Thinking about the Last Hindu Emperor

Gentle Readers: A small discussion of Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book The Last Hindu Emperor (2015) that I gave on March 5, 2016

Thank you to Professors Akbar Haider Ali for the invitation to come today. To Professor Kamran Asdar Ali and Rita Soheila Omrani at the South Asia Institute for their hospitality. I am very pleased to be here today, and honored to speak about Professor Cynthia Talbot’s book- which is great, and you should purchase it, and read it immediately.

Let me start with a joke and an observation.

The joke was told to me by my advisor sometime ago in his class on Hindu Kingship.

I was in a rickshaw in India and I saw an ancient monument that I did not recognize, so I asked the rickshaw walay “How old is that building?” and he answered it is “five thousand and ten years old” and I said, “wow, that is very specific” and he said, “ji, I was told it was five thousand years old about ten years ago”.

Ronald Inden’s point in that telling was to mark the way in which totemic past (five thousand years) and material past (the monument) intersect with the re-telling of that past.

Now the observation. I was visiting Jahangir’s tomb located on the outskirts of Lahore in 2014. After spending a day at the tomb, I left it and hailed a rickshaw to take me back over Ravi into the city. As the rickshaw started to drive along the outer wall of the tomb’s enclave, I noticed a mihrab-like structure– almost like a chau-burgi– sticking out from the wall. Underneath the shade of the arch, there was a tea-stall. Puzzled, I tapped the rickshaw-walla and pointed at the mihrab and said, “yeh kab bana?” (when was this built). He looked over, and replied: “About three years ago. There was no tea-stall near here, so we are very happy that there is a place to get tea now.”

The structure, I was pointing, was invisible to my driver, for the tea-stall was occupying his field of perception. He had noticed only change over time.

These are two interlocked mentalités: our capacity to emphasize the durability of long durée past as well our capacity to notice only new-ness. These two capacities, the contestation between memory and history, as it were, lie at the heart of this wonderful work by Professor Cynthia Talbot.

We find ourselves in a specific historic moment, writ globally, when memory and history, community and politics, narrative and law are at loggerheads again. In the EU– specifically in Greece and Germany– we have the cities of refugees consisting of displaced, the dispossesed, the stateless, the deported and the exiled. That crisis, determined as it is by the political aftermath of Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, has prompted in Germany, France and Norway a stark battle to forget the history of “camp” from European memory.

In United States, Trump’s presidential run has triggered a specific set of re-memembrances as political theater. First and foremost, are the invocations of the Ku Klux Klan and White Supremacist support for Trump. Trump’s theatricality does not, however, need to directly invoke the little remembered “Yellow Peril” campaigns of 1870s through 1920s when those of “Chinese and Indian” descent were barred from entering United States– for in his argument against immigrants from “terror prone” Muslim countries, all that is already implied.

In India, the Modi regime has opened up fronts over cow-protection, love jihad, reserved seats, and now academic freedom in JNU. The modes of the battle are familiar to observers of Indian history and politics. However, there is new-ness in that Modi is no longer merely the Prime Minister in India; his politics and world-view reverberate in diasporas especially the Hindu-American diaspora here. AK Ramanujan, Wendy Doniger, Jack Hawley, Andrew Nicholson and Sheldon Pollock are known adversaries for the Hindu-American Right. In either spaces (India or America), the power to interpret the past, and the capacity to point out historical contingency are met with rampant mobilization of masses and crowds. For the crowd, the totemic presence of the “Pakistani” on JNU campus or the “Swadeshi Indologist” on the Editorial Board comes with a specific understanding of historical injury, and thereby, present action.

What unites these three moments is not neo-liberal demaguogery but an argument for, or against, belonging. Who belongs where? who can ask for a right to be somewhere. We have been here before. Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” from 1795 was the cruel foil for Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida in the aftermath of the Mass-Killing of Jews and Roma peoples of Europe. In Arendt’s 1967 chapter in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “the Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man”– and its gloss by Jacques Derrida in On Cosmopolitanism from 1996– there was a critique of how the post-War nation-states had written out of their charters any category of Asylum which would allow the post-colonial world to impugn upon the recently-colonial world. Arendt pointed out, rightly, that this required an amnesia of the Roma people from the European imagination. Now, as the rhetoric in Netherlands or Germany or United States or India, turns to ripping valuables from the hands of the refugees, the history of the targeting of the Roma from 1930 Berlin to their 2009 expulsion from France, the insistent demands “Go to Pakistan”– we see what is clearly at stake.

Against this milieu, our field has produced three new works that speak to history and its contestation. I will not argue that this is a coincidence– rather that it is a confluence. The three works are Richard Eaton and Phillip Wagoner’s Power, Memory, Architecture: Contested Sites on India’s Deccan Plateau, 1300-1600 (2014), Shahid Amin’s Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan (2016) and Cynthia Talbot’s The Last Hindu Emperor: Prithviraj Chauhan and the Indian Past, 1200-2000 (2015).

What I would like to do today, is to first, speak on Professor Talbot’s book; remarking on the interventions that it offers to historians, and then present points of convergence and divergence with the other two texts. In my conclusion, I will try and answer why I see these historical works opening a critical new phase in South Asian historiography.





The story is simple enough: at some historical point a transition is memorialized between Hindu and Muslim political rule in India. This historical point differs for various communities– and Talbot’s book focuses on Prithviraj Chauhan who is cast as “The Last Hindu Emperor” by James Tod in the early nineteenth century. That is, he represents the end of the Hindu polity and arrival of the demonic Muslim one. Talbot takes the “idea” of Prithviraj as the subject– drawing upon Pierre Nora’s Les Lieux des memoire – a project launched in the 1960s by the historian Jacque LeGoff and sociologist Nora and deCerteau.

The project was explicitly nationalist– in that it sought to recognize the “constitutive” forms of French-ness, the Republic, the Nation, and a specific history of belonging that stretched from Michelet to Lavisse to Braudel and Bloch. The first volume, when it appeared in 1973, was already a response to the 1968 uprisings and the war in Algeria. Nora, and his compatriots, were then rescuing memory from history– a point of departure that I see here for Talbot’s work.

Talbot is not interested in separating memory from history per se and the approach is deconstitutive. Talbot faces an already formed idea of Prithviraj Chauhan and as a historian is interested in the formation of that idea, its forms and its social function. It is thus more cleanly seen as a Nietzschean project of genealogy: In his Untimely Meditations where Nietzche framed his critique, his concern was not with history or memory but with “triumphant historical culture”. Prithviraj Chauhan’s history and memory belongs to particular modes of triumphant historical culture, as Talbot beautifully demonstrates.

The earliest traces of Chauhan’s polity in Ajmeer and its movement to Delhi is traced through inscriptions, the earlier Prithviraj Vijaya conquest-epic, and the Persian chronicles of the thirteenth century such as Taj al Maathir and Tabaqat-i Nasiri and then Jain chronicles. Talbot moves through these sources to show various stages and strands of that fuller story of Chauhan which will not coalesce the Prithviraj Raso’s longer form in the sixteenth century associated with the bard Chand Bardai.

Talbot follows the Raso and its reception in Mughal texts, the ways in which it constitutes Rajput warrior and courtly culture in the sixteenth century. Talbot’s work here, in reading close the presence of Rajput family and warrior names and placing the acquisition of royal brides as political arms of the clan is remarkable. The Raso made the Rajput Great Tradition and there it emerges from the bardic Alha caste epics to the triumphant historical culture of Rajput courts. From there, the Raso is taken up by the court in Mewar and enjoys its most sumptuous visual and artistic form. Talbot thus is able to demonstrate not only the literary and mnemonic claims on history but its relationship to the political power.

The story in the second half of the book is what I have already called deconstitutive. Talbot traces the discovery of the text by the administrator James Tod and the marking of Chauhan as the “Last Hindu Emperor”. Talbot shows how Indian historians and philologists dealt with Tod’s claims about the Raso as well as how other strands of histories intersected with nationalist and anti-colonial claims in the twentieth century.

Talbot’s work thus demonstrates two key findings for us: first, that the historian of South Asia’s pre-colonial past must confront colonial forms of knowledge in her inquiry. This is a charge unique to the historian of the previously colonized world. The ‘discovery’ of manuscripts, inscriptions; the archeological forms; and the historical culture for India was determined between 1800 and 1930 and that reality remains our reality. The displacement of archives to London, Berlin or Cambridge and its attendant after-effect that a scholar be based in US or UK (where the monetary capacity to do research exists, or the capacity to read journals behind paywalls) is but one part of this.

Against this we necessarily need different methodologies for writing the past. Different is perhaps a stronger word– I mean particular or specific. Such is the project that Talbot has undertaken– to demonstrate how historical event and historical memory have intersected within political and social structures of South Asia across the colonial epistemic violence. This work, while building on earlier scholars like Richard Davis, Romila Thapar, Rao, Shulman and Subrahmanyam, yet pushes us further to combine book history, manuscript codicology, material culture, literary culture, and historical memory as one fluid source-material for history. That is the real innovation and intervention of this book.

As such, I see this book to be methodologically between two new texts– Shahid Amin’s and Phil Wagoner/Richard Eaton’s. Like Talbot, Amin traces the memory of an eleventh century sufi-warrior Ghazi Miyan through another sixteenth century text and its oral revival in nineteenth century ballads in UP. Amin’s is less textual and he is not arguing against a dominant colonial historiography– rather Amin is working to situate history into the local. Amin demonstrates the demands narratives of belonging make on landscape, on family, on stories. His effort is thus ethnographic, fragmentary and captured within different modes. At the other end of the spectrum are the material remains of the past which are re-used in medieval Deccan. Wagoner and Eaton, re-construct (pardon the pun) how building and memorialization practices of Vijayanagar and Bijapur drew upon Chalukya past. Their micro-studies are dominantly architectural and surmise the social function of this past.

Talbot’s work, placed within these two, thus offers us a continuum– from oral and local history to textual and material history . The three works deconstruct the colonial depiction of insular Hindu-Muslim binaries while building critical new understandings of medieval pasts. They also demonstrate how medieval history of India requires attention and simultaneous availability of Sanskrit, Persian, Kannada, Telegu, Hindi and more literary cultures. The careful work of book history, of philology, or cultural and social threads in the text, and the pivot to attend to power, sexuality and gender are all demonstrated in Talbot’s work.

Going back to the question of belonging, these three books written by scholars with long engagement with Indian pasts constitute a challenge to the triumphant historical culture of Hindutva or xenophobia. They are also a methodological argument which will shape the next two decades of historical writing for India. We are grateful to Cynthia Talbot for the gift of her work, and I hope we can carry on in the exacting spirit that the book personifies.

Thank you.

One Reply to “Thinking about the Last Hindu Emperor”

Leave a Reply