An animated bar graph created by the Financial Times, which charted the most populous cities in the world over the past 500 years, has been widely shared on social media this month possibly because people were surprised to see many of the cities it featured – such as Agra, Ahmedabad, Tokyo, Beijing and Esfahan – are located in Asia.
The graph charted the top 10 most populous cities in the world between 1500 and 2018. Over the three-minute-long video, several cities entered and exited the graph rapidly, in tandem with their growth and decline.
Several people in India were surprised to find four Indian cities on the graph. These were Gauda in Bengal, Vijayanagar and Bijapur in present-day Karnataka, and Ahmedabad in Gujarat. They entered and exited the graph between 1500 and 1750. The surprise was because these cities are no longer regarded as the centres of urban life.
The rise and fall of cities over the centuries across the world can be attributed to a number of historical and locally specific reasons, and the reasons for the prosperity and decline of Gauda, Vijayanagar, Bijapur and Ahmedabad are also diverse. There is, however, one common feature: These cities were all centres of regional kingdoms rather than large, pan-Indian empires.
These regional polities had a defining impact on South Asia’s political imagination and cultural practices. Yet today, their significance has been largely forgotten outside the small world of professional historians.
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Gujarat is an important example of this neglect and loss of historic memory. Ahmedabad was once one of the largest and most prominent cities in the world. Around it was a wider network that made it, and the region, one of the wealthiest of the era. At the time, apart from Ahmedabad, cities like Khambhat or Cambay, Surat and Bharuch were linked to the Indian Ocean trade and shipping networks, while other Gujarati cities like Champaner, Patan and Dahod sustained large, diverse populations on account of being administrative and production centres.
Together, they formed a key part of the widespread and intricate web of Indian Ocean commerce. Gujarati merchants traded with and often lived in Java and Sumatra in present-day Indonesia; Aden and Mocha in Yemen, Hormuz in Iran, and other parts of the oceanic trading world. In addition to luxury goods like spices, fine cotton textiles and precious stones, they also traded extensively in more commonplace merchandise such as iron, varieties of grain and coarse cloth.
Gujarati merchants, Hindus, Jains and Muslims alike, were also well established as bankers and providers of capital to states and other businesses.
One remarkable legacy of just how widespread and durable this trade was is the popularity of marble gravestones from Khambhat in countries that dot the Indian Ocean rim, such as Kilwa in present-day Tanzania, Aden in Yemen, and sites in Oman and Iran. Their popularity lasted over nearly three centuries, from the 13th century to the mid-15th century.
These marble gravestones are also found along the coasts of Maharashtra, Kerala and Sri Lanka. Art historian Elizabeth Lambourn has spoken of how they are evidence of the sophisticated carving and production process at Khambhat and elaborate, long-distance transport networks at that time.
The Gujarati sultanate
A regional sultanate – not to be confused with the Delhi Sultanate – controlled much of Gujarat from the early 1400s until the 1570s. It was one of the longer standing of any regional or imperial dynasties in the Indian subcontinent.
Apart from its longevity, the Gujarati sultanate was unique because of the ability of its rulers to forge the region’s diversity – ecological, economic, political, linguistic, and religious – into a distinctive cultural entity, as elaborated upon by historian Samira Sheikh.
The sultanate’s primary capital, Ahmedabad (founded in 1411 by Ahmad Shah, the third ruler of the dynasty), was fortified with a strong citadel and provided with a variety of religious and secular buildings, including mints, customs houses, markets, and gardens.
Ahmedabad became home to a diverse population of including myriad social and professional groups. Evidence of their presence in the city can still be seen in Ahmedabad’s last remaining pols, or traditional neighbourhoods organised by occupation.
Ahmedabad was not only an economic and administrative centre but also emerged as the vibrant heart of intellectual activity. The regional sultans welcomed Islamic saints and scholars from all over the world to their capital. They also patronised literature and learning in Arabic, Persian and the regional language, Gujari. They were also patrons of Sanskrit.
The most powerful of the sultans of the dynasty, Mahmud Begada, who reigned from 1459 to 1511, is the subject and likely patron of a typical Sanskrit panegyric that portrays him as great Kshatriya king whose court was blessed by the presence of Sarasvati, the goddess of learning, for its immense prosperity and intellectual traditions.
Beyond the few surviving commissioned works of Sanskrit, the attempt at cultural interplay by the sultans of Gujarat is also clear from the ubiquitous bilingual inscriptions on stone in Sanskrit and Persian that are found all over the region. These are records of administrative measures and land grants, and were a continuation of the epigraphic use of Sanskrit, which was a key part of the Indian idea of kingship for a millennium.
In 1572-’73, Akbar defeated the last of the Gujarati sultans and incorporated the region into the Mughal Empire. The conquest was widely celebrated by Akbar. His subsequent visit to the port cities of Khambhat and Surat is evidence of the Emperor’s desire to control this region, which would become one of the empire’s biggest sources of revenue. Not surprisingly, Mughal princes Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb both served as governors of the province.
The conquest of Gujarat and access to its trade changed the fortunes of the Mughal Empire. Under the Mughals, Gujarat (and the subcontinent) saw a further expansion of overseas trade and commerce. Not just Ahmedabad, other cities especially Surat witnessed an unprecedented rise in its prosperity under the Mughals.
Gujarat also most likely provided the Mughal empire, especially Akbar, the model for co-opting Rajput power structures and adopting and adapting cultural elements to expand his own ideas of kingship and imperial reach.
Viewing South Asia’s past from the vantage point of regional imperial centres and cities can illuminate complex and connected historical processes. That the animated bar graph generated excitement about Indian cities that featured on it is a reminder that Indians have forgotten the diverse regional innovations that have shaped Indian history. It is perhaps time that we direct our attention to these.
Aparna Kapadia teaches history at Williams College, Massachusetts. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.
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