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SOUTH ASIA RESEARCH, Vol.17, No.2, Autumn 1997



Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Among the numerous works that Burton Stein published in his very productive, post-retirement, period in London, was a short monograph entitled quite simply

Vijayanagara, for The New Cambridge History of India, Vol. 1.2 (Cambridge

University Press, 1989), under the general editorship of Gordon Johnson, C. A.

Bayly and J. F. Richards. The monograph, which I presume was commissioned in

the early to mid 1980s, had a broadly favourable reception, for example in the Times Literary Supplement (where it was reviewed by K. N. Chaudhuri), although

a few somewhat critical reviews, notably one rather severe one by R.

Champakalakshmi in the Delhi journal Studies in History, also appeared. In this

brief essay, I shall attempt to place the work of Stein on Vijayanagara in a double context: first, the evolution of his own views on the subject, which as we shall see by no means followed a linear pattern; and second, the rather more complex

question of the changing historiographical constellation within which these views

should be placed. I am tempted, however, to begin with a somewhat anecdotal reflection. Burton Stein, as I recall it, in London in early 1985, when I was


I first


research at the India Office Library for my doctoral thesis at the Delhi School of

Economics. Funded by a rather meagre Indian Council of Social Science Research

grant, and staying at a somewhat curious Polish 6migr6-owned hotel off Baron’s

Court, Steins was one of the few telephone numbers I had in London, besides that

of K. N. Chaudhuri. I had just been in the Netherlands, working at the Hague archives, and Frank Perlin - at that time still teaching in Rotterdam, and resident

in Leiden -

had briefed me in his own way about Stein.

The facts I knew

included that Stein did not own a suit, and that he had had to borrow a tie for

Perlin’s formal thesis defence at the Erasmus University. The image I had was thus a rather odd one, between the studied casualness this anecdote suggested, warnings concerning Steins intellectual hypnotism that I had received from my elders and betters at Delhi, and my own impressions from reading Peasant state and society in South India, a book which had been greeted with a huge hullabaloo as

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soon as it came out in 1980, being acclaimed by some (mostly outside India), and

reviled by others (mostly in India). The book itself I found very hard going, written in a convoluted and hermetic style that was extremely difficult for an economist like myself to penetrate; but the segmentary state’ model was finally there, as fully fleshed out as it would ever be after the bare bones of the

historiographical essays that had preceded it. In any case, it took me a very long

time to reconcile myself to the fact that the same person who had written this book (in somewhat rebarbative ’social science’ language), was the very humorous,

denim-jacketed, character who showed up on appointment at the India Office Library, looking like a sort of ageing Clark Gable playing the White Hunter in

Mocambo (a fairly awful film I had just seen two days before on

TV, in the seedy

lounge of my Polish hotel).

Now, as is well-known, Peasant state and society is mostly about the Chola

dynasty, even though there is a long, last chapter on later times. In contrast, the

Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol. I, which appeared just as I was

beginning my research, included several chapters by Stein on precisely this later Vijayanagara period, that coincided with the focus of my own dissertation (which was on South India between 1550 and 1650). Besides, since my main interest was trade, there was also the paper that Stein had written, titled ’Coromandel Trade in Medieval India, in a volume edited by John Parker of the James Ford Bell Library, entitled Merchants and scholars (1965). I managed to obtain a xerox copy of this paper in Delhi with great difficulty, and read with interest its theory concerning how the so-called ’merchant guilds in South India had been smashed by the

expansion of the Vijayanagara polity into south-eastern India.

Let us recall where matters stood in Vijayanagara studies in the mid-1950s, when Stein began his own thesis work on the Tirumala-Tirupati temple at the

University of Chicago, even if this means partly rehearsing ground touched on by

him in the introduction to Vijayanagara. The classic work was that of the British

administrator Robert Sewell, and its title, A forgotten empire (1900), tells its own


Sewell had begun by doing research on epigraphy and numismatics, to

establish clear ’lists’ of south Indian dynasties; in some sense, this was a

continuation of Colin Mackenzie’s unfinished project to the same end, although

Mackenzie had had a rather different set of materials in mind. Sewell’s enterprise

was completely altered though, by the chance re-discovery by the Portuguese

Arabist David Lopes of some detailed accounts by Portuguese of Vijayanagara (or

’Bisnaga’, as they prefer to call it), in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Lopes

published the texts, anonymously authored, but attributed by him to Domingos

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Paes (c. 1518) and Fernao Nunes (c. 1535), in his book Chr6nica dos Reis de

Bisnaga (’Chronicle of the Vijayanagara kings’) in 1897, as part of the publication

programme for the fourth centenary of Vasco da Gamas voyage; his edition also carries a long eighty-one page introduction, including references to Sewell’s Lists

of inscriptions, and sketch of the dynasties of Southern India ( 1884). Sewell seized

upon this Portuguese publication and used it extensively in his own

work published

three years later, as he also did the early seventeenth-century text authored by the

Portuguese Jesuit Manuel Barradas, concerning the Vijayanagara ’Civil War’ of

the 1610s. Since Sewell published complete translations of these texts, the names of Paes and Nuniz (as Nunes came to be spelt), entered Vijayanagara historiography in a definitive fashion; the less fortunate Barradas for his part was

largely consigned to the dust-heap.

The next two generations of work then extended the documentary basis of

Vijayanagara studies considerably. S. Krishnaswami Ayyangar (for some of

whose other writings Stein had a particular fondness), published excerpts from literary texts relating to Vijayanagara in Sources of Vijayanagar history (1919),

following it up some years later with an extensive work on the Tirupati temple;

then, two historians, B. A. Saletore and N. Venkataramanayya, began the process

of reintegrating Sewells view with the inscriptional record, which had in the meantime been published in fits and starts, in the Archaeological Survey’s annual

summaries, as well as in some cases with the entire texts. The Portuguese, Italian

and Latin materials continued to be exploited by the Bombay-based Spanish Jesuit, H. Heras, and thus by the mid-1930s, a substantial body of work existed on

Vijayanagara. Yet this work remained curiously shorn of a framework, often

reflecting no more than dull quarrels between regions (thus, the Karnataka lobby versus the Andhra lobby, each vying for the pride of having ’founded’ Vijayanagara). Venkataramanayya’s Studies in the history of the third dynasty of

Vijayanagara (1935), which I myself consider the best work of that generation

(though Stein did not share my view), faithfully reflects the strengths and

weaknesses of the approach in vogue. The book is repetitive, often organised

almost like

a district gazetteer (a trait that is even more pronounced in T. V.

Mahalingams unreadable work of the next generation), and this is not a

coincidence. Though Venkataramanayya was a very talented scholar and

philologist, who edited a number of important Telugu texts from the Mackenzie

collection, he typically insisted on seeing Vijayanagara as an empire in the mould

of the British Raj in India. A major part of his enterprise was thus to classify taxes,

lands and other aspects of the ’land-system’ in a way that would be recognisable to

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a British revenue official.

Atop this system sat the (as it turns out, somewhat

bogus) category of a sort of Vijayanagara military fief-holder, the arnarandyaka,

the description of whose activities seems to derive essentially from Nuness

account of the 1530s.

Indeed, as Stein himself noted in his chapter in the

Cambridge economic history, while Venkataramanayya surely knew the materials

at first hand as well as anyone, the real ’theoretical’ statement was that of K. A. Nilakantha Sastri, who in his general work, History of South India, described

Vijayanagara as a confederation of military chieftains, perhaps unconsciously

borrowing the early British description of the Marathas in the closing years of the

eighteenth century.

These monographs, and a few other works devoted to the Nayaka

principalities of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (R. Satyanatha Aiyar on

Madurai, V. Vriddhagirisan on Tanjavur, C. Hayavadana Rao on Mysore), defined

the baseline from which any analysis might be attempted in the baseline from

which any analysis might be attempted in the late 1950s. The last major

publication in English at that time was the three-volume work (Further sources of

Vijayanagar history) edited by Sastri and Venkataramanayya in 1946, and as its

title indicates this was really a source-publication, even though one volume of the

three tried to establish a clear chronology of political events, which was then

extensively used as background material by such historians as Tapan Raychaudhuri

in his Jan Company in Coromandel, 1605-1690 (1962).

Steins doctoral thesis thus tries to set itself apart from this received wisdom, while at the same time making use of it for the empirical detail it provided. The focus of the thesis was the Tirupati temple, and the research was facilitated by the existence of still another coherent source-publication, that of the Tirumalai-

Tirupati Devasthanam epigraphical series in six broadly chronological volumes


The main thrust of Stein’s argument was a ’modernist’ and

developmental one, which is quite adequately brought out in two very well-cited

papers published by him in the early 1960s; since they represented the core of the thesis, it is probably no surprise that the thesis itself remained unpublished. In

retrospect, echoes can be found between Stein’s position of the time, and some aspects of his occasional collaborator Morris D. Morris’s views of the same period;

in particular, both insisted on downplaying the idea of Indian ’other-worldliness’,

and argued (Morris explicitly, Stein implicitly) against ’values’ as an obstacle to

social and economic change in South Asia. To Stein, writing in the Economic

Weekly in the early 1960s, it appeared clear that Vijayanagara was a state that was oriented towards agricultural development’, and that the patronage of temples was

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part of a strategy towards this end. Ingeniously, he showed how donations to temples had to be invested fruitfully, yielding a certain minimum rate of return if the puja that was to be conducted in exchange for the donations could be sustained.

Also, he analysed the changing form of donation, from a preponderance of land to

more and more cash, as well as the changing identities of donors (amongst whom

merchants, and related groups, appear rather more prominently in the sixteenth century than before). In some sense, it seems to me that the Stein who wrote those

papers (later collected in his All the King’s Mana, published from Madras)

represented a rather more radical (and perhaps more nationalist!) view of the


of Vijayanagara than either Sastri or Venkataramanayya. Let us stress,

once more, that these papers privileged the inscriptional materials over all others,

whether the European sources (which do have some rather interesting things to say,

in point of fact, about Tirupati), or literary and narrative texts (from kavya to

kaifiyats) of the type found excerpted in the two volumes on Sources and Further


In the 1960s, even though Stein’s unhappiness with the formulation associated with K. A. Nilakantha Sastri on the Cholas grew more pronounced, the views he held on Vijayanagara continued to stress its power, its thrusting character, its destruction of autonomous local institutions, and so on. The paper that I have cited briefly above, ’Coromandel Trade in Medieval India, is a good example of this

position, since it stresses the power and efficacy of Vijayanagara military

intervention in the Tamil country in the fifteenth century, in the aftermath of the

campaigns of Kumara Kampana. Even trade, it seems, must be seen in this

conception in relation to state power, and is almost subsumed in a narrative where

the Vijayanagara state holds centre-stage.

It is thus surprising, in this light, to re-read the last chapter of Peasant state and

society (1980), on Vijayanagara. Of

course, in the meantime, the focus of Stein’ss

interests in relation to Vijayanagara had shifted from the state to forms of sectarian

religious organisation, viewed largely from a ’sociological’ (rather than a ’religious

studies) viewpoint. In the South Indian temples volume that he edited (1978), two papers represent this rather well. The first is Stein’s own, arguing from Census materials on the foundation-dates of temples, for a shift in the composition of

deities to whom temples were devoted in the Tamil country between 1350 and

  • 1750. The other is Arjun Appadurais essay on the relationship between temples,

sectarian leaders and the Vijayanagara state, which - while arguing for a form of

strategic vote-bank rationality on the part of ’medieval’ actors - shifts the brunt

of change from the state to a rather different level in society. (Incidentally, Stein

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continued to cite this essay with approbation into the late 1980s, indeed rather more frequently than the essays author himself, for Appadurai himself had

metamorphosed by that time into a post-modernist guru). Besides, Stein’s interest in viewing the state as held together by ritual elements had grown by leaps and

bounds in this period; the analysis of the mahanavami at Vijayanagara as a

constitutive ritual also dates from these interim years. It should be stressed that Stein was never interested in the ritual of kingship for its own sake, but for its function; this is the reason why his analysis, while strikingly innovative at the time

for the Indian historiography, appears rather broad-brush in retrospect, from the

point of view of the close reader

of texts like the Amuktamälyada, from the

Vijayanagara period.

To return to Peasant state and

society then,

its last chapter claimed that what

had been said for the earlier period concerning the segmentary nature of the

Chola state broadly held good for Vijayanagara as well. Despite being provided

with considerable detail (including some limited narrative detail concerning

Vijayanagar rule), the reader was left with the impression that a highly stable

structural model, rooted in a far earlier past, explained all the essentials concerning this state. Even if the rituals had changed somewhat, ’ritual kingship still remained the rule; the importance of fiscality as either constitutive or reflective in

any way of state power was dismissed; localities preserved their autonomy from

the centre, even if the nomenclature (and perhaps even the dimensions) of the ’local units’ had changed. But, curiously, the chapter at the same time reproduced

the core materials of the two papers from the early 1960s that I have discussed


This created a major problem in Stein’s work, a tension that he himself

recognised to an extent. As C. A. Bayly remarks in his companion essay, the

dynamics of historical change proved difficult to bring into the ’segmentary state’

model, which is no surprise since the model was conceived by structural

anthropologists whose primary concern was never historical change anyway.

(Aidan Southall’s self-congratulatory essay of the 1980s in Comparative studies in

society and history, reflecting in part on Stein’s work, is typical of this). Thus,

between 1980 and 1985 (when he published several further important essays on Vijayanagara), Stein had time to reflect on these problems. One of these later

essays, in a collection from

the Journal of peasant studies on the applicability of

’feudalism’ as a concept to India and other non-European societies, returns in

some respects to the position of the 1965 essay on ’Coromandel trade’.

Vijayanagara warriors are seen as powerfully intruding into the Tamil countryside,

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but Stein also nuanced the analysis by suggesting that the situation in Karnataka was rather different (and more stable), than that which obtained in the Telugu and

Tamil country.

The other essay, presented at the review conference on the

Cambridge economic history of India, went even further. Influenced in part by

Frank Perlin, with whom he briefly contemplated a collaboration on the subject

(their essays, with very similar titles, appear side-by-side in Modern Asian Studies, 1985), Stein now posited a considerable change between the medieval state of the

Cholas, and the late eighteenth century state of say, Haidar cali and Tipu Sultan. From the work of Perlin, Stein appears to have seized the importance of

eighteenth-century ’magnate’ figures in determining rural power relations, as

distinct from his insistence in the case of the medieval system on collective bodies of peasants (even if not all peasants were represented in these bodies). The

solution he found was to apply the idea of military fiscalism’ taken from the early

modern French historiography to southern India in the long transition from the

Cholas to the British. Thus, Vijayanagara now appears as part of a transition to

patrimonial regimes (here, the reference was to Max Weber on Sultanism),

powered by military-fiscal changes.

This also brought Stein to another problem that he grappled with in the late

1980s, and especially the early 1990s, without however coming to a very

successful resolution. I refer to the status of Islam in South India (discussed at

length for the eighteenth century by Susan Bayly in her 1989 book), and

conversely, the extent to which states like Vijayanagara could be looked at as Hindu kingdoms, as quite a lot of the Indian historiography tended to do. To the extent that Stein’s own focus on ’ritual’ kingship had tended to bring out the role played by ’Hindu’ ritual, there was obviously a drift in that direction. At the same

time, he was also aware, in particular after an important essay by Hermann Kulke

published in the 1980s, that from the fifteenth century onwards, the image of

Vijayanagara had been manipulated for posterity by a series of powerful

ideological agents, such as the Sringeri matha, for example. The Vijayanagara

volume thus veers somewhat uncertainly between rejecting the ’communalist’

characterisation of Vijayanagara, and accepting that it was indeed a ’Hindu’

kingdom fighting its ’Muslim’ rivals. On balance, I believe, the reader of Stein is

left with the first impression, among other things because of the manner in which

the narrative for the sixteenth century is constructed. Both Krishnadevaraya and

especially his son-in-law Aliya Ramaraya are shown as strategic actors, practising

a form of realpolitik (and here we hark back once more to the formulation of the late 1950s). They are as ready to ally with the Deccan Sultans, as to fight against

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them; power, not religious ideology, dominates their actions, when all is said and

done. The first of the 1985 papers, in the ’feudalism’ collection, does address


problem of a ’Hindu nationalist’ reading of Vijayanagara in passing; on the other hand, the preoccupations of the ’State formation and economy reconsidered paper lie elsewhere. The main interest of this rather schematic essay is that it proposes a

solution to the problem of change, and an escape route from the homeostatic, self-

reproducing model of the ’segmentary state’. This is by producing a technological

motor from the outside, in the form of firearms in particular, and military technology more generally. For Stein, Vijayanagara began a process of ’thrusting

centralisation’ using these technologies, which at one stage he suggested were

essentially brought in by the Portuguese. Various rounds of change are said to have followed, with resistance continually being offered by earlier community-

based political structures to the new dispensation. The period of Krishnadevaraya

(r. 1509-29) was identified by him as one such key period of change, a formulation that he carried forward into the monograph on Vijayanagara. Then, there was a rather long hiatus, but centralisation is said to have resumed with Chikkadevaraja

Wodeyar in late seventeenth-century Mysore. Finally, Haidar and Tipu were thought to have represented highly sophisticated forms of centralised rule, a view

in which Stein believed he was confirmed by his own researches in the second half of the 1980s into the papers of Sir Thomas Munro (and by Devdas Moodleys unpublished research of the same period in SOAS).

The problem however was in large measure very simply empirical: for Stein

never seems to have gone back after 1980 to do primary research on Vijayanagara

itself, from materials generated in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth

centuries. True, he kept abreast of the secondary literature, writing reviews of

almost every major work that appeared on Vijayanagara in the 1980s and early 1990s. But, the real bases of the revision (for revision it clearly was, though he

never explicitly said so) in views that took place between 1980 and 1985 were elsewhere: first, the theoretical problem of finding a dynamic of change to escape

from falling into the trap of seeing the ’segmentary state’ as a sort of Asiatic mode of production; second, the research into the early colonial archives, which

convinced him that there was more to south India in the late pre-colonial period than robust and more-or-less autarchic communities. Thus, Vijayanagara straddles several faultlines, for while vestiges of the segmentary state’ model can still be found there, the broad thrust of the analysis has moved towards the dynamic process of military fiscalism, based in good part

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on a technological deus ex machina. Equally, to support the military fiscalism’

hypothesis, recourse has to be taken by Stein to Portuguese sources in translation

(notably Nunes’s account of the siege of Raichur by Krishnadevaraya), even

though elsewhere in the same book, he is dismissive of these same sources,

somewhat unjustly dismissing them as no more than ’Orientalist fantasies’. It is

rather difficult for the general reader to understand why Nunes cannot be used, say, to support the idea of ’feudalism’ in Vijayanagara (as is done by A. Krishnaswami and others), if he is so reliable on other counts.

In the 1980s, in the years between Peasant state and society and Vijayanagara

(which stand at the two ends

of the decade), work by a certain number of other

authors had also been published on Vijayanagara, so that the historiographical

constellation had changed somewhat too. Some of this work Stein found

unproblematic, and integrated without difficulty into his schema; in particular, the

work done on the site of Hampi itself by George Michell and his collaborators was

seen by him as providing useful complementary materials to his own conception.

More problematic for him was a series of essays that Noboru Karashima produced

on Vijayanagara and the Nayakas, culminating in his book Towards a new

formation (1992). Stein’s review of the work appeared in this journal (Vol. 14, no. 2, 1994, pp. 226-28), and it was a rather critical discussion, tempered by some appreciation at the beginning and end. Karashima’s broad argument was that

Vijayanagara in the fifteenth century was a