‘Forgotten Kings’ revives saga of Afghanistan’s Hindu Sahi dynasty (IANS Interview)

Yet another almost forgotten aspect of Indian history has been brought to life in “Forgotten Kings” (Simon & Schuster) by banker-historian Changez Jan, the great-great-grandson of the Frontier Gandhi, who notes that history is often written “by the victors and seldom told from the point of view of those that have lost” as he retells the saga of the Hindu Sahi kingdom that was established in the late 9th century in what is now part of northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan and was extinguished by Mahmud of Ghazni in the early part of the 11th century.

“The Hindu Sahi king Anandapal (1002-13) came to my attention when I was a boy in boarding school in Pakistan. I was in boarding school in Mardan and was reading a book on Mahmud of Ghazni and in it was a letter from Anandapal to Mahmud who had just been attacked by a rival in Central Asia. Anandapal offers to help Mahmud and the reason he gives is: “In acting thus, I do not speculate on the impression which this will make on you. I have been conquered by you, and therefore I do not wish that another man should conquer you”, Jan, the elder brother of Muhammad Yunus, who laid the foundations of New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan exhibition centre, told IANS in an interview.

Having grown up in Pashtun/Pathan culture where he was taught to appreciate acts of courage and bravery that were based on honour (ghairat), that line by Anandapal stirred something within him.

“I wanted to learn more about them but I could not come across any book. Finally, by chance, I found a book by Yogendra Mishra, I must have been 17 or 18. It was in a used book store. But not so easy to read. Then I guess life went on education and career.”

“My first attempt to write the book was in 2018 when I was between jobs. Someone gave me valuable advice saying, it is on everyone’s bucket list to write something but what you write may not be interesting to others. So I decided to write about the Sahis. I wanted to write historical fiction but I was not happy with it. So I decided to write a history book like a story.”

“I started again in the Covid lockdown in Singapore. I had a lot of time in the evenings and weekends. I also met an editor from Delhi called Simar via a mutual friend. She was a great help and source of support. She helped me improve with suggestions and guided me on how to find an editor. I was fortunate to find her and then also Simon and Schuster in India who were willing to take a chance on the book (and on me). I must admit I have had a great amount of good fortune when it came to the publishing of this book,” Jan elaborated.

Historically, he said, all dynasties start with a strong king and then they see a decline in the quality of the rulers. This was also the case with the predecessors of the Sahis, the Turki Shahis. The Turki Shahis were Buddhist Kings that ruled the area now under Afghanistan and northwestern India. The last king, Lagaturman, was overthrown by his minister, Kallar, who founded the Sahis. There are not much sources to be found on the first two kings, but the story became clearer by the time of king Bhimadeva (921-60).

“This is greatly thanks to sources like Alberuni and Pandit Kalhana of Kashmir. There was a great Hindu revival in this area which had been dominated by Buddhism since the time of Asoka and had included great Buddhist Kings like the Kushan Kanishka.

“The revival also included a lot of construction or reconstruction of Hindu temples. While Hinduism was on the rise, there were two major factors that started to impede the rise. One was the arrival of the Muslims, but even these had been kept at bay since the eights century. The second factor was fragmentation of India into many petty states and kingdoms after the weakening of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty.

“These had been allies of the Hindu Sahis. The fragmentation and division of India allowed the foreign power to take advantage. This is a familiar theme and describes the situation when India fragmented after the Mughals,” Jan explained.

He has also written that the “hopeless struggle is a standard trope of a love story-the pursuit of a cause that cannot be…while researching for the book, I realised I had started on a journey of discovery not just about the Sahis, but also about my homeland, my people – the Pashtuns – and our history. It has been a fulfilling journey.”

Asked to elaborate on this, Jan said:

“There are two themes here. The first is related to the sense of honour and courage. A story in which the main character or characters fight against the odds without much hope for success, is an appealing narrative – whether it is a violent struggle like the three hundred Spartans or a doomed love story like Romeo and Juliet. The Hindu Sahi Kings and their people, especially in the time of the latter kings, must have known they were fighting a losing battle. Many of their fellow countrymen had joined the army of Mahmud already. But these kings continued their struggle.”

“The second theme is the arrival of Pashtuns which happened more or else around the same time. I came across this while doing my research, it is around the same time we start hearing of the Afghans. In fact there was a danger that what I was discovering in my research that the Pashtuns would hijack the theme of the book. But then I realised it was good material for another book. There was such a lot of learning for me with regard to the area that I belong to and how one era is connected to the next. I had found answers to questions like how and when the Pashtuns arrived and who was there before,” Jan maintained.

The survivors of the dynasty moved to Kashmir and Benaras and in the process, lost their identity. But then, assimilating into society doesn’t necessarily mean losing your identity (as for instance has happened with the Parsis). What are his thoughts on this?

“It would depend how distinctively different the culture of the community doing the move is to the community they are moving to. The culture of the Hindu Sahi people was similar to that of Kashmir. The architecture of the buildings and they also shared in the texts that they read. Pandit Kalhana writes very highly of the Sahis. The Sahis that moved to Kashmir probably assimilated very well. They would have blended in with the population they moved to.

“After partition in 1947, many Muslims migrated from what is now India to Pakistan and similarly in the other direction. I noticed those that moved to Pashtun areas and Punjab, continued to speak Urdu but blended in most other aspects. To the south in Karachi, they kept a distinctive culture, perhaps as the number of them migrating to Karachi was a more significant number.

“I also note that many of the north Indians I meet in my work, will have ancestors that migrated from towns that are in Pakistan now. I cannot distinguish them from other north Indians. Perhaps it maybe that their cultures were not so different in the first place. But these are my thoughts only, I am not an expert on this topic,” Jan elaborated.

How does he juggle his time between being a banker and writing?

“It takes a lot of self-discipline. Its not just banking and writing, I also have to find time for my family. I normally keep my writing to weekends, evenings I try to keep for my family as well as other activities like running and exercise. Writing is a passion for me and I have to make sure that I find the right time and environment for it.”

“People also seem to find time to binge watch TV shows, I do so sometimes and I find nothing wrong in it, it is a good way to relax. But I feel it is good to divert your personal time to do something productive. In the past I would read a lot, now I use the time to research and to write. Once I have collated enough information, I will binge-write,” Jan said.

What next? What’s his next book/project on?

He has submitted a manuscript on a poet and warrior named Khushal Khan Khattak, a contemporary and mortal foe of the Emperor Aurangzeb. Khushal Khan is probably one of the two most renowned poets of the Pashto language and is recognised as the National Poet of Afghanistan.

“I wanted to learn about him but I could not find a book that would satisfy me. So similar to what I did with the Sahis, I wrote the book I wanted to read. Again I am not by training a historian, I just want to tell a story that I feel has not been done justice to. For Khushal Khan, he may be a Pashto poet, but he was an Indian. He was an officer in Mughal service before turning against Aurangzeb. There was no Afghanistan or Pakistan at the time, Kabul was an Indian province,” Jan said.

“I am currently researching for a book on a notable family member of mine called Abdur Rahman Peshwari. He went to Turkey in the 1910s and became a national hero there fighting for their independence. By telling his story, I will also try to tell the story of India, especially Peshawar in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

“But I am hoping to focus more time on writing, there is so much to write about, especially on my part of the world. Two topics I am thinking of is Alexander and the Greeks in Gandhara and Buddhism and Gandhara,” Jan concluded.(Vishnu Makhijani can be reached at vishnu.makhijani@ians.in)

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