Book review: The Book of Indian Kings
A spotlight shone on a select set of Indian kings through the ages
This slim volume is part of Aleph Books` Olio series, which trains focus on India`s great cities, culture, civilisations and suchlike.
The theme here is Indian kings, a chapter each on the likes of Raja Raja Chozhar, the Mauryas, Ashoka, Krishnadeva Raya, Akbar the Great, Shivaji, Tipu Sultan, Bahadur Shah Zafar II, Punjab`s Ranjit Singh, and a surprising modern ruler, Madhavrao Scindia. These chapters are extracts from books written by Romila Thapar, Abraham Eraly, Manu S Pillai, Salman Rushdie, Jadunath Sarkar, Kushwant Singh, William Dalrymple and others.
The kings come alive on the page, though only for a brief moment in a couple of the essays. In the chapter on Ashoka, we read of how his Rock Edicts, located as inscriptions in various parts of his empire, acquaint us not only with his politics, the events that occurred during his reign, but also gives glimpses into his personality, `speaking` of his concerns both as ruler and a man.
Professor Thapar debunks the popular myth that Ashoka embraced Buddhism immediately after the carnage of Kalinga; not so, apparently. His earlier interest in Buddhism rekindled, he eventually became a Buddhist after two- and- a-half years of rumination. For all that, Ashoka`s anguish on the Kalinga battlefield were very real, reflecting in his eventual adoption of non-violence. .
Professor Eraly does some myth-busting of his own in the chapter on the Gupta empire, opining that it was a large kingdom encompassing Magadha (Bihar) and Kosala (eastern UP) but not really an empire.
He takes up the popular prasisthis (panegyrics) of the time which serve as the main source of information on the Gupta kings, and asks just how much credibility can we give to eulogies written by a courtier and presumably approved by the king himself… a most relevant point to date.
Elsewhere, taking up yet another prasisthi, where Samudra-Gupta was portrayed as a great scholar, poet and musican, Prof Eraly makes it clear that we have to take these claims,too, with a good amount of salt. He posits that in all probability the king had a strong affinity for literature and the arts, and was a generous patron of culture.
Taking the flamboyancy of royal descriptions further, Krishnadeva Raya, says Manu S Pillai, was a formidable warrior who waged many successful battles. So formidable that royal encryptions say, `Overcome by his glory, the sun sinks into the western ocean as if unable to endure the distress of mind.`
Then again, there is no gainsaying that Krishadeva Raya did resurrect the fortunes of once dazzling kingdom of Vijayanagara. The chapter carries a vivid description of the battle of Raichur doab where `hell showed itself on earth in an ocean of blood.`
There`s more flamboyancy to follow. Wordsmith extraordinaire Salman Rushdie writes about Akbar the Great`s great love for his beautiful phantom of a wife, Jodhabai. We read how the city of Sikri is compelled to fall silent, to suffocate all action, when the emperor was visiting, so that he could enjoy the peace and quiet…such was the power of a king.
The chapter is full of whimsy, taking up the incident of Akbar`s experiment in doing away with the royal `we `and substituting it with the personal `I` but quickly dropping that idea as impractical for an emperor. Rushdie paints Akbar as a glorious contradiction: a Muslim vegetarian, a warrior who wanted only peace, a philosopher- king, a ruler who was not content with being but was striving to become.
The chapter on Shivaji by Jadunath Sarkar eloquently describes the Maratha`s statecraft, and ends with an account of the famous meeting between Shivaji and Afzal Khan.
Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, ruing the total vilification of Tipu Sultan in recent times, strives to show us that Tipu was basically a ruler of his time.
If he had despotic traits, he also supported the Sringeri math for years, and gave gifts to Brahmin priests of Sringapatna`s Vishnu temple on the morning of his last battle, asking them to pray for him. All facets of a sagacious king.
In the end, there are many common traits between the kings who ruled India at different times. Krishnadeva Raya would counsel his court, `In the presence of ambassadors, never use harsh language, for there may come a time for reconciliation.`
Ranjit Singh buys an expensive Quran for his personal collection and when asked why, says, `God intended me to look upon all religions with one eye, that is why he took away the light form the other.`
These, then, were men of acuity, intelligence and the ability to command the respect of their courtiers as well as their subjects.
The Book of Indian Kings Stories and essays/Aleph Olio/Rs 399/120 pages.
This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 26 July 2020.