The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians

book by Henry Miers Elliot

The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians is a book comprising translations of medieval Persian chronicles based on the work of Henry Miers Elliot. It was originally published as a set of eight volumes between 1867-1877 in London. The translations were in part overseen by Elliot, whose efforts were then extended and edited posthumously by John Dowson.



Volume I: Introduction

  • The translations are in many different hands. Some few are in Sir H. Elliot's own handwriting, others were made by different English officers, but the majority of them seem to have been the work of munshís. With the exception of those made by Sir H. Elliot himself, which will be noted whenever they occur, I have compared the whole of them with the original texts and the errors which I have had to correct have been innumerable and extensive. But with all my care it is to be feared that some misreadings may have escaped detection, for it is very difficult for a reviser to divest himself entirely of the colour given to a text by the original translator.
    • Note of John Dowson in The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians - Volume I, p. xi
    • Quoted in Studies in Indo-Muslim History by S.H. Hodivala Volume I: A Critical Commentary on Elliot and Dowson’s History of India as Told by Its Own Historians (Vols. I-IV) & Yule and Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson by Sanjay Garg; published by Routledge, p. 7
  • Where power had, for a short time, enabled the Moslims to usurp the mastery, the usual bigotry and cruelty were displayed. At Debal, the temples were demolished, and mosques founded; a general massacre endured for three whole days; prisoners wore taken captive; plunder was amassed.... At Nairun, the idols were broken, and mosques founded, notwithstanding its voluntary surrender ... the temples were treated like ‘churches of the Christians, or synagogues of the Jews...’
    • Elliot and Dowson, The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians, Vol. 1, 468–9 quoted in Balakrishna, S. Invaders and infidels: From Sindh to Delhi : the 500- year journey of Islamic invasions. New Delhi : BloomsBury, 2021.

Elliot's preface

  • If the artificial definition of Dionysius be correct, that "History is Philosophy teaching by examples," then there is no Native Indian Historian; and few have even approached to so high standard. Of examples, and very bad ones, we have ample store, though even in them the radical truth is obscured by the hereditary, official, and sectarian prepossessions of the narrator; but of philosophy, which deduces conclusions calculated to benefit us by the lessons and experience of the past, which adverts on the springs and consequences of political transactions, and offers sage counsel for the future, we search in vain for any sign or symptom. Of domestic history also we have in our Indian Annalists absolutely nothing, and the same may be remarked of nearly all Muhammadan historians, except Ibn Khaldún. By them society is never contemplated, either in its conventional usages or recognized privileges; its constituent elements or mutual relations; in its established classes or popular institutions; in its private recesses or habitual intercourses. In notices of commerce, agriculture, internal police, and local judicature, they are equally deficient. A fact, an anecdote, a speech, a remark, which would illustrate the condition of the common people, or of any rank subordinate to the highest, is considered too insignificant to be suffered to intrude upon a relation which concerns only grandees and ministers, "thrones and imperial powers"... In Indian Histories there is little which enables us to penetrate below the glittering surface, and observe the practical operation of a despotic Government and rigorous and sanguinary laws, and the effect upon the great body of the nation of these injurious influences and agencies.
    • The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians - Volume I, pp. xix-xx
    • Quoted in The Politics of Secularism: Medieval Indian Historiography and the Sufis, by Venkat Dhulipala; published by University of Wisconsin-Madison, pp. 45-46
  • If, however, we turn our eyes to the present Muhammadan kingdoms of India, and examine the character of the princes, and the condition of the people subject to their sway, we may fairly draw a parallel between ancient and modern times, under circumstances and relations nearly similar. We behold kings, even of our own creation, sunk in sloth and debauchery... Under such rulers, we cannot wonder that the fountains of justice are corrupted; that the state revenues are never collected without violence and outrage; that villages are burnt, and their inhabitants mutilated or sold into slavery; that the officials, so far from affording protection, are themselves the chief robbers and usurpers; that parasites and eunuchs revel in the spoil of plundered provinces; and that the poor find no redress against the oppressor's wrong and proud man's contumely. When we witness these scenes under our own eyes, where the supremacy of the British Government, the benefit of its example, and the dread of its interference, might be expected to operate as a check upon the progress of misrule, can we be surprised that former princes, when free from such restraints, should have studied even less to preserve the people committed to their charge, in wealth, peace, and prosperity?
    • The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians - Volume I, p. xx
    • Quoted in The Dynamics of Cultural Counterpoint in Asian Studies, edited by David Jones and Michele Marion; published by State University of New York Press, p. 93
  • The few glimpses we have, even among the short Extracts in this single volume, of Hindús slain for disputing with Muhammadans, of general prohibitions against processions, worship, and ablutions, and of other intolerant measures, of idols mutilated, of temples razed, of forcible conversions and marriages, of proscriptions and confiscations, of murders and massacres, and of the sensuality and drunkenness of the tyrants who enjoined them, show us that this picture is not overcharged, and it is much to be regretted that we are left to draw it for ourselves from out the mass of ordinary occurrences, recorded by writers who seem to sympathize with no virtues, and to abhor no vices. Other nations exhibit the same atrocities, but they are at least spoken of, by some, with indignation and disgust.
    • The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians - Volume I, p. xxi
  • These deficiencies are more to be lamented, where, as sometimes happens, a Hindú is the author. From one of that nation we might have expected to have learnt what were the feelings, hopes, faiths, fears, and yearnings, of his subject race ; but, unfortunately, he rarely writes unless according to order or dictation, and every phrase is studiously and servilely turned to flatter the vanity of an imperious Muhammadan patron. There is nothing to betray his religion or his nation, except, perhaps, a certain stifihess and affectation of style, which show how ill the foreign garb befits him. With him, a Hindú is "an infidel," and a Muhammadan "one of the true faith," and of the holy saints of the calendar, he writes with the fervour of a bigot. With him, when Hindús are killed, "their souls are despatched to hell," and when a Muhammadan suffers the same fate, "he drinks the cup of martyrdom." He is so far wedded to the set phrases and inflated language of his conquerors, that he speaks of "the light of Islám shedding its refulgence on the world," of "the blessed Muharram," and of "the illustrious Book." He usually opens with a "Bismillah," and the ordinary profession of faith in the unity of the Godhead, followed by laudations of the holy prophet, his disciples and descendants, and indulges in all the most devout and orthodox attestations of Muhammadans.
    • The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians - Volume I, pp. xxi-xxii
  • They will make our native subjects more sensible of the immense advantages accruing to them under the mildness and and equity of our rule... We should no longer hear bombastic Bábús, enjoying under our Government the highest degree of personal liberty, and many more political privileges than were ever conceded to a conquered nation, rant about patriotism, and the degradation of their present position. If they would dive into any of the volumes mentioned herein, it would take these young Brutuses and Phocions a very short time to learn, that in the days of the dark period for whose return they sigh, even the bare utterance of their ridiculous fantasies would have been attended, not with silence and contempt, but with the severer discipline of molten lead or empalement.
  • These considerations, and many more which will offer themselves to any diligent and careful peruser of the volumes here noticed, will serve to dissipate the gorgeous illusions which are commonly entertained regarding the dynasties which have passed, and show him that, notwithstanding a civil policy and an ungenial climate, which forbid our making this country a permanent home, and deriving personal gratification or profit from its advancement, notwithstanding the many defects necessarily inherent in a system of foreign administration, in which language, colour, religion, customs, and laws preclude all natural sympathy between sovereign and subject, we have already, within the half-century of our dominion, done more for the substantial benefit of the people, than our predecessors, in the country of their own adoption, were able to accomplish in more than ten times that period; and, drawing auguries from the past, he will derive hope for the future, that, inspired by the success which has hitherto attended our endeavours, we shall follow them up by continuous efforts to fulfil our high destiny as the rulers of India.
    • The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians - Volume I, pp. xxvi-xxvii
    • Quoted in Early Indian Imprints by Katharine Smith Diehl; published by Scarecrow Press, p. 365

Volume VII: From Shah-Jahan to the Early Years of the Reign of Muhammad Shah

  • Hindu writers have been entirely excluded from holding public offices, and all the worshipping places of the infidels and great temples of these infamous people have been thrown down and destroyed in a manner which excites astonishment at the successful completion of so difficult a task. His Majesty personally teaches the sacred kalima to many infidels with success. All the mosques in the empire are repaired at public expense. Imama, criers to the daily prayers, and readers of the khutba, have been appointed to each of them, so that a large sum of money has been and is still laid out in these disbursements.
    • Mir-at-i 'alam, Mir-at-i Jahan-numa, of Bakhtawar Khan, in Elliot and Dowson, Vol. VII, p. 159.

Volume VIII: To End of the Muhammadan Empire in India

  • In the city of Agra there was a large temple, in which there were numerous idols, adorned and embellished with precious jewels and valuable pearls. It was the custom of the infidels to resort to this temple from far and near several times in each year to worship the idols, and a certain fee to the Government was fixed upon each man, for which he obtained admittance. As there was a large congress of pilgrims, a very considerable amount was realized from them, and paid into the royal treasury. This practice had been observed to the end of the reign of the Emperor Shah Jahan, and in the commencement of Aurangzeb's government; but when the latter was informed of it, he was exceedingly angry and abolished the custom. The greatest nobles of his court represented to him that a large sum was realized and paid into the public treasury, and that if it was abolished, a great reduction in the income of the state would take place. The Emperor observed, 'What you say is right, but I have considered well on the subject, and have reflected on it deeply; but if you wish to augment the revenue, there is a better plan for attaining the object by exacting the jizya. By this means idolatry will be suppressed, the Muhammadan religion and the true faith will be honoured, our proper duty will be performed, the finances of the state will be increased, and the infidels will be disgraced.' 'This was highly approved by all the nobles; and the Emperor ordered all the golden and silver idols to be broken, and the temple destroyed.
    • Kanzul-Mahfuz (Kanzu-l Mahfuz), in: Elliot and Dowson, Vol. VIII, pp. 38 -39.

Quotes about the book

  • Much of the contemporary evidence on temple desecration cited by Hindu nationalists is found in Persian materials translated and published during the British occupation of India. Especially influential has been the eight-volume History of India as Told by its Own Historians, first published in 1849 and edited by Sir Henry M. Elliot, who oversaw the bulk of the translations, with the help of John Dowson. But Elliot, keen to contrast what he understood as the justice and efficiency of British rule with the cruelty and despotism of the Muslim rulers who had preceded that rule, was anything but sympathetic to the “Muhammadan” period of Indian history.
  • The superficiality and jejuneness of Elliot's remarks compels us to conclude that he could not, or would not, study with care the Persian historians he held in contempt.
    • Mohammad Habib, Politics and society during the early medieval period: Collected works of Professor Mohammad Habib, Volume 1, p. 7.
  • The Hindu feels it his duty to dislike those whom he has been taught to consider the enemy of his religion and his ancestors; the Mussalman, lured into the false belief that he was once a member of a ruling race, feels insufferably wronged by being relegated to the status of a minority community. Fools both! Even if the Muslims eight centuries ago were as bad as they were painted, would there be any sense in holding the present generation responsible for their deeds. It is but an imaginative tie that joins the modern Hindu with Harshavardhana or Asoka, or the modern Mussalman with Shihabuddin or Mahmud.
    • Mohammad Habib commenting on the consequences of the work by Elliot and Dowson in Politics and society during the early medieval period: collected works of Professor Mohammad Habib, Volume 1, p. 12
    • Quoted in Identity and Religion: Foundations of Anti-Islamism in India by Amalendu Misra; published by SAGE Publications, p. 210
  • To realize Medieval India there is no better way than to dive into the eight volumes of the priceless History of India as Told by its Own Historians which Sir H. M. Elliot conceived and beganot, and which Professor Dowson edited and completed with infinite labour and learning. It is a revelation of Indian life as seen through the eyes of the Persian court annalists. It is, however, a mine to be worked, not a consecutive history, and its wide leaps in chronology, its repetitions, recurrences, and omissions, render it no easy guide for general readers.
  • Elliot and Dowson's great work, in spite of a chorus of disparagement by some modern Indian historians, still holds the field even now for more than a hundred years, against any translations in Urdu or Hindi. Scholars are still learning from and working on Elliot's meritorious volumes...
    • Lal, K. S. (1992). The legacy of Muslim rule in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan. p. 54
  • The study of medieval Indian history in modem times may be said to have begun about a century ago when, in the eighteen-sixties, and under the patronage of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, the Indo-Persian chronicles of the medieval period began to be printed in the Bibliotheca Indica Series, and in 1867-77 appeared Elliot and Dowson’s History of India as Told by its Own Historians. Elliot’s work contained in eight fairly bulky volumes translations of extracts from most of the then known Persian chronicles, and soon became indispensable for the researcher on medieval history. The original Persian works were so eulogistic of the cruelties of Muslim conquerors and rulers that the great painstaking scholar Elliot and his followers were perforce constrained to be critical of medieval Indian rulers, and this school held the ground for quite some time.
    • Lal, K. S. (1992). The legacy of Muslim rule in India. New Delhi: Aditya Prakashan.
  • Elliot and Dowson state that religious bigotry was characteristic of the Indian past. They do confess that in presenting the translations from Persian and Arabic sources, their intention is to highlight the oppressive rule of Muslim kings. They state that the intolerance of the Mohammedans led to idols being mutilated, temples destroyed, forced conversions, confiscations, murders and massacres, not to mention the sensuality and drunkenness of tyrants. Such descriptions were intended to convince the Hindu subjects that British rule was far superior and to their advantage. This was not an isolated attitude and is reflected in many British writings on Indian history. Religious bigotry was frequently read into the texts translated in the nineteenth century, which coloured the reading of the Turko-Persian texts. For example, where Utbi says, ‘He (Mahmud) made it obligatory on himself to undertake every year an expedition to Hind,’ the translation of this passage in Elliot and Dowson’s work reads, ‘the Sultan vowed to undertake a holy war to Hind every year’.
    • Romila Thapar, Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History, Penguin Group, 2008, pp. 207-8.