile in Persia and Afghanistan after losing the Battle of Kamran to the ruler of Delhi, Chandra writes. However, he “was a thorough gentleman and a great lover and poet,” according to Babur’s memoir.
The chapter on Emperor Akbar is lengthy and contains interesting tidbits about India at the time of colonization. For instance, while most Indian towns had only rough estimates of population, Akbar’s court historian had counted the population of Bhinmal in Rajasthan with “minute detail—down to the number of houses in each locality,” Chandra writes.
Chandra notes that although Akbar was tolerant of other religions—he married Hasti, a Hindu; Ram-Saadi, a Muslim; and Agra, a Christian—he remained nominally Muslim and drew no pictures of anyone except Allah.
The emperor also kept detailed records of his military campaigns, including the daily expenses of the army. Among other things, the army consisted of 4,000 camel keepers, 20,000 men to grind corn, and 50,000 warriors, Chandra notes.
Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, is best known for building the Taj Mahal in Agra, but “was a spendthrift and a ruthless ruler who killed his brother and his brother’s sons and imprisoned his father for the rest of his life,” Chandra writes. Like other Mughal emperors, Shah Jahan kept a close watch on trade and commerce in his empire through the help of information collectors.
Although the Mughal emperors ruled most of northern India at the time of colonization, their control over the rest of the country was weak at best, Chandra writes. Outside the towns and small cities were jungles and forests where highway robbers ran circles around poorly organized police forces.
A new force was emerging in the south also: the Vijayanagar kingdom, which had its capital in the city by the same name. Originally founded in the 13th century, the empire reached its peak under Bukka Raya II, who ruled between 1522 and 1560. Chandra writes: “It was probably the largest empire in the subcontinent at that time,” stretching from eastern India to Afghanistan.
The Mughal emperors tried to strike alliances with the Vijayanagar rulers, who were mostly Hindu while the emperors were Muslim. However, these alliances were short-lived, and soon it was the Vijayanagars who gained the upper hand, conquering Delhi and halting Mughal expansion into south India. The empire fell to a coalition of Muslim kingdoms in 1570, but its military had used “unusual weapons” such as catapults and “fire ships” loaded with oil and set alight, Chandra writes. The Vijayanagar rulers also maintained a large, professional army of well-trained soldiers and sailors.
The collapse of the Vijayanagar empire left a power vacuum in the south that was soon filled by three smaller kingdoms, writes Chandra. The rulers of Mysore built up an impressive military with canons and troops that were “almost professional,” while the Nayaks of Madurai developed a strong navy that dominated the Coromandel Coast. Meanwhile, the Tuljapur Marathas built a flotilla of ships able to travel long distances and attack ships from the south toward Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
The Marathas of the 17th century are mostly remembered for their warrior caste known as Shiv Sena, but at that time they were “a confederacy of subordinate septs or clans some of which … were merchant septs,” Chandra writes. These clans sometimes raided territories as far away as the Persian Gulf, shipping goods back to the Indian subcontinent by boat.
The British East India Company was formed in 1613 to try to break the Dutch monopoly on the spice trade. The company initially tried to buy spices from traders in Surat, but when that didn’t work, it began buying them directly from growers in south India and Sri Lanka, effectively taking control of the trade. The company also fought a series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries against Vijayanagar’s successor states. The Mysoreans and Nayaks of Madurai were defeated, while the Tuljapur Marathas signed a series of treaties with the British.
In the mid-18th century, southern India was divided into several kingdoms that were nominally under Mughal or British rule. However, rebellions against British rule began to break out, beginning with one by Theory Raja Simhaji of Bharuch in what is now Gujarat in 1807. This was followed by one in Nagpur in what is now Maharashtra in 1816, and one in Pudukkottai in 1822. Rebellions also broke out in 1851 and 1857 against British rule that led to the end of the Mughal empire.
The British also tried to improve infrastructure in the areas they ruled. Roads were built, and so was a canal that helped divert water to Tamil Nadu’s Kodai River for irrigation purposes. A port was built in Tauranga, New Zealand, for ships traveling between India and Europe. But these efforts were minuscule compared with those made during British rule in the rest of the Indian subcontinent.
India’s share of the world’s trade fell from about 25 percent before the Portuguese invasion to less than 2 percent toward the end of the Mughal empire, Chandra writes. Only after independence did it again reach 2 percent. The decrease was the result of both the end of direct trade with the Far East and the closing of the port of Hormuz to Indian ships after the Portuguese lost control of it, thus forcing ships to take a much longer route around Africa.
Chandra, a well-known historian, and biographer (of Jawaharlal Nehru, among others), died in 2018 at age 94. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honor, in 2016.
The Royal Mint and Coins
India’s decline as a trading power allowed Britain to step in and fill the gap left by the Portuguese and the Dutch. In 1616, James I established the Royal Mint in London “for refining as well as coining gold and silver brought in from India and Subcontinential India,” Chandra writes.
Gold and silver flowed into Britain, where it was used to buy East Indian cotton, salt, rice, tea, and coffee. In this way, Britain gradually became involved in India’s affairs, first in the Carnatic War (1746-1763) and then in the conquest of Bengal by the British East India Company in 1757.
One interesting fact that Chandra mentions is that a million pounds (about 12 billion rupees) of gold sent to Britain during the 18th century came from what is now Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
Mughal rule over most of India came to an end in 1757 when the East India Company defeated Nawab Siraj-ud-Daula of Bengal. The company then gained “Jewish”—the right to collect taxes—in Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s holy cities, and in 1765 changed its status to that of a sovereign ruler, with its own emperor. Two years later, this entity became known as the princely state of Awadh.
The Mughal emperor at the time, Alamgir II, was alarmed by the British conquest of Bengal and ordered his general to attack. The Battle of Plassey in 1757 was a quick victory for the British, who left Bengal for Awadh in search of riches. Here, too, they defeated the ruling nawab and took control.
The gradual collapse of Mughal authority after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 was followed by the rise of five independent kingdoms: Hyderabad, Mysore, Awadh, Bengal, and Carnatic (or Tamil Nadu). While the rulers of the first four were Muslim and had strong trading links with Europe, that wasn’t the case in Carnatic, which was ruled by the Nayak dynasty and which remained religiously diverse.