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Mobility, Martiality and Memory of the Thar

Pankaj Jha ( teaches history at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, New Delhi.

Nomadic Narratives: A History of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert by Tanuja Kothiyal,Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2016; pp xix + 299, price not indicated.

Rajput pasts have had thickly contested claims, both in scholarly historiography and popular memory. They are also sharply contentious due to the ways in which post-independence politics have tried to produce convenient chunks of “usable pasts.” The uniquely rich archive of early modern as well as modern textual and oral material that is available for this region has attracted a large number of modern scholars to this field of study. For these reasons, medieval and early colonial Rajasthan appears to have been very densely researched.

Tanuja Kothiyal’s book, Nomadic Narratives, however, is not about Rajputs, at least not ostensibly. It is, as the subtitle suggests rather aptly, “a history of mobility and identity in the Great Indian Desert” of Thar. It provides a connected narrative on the Thar from roughly the 15th to the 19th centuries. Corresponding to the long time span that the book covers, it engages with a vast array of sources that include a number of Rajasthani texts of the khyat (glory) and the vigat (the bygone) genres,1bahis (bounded state documents) of Rajput principalities, oral and folk narratives of the medieval period compiled by colonial and postcolonial ethnographers, and colonial archival materials. It does not directly use the Mughal chronicles, but partially makes up for this omission by drawing upon the works of modern historians in the relevant areas.

As Kothiyal states at the outset,

The historical understanding of the Thar Desert, like that of other such spaces, is couched in familiar frames of barrenness and waste. Yet, a closer look at the Thar Desert reveals a rich history of movements of a large number of itinerant groups, of settlements and depopulations, as well as of a cultural milieu where memories of movements have been immortalised in the rich folkloric traditions of the region. (p 1)

The focus on this “frontier” area as a historical entity, and the attempt to trace its history by exploring its engagements with mobile and sedentary cultures, allows the author to come up with insightful perspectives on a range of more familiar themes as well.

‘Shifting’ to Sedentary

The book is organised into five chapters of roughly comparable lengths, flanked by an introduction and a brief conclusion. Chapter 1 explores the ways in which the historical geography of the Thar desert traversed during the period between the 15th and the 19th centuries. It provides the dynamic physical setting in which the shifting sand dunes, dharati dhoran ri, emerge not as a supine and passive backdrop, but as an active participant in the narratives of peoples and polities that follow. As in almost all the following chapters, the story concludes with the colonial attempts to intervene and spin a fresh narrative, often out of the old ones. The chapter also traces the chief routes that connected the various urban settlements of the area.

Chapters 2 and 3 focus on the mobility of people and animals, as well as on the circulation of commodities. Communities whose movements are traced diligently include the itinerant warriors, pastoralists, traders, artisans, bards and genealogists. In many ways, these two chapters constitute the core of the book and engender its most valuable insights. Herein, the author is able to demonstrate, quite convincingly, how the itinerant traditions of the Thar and the successful politico-military adventures of certain mobile groups in the 15th and 16th centuries made it possible for a few of them to cut themselves off socially from their kin, and establish themselves as a distinct and “legitimately” privileged community. This history of violence among the itinerant warrior groups, and its selective enumeration by the bards and professional genealogists contributed significantly to the “emergence” of a Rajput identity. The history of the community of Charans seems to run parallel to that of the Rajputs which the former helped crystallise.

Chapter 4 engages more directly with what happened in the 19th century, in terms of more stable forms of sedentarisation of peripatetic groups. The colonial preference for the settled and located groups, and suspicion of those with no fixed abode did not entirely destroy the traditions of mobility. It only led to the outlawing of those who refused to settle down. Chapter 5 directly explores the oral tales that both narrate mobility and celebrate the valour, origin myths, and clan deities of the mobile communities, including those of the Jats, Gujars and Bhils.

Making of Rajput Identity

Indeed, Kothiyal’s Nomadic Narratives moves in two parallel registers: a conventional narrative that traces the changes in material formations of routes, circulation of goods, movements of people, crystallisation of social identities, and the emergence of Rajput ruling clans out of this history; and a parallel narrative that constantly takes note of the ways in which bards, genealogists and poets weave their stories about these developments in order to generate expedient histories for their respective patrons. This makes the chapters refreshingly self-reflective, since the author is constantly in a dialogue with her sources. In a subtle way, this strategy helps the author carry out a simultaneous reflection on the narrative strategies of its sources. Admittedly, this subtle manoeuvring also has its limitations.

The historiographic engagement with other modern historians on similar and overlapping themes and periods remain more or less confined to the introduction. Here, the author primarily carries out what looks like a gentle survey of modern literature on Rajputs, Rajasthan, the idea of frontier and periphery, and the processes of state formation in desert areas. It is in fact a utility-oriented survey of historiography, in the sense that it seeks simply to point to an idea, insight, information, or method, in the work of each scholar, which the author finds useful for her own work. Considering that she selects quite a diverse set of historians for various purposes, it is interesting that she still manages to weave in a rather unidirectional summary of the relevant historiography. Her engagement with other scholars is so gentle and non-combative, it borders on the uncritical. In fact, it refuses to take on other historians in the field, even when they are completely at odds with the thrust of her own work. For this reason, the introduction, and even the conclusion seem to simply flow out of existing historiography.

In substance, however, Kothiyal’s work makes an important contribution, even a departure, from the existing historiography in the field. A critical point that comes out of Chapters 2 and 3 is the significance of violence in the making of Rajput identity at its “originary” moment. Other historians, in other contexts, have commented on the role of “constitutive violence” in the context of identity formations that the author might have benefited from (Subrahmanyam 2001). Even so, the book highlights the phenomenon well in the framing of its narrative about the emergence of Rajput ruling clans. However, Kothiyal fails to pick up on this insight and engage further with other scholars. A careful reading of the oral narratives alongside those of the written archive is immensely helpful in highlighting the varied ways in which memories of the past were yoked to contesting claims of power and privilege.

Grand Narrative of the Thar

Another novelty of the book is the manner in which it deals with the question of the geographical setting, an issue that remains descriptive, and is a weak link for even some of the best practitioners of the historian’s craft. Kothiyal is able to juxtapose several contending conceptualisations of the Thar landscape which emerged at different points of time. Moreover, she works out its implications for the kind of historical narrative that each conceptualisation of Thar was able to facilitate. Of course, the centrality of mobility across the vast expanse of the Thar desert from the 15th through the 19th centuries (and the eventual “limiting” of its boundaries) remain central to the book’s argument, as far as its study of identity formations is concerned. The author is able to establish this central argument beyond doubt. This is admittedly not an entirely novel argument, but Kothiyal’s exploration of this issue is rich in detail and deep in its empirical moorings in a range of diverse sources. As such, it leads to a substantive nuancing of the perfunctory assertion of how state formation in erstwhile pastoral communities often partakes of their definitive sedentarisation.

Yet, one does wish that Kothiyal had engaged a little more with the vast theoretical literature on the idea of the frontier in the middle ages.2 Another issue that remains a cause for disappointment is the book’s refusal to engage frontally with the issue of gender, as far as the question of identity is concerned. This is particularly stark, because rarely is this aspect of the making of identities as evident and as contentious as it is in the case of Rajput identity, even beyond the question of honour and pride. The recent controversy around the tales of Padmavati, in the context of the impending release of a Hindi commercial movie, has highlighted the need on the part of historians to explore the highly gendered character of Rajput identities.

The book is fairly well-produced, occasional typos notwithstanding. A single map at the beginning is sparingly indexed, but useful inasmuch as it helps identify the location of forts in the territories of Marwar, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. A list of the kings of each of these three states is also given at the end for easy reference. A glossary of Rajasthani terms is useful. The index is very brief and sparing.

Nomadic Narratives: A History of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert, should be an indispensable reading for anyone wishing to explore the early modern and modern history of Thar, Rajasthan, Rajputs and Charans as communities, as well as studies of transitions from itinerant lifestyles to sedentary settlements. Even though it does not engage directly with that expansive category called “Mughal historiography,” it should be included in any list of important books on the Mughals. After all, the Thar frontier and the Rajputs played a critical role in the making of the Mughal state.


1 Khyat as a genre connotes a literary composition which tells the tales of a ruler’s glory. Vigat as a genre refers to a composition that narrativises the past, usually around a ruler or
a dynasty

2 To name just a few: Abulafia, David and Nora Berend (eds) (2002): Medieval Frontiers: Concepts and Practices, Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing House; Bartlett, Robert and Angus MacKay (eds) (1989): Medieval Frontier Societies, Oxford: Clarendon.


Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (2001): “Violence and Identities in South Asia: Grievance and Memory in Community-Formation,” Purusartha, Vol 22, pp 47–69.

Updated On : 5th Feb, 2018


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