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Historiography of Local and Regional State Formation in Early Medieval India

Admin October 21, 2021

This short essay is a critique of Marxist historiography of 'Indian Feudalism' and beginings of a discussion on alternative models of state formation in Early Medieval India. — Prof. Nandini Sinha Kapur


In protest against the model of political disunity projected by British imperialist hitorians, there arose the theory of strong, united empires of ancient India with equally strong, centralized bureaucracies.” A product of the heyday of nationalist upsurge, this ‘conventional-bureaucratic’ model highlighted centralized empires, particularly of the post-Gupta period. 

If the nationalists looked at the post-Gupta regional states as highlycentralized polities, in which early kings began their careers with power concentrated in their hands, their critics came up with the notion of ‘Indian Feudalism’ to explain medieval states and empires.” Emergence of local or regional states in the early medieval period was seen as a by-product of the break-up of erstwhile empires, those of Harsa or the Pratihâras in the North and the Cãlukyas or the Rästrakûtas in the Deccan.

Based on a vast corpus of epigraphical data from the Rãstrakûta, Pala and Pratihâra period, R.S. Sharma’s Indian Feudalism offered a picture of a highly decentralized and fragmented political structure for early medieval India.20 The decentralized political structure was supposed to be the result of a widespread practice of religious and secular land grants made by the imperial powers in the far-flung areas of their mighty empires. The religious donees emerged as the intermediaries in the countryside exploiting the peasantry with ever increasing demands and leading to the latter’s gradual impoverishment. The economic origin of the land-based system in early medieval times was traced in a definite decline in foreign trade and commerce (echoing Henry Pirenne’s theory on early medieval Europe) while culturally, the period is stated to have witnessed the emergence of seemingly demeaning practices like täntric cults and obnoxious representations in the arts.

In a fresh approach to the study of state in early medieval times, Burton Stein put out the concept of ‘segmentary state’ in 1973. Stein derived his paradigm from A. Southall’s study of the Alur society in Eastern Africa. In this new scheme, Stein viewed the entire structure of the Cola state as a pyramid made up of segments in which the king had the maximum authority at the core or political centre and is increasingly represented by mere ritual sovereignty and not by actual power, in the segments at the periphery. 

A major departure from the above formulation was offered through the the application of the idea of ‘integrative polity’ to the study of state formation and structure. This model essentially looks at the phenomenon of state formation as ‘processual’.Kulke questioned the very basis of the political decentralization of the post-Gupta period, which fails to explain the growth of the great regional kingdoms and the long duration of their rule in certain cases. He rightly observes that ‘structural interpretation of the post-Gupta era reveals that this period of North Indian decentralization coincided with a very intensive process of state formation on the local level, sub regional, and regional levels in some parts of Northern India, in many parts of Central India, and in most parts of Southern India’. Although Kulke forcefully challenged theconcept of fragmentation and segmentation, he was silent about the political mechanisms of ‘integration’ that were crucial to his own formulations, (B.D. Chattopadhyaya in 1983 noted two bases of state formation in early medieval India, illuminating the composition of the so-called feudatories. Finally, the emergence of the overlord or feudatory had its basis mostly in the lineage power of the local ruling elites. Thetransformation of the lineage into a regional power was through command of military resources and other forms of support from other lineages.

Secondly and more significantly, the command of military resources and allegiance not only required a redistribution of resources but also called for a system of ranking. Ranking was based on services, which could be worked out between such roles as the dutaka, sändhivigrahika, dandanayaka, etc., and ranks in the samanta hierarchy. The inter-lineage and intra lineage network of power brought about the political basis of integration. These political processes operated simultaneously with parallels in contemporary economic, social and religious processes. To quote Chattopadhyaya.

The essence of the economic process lay in the horizontal spread of rural agrarian settlements. The process of caste formation remained the essence of the social. Processes, which drew widely dispersed and originally outlying groups into a structure, which allowed them in a large measure to retain their original character except that this character was now defined with reference to the structure. In the related religious process to the major trend was integration of local cult, rituals, and sacred centres into a pantheistic supra-local structure. The mechanism of integration was by seeking affiliation with a deity or a sacred centre, which had come to acquire a supra-local significance. Applied to the study of the political processes, these parallels would suggest consideration of three levels: presence of established norms and nuclei of state society, horizontal spread of state society, implying transformation of pre-state polities into state polities, and integration of local polities into a structure that transcended the bounds of local polities.

The spread of state society was realized only through the process of local state formation which also brought a measure of cohesion among local elements of culture by providing them with a focus.” Although some of the recent related notions such as of ‘Imperial formations’ put forth by Ronald Inden,” and Andre Wink, for early medieval Indian empires do not emphasize the phenomenon of regional state formation, they do highlight important political process in the early medieval period.

The historiography on state between the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries is dominated by monographs on Delhi Sultanate. It ranges from traditional approaches of dynastic history to an analysis of the nature of the state. This historiography ranges from Khaliq Ahmad Nizami’s concept of a broad-based state characterized by transformation of the Turkish state,” Upendra Nath Day’s characterization of the sultanate as a sectarian state,” S.B.P. Nigam’s discussion of nobility  and its transformation from a ‘tribal elite’ to a heterogeneous group,³ and H.C. Verma’s evaluation of iqta and kharaj that is supposed to have distinguished the sultanate from ‘its predecessor Rajput feudal states’ to Peter Jackson’s study of the ‘mamluk institution which was firmly rooted in a long, tradition of muslim military activity with legitimizing connections with the present and past ruling dynasties and Afghan rule characterized by the ‘Khalji Revolution’.

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