Geography Is the Reason Mughals Receive More Space in Textbooks on Medieval History

Neither the Vijayanagara Empire nor the Bahmani Sultanate in South India, which also flourished in the medieval period, get the same signficance as kingdoms in Delhi and other northern regions.

One of the arguments in favour of deleting sections about medieval history from school textbooks is that they give disproportionate significance to the Delhi Sultanate and Mughal rulers than Hindu rulers of the same period in the rest of India. However, right-wing politicians who put forth such arguments tend to forget that all the kingdoms based in Delhi and the rest of North India – ruled by Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or other kings – get more importance than their contemporaries elsewhere in the country.

For example, few school children are aware about the Muslim Bahmani Sultanate and Hindu Vijayanagara Empire which flourished in South India during the medieval period. There are geographical and political reasons for this phenomenon, where one particular region receives more attention in history school textbooks. And this phenomenon is not confined to India alone.

Right from the time of the Mahabharata, material and public discourse have focused on developments that take place between Pataliputra (now Patna) and Delhi and its adjoining regions. Be it the epic battle in Kurushetra for the throne of Hastinapur, or the Maurya, Sunga, Gupta periods or the rule of Harshavardhana, they all got more space than the Chera and Chola dynasties of present-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu respectively. This is notwithstanding the fact that the Chola dynasty had the longest reign in Indian history.

Ashokan pillar at Vaishali, Bihar. Photo: Bpilgrim/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5

The only reference to modern-day Odisha in school textbooks is when children are taught that Emperor Ashoka embraced Buddhism and gave up armed expeditions after a bloody war in Kalinga.

Now, let us consider the history of other regions that are in school textbooks. The history of England, France, Egypt, Iraq (Babylon) and China focus on regions adjoining London, Paris, Cairo, Baghdad and Beijing, not places that were far-away from these power centres – unless they have some particular significance. Even the relatively shorter history of the US is largely limited to developments in the country’s Northeastern region than others.

Thus, the centre of political power naturally gets much more attention in history that is written for school children. They cannot be taught about all the kingdoms of this huge sub-continent in the short time that they are in school. Those who pick up an interest in the history of other regions take it up as a subject for higher studies. For instance, there are a large number of books and research papers in different languages on various dynasties of South India or the Northeast.

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Why did Delhi emerges as a power centre?

Delhi gradually emerged as the political and subsequently the economic centre of power throughout the medieval period because of geographical reasons. Conquerors coming from west and north of India – be it Muslims, Greeks or anyone else – always eyed Delhi because it is situated on the bank of the river Yamuna.

Because rivers played an important role in transporting armies in that era, capturing Delhi facilitated advancement to the fertile land up to the Bay of Bengal. If Delhi fell, it was likely that in matter of some years, Agra, Kanpur, Allahabad, Banaras, Patna, Murshidabad and Dhaka would also become part of the conquering empire. Similarly, the ancient rulers of Magadh found it easy to reach Delhi through the same river routes.

In this context, the example of the first Muslim empire of South India – Bahmani Sultanate – assumes significance. An average school kid knows much about the Slave Dynasty of Delhi than the Bahmani kings. This is true in the case of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire too. Therefore, would it not be fair to assume that if North India was ruled by Hindu kings between 1206 and 1857, they would have got more space in history textbooks for schools than the Vijayanagara Empire?

Gajashaala or elephant’s stable, built by the Vijayanagara rulers for their war elephants. Photo: Shashikantha521/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Pakistan parable

Those who are tinkering with the history of India need to learn from experiments in Pakistan, where utter confusion prevails. Some school textbooks claim that Pakistan was formed in 711 with the conquest of the Sind by Mohammad Bin Qasim, the first Muslim to invade the sub-continent. They state that until the British entered the scene, it was Pakistan that existed and not Hindustan.

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There is very little mention of the historic Mohenjodaro and Harappa civilisations or other ancient Hindu or Buddhist monarchs who ruled that part of undivided India. For example, the Ashokan Empire does not find any mention.

If India follows the same path, the problem will be more complicated as the Mughal rule is much more recent. Its omission from school textbooks would open a Pandora’s Box.