Monday, June 25, 2007

Debunking some great Indian myths

My friend Yousuf, who is a secularism activist, and convenor of Mediawatch group in India, keeps sending me interesting emails. Most of these are often media articles that either misrepresent communities in India or are biased against a community.

Recently, Yousuf sent me this interesting piece that appeared in The Times News Network. Quoting historians, this piece tries to debunk some of the great myths of Indian history. It has nuggets of information some of which even I was not aware of.
Read it to see if you believed in one of these myths, knowingly or unknowingly:

When UPA presidential nominee Pratibha Patil mentioned
that the purdah had been in existence since Mughal
times, she was being historically inaccurate, but
voicing a commonly held misconception.

In fact, according to N R Farooqi, professor of
History at Allahabad University, the Mughals probably
borrowed purdah from the Rajputs. Historian Harbans
Mukhia, in his book, The Mughals of India, cites the
Baburnama and the Humayunnama to state that the
Mughals were never in purdah. Farooqi says Mughal
women were introduced to the purdah only after Akbar
married a Rajput princess, who may have brought this
custom along with her.

Many other popular perceptions are often mistaken for
historical fact, such as Islam being brought to India
by Muslim invaders. Most historians concur that
India’s introduction to Islam was, in fact, through
Arab traders.

It’s not surprising that tales abound in India, since
our culture has a tradition of storytelling. Myths,
however, become intertwined with history, often
overshadowing it. That’s why the fictional
Salim-Anarkali romance is more popular than the real
Jahangir-Noorjahan love story.

Even stories which have an element of truth can be
blown out of proportion. Like Asoka slaying his 100
brothers, which historians believe was exaggerated,
though there probably was a struggle for the throne.


'Trade, not invasion brought Islam to India'

Irish dramatist Denis Johnston once said that myths
are not created, they create themselves and then find
expression in that which serves their purpose. Perhaps
it’s time we helped dispel some popular

Islam was brought to India by Muslim invaders

Most historians now agree that India’s introduction to
Islam was through Arab traders and not Muslim
invaders, as is generally believed. The Arabs had been
coming to the Malabar coast in southern India as
traders for a long time, well before Islam had been
introduced in Arabia.

Writes H G Rawlinson, in his book, ‘Ancient and
Medieval History of India’, "The first Arab Muslims
began settling in the towns on the Indian coast in the
last part of the 7th century." They married Indian
women and were treated with respect and allowed to
propagate their faith. According to B P Sahu, head of
the department of history of Delhi University, Arab
Muslims began occupying positions of prominence in the
areas where they had settled by the 8th and 9th

In fact, the first mosque in the county was built by
an Arab trader at Kodungallur, in what is now Kerala,
in 629 AD. Interestingly, Prophet Mohammed was alive
at that time and this mosque in India would probably
have been one of the first few mosques in the world,
thus highlighting the presence of Islam in India long
before the Muslim invaders arrived.

Asoka killed his 100 brothers to claim the throne

In his book, The Oxford History of India, Vincent
Smith writes that the story told by the Buddhist monks
of Ceylon that Asoka slaughtered 98 or 99 of his
brothers in order to clear his way to the throne is
absurd and obviously concocted to highlight Asoka’s
alleged abnormal wickedness prior to his conversion to

In fact, Asoka, says Smith, took good care of his
brothers long after his succession, evidence of which
is found in his rock edicts. However, according to
Nayanjot Lahiri, professor in the department of
history at Delhi University, this is a legend which
can’t be summarily dismissed and it probably has a
grain of truth.

Although the reference to 100 brothers seems purely
metaphorical, there are references in one Indian and
two Sri Lankan literary texts that there was a
protracted struggle between Asoka and his brothers for
the throne. Since Asoka’s formal consecration was also
delayed for some four years after the death of his
father Bindusara, it indicates that his ascension to
the throne was contested, says Lahiri. How many
brothers were slain, or whether any were slain at all,
is however a question that is still debatable.

Buddhist monks were vegetarians

Most people associate Buddhism with non-violence and
imagine that Buddhist monks and nuns never consumed
animal food. However, according to Nayanjot Lahiri,
the idea that meat and its products were not allowed
to Buddhist monks is a myth. For instance, in case of
sickness, raw flesh and blood could be used by the

Fish and meat were mentioned among the five superior
and delicate foods that a monk who was unwell was
allowed to eat. Irfan Habib, former professor of
history at Aligarh Muslim University, agreed that
monks could eat meat. The only restriction, however,
was that they could not eat the meat of animals
especially slaughtered for them. Buddhist sutras also
mention that one may, with a clear conscience,
receive, cook and eat meat either freely offered by
someone else, or that which came from an animal which
had died of natural causes, but not of that which had
been especially slaughtered for eating. Even the
archaeology of Buddhism provides some evidence on
this, says Lahiri, as animal bones have been recorded
from two famous Buddhist sites in Sri Lanka—the
Abhayagiri vihara at Anuradhapura and the Sigiriya
vihara—which indicate that Buddhist monks were not

The love story of Salim and Anarkali

A lowly courtesan falls in love with the crown prince
of the Mughal empire who, in turn, is ready to defy
his father’s will for the sake of his beloved. This is
the story of Salim and Anarkali, made popular by films
like ‘Mughal-e-Azam’. The tragedy, however, is that
the epic romance was probably just a work of fiction.

For, Anarkali never existed. Or, even if she did, she
was probably a slave girl who had no proven connection
with either Salim or his father, the Emperor Akbar.
According to Irfan Habib, the legend of Anarkali came
into being some four years after Jahangir’s death,
when she was mentioned briefly in some texts of the
1630s. After that, there’s no mention of her anywhere
and there is no reference to her in Jahangir’s
autobiography either. Yet, Anarkali’s name remains
closely linked with Salim and she is probably more
popular than even his wife, the historical Noorjahan,
was. What probably fanned this popular imagination,
says N R Farooqi, professor at Allahabad University,
was circumstantial evidence like a tomb, believed to
be that of Anarkali’s, situated in Lahore which was
built by Jahangir. Or tales spread by European
travellers and later picked up by popular culture,
thus cementing the legend of Salim and Anarkali in
people’s imagination.

Jodha Bai was the name of Akbar’s Rajput wife

Akbar’s first Rajput wife, it is believed, was the
eldest daughter of Bhar Mal, the Raja of Amber.
Popular perception has it that her name was Jodha Bai
and that she was Jahangir’s mother. History, however,
suggests otherwise.

According to Irfan Habib, there is no mention of
Akbar’s Rajput wife anywhere in any Mughal text. Abul
Fazal, in his ‘Akbarnama’, does not mention her name
as Akbar’s wife. Nor does Jahangir, in his
autobiography, ‘Tuzk-e-Jahangiri’, mention Jodha Bai
as his mother. This is because, according to N R
Farooqi, Jodha Bai was not the name of Akbar’s Rajput
queen. It was, in fact, the name of Jahangir’s Rajput
wife, whose real name was Jagat Gosain. Since she
belonged to the royal family of Jodhpur, she was also
referred to as Jodha Bai.

According to Farooqi, she was a very important woman
in the royal household. Besides being married to the
emperor, she was also the mother of Khurram, who later
became Emperor Shah Jahan. The myth of Jodha Bai being
Akbar’s Rajput wife, says Irfan Habib, probably gained
credence during the 19th century when guides at
Fatehpur Sikri gave her the mantle of Akbar’s wife, a
perception which is prevalent even today.


Obiter Dictum said...

Though belated, Zafar, a very happy birthday to you.

Fantastic the way myths work, isn't it?

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks OD. But the interesting part is--some people would not change their minds by dispelling these myths, and refuse to take the historians' words for real. They would argue that these are claims made by Marxist historians...and the debate will go on. In India, there are as many histories as there are political camps.

ritika said...

It is a common belief that Jodhabai was the main wife of Akbar and the mother of Jahangir. However the literary sources clearly mention that the wife of Akbar named Mariam-uz-Zamani was Jahangir's mother. Mariam-uz-Zamani married Akbar on February 6, 1562.

One of Akbar's minor wives was Jodhi Bibi, daughter of Rao Mal Deo of Jodhpur from a concubine Tipu Paswan. She married Akbar in 1581.

There was another Jodhabai, wife of Jahangir, who was the daughter of Raja Udai Singh of Jodhpur.