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Rituals, Narratives and Sacred Spaces in Early Modern India

Farhat Hasan

By Nile Green
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012, PP. 339, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XXXVII NUMBER 2-3 February/March 2013

Nile Green is an unusually gifted historian. He has been engaged, almost single-handedly, in a quiet revisionism in the social history of early modern India. His work has served to introduce fresh perspectives to our understanding of early modern epistemology, bringing in dimensions of corporeality and embodiment to processes of knowledge formation. Moving between texts and spaces, his work unravels the mutually constitutive relations between them, with architectural spaces finding meanings in/through narratives, and vice-versa. All along, in his various writings, Green has demonstrated, with dexterity and astuteness, the embodied nature of knowledge formation, and its entangled and deep relations with identity formation and power relations. In the work under review, Green explores the processes involved in the creation of sacred spaces in early modern India. Focussing on the ‘Muslim spaces’, in particular the shrines of the sufis, he argues that these spaces emerged historically in the context of a continuous movement of peoples across the Islamic landscapes, and served to provide to the settler communities in India a home away from home. Rendering an alien landscape familiar, these shrines of saints were driven by a project of home-making, and for both the settler and convert communities, served to provide a shared historical memory. At the shrines, indeed, the bodies of the saints provided to the community of believers an embodied/corporal experience, but for these spaces to become ‘sacred’, providing renewed blessings (baraka) and guidance to the followers, it were the rituals and narratives that were so very crucial. Focussing on the shrines in the Deccan, Green draws out the entangled relations between rituals and architecture, geographies and narratives in the forging of a sacred space. More specifically, he is interested in the correlations between texts and space. In exploring their correlations, his work deftly unravels what he terms as the ‘the textualisation of space’ and ‘the spatialisation of the texts’. Looking at the religious literature, in particular hagiographical texts of the saints, and their living representatives whom he calls, ‘the blessed men’, he cleverly draws our attention to the spatial dimension of knowledge, and the formation of meaning in space. This is indeed a significant insight, for it not only highlights the rootedness of knowledge in space, but also forces us to consider the role of body and senses in the acquisition of knowledge, for, after all, the text-space relations were bodily mediated, through affect-laden, sensory experiences. ...

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