Pieces from a thesis

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Luis Dias

Just as one should double-check everything one reads on Wikipedia, one should be wary of the output even from academia.

I am a member of academia.edu, and receive articles in my inbox dictated by my own areas of interest and the articles I have previously read.

One such article was ‘The Portuguese-Vijayanagar War of 1558: A Study of Military History’, apparently a dissertation submitted to a university on India’s east coast.Although not dated, it appeared to have been written sometime around or after 2012, with the name of student and guide.

I had come across literature regarding Portuguese-Vijayanagar relations from various sources, but couldn’t recall having read about this ‘war’. If anything, I’d had the impression that relations between the two powers were largely amicable. What could have led to this confrontation? So, I read further.

The author seems heavily influenced by one of his secondary sources, namely Robert Sewell’s ‘A Forgotten Empire: Vijayanagar; A Contribution to the History of India’ (1900) and references him often (I counted 11 instances in the paper). He rightly calls it a “landmark work”, “the dawn of historiography of the Vijayanagar empire” which “set the standard”, “inspired serious scholarly study of Vijayanagar in its own right”. The only weakness the author is able to find is that “it mainly draws on the literary sources external to the Empire” and that it is “outdated”.

It is depressing therefore, but not surprising, that the dramatis personae in the account are all-too-often reduced to their religious identities: the Hindu king, the Hindus, the Muslim army, powers, forces, states, the Christians, etc, as if they were competing teams in a league football tournament. And of course, the idea that the region “south of the Krishna and Tungabhadra rivers” were in effect guarded by the Vijayanagar empire, as a “formidable barrier against the Muslim invasions from the north”.

Although there is quite a list of primary (two) and secondary (23 books and 2 articles and journals) sources, the non-inclusion of the work of Richard M Eaton is unfortunate.

In his book ‘India in the Persianate Age’ Eaton writes: “Because the ruling houses of Vijayanagara and its northern neighbours adhered to different religious traditions, many modern historians have construed the Krishna [river] as a civilisational frontier dividing the Deccan into a Muslim north and a Hindu south. In part, this idea is the legacy of historian Robert Sewell who famously described the state as a “Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests, thereby contributing to an enduring trope of religiously defined territorial separatism.” Sewell’s communalised characterisation of Vijayanagar found a receptive audience among those for whom Indian nationalism meant Hindu nationalism.

Eaton however argues that Sewell’s ‘bulwark thesis, far from being supported by evidence, is in fact contradicted by it. “Peninsular India in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was far less a zone of two mutually exclusive sacred realms as it was a crossroads” … with “overlapping religious, political and commercial networks. He illustrates his statements with examples too detailed to get into here. “None of these people appear to have experienced any civilisational barrier of the sort that Sewell posited.”

There is some conjecture by the author in the thesis regarding the scale of the battle. A description of the forces on either side leads on to speculation on the numbers of infantry, cavalry, artillery etc deployed by opposing forces even if not categorically mentioned. But if Portuguese sources about it are scant, it is attributed to embarrassment over “unflattering facts”. However some breathless Indian accounts of the encounter are acknowledged by author/guide themselves as “probably an exaggeration.” The author supposes that the 1558 defeat prompted the recall of Portuguese Viceroy Francisco Barreto, although his career doesn’t seem to have subsequently suffered.

I do however agree with their conclusion that this encounter deserves further rigorous study, especially, as they put it, it might have been (if the battle did result in a Vijayanagar victory, as they claim; their own evidence seems pretty vague) “the first time that an Oriental kingdom had been able not only to resist but also completely defeat a colonising power.” One could quibble over whether colonisation in the sense the British East India Company did two centuries later was even being thought of by the Portuguese as a viable option, but it is a fair point.

Even if history really isn’t your cup of tea, any Goan reading this thesis might chuckle at certain points; it seems obvious that the author and guide haven’t ever been here.

Chapter 4 is devoted to ‘The Portuguese settlement at Goa’. It begins with a description of the boundaries of the modern state of Goa, appearing to confuse it with the sixteenth-century concept of Goa.

This confusion becomes apparent here: “As a mark of its growing stature, the city was made archbishopric in 1557. Panjim, the site of the old palace of the Adil Shah continued to be the seat of government.”

And further: “The city was divided into two sections—Old Goa (Velha Goa) and New Goa (Nueva Goa). Old Goa was the native quarter and the population consisted mainly of Hindus and Muslims as well as the free native Christians along with other faiths….New Goa, which came into being in and around Panjim, was the suburb set up for the residence of the Portuguese and their dependants.” His source for this gem is ‘Correa, Lendas da Índia’, cited in (Nicolau) Fonseca, ‘An Historical and Archaeological Sketch’.

The author is not alone in this confusion and conflation. If I had a rupee for every time a tourist or even seasoned tour operators long in the business thought that the distance between Old Goa and New Goa (Panaji) could be traversed merely by crossing a street, I’d be a very rich man. Perhaps other colonial settlement cities like Kolkata with its ‘White’ and ‘Black’ Town have encouraged such assumptions. But it can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. Here it has crept into a doctorate thesis, past the watchful eyes of author and guide.

At another point in the thesis, the author quotes two local sources on the Keladi dynasty, the Sivatarattvaratnakara and the Kelad Nripa Vijayam- which apparently describe the 1558 war and state that “the Vijayanagar armies captured Panjim” (again probably a conflation of Panaji with Goa) and “took the Viceroy captive to Rama Raya.” Mercifully, the author acknowledges that “this is probably an exaggeration”.

And of course, how could one resist (even though it has absolutely no bearing on the 1558 conflict) a description of the lascivious pleasures to be found in Goa, another trope that persists and is extrapolated to modern-day Goa, the ‘chalu place where kuchch bhi chalta hai’? Oddly enough, there’s not a dickiebird about nocturnal pastimes in the Vijayanagar empire. Another example of a serious geographical challenge is when they mislocate Hormuz in the Red Sea instead of in the Persian Gulf.

The danger of such a paper being out there in cyberspace is that it will be accepted as a well-researched work and will probably get quoted and copy-pasted by others in the future.