The Basis of Bias

Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice. ~ Will Durant, The Story of Civilisation: Our Oriental Heritage

In a recent interview, Thomas Holland said, “The very idea that history should be written without bias is itself a biased one.” How much can we agree with Holland? And does this mean that all of history writing is (or should be) essentially biased?

Perhaps the only way to write about history without bias, and it is possible, is to list facts. And this statement of fact should not have a single adjective. That itself may seem almost impossible. And even if it were done, reading of such history would be dull, to say the least.

    The sword of history has two edges, one that cuts open new possibilities in the future, and one that cuts through the noise, contradictions, and lies of the past.” ~ The History Manifesto, by David Armitage, Jo Guldi

The sword of history has two edges, one that cuts open new possibilities in the future, and one that cuts through the noise, contradictions, and lies of the past.”
~ The History Manifesto, by David Armitage, Jo Guldi

All bias is essentially political in nature, when stripped of the stage from which it speaks. It may not necessarily have an inherent propaganda, but the nature of the bias is political. The locus of the writer in relation to the history that she writes, determines the nature and degree of the bias. It may get further aggravated by the discipline of an -ism that she follows. Her personal understanding of the constructs of history-telling also come into play. Uday Kulkarni makes a pithy point here of these constructs:

These constructs, and other -isms are essential for a rounded reading of history. (If we are not to read history as a list of dates, places, and name) Equally necessary, is for the reader to be aware of these -isms. For further refining the roundedness of a particular history, it would be a good idea to read the same history by different authors. A writer’s bias of a particular -ism is identified by knowing about the author. Other biases leak through (a) the use of extreme adjectives or (b) the use of extremely vague or extremely specific descriptions of constructs. Superlative adjectives do a disservice to the reading of history. Most of them are prone to visualisation, and almost all of them fuel extreme emotions (and bias) in the reader and propagate the bias.

The writing and reading of history, both, also need to be situated in the era of that history. Our understanding of society, as we live in, should never be the standard by which we decide the good and the bad. The civilised society that we live in is a result of the events that we read of. Standing tall at the end of the refined time-line of evolution, it is irrational, to look back and judge it from where we stand. That is a sure sign of introducing bias.

Holland says:

A concern always to be true to the facts as they can be ascertained; a recognition that people in the past lived by different standards; an obligation to get things right about the dead; a sensitivity to what shapes primary sources. All these are crucial. But I repeat — the greatest virtue of all in a historian is curiosity!

The responsible writer of history therefore will attempt to reduce bias, but need not invest effort at eliminating it altogether. The responsible reader will identify the genesis, nature, and purpose of the bias. Hopefully not introducing his own, but recognise the existing bias, nonetheless.

History has this power to create major theoretical debates, revealing that what was previously accepted as a natural truth is actually no more than unexamined bias. ~ The History Manifesto, Jo Guldi & David Armitage (Free download)

The writer and the reader of history, are both historians. And questions need to be asked, constantly.

Of Foreigners & their Blades

Throughout history natives have given names to foreign communities. These names are often derogatory, or just corrupt form of the appearance of people or their place of origins. Perhaps, these name offer a stronger sense of identity to the native community.

Over time, in the age of political correctness and civility, many such words have fallen out of favour and have been replaced by technical terms, that nevertheless, often refer to the place of origin.


By Mughal School [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One such word that has somewhat survived and is still in used, is firangi. A word often used, generally to refer to a foreigner, and specifically used to refer to a person of Caucasian descent. I haven’t heard this pejorative used to refer to a foreigner who is not Caucasian. One of the popular theories of the etymological roots of the firangi is that it is a portmanteau of fika and rang — pale and colour — and therefore applies to Caucasians. Far from the truth.

Firangi derives from the Arabic word al-faranji. This word was used to refer to Franks (Germanic people who conquered Gaul in the 6th century and controlled much of western Europe for several centuries afterward), The Arabics derived the word from the Latin – Franci. The word came into being with the Crusaders, most of whom were Franks.

Around the 16th century, the word had gained a different distinction in India and lent meaning to weapons, rather than to refer to certain people. The Western Euopean sword-blade was finding favour with the Mughals and was called the firangi. However it was made popular by the Marathas, which they bought from the Portuguese. The Portuguese did not manufacture this blade however, they only imported and traded it. Therefore the use of the word firangi was still associated with Western Europe and not with the Portuguese. Interestingly,

The origin of the ethnic name [Frank] is uncertain; it traditionally is said to be from the old Germanic word *frankon “javelin, lance” (compare Old English franca “lance, javelin”), their preferred weapon, but the reverse may be the case. [Link]

Further, during the 16th century:

Syphilis was known in India as the Portuguese disease, or firanga or firangi roga, terms that identified it with the firangis (‘Franks’), or Europeans. According to historians, the disase was first recognised in India in 1498 after the arrival of Vasco-da-Gama, who had left Portugal in 1497.

It is perhaps due to the trade of the Marathas that the word has been strongly associated with the Portuguese, and it seems they referred to the commodity than the people. However, certain documents describe different names for various European traders in India:

Amongst the merchants the Portuguese (Firangi), the English (Ingraz), the Dutch (Valandaze), the French (Francese), the Danes (Dingmar) and hat wearing (Topikar) merchants carry on trade, and commerce.


  1. Dutta, Tarun Kumar, and Subhash Chandra Parija. Emerging and Re-emerging Infectious Diseases. New Delhi: Jaypee Brothers Medical Pub., 2013. 118. Print.
  2. Darpan, Mahesh. “पुर्तगाली-बंगाली एंथनी फिरंगी – Navbharat Times.” Navbharat Times. Navbharat Times, 5 May 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.
  3. “Firangi (sword).” Wikipedia. 27 Nov. 2014. Web. 30 Nov. 2014. .
  4. Kadam, Umesh. “French-Maratha Relations: India in the 17th Century.” ResearchGate, 21 May 2014. Web. 15 Mar. 2015.

For the Love(rs) of Hummus



I must say that this is not happening by design – two consecutive posts related to Food history. Yet, it was fascinating as I read it, so I had to share:

“For example, chickpeas are widely grown by traditional farmers from the Mediterranean and Ethiopia east to India, with the latter country accounting for 80 percent of the world’s chickpea production today. One might therefore have been deceived into supposing that chickpeas were domesticated in India. But it turns out that ancestral wild chickpeas occur only in southeastern Turkey. The interpretation that chickpeas were actually domesticated there is supported by the fact that the oldest finds of possibly domesticated chickpeas in Neolithic archaeological sites come from southeastern Turkey and nearby northern Syria that date to around 8000 B.C.; not until over 5,000 years later does archaeological evidence of chickpeas appear on the Indian subcontinent.”

Excerpt From: Diamond, Jared. “Guns, Germs, and Steel.”

You may also be interested in reading this article on Hummus and this entry on Chickpeas in Wikipedia.

A Dip in History | Sambar

IMG 1100  Version 2

So here’s how a simple mistake or a turn of circumstances caused a great dish to become. Of all the happy accidents in history, I think I’ll peg this one as my favourite. As much as Sambar – my favourite dish! Of course, as accidents go, this discovery happened on one of my favourite blogs, Varnam, where he wrote of The Origin of Sambar. I couldn’t find the content the post had linked to, so some fun research led me to this:

“The Marathas were ruling Tanjore. Sambhoji was a great cook (the male clan members to note) and very fond of his amti with a handful of the tart kokum thrown in. In a particular season the kokum that was imported from the Maratha homeland did not reach the bare larder of the king’s kitchen. Sambhoji was cooking and the minions were shivering in their dhothis to tell him that his favourite dish could not be made that day. A smart Vidushak, who had been elected sous chef for the day, decided to solve the problem. He whispered in the king’s ears that the locals used very little tamarind pulp to gain a better sourness to the curry and that Sambhoji should experiment with this variation. Voila, the dish with the tuvar dal, vegetables, spices and the tamarind pulp was cooked and served by the king to his coterie. The court declared the dish an outstanding preparation (they had no choice with the king as Chef) and thus was born Sambhoji’s amti that in time became sambhar.”

(Via The Story of Sambhar by Padmini Natarajan.)


The link above is not working, you can view a cached image of the article here. If for some reason, this link also disappears, here’s the PDF of the Original post: The Story of Sambhar by Padmini Natarajan, from 2002, by Dr. Padmini Natarajan. This article was also mentioned in The Hindu – A Tale of Two Sambhars.

Update: Panhala

A minor update on the Panhala Fort page.

Zat and Sawar

When we think of titles conferred on people, it is easy to relate to them especially the ones like Mahatma (great soul) or Sardar (leader) and such. It is interesting to note that in Mughal times there was a significant background to the way titles were conferred. You may have heard of the commonly used jagirdar and mansabdar, if you have been interested in any aspect of the history of the Deccan. In any case, it is not uncommon to to have Jagirdar as a surname in Maharashtra. If you have seen Hindi movies in the ’70s and the ’80s then you know Gajanan Jagirdar.

According to Wikipedia, the word jagirdar is derived from jagir and sardar. Mansabdar, probably was derived the same way. But we will let that pass for this post. While reading, Parties and Politics at the Mughal Court, 1707-1740, I stumbled upon the terms: Zat and Sawar. While the context of it all made sense regarding what these two terms went, I felt the need to know more and I found some information that was fairly interesting.

[Before I start, a quick note: Ideally, I think, these should be spelled as Zaat and Sawaar because of the way they are pronounced, however most authoritative historical texts, books and documents spell them as zat and sawar, so I shall go with the same spelling.]

While I am not sure of the etymology of these words I suspect that zat is the same as the near-Hindi word (zaat or jaat) meaning breed, caste or class. Sawar refers to horses; a ride, perhaps linked to Sawari.

The zat and sawar were parameters of defining a mansabdar’s “level”. Before this system was introduced, there was a single parameter – the count of horses that a mansabdar maintained during Akbar’s times and therefore (possibly) the subsidy that he received in exchange for that. Mansabdars didn’t often maintain the required troops or horses, and this new, fairly elaborate system was used to classify mansabdars.

The zat was a rank conferred by the king on the mansabdar, whereas the sawar was a count of horsemen that were to be maintained. The actual number of horses that they had to maintain is a different and interesting story.

There were three levels of mansabdars and this was a factor of the zat and sawar count.

The mansabdar at the highest level was the one who had equal zat and sawar, e.g. 4000 zat and 4000 sawar. The second level was when the sawar was half the zat, e.g. 4000 zat and 2000 sawar. The lowest level of mansabdar was when the sawar was less than half of the zat.

One would imagine that a mansabdar with a sawar of 10 would have 10 horses, but this wasn’t so. And for good reason. A sawar of 10 was to maintain 20 horses. There were to be three backup horses for the first 3 sawar, 2 backup horses for the next 4 sawar and no back up for the last 3 horses in the sawar of 10. So you had 20 (9+8+3) horses for a sawar of 10. The good reason being that the backup horses would come in use in case for fatigue or death of the mounts.

The system was actually more elaborate than what I have presented.

However, I shall leave that for when I compare this with the Saranjam system employed by the Marathas. It would be an interesting study, given that the Marathas were well versed with the Mughal mansabdari system, given that a few Marathas actually served as mansabdars or jagirdars for the Mughals.

Primary References:

Chandra, Satish. Medieval India: from Sultanat to the Mughals. Revised ed. New Delhi: Har-Anand Publications, 2005.

Secondary References:

Chandra, Satish. Parties and politics at the Mughal Court, 1707-1740. Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Kadam, V. S.. Maratha confederacy: a study in its origin and development. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1993.

“Mansabdar: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia. (accessed November 10, 2007).

Bernini – 2

When I started this blog, it was with a post dedicated to Bernini. As much as the context of the post required me to use an image of the sculpture of Neptune and Triton by Bernini, I didn’t put in an image; I wasn’t quite sure of copyright issues. Whether I could use the image from the V&A Museum site. Since then, I have had the good luck of going back to the V&A and get a few photographs of the sculpture myself.

Neptune and Triton - 2

I still continue to love and be intrigued with this sculpture.

Yet, I was disappointed by the lighting in some of the sections in the V&A. Especially the South Asia section. Most of the artefacts are in glass cases (for obvious reasons; I understand), what I don’t understand is why the lights are so harsh at times and so far away.

One reason is, I suppose to, dissuade photographers (low lighting conditions, and flash will always bounce on the glass cases). But that should hardly be the concern for the museum. More people come there to see things.

The other reason, and I believe this may be more the reason, is that strong lights may affect the artefacts there. Yet, am sure there must be some way to get in more light without causing damage to the artefacts?