Books: Material culture and medieval "Hindu-Muslim" encounter

Objects of translation and the cultural interactions of Muslims and Hindus in the late 12th and early 13th centuries

This weighty—in every sense—volume will be indispensable for anyone interested in the history of the Ghorids, the Muslim dynasty that rose to power in Afghanistan and, during the late-12th and early-13th century, overran and displaced the Hindu Rajas who ruled most of northern India. This book examines the cultural exchanges between these two apparently intractable religious communions through the architectural heritage of their domain, and the way this heritage has been affected by the inter-relationship.

Finbarr Flood has previously written on the spolia of the great mosque of Damascus, the most prominent of which were columns taken from Christian churches and incorporated into the fabric of the new mosque as a triumphal display. From these, Flood has turned to Indian, mainly Hindu, material culture and has now performed the same task for the chunks of sandstone taken from local Hindu temples which are so prominent a feature of the earliest, often very beautiful, group of large mosques in the north west of the Indian sub-continent. He has worked out, as no-one has done before, the principles of the degree of mutilation of the figural images and the degrees of systematic recarving of the blocks of stone. One reflects that this was probably undertaken by teams of humble stonemasons, low in the social hierarchy, who were glad to recarve the blocks skillfully in accordance with the iconoclast fads of new patrons.

Flood shows that, in the series of mosques constructed around AD 1200, the least mutilated figures of Hindu gods and goddesses, often with a mere scratch to their eyes in accordance with Qur’anic precept, are “Symbols of Substance” placed at the entrance to the private royal chamber where women of the Sultan’s entourage and the ruler himself could worship apart from common believers. The degree of shaving of the stones and obliteration of their images in the public areas of the mosque intensified as the worshippers approached the prayer niche pointing to Mecca.

The 279 illustrations are of great interest. This is the only work that tries to cover the great crescent of the brief Ghorid empire from the great minaret of their forsaken capital of Jam to Anhilwara and Bhadreswar in Gujarat—the latter with pre-conquest Muslim buildings probably erected by ocean-going merchants; this range cannot be found in any other single volume. Flood has visited every site to which there is still access and his descriptions of the north-west Indian group of mosques with similar plans and abundant spolia, all dating from close to AD 1200, are particularly strong, based on personal observation.

However access is nowadays withheld from foreigners in almost the whole of Afghanistan, in many areas of Pakistan, and increasingly in India in areas close to frontiers or to insurgency. For these areas—particularly for Ghazni and Lashkari Bazar—Flood has had to ransack archival collections of photographs, from which he has selected much interesting material.

I was delighted that Flood should also comment on the west Asian Sasanian-derived material in the murals at Alchi depicting the courtly life of the Tibetan Kings of Ladak. Hermann Goetz was aware of this cultural influence passing through Kashmir and Chamba, but, since the pioneering survey of Ladaki art by Snellgrove and Skorupski (The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh, 1977), this has been an unpopular view to express among the European Tibetologists who hold sway over the currently received view of Ladaki history. To some such scholars the Sasanians and the Mughals are much the same.

Flood’s historical perspective appears biased by the greater ease with which he makes use of the Arabic rather than the Persian sources. The Arabic sources move more towards how matters ought to be reported to the Caliph in Baghdad while the Persian tend to represent more realistically how matters stood upon the ground.

The publication of the volume is an achievement, the result of immense labour, learning and enterprise on the part of both the author and of the Princeton University Press. It will remain an invaluable work of reference for those who are interested in the subject and can find their way through it.

This book is itself a type of spolia that can only be shared by those who have had the privilege of understanding the vocabulary of current discourse in American universities. Professor Flood should avoid writing sentences that can run to 18 lines of dense small print, even when they convey a point that was worth making.

I confess I find the book production and layout of this volume from the Princeton University Press dismal. The two long narrow columns of small print per page, four columns to an opening, remind me of those unliftable bumper volumes containing the whole of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall or The Waverley Novels that long ago used to rest on the library shelves of my great-grandfather. Mainly on account of its acid-free paper, the volume is heavy to handle. The shiny paper and the spiky type-face make it exceptionally difficult to read, and the fine detail of the author’s photographs is often blurred by lack of contrast in the pale printing.

It is also surely time to question the Harvard system of references that is universal in such American publications, in preference to the use of footnotes. The system makes it too time-consuming for the reader to form an opinion on the value of the source cited or the information that it conveys.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'When mindsets met on the subcontinent'