Enchantment Of Riches

William Dalrymple the author of ‘The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857’ has just been awarded the Duff Cooper Prize for History. Dalrymple has contributed an enthralling article in India Today’s Independence Day Special with the main theme “What Unites India”. Dalryple talks of the perception of India’s wealth in the good old days. Why do our so-called leftist historians hesitate to write about it? Why can’t we as Indians take pride in that prosperous past of the country?

The idea of India as a place of fabulous wealth was already a cliché by the time of Megasthenes. In Roman times, there was a dramatic drain of Western gold to India. This is something that Strabo comments on with great anxiety in his writings-and an image graphically confirmed by the recent finding of several huge Roman coin hoards around Madurai in Tamil Nadu, and the discovery of a large Roman coastal trading post near Pondicherry. At the peak of the trade, during the reign of Nero, the south Indian Pandyan kings even sent an Embassy to Rome to discuss the latter’s balance of payments problems.

The great Pallava kings who made Kanchipuram their capital, and whose fabulous and witty sculptures still delight so many at their great port of Mamallapuram, were one of a number of South Indian dynasties which became rich and powerful from their control of the spice and silk trade and the wider maritime world this opened up. From their great port, the Pallavas sent naval expeditions to Sri Lanka, Thailand and to South-East Asia, where inscriptions survive as witness to the scale of this first great Indian diaspora. An eighth century Tamil poem speaks of the port where “ships rode at anchor, bent to the point of breaking, laden as they were with wealth, with big-trunked elephants, and with mountains of gems of nine varieties.”

The Cholas who succeeded the Pallavas continued this tradition: Rajarajan I conquered Sri Lanka, and on making Tanjore his capital, erected what was then the most magnificent temple in the peninsula to commemorate his glory. On its completion in 1010, he donated to the new structure no less than 500 tonne of gold, jewels and silver looted from Sri Lanka.

It was rumours of India’s extraordinary wealth that drew the merchant adventurers of the East India Company to India 600 years later. They came to India not as part of some Tudor aid project, or on behalf of some charitable Elizabethan NGO, but instead as part of a desperate effort to cash in on the vast riches of the fabled Mughal Empire, then one of the two wealthiest polities in the world.
The Mughal Empire was far larger, more powerful and infinitely richer than its two would-be competitors to the West-the Ottomans and the Saffavids of Isfahan. Only the Ming Emperors in Peking could begin to compete with them. At their peak, the Mughals ruled over some 100 million subjects-five times the number ruled by the Ottomans. What the Poles and East Europeans are to modern Britain-economic migrants in search of better lives-the Jacobeans were to Mughal India.

By the 17th century, Agra was a vast megalopolis, while Lahore had grown larger even than Constantinople, and with its two million inhabitants, dwarfed both London and Paris. From the ramparts of the Fort, the Great Mughal ruled over most of India, all of Pakistan and great chunks of Afghanistan. His army was all but invincible; his palaces unparalleled; the domes of his many mosques quite literally glittered with gold. “The city is second to none either in Asia or in Europe,” thought the Portuguese Jesuit, Fr Antonio Monserrate, “with regards either to size, population, or wealth. It is crowded with merchants, who foregather there from all over Asia.”

History inspires a nation. And if it happens to be one of the best in the world inspires the younger generation to get to the top in contemporary global competition. Those with expertise in this subject must write and inspire this generation to get rid of the inferiority complex that goes deep in our day-to-day behaviour. Let our historians not remain shy to tell the younger generation about the inspiring past. It is their national responsibly. The country looks to them for getting the stories told in correct perspective instead of quarreling over petty things. If Dalrymple can do that, why not so many of them in reputed institutes of India?

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