#AsiaNow Speaks with Cynthia Talbot

Cynthia Talbot is Professor of History & Asian Studies at the University Of Texas at Austin and author of The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan And The Indian Past, 1200-2000, published by Cambridge University Press and winner of the 2018 AAS Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book traces how, and by whom, the Indian ruler Prithviraj Chauhan has been remembered since his death in the late twelfth century. Because he was defeated in battle by an Afghan king whose generals went on to establish the Delhi Sultanate, in modern times Prithviraj Chauhan has often been called “the last Hindu emperor” of North India. Even earlier, Indo-Persian historians regarded the conquest of Prithviraj Chauhan as a milestone in the rise of “Muslim” dynasties—polities led by men of Central Asian or Afghan descent and Islamic faith—in the subcontinent. The majority of the book focuses on a few key texts and critical moments in the past 800 years. Particularly influential was Prithviraj Raso, a epic that was popular from the late sixteenth century onward, especially among the Rajput warriors of Hindu faith who fought for the Mughal empire. The highly idealized, and historically inaccurate, image of Prithviraj propagated by that epic led him to be recast, in the nineteenth century, as a praiseworthy patriot who gave up his life fighting foreign invaders. This nationalist and anti-Muslim conception of the Chauhan king flourishes to the present day, revealing his continuing significance as a site of memory.

What inspired you to research this topic?

One inspiration came from my previous research, which analyzed inscriptions recording donations to Hindu temples in medieval South India. Rather than the ideas about religious gifting or information on brahmin activities that I had expected to find, many of these inscriptions emphasized the illustrious lineage and martial accomplishments of the warrior donors who commissioned them. This made me realize how much scholars of premodern South Asia had overlooked the importance of local warrior communities and their heroic ethos, and instead favored the study of brahmins, religious traditions, and non-violence. 

I also discovered that there were several later narratives about the last king of the Kakatiya dynasty of South India, which ended in 1323 after conquest by the Delhi Sultanate. This made me aware that martial lineages and warrior communities were significant not only because of the impact they had on their own time and place, but also for the role they played in later times, in the remembrances of the past that were central to the formation of social identities. My interest in Hindu warrior culture thus grew in concert with an increasing curiosity about “historical” narratives in premodern India, a similarly neglected area of study. Yet tales of conflict between medieval Hindu and Muslim kings continue to be well known today, because they were (and still are) recycled and repurposed in order to mobilize nationalistic sentiments.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

I originally thought much of the book would deal with the two or three centuries immediately after Prithviraj’s death in 1193, a period that I had worked on previously. Instead, it turned out that Prithviraj was more widely remembered from the late 1500s on, so I had to acquire a lot of new background knowledge on this later era. Since I was also shifting my geographic focus from south India to the north, it almost felt like I was starting all over in graduate school again! But after years of collecting lots of epigraphic records and studying them in the aggregate in my earlier research, it was great fun to forget about compiling tables of figures and read rousing tales of martial valor. 

What is the strangest/funniest/most outrageous/most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

My favorite research site was a memorial park for Prithviraj Chauhan constructed in 1996 at Ajmer, his former capital. Rarely visited, it is a quiet spot that offers a panoramic view of the city from its position halfway up a hill. The centerpiece of the park is a bronze equestrian statue of the Chauhan king set up high on a pedestal, but also memorable is a large concrete map on the ground that depicts Prithviraj’s kingdom and its main cities. Small pavilions are scattered along the brick walkways of the park, each containing poster-style pictures of different aspects of his life as told in the Prithviraj Raso epic. This memorial park is a fascinating convergence of modern nationalist modes of commemoration with remnants of early modern warrior remembrances—illustrating how complex, conflicting, and layered historical memories can be. 

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Recent works on historical memory and historiography in South Asia that may interest readers include:

Manan Ahmed Asif, A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016).

Shahid Amin, Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

Chitralekha Zutshi, Kashmir’s Contested Pasts: Narratives, Sacred Geographies, and the Historical Imagination (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014)

Daud Ali, “Temporality, Narration, and the Problem of History: A View from Western India c. 1100-1400,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 50.2 (2013): 237-59.

What are you working on now?

My current project, called “Martial Sentiments: Writing Warrior Histories in Mughal India, 1590-1680,” relies on a close reading of several dynastic histories and biographical texts from a history of emotions perspective. I define emotions broadly, to encompass not only sentiments like anger or brotherly love, but also dedication to the overlord, desire for fame, honor/shame, and the like. Each text or set of texts comes from a different Rajput lineage engaged in military service for the Mughal empire, providing an alternative perspective on the Mughal court from some of the major warrior families of the seventeenth century. These heroic narratives broaden our conceptions of historiography in Indian languages and illuminate the warrior ethos and emotional regimes of non-Muslims in early modern South Asia.