Understanding urbanization, social change in medieval India


The class VII NCERT history textbook Our Pasts has a very interesting conceptualization of chapters. While the first few chapters i.e. 2,3 and 4 deal with the political history of medieval India in a more conventional fashion the remainder of the chapters dwell on the social, economic, religious and cultural changes that unfolded in the same period of time. The latter chapters are in effect further elaborations of the first few where it seeks to unravel the processes that shaped medieval India.

In that sense the chapters dovetails rather seamlessly into one another. But at another level,  not just the continuities in the chapters but such an arrangement of chapters in a textbook, which is largely thematic, in itself may be puzzling.

I have tried to look at chapters 6, 7, 8 and 9 i.e. Towns, Traders and Craftspersons; Tribes, Nomads and Settled Communities; Devotional Paths to the Divine and The making of Regional Cultures as one unit.

A synopsis of these chapters - To summarize the socio-economic process that characterized India for nearly 1000 years - Following the decline of the Guptas numerous groups of settlers beyond the Indian frontier began to move into  the sub-continent and within the subcontinent numerous 'tribes' also emerged as caste groups and established political power. (like some of the Gonds, Ahoms mentioned in chapter 7) This apart many dominant peasant groups also assumed political power (the Pallavas, Cholas, Chalukyas etc). With many of the kings building huge temple complexes to secure legitimacy and authority, the temples with its demand for different products starting from grains, textiles, masonary work, metal works etc became the pivot on which a commercial economy developed. Kancipuram, Thanjavur, Aihole can be examples of such towns. Centres which became political and administrative capital of empires and kingdoms like Bidar, Agra, Dacca, Murshidabad also matured as towns of commerce as it catered to the affluent royal and administrative elite. Then there were coastal towns like Surat and Masulipatinam that emerged as bustling trading centres by virtue of being on the coast from where traders from elsewhere also transacted for Indian spices and textiles. With the emergence of the Mughals, it were towns like Surat, Masulipatinam which eclipsed other towns because of their vibrant trade and commerce. These towns later were overshadowed by Calcutta, Madras and Bombay with the advent of Europeans and the success of the British in establishing trading supremacy. In effect three major contexts can be identified in understanding towns in medieval India.

Increasing trade, emergence of towns (centred around temples in the early medieval period explained well in chapter 6 ) where different caste and social groups interfaced also lead to a rethink on the social arrangements that was obtained in early medieval and medieval society. 

This resulted in the emergence of socio-religious movement which on the one hand sought to  emphasize the need for devotion and surrender to a diety (The Alvars and Nayanmars) without rejecting idol worship or many of the rituals. (Philosophy of Adwaita and Vishistadwaita) But on the other hand  many rejected the rituals and idol worship so associated with Hinduism and established sects like Veerashaivism, Sikhism and Kabirpanthis. The latter two established by Guru Nanak and Kabir were also influenced by the Islamic tenets.  Both these socio-religious movements formed the dialectic that informed the rather nebulous feature of Hinduism.  Language played an important aspect in these movements for Sanskrit was jettisoned for regional tongues (Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, Marathi, Hindi) in which many of their ideas and thoughts were communicated. In that sense the Bhakthi movement also resulted in promotion of many a regional languages.While some of the heterodox anti-ritualistic and anti-brahmin sects did get political patronage i.e. Sikhism, Veerashaivism and hence prospered but many of them continued to serve a sizeable percentage of masses which sought to undermine Brahmanical hegemony, even without overt political patronage.
This broadly was the socio-economic process that characterized much of India roughly from 600 AD to 1700 AD.

Process to be carried out - A teacher can factor the above coordinates in her discussion with the students so that the larger picture is not lost sight of. The following two worksheets 1 and 2 (viewing them in Google docs results in formatting errors but once downloaded it should be fine) can be used to help better understanding. The first WS gives them extracts of verses from different Bhakthi poets. The  teacher can divide the class into small groups and students can collectively discuss the poems and unravel its devotional or change/egalitarian character, as the case may be. The other worksheet is to help children identify the three broad processes that facilitated in the emergence and sustenance of town in medieval India. The teacher also needs to remember that these three process of urbanization are not mutually exclusive and needs to highlight this to the students. As such I have sought to base these worksheets on the information, analysis, posers, questions found in the textbook itself. So as such there is no need for any further reference but if it is possible then a teacher can ask students find out more on the traditional arts and crafts of India like Warli Paintings, the metal works of Gonds, Bankura asses, Jaipur blue pottery etc. It should also be put across as a question whether these craft works which gave so much of an identity to a culture would be something which the students would like to learn today and whether they would be willing to depend on such crafts for their livelihoods. Or are these crafts meant only for people who are 'less capable' or 'endowed' who cannot go to schools and colleges?

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