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Purnima Dhavan

Associate Professor
Director of Graduate Studies
Howard and Frances Keller Endowed Professor in History
Professor Purnima Dhavan

Contact Information

(206) 616-5298
SMI 206D


Ph.D. University of Virginia, Charlottesville, January 2003

My research interests encompass the social and cultural history of early modern South Asia, 1500-1800. The ways in which religious, linguistic, and status identities shaped the political and cultural institutions of the Mughal period is central to my work. My undergraduate teaching ranges from classes in South Asian history, the History of Medieval and Mughal India, to classes in Environmental History. In the past I have also offered graduate level classes on the interdisciplinary study of South Asia, Comparative Islam, and Historiography. As an early modernist who works with literary and visual sources, my work is interdisciplinary, and as a result I have welcomed the opportunity to work with colleagues in other disciplines. I have an adjunct affiliation with the Near Eastern Languages and Civilization Department (URL: and also am a member of the faculty at the South Asia Center in the Jackson School of International Studies (URL:

My first book, When Sparrows Became Hawks: the Making of Khalsa Martial Tradition examined the extraordinary transformation of North Indian peasants into high-status warriors as they became members of the Sikh warrior order, the Khalsa. My analysis of underutilized Persian and Punjabi sources demonstrated that the shaping of new social identities, such as that of the Sikh warrior, could not be understood solely through an economic analysis of the rise of peasant soldiers, or through a study of the religious beliefs of Sikhs. The political and economic aspirations of individual Sikhs had a profound effect on the diverse Sikh communities, as well as the lives of their rivals and neighbors. The conflicts and debates sparked by the dramatic social mobility of the eighteenth century fueled a wider military conflict with regional rivals in North India. But just as importantly, violent clashes between these groups also led to attempts to create some common ground between feuding parties. New alliances were negotiated, and Sikh warriors also became receptive to adapting their own practices to the dominant values of other elite warrior communities. Social conflict and rupture has always been fodder for historians, but the processes by which communities negotiate alliances that resolve conflict are less well studied. An important contribution of my book is a detailed analysis of such processes, and particularly the role of cultural innovation, including new ceremonies, public displays, and the shaping of new imagined worlds in these reconciliations.


Courses Taught

Graduate Study Areas

Division: Asia--Pre-History to the Present

Graduate students preparing a field in the history of South Asia 1200-1800 will be expected to gain a broad familiarity with the history of the Sultanate and Mughal period in addition to the histories of various regional dynasties. The social, cultural, and political history of the period is emphasized and includes state formation and the emergence and transformation of caste and ethnic identity, religious traditions, warrior and peasant cultures, trading networks, and intellectual traditions.

Students will create a specialized course of study in consultation with the professor. Proficiency in one South Asian language and/or Persian is required for students who wish to pursue a primary specialization in this field. Students who select this as a secondary field need not have knowledge of a South Asian language.

Division: Comparative History (Historiography & Comparative Gender)*

Students preparing a field in Historiography will study the impact of modern historical theories and methodologies on our understanding of early modern South Asian history including nationalist, feminist, marxist, and subaltern modes of analysis. The course of study in the field will also explore oral traditions, mythological concepts of time, memory and history in textual sources and art from the early modern period.

A field in Comparative Gender in South Asia from 1200-1800 will examine the construction of gender in early modern South Asia and its specific interactions with caste, social class, and ethnicity. Readings will focus on the construction of gender in courtly, warrior, ascetic, and mystical traditions in the early modern period as well as the considerable body of theoretical and methodological debates about the history of gender put forward by modern scholars.

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