India, Ancient and Medieval

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India, Ancient and Medieval

For ancient, early medieval, and medieval India, crimes against humanity have to be described against the backdrop of a multi-lingual, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic social complexity. Immediately striking, although not unique to the Indian subcontinent, are those personalities in history associated with perpetrating atrocities against human beings during the course of war and its aftermath. Such crimes most commonly are entwined with the zeal of religious bigotry. On the other hand, the persecution of large segments of the population exclusively in the name of religion or race appears to be rare in the early history of the subcontinent.

Documentary evidence of these ancient crimes exists in different languages of the subcontinent, and present certain limitations for scholars seeking to use them as authoritative sources. For a start, many of them are written according to the conventions of elite literary style, and as such do not represent the perceptions of the lower classes and castes. Most certainly, they do not represent the viewpoint of the victims of the crimes in question. Most, if not all, of these sources were rooted in distinct ideological viewpoints that must be kept in mind while using the texts as historical evidence. It must be understood that, within the temporal and spatial context of these eras of Indian subcontinental history, the descriptions of crimes against humanity, whether committed individually or collectively, are panegyrist and exaggerated. This makes it difficult to apply the word "genocide" in any meaningful way.

Extending our contemporary understanding and usage of this term into the past gives rise to a rather vile and barbaric picture of all these pre-modern and culturally diverse societies. The texts also sometimes incorporate elements of remorse or regret, articulated by the perpetrators of violence, making the use of modern terminology even more problematic. In fact, its use must necessarily hinge on the way ancient and medieval states were defined, the role of religion in defining the character of these polities, and, most importantly, the ethical and moral issues around which the notions of evil and violence were couched.

The Indian subcontinent contains few contemporary sources attesting to the atrocities from the point of view of the victims. This raises a fundamental question: Did large-scale torture and slaughter not occur, or did the sources of the period simply choose to be silent about it? In the latter case, a deeper philosophical understanding of violence and the human action which perpetrates it must be sought within the culture of the times. For instance, the eminent Indiologist Johannes Cornelis Heesterman notes that the ideology of karma views acts of violence, both by agents and recipients, as part of a larger scheme of maintaining or destroying dharma (societal order) and, therefore, the good or bad fruits of these actions would only be witnessed in the next life.

From the early medieval period onwards, inscriptions and contemporary chronicles begin to emerge, and these provide vivid descriptions of the horrors perpetrated, for instance after war. Yet these sources, though rooted in greater historical specificity, are also biased. All these descriptions of incidents of violence, killings, persecutions, and torture must be viewed within the context of particular regional situations. They should not be over generalized, nor should our understanding of them be based on the assumption of a monolithic Indian identity or attributed to an overarching religious motivation. In fact, scholarly analysis of these events must recognize the interplay of multiple identities in the society and culture of the time and the region.

Ancient India

Most ancient Indian political theorists glorified war and kings displayed their power through military might. War was central to defining the epic traditions of early India, and it is described in graphic detail in the texts. However, few of the reigning monarchs of the period left records of their thoughts on the nature of human suffering as a result of war. One exception occurred during the period of Mauryan rule (321–185 bce), which included one of the first attempts at empire-building on the Indian subcontinent. Emperor Ashoka Maurya, who in his edicts is called "Beloved of the Gods" (Devanampiya Piyadassi), invaded a region then called Kalinga in about 260 bce. In his thirteenth Rock Edict, the emperor admits: "A hundred and fifty thousand people were deported, a hundred thousand were killed and many times that number perished." This record is unique, because the king also expresses remorse for the "slaughter, death and deportation of the people [that was] extremely grievous to the Beloved of the Gods and [had weighed] heavily on his mind. In the same record, Ashoka recognizes that everyone, from the Brahmins (priests) and shramans (ascetics) down to the ordinary householders, had suffered "violence, murder, and separation from their loved ones" (Thapar, 1997, pp. 255–256).

By way of penance, Ashoka went on to tell his subjects that he had become devoted to the diligent practice and preaching of dhamma, a policy of conquest by piety and virtue. He spread this new message through various edicts, and his influence was felt even beyond the frontiers of his own kingdom. It is, however, noteworthy that Ashoka did not announce his remorse immediately after the war. More importantly, the thirteenth Rock Edict was not put up in Kalinga, perhaps because it was considered politically unwise to publicize the King's remorse among the people against whom the war was fought. Thus, the Kalingans of the time did not know the extent of the killing or deportations, nor did they know of the king's repentance on these acts that had inflicted suffering on them.

The post-Mauyan period was marked by a series of foreign invasions. Even so, few descriptions of human slaughter or of conscious attempts to persecute people for their religious beliefs are found in the contemporary sources of the early centuries ce. A typical formulaic description coming from the semi-historical traditions of texts called the Puranas the destruction caused in the wake of these invasions. These texts were written in the future tense to depict conditions that would during what was called the Kali Age or the fourth in the stages of general moral decline within a cyclic view of time. An illustrative passage of the Matsya Purana reads thus:

There will be Yavanas (foreigners) here by reason of religious feeling (dharma) or ambition or plunder; they will not be kings solemnly anointed, but will follow evil customs by reason of the corruption of the age. Massacring women and children, and killing one another, kings will enjoy the earth at the end of the Kali Age (Parasher, 1991, p. 243).

The use of the future tense may have been intended to suggest a warning of things to come and it may be a response to what has been called a "principled forgetfulness." These early Indian texts gave little importance to recording historical events that were accompanied by violence and this may be a response to what has been called a "principled forgetfulness." The term Yavana here refers to the early Greeks, but it became a general label for all outsiders who invaded the subcontinent from the west, and was often employed when traditional ideologues wished to emphasize that normal rules of the social, ethical, and moral order had been upset by people alien to their values.

Throughout much of the ancient world, the Hun armies left death, destruction, and suffering in the wake of their invasions. Although the Huns became a factor in Indian history from the middle of the fifth century ce, the deeds of one their most cruel rulers in India are vividly remembered even six hundred years later in the Rajatarangini written by Kalhana during the twelfth century in Kashmir. This text is considered the first systematic history written on the subcontinent. It describes Mihirakula, the Hun, as evil personified; a "man of violent acts and resembling Kala (Death). The notorious and violent acts of Mihirkula's armies did not even spare children, women, and the aged. Kalhana wrote: "He was surrounded day and night by thousands of murdered human beings even in his pleasure-houses."

Textual descriptions of violence often contain exaggerations, but in this case Kalhana's words are supported by the observations and testimony of a Chinese traveler named Hieun Tsiang (629 ce), who wrote an almost contemporary account of Mihirkula's rule. He note that not only did this evil king stir rebellion and kill the royal family in Kashmir and Gandhara, but he also destroyed innumerable Buddhist educational centers and residences. According to Hieun Tsiang, Mihirkula's armies killed thousands of people along the banks of the Indus while looting these religious places. Hieun Tsiang also interestingly noted that when his minister requested he not destroy certain Buddhist establishments, Mihirkula obliged, permitting the monks to return to their estates despite his own religious leanings being otherwise. Kalhana offered a similar observation. After graphically describing Mihirkula's misdeeds, Kalhana stated that the king made a shrine for Lord Shiva, an important god in the Hindu trinity, and that he granted tax-free villages to Brahmins from the Gandhara region, who were supposed to resemble Mihirkula in their habits and deeds.

The Early Medieval Period

Persecution was not the sole prerogative of foreign invaders, nor was it done solely for the protection and glorification of religious beliefs. Kalhana described an earlier willful destruction of Buddhist monasteries by a Shaivite ruler who was a worshipper of Lord Shiva and who later repented and then went on to build a new monastery. In another context he described how temples served as repositories of wealth, and were frequently attacked to satiate the greed of certain kings. One such king, Harshadeva of Kashmir, did not spare a single village, town or city in his attempt to despoil images and carry away the abundant wealth stored in them and even appointed an officer to do so.

One clear example of religious persecution resulting in the killing of members of another faith comes from the Pandyan kingdom of southern India in the eleventh century. This information is attested to by a variety of sources—hagiological literature, inscriptions and architectural evidence—and is best understood within the context of an upsurge in religious fervor and sectarian belief systems based on the idea of devotion (bhakti). This conflict is set against the backdrop of the Pandyan king, a Jaina follower, witnessing the debates and tests the Jaina monks had administered to the child Sambhandar, an ardent Shaivite poet and saint of the times. According to the Periya Pranam, the king was converted by this saint to Shaivism, a sect based on the sole worship of Lord Shiva and he ordered his minister thus:

These Jainas, who had made a bet and lost in this test of the respective powers of their religions, had already done undesirable wrong to the Child Saint; Impale them on the lethal sharp stakes and execute the justice due to them.

Scholars put the number of Jainas thus killed at eight thousand. The Jainas having lost the patronage of this king nonetheless remained entrenched in the Tamil territories, but a number of Jaina temples were destroyed or converted into shrines dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva.

Although the Jainas had a second lease on life in the spread of their faith into the Karnataka and Andhra countries during early medieval times, the Jaina conflict with worshippers of Lord Shiva continued here as well, especially with the rise and spread of a more aggressive form of shaivism called Virashaivism from the twelfth century onwards. A sixteenth century inscription from Srisailam in present-day Andhra Pradesh records the pride taken by Virashaivism chiefs in beheading a sect of Shvetambara Jainas. The Jainas are said to have made pejorative references to Shaivite teachers and sometimes sought protection from the ruling powers when the harassment towards them was severe, as during the Vijayanagar times.

It is well known that before an indigenous Indo-Muslim state was established in India in 1192 ce, there had been several raids by Persianized Turks who looted major cities and temples to support their power bases in Afghanistan. One such raid was in 968 ce by Sabuktigin (r. 977–997 ce), who ravaged the territory of the Hindu Shahi kings between Afghanistan and western Punjab. The Sharh-I Tarikhi Yamini of Utbi describes how places inhabited by infidels were burnt down, temples and idols demolished, and Islam established: "The jungles were filled with the carcasses of the infidels, some wounded by the sword, and others fallen dead through fright. It is the order of God respecting those who have passed away, that infidels should be put to death" (Elliot, 1964, p. 22). Writing about the raids of his son Mahmed against king Jaipal, Utbi stated: "The Musulmans had wreaked their vengeance on the infidel enemies of God, killing fifteen thousand of them, spreading them like a carpet over the ground, and making them food for beasts and birds of prey" (Elliot, 1964, p. 26). While noting the religious rhetoric, it has been argued by scholars that Mahmed of Ghazni who raided India seventeen times did so for economic reasons. In fact, he raided and sacked Muslim cities of Iran as well, in an effort to stabilize the Ghaznavid political and economic situation. But the rise of Ghurid power in northwestern Afghanistan from the mid-eleventh century brought the destruction of the city of Ghazni. Sultan Alauddin burned the city to the ground in revenge for the ill-treatment of his brothers by Mahmed Ghazni, and by this act the sultan earned the title of Jahan-soz or "the world burner." The Ghurids then came to operate from Ghazni under Shahabuddin Muhammad (1173–1206 ce), known as Muizzuddin Muhammad bin Sam. In the wake of his invasions, Turkish rule was establishment in India, between 1192–1206 ce.

Medieval Period

A major threat to the first Indo-Muslim state with its center at Delhi was the continual threat from the Mongols, who openly used terror as an instrument of war. In 1221 ce the notorious Mongol, Genghis Khan, had reached the Indus River, but the Turkish state at Delhi was yet to witness his full wrath. In fact, Balban (1246–1284 ce) and Alauddin Khilji (1296–1314 ce) effectively held back later Mongol attacks. Many Mongols accepted Islam and were admitted to the nobility or secured royal service. They came to be known as New Muslims but were often a discontented and turbulent lot and a continual source of trouble to the state.

A considerable amount of court intrigue thus developed and one major offshoot of this rivalry was seen when Alauddin Khilji's generals invaded Gujarat. On their return from the invasion, the soldiers rebelled over the share of booty that they were required to turn over to the state. A contemporary chronicle relates the punishments and torture meted out to those who tried to use underhand means to claim their share of booty. In reaction to the inhuman treatment, a large faction of the army, mostly New Muslims, revolted. The chief members of the rebellion escaped, but Alauddin Khilji ordered the rebels' wives and children be imprisoned. In another version, the king dismissed the whole community of New Muslims from his service, believing that the malcontents had hatched a plot to assassinate him. With the discovery of the plot, the king is said to have ordered the massacre of all New Muslims, and all those who killed a New Muslim were promised the right to claim everything their victims had owned. Between twenty and thirty thousand were slaughtered, and the murderers seized their wives, children, and property. A Gujarat campaign veteran, Nusrat Khan, used the decree to avenge the death of his brother, who had died at the hands of the rebels. He is reputed to have thrown the wives of his rebel victims to the scavengers of Delhi, and to have had their children cut into pieces in the presence of their mothers.

Further atrocities occurred as part of the larger Turkish conquest of eastern India during the early thirteenth century. For example, Ikhtiyar-Du-Din conducted raids on the famous Buddhist monasteries of Otandapuri and Vikramshila in Bihar, en route to Bengal, during which he ordered the extensive destruction of human and other resources. The monks there were all killed, and estimates set the death toll for these massacres in the thousands. Writers accompanying this invader are reported to have seen the total destruction of these Buddhist centers of learning. However, Minaju-s-Siraj (1243 ce) informed that they had mistaken them to be fortresses and wrote:

[M]ost of the inhabitants of the place were Brahmans with shaven heads. They were put to death. Large number of books were found there, and when the Muhammadans saw them, they called for some person to explain their contents, but all the men had been killed. It was discovered that the whole fort and city was a place of study (madrasas) (Elliot, 1964, p. 306).

These crimes have to be seen in the larger milieu of intrigue and the need to maintain authoritative control and access to resources during the early days of the Turkish state in India. The relations among the Turkish rulers during times of succession were never peaceful. Controlling the massive local population of Hindus was equally difficult. Barani narrates a supposed dialogue between Qazi Mughis of Bayana and Sultan Alaudden on an ordinance related to imposing a tax called jiziya on the Hindus. The Sultan wanted to lower the prestige and economic power of this population and thus he invoked a Quranic injunction to support his claims:

Hindus should be forced to pay their revenue in abject humility and extreme submissiveness; for the Prophet Muhammad had ordained that Hindus must either follow the true faith or else be slain or imprisoned and their wealth and property confiscated (Rizvi, 1998, p. 164).

Thus, according to Rizvi, other schools of jurisprudence of the time, except for the law school of Abu Hanifa, ordered for them "either death or Islam."

Timur justified his conquest of India by invoking what he perceived as a willingness of the Muslim rulers of the time to tolerate idolatry—a practice condemned by Islam. He ordered a vicious attack that was unparalleled in the history of the subcontinent. At every stage of his advance beyond the Indus River and especially at places like Talamba and Bhatnair, he massacred people. Subsequently, the cities were plundered and people who failed to escape were enslaved. The most vivid descriptions are those of his crossing the Jamuna River on December 10, 1398. No one was spared. At Loni the Hindu inhabitants were also wiped out. Near Delhi, the local people greeted the news of nearby resistance fighters with joy, but they paid for their indiscretion with their lives. The resisting army, led by Mallu and Mahmed, soon had to retreat, and the city was left to the ruthless invader. Timur initially granted amnesty to the population of Delhi, but an uprising of the people infuriated him. The city was then ransacked for several days, and many thousands of its inhabitants were killed. On January 1, 1399, Timur returned home via Meerut, and on this march, too, great numbers of Hindus were slaughtered.

Raids on peninsular India began around 1295 and continued to the early decades of the fourteenth century, making inroads from Aurangabad as far south as Madurai. After 1323, the Tughluqs sought permanent dominion in the Deccan Peninsula. The first account of the atrocities against the local population and the ruling elites was narrated in the Vilasa Grant of Prolaya Nakaya (1330). Despite the early success of the Kakatiya rulers of Warangal against the Delhi sultans, the invaders were able to overpower the ruling dynasty.

The cruel wretches subjected the rich to torture for the sake of their wealth. Many of their victims died of terror at the very sight of their vicious countenances . . . the images of gods were over-turned and broken; the Agraharas of the learned confiscated; the cultivators were despoiled of the fruits of their labour, and their families were impoverished and ruined. None dared to claim anything, whether it was a piece of property or one's own life. To those despicable wretches wine was the ordinary drink, beef the staple food, and the slaying of the Brahmanas was the favorite pastime. The land of Tilinga, left without a protector, suffered destruction from the Yavanas, like a forest subjected to devastating wild fire.

Literary sources also describe the devastation caused by the barbarians, who were either called Yavanas, Mlecchas, or Turushkas. The Madhura-Vijaya, written by Gangadevi in the second half of the fourteenth century, vividly describes Turushka rule over Madurai thus:

The sweet odour of the sacrificial smoke and the chant of the Vedas have deserted the villages (Agrahras) which are now filled with the foul smell of roasted flesh and the fierce noises of the ruffianly Turushkas. The suburban gardens of Madura present a most painful sight; many of their beautiful coconut palms have been cut down; and on every side are seen rows of stakes from which swing strings of human skulls strung together. The Tamraparni is flowing red with the blood of the slaughtered cows. The Veda is forgotten and justice has gone into hiding; there is not left any trace of virtue or nobility in the land and despair is writ large on the faces of the unfortunate Dravias (Chattopadhyaya, 1998, p. 57).

War was common among the various states of the Deccan Peninsula and southern India. Kings professing Islam as their personal faith ruled some of these, whereas rulers of various Hindu sects controlled others. An important point common to both was the utter devastation caused by their armies when they invaded each other's dominions. For instance, the early Bahamani and Vijayanagar rulers struggled for control over the fertile Raichur territory. A contemporary chronicler, Ferishta narrated the various battles between the Bahamani Sultan, Mohammad Shah, and the Vijayanagar ruler Bukka Raya. Ostensibly the sultan insulted the Vijayanagar ruler, who responded with an invasion. He conquered Mudkal and put all its inhabitants—men, women, and children—to the sword. This infuriated Mohammad Shah, who took a solemn oath: "till he should have put to death, 100,000 infidels, as an expiation for the massacre of the faithful, he would never sheathe the sword of holy war, nor refrain from slaughter." The Sultan slaughtered about 70,000 men, women, and children.

The chronicles of Ferishta tell of subsequent and equally ferocious battles between the two. Haji Mull, a maternal relation of the Vijayanagar king, commanded the Brahmins to daily lecture the troops on the merits of slaughtering Mohamedans. During the actual battle, on July 23, 1366, large numbers of people were killed on both sides. Mohammad Shah then ordered a fresh massacre of the unbelievers, during which even pregnant women and children were not spared. According to Ferishta, Mohammad Shah slaughtered 500,000 Hindus, and "so wasted the districts of Carnatic, that for several decades, they did not recover their natural population."

The sources that have come down to us chronicling these crimes against humanity were framed within ideological and political concerns. They should be read as selective representations and thus treated as only partial constructions of the historical reality rooted in the concerns of either the colonial state or the modern nation. The historian must therefore interpret both the primary source and all subsequent interpretations in order to more accurately understand the events that occurred so far in the past.

SEE ALSO Genghis Khan; Historiography, Sources in; Historiography as a Written Form; India, Modern


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Aloka Parasher-Sen