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Rituals of Power

Meena Bhargava

Edited by Stewart Gordon
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 154, Rs. 395.00


This edited volume by Stewart Gordon began as a panel at the 28th Annual Conference on South Asia at Madison, Wisconsin, USA in 1999. It is an important intervention in the study of Mughal culture and Mughal rituals of power and authority. The volume also reinforces the debate on the reformulation and reinvention of Mughal customs and traditions by the East India Company to bolster their own authority and legitimacy.   The essays in the volume discuss several Mughal rituals of power – khil’at, nazr, jharokha, giving of pan. However, the focus is on khil’at or robes of honour. The essays provide interesting and varied details on the custom. Stewart Gordon in his Introduction analyses the origins, evolution and the basic characteristics of khil’at as found particularly in South Asia. Understanding khil’at, Gordon finds himself in disagreement with F.W. Buckler on a variety of issues that Buckler had raised in his article The Oriental Despotism, written in the 1920’s to replace the western idea of an oriental despot. Rejecting Buckler’s theory that there was no hierarchy within the khil’at system and that all receivers were equally “integrated within the body of the ruler”, Gordon says that the khil’at was inherently graded. Again contrary to Buckler, who talks about the diplomatic use of khil’at whereby the rulers routinely sent robes to other rulers, who sent equally fine robes in return, Gordon sees the practice as “ a straightforward gift-exchange competition to see who could send the most fabulous objects”.   Yet again, holding Buckler ignorant of the breadth of the usage of khil’at, Gordon observes that Buckler conflates Indian practice with the general features of the khil’at system and reaches unwarranted conclusions. For instance, Buckler suggests that nazr was an essential part of khil’at. But on the basis of the evidences from Ibn Batuta’s Rihla, Gordon argues that throughout most of the robing world, khil’at prevailed without nazr. In fact, Ibn Batuta does not mention nazr except within India. Endorsing his own argument, Gordon suggests that ceremonies of honour especially khil’at were necessary for “cobbling together a culture of governance as means of crossing the fault lines”. Politics in the robing world, he argues, revolves along many “fault lines” – family, faction, religion, region and linguistic, nomad/sedentary. Stewart Gordon applies this argument to study Maratha politics. Similarly, Andre Wink and Robbins ...

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