Nayacandra Sūri’s Hammīramahākāvya in context. Praise and criticism in historical literature of the Chauhan kings

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2015 - 2019 (lopend)
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Abstract

This project conducts a literary analysis and thorough contextualization of Nayacandra Sūri’s fifteenth-century Hammīramahākāvya, a very late and remarkable Sanskrit court epic narrating the life story of the Chauhan (Skt. Cāhamāna) ruler Hammīra of Ranthambhor (1283-1301) and his heroic struggle and eventual defeat against the Delhi Sultan Alāuddīn Khaljī (r. 1296-1316). In past research Nayacandra’s poem is almost exclusively interpreted as a royal eulogy, composed to praise the (Hindu/Rajput) kings of the Chauhan dynasty. However, in many ways this epic does not conform to the standard conventions of earlier eulogistic biographical poetry (carita). Whereas this type of poetry is typically concerned with narrating the victory  (vijaya) or rise  (abhyudaya) of a noble hero who ultimately acquires Royal Fortune (rājyaśrī), Nayacandra’s concern seems to consist in narrating, often with a wry sense of irony, how the Chauhan kings ultimately perished. This project aims to go beyond the selective emphasis on studying the Hammīramahākāvya as a royal eulogy by investigating the deep tension between the format of eulogy and the theme of defeat, resulting in a paradoxical interplay between layers of praise and undertones of critique.

 In order to understand these tensions this project investigates the intricate relationship between the historic and literary context surrounding and shaping Nayacandra’s work. The many political upheavals during the Delhi Sultanate period not only form the background to, but also constitute the very subject of Nayacandra’s poetry. The political changes during the formation, expansion and decline of the Delhi Sultanate went in parallel with an unprecedented popularity of historical themes in literature: a rise in the well-established genre of patron-centered biographical poetry (carita, vijaya, abhudya,…), the emergence of historical themes in story literature (especially in the new genre of prabandha literature, composed by Jain authors during the 13th to 14th century), bardic literature, and the emergence of ‘Rajput’ narratives (from the 15th century onwards). Because Nayacandra’s poetry is much indebted to these different forms of biographical writing, selected texts from these genres are studied comparitively, with special attention given to the narratives of Hammīra’s famous predecessor Pṛthvīrāja Chauhan.

Major themes are the problematic relationship between patron and poet, their different motivations in re-evaluating the past, the tension between literature’s power to aestheticize political power or to immortalize the fame of kings on the one hand and its function to also instruct or give ‘history lessons’ on the other hand, the difference between official and non-official (conflicting) versions of history, etc.

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