From classical Indology to rigorous social science

Print edition : July 24, 2015

Hermann Kulke at the Bayon temple at Angkor, Cambodia, in 2012. The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII. Photo: By Special Arrangement

At a function with the Dikshitars after the presentation of his PhD thesis "CidambaramahatMya" at the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram, in 1970. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The Kulke couple at the 64 Yogini Temple at Hirapur near Bhubaneswar, Odisha, in 2010. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Interview with Hermann Kulke, Professor Emeritus of South and South-East Asian History in Kiel University, Germany.

PROFESSOR Hermann Kulke’s is arguably one of the most important names in the study of premodern Indian history. Born in 1938 in Berlin, he is currently Professor Emeritus of South and South-East Asian History at the Department of History, Kiel University, Germany, where he was professor from 1988 to 2005. After receiving his PhD in Indology from Freiburg University in 1967, he taught for 21 years at the South Asia Institute (SAI) of Heidelberg University. He was a founding member of the prestigious Orissa Research Project (ORP) of the German Research Council from 1970 to 1975, and was coordinator of the second ORP from 1999 to 2005.

One who began in the best traditions of classical German Indology, Professor Kulke brought to bear on his subject the rigour and discipline of social sciences. He also challenged boldly the two dominant models which sought to explain the “early medieval” in Indian history—those of Indian feudalism and segmentary state. Basing his generalisations largely in the specific context of Odisha, he put forward what is called the “The Processual Model of Integrative State Formation”. Besides this, Professor Kulke made significant interventions in the study of the so-called “Indianised states” of South-East Asia and also about the rise of the Vijayanagara state. He was a visiting professor at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar (1978-1979), the Asiatic Society, Kolkata (1986), and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi (1992). He was also the Fellow of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore (1987) and of the Asia Research Institute of the University of Singapore (2007). In 2005, he received the Gold Medal of the Asiatic Society of Kolkata. When the President of India decorated him with the title of Padma Shri in 2010, those who knew his work thought it was an honour that had come too late. The President of Germany awarded him the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2011.

Living in the sleepy village of Heikendorf in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, Professor Kulke is now engaged in preparing the sixth edition of History of India, which he wrote with Professor Deitmar Rothermund; the second edition of State in India, which Oxford University Press had published; and the second edition of Precolonial India: Issues and Debates, prepared in collaboration with Professor B.P. Sahu.

Professor Kesavan Veluthat of the University of Delhi talked with Professor Kulke extensively in Kiel and Heikendorf in the last week of April 2015. Excerpts from the interview:

Professor Kulke, let me first of all thank you for agreeing to spend some time for Frontline.

Let us begin from the beginning. You were trained in the best traditions of German Indology although you took it to greater heights and made it an authentic part of social sciences. Can you tell us something about German Indology itself—its beginnings, compulsions and achievements?

German Indology was a child of German romanticism and idealism of the early 19th century and, as a reaction to rationalism in the Age of Enlightenment, a search of a lost time and the origins of folk traditions and mythologies, which one expected to find in the harmonious combination of spiritualism and rationalism of Indian wisdom and philosophy by a scientific study of Sanskrit as the assumed origin of the Indo-European [“Indo-Germanic”] languages. Since 1818, when Wilhelm Schlegel became the first German professor of Indology at Bonn University, more and more professorships of Indology were established at German universities; in the late 20th century, about one and a half dozen, in comparison to four in Great Britain. The major foci of German Indology were linguistics, Vedic studies, philosophy and religious studies. The best known German Indologist in India is, of course, Max Mueller at Oxford University, who edited the monumental series Sacred Book of the East and, for the first time, the Rgveda. But it is less known that epigraphical studies, too, were a major emphasis of German Indology. Thus, the doyen of Indian epigraphy, D.C. Sircar, dedicated in 1965 his comprehensive Indian Epigraphy to three German Indologists [Georg Buehler, Lorenzo Franz Kielhorn, Eugen Hultzsch] and one British Indologist [John Faithfull Fleet]. When once I asked Prof. Sircar at his residence in Kolkata why he selected three Germans, he answered: “They were the greatest.” And he then told me that Hultzsch, the first chief epigraphist of the Archaeological Survey of India from 1886 to 1903, was so popular among his Indian colleagues that they called him “Mr H U and six consonants”. But despite its undeniable merits, German Indology of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has been contaminated by its contribution to the creation of the “Aryan Myth”, which became a major ideological prop of German fascism with all its racist madness.

How did you, first of all, get interested in India and Indian studies? Who among the German Indologists inspired you most? Did you have other sources of inspiration in Indian studies? And, did your inspiration derive also from the developments in social sciences in Germany and Europe at large, apart from Indian studies?

Initially in 1959, the major fields of my studies were medieval German history, sociology and political science. But soon I became interested in early Indian history and culture and began to study Sanskrit and Indology, which finally became my major subjects. Among the German Indologists, I was influenced, for example, by Heinrich Zimmer’s Indian Philosophy, Helmuth von Glasenapp’s study of Hinduism, Wilhelm Rau’s Vedic studies and Paul Hacker’s Purana studies. At this time, I was also strongly influenced by India’s dominant role in the so-called “Third World Movement”. My “paradigmatic shift” was influenced by a two-month stay in 1961 as a young tutorial assistant in a study project on a Buddhist vihara in Sri Lanka. The following one month, a third-class train trip through India was particularly seminal for me, a “tirtha yatra” [pilgrimage] to many places from Rameswaram, Madurai, Mahabalipuram [Mamallapuram], Kancheepuram, Badami, Ellora, Ajanta, Sanchi, Khajuraho, Varanasi and Agra, where I celebrated at the Taj Mahal my 23rd birthday on a night of a full moon, and finally Amritsar and Lahore. My tirtha yatra was completed by an exciting hitch-hike across the Khyber Pass.

Your first major work, published in 1970, is on Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. Most of the temple studies available at that time were either descriptive or hagiographical. How far do you think you have gone beyond that and how did you achieve it?

Since my tirtha yatra I became deeply interested in the social and political significance of religious institutions in India. Initially, under the impression of Ellora, Ajanta and Sanchi, I had been thinking of taking up a study of the sociopolitical causes of the decline of Buddhism in India. But finally, the unique temple cities gained the upper hand. My choice of Chidambaram was strongly influenced by Prof. V. Raghavan during my stay at Madras University in 1963. In my translation and text-critical study of the Cidambaramahatmya, I detected several originally separate layers of competing Vaishnava and Saiva groups of Chidambaram’s priesthood and a strong influence of the Cholas who worshipped Nataraja as their istadevata. I am thankful to my Indological “doctor father”, Prof. Ulrich Schneider at Freiburg University, for supporting this kind of “socio-Indological” studies, which were at that time still very unusual in traditional German Indology.


After this major study, you left the field of south India and started concentrating on Odisha and eastern India. What prompted you to make this shift, particularly when there was considerable potential in the history of south India—the kind of history you have been doing?

Your question is justifiable. The shift from Chidambaram and its Dikshitars to Puri was initially not easy for me, particularly after they had arranged for me in 1970 the great honour to present my PhD thesis, Cidambaramahatmya, personally to Nataraja [the presiding deity] at his Chitsabha [the sanctum sanctorum]. The German members of the two Orissa Research Projects [1970-1975 and 1999-2005] were even not allowed to enter the compound of the Jagannatha temple, and Prof. G.C. Tripathi and I handed over in 1979 the report of our first ORP, “The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa”, to the temple administrator of Puri. The major reason for the shift from south India to Odisha was that the initial idea of a three-month study tour of south Indian temple cities by the Department of Indology of Freiburg University was given up because of the lack of knowledge of Tamil. In 1970, the project in Odisha was initially planned as a short comparative study of the Saiva Lingaraja and the Vaishnava Jagannatha temple. But owing to its encouraging possibilities, the ORP soon developed into a full-fledged study of the cult of Jagannatha.

Your formulation on the cult of Jagannatha and its role in legitimising the political formation in Odisha under the Gajapatis has been seminal. It threw open potentials of looking at the process of state formation in a way different from what others have done. Here, will you elaborate a little on the way in which your perceptions differ from those of other scholars? In other words, how would you look at ideas of Indian feudalism, segmentary state, and so on?

The persistence of the Gajapati kingship ideology since the 12th century until today and its spread to the two dozen feudatory states of Odisha is indeed unique. It offers a wide spectrum of paradigmatic studies on the role of religion and legitimation in processes of state formation from tribal chieftaincies to subregional “little kingdoms” and “regional empires”. Since my study at Freiburg University in the 1960s, Max Weber’s concepts of legitimation and his analysis of the successive development stages from local patriarchal authority to extended patrimonial rule and to its large-scale expansion by the build-up and control of an extra-patrimonial administration were of particular relevance for me. These ideas were helpful during my discovery of and “confrontation” with the seemingly confusing but fascinating processes and facets of early state formation in Odisha.

My studies in Odisha have been deeply influenced by critical and beneficial dialogues with Indian colleagues about existing concepts of state formation. Soon, I came also under the influence of Indian feudalism and the segmentary state, the two dominant concepts of contemporary discourses in India. R.S. Sharma was the first to emphasise the important role of land donation to Brahmins and temples in processes of early state formation. But in the course of my studies in Odisha, it turned out that these donations caused processes of sociocultural and economic integration rather than feudal fragmentation of formerly centralised kingdoms. Burton Stein’s emphasis of the persistent existence of autonomous local nuclear areas [the nadus in south India] was another important epistemological tool for the analysis of basic structures of early states not only in south India but in Odisha, too. But the results of my studies in Odisha disproved Stein’s idea that royal authority remained confined only to ritual sovereignty, whereas the actual political control was firmly and persistently embedded only in these nuclear areas. Odisha’s Gajapati kingship ideology proved to be a successful ritual policy rather than a weak ritual sovereignty of a segmentary state.

As a result of my research in Odisha, I delineated, in collaboration with my Indian colleagues—Prof. B.D. Chattopadhyaya of JNU and Prof. B.P. Sahu of Delhi University—“The Processual Model of Integrative State Formation”. It depicts various processes of progressing state formation instead of the construction of an encompassing model of the state. Its major characteristic is the bottom-up perception of the state with a strong emphasis of its local and subregional ingredients in its final regional manifestation. The top-down discernment perceives instead subregional polities as weak tributary reflections or even fragments of the regional kingdom and neglects locally still existing social and cultural identities. With its regionally dominant tribal societies and the large number of subregional little kingdoms, the Garhjat [“castle-born”] Mahals and future “princely states”, Odisha offers an ideal arena for the study of the “processual model of integrative state formation”. It is paradigmatically reflected in the rise of powerful tribal thakuranis to istadevatas of the Garhjat Mahals and, finally, to Jagannatha, the rastradevata of the “imperial” Gajapati kings of Puri.

You have used madalapanji, mahatmya, vamsavali, etc., extensively. What do you have to say about the methodology using such material for historical reconstruction? And to what extent are they records of historical consciousness?

As a heritage of its late medieval and early modern history and culture, Odisha owns a considerable number of traditional accounts. But they are usually treated as stepchildren of anthropological and Indological studies as they represent neither the genuine local village culture nor the Brahmin-dominated elite culture, the respective favourite children of anthropologists and Indologists. Historians, too, avoid or even reject them entirely because of their peculiar blending of mythological, legendary and occasionally historical accounts. But we may arrive at a very different assessment if we appraise them as “melting pots” of the great all-Indian and the local “little” traditions. They depict hitherto neglected aspects of “localisation” of great traditions on the one hand and “trans-localisation” of local traditions on the other. They are of particular relevance for the study of subregional and regional history and identities and, as pointed out by Prof. Romila Thapar, they embody a vibrant historical consciousness.

Moreover, contrary to the general opinion, these anonymous traditional accounts, like for example the dynastic “royal” vamsavalis of the feudatory states of Odisha, contain important material for historical studies. In order to have access to this mythologically “embedded” material, we have to distinguish three successive layers of these texts, that is, a mythological, a legendary and a historical section with their own distinct significance and textual history. For a historical analysis, it is essential to date, if possible, the layers of these undated texts. If we succeed in dating them at least approximately, we are able to discover and extract hitherto unknown historical or semi-historical data from these texts and to correlate them with other historically dated sources. Apart from discovering hitherto unknown historical data in these traditional accounts, it is particularly revealing to detect the political-dynastic, social or religious circumstances of their composition. Traditional accounts often indicate political and religious contestation between rival social groups which are undocumented in Brahmanically redacted texts. They are instruments of influence and sociocultural domination and, rarely, means of rule. It is, therefore, of particular relevance to ask, who has written it for whom under which sociopolitical circumstances.

Madala Panji, Puri’s famous temple chronicle and dynastic history of Odisha, is a special case. As its date is still a matter of controversial debates, it had once been completely rejected as a genuine historical source. Traditional historians link its initial composition to the age of Chodaganga, the founder of the present Jagannatha temple in the 12th century. But more recently, I suggested that it was composed only in the late 16th century after the cult had been renewed by Ramachandra of Khurda after its destruction by the Afghan general Kalapahar in 1568. Its major intention was the verification of the uninterrupted existence of the Jagannatha cult and the legitimation of Ramachandra’s claim to be the heir apparent of Odisha’s erstwhile imperial Gajapatis. Its mythological section is significant for Odisha’s traditional historical consciousness and identity, whereas the semi-historical section of the post-Chodaganga age contains legendary but also important historical information. The third section of the 17th and 18th centuries is the most important indigenous historical source of this age. In all matters of these traditional accounts, I am thankful to my friends and colleagues in Odisha, particularly Prof. G.N. Dash, who has accompanied my studies with helpfully critical attention since 1970.


How would you look at the process of state formation in India as linked to the emergence of regions?

Regions emerged from their own dynamics and self-reinforcing tendencies of regional state formation. This development was the genuine subcontinental Indian process of state formation in post-Asokan and pre-Delhi Sultanate history, which was interrupted only by the north Indian Gupta empire. In fact, I regard the age of the great regional kingdoms and cultures as the culmination of Indian state formation as it granted its culturally prolific regions an equal share in the pan-Indian processes of state formation and cultural development. India’s proclaimed “unity in diversity” is based on the interlinked emergence of regional cultures.

The notion of integrative polity seems to have explanatory potential going beyond Odisha, particularly in regions where the institution of state is making its appearance for the first time. Do you think this will apply to all regions at all times, not just in the case of India?

Odisha played a significant role in the emergence of the processual model of integrative state formation. But it has other godparents, too, like Bengal and Rajasthan and has certainly good chances to be applied also to other regions of South Asia. Its applicability increases in areas where sources of the existence and involvement of tribal and post-tribal polities in processes of early state formation are still available. Odisha was, therefore, an ideal arena to develop the integrative concept. A major problem of other regions is that their histories have been and still are overshadowed by traditional dynastic histories which marginalise or even eliminate the historical existence of pre-state polities. The integrative concept has already been tentatively applied to processes of early state formation in South-East Asia. But its applicability to its great medieval kingdoms is constrained by their royal top-down foundation.

If a model can thus explain everything, will it not fail to account for specificities? Does it not lose its explanatory potential?

Models are epistemological tools that should never try to “explain everything”. R.S. Sharma was wise enough not to extend his feudalism model beyond 1300 C.E., whereas Burton Stein made the mistake [which he partly corrected] of applying his segmentary state model to south Indian history from the early Pallavas to Vijayanagara and thus even to the “imperial century” of Chola rule in the 11th century. The processual model, too, should not try to explain all aspects of early medieval state formation by integration. As has rightly been pointed out, tribal cults were not only integrated but sometimes also appropriated for royal legitimation. Models and their proponents should always be open to constructive critique, which was not always the case with all proponents of the concepts of Indian feudalism and the segmentary state.


After your considerable work on India, which finds its tour de force in “History of India” that you and Dietmar Rothermund wrote, you seem to have taken a keener interest in South-East Asia. Given the kind of new interest that the world of scholars has bestowed on South-East Asia, how would you look at your own intervention? Does the model that you have found successful in the case of India apply there as well?

My interest and studies in the south-east was from the very beginning strongly interrelated with my studies in south India and Odisha. Inspired by my studies on the “temple policy” of the Cholas in Chidambaram and Tanjavur, I took up in 1968 the study on the apotheosis of Hindu kingship in Angkor and its Devaraja cult. On the basis of my research on the Jagannatha cult in Odisha since 1970, I published a comprehensive article in 1974 in German and in 1978 at Cornell University, in which I contradicted the largely accepted perception that the kings of Angkor were deified as deva. But like the Gajapatis of Odisha and the Cholas, they were earthly representatives of Siva, who was the “King of the gods” [Devaraja]. On special occasions, the Devaraja was worshipped by a calanti pratima, like Lingaraja in Bhubaneswar. My successive studies on processual state formation, too, began explicitly with a comparative approach of India and South-East Asia with emphasis on Odisha and Java. These studies were reflected for the first time in 1986 at the National University of Australia in a paper, “The Early and the Imperial Kingdom in Southeast Asia History”. In the following years, this concept was further developed and it emerged finally in 1995, again under strong Odishan and south Indian influence, as the already introduced “processual model of integrative state formation in India”.

Moreover, the comparative study of processes of state formation on both sides of the Bay of Bengal provided the basis for my “convergence theory”, yet another concept strongly influenced by the history and culture of Tamil Nadu and Odisha. The spread of Indian culture to South-East Asia, the so-called Indianisation, was not the work of Indian princes who founded “Hindu Colonies in the Far East”, as assumed by Indian historians like R.C. Majumdar in the age of the Indian national Independence movement. It was the cultural convergence on both sides of the Bay of Bengal in mid-first millennium C.E. that made the model of early state formation in eastern and southern India attractive to local rulers of South-East Asia. They invited Brahmins as honoured and learned “development aid workers” to their courts, just as early south Indian local rulers had invited north Indian Brahmins. The emergence of temple architecture in South-East Asia, only few generations later than in southern and eastern India, is another example of cultural convergence in the context of early state formation on both sides of the Bay of Bengal.

How would you assess the state of knowledge in relation to premodern Indian history?

According to my assessment of the results of recent research on early or pre-colonial history of India, a historical and a historiographical issue comes to my mind:

(i) The emergence of regional statehood and the integrative mode of state formation were dominant historical development trajectories not only during the 600 years of the post-Gupta and pre-Delhi Sultanate age. Until the rise of the Mughals in mid-16th century, regional state formation continued to flourish even in the age of the Delhi Sultanate, for instance, under the Gajapatis of Odisha, in Vijayanagara in south India and in Mewar in Rajasthan.

(ii) According to the traditional tripartite periodisation of Ancient, Medieval and Modern History, the distinct age of the dominant regional kingdoms and their great regional cultures is still attributed to “Ancient India”. But this period has rightly been signified as an age sui generis by Prof. B.D. Chattopadhyaya in his seminal book The Making of Early Medieval India (1994). As “early medieval” has, meanwhile, widely been accepted, it would be only appropriate to designate the period of the Delhi Sultanate as “late medieval”, taking into consideration both its part continuity with the early medieval period and its new sociopolitical and military modes of temporary subcontinental rule. We may then go even a step further in re-conceptualising the periodisation of pre-colonial India and assign “Mughal India” not any longer to Medieval India but designate it as “Early Modern”. In this case, too, we will have to take into consideration continuity and change. Continuity with the Delhi Sultanate, particularly under its last Sur dynasty, and with regional state formation in Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu under the Nayaks and the rise of the Marathas. Change not only in view of the intrusion of early European colonial states but particularly with regard to the new “early modern” imperial administration of the Mughals as a major prerequisite of the “modern” British Raj in India since mid-18th century.

Select Bibliography

Kulke, H. (1970): Cidambaramahatmya (German, PhD thesis), Wiesbaden.

Eschmann, A., H. Kulke and G.C. Tripathi, eds (2014) (1st 1978): The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa, enlarged 2nd edition, Delhi.

Kulke, H. (1978): The Devaraja Cult, New York: Cornell University.

Kulke, H. (1979): Jagannath Cult and Gajapati Kingship (German, DLitt thesis), Stuttgart.

Kulke, H. and D. Rothermund (2010) (German, 1982): A History of India, 5th English edition, London.

Kulke, H. (1986): “The Early and the Imperial Kingdom in Southeast Asian History”, in D.G. Marr and A.C. Milner (eds), Southeast Asia in the 9th to 14th Centuries, Singapore.

Kulke, H. (1991): “Epigraphical References to the ‘City’ and the ‘State’ in Early Indonesia”, Indonesia, Vol 52, October, pp 3-22.

Kulke, H. (1993): Kings and Cults: State Formation and Legitimation in India and Southeast Asia, Delhi.

Kulke, H., ed. (1993) (Tamil translation, Delhi, 2011): The State in India 1000-1700, Delhi.

Kulke, H., ed. (2009): Nagapattinam to Suvarnadwipa: Reflections on the Chola Naval Expeditions to Southeast Asia, Singapore.

Kulke, H., ed. (2010): Rituals and the State in India, Wiesbaden.

Kulke, H. (2011): “The Early and the Imperial Kingdom: A Processual Model of Integrative State Formation in Early Medieval India” in U. Singh (ed.), Rethinking Early Medieval India: A Reader”, Delhi.

Kulke, H. et al., eds (2011): Centres out There?: Facets of Subregional Identities in Orissa, Delhi.

Kulke, H. et al., eds (2013): Imaging Odisha, 2 volumes, Jagatsinghpur.

Kulke, H. (2014): “From Ashoka to Jayavarman VII: Some Reflections on the Relationship between Buddhism and the State in India and Southeast Asia” in Tansen Sen (ed.), Buddhism Across Asia: Networks of Material, Intellectual and Cultural Exchange”, Singapore.

Kulke, H. (2004): “The Concept of Cultural Convergence Revisited: Reflections on India’s Early Influence in Southeast Asia” in U. Singh and P. Dhar (eds), Asian Encounters: Exploring Connected Histories”, Delhi.

Kulke, H. (1914): “State Formation and Social Integration in Pre-Islamic South and Southeast Asia”, in N. Karashima (ed.), A Comparative Study of Asian Society, Tokyo.

Kulke, H. and B.P. Sahu, eds (2014): Interrogating Political Systems: Integrative Processes and the States in Premodern India”, Delhi.

Kulke, H. (German, 2005), B.P. Sahu, ed. (revised English, in print): History of Pre-colonial India: Issues and Debates, Delhi.

Kulke, H. (in print): Angkor, Munich.

My special thanks go to my students and colleagues.