The Indo-Afghans. South India. Vijayanagar. Babar. Sea Power
Indian history has usually been divided by English as well as some Indian historians into three major periods: Ancient or Hindu, Muslim, and the British period. This division is neither intelligent nor correct; it is deceptive and gives a wrong perspective. It deals more with the superficial changes at the top than with the essential changes in the political, economic, and cultural development of the Indian people. The so-called ancient period is vast and full of change, of growth and decay, and then growth again. What is called the Muslim or medieval period brought another change,and an important one, and yet it was more or less confined to the top and did not vitally affect the essential continuity of Indian life. The invaders who came to India from the north-west, like so many of their predecessors in more ancient times, became absorbed into India and part of her life. Their dynasties became Indian dynasties and there was a great deal of racial fusion by intermarriage. A deliberate effort was made, apart from a few exceptions, not to interfere with the ways and customs of the people. They looked to India as their home country and had no other affiliations. India continued to be an independent country.
The coming of the British made a vital difference and the old system was uprooted in many ways. They brought an entirely different impulse from the west, which had slowly developed in Europe from the times of the Renaissance, Reformation, and political revolution in England, and was taking shape in the beginnings of the industrial revolution. The American and French Revolutions were to carry this further. The British remained outsiders, aliens and misfits in India, and made no attempt to be otherwise. Above all, for the first time in India’s history, her political control was exercised from outside and her economy was centered in a distant place. They made India a typical colony of the modern age, a subject country for the first time in her long history.
Mahmud of Ghazni’s invasion of India was certainly a foreign Turkish invasion and resulted in the Punjab being separated from the rest of India for a while. The Afghans who came at the end of the twelfth century were different. They were an Indo-Aryan race closely allied to the people of India. Indeed, for long stretches of time Afghanistan had been, and was destined to be, a part of India. Their language, Pashto, was basically derived from Sanskrit. There are few places in India or outside which are so full of ancient monuments and remains of Indian culture, chiefly of the Buddhist period, as Afghanistan. More correctly, the Afghans should be called the Indo-Afghans. They differed in many ways from the people of the Indian plains, just as the people of the mountain valleys of Kashmir differed from the dwellers of the warmer and flatter regions below. But in spite of this difference Kashmir had always been and continued to be an important seat of Indian learning and culture. The Afghans differed also from the more highly cultured and sophisticated Arabs and Persians. They were hard and fierce like their mountain fastnesses, rigid in their faith, warriors not inclined towards intellectual pursuits or adventures of the mind. They behaved to begin with as conquerors over a rebellious people and were cruel and harsh.
But soon they toned down. India became their home and Delhi was their capital, not distant Ghazni as in Mahmud’s time. Afghanistan, where they came from, was just an outlying part of their kingdom. The process of Indianization was rapid, and many of them married women of the country. One of their great rulers, Alauddin Khilji, himself married a Hindu lady, and so did his son. Some of the subsequent rulers were racially Turks, such as Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, the Sultana Razia, and Iltutmish; but the nobility and army continued to be mainly Afghan. Delhi flourished as an imperial capital. Ibn Batuta, a famous Arab traveller from Morocco, who visited many countries and saw many cities from Cairo and Constantinople to China, described it in the fourteenth century, perhaps with some exaggeration, as ‘one of the greatest cities in the universe.
The Delhi Sultanate spread southwards. The Chola kingdom was declining, but in its place a new sea faring power had grown.This was the Pandya kingdom, with its capital at Madura and its port at Kayal on the east coast. It was a small kingdom but a great centre of trade. Marco Polo twice visited this port on his way from China, in 1288 and 1293, and described it ‘as a great and noble city,’ full of ships from Arabia and China. He also mentions the very fine muslins, which ‘look like tissues of a spider’s web’ and which were made on the east coast of India. Marco Polo tells us also an interesting fact. Large numbers of horses were imported by sea from Arabia and Persia into south India. The climate of south India was not suited to horse-breeding, and horses,apart from their other uses, were necessary for military purposes.The best breeding-grounds for horses were in central and western Asia, and this may well explain, to some extent, the superiority of the central Asian races in warfare. Chengiz Khan’s Mongols were magnificent horsemen and were devoted to their horses.The Turks were also fine horsemen, and the love of the Arab for his horse is well-known. In north and west India there are some good breeding-grounds for horses, especially in Kathiawar, and the Rajputs are very fond of their horses. Many a petty war was waged for a famous charger. There is a story of a Delhi Sultan admiring the charger of a Rajput chief and asking him for it. The Hara chief replied to the Lodi king: ‘There are three things you must not ask of a Rajput: his horse, his mistress, or his sword,’and he galloped away. There was trouble afterwards.
Late in the fourteenth century, Timur, the Turk or Turco-Mongol, came down from the north and smashed up the Delhi Sultanate. He was only a few months in India; he came to Delhi and went back . But all along his route he created a wilderness adorned with pyramids of skulls of those he had slain; and Delhi itself became a city of the dead. Fortunately, he did not go far and only some parts of the Punjab and Delhi had to suffer this terrible affliction.
It took many years for Delhi to wake up from this sleep of death,and even when it woke up it was no longer the capital of a great empire. Timur’s visit had broken that empire and out of it had arisen a number of states in the south. Long before this, early in the fourteenth century, two great states had risen—Gulbarga, called the Bahmani kingdom,* and the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar. Gulbarga now split up into five states, one of these being Ahmadnagar. Ahmad Nizam Shah, the founder of Ahmadnagar in 1490, was the son of Nizam-ul-Mulk Bhairi, a minister of the Bahmani kings. This Nizam-ul-Mulk was the son of a Brahmin accountant named Bhairu (from which his name Bhairi). Thus the Ahmednagar dynasty was of indigenous origin, and Chand Bibi, the heroine of Ahmednagar, had mixed blood. All the Muslim states in the south were indigenous and Indianized.
After Timur’s sack of Delhi, north India remained weak and divided up. South India was better off and the largest and most powerful of the southern kingdoms was Vijayanagar. This state and city attracted many of the Hindu refugees from the north. From contemporary accounts it appears that the city was rich and very beautiful. ‘The city is such that eye has note seen nor ear heard of any place resembling it upon the whole earth,’ says Abdur-Razzak, from central Asia. There were arcades and magnificent galleries for the bazaars, and rising above them all was the palace of the king, surrounded by ‘many rivulets and streams flowing through channels of cut stone, polished and even.’ The whole city was full of gardens and because of them, as an Italian visitor in 1420, Nicolo Conti, writes, the circumference of the city was sixty miles. A later visitor was Paes, a Portuguese who came in 1522 after having visited the Italian cities of the Renaissance. The city of Vijayanagar, he says, is as ‘large as Rome and very beautiful to the sight’; it is full of charm and wonder with its innumerable lakes and waterways and fruit gardens. It is ‘the best-provided city in the world’ and ‘everything abounds.’ The chambers of the palace were a mass of ivory, with roses and lotuses carved in ivory at the top—’it is so rich and beautiful that you would hardly find anywhere another such.’ Of the ruler, Krishna Deva Raya, Paes writes: ‘He is the most feared and perfect king that could possibly be, cheerful of disposition and very merry; he is one that seek to honour foreigners, and receives them kindly, asking about all their affairs whatever their condition may be.
While Vijayanagar was flourishing in the south, the petty sultanate of Delhi had to meet a new foe. Yet another invader came down from the northern mountains and on the famous battlefield of Panipat, near Delhi, where so often India’s fate has been decided, he won the throne of Delhi in 1526. This was Babar, a Turco-Mongol and a prince of the Timurid line in central Asia. With him begins the Mughal Empire of India.
Babar’s success was probably due not only to the weakness of the Delhi Sultanate but to his possessing a new and improved type of artillery which was not in use in India then. From this period onwards India seems to lag behind in the developing science of warfare. It would be more correct to say that the whole of Asia remained where it was while Europe was advancing in this science. The great Mughal Empire, powerful as it was in India for 200 years, probably could not compete on equal terms with European armies from the seventeenth century onwards. But no European army could come to India unless it had control over the sea routes. The major change that was taking place during these centuries was the development of European sea power. With the fall of the Chola kingdom in the south in the thirteenth century, Indian sea power declined rapidly. The small Pandya state, though intimately connected with the sea, was not strong enough. The Indian colonies, however, still continued to hold command over the Indian Ocean till the fifteenth century, when they were ousted by the Arabs, who were soon to be followed by the Portuguese.
* The name and origin of the Bahmani Kingdom of the South is interesting. The founder of this state was an Afghan Muslim who had a Hindu patron in his early days—Gangu Brahmin. In gratitude to him he even took his name and his dynasty was called the Bahmani (from Brahmin) dynasty.
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