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Updated: Nov 13, 2021


The glorious imagery conjured by the Awadhi phrase, ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb’- perhaps most commonly evoked for its ability to embody the contemporary Indian ethos of ‘unity in diversity’- has been subject of major debate among experts in the field. The phrase itself denotes the ostensibly long history of syncretic Hindu-Muslim traditions that transcended communal lines and encompassed several aspects of medieval life in northern and central India. While such a shared culture is imagined to have manifested across festivals and spirituality, craftsmanship and aesthetics, performance and cuisine, the validity of such a history is nebulous and requires exploration.

In a lively debate that ensued at Argumentative Indians, we aimed to understand the contours of this debate by delving entirely into the contentious past of medieval history, aided by the arguments put forth by eminent intellectuals and scholars of the discipline.

Excavating an Origin from the Modern

Before excavating the plausibility such traditions to have existed, it is imperative to understand the origin and location of such traditions - the periods of its conception and the larger context it was born out of.

Dr. Richard Eaton, renowned historian specialised in the field of pre-modern cultural history, espouses post-colonial theory stating the origin of it to be situated well into modernity. He locates the colonial period that culminated in the division of erstwhile British India to be inextricably linked to the production of such ideas. Elucidating his position, Dr. Eaton posits the need to separate such notions of shared culture from pre-colonial history, as the roots of such traditions don’t exist contemporaneously. While describing Indian pre-colonial history to be an inherently plagued by colonial divisiveness, he attributes the backwards projection of modern ideas to be an enterprise of the Indian national movement. Alongside the movement for Pakistan and the two-nation theory bolstering its claims, the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb becomes an integral counter narrative and an instrument to temper partition.

Taking a departure from Dr. Richard Eaton, all while acknowledging the recent coinage and conceptualisation of the phraseology, Dr. Francis Robinson offers illuminating chronicling of the same. He states that despite the modern concept, there have been solid accounts that allude to a vibrant composite culture in Mughal India that needs to be taken stock of. He describes the mutually exclusiveness of contrived remembrance in the 19th and 20th Century with actual historic accounts of communal collaboration under emperors like Shah Jahan, who he mentions in passing as a norm in pre-modern India. He narrates the colourful exchanges and competition that strengthened the composite culture of medieval India. He mentions the various codified norms of the period, such as debates where Hindus and Muslims who participated to excel in the Persian language, which remained the Mughal language of governance. Francis Robinson notes that such traditions can be found to at least go as far back as the 17th century, although evidence to support this can perhaps go further back. He then takes a leap from this period to recognise the legacy of which was evident under British colonialism, thus only reiterating a pluralist culture of medieval India. The decedents of earlier iterations of such a shared tradition found themselves in government offices across North India, in the various qasbas, where Urdu replaces Persian in becoming the language of administration. Recognising the watershed moment of the 1857 revolt, he talks about the solidarity between Hindus and Muslims to challenge British imperialism. While some of these relationships remained limited to government offices, says Robinson, a similar kind of syncretism was observed in fields of literature, cuisine, music all across the region.

Criticism of the Elite; Was Communal Harmony a Realty Exclusively For the Elite?

Popular criticism surrounding the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb, leading to its wide-spread rejection, stems from the idea that the phenomenon was relegated exclusively to the realm of the elite. Francis Robinson, offering his perspective on the matter, warns against seeing such formations as solely elite in nature emphasising the role of Persian and its local integration across religious lines. The willingness to use Persian as an instrument to write verses denouncing their subjugation to immediate oppressive social structures, is also an area that needs much evaluating. The inter-religious participation of mainly women in worshiping Krishna, notes Robinson, points to a larger social acceptability that remained outside the domain of the ‘elite’. Famously, Wajid Ali Shah was known to compose rasas dedicated to Krishna, with the aim of acting in them only paved way for the larger acceptance of such cross-cultural traditions, conservatively thought to be a mere aberrations of the epoch.

Dr Ram Puniyani chimes in cantering the most well-known figures of the medieval elite to make a case for composite courtly cultures, largely alluding to their influence in shaping the zeitgeist of the period. He mentions figures such as Akbar and Chatrapati Shivaji in maintaining the ideal of tolerance and harmony within their courts and administration. He contests the decision of periods as being classified as ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ ruled, since a lot of these periods fostered fraternity and allowed for intermixing of religions and its effect on administration.

Identity, Conflict and Communalism in Medieval India

An alternative view of medieval Indian history often presents itself as a rhetoric of plunder and invasion by foreigners, to the detriment of Hindus in India. Such accounts tend to be predicated on the fundamentally Hindu identity of India and an imposed cultural hegemony by “barbaric” conquerors. In order to temper the contentious nature of historiography and history writing, Richard Eaton suggests building an understanding of history that is built on embracing historical truth as opposed to one that’s coloured by ideological inclinations. He raises the real concern of making presentist arguments in the discipline which determine our gateway into history. Such backwards projections on historic events and periods are influences by anachronistic readings of the past, which shapes our idea of subjects such as communalism. This has a heavy impact on understanding the past, and can engender dangerous ideas on writing and remembering history.

So in order to understand the self-conception of people in India leading up to and beyond the 14th century, it becomes imperative to be familiar with the nomenclature used to denote identities, religion and other such intersectionalities. As Eaton notes, the use of the word ‘Hindi’ to refer to the Turks who were recognised to be Indian, and as distinct from central Indians. More interestingly, ‘Hindi’ also appears to describe the Turks without explicitly mentioning of identity, religion and conflict and a unique way to describe non-Indians. This would then imply there were, in fact, no underlying religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in the period, looking only at commonly used self-determined identities of the time. This kind of understanding plays a crucial role in understand the self-perceptions of average Indians of the epoch.

In a compelling inscription dating back to an earlier period of the 13th Century, we actually find the emperor Balban as being described as the protector of the lands, in the advent of Mughal attacks to secure north India. We find him to be a figure in possession of several titles and in multitude of languages, including Sanskrit. So in so far as an Emperor was seen to possess the ability to ‘protect’ his kingdom and citizens, his religion seems inconsequential in the support that was extended to him by the average person. Moreover, Balban seems to have been seen as a custodian of the land and its people and no religious antagonisms at play in his description as emperor posits Richard Eaton. This seems to be hold true even in South India, where southern kingdoms mention the Turks to be invaders, but making no mention of their religion and their legitimacy.

Is Syncretism A Whitewashing of Religious Persecution?

While approaching the medieval period we are often confronted by narratives of destruction, temple plundering and desecration driven by economic incentives available in the coffers of such religious places. Taking this statement at face value, requires challenging says Richard Eaton, as by agreeing with this, we erroneously generalise temple destruction to be the norm and we presume the time period to be conducive to the doing the same.

This understanding is often accompanied with mentions of large-scale religious conversion, seen as an infringement of religious ideals in presentist accounts, as touched upon earlier on. Dr. Richard Eaton states that there simply isn’t enough evidence to confirm these claims, making these versions of history not credible. If an explanation for the reliable cases of temple destruction is to be seen in its own context, the destruction of such sites were not a result of communalism or persecution- but an attempt to reject the patronage of defeated enemy rulers. After securing a region, the moving emperor would immediately extend protection to the temples, making it inconceivable to harm. Most of the aforementioned cases of temple destruction usually occur from initially submitting to the authority of the moving emperor, and later rebelling- leaving its of destruction temples to be a mode of securing influence in the conquered region.

It is therefore of utmost importance for us to be cognisant of the various misinterpretations, and the ramifications of generalising periods as tumultuous as the medieval era in India.

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