Social Worlds Of Premodern Transactions: Perspectives From Indian Epigraphy And History

Amol Saghar

The present volume is a compilation of research papers which were presented in 2014 at a workshop held in Delhi. It was organised by a group of research scholars from Jawaharlal Nehru University and other premier institutes of India. The book contains seven essays and each of them focuses on different types of premodern transactions including religious, cultural, and socio-economic. The scholarly pieces in the publication cover an extensive time frame, from early historic to the early modern times. Of the seven essays, the first three focus on the early historic phase of Indian history. The remaining four essays deal with medieval and early modern periods.

The lead essay by Meera Visvanathan – entitled ‘The First Land Grants: The Emergence of an Epigraphic Tradition in the Early Deccan’ – sets the tone of this collection. The article discusses at length the emergence of ‘land grants’ as a separate category in epigraphy. Land grants have become an integral part of studies and debates concerning early medieval India. This is especially true in the case of Indian Feudalism studies which began around the 1950s and 60s with the writings of Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi and Ram Sharan Sharma. Land grants have, in majority of these studies, been interwoven with the narratives related to state formation, agrarian expansion, and ascendency of Brahmanical ideology. Visvanathan’s essay, however, provides an alternative viewpoint. Basing her arguments on the epigraphical records of the Satavahanas and their successors, the scholar argues that land grants during the initial days of their existence were not always associated with such narratives. In fact, in the early years a lot of diversity and variety was noticeable in these historical documents.

While discussing the evolutionary history of land grants, Meera Visvanathan highlights the fact that the basic framework of the such inscriptions were established during the period of the Satavahana rule. And in the subsequent centuries, new elements like genealogies, panegyrics, complex list of rights, and privileges over land, to name a few, were added to the basic structure. It was also in the post-Satavahana period that Sanskrit emerged as the primary language of land grant inscriptions. The essay, more importantly suggests, that land grants were not a consequence of any fragmentation or collapse of a state system. Instead, these grants rest upon and added to the rich tradition of record keeping.

Mekhola Gomes’s piece on the Ikshvaku dynasty, ‘Decentring the King: Kinship and Ideations of Power in the Iksvaku Kingdom’, deliberates on the processes which led to the development of relational networks of kinship in this period. Her paper stresses the fact that statements of kinship and descent served a dual purpose. While they helped the monarch to underline his personal identity and status, such expressions helped to create larger networks of elite political culture. Furthermore, both men as well as women, were part of this culture. A defining aspect of political cultures which emerged during the rule of the Ikshvakus was, according to Gomes, the emergence of ‘eulogistic genealogies.’ In addition to this the essay discusses marriage alliances and other forms of representational acts at length. Gomes thoroughly discusses the relationship between inscriptions and the concept of power. She stresses upon the fact that an inscription was a landscape on which the various visualizations of power were engraved. Moreover, the essay suggests that besides representing the visions of political power which existed during the Ikshvaku period, these inscriptions helped forge new socio-political relations, because they acted as important instruments through which power was reproduced. Rather than being unique to the Ikshvakus, this was a characteristic feature of almost all the early Indian states.

Based on a close study of the inscriptions of early and later Kadamba rulers, Prachi Sharma’s article, ‘Representations of Kingship: Epic Imagery in Kadamba Inscriptions,’ examines the place of epic imagery Kadamba rulers’ articulation of power. Her essay demonstrates that in their expressions of power, the Kadamba rulers extensively made use of the imageries from the epics. In order to construct an image of sovereignty, successive monarchs of this dynasty drew upon several tropes and symbols from the epics and the puranas. Sharma takes into account the peculiarity of eulogies and imprecatory portions, and accentuates the diverse ways in which Kadamba rulers were equated with certain figures from the epics. The essay stresses the fact that Kadambas, between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries CE, were active participants in the larger political culture of Deccan. The paper sheds light on the distinctions in eulogies or prasastis of the early and the later Kadamba rulers. In the process of doing so, the scholar provides an alternative viewpoint which questions the traditional understanding about this dynasty.

The latter four essays by Sanjukta Datta, Sabarni Pramanik Nayak, Mahmood Kooria, and Digvijay Kumar Singh deal with the post-tenth century scenario. Sanjukta Dutta in her paper, ‘Ways to Vajrasana: The Tibetan Approach (Eleventh-Thirteenth Centuries CE),’ examines the two inscriptions composed by Tibetan pilgrims. The inscriptions written in Tibetan language are taken as reference point to study the concept of site in the Tibetan worldview. She contrasts the content of the inscriptions with an account written by one of the Tibetan scholar-monks and miniature models of the Mahabodhi temple preserved in Tibet. Instead of adopting the traditional method of studying relations between India and Tibet from the perspective of religious texts, Datta chooses to study the material evidence to analyse the Tibetan-Buddhist value systems. Pilgrimage, according to her, occupied an important place in this worldview. Besides leaving a mark on a religious site, the act also created religious imaginary. In the case of Bodh Gaya, the pilgrims, the article argues, did not just leave physical imprints at the site but also took home with them miniature models and religious ideas relating to the site. This was important in that it allowed the Tibetan perspective about this important Buddhist town to be shaped in a particular way. Datta argues, and rightly so, that this kind of appraisal of Bodh Gaya was not unique to the Tibetans. People from Sri Lanka, Burma, and China too must have similarly tried to understand this complex religious site in their own way which would have influenced the manner in which inscriptions were composed in these regions.

Sabarni Pramanik Nayak’s article, ‘Temple, Trader and, Pentha in the Inscriptions of the Srikakulam-Vishakhapatnam Region, 1000-1500 CE,’ deliberates the interconnected histories of traders, commercial centres, and religious institutions. The region which he chooses for his study is Srikakulam-Vishakhapatnam. Both these regions are located in the modern day state of Andhra Pradesh. The essay highlights that the region witnessed the presence of multiple groups of traders as well as trading guilds. Like in other parts of early India, such as Andhra, traders and their guilds took active part in making donations to religious sites. Apart from making donations, they also, on occasion, acted as administrators and as custodians of endowments made to the temples. Moreover, the development of a temple-based economy in post-tenth century Andhra led to the development of local and overseas exchange networks. This provided traders with an opportunity to improve their socio-economic position. Nayak argues that the development of trade networks in this period paved the way for traders to visit the temple towns and settle in and around them. In due course, the paper argues that a close association was forged between the temples and the traders. All of these discussed developments played an important part in the urbanization process in post-tenth century Andhra. The scholar further argues that these temple-towns, located at the meeting points of trading routes, emerged as local commercial sites, increasing this process of urbanization,.

Mahmood Kooria’s essay, ‘Doors and Walls of Mosques: Textual longue-durée in a Premodern Malabari Inscription,’ discusses at length one of the inscriptions maintained in a mosque at Ponani, in Malabar region, in Kerala. Traditionally, in Islamic epigraphy, a distinction is observed between ‘scriptural’ and ‘historical’ inscriptions. Kooria’s paper tries to re-examine such watertight categories. His essay stresses the fact that many of the scriptural inscriptions, perceived by scholars as primarily formulaic in nature, contain important historical insights. Kooria, interestingly, does not limit himself to the study of Islamic inscriptions located in Malabar. Rather, he extends his arguments to other similar types of epigraphical records found across the Indian Ocean world. Many of his arguments are based on the idea of longuedurée. He uses this concept to understand the diverse ways in which Islamic inscriptions and texts were imagined in different parts of the Indian Ocean world. In his discussions related to this theme, Kooria highlights the fact that the region of Malabar was unique in that it was not ruled by any Muslim dynasty. Most of the religious sites, including mosques, that came up in the region were financed and patronized by the local Muslim population, particularly the traders.

 The inscriptions engraved on the walls of these mosques, according to the scholar, indicate that between the fourteenth and the seventeenth centuries, they emerged as important sites which helped in the construction and reformation of the community. The religious ideas and texts which the local Muslim community acquired through the trans-oceanic trade networks played a vital part in this process. The essay argues the inscriptions reveal that the construction and maintenance of mosques was a two-way process. While the traders financed the establishment of such religious sites, they received political and religious support from the Islamic leadership in return, which was crucial during the period when their mercantile interest were threatened by the Portuguese.

The final essay in the monograph is written by Digvijay Kumar Singh. It is entitled ‘Patterns of Transactions at Malabar Ports, c. Eleventh-Fourteenth Centuries CE.’ The paper investigates the complexities involved in the commodity transactions which took place at the Malabar ports, between the eleventh and the fourteenth centuries CE. The author has based his arguments on the business letters of Jewish merchants from the Cairo Geniza. Just like with the aforementioned authors, Singh too questions some of the traditional views relating to trade in early India. He stresses upon the fact that structures of trade in early India were not solely dependent on transactions of luxury commodities, like pepper, as had been assumed by several scholars. Rather, regular transactions of commodities meant for daily use were at the base of a majority of trading activities in early India. Besides discussing the details of mercantile activities, Singh also brings forth the role that individual traders played in expanding trade networks in this period. The paper also expands on the institutional mechanisms like partnership arrangements, which were employed by indigenous as well as non-indigenous traders, and credit, which played an important role in the smooth functioning of maritime interactions. The essay suggests that since the Jewish business letters written by traders involved in the Indian Ocean trade to their kinsmen contained details relating to commodities, prices, shipments, among others, they provide significant business intelligence.

The present monograph is a timely scholarly intervention which provides us with a glimpse of how rigorous histories of early India can be written. Instead of focusing only on temple-based transactions, the study takes on a broader perspective and examines different kinds of transactions. The book also raises larger, albeit significant, questions related to the importance of inscriptions in historical studies. There are however certain portions which, if improved upon, would help to enrich the history of medieval India. One of these relate to the issue of language.

Almost all the essays in the compilation focus primarily on the inscriptions which were composed in Prakrit, Sanskrit, and Arabic : the trans-regional languages. Even though inscriptions were largely composed in such trans-regional languages until the eight century CE, they subsequently began to be composed in vernacular languages. It would have been useful if scholars examining the history of transactions in pre-modern India had taken into account at least some of the inscriptions composed in vernacular languages. These are, however, minor shortcomings which hardly reduce the academic importance of the book. The monograph contains essays written in a simple language bereft of any jargons. This makes the writing accessible to a larger audience, many of whom may not be trained in the discipline of history.