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Ascetics, Land and Peasants in Imperial Himachal - North India

Lecture by Mahesh Sharma, Fulbright Fellow at UCLA, co-sponsored by Fulbright Visiting Scholar Enrichment Program

Monday, October 22, 2007
12:00 PM - 2:00 PM
10383 Bunche Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

Recent historiography, concerned with the larger issue of sectarian insensitivity in recent times, has emphasised the militant nature of asceticism in India, predicated by its strong business network and control. The argument is that they sustained the pre-British State, including Mughals, by tacitly lending arms and money.That the British resisted such a nexus and disarmed them systematically, drew them into the orbit of rising nationalism, both as reformers and as a radical voice of tradition, legitimating the struggle for Independence. What, however, needs to be questioned significantly is the role of Indian agents or actors in the forefront of governance, the zamindars and other local officials, and their relationship with the ‘moral order’—ascetics in particular.  

This paper probes the gap between British institutions and traditional authority that created a range of local power relations in which the ascetic organisations played a significant part. Geographically restricting himself to the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh between 1850-1960, Mahesh Sharma is concerned with the mechanism by which the Saivite ‘ascetic’ monasticism—the Jogis and Giris—controlled the agrarian areas, not as reformers but by perpetutating caste hierarchy. These organisations competed and appropriated land from peasants, the tillers of the soil, aided by the legal and land settlement regime. They were aided by the British administration that, anxious to curb the mobile tendencies, settled and perhaps even domesticated them, to deflate the potential conflict or sedition that they saw in the itinerant ascetic classes and their monastaries. In fact, the nexus curbed the radical peasant during the height of national movement, drawing them into the larger fold of ‘Hinduism’: the customs and rituals. The point Sharma wants to emphasize is that what the British saw as legal problem was an opportunity to Hinduize for the ‘moral order’. Second, we need to probe the role of actors or agents involved in the perception of Imperial governance, people who were not withdrawn from the ‘public arena’ or ‘spectacle’ as has been presumed. Rather, they drew this ‘spectacle’ to the forefront of the ‘locality’ to perpetuate the ‘rule’ and the traditional social order. The British rule tacitly strengthened the ‘moral order’ rather than distancing itself from it and sustained it through the local and traditional authority.    

Mahesh Sharma is Associate Professor at the Panjab University, Chandigarh, India, and a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow at UCLA (May 2007- January 2008). His research focuses on the social dimension of religion, identity formation and profiling Hindu institutions. He received a Ph.D. from Panjab University for his dissertation titled, Sidh Worship In Himachal Pradesh : Study Of A Popular Cult In Historical Perspective. Mahesh Sharma's work emphasizes on the field work tradition integrated with archival research, particularly epigraphs. Some of his publications include The Realm of Faith: Subversion, Appropriation and Dominance in the Western Himalaya (2001); "Contested Claims: Land, Ritual and the Jogis of Charpatnath (New Documents from Chamba)", The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 43 (IV) 2006; "Perspectives on the Himalayan Goddess: History, Myth and Practice", Research Bulletin: VVRI, Dec. 2005; "State Formation and Cultural Complex in Western Himalaya: Chamba Genealogy and Epigraphs—700-1650", The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 41 (IV) 2004.

Jyoti Gulati310-206-2654

Sponsor(s): Center for India and South Asia, Fulbright Visiting Scholar Enrichment Program

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