Refracted Images of the World Beyond
Himalayan history cannot be seen in isolation of the developments elsewhere in South Asia.
History is often accepted as an account of how good kings won battles, established empires and kept their subjects happy; and conversely, of how the bad ones oppressed the poor and ultimately lost both their wars and their kingdoms.
The greater part of Himalayan historiography has done little to dispel such simplistic notions. It tends to concentrate on elaborate, extended descriptions of petty boundary disputes between tiny mountain principalities. The chronological re-ordering of the reigns of kings and intricate etymological rationalisations for concocted royal lineages are, for many scholars, the goals of their research.
Significantly, the historiography of South Asia as a whole has seen considerable change in recent years. More rigorous methods and sophisticated scholarship are uncovering intricate historical processes of the past. Scholars are re-examining the nature of the state, economic organisation and social systems.
Research on Himalayan history, however, has not kept apace with the rest of the Subcontinent. Historians remain absorbed in unravelling political intrigues and court scandals. Art historians are content to follow the lofty achievements of Himalayan art and reluctant to soil their hands with earthy socioeconomic realities.
Replaying a Past
Among researchers in the other social sciences, and particularly among Western scholars, the Himalayan region is taken as a social laboratory that enables them to observe once again thereenactment of a long forgotten past. Irrespective of field of specialisation or research method, a constant undercurrent is the presumed isolation of the Himalaya. While the more sympathetic view is that this leads to the cultural diversity of the region, others regard it as the cause of the ‘primitiveness’ of hill society.
Both groups of scholars, however, believe that Himalayan society has existed independently of the rest of South Asia, until the modem age forced it to conform. According to this mindset, as far as the present is concerned, reticent hill societies need to be prodded into interacting with a rapidly changing world.
Many Himalayan historians unwittingly carry contradictory assumptions in their theoretical baggage. While the impact of subcontinental trends on Himalayan history is implicitly accepted, it is not given due importance. The historical inseparability of hill and plain emerges only when the scholar is unable to explain certain turning points through purely ‘local’ material.
For example, the emergence of centralised monarchial states in the region is often attributed to the arrival of military adventurers, whose ‘royal lineage’ and reasons for coming to the hills both originate outside the Himalaya. Here is Fraser’s account of the Himachal principalities of 1821:
…all the chiefs of the larger hill states are originally of low country extraction; probably soldiers of fortune, more able and politic than the mass of hill chieftains, who have had power to gain a footing, and art to maintain it when gained; and to consolidate into one powerful government a portion of the vast number of ever-changing petty states…
The Muslim invasion of India is commonly believed (rightly or wrongly) to have encouraged the migration of a large number of Hindu families to the hills. Similarly, the spread of religious orthodoxy (the import of gods, caste and scriptures) in different parts of the Himalaya is generally considered a part of the larger ‘civilising mission’ of Brahminism.
Simultaneously, however, Himalayan historiography has created an insular world for itself; one that overemphasises its separateness. In their seminal work, History of the Punjab Hill States, Hutchison and Vogel wrote:
In the hills social conditions have been prevalent from remote times, comparatively recent years the hills were almost entirely isolated from the plains. The rugged character of the country made invasion difficult and conquest practically impossible…
The influence of the developments in the adjoining plains has been underplayed in order to establish a distinct identity. The stress is on presenting an unbroken, romanticised and somewhat segregated continuity in Himalayan history. To quote Hutchison and Vogel again on the Punjab hill chiefs:
Good reason then have they to be proud of their ancient lineage. The ancestors of many of them were ruling over settled states when ours were little better than savages, and the youngest of them ,can point to a pedigree dating back for a thousand years. In comparison with them most of the royal houses of the plains are but of yesterday, and the oldest must yield the palm to some of the noble families of the Panjab Hills.
Such is the contradiction. While many complicated developments are seen as products of short-term influences of the plains, over the longer duration the Himalaya are depicted as an isolated region. Historic socioeconomic transformations in the rest of South Asia are disregarded until they become too large to be ignored. Objective history of the Himalaya can only be written if such contradictions are resolved, and the traditional obsession with insularity explained and overcome.
Innumerable factors have always bound Himalayan society to people and places beyond the mountains. The most commonly discussed links are of language, socio-religious practices, art forms, large-scale migration, and so on. While these links are indeed significant, we need to find out what kind of economy was able to sustain the cultural and political achievements that the scholars have attributed the Himalayan kingdoms.
Obviously, the large number of craftsmen engaged for temple-building and producing artwork were not paid out of wealth that was locally generated. Neither the non-productive cultural and artistic activities, nor the heightened military activity across the Himalaya during the late-18th to early-19th century, would have been possible without the income from trade and other commercial activities. However, the dramatic rise in the volume of commerce, must not distract us from the fact that the exchange networks had a long history and were an integral part of Himalayan economy and society.
The links with the larger world beyond the mountains thus were very much a permanent characteristic of Himalayan history since the early times. These characteristics were not created by any single factor, such as the adventurer’s conquest, the Brahman’s missionary zeal, the merchant’s trading activities, or the craftsman’s skill. Rather, Himalayan history was shaped by a blend of all these and a lot more, a convergence of which brought into being and nurtured a corresponding worldview.
There emerged a well-knit, yet extensive, network of socio-economic, political and cultural relationships that gradually came to be taken for granted. The existing image of this larger historical dimension is yet only a refracted one. So diverse were the ways in which Himalayan societies reached out to distant regions that it will take considerable and persistent efforts to put the complete picture together.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the answer to many intricate questions of the region’s history may be found in areas lying beyond the Himalaya. In economic terms, it could mean that the region had established a relationship of mutual dependence with the adjoining plains. When translated into politics, it could imply that the exchange of salt, wool, gold, textiles, timber and other forest produce between the Himalaya and areas far beyond enabled the accumulation of an extra bit of wealth which in turn made possible the emergence of hill kingdoms and polities of fairly complex nature.
And it is not only in the economic sphere that this wider aspect of Himalayan history is applicable. In social terms, for example, the upper echelons of the ruling elites of the Himalayan kingdoms have time and again emphasised their affinity in caste and status with the dominant classes of the Indian heartland.
History-writing is a method of recording and explaining change over time. Political upheavals are at once a cause and consequence of the rise of new social classes in society. Having ascended to political power, it was necessary for them to acquire a corresponding social legitimacy amongst the peer groups. Matrimonial alliances have always been a highly effective weapon in the arsenal of rulers. To use a fairytale analogy: on many a historical occasion, it was the kiss of a Rajput princess that broke the spell of social peripheralisation and transformed the frog into a prince in his own right.
Singh is with the Department of History. Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla.