History is, as we know, the study of the past. The primary sources of such study include coins, scriptures, seals, weaponry, architecture, things of daily use, palaces, forts, etc. However, when we talk of wars, events and characters of people in the past, it is very difficult to be accurate about what we are reading hundreds of years later.
Nowadays, history has become a hot political topic, changing narratives of what we have known for so long as history and challenging the past. In reality, all versions are somehow biased and all in their entirety untrue. The art of storytelling plays a major part in the narration of history.
We grow up hearing moral stories all our lives, right and wrong, heroes and villains. Our belief system starts functioning like that as we believe there has to be a good and a bad in every story. However, the reality is far from it. We don’t really have people who are pure evil or pure good like stories often suggest. Herein the art of storytelling gives its own colour to history.
Let me give you a small example. Siraj Ud Daulah, the last Nawab of Bengal, conquered and besieged Calcutta where the British East India Company had its factory at Kasimbazar and Fort Williams on the bank of the river Hoogly (Ganges).
There are two narratives of this incident. Some portray the irrational, arrogant and impulsive new Nawab, challenging the company, wrongly invading them, looting and murdering their people and resulting in inviting more enmity than he could handle.
The other speaks of how in the age where the company was growing in leaps and bounds and despite being under the Bengal Province, Nawabs had their own strong fortification, city and troops that were once opposed as rights to foreign traders by the Mughals themselves.
Siraj had put them in place. So one narrative makes Siraj the villain of the story, sympathising with the British, while the other puts rationale into his action, blaming the British. Now, what is true? Probably both. Probably there was more to it that we will never know.
But the way a story is narrated speaks volumes of how people perceive it, especially when most of the contemporary accounts are by one party and uncontested in versions.
The same goes with character sketches of rulers, cities and civilians. The most prominent of these examples has to be how the European accounts spoke of Bazar Gossip against Mughal emperors, spicing up stories of incest, portraying strong women like Nur Jahan or Jahanara often in misrepresentation of sexual activities or how they influenced the court.
Mostly, these accounts were written by those with less to no access to the rulers and patronised by European kings who would probably be pleased by such gossip rather than accounts of how women were far more empowered than in the west, holding power and property or the reality of the land being the wealthiest in the world at that time.
Their job was simply to please their patrons and they would never admit the little access they had in the court or lives of royals.
Nur Jahan, for example, co-ruled with Jahangir for many years and the Emperor, contrary to popular belief, was very much the head of state and decision-maker. She was an equal in court, which was often found intimidating by many.
Now, we can challenge this notion of characterisation only because the Timurids kept details of their lives as it happened. And they contradicted the foreign accounts. But what if they didn’t? How would anyone know the truth?
Another issue was that of representation of queens and the private life of kings, especially the Rajputs. The Rajputs respected their privacy and didn’t let any accounts give a sneak peek into their daily private lives, queens or princesses, unlike the Timurids. As a result, most of the accounts found are mainly folklores and cooked up stories, including names like Padmavati that come up in art and poetry.
Nobody can claim the existence of someone of that exact name. Maybe the poet uses one character as a representation of the rest? Or maybe he romanticised a dreadful war and siege that way. We will never know that and only a fool would claim to know everything.
The siege and Jauhar are historical events. However, the characters and characteristics in the story done hundreds of years later are obviously subjected to the poet’s imagination, who was not a historian. Just like modern-day historical fiction, these were stories that romanticised people and events.
The most prominent example of misrepresentation of Rajputs is perhaps Jodha Bai. Jodha Bai (as princesses of Jodhpur were addressed) was the queen of Jahangir, Jagat Gossain, the daughter of Raja Udai Singh of Marwar. The Jodha Bai we see in popular culture as Akbar’s queen is actually Harka Bai or Mariam ur Zamani (that was her title, not Islamic name. She was not converted) and is the princess of Amer and not Jodha Bai.
Now, many historians often choose sides. Most accounts are biased. They reflect the personal opinion of the writer. Ideologically, that is not a proper way to narrate history. While some give in to political ideologies of narration, others simply choose to take sides, narrating sources that say only the story they want to put across and not the contradictions.
However, practically, it is impossible not to be biased if you are reading too much about a person or event. It is human nature to form their opinion on the matter and that reflects in books. Hence, it is important for us to read contradictory and even extremist views and decide for ourselves.
Reading history with a preconceived idea of people or events is perhaps the most rookie mistake one can make. As much as I am against changing what we know or learn, I also feel the colonisers played a major role in our historical narratives.
Until the discovery of the Indus Saraswati Valley Civilisation, the people of the subcontinent were made to believe that the nomadic Aryans “invaded” the subcontinent and made it progressive. In reality, this narrative was to support the British notion that their “colonisation” was a way to “civilise” us.
In reality, even today, as people take pride in calling themselves Aryans, the people of the subcontinent were never invaded by Aryans. Instead, these nomadic groups came into a civilisation that was highly developed and made it their home. How do we know that today? Because our science has progressed enough to make DNA profiling of historical migrations possible.
The same theory goes for calling the Timurids Mughals. The Timurid dynasty was a descendant of Timur the Lame of Uzbekistan. Under him, the dynasty was named the Timurids.
All contemporary records of the emperors from Babar to Bahadur Shah Zafar II call themselves the Timurids. The Mongols were only partially part of their DNA. Genghis Khan was part of their lineage through Babar’s Maternal side.
However, the British decided to change their dynasty name to Mughal, in the 200 years that they ruled, in an attempt to portray how wrongly, like the Mongols, these rulers had treated the subcontinent and that they were better.
Obviously, evidence of the economics and social structure of their rule now clearly prove otherwise. But not many, in popular belief, are aware of these statistics. Hence. The Timurids are widely and wrongly regarded as Mughals.
Coming to politics and political narratives changing the story in history, the two most talked of topics in the nation are perhaps that of Emperor Alamgir I and the Battle of Haldighati.
How was Aurangzeb as a person? A bigot, yes. But an epitome of evil? Maybe not. His childhood, unfair treatment by his father, and how the empire was only won by might played a huge role in making him who he was.
Do we talk about that? Do we blame Shah Jahan in our narratives for being partial to Dara? Shah Jahan, in most narratives, becomes the romantic lover of architecture because of the Taj Mahal.
But we will never know the events in their entirety because Mewar did not keep any contemporary accounts of events. And Timurids wrote their own versions. Most of the Mewari sources found have been written later.
But what do we know? There was a war in which the Timurids could not kill Maharana Pratap and the Maharana didn’t win what he expected to. That is true. What is also true and mostly ignored is the Battle of Dewair, which strangely is never talked of even by those who want to portray how Pratap won a battle. He did, just not Haldighati.
Changing these basic narratives also makes it disrespectful towards the man who spent 6 years between these two battles in extreme hardship trying to rebuild his troops for the war.
The debate on dates of wars too is subjective. We follow a western calendar Internationally now, while the dates of these wars were mentioned in the Vikram Era or Persian Calendars. The dates of these calendars with that of now vary every year. So even if we can guess or predict dates and times, those are also open to speculation in case of wars.
Another political narrative of history, mainly introduced yet again by foreigners and taken up by many, is that most battles are religious. Be it Khilji or Akbar, most wars had less to do with religion and more with politics. Yes, of course, some narratives talk of the destruction of temples and mosques, but that was not to destroy the symbols of religion, rather to establish the supremacy of their own.
Temples, Mosques and structures were part of the power of the ruler. One would understand this point if they read of how Islamic rulers destroyed mosques of others and Hindu kings destroyed temples of Hindus as well, be it Aurangzeb or Borgis (Maratha invaders at Bengal).
The angle of giving it a religious reason was more often to justify brutality against civilians, which were not needed. Neither Maharana Pratap nor Chatrapati Shivaji were symbols of Hinduism (or Hindutva, a term coined during pre Independence). They were brave men, protecting their country and fellow citizens and were ready to ally or take help of anyone against the enemy, even the Afghans against the Timurids.
If it was a religious war, neither the Rajputs would have fought for Akbar nor would the Afghans fight for Mewar.
To study history, it is very important for us to know the narratives of all versions and let our own rationale play the judge. Hence, one may ask, what is the right way to study or understand the past? First, it is time-consuming and requires commitment. If you are reading an era, event, or person, you need to read all sides of the story.
The contrasting views about something too have common grounds. That is the reality. The rest needs to be cross-examined with bibliographical references and, of course, contemporary documentation.
Having said that, translations often have narratives too. So one needs to be careful of their historical sources. One book is never enough. One also has to understand that not every contemporary source is a source of historical evidence.
The popular character of “Anarkali“, written only a few years after Jahangir passed away, is one of the brightest examples of fiction embedded in a historical event to romanticise it. The poet took the character to give Salim a romantic justification for his rebellion. The real reasons would be far more political and complex than that.
Babarnama, for example, is another resource that can’t be considered fully authentic. Babarnama, in its originality written by Babar himself, has been lost. It now stands in eight different versions, put together by various people, in various time frames.
One of these versions is written by Babar’s daughter Gul Badan Begum by order of Akbar, who was only eight when her father passed away. So, one has to make sure the contemporary accounts taken into consideration are also accepted.
The commitment needed to read history should be beyond social media pages, forwards and Wikipedia. The information on history from any sources should only be believed if backed by books authored by or published by recognised sources (preferably pages mentioned). Even then, one should check the source mentioned to deem it true and understand wherefrom the author found their sources.
The reading of history needs more than just scrolling through articles on the internet. If people are not ready to put in that effort, they should refrain from commenting based on their political or religious beliefs.
Having said that. I, for one, firmly believe that no matter how hard you try, you can never change the past.
Queen Nefertiti, a co-ruler of King Akhenaten of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty alongside her husband, was wiped off the history of the land for their different religious view of worshipping only one god, the Sun. Her name, alongside his, were wiped off records of the dynasty and the extensive historical sources of the land.
Almost 4,000 years later, the discovery of Akhenaten’s son Tutankhamen’s tomb and consecutively the capital of Tel E Amarna and the bust of Nefertiti made them perhaps the most famous and intriguing names in Egyptian history.
Why tell this story? Because it makes me a firm believer that history can never be wiped or altered. Maybe momentarily, such alterations affect people and politics of the land, but it doesn’t change or wipe history.