Saturday, November 3, 2012

Periodization: a peep into the concept of medieval history in the context of India and Assam

In an article published in The Medieval History Journal in 1998 - in fact the first issue of the journal - Harbans Mukhia raised an important question of the nomenclature of the medieval period of Indian history. Mukhia questions the very basic idea of dividing the ancient from the medieval based on the beginning of the Muslim Sultanate in Delhi. In his discussions, he also questions the Tripartite division of Indian history, as was done by James Mill in 1818, when he divided it into Hindu, muslim and British period. Mill's periodization was, as obvious, influenced by the Company's ambitions and ideology. But this tripartite division was again replaced by the nationalist historians to Ancient, Medieval, and Modern; however maintaining more or less the same formula that Mills used.

This standard periodization of Indian history has been followed by later historians, without much questioning though, to describe the dynastic history of India. However, historians have, only recently, tried to view the cultural history of various regions of India from a structuralist point of view, and while doing so, have confronted many pertinent questions, mostly arising out of the periodization of the historical phase. It may be because the periodization, as was done by early nationalist historians, was mostly based on the dynastic histories, which were nothing but mere recording of royal achievements, and thus viewed a specific point of time in its particular spatial and temporal parameters only. The question of continuity of a culture was not present and so different periods of history was considered having altogether different traits and socio-political dimesions. This is where Mukhia explains that the dividing line between ancient and medieval was largely influenced by the point of view of Muslim historiography and the concept of dividing the world history into one before Islam and the rest after the coming of Islam. Indian medieval history has largely been reconstructed from the numerous Persian and Arabic histories or chronicles, written by court historians of the Muslim dynasties, and most of them followed the hijri era for narration, perhaps with the only exception being Abul Fazl, who based his Akbarnama on a new solar calender introduced by the Din-e-ilahi sect of Akbar. The hegemony of Muslim historiography is obviously present in defining the medieval period of Indian history.

Coming to the question that needs focus here: looking at the various other dimensions through which history is being studied at present, is it viable or appropriate to still resort to the standard periodisation any more?

Let us see what implications the tripartite periodization may have in the history of Assam, which is yet again studied as per the standard classification. In case of Assam, though, historians are bound to begin the ancient period from 4th century only, mainly for want of written evidence; the earliest mention of Assam (Kamarupa) coming from the Allahabad Prasasti of Samudragupta. Some historians have tried to connect the myths of Narakasura and Bhagadatta with the history of Assam and thus take the earliest dates back to the 5th-6th centuries BC. This school of thought have found limited response though in academic circles. But most historians have unanimously agreed upon the beginning of the medieval period to be with the arrival of the Ahoms in Assam, i.e. from the early part of the 13th century. The modern period of Assam's history, as per the standard classification, begins with the arrival of the British in the early 19th century, characterized by the beginning of tea cultivation and arrival of tea garden labourers from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh regions.

The periodization in case of Assam history, as can be seen in the Indian history, is also marred in bias of a certain kind. Leaving aside the ancient period, as it is not yet fully understood or constructed, the narration of medieval period is heavily influenced by the Ahom hiostoriography, somewhat similar to the Muslim historiography. The ahoms also had the practice of writing down important political events and thus have left us with a number of chronicles, locally known as buranji. The buranjis are, though important documents, written with the Ahom worldview and record the events associated with dynastic achievements, and thus throw little light on the socio-cultural composition of the then society. Historians from Assam have explained this whole period from an Ahom point of view so far, and the important roles that the Koch and the Kachari kingdoms played through the medieval period are often ignored. It is somewhat similar like explaining the medieval period of Indian history as "Muslim" period, itself a biased view to describe history.

The question is whether it is necessary to follow a certain periodisation while describing the socio-cultural history of a region, whether it is proper to use terms such as ancient and medieval or modern to describe the cultural development of a society. Culture, when viewed as a continuous process of development, does not follow a specific ideological boundary, boundaries which perhaps can explain the differences between two dynastic rules, as has been done in the case of medieval period. Perhaps the standard periodization will be applicable when we explain the dynastic classification. But for a socio-cultural history, such divisions become vague, as cultural development cannot be defined in terms of dynastic rules or ideological boundaries, for that matter. When I say ideologies, I basically mean dynastic ideologies and worldview.

The term medieval itself is a derivation of the colonialists' worldview, and has been often used in the case of European history. Everything falling within the period from the fall of the Roman Empire to the beginning of rennaissance and the consequent industrial revolution was termed medieval. In case of Indian history, everything before the arrival of the British, and thus "civilization", has been termed medieval. The nationalist historians, on the other hand, considered everything Muslim as medieval. In the case of Assam, the term "medieval" has been used to denote the Ahom period only to give a pan-indian viewpoint to this specific period. Historians have simply followed the standard Indian classification without even giving proper thought to the aspects that could possibly define this period. The fall of the Kamarupa kingdom and the rise of the Ahoms, although an important dynastic change, would not have been so significant a event that would change the socio-economic situation of Assam. Moreover, the formation of the Ahom dynasty was also a slow process that and happened through a long period of cultural amalgamation of the Ahoms with the rest. The political integration came through a socio-cultural integration process. Hence, this classification needs serious reconsideration, looking at the many dimensions through which history can be explained. Medieval simply seems a medieval term!

Looking at the present social composition of Assam, it seems appropriate to decsribe the history of Assam as one single entity, without any well-defined boundaries between periods and phases. It can simply be termed as "the historical phase", although with certain important intervening phases.

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