There was a time when I thought everything that appeared in a newspaper or a periodical was well researched and authentic. It might have been true, considering there were many scholars among those who wrote to newspapers. But that was also a time when access to information was hard. Today it is not as hard to get to primary sources as it was in the past. But if you think such authors would be more truthful today because there is easier access to information, and believe whatever appears in media is well researched, you would be surprised.
With the availability of information today, there should be fewer urban legends forming in the 21st century, because the publications (print, or online) could easily provide readers with more authenticated information. But this isn’t really the case, because as I will illustrate in the examples below, despite the greater accessibility to information you see more urban legends forming. In this article, I will focus on topics that relate to India.
A reason for this type of misinformation could be that many writers today are fluent in just one language, i.e. English, and are sourcing their ideas from writers outside of India and/or less familiar with Indian history and culture. You would be surprised, rather shocked to see the ignorance of writers who write “expert” articles on online publications and print media, such as The Scroll, The Wire, The Hindu and many more, and in spite of the information available on the Internet and social media, fail to correct themselves, or offer even as much as an acknowledgement when their errors are pointed out. Worse, these fictional stories also enter textbooks and other print media as “facts”.
Just to show how rampant this problem is, I present some cases from my own timeline on Twitter. Wherever possible, I have included a link for the articles making incorrect claims. I have also provided information on why they are incorrect with appropriate sources, as much as possible.
Urban legend 1: “Mughals brought many fruits to India, including grapes”.
Supposedly the excerpt from a book, of a food expert, Salma Hussain, claims Mughals introduced several fruits to India, including grapes.
What’s wrong here? Grapes were known in India millennia before Mughals came to India. For example, grapes are mentioned in Samskrta texts like Charaka samhita (~2000 years old) and Amarakosha (~1600 years old). Huen Tsang, a Chinese traveler who visited India during 7th century mentions them being used in India (~1400 years old); A Kannada work, Lokopakara gives food recipes that use grapes as an ingredient (~1000 year old). Some of these examples are given below:
“Grapes, mentioned in Charaka Samhita”
“Grapes mentioned by Huen Tsang’s India travels; Grapes referred by the name “mrdvika” in Charaka Samhita”
Is that true? Not by a long shot. Hing (or Hingu, its name in Samskrta) has been used in Indian cooking for at least 1500 years, if not earlier. It is mentioned in Sudraka’s play Mrcchakatika. The author lived definitely before 500 CE, but possibly closer to 200 CE.
“Excerpts from Mrcchakatika, mentioning the aroma of food cooked with a seasoning of Hingu (asafoetida) : Left, in Kannada translation; Right: Original text”
Urban Legend 3: “Sher Shah Suri, conceptualized roads and highways across India”
If you studied any of the school history books in India, you’d have read that King Sher Shah Suri conceptualized things like large highways across the country (particularly the Grand Trunk road). I haven’t linked any specific article here, but suffice to say, if you make a search on the Internet, you’ll likely hit more than a few articles.
But is that true? Trading routes such as Uttarapatha (“The northern route” and Dakshinapatha (The southern route”) existed from ancient times, at least from the times of Chandragupta Maurya, some 2500 years ago. That is at least 1800 years before Sher Shah. And, there existed toll booths (Whoa! Did you think they were a new concept?) during Satavahana times, a good 2000 years ago. You even see the one such toll collection pot in Nane Ghat, in Maharashtra.
“Nane ghat toll collection stone pot & an inscription of Satavahanas in Nane Ghat”
Urban legend 4: Creating a larger-than-life image for certain personalities in our history.
Here is an excerpt from the Kannada translation of a book of Bhagawati Charan Upadhyaya, a well-known scholar. The book in Hindi is called “Bharateeya Samskriti ka Srota” and can be found here in archive.org. The Kannada translation by H S Gopalarao can be found here (ಭಾರತೀಯ ಬಹುಮುಖಿ ಸಂಸ್ಕೃತಿ)
The paragraph gives credit to Iltamish and Firoze Shah for the creation of the magnum opus on Indian music, Sangeeta Ratnakara. Here is a translation of the relevant sentences from the paragraph in English:
“Sufi saints adapted Indian music easily. They came from Bagdad and Persia. The magnum opus Sangeeta Ratnakara was written in CE 1238, during the reign of Firoze Shah, son of Iltamish. This work has considered all aspects of the contemporary music. All the courts had by this time, accepted the music of foreign origin”.
Now how far is this true? While we know Indian classical music is influenced by Persian music (and Arabic music, to a lesser extent) , and it was around the time this influence occurred, neither Firoze Shah or Iltamish had any influence on the writing of Sangeeta Ratnakara. The fact is Sharngadeva, a Kashmiri who migrated to Devagiri, worked as an accountant in King Bhillana’s court and wrote Sangita Ratnakara. The paragraph above neither mentions the authors name, nor the patron of the author, but rather gives credit to Iltamish and Feroze Shah! This is only as meaningful as giving credit to Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV, King of Mysore, for the General Theory of Relativity of Einstein, just because they were contemporary. Get my point?
Urban legend 5: “Alauddin Khilji, a peoples king”
Some JNU trained historians have a knack of turning common sense upside down. In a bid to oppose anything that comes from Indian (Samskrta, or other Indian language) sources as regressive, and patriarchal or what not, they go to the extent of praising a ruler who increased the taxes on cultivators from 20% to 50%. One should be really blinded by ideology to claim his increase on taxes was not due to religious belief, but due to fiscal reasons. But supporting 50% tax? That is absurd.
Contrast this with the guidelines from Indian texts which normally prescribed one sixth or one fifth of the produce to be taken as the tax. You can see inscriptions that tell how some kings were people friendly by levying lower taxes. In fact, Kautilya, in his work Arthashastra mentions that tax must be collected in a way not to trouble the citizens, as gently as a bee takes the nectar from a flower!
Urban legend 6: “Sambhar was invented in Tanjore court, by a chef, for Sambhaji”
Fact is Sambar, the very popular daily food of south India, did not have to wait for Tanjavur Maratha kings to be invented. We have many sources in Kannada literature to show that Sambar existed at least 400 years before Sambhaji (1657 CE- 1689CE). Here is a reference from Shabdamani darpana of Kesiraja, written around ~1250CE that mentions Sambar.
Fact: Recipe for “amrtavallari” described by king Mangarasa, from south Karnataka ~1508 CE. The recipe is exactly how “Jangri/Jahangir” is made today. This is only a century before Jahangir was born.
I can go on, but will stop here, because this was not meant to be an exhaustive dissertation, but just a glimpse of how misinformation is being perpetuated.Sadly, this is at a time where access to primary resources is at its highest. So what should you do when you smell an urban legend about some topic of Indian history? Do not go to Quora or the Wikipedia as your source, but to primary sources instead, and see for yourself if the claims are correct.
The primary sources can be many, but when it comes to Indian history, or languages, or culture, going to sources in Indian languages is far better for accuracy. For example, if you are talking about the history of Indian cuisine, it would be more meaningful to check the texts in Indian languages, both ancient and modern ( such Supashastra texts in Samskrta, and other ancient Indian languages, or scholarly commentaries or translations of these texts in contemporary Indian languages, rather than something that was written keeping a Persian, or English text as a source (which are from much later dates). Accessing these older primary sources is much easier than you think, due to resources like www.archive.org which have a great assortment of such texts.