Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Inscriptions vs. literary evidence
in Vijayanagara history

I came across the following quote in Burton Stein's volume on Vijayanagara in the New Cambridge History of India (1989). S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar was the first great Indian historian of Vijayanagara who worked at the University of Madras until 1929. He insisted that, "literary evidence of that period should have as much standing in the interpretation of historians as epigraphy and archaeology." He returned to using literary sources such as indigenous poetry and genealogies whereas his predecessors had relied on the accounts of outsider Muslim and Portuguese sources. Burton Stein observes:

"...his historical reconstructions, while based on literary sources, were always attentive to evidence from inscriptions. He insisted that the latter [inscriptions] could only provide the 'barebones' of historical study. literary sources must do the rest" (p. 5)

Similarly, in pre-modern Burmese history inscriptions just don't give you enough to work with. As the basis for dates and a foundation for chronology they're essential, but history based only on inscriptions is an impoverished history.

The state of Vijayanagara, by the way, rose to power from the fourteenth to sixteenth, making it contemporaneous with the Burmese Ava period, and collapsed in 1565, a couple of decades before the Burmese First Toungoo dynasty (1465-1599) collapsed. Vijayanagara was invaded by the rising Muslim states to the north though, whereas the Burmese state collapsed after overextending itself militarily.