Marthanda Varma, Battle of Colachel and why it's time to rewrite India’s Delhi-centric history
Much of India’s social fissures can be traced to the Delhi-centric history telling. Remeber it was the capital of Zamorin that the European explorers sought when they thought about India and not Delhi
History is a controversial subject in any country. In a country like India, which has a scant history of keeping historical records, teaching history has become more about teaching the biases and opinions of the authors. India is a vast country with a diverse history and multiple civilisations, cultures and languages. The history taught in our schools is very much Delhi-centric.
A significant part of our history books is the Sultanate of Delhi and the glorious Mughals. It is as if nothing much was happening in the rest of the country for thousands of years until the Delhi Sultanate decided to invade the kingdoms of the South or the East. This gives an impression that India is a landlocked civilisation with Delhi as the centre, while the fact is that India is one of the top maritime civilisations in the world. Except for a brief 13 years during the short-lived Madurai Sultanate, the Delhi Sultanate was a relatively unimportant empire in the Indian subcontinent. It was neither larger than most kingdoms in the South or the East of India, nor was it particularly prosperous compared to the trade kingdoms of coastal India.
We have learnt more about Sikandar Lodhi’s rule in Delhi than his contemporaries of the Vijayanagara Empire. Yet, it was the capital of Zamorin that the European explorers sought when they thought about India and not Delhi. They succeeded when Vasco da Gama landed at Calicut. These coastal cities were important for the world, but they hardly have a passing mention in our textbooks. Sikandar Lodhi, a provincial king in Delhi, is made to appear as if he was the overlord of India. By any standards, Vijayanagara was a far more prominent and important kingdom than that of the Lodhis, but not in our history textbooks. We have pages dedicated to the Lodhi kingdom, which hadn’t impacted Indian or world culture during its period.
There has been a clear Delhi-centric bias in telling Indian history, but there has been a clear Marxian bias too. There has been obfuscation of genocides, destruction of temples and cities while glorifying the achievements of these theocratic kingdoms. The Hindu right-wing reaction to these has been equally vitriolic and has often swung to the other extreme. It views every ruler through the prism of their religion and indulges in blind vilification of Muslims.
Much of India’s social fissures can be traced to the Delhi-centric history telling. On the one hand, we have a left-wing historical view that more or less ignores or vilifies any Indian achievements before the Islamic invasion and whitewashes everything after that. On the other hand, we have the right-wing historical view that India suffered under a thousand-year foreign rule. The former idea creates a sense of inferiority and worthlessness, while the latter creates a thirst for revenge against imaginary enemies. India was never under foreign rule for a thousand years unless we consider Delhi and a few districts as India. We didn’t lose every war against invaders as it is made out to be.
Nor is India’s history a constant war between two communities, as the right-wing wants us to believe. It was coastal trading kingdoms that represented India for the world rather than the Panchayats around Delhi.
Starting from Vasco da Gama, European powers attempted to colonise these trade cities for around 300 years and failed everywhere except Goa. Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews fought against invasions together and succeeded.
The Dutch, who had conquered most of Indonesia and Far East Asia, were decisively defeated by Marthanda Varma of Travancore in the battle of Colachel, making it the first Asian victory against a European power. It changed the course of world history, yet, how many of us have learnt about the battle? While invaders were destroying temples in the Northern plains, the great Cholas were building majestic temples across the world.
We know Shahjahan as the greatest builder of architectural marvels. No doubt, Shahjahan’s Taj Mahal, Jama Masjid and Red Fort are marvellous feats of architecture, but isn’t it fair that our children also learn about the architectural splendours of the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Gajapathis, the Chalukyas, the Kakatiyas, and the Vijayanagara Empire built not just in Indian mainland but across the world. The maritime traders from Bengal, Odisha, Andhra and Tamil Nadu took Indian epics and culture to the Far East. When we talk about the famed tolerance of Indian civilisation, we often forget that the cosmopolitan coastal cities in Gujarat or Kerala gave refuge to the Parsis, the Jews or the Syrians, and gave India its reputation of a welcoming civilisation.
Yet, when we teach history, we are obsessed with the blood-soaked history of Delhi and its periphery. Delhi doesn’t represent the whole of India but is just a landlocked province up north. There is more to Indian history than the waves of invasions that ravaged the Gangetic plains. If we start telling Indian history from the coastal Indian perspective, we will heal most of the historical wounds that still threaten to divide us as a nation.
Anand Neelakantan is the author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.