Today we mainly think of Persian as the national language of Iran. But this region is just the core of what was once a huge strip of the Eurasian landmass, in which Persian was the language of communication for almost 1,000 years. From the Bosphorus to the Brahmaputra and from the Oxus to the Indian Ocean, what historians call the Persian world today was a vast, coherent setting linked by the Persian language, its literature, and the ideas and cultural values it contains.
Perhaps most surprisingly, Persian was most successful in India between around 1000 and 1860 as the language of office, trade, and high culture: from the poetic genius of Amir Khusrau (died 1325) to the encyclopedic intellect of Abu l Fazl (d .1602) to Mir’at ul-AkhbariRaja Ram Mohun Roy's pioneering newspaper from the 1820s and from Kashmir to Madras. Persian was not considered a sectarian in India either: Maratha leader Daulat Rao Shinde (d. 1827), a pious Hindu, refused to leave his campaign tent in the morning before spending his daily omen in the divan (collected poems) by the Persian poet Hafiz. Even the East India Company worked in Persian. By the time the British took over, Persian literature, language and ways of being had been working on Indian soil for over eight centuries.
Richard M. Eaton is the leading historian of Islam in pre-colonial South Asia and the author of several award-winning volumes dealing with Islam longue durée History of Indo-Muslim societies. His special focus was on regions in which Muslim sultanates touched the areas of the Hindu Rajas and formed contact zones that led to unique mixed cultures. Now in his probably most important book, he has transferred this lens to the entire history of the Persianate era in India.
An important topic in recent South Asian historiography was the definition and explanation of the middle period of India between the first establishment of Muslim sultanates and the rise of British colonialism. Colonial historians have left us with a tripartite split in Indian times, in which the middle period was a Muslim era of despotism between a Hindu Golden Age and the enlightened liberalism of British rule. The historians after independence rejected the sectarianism of these terms and replaced "Hindu-Muslim-British" with the more secular "old", "medieval" and "modern". This was a mere renaming: the old time divisions were retained, but with the unfortunate side effect that the "medieval" absurdly extended to the 19th century. More recently, historians have recaptured Mughal India (1526-1858) for global early modernism. But the feeling that there is something special in the entire middle period of India, around 1000 to 1800, remains.
Herein lies the genius of Eaton's reasoning: by recognizing India's Middle Ages as belonging to the Persian era, he is giving the most convincing report of his distinctive character – as not rooted in religion, but in the power and possibilities of interaction between languages. Cultures and ideas of the two great supra-regional civilizations of the time, the Sanskrit and the Persianate world. Building on the remarkable insights of a new generation of interdisciplinary historians like Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh, Eaton is destroying older models of periodization. He points out that pre-colonial politics generally did not use religious differences to share their world: Sanskrit writers around 1000 named the riders who came from the Northwest Turks (Turushka), not "Muslims". Eaton's argument takes up Sheldon Pollock's "Sanskrit cosmopolitan", the spread of Indian culture between 300 and 1300, not by force of arms, but by imitating ideas and practices contained in Sanskrit texts that circulate among people from different backgrounds , From around 1000, Eaton argues, a second cultural force of considerable national attractiveness began to spread in South Asia. This was the "Persian cosmopolitan", which is embodied in Persian poetry and epics, but also in works of history, ethics, science and political art. Eaton's argument is that the Sanskrit and Persianate worlds on the subcontinent completely overlapped before the first Mughal emperor Babur appeared in the plains of Hindustan in 1526.
The story of the middle period of India is therefore basically the story of the significant interactions between India and the Persian world, the "intensive contact with other regions, especially with the Iranian plateau, with the Persian culture and with Islam". Not only that: Eaton provides substantial evidence that India was at times the center of the Persian world. South India is usually portrayed as significantly more Hindu than the north. Not here. Perhaps in its most significant intervention, Eaton addresses the entire subcontinent by looking at the mutual infusion of the Sanskrit and Persian worlds related to significant political, social, and cultural changes in both the north and south. In the meantime, he draws attention to the spread of Persian concepts, in particular with regard to sovereignty, politics and morality, and their interaction with Sanskrit ideas in and between different regions. He does this not only in these national languages, but also in Indian folk literature and regional art.
This is the first time that Eaton makes sense of things that are inexplicable if we wrongly assume that a separation between Hindu and Muslim is fundamental to South Asian historiography: the founder of the Hindu kingdom Vijayanagara declared himself a Sultan, for example, among Indian kings, and that later rulers modeled themselves on wearing the headgear of the Iranian royalty; or that the famous Charminar Mosque, built by the Qutb Shahi Sultans in Hyderabad, mimicked the cosmic symbolism of the central pavilion in Warangal, built by previous Hindu rulers.
India in the Persianate Age is Eaton's mature masterpiece. It will undoubtedly be the authoritative report on this most politically controversial period in South Asia's long history. My only minor point of contention is the end date of Eaton in 1765, the year of the Allahabad Treaty, in which the Mughal emperor gave Bengal to the East India Company. Persian culture in India lasted much longer. It was not until 1835 that the British replaced Persian with English as the official language of their territory. Persian publications rolled off Indian printing presses well into the late 19th century.
Emily Eden and her brother, Governor General Lord Auckland, were treated in 1839 at the home of a Eurasian, Captain James Skinner, with a performance by the legendary elite courtesans of Delhi:
They played passages from the lives of Vishnu and Brahma and sang Persian songs … Mr. B., who speaks Persian as fluently as English, kept saying: "Well, that is really delightful – I think it is with every European song equate. " how he translated them were very pretty. A little fat girl sang a passionate song to my brother … "I am the body, you are the soul. We may split up here, but no one should say we will split up later."
This line is recognizable a Persian couplet by the greatest medieval poet from Delhi, Amir Khusrau, who is still sung in India and Pakistan today. Indian gods and Persian poetry remained inseparable in the mouths of classical singers and in the hearts of their listeners throughout the colonial period. You can still go to the book market near the Charminar and buy one divan by Hafiz, with instructions in English on how to guess your future. Persian lives on in South Asia, but under the skin.
India in the Persian era 1000-1765
Richard M. Eaton
Allen Lane 489pp £ 30
Katherine Schofield is a lecturer in South Asian music and history at King’s College London and co-editor of Monsoon feelings: a story of emotions in the rain (Niyogi, 2018).