Cities, Towns, and Urbanization in Medieval India

Caleb Simmons

Cities in Medieval India is an enormous collection of essays concerned with cities, towns, and urban development in India over the very broad medieval period. The collection covers North and South India but is generally focused on the large centers that were important (political, economic, and religious) capitals during the medieval period and have been major foci of historical writings.

The book starts off with a bang. The introduction by Pius Malekandathil is thoughtful and well-written, focusing on the forces that shape the processes of urbanization from a variety of theoretical perspectives (p. 1–22). Malekandathil does a masterful job placing medieval Indian studies within the framework of the broader discipline of Urban Studies, as large and amorphous as both categories are. In order to do this, the author discusses two types of urbanism, commericially- and politically-charged, into which the history of urban centers can be categorized and explains the need to examine both types. He continues, however, by showing how these lines are blurred throughout history by weaving together examples from Islamic and the bhakti devotional movements into the historical development of urban centers.

This introduction is followed by another insightful essay by the volume’s other editor Yogesh Sharma in which the author looks more deeply into the concepts behind the terms city or urban (p. 23–82). Building upon studies on urbanism in medieval Europe, Sharma examines the taxonomies and spaces of the city in medieval India, largely drawing from sources written by European travelers. This essay wonderfully places the study of urbanism in medieval India within the broader scope of world history and the broader field of urban studies.  In this way, Sharma’s essay almost functions as a second introduction bridging the gap between the theoretical orientation of Malekandathil’s essay and its practical application.

After these two essays the book is uneven at best. While the essays by the book’s editors promised insightful theoretical reflection on the development of urban centers through the forces that shaped them, most essays read like encyclopedic summaries with broad-stroke histories of the cities under examination. While some essays take nuanced and close looks at the sociohistorical and economic conditions that produced the raise and decline of particular urban centers (e.g. Adhya Bharti Saxena’s ‘Mandvi and Mundra: Port towns of Kachchh, Gujarat c.1550- c.1900’, pp. 575–643), many essays tend to discuss hundreds (at times thousands) of years of history condensed into approximately 15 pages each without much theoretical reflection. That is not to say that the authors do not attempt to place their material in broader theoretical discussions; however, when they do they are either underdeveloped (e.g. T. K. Venkatasubramanian’s ‘Cultural production in a pre-colonial South Indian town: Thanjavur under Nayakas and Marattas’, pp. 387–400) or contained repetitious and elementary discussions of urban studies in their introductory remarks without truly integrating that discussion into their material (e.g. Jeyaseela Stephen’s ‘Thanjavur: The making of a medieval metropolis’, pp. 209–39). This seems to be an unfortunate by-product of the editors’ ambitious undertaking to collect and edit 31 chapters about cities in medieval India, where perhaps more editorial intervention was necessary.

Two essays in particular show the simultaneous promise of the volume’s theme of urbanization and its overreliance on a macro-historical perspective. While both of these essays are instructive and informative, they seem obliged to recount the entire history of the sites under examination instead of focusing their material to a short time period in which they could flesh out all the various factors at play in urban development.

‘Sacred space, pilgrimage and urbanism: The growth of Śrīraṅgam in the Tamil Region’ by Ranjeeta Dutta covers the history of Śrīraṅgam from the 3rd to 14th centuries (pp. 457–78). The author consistently offers interesting nuggets of data and analysis about developments like agricultural expansion, sacred geography in devotional poetry, and shifting patterns of patronage. These wonderful ideas, however, remain embryonic and are not fleshed out to show how these shaped the city as it was known then or how it is known now. Therefore, this essay from a great scholar of the Śrīvaiṣṇava tradition never moves beyond a cursory overview of Śrīraṅgam’s history.

Jean Deloche’s essay on the urbanization of Pondicherry started with a great deal of promise (pp. 645–58). He begins by discussing newly emerging Dutch records that show the earliest master planning of the modern city (including facsimiles of several of the planning maps). He argues that many of our preconceptions about the French influence on the layout of the city are misplaced. The essay, however, then falls back to rote historiography recounting the development of the city during the French period. While this material is accurate and well written – as one might expect from an historian like Deloche – the essay would have been much more helpful had the author fleshed out the Dutch material more fully and reflected on the lasting Dutch influence through the French period.

Both of these solid essays from well-established and respected scholars display the tension of the volume between being a volume that is intended as an in-depth theoretical consideration of urbanization in medieval India and one that is meant as a reference work that introduces a variety of important cities.

The editors are to be commended for their efforts to collect and publish such an expansive volume on medieval urban centers. Cities in Medieval India provides a wealth of information about a great number of cities and towns throughout India from a variety of wonderful scholars. For all the reasons stated above, the essays contained within this volume can serve as great starting points for someone interested in preliminary information on any of the cities discussed within its pages and seems perfectly suited as part of a reference collection. For those hoping for a critical and reflexive volume that examines the nuance of medieval urbanism, however, the editors’ daunting task may have proved to be too much.