“India in the Persianate Age, 1000–1765” by Richard M Eaton


India has suffered much from stereotyping, particularly at the hands of Western historians. It has been dismissed as being almost stagnant until Western encroachments somehow woke it up, and it’s been regarded as isolated from surrounding territories, somehow evolving on its own first as “a self-generated Hindu and Sanskritic civilization”, as Richard M Eaton puts it in this new book. From 1000 to 1800 CE historical convention labels this time-span “the Muslim period”, although the inhabitants of India habitually referred to their conquerors not as Muslims but “Turks”, an ethnographical term rather than a religious one. Eaton notes that in the case of Central and South America, historians usually refer to the “Spanish” (or Portuguese) conquest, rather than the “Christian” conquest, and he rightly wonders why this should be the case, since forced conversion of native populations was almost as important as gold and silver.

India in the Persianate Age, 1000–1765, an ambitious, magisterial and monumental book, written in accessible language and thoroughly-grounded in the latest research, seeks to provide not just a survey of the period, but a re-evaluation of it from the point of view of an historian who does not accept the conventional wisdom and finds what Eaton calls the sometimes mistaken “hidden assumptions” behind views of India during this fascinating and exciting period. Of particular interest to interested readers, specialists and non-specialists, is Eaton’s relation and analysis of medieval (pre-Mughal) Indian history.

Rather than the Hindu-Muslim competition in which this period is usually contextualized, Eaton instead posits interaction between  two “transregional” worlds, a “Sanskrit” world and a “Persianate” one. The Sanskrit world was not centered in any one place, nor did it spread through conquest, as Islam and Christianity were to do in later centuries. A large number of people—particularly in Southeast Asia—simply decided, for one reason or another, that Sanskrit culture was worth emulating, rather as the West did with Greek culture, and thus it spread, predominating in East Asia, and, as Eaton tells us, Persianate culture did the same in West, South and Central Asia. From the eleventh century onwards, Persianate culture began to proliferate in areas of Asia through its writings; Persian became the lingua franca in a Persianate world which would come to include India as part of its network.

Particularly important, Eaton asserts, “is what Persian writers had to say about power and authority”: it was from this that Indian potentates would derive the idea of a universal sovereign or “sultan”, an idea which went back to pre-Islamic times when the Sassanids and others had ruled in Persia. Leaders of some of the more powerful states in India would take up this idea, the best-known in the West being the Mughal Emperor or, to use the Persian word, the Padishah. Another key aspect was that the Persianate culture per se did not privilege Islam; indeed, many of the Mughal rulers, nominally Muslims, were noted for their toleration of other religions in their domains, and even studied them seriously. This speaks to Eaton’s claim that the Persianate world was one of cultural and religious diversity, a world which, as he explains, valued justice above religion, in spite of the ruler’s own beliefs. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and, eventually, Christianity, would all be accommodated in various Indian states and polities.


 India in the Persianate Age, 1000–1765, Richard M Eaton (University of California Press, September 2019)
India in the Persianate Age, 1000–1765, Richard M Eaton (University of California Press, September 2019)

Eaton begins this survey in the year 1000 CE, describing the political culture of both the Sanskrit and the Persianate worlds, moving through the age of the Ghurids in North India and the rise of the Delhi Sultanate, eventually ending with the Mughals, all presented in admirably readable and accessible language, and far from dry chronicle history. However as Eaton moves through the ages, he presents h a plethora of historical eras and rulers whose names are likely unfamiliar to non-specialist readers, but whose stories are invariably interesting. We have, in addition to the Ghurids and sultans of Delhi, the rulers of the Bengal, Deccan, Bahmani and Vijayanagar, of the Tughluq and Timurid empires, and finally the Mughals themselves. There are maps showing the geographical areas covered by these regions, but, unfortunately, no lists of rulers, and Eaton mentions many names, some of which are similar, and which are often difficult to sort out despite including their reign-dates.

This book contains a great deal of material which may not be well-known even to readers with a passing familiarity Indian history. Each area of India had a number of separate sultanates, which proliferated particularly between the years 1200-1400 until the Tughluq Empire, centered in Delhi, went into decline. In 1400, much of these areas fell under the rule of Timur (1336-1405), a great warrior of Turkic extraction, who came from a relatively obscure family of nomads in the area of Samarkand. Eaton calls Timur “one of history’s most astonishing figures” or as Christopher Marlowe fancifully imagined him in his two-part tragedy Tamburlaine the Great (1587),


Threatening the world with high-astounding terms,
And scourging kingdoms with his conquering sword.


Timur’s invasion caused the Delhi Sultanate to eventually fragment into areas ruled by local governors who had declared their independence from the Tughluq rulers. In the Deccan and the South some of these states became very powerful; for example, Vijayanagar evolved into empire status, and “managed to limp along well into the seventeenth century” even after it had become weakened by the activities of its vassal states, many of which did not easily accept their inferior status. During this time, Eaton tells us, both Sanskrit and Persian culture flourished and there was “an extraordinary spurt in the use of written vernacular languages both for literature and for government record-keeping.” After Timur’s death, new states tended to emphasize their own local languages, although Sanskrit and Persian retained their place in literary culture alongside the vernaculars.


Finally, in Chapters 5-8, Eaton considers the Mughals, from their rise under Babur (1526-30) through the first five years of the reign of Shah Alam II (1760-88). In his detailed treatment of the so-called “Great Mughals”, only Aurangzeb (1658-1707), “one of the most complex and controversial figures in Indian history”, merits an entire chapter. His greatest and most admirable endeavour, Eaton tells us, was his failed effort to replace the old “cult of sacred kingship … a state that pivoted on a charismatic, sacred emperor,” with “an impersonal polity governed by the rule of law.” It failed because it assumed that subordinates would be honest, but Aurangzeb was “served by all-too human officials”;his subjects weren’t ready for it, as they “yearned for a sovereign who mediated human and sacred realities,” perhaps someone more like emperor Akbar the Great (r. 1556-1605), with his “principles of efficiency, discipline and rational order,” yet who was still “deeply invested in the premodern mould of the sacred king.”

One of the advantages of Eaton’s book is that he moves beyond the Great Mughals into the 18th century, which sometimes does not get the treatment it deserves, at least from the Indian point of view, because it was that century which saw the rise of the East India Company as a political player after the emperor Farrukh Siyar granted it extended trading rights in 1717. Eaton considers the eighteenth century as a period of transition; after Aurangzeb passed from the scene, his successors became weaker and weaker, and as well as what Eaton calls “emerging identities” of Muslims in Bengal and the Punjab, all leading to “early modern globalization.” Eaton’s concluding section deals with the latter, with “India in the Persianate World” and “The Mughals in the Sanskrit World,” thus bringing his opening thesis to a neatly-rounded conclusion. He also discusses the reigns of the Mughal emperors who followed Aurangzeb, thus filling in much-needed information for readers who would like to know how the Mughal Empire began its long, spiralling fall, which ended in 1857 with the deposition of the last shadow ruler, Emperor Bahadur Shah II (aka the poet Zafar), his “empire” consisting by then only of the city of Delhi.


Highly recommended, Eaton’s book corrects many of the misconceptions of earlier, more conventional historians, showing clearly how Persianate culture was borderless, and that by the time of the Great Mughals it had been thoroughly absorbed into the mainstream. “The long, half-century reigns of Akbar and ‘Alamgir [Aurangzeb],” Eaton states, “set India on a path to modernity well before European colonial rule took hold in South Asia.”

Remarkably, there was no real conflict between the Persianate and Sanskrit cultures, but rather a great interaction, ranging from literature and language to cooking, dress, religion and architecture, to name some of its facets. Eaton even delves into such areas as the development of weapons, science and music, demonstrating a sympathetic and encyclopedic view of an utterly fascinating period of Asian history. He brings together all these multifarious strands into a readable and beautifully-written book, with the potential to change the way many people will regard Indian history.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.