Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley Electronic Theses and Dissertations bannerUC Berkeley

Intersected Communities: Urban Histories of Rajasthan, c. 1500 - 1800



Intersected Communities: Urban Histories of Rajasthan, c. 1500 – 1800


Elizabeth M. Thelen

Doctor of Philosophy in History

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Munis D. Faruqui, Co-chair

Professor Jonathan Sheehan, Co-chair

“Intersected Communities” argues that religious institutions, particularly Sufi shrines and Hindu temples, formed crucial links between local residents and state administration in urban centers in Rajasthan between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Because of these links and the significant patronage they received, religious institutions contributed to the resilience of cities and towns in the face of rapid political change and instability while simultaneously rearranging the stakes of local social conflict. However, despite their importance to urban society, religious institutions did little to either promote or prevent conflict between Hindus and Muslims. Rather, regular minor conflicts between neighboring caste or clan-based communities and practices of residential segregation diffused tensions. The dissertation traces these developments through a study of three urban centers in Rajasthan, namely Ajmer, Pushkar, and Nagaur.

Patronage built strong ties between urban religious institutions and regional and imperial political formations. Through these ties, transregional political changes reshaped sections of local society. Mughal, Rajput, and Maratha rulers all offered patronage to both Hindu and Muslim sacred sites in Rajasthan. This patronage reshaped the political and social worlds of Ajmer and Pushkar. Significant Mughal patronage of Ajmer and the dargah of Mu‘in al-Din Chishti between the mid-sixteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century promulgated the idea of Ajmer as a center of Mughal power in Rajasthan. The identification of Ajmer with the Mughals meant that as Mughal authority over Rajasthan waned in the eighteenth century, both Rajput and Maratha leaders were intent on gaining control over Ajmer and supplanting the Mughals as patrons. Patronage often became a proxy for political conflicts and etched divisions in the communities of religious specialists in Ajmer and Pushkar that reflected the political conflicts occurring across Rajasthan. At the same time, hereditary communities of shrine attendants and religious specialists known as Pirzadas pursued multiple strategies to attract and retain patronage across successive political regimes. One set of strategies focused on the control of lineage and community narratives, while a second set of strategies sought access to political information. Through these strategies, the Pirzadas constituted themselves as a community of Muslim elites with deep political ties, religious authority, and extensive economic resources.

In eighteenth-century Nagaur, inter-community conflicts occurred relatively rarely because of pervasive community segregation, but when they did occur, they broke out over public spaces and shared resources. An analysis of intercommunity conflicts reveals that inter-community conflict occurred between closely associated communities who competed with each other for resources and


social prestige. Artisan castes fought over the use of water tanks, while Holi conflicts broke out between merchant communities. Although these fights and disputes sometimes used religious rhetoric or forms, this was uncommon and mostly occurred between Hindu and Jain merchant groups. Hindu-Muslim conflicts were rare because these communities were not usually socially or physically proximate groups. Property transactions and the logic of neighborhoods supported caste and religious segregation that minimized intercommunity conflict. Communities attempted to enforce uniformity in the construction of neighborhoods to signal shared status and made efforts to create social uniformity in neighborhoods by excluding certain groups. They invoked moral bounds on economic transactions that limited who could hold mortgages, rent, or live in a given property. However, it took constant effort to create and maintain social segregation. This was especially the case in the face of mobile populations who fled due to famine and war, such as the 1754-55 siege of Nagaur, and who might be replaced by the in-migration of ascending social groups.

Together, these chapters demonstrate the complex and sometimes contradictory ways that religion intersected with the political, economic, and social realms of premodern South Asia. This dissertation extends the insights of recent scholarship that carefully reads elite religious identities and the practices of religious and community boundaries beyond the elites to show that inter-religious conflict was far less common between non-elites. Second, in examining the role of networks in promoting urban stability and the impact of regional and transregional events on local society, it highlights the critical role of religious institutions in both processes. Lastly, it proposes that claims to custom and tradition could be effective drivers of change and draws attention to the nature of custom as a contested and flexible category in Rajasthan in the precolonial period.

Main Content
For improved accessibility of PDF content, download the file to your device.
Current View