History is and always has been a malleable affair: whether in examination and criticism or erasure and revisionism, the past is rarely ever set in stone, even in a single moment. And even where some degree of consensus exists as to the flow and causality of history, each period is populated with many invisible histories –phenomena that were either less impactful than elements of the mainstream narratives, or those that are in one way or another “inconvenient” to remember. Some are simply lost to the sands of time.
Turkish History and Culture in India, edited by A.C.S. Peacock and Richard Piran McClary attempt to shed light on such lateral histories. Although the presence and influence of Turkish dynasties and communities in South Asia for hundreds of years are undeniable, many elements of it have been overlooked in both popular and scholarly history. As Maya Petrovich points out in chapter IV, historical developments that loom large can overshadow other connections, pushing historians to only consider events as teleologically contributing to some conclusion; in the case of India and much of Asia, this was the crumbling of old empires under European dominance (pp. 116-119). Moreover, modern nationalist projects in India have vacillated between vilification1 and erasure2 of South Asia’s Muslim and Turkish past. In such a context, remembering this history is vital.
Turkish History and Culture in India is not a concentrated effort to demonstrate the importance of Turks in the history of South Asia, but rather an eclectic collection of different perspectives, brought together to reveal the multifaceted nature of and ample opportunities for research in the history of Turks and South Asia. Accordingly, the volume is divided into two sections: the first covers chronicles, state culture, and military engagements with a focus on political history; the second focuses on material culture, literature, architecture, and more, thus adding social and art history to the mix. Both sections contribute to the overall project of examining the lives and works of Turks in India, and the connections between South Asia and the Turko-Persian world at large.
This global outlook is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the volume. It shines forth in chapters such as Shailendra Bhandare’s “Transregional Connections: The ‘Lion and Sun’ Motif.” Bhandare traces the spread of two images, the conjoined “lion and sun” (p. 203) and the “horseman” (p. 239), that appeared on coins in medieval Turkish states. The motifs popped up in lands as distant as Seljuq Rum, Ghaznavid Bengal, and Safavid Iran, often within short time frames –Bhandare interprets this as a conversation using a common iconic vocabulary, with the horseman representing Turkish military rulership (p. 240), while the lion and sun signified the spread of Persianisation throughout the Turkish world (p. 222). Bhandare paints a picture of a conscious Turkish identity through which “transregional connections” could be made, both in terms of shared identity and continuity of development (p. 245).
Another example of this kind of global history is Stephen Frederic Dale’s (confusingly) titled chapter “Turks, Turks, and Turks,” in which he examines the differing fortunes of Turkish culture and identity in the various lands conquered by Turkish states and peoples –why, for example, relatively little remains of Turkish identity in South Asia, while Anatolia ended up birthing a Turkish nation-state. Mass migrations into regions such as Transoxiana and Anatolia certainly contributed to their cultural transformation (pp. 56- 57), though Dale argues for a second factor: institutional history. Whereas in Iran and India, past Persianate dynasties had developed Perso-Islamic state structures that were preserved in the succeeding Turkish dynasties, these were absent for Anatolia and Azerbaijan (pp. 75-77). Thus, while the migrations prevented the population from assimilating, the absence of a ready administrative class meant that the elites maintained their identity to a greater degree.
Even in chapters that at the outset seem narrower in focus, the global perspective remains clear. In “The Jami Masjid Mihrab of Bijapur,” Sara Mondini uses a simple mihrab (a niche in a mosque wall) to tell a story of sectarian conflict, overlapping migrations, and cultural connections throughout the Turko-Persian world (pp. 282-283). And A.C.S. Peacock, in his chapter “Remembering Turkish Origins,” uses the chronicles of the 16th and 17th-century Qutbshahi dynasty to review both the history of the Qaraqoyunlu, from whom the Qutbshahis claimed lineage and the transmission of such history across the Turkish world (pp. 154-156).
There are some instances, however, where this broader outlook can lead to chapters or parts of chapters that feel at most tangentially connected to the theme of the volume. The very first chapter, George Malagaris’ “Warfare and Environment in Middle Eurasia,” covers the Seljuq invasion of Ghaznavid Khorasan, focussing on the battle at Dandanaqan. Malagaris disagrees with the view in the literature that the Seljuq victory was due to climatic changes leading to drought and famine, instead of arguing that it was a combination of treachery, mismanagement, and baggage tactics that lost the battle for the Ghaznavids (pp. 46-48). Although Malagaris does refer to the Ghaznavid looting of Somnath to make his argument, this is more a tool of argumentation than the focus of the article, making it somewhat hard to tie the chapter into the volume as a whole. Maya Petrovich also toes this line in “Merchants, Young Heroes, and Caliphs,” but somewhat more successfully, attempting to bring out details about the lives and culture of Turks, particularly West Asian or “Rumi” Turks in India, through a retelling of the life of Persian administrator and de facto ruler of the Bahmanids, Mahmud Gawan (pp. 104-105).
Both chapters reveal the overwhelming presence of a third party in addition to “Turks” and “India” that can often overshadow the interactions between the two: Iran. Whether in discussing the syntheses of architectural styles in chapter 8 (p. 248), the production and circulation of luxuries in the Ottoman and Mughal empires in chapter 10 (p. 299), or even the prospects of a failed Timurid prince in chapter 5 (p. 129), Persian culture, statecraft, and identity emerge time and time again as an influence that cannot be ignored, whatever the context. Indeed, no history of Turks in India –no history of India, even– would be complete without proper treatment of the connections to the Perso-Islamic and Turko-Persian worlds. Thus, although some “overshadowing” does occur, by and large, the volume tackles this influence very successfully, weaving in the connections without losing focus.
Overall, then, Turkish History and Culture in India can be understood as having erred on the side of global history, rather than choosing a very definite range of research to which more definite answers can be found, as the chapters represent a wide array of topics and approaches. This gives rise to a book that bears more questions than answers–but this is by no means a bad thing. The field overall is understudied, and it is particularly in these global connections that this neglect is most striking. By gambling on big rather than small, the authors have produced a valuable collection of scholarship that promises leads and new questions to inspire a broad range of readers, whether their interests be Turkish identity, the Islamicate world, Indian history, cultural syncretism, or any of the other myriad entryways opened here.
- Mushirul Hasan, “Textbooks and Imagined History: The BJP’s Intellectual Agenda,” India International Centre Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 1 (2002), pp. 75-90.
- Lauren Frayer, “India Is Changing Some Cities’ Names, and Muslims Fear their Heritage Is Being Erased” NPR, (April 23, 2019)