Seeking Truth in History

(Published in Mathrubhumi (Malayalam), 18 March 2023)

Truth, in history, is a bit like Ravana—a many-headed, multi-faced being. Of course, there are facts that nobody can deny. India became independent on 15 August 1947, for example: a fully concrete point. But when we ask questions of that moment, the same event acquires different layers and colours. Yes, India became free in 1947, but how did it happen? Was it the Congress-led movement alone? To what extent did global conditions after the two World Wars hasten the process? Did domestic British politics make it unfeasible for the imperial power to continue in India? How much did individual personalities matter: figures like Gandhi, Bose, Patel, and Nehru? In answering these questions, the same truth of India’s liberation ceases being a simple date and a uniform narrative. Instead, it becomes a series of arguments and counterarguments. Some are convincing, others are not. But either way, simplistic ideas recede and the principle that emerges is that in history, the cardinal truth is complexity.

Sometime ago, in an interview I had mentioned the old legend of Parayipetta Panthirukulam to make a point about Islam’s long presence in Kerala. In it, the sage Vararuchi, with his wife from the Parayar caste, has eleven children. One grows up as a Brahmin, another is a Dalit, a third is ancestress to a Nair family, and so on. Among these children, however, is also a Muslim. On social media a politician berated me for highlighting this story—Vararuchi, he argued, served in the court of King Vikramaditya, who is believed to have lived over 2000 years ago. Islam emerged less than 1500 years ago. How, then, could Vararuchi have a Muslim son when there was no Islam yet? The politician’s conclusion seemed to be that historians cannot be trusted. Apparently, I was twisting history, perverting “the truth” for some unknown reasons. Predictably, that post on Facebook got a lot of “likes”, and it looked as if, using logic and reason, the politician had triumphed over an untruth.

To me, however, the episode was comical, but also revealing of the ignorance many have about how we study the past. Legends are never taken literally. After all, the same story has one more child born to Vararuchi, who is a mouthless god. But historians know that all legends, even if they are not accurate, precise records of the past, communicate something about the past. These stories are conversing with us, and there are clues in them worth studying. The point I was making, thus, when I mentioned the legend in my interview was this: that Islam had been in Kerala so long and was accepted as so natural a component of our society, that whoever created the Parayipetta Panthirukulam tale saw no contradiction adding a Muslim with a Brahmin, Nair, Dalit, and others as children of the same parents. The legend’s contents are not the literal “truth”, but in examining it, we can identify several broader truths about our culture, its view of different faiths, identity, and more.

Truth is, similarly, complex in tackling historical figures. Take, for instance, Martanda Varma of Travancore. In durbar histories and Sanskrit sources like the Balamartandavijaya, we meet a noble, heroic man. Indeed, the latter story claims that god appeared to him, commanding him to conquer kingdoms and wage war. Martanda Varma was only following divine orders, even if it involved spilling blood. Now contrast this with the villupattu sung around Kanyakumari by erstwhile avarna communities: the same king appears as a cunning, treacherous, greedy, cruel man, motivated by self-interest and ambition, not god. After creating Travancore, Martanda Varma performed great acts of piety, dedicating his state to his deity, Sri Padmanabhaswamy. But according to records, during wars before this trippadidanam, he did not hesitate to plunder and burn temples, use Muslim and Christian troops against Brahmin kings, enslave women and children, and flout existing norms.

Which of these, then, is the “true” Martanda Varma? Royalists highlight his devotion to god; others style him as a nationalist for defeating the Dutch; yet another set will look at the casteism that underpinned his monarchy. But the “truth” is that he was all these things at once. We may want a unidimensional picture of Martanda Varma, but like most human beings he had several sides, which are equally real. The same applies to other personalities. We remember Aurangzeb as a bigoted Muslim who targeted Hindus; but the same emperor also attacked Muslim states. If he called his Hindu enemies “infidels”, he claimed Shia sultans were “heretics”—this, even though he himself had Hindu blood and his mother was Shia. So too, Tipu Sultan used jihadist rhetoric when invading Malabar. But even as he persecuted Kerala Brahmins, his government was run by a Mysorean Brahmin. While he broke temples in Malabar, he sent Sivalingams to Sringeri Matha, requesting pujas in his name. In two places and contexts, the same man acted differently. While one does not excuse the other, to historians this raises the question: why?

History, then, often poses contradictions. It causes some to take sides but can also be a means to peel back layers and attempt a fuller understanding of the past. Truth cannot be tailored to contemporary demands; instead, it pushes us to think and challenge dogma, even when it is uncomfortable. Most of us fall into the trap of seeking black and white conclusions from the past. Yet to know it, we must keep an open mind and identify truths (plural) as objectively as we can. After all, good history is not always about finding a single answer; often, it inspires a hundred fresh questions. This is why even if Ravana, with his many heads, is the “villain” in the Ramayana (which itself is a topic worth exploring), in studying history he offers an excellent metaphor. There is never one version alone; the truth has several faces, even if we don’t like them all. Some prefer to highlight one or two over the others. The historian’s role, however, is to look at them all, reminding the world that things are layered. This is the historian’s truth, and this is the historian’s dharma.