Category Archives: History

The Buddhist Diwali

 

diwali

Diwali is the festival of lights for only a few Buddhists in India and Nepal. There are reasons though why their brethren should look at Diwali in a new light.

Buddhists celebrating Diwali do so in remembrance of Emperor Ashoka (r. 268-232 BCE). Around the year 260 CE, Ashoka embraced Buddhism and adopted the principles of the Dharma as the basis for his governance of his empire.

The practice of government should not tolerate suffering.[1] Ashoka in his edicts emphasized the importance of humane government and the welfare of his people. His state built infrastructure and provided free medical care to his subjects. He advocated religious tolerance and called for harmony and respect between all sects in the empire.

He is considered by many Buddhists as the ideal cakravartin,[2] the universal sovereign who rules benevolently. Ashoka unified the subcontinent and and his policy of Dharma applied equally to all of his subjects. In preaching virtue and benevolence in government, he can be seen as a political counterpart to the Buddha.

In today’s darkness, the light of Diwali deserves to shine in Ashoka’s example.

 

[1] Mencius

[2] Skr. “wheel turner”

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Film Review: “The Black Prince”

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Written and Directed by Kavi Raz

Starring: Satinder Sartaj (Duleep Singh), Amanda Root (Queen Victoria), Shabana Azmi (Maharani Jind Kaur), Jason Flemyng (Dr. Login)

In 1849, the British conquered the Punjab and deposed a ten year old king. The boy was baptized a Christian and exiled to England, where he grew up dancing in ballrooms, shooting wild game and holding court with Queen Victoria.

The Black Prince is the story of Duleep Singh, the last Maharaja of the Punjab. It’s a fascinating story of loss, colonialism and identity, making for a film rich in dramatic potential.

Sadly, Kavi Raz’  The Black Prince is more concerned with characterizing Duleep as an Indian national hero than in charting his own struggle.

The film has its charms. It’s beautifully shot and captures in detail the drawing rooms, gardens and stately palaces of the Victorian era. Satinder Sartaj gives a subdued performance as Duleep while Shabana Azmi’s performance as the fiery Jind Kaur is one of the film’s highlights.

Duleep and Jind Kaur however are mere players in this imagined rendering of India’s colonial past. Duleep is presented to us as the Anglicized Indian who becomes an awakened nationalist, but his inner life is left opaque. Who was Duleep Singh? What was he like as a husband and father? Did he really seek to liberate the Punjab from British rule?

These questions will have to wait for another film. The Black Prince is daring and ambitious in scope, but fails to do justice to the Last Maharaja.

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Urdu Poetry: Mir Taqi Mir

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Written by Randeep Purewall

Mir (né Muhammad Taqi Mir) was born in Agra in 1722. His father died when Mir was eleven years old, leaving the boy to seek an education and patronage in Delhi. He was educated in Delhi by the poet and scholar Khan-e-Arzu and supported by a nobleman, but left the city upon Nadir Shah’s invasion in 1739

It was years later after returning to Delhi, that Mir became a prominent poet, winning high-ranking patrons and competing with the poets Dard and Sauda in musha’ara (poetic symposiums). Delhi was being repeatedly invaded during this period, however, by Afghans, Jat and Marathas. For Mir, the times marked not only the decline of the city, but the setting of a civilization.

This age is not like that which went before it
The times have changed, the earth and sky have changed

In 1782, Mir left Delhi for Lucknow as had other poets like Sauda before him. He found patronage in Lucknow at the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula where he received a pension and continued to write poetry. He died in 1810.

mir

Mir’s verses express the impermanence of life and the grief at the loss of love, beauty and spring. At the same time, his poems underline the transcendent experience and journey of love through the colours of the garden, the movement of the stars and heart of man.

How long is the life of a rose?
The bud just smiles

Mir’s themes of love and beauty and pain and separation established the conventions of classical Urdu poetry and his style inspired later poets like Ghalib (1797-1869). He also helped establish Urdu as a literary language. Mir reviewed and refined the use of Urdu in the musha’ara of Delhi and naturalized its use of Persian expressions. He wrote, moreover,  in the everyday language of the city, making the language of Delhi, the language of poetry.

(Trans. Russell, Islam; Sadiq; Ali)

Every leaf and every plant my state do know
The rose knows not what the garden knows

The world is full of illusions
We behold here what we imagine

The streets of Delhi were not mere streets
They were like the album of a painter
Every figure I saw there
Was a model of perfection

The spring has come, the flowers bloom cheek by cheek
Would you and I might stand thus in the garden!

The greatest sinner, Mir
Was he who adopted love as his religion

The moments of happiness
Within this world were few
Now weep for the smiling dawn
Of the garden like the dew

I never saw the stars so bright before
It was her eyes that taught them how to shine

To keep my eyes on you, and you alone
My one and only heart’s desire is this
To open them only if you are there
The height to which I can aspire is this

Mir, quit the company of Shaikh and Brahmin
And mosque and temple too – leave them behind.
Lay one stone on another in the desert
Worship your Love at your own humble shrine

I grant you sir, the preacher is an angel
To be a man, now – that’s more difficult

Go to the mosque; stand knocking at the door
Live all your days with drunkards in their den
Do anything you want to do, my friend,
But do not seek to harm your fellowmen

What days those were!
When I would drink and climb up to the tavern roof
And fall asleep, the white sheet of the moonlight over me

Man was first made of clay
And if the song you sing be good
This world of clay for years to come
Will listen to your voice

Sources:

Ahmed Ali, The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry (Columbia University Press, New York, 1973).

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, Mir and Ghalib: Comparisons (trans by F.W. Pritchett), 1997.
http://www.columbia.edu/itc/mealac/pritchett/00garden/about/txt_srf_mir_ghalib.html

Khurshidul Islam and Ralph Russell, Three Mughal Poets (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1991)

Muhammad Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature (Oxford University Press, London: 1964)

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Urdu Poetry: Sauda

lucknow-mosque

Written by Randeep Purewall

To many of his contemporaries, Mirza Muhammad Rafi Sauda (1713-1781) was the embodiment of the ideal mirza. He served in the army and was a courtier and man of letters. His friendship among the nobility won him patronage as a poet and the audience of the likes of the Emperor Shah Alam (r. 1759-1806).

The eighteenth century however was a time of political disorder and confusion in Delhi. The Mughal Empire had begun to disintegrate after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707. In 1719, the Emperor Farrukhsiyar was blinded and imprisoned by his own generals. The city was sacked by Nadir Shah in 1739 and later suffered invasions by the Afghans, Jats and Marathas:

How can anyone close his eyes in sleep these days?
For fear of thieves even mischief keeps awake during the night.

The devastation of Delhi prompted an exodus from the city. In 1754, Sauda left Delhi and went in search of patrons in the Kingdom of Awadh. He took service in the courts of prominent nawabs  in Farrukhabad and Faizabad before settling in Lucknow in 1774 at the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula.

Under Asaf-ud-Daula, Lucknow experienced an age of cultural splendor. Poetry, music and calligraphy flourished while mosques, gardens and gateways were built. Sauda was named Poet Laureate by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula and remained in Lucknow until his death in 1781.

mirza-rafi-sauda

Sauda is the greatest non-ghazal of the eighteenth century and one of the three pillars of Urdu poetry. He helped refine the language through mushairras in Delhi. He made Urdu the language of panegyric (qasida), narrative (masnavi), satirical (hajv) and elegaic verse (marsiya). He also composed one of the first shahar-e-ashob in Urdu upon leaving Delhi for Farrukhabad:

How can I describe the desolation of Delhi?
There is no house from where the jackal’s cry cannot be heard
The mosques at evening are unlit and deserted
And only in one house in a hundred will you see a light burning

Sauda’s poetry is bold, vigorous and earthy. It reflects the spirit of a man of this world who, while prone to exaggeration, was also funny and playful in his verse. His satires reveal much about the society and culture of 18th century India with its corrupt officials, decadent nawabs, greedy merchants and cunning maulvis.

On the gluttony of Mir Zahik, a Delhi poet and rival of Sauda:

He only has to hear a saucepan rattle
And like a soldier digging in for battle
He’ll take up his position by the door
Nothing can shift him then: that god of war,
Rustam himself, might rise up from the tomb
And try his strength against him. He’d stand firm
He’d fight to the last breath and never yield
Until his corpse was carried from the field.

I am not the fairest flower in the garden
Nor am I thorn in any man’s path
I am neither famous for virtue
Nor notorious for vice
I seek nobody’s favours
And want nobody to seek mine
People may think well or ill of me as they please
I act as my nature prompts me
(Trans. R. Russell)

On Fulad Khan, the Police Officer

O my friends, where are those days
When the hand of a person stealing a lemon was cut off!
What peace and tranquility reign then
And how happily the people lived!
The police officer was above corruption
And not a single thief was to be found
But alas! corruption creeps everywhere now
And the city is full of thieves, loafers and cut-purses …
(Trans. M. Sadiq)

Ridiculing The Times (Tazhik-e-Rozgar)

Should one give up all and take
to Sufism, his fate is then to become
a laughing stock for the poets –
They compare his turban’s end
To a donkey’s tail, the turban itself
To a dome.

If in ecstatic dance at songs divine
He shouldn’t keep time, they whisper
“How silly, to be out of step!”
And if he moves to time, they say,
“What the hell! Is this a nautch-girl’s dance?”

Forsaking the world and trusting in God
If you sit at home, the wife believes
You to be an idle, feckless wastrel
Your son’s sure in his heart that you
Are in his dotage. Your daughter thinks
“The old man’s mad for sure”.
(Trans. S.R. Farqui; R. Purewall)

Sources:

Ahmed Ali, The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry (Columbia University Press, New York, 1973).

Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, The Satires of Sauda (1706-1781), University of Heidelberg, September 2010.

Muhammad Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature (Oxford University Press, London: 1964)

 

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A History of Buddhist India

Written by Randeep Singh

The Buddhist period of India’s history (c. 273 BCE-646 CE) refers to a time where Buddhism shaped India’s culture, religions, social and political institutions and its relations with other countries. The Buddhist emperors below ruled over multi-ethnic and multi-religious empires, and not over the monolithic Hindu nation India is imagined to be.

Ashoka (r. 273-232 BCE)

Ashoka was the last major emperor of the Maurya Dynasty (321-185 BCE). He unified most of the Indian subcontinent and helped spread Buddhism throughout his empire. His empire included Buddhists but also Jains, Brahmins and followers of different sects. His policy of “dharma” exhorted religious tolerance and expressed his concern for the welfare of his subjects.

Kanishka (r. 127-150 CE)

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Above: Map of the Kushan Empire

Under Kanishka, the Kushan Empire encompassed Bactria, Afghanistan, the Punjab and the Indo-Gangetic plains. Ruling from Purusapura (Peshawar), his empire was home to Zoroastrians, Brahmins, Jains, Buddhists, Greeks and other pagan cults. He connected India to the Silk Road and his patronage of Buddhism helped it spread to Central Asia and China.

Harsha (r. 606-647)

Harsha was the last great “ancient” emperor of northern India. He patronized Buddhist universities like Nalanda and established benevolent institutions throughout his empire. He established relations with China and welcomed monks like Hsuan Tsang (602-664) to his court. He was also, incidentally, a patron of Sanskrit literature and himself wrote plays.

nalanda

Above: Ruins of the Nalanda University. Nalanda was founded during the fifth century. Its subjects included Buddhist philosophy, logic, grammar and philology and medicine.


Dharmapala
(r. c. 780-820)

Dharmpala was a ruler of the Pala Dynasty (750-1174). His empire spanned Bengal, Bihar and central India. He founded the Vikramshila University which attracted students from across India, China, Tibet and South East Asia. The Buddhist architecture and iconography of his reign would influence styles found in Burma, Java, Tibet and Nepal.

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Imagining Ancient India

hrithik roshan

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Written by Randeep Singh

Ashutosh Gowariker recently released his trailer for Mohenjo Daro, an action-adventure set in ancient India’s Indus Valley civilization, c. 2016 BCE.

For years, ancient India has been imagined as Hindu in TV and film. The mythological serials, Ramayan and Mahabharata, set the standard back in the 1980s with their recreation of an imagined Aryan/Vedic/Brahmanic society and culture. The vision of Ancient India as a Hindu India has been constructed with every palace wall, turned with each roll of the chariot and uttered in every Sanskritized syllable in Hindu mythological serials and in semi-historical serials like Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat.

It’s also apparent in films like Mohenjo Daro. True, it looks less like the Mahabharata, but also, unlike the epics, Mohenjo Daro was a historical reality. The Indus was India’s first civilization, declining around 1900 BCE. The Aryans thereafter migrated to the Indus Valley from beyond the Hindu Kush around 1500 BCE, giving India the Vedas, the earliest Hindu religious texts.

Gowariker helps popularize the claim of Hindu Nationalists that the Indus civilization was (in part) an Aryan society and civilization. Whereas the people of the Indus are believed to have been dark-skinned Dravidians, the hero in Mohenjo Daro is a light-eyed Hrithik Roshan with blondish locks and a trident. The statues of the Indus gods are recognizably Hindu, the language Sanskritized and the film features horses, animals not known to the civilization and introduced to India centuries later by the Aryans.

Films like Mohenjo Daro suggest what India was and how we see the past. And like the many mythological and semi-historical TV serials and films before it, Mohenjo Daro is less an attempt at faithfully reconstructing a historical India than imagining a perennially Hindu one.

 

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The Politics of History

mohenjodaro_sindh

Written by Randeep Singh

The Times of India recently reported, based on the findings of the Archaeological Survey of India, that the Indus Valley Civilization may be more than 8,000 years old. This would make the Indus Civilization several thousand years older than the civilizations of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

This is an important discovery, but one that in contemporary India will likely be misused, skewed and distorted. No sooner had the Times of India reported the discovery, did its writer, Nitin Mehta,  muse over whether this meant that the Aryans were indigenous to the subcontinent.

Many Hindus believe that they are descended from that the Aryans. Hindu Nationalists, however, go further. They hold that the Aryans were indigenous to the subcontinent. This makes them natives on par with the Adivasis (aboriginals), entitles them to speak for the nation and puts them above those other perpetual outsiders, India’s Muslims.

But this discovery does not make the Indus Valley an Aryan civilization. Nor does it mean that the Aryans were native to South Asia. The latter theory has lost credence thanks to books like Frawley and Kak’s, In Search of the Cradle of Civilization, which sought to prove its hypothesis through astrology, astronomical evidence, and dates from the Puranas. 

There is no history though in Modi’s India; only, ideology in the garb of the Ramayana. History texts by scholars like Wendy Doniger are pulped. The head of the Indian National Historical Council heads an RSS chapter. In California, Hindu groups are pushing for the revision of history texts. How we react to events like these, and the Indus Valley discovery, will either lead India further into the forest of delusion or out into the open.

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