Literary production in Medieval South Asia

The Sanskrit literature until the medieval period (c. 900-1700 CE) in South Asia was dominated by intelligentsia belonging to the so-called higher rungs of the society. For some context on the social stratification, you may refer to this. It was also around this time that the social hierarchy was challenged, and some shift in the paradigm ushered in. Interestingly, it was not only the medieval period of South Asia that sought to challenge (and overthrow) the overbearing pressures of the elites in the society.

The medieval period bears an interesting label of a period of “decay of Sanskrit” as described by some of the prominent scholars of South Asian languages and literature. This notion taps into the prolific regional literature produced in vernacular languages. The donors and commissioners for local literature across the regions in South-Asia, encouraged a revivification of vernacular talents. Literary fervor was one of the prominent ones. On the other hand, a continued allegiance to Sanskrit and texts produced in Sanskrit continued in this time. Local literature such as the Sahyadri Khanda and other Mahatmya literature refers to this continued stream of Sanskrit text production.

A page from Indo-Persian manuscript (1650 CE), McGill University, Department of Rare Books and Special collections (https://archive.org/details/McGillLibrary-rbsc_isl_msp-leaf_072-19802/mode/2up)

Vernacular languages had entered the domain of religious literary production, thanks to the rulers and patrons of art and literature who commissioned moments of change. It was the changing political atmosphere on one hand, and the rising influence of Bhakti movement that granted more agency and visibility to the hitherto unknown voices. South Asia was becoming cosmopolitan, emerging as a melting pot of cultures, religions and languages, and a renewed vigor in literary production.

The plate focused above, comes from a manuscript, most likely conceived as a bi-lingual piece of literature. A delicate Mughal style of decoration and illumination adorns the plate, which is probably incomplete.

The short text opens with salutation to Hindu deities Ganapati, Saraswati and others. The second line is a “doha” or couplet in Hindi, that invites oblations to Saraswati, touching Hari’s (Krishna) feet, and adds that this is a composed by or said by the king of poets (kaviraj). The next line is in Urdu, and the scripts used here are Nagari and Arabic.

The illustration is directed at a wide audience, conversant in Hindi and Urdu, and for bards who are acquainted with Nagari and Arabic scripts. As we comb through the manuscripts and look at pieces of illustrated plates such as these, it is useful to remind us of the dialogical nature of literature of the medieval period in South Asia. Numerous texts were performed in the form of narration, discourse, sermon, or reading sessions. The illustrations hinge on the text so as to better explain the content conveyed in the text. This is not to say that the illustrations are not used as decoration, but the primary motive of elaborate manuscript illustrations tends to function as a supplementary visual piece for the written narrative.

With the spread of Bhakti movement, the worship of a personal god came to the forefront. One of the deities that gained prominence is Krishna (or Hari), pictured on this plate. The deity of knowledge, Saraswati is depicted riding a water-bird, generally depicted as a swan. It is interesting to note that the Saras crane becomes Saraswati’s choicest mount in this illustration. Saras cranes nest in the region of Gujarat and Rajasthan in Western India, although their population is dwindling in the modern period. Judging from the depiction of Krishna and Saraswati in the illustration, could we hypothesize that the text would have contained material affiliated to Hinduism?

A small piece such as this could open a portal into the social, political, religious and even natural world of the time! All we need to do is, to look closely.