The Idea of Gujarat (History, Ethnography and Text)

Item Code: NAH021
Author: Edward Simpson and Aparna Kapadia
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2010
ISBN: 9788125041139
Pages: 277 (7 B/W Illustrations With 6 Maps)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 10.0 inch X 6.5 inch
Weight 590 gm
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Book Description
About The Book

The hegemony of India’s states on the way the country is imagined is such that it is often forgotten that Gujarat only emerged as both a political unit and as a form of cultural identity over the course of the last century.

The Idea of Gujarat: History, Ethnography and Text critically examines the processes that went into the formation of the region and in the process unsettles a series of conventional wisdoms about the land and its inhabitants. Individual chapters examine the work of courts, colonial officers, politicians, scholars and gods and goddesses in the making of the state. As a whole, the book provides a broad introduction to the idea of Gujarat, the scope of its history, the nature of its politics, and the dynamics of its society.

This book will be of use to students and scholars interested in the study of Gujarat, and to those concerned with wider questions of identity formation, colonial and post-colonial knowledge practices, and contemporary politics.

About The Author

Edward Simpson is a senior lecturer in social anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.

Aparna Kapadia is a Mellon post doctoral fellow at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford.


Gujarat appears to have always been there, with a distinct ethos, a separate and discrete language and a particular political and social character. It is often forgotten that Gujarat in its modern form only came into existence in 1960, when Bombay State was divided on ‘linguistic’ grounds into Gujarat and Maharashtra.

In 1961, on the first anniversary of the formation of the state, the government issued a commemorative volume. In it, alongside plans for a new capital at Gandhinagar and the further development of the Narmada River, Jivraj N. Mehta, the first chief minister, wrote:

It is the duty of all of us to build the new State of Gujarat as an integral part of India keeping in mind the requirements of the country. Every aspect of its life has to be shaped anew whether cultural, social, economic or even spiritual. We have to cultivate religion without blindly accepting it. Religion does not mean a sectarian creed. We have to understand it in a very large sense. Religion understood in the true sense increases our ethical and spiritual force. Gujarat is in need of both these forces. If we cultivate these forces, Gujarat will become a State to reckon with in India. It is hardly necessary to say this to Gujarat of Gandhiji (Jivraj N. Mehta 1961: 87).

In a further publication to mark the tenth anniversary, the chief minister, then Hitendra Desai, wrote:

The people of Gujarat are proud inheritors of the legacy of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Sardar Patel. Complete dedication to duty, love for justice and progress through peaceful methods are the hallmarks of the character of the Gujarati community (H. Desai 1970: 5).

Both men were affirming the relevance of the influence of recent political personalities in the shaping of Gujarat. In the second of the commemorative volumes, K.M. Munshi, a scholar, litterateur and influential politician in the twentieth-century history of the region, presented a hagiography for ‘the founder of Gujarat’. This title did not fall to Gandhi or Jivraj Mehta, but the twelfth-century warrior of the Chalukya dynasty, Jayasimha Siddharaj. According to Munshi, by the time of his death in A.D. 1143, Siddharaj had integrated in his dominions through conquest and ‘uncanny statesmanship’ (1970: 12) the land that known as Gujarat. Over the following centuries, the glory of this dominion was fragmented as the regional sultans, Mughals, Marathas and then the British took control in the region.

Munshi had also presented his vision of a lost golden age in a large number of earlier publications, both scholarly sense of regional nostalgia, which revolved around the sense of historical injustice and loss. 1960, according to him, was a restorative moment in which the pride and integrity of a long-lost dynasty was reborn.

It is perhaps worth noting that critical scholarship of the period suggests that Munshi’s vision of the past was a concoction: the Chalukyas were improbable ancestors because they were warring fiefs who spoke and lived quite differently to the modern Gujarati; but to dwell on these ‘facts’ is perhaps to miss the point.

Munshi died the year after he wrote the piece, and although his writing, especially his novels, remain well known in Gujarat, his principle contribution, it seems to me, when his life and work is taken as a whole rather than in its well known parts, was to articulate the inexhaustible and contradictory tugs of both loss and restoration which remain central to identity politics in Gujarat today.

In many ways, Gujarat is an invented tradition, created from the political will of bold and visionary leaders. Its formation also speaks of the inventive power of the traditions, for the ideas on which it now rests were selectively culled from other long and varied cultural and political histories. As the campaign for a separate Gujarat gathered momentum in the 1940s and 1950s, partisan scholarship, Munshi’s included, adopted the category ‘Gujarat’ as the frame of reference we understand today (Simpson 2010). Included in this vision was the ‘mainland’, Saurashtra, and Kutch. Earlier, much of this area was under the colonial Western India States Agency, and before that part of the Bombay Presidency of the high colonial era.

The taxonomic legacy of the Bombay Presidency looms large in English-language scholarship on Gujarat dating from the mid-nineteenth century. Colonial Bombay served as the political, economic and intellectual centre, and the presses of the government and learned societies ran hot with new material. At times, the presidency was synonymous with the geographical and cultural expression ‘western India’. This spatial construction necessarily contained a bias towards the region now known as Maharashtra, because of the central role and location of Bombay in the territory. Along with the Presidency grew the legal systems, patterns of land regulation and governance, as well as the practices the colonial government used for classifying the population. With the new epistemological techniques of colonial rule, came new forms of administration, reliant on counting and cataloguing the people and the land. These practices are evident in the writing of the earliest nineteenth century travellers, whose art was refined in later generations in the form of censuses and gazetteers.

Under the regulatory eye of the ‘ethnographic state’ (after Dirks 2001), came other technologies to link particular people and places in new ways, such as railways, printing presses, and the telegraph. Alongside these innovations developed new forms of knowledge and public associations such as Asiatic, vernacular, literary, ethnological and historical societies. These institutions hosted lectures and published journals and books.

Continuing older traditions of patronage and record keeping, many of the Princely States during this period, notably Baroda but also many others, purchased presses and commissioned histories and memoirs on their populations, traditions and resources The patronage of such scholarship in the ruling houses of the region might well have been an elaboration of older relationships with the traditional bards and genealogists, but the form and content of such works was distinctively colonial in character.

Much has been written on the effects of the knowledge practices of the colonial government, and the subsidiary effects of the new knowledge society. The nub of contention in this literature is the degree to which colonial knowledge practices contributed to either the invention or reification of social practices, such as caste identity, female infanticide or widow burning. On one hand, the colonial government is seen as having strategically invented traditional India for its own political and economic advantage; on the other, the colonial government is viewed as having built systems of knowledge and understanding on top of elements already in Indian society, sometimes with considerable uncertainty, and sometimes with the judicious assistance of local interlocutors. It is perhaps also the case that some practices emerged as a direct response to colonialism, as Nandy (2004: Chapter 3) has argued to be the case for sati in Bengal. All three arguments, as we shall see, can be met with empirical support in the case of Gujarat.

The British clearly built anew as well as on what they saw in western India, but during the prolonged act of learning how to see, they contributed to the joint production of a distinct colonial society. They were equipped to cogently describe what they saw towards the end of the nineteenth century, and they laid out their vision, most influentially, between 1879 and 1914 in the 17,800 pages of the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency.

The gazetteers included descriptions of the physical and natural features of the region, alongside a broad narrative of the social, political, economic and cultural life of the population. Following earlier traditions, they were often backward looking and nostalgic, and, consequently, both genealogical and etymological in their framing of people and customs. The narration of recent history tended to be political, stressing the machinations of rulers and the intrigues of high-level diplomacy, rather than the preoccupations of the vassals. Older history was divided into periods, and territory into administrative zones, kingdoms and dynasties. The ethnological sections reveal underlying concerns with the etymologies of terms and the origins of people and practices. Consequently, these sections dwell on how the purity of people and concepts was corrupted through miscegenation and invasion.

The taxonomic schemes of the gazetteers continue to exert influence on how Gujarat is codified and classified today. In part, this is because their scale and ambition makes them difficult to rival, but also simply because they remain widely available. The post-colonial government continued the tradition, issuing a derivative series of gazetteers on Gujarat in the 1970s, and a substantially reworked series in the 1980s. Some attempts have been made at dislodging the hegemony of the colonial gazetteers. In 1942, the Gujarat Research Society announced plans to commission seven 'periodised' volumes of history. Although these plans never matured, the announcement is indicative of the desire to reorient the way history was written, and to mask the imperialist political frames through which Gujarat was still often conceived. A similar initiative was taken up in the 1970s by the Government of Gujarat, which underwrote the publication of eight volumes in Gujarati on the history of the state edited by R. C. Parikh and H. G. Shastri. Yet, despite these initiatives, and the many errors and inconsistencies, the contents and linguistic (English inflected) conventions of the colonial gazetteers continue to run from brittle and yellowing pages, and into the social life of Gujarat. They often still appear to be the primary secondary source, and continue to be evoked as evidence that a tradition is legitimate. In fact, many of those who write popular history in Gujarat often use the gazetteers as historical documents, mostly not as a way of explaining systemic biases in the ways western India has been represented, but as a way of claiming historical legitimacy and continuity. I now turn to the parable of the Jakhs, as an illustration of these processes.

My own ethnographic explorations in Kutch, a district in the western-most part of Gujarat, started in the mid-1990s. One evening, during that fieldwork, Muslim friends took me to a huge fair in the hinterlands. We went for fun, but we also admired the crowds and embarrassed the 'vegetarian' Hindu friends we stumbled across while they were enjoying a surreptitious omelette in the carnivalesque atmosphere. At the time, we did not enter the temple at the centre of the fair, my friends considered it inappropriate. However, the event aroused my curiosity, and I returned frequently during quieter times to talk to the custodians of the temple. They told me it was many centuries ago, perhaps even as many as seven or eight, that seventy-two men and a single woman (together known as the Jakhs) , emerged from sea to do wondrous things for the prosperity and safety of the local population. Their munificence understandably led to their veneration and in turn the construction of temples in their name.

Speculation in the literature on the origin of these 'fair-skinned foreigners' attributes them to Anatolia or Syria (Kramrisch 1964: 55), or to Greece, Turkey or Central Asia (Rushbrook Williams 1958: 84-86). Their story seems to have been first recorded in English by Alexander Burnes in the 1820s, who, along with his brother James, was stationed in Bhuj, then and now the capital of Kutch. The brothers. Burnes were very much part of the British beginnings in western India, and the acco,unts of their adventures remain in print, not least because Alexander was hacked to death in Kabul as the chief of a decedent political residency. At the time of their stay in Bhuj, Kutch was a strategic part of British designs on Sindh, and while they were in the town they clearly also took a keen interest in the affairs of the neighbouring region.

Burnes' account of the Jakhs was probably copied with minor variations by the light-penned Marianne Postans (1839a), who was part of the second British colonial wave in the region. In her account, the Jakhs were shipwrecked and made their way inland on horseback to save the locals from the depredations of either a king called Punvro or a 'demon'. They brought with them peace and a great knowledge of medicine. Some decades later, this version was enshrined in the fifth volume of the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency in 1880. In this account (1880: 133, fn. 7), the Jakhs are described as a class of 'superhuman beings'. Legitimacy for this claim is drawn from Forbes' brief mention of 'Yukshas' (Jakhs) as celestial beings in his Ras mala, a florid history of the region (1924 [1856]: Vol. 1, 211; Vol. 2, 459). The gazetteer briefly concedes, as if disguising an editorial controversy, the term probably referred to Musalmans, and, in Kutch, specifically to a much older race of inhabitants.

In 1839, Postans had recorded that in the mists of time a troubled holy man had called his god Jakh' to his assistance: Jakh with his 71 brothers and a sister... came from Damascus and seated himself on a hill ... the hill however unable to sustain so much purity began to sink ... and so moved on from hill to hill from the same necessity' (J839a: 156). One hundred and nineteen years later, in Rushbrook Williams' account, this had shifted only slightly to: ' ... the weight of their combined sanctities flattened the top of hill after hill' (1958: 84). Rushbrook Williams was one-time advisor to the rulers of Jamnagar and friend of ruling family of Bhuj. His eulogistic account of the kingdom of Kutch 'in myth and legend' (the judicious subtitle of his book) clearly strengthened his relations with important people in western India, through which he gathered intelligence for the British government.

More recently, the gazetteer version was reproduced as part of the Census of India in 1961, which became the basis of Kramrisch's (1964: 55-56) rendition of the story. In turn, Kramrisch's account became the principal source for Wendy Doniger's presidential address to the conference of the American Association of Asian Studies in Boston in 1999. There, Doniger (1999a) argued that the Jakh myth is an 'inversion history', as the 'Muslim' invaders appear as heroes and the natives as villains. Furthermore, she suggested, it was probably in the interests of the early British, such as Burnes and Postans, to nurture this myth for it strengthened their own colonial interests, as a precedent for invasion to convey prestigious liberation. In this sense, the myth speaks of the assimilation of the values of the conquerors by natives, in which invasion has been transformed into a source of liberation and prestige.

There is honest and healthy sport in pursuing ideas through the literature and discovering the import of borrowed words and phrases, and game is abundant in the field; but there is also a broader point to be made here: the English-language tradition (which is very similar, if slightly less fabulous, than the Gujarati print versions I am familiar with) is entirely self-referential, and draws on no evidence other than itself over nearly two centuries. The constant repetition, creative variation notwithstanding, has almost frozen the story in time.

Today, however, the origin myth of the Jakhs as told by the custodians of the temple in the hinterlands of Kutch has no resemblance whatsoever to the version I have traced through the literature from Burnes to Boston. Although Rushbrook Williams claimed to draw on the traditional 'bardic' sources of Kutch history, how he did this is unclear and his prose consistently suggests he borrowed from his colonial predecessors, ornamenting their often flat-footed prose with his own economical flair, as we have seen in the slight shift from Postans': 'the hill ... unable to sustain so much purity began to sink ... and so [The Jakhs] moved on from hill to hill' to Rushbrook Williams' version: 'their combined sanctities ... flattened the top of hill after hill'.

In the 1820s, Alexander Burnes may have simply recorded what he was told, although, along with Doniger, I see the potential advantage to him in emphasising certain aspects of the tale in the pursuit of colonial ambitions. We should not of course presume that those who told Burnes the story were neutral purveyors of timeless tradition. However, because Burnes did not record who his story tellers were, or why they told him their Jakh-ish story, they, and their motivations, are lost in time. Perhaps, indeed, it is possible that even before the ink from his quill had dried on the page, the story had lost all relation to any version of the story that lived in popular imagination.

In the living tradition of the temple as it was presented to me in the 1990s however, the Jakhs had become Hindu pastoral deities. Although they retained watery origins, there was no question of them being 'Zorastrians' or 'Muslims', and they were certainly not regarded as 'foreign'. At the main temple at Kakadbit in the centre of Kutch, as in the many others dedicated to the Jakhs across the district, the deities now appear as martial Rajputs (the 'caste' of traditional warriors and rulers of the region). They are on horseback, and replete with moustache, turban, sword and a vermillion dash on their foreheads. In fact, I was told by a number of separate groups of worshippers at the main temple in Kakadbit that the Jakhs had originally rescued the local population from the clutches of wicked Muslims from Sindh. In the view of these worshippers, the Jakhs were defenders of a Hindu land against the predatory advances of Muslims.

While the custodians of the temple never explicitly made the claim that the Jakhs came to protect the land from Muslims, the deities they cared for and cherished were most unequivocally Hindu; they came from the sea as miraculous beings, not from across the sea as 'foreigners'. Their Jakhs were there to safeguard the fertility of Kutch and its population.

In both the dramatic and milder sense of their transformation, the Jakhs of their temple have been domesticated at the expense of their exogenous origins. The 'native' is once again empowered to provide the source of liberation and prestige, at least if we take the early colonial version of the tale as our point of comparison (which is the only concrete version we have). The 'foreigner' becomes 'native', as the 'Muslim' or 'Parsi' becomes 'Hindu', and is empowered to protect the citadel from invaders from 'outside' (as Kutchis often call non-Kutchi places). It might be fair to assume, to use Doniger's language, that the new myths of the Jakhs are once again a form of 'inversion history', where the airs and graces of local public temple culture have been re-imposed on the Jakhs in the post-colonial era.

There is however nothing particularly remarkable about the religious conversion of the Jakhs, as this seems to be happening all over western India: 'pirs' have b.ecome 'lals' and 'devs' in droves, as evidence of 'syncretism' and 'foreign influence' is purged from the public face of popular Hinduism. The Muslim friends who first took me to the fair at the temple also think it ludicrous that anyone could ever have thought the Jakhs were Muslim, and have no interest whatsoever in reclaiming a tradition which is so self-evidently Hindu in ethos.

The different lives of the Jakhs in print and oral cultures offer a wonderful and cautionary tale about the power of the literary tradition, the potential hegemony and allure of print, and the precarious nature of social knowledge. The print version has remained similar over time, albeit with some critical post-colonial inflection at Wendy Doniger's adept hand. In contrast, the oral versions of the temple have creatively parted company with their putative ancestor of the early nineteenth century.

Recently, K S. Dilipsinhji, whose own ancestors hosted James and Alexander Burnes at the Durbar in Kutch, contended that the Jakhs were either 'goblins' or 'shipwrecked Dutch sailors' (2004: 59-60). The first suggestion is novel; the second, which initially seems like a categorical error, might however resonate unconsciously with other submerged aspects of historical consciousness in Kutch. Although the British sources for history in western India are hegemonic and continue to eclipse all others, the Dutch, who had a sustained presence on the shores of Gujarat throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, have a particularly busy after-life in the annals of local history.

Images of Dutch men roistered on the walls of the former royal palaces of the coastal town of Mandvi, at least until someone took a blunt instrument to their tankards of frivolity, but they also parade quite brazenly through the 'folklore' of the region. In the eighteenth century, Ram Singh Malam, one of the local fisher folk, for example, was either kidnapped or befriended by Dutch sailors, taken to Holland, and trained in the arts and crafts with which he later adorned the palaces of Bhuj.

Whatever the empirical merits of Ram Singh's well-known story, it reminds us that the Dutch were not strangers along the coast of western India (on Surat much has been written; also Nadri 2008). Although rather speculative, it is thought- provoking to think that the colourful tale of the Jakhs, recorded by Alexander Burnes as a timeless native myth, could in fact have been composed as a critical response to the arrival of the Dutch in the previous century, or, perhaps, as a reaction to the Portuguese before them.

Returning to the Jakhs and today however, a recent ethnographic (and otherwise excellent) study of Kutch opens with the presentation of the colonially-inflected myth of the Jakhs as if it were actually the epitome of local culture (Ibrahim 2008: 1). In this instance, the written tradition claims to represent the reality of the living tradition in Kutch, but in fact does little of the sort.

As this book was nearing completion, I began to lose my nerve over the rather dramatic contrast I had drawn between the print and temple lives of the Jakhs, not least because of the gloomy shadows it cast over writing on the tradition. Thus it was that in January of 2010, I once again found myself in conversation with the custodians of the temple. This time, I spoke to the son of the pujan, an elderly man who was presiding over the deities, and a number of boys who were spending the afternoon in the temple. The Jakhs had been recently painted, dressed with regal cloth turbans, and bedecked with jewels and garlands; their horses were now a fine luminous blue- white. A niche behind the largest of the Jakhs was decorated with images of deities from the Hindu pantheon, including Krishna and Ram as well as other symbols such as Om and the Swastika. Loudspeakers were playing on loop the Shaivite devotional mantra, here adopted as ‘Om Shri Yaksha [Jakhs]… namaho’. As the words went round and round, the assembled told me not of how the Jakhs emerged from the sea, but how they had fallen to Kutch from Shiva’s hair. The domestication of the Jakhs appears complete, at least for now.


List of Maps and Figuresvii
Notes on the Contributorsxi
A Note on the Language and Textxiii
The Parable of the Jakhs
Gujarat in Maps20
1Caste in the Judicial Courts of Gujarat, 1800-6032
2Alexander Forbes and the Making of a Regional History50
3Making Sense of the History of Kutch66
4The Lives of Bahuchara Mata84
5Reflections on Caste in Gujarat100
6The Politics of Land in Post-colonial Gujarat120
7From Gandhi to Modi: Ahmedabad, 1915-2007136
8A Potted History of Neighbours and Neighbourliness in Ahmedabad153
9Voices from Sindh in Gujarat168
10Textiles and Dress among the Rabari of Kutch184
11The Swaminarayan Movement and Religious Subjectivity207
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