Purnima Dhavan

  • Associate Professor, Director of Graduate Studies
  • Howard and Frances Keller Endowed Professor in History

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

Fields: South Asia
Phone: 206-616-5298
Office: SMI 206D |
Curriculum Vitae:

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: http://depts.washington.edu/nelc/) and also am a member of the faculty at the South Asia Center in the Jackson School of International Studies (URL: http://jsis.washington.edu/soasia/).

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.

My second book project, The Lords of the Pen Write Back: Literary Self-Fashioning in Early Mughal India, examines the literary activities of poets in emerging urban centers of the Mughal Empire to understand how participation in literary associations shaped understandings of caste, gender, and religious identity. Brave New Worlds also engages with larger questions of how notions of the “public” and “public good” emerged in different parts of the world. Unlike Europe, South Asia did not have an active print culture until the late nineteenth century, and this has fueled considerable debate about the presence or absence of a public sphere in South Asia prior to the colonial period. There is considerable evidence, however, of the common circulation of ideas of public good, governmental ethics, and civic sense that emerges in sources from the period. Thus, looking at the memoirs, correspondence, and anthologies of poets from this period, it is possible to trace how such ideas circulated in both oral and written texts.

List of Courses Taught:

HSTAS 202: Introduction to South Asian History

HSTCMP 121: Global Environmental History

HSTAS 402: History of Medieval and Mughal South Asia

HSTAS 502/JSIS 510: Topics in South Asian History/ Interdisciplinary Study of South Asia


“Warriors and peasants in Mughal-era Punjab,”The Oxford Handbook of Mughal Studies, ed. Ramya Sreenivasan and Richard Eaton, Oxford University Press, in press.


“Sikh Darbars” for Brill Encyclopedia of Sikhsim, Vol. 1: History, Religion Society Beyond Punjab ed. Gurrinder Singh Mann, Knutt A Jacobsen, Eleanor Nesbitt, Krystina Myrvold. Leiden, Brill 2017.


“Sikhism in the Eighteenth Century,” in Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies. ed. by Pashaura Singh and Louis F. Fenech. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.


When Sparrows Became Hawks: The Making of Khalsa Martial Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011


“On the Possibilities of Ideographic Analysis: Gu Yanwu’s Disquisition Applied to Mughal History,” Fragments: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Ancient and Medieval Pasts, Vol. 1, issue 1, (May 2011).


“Tracing Gender in the Myths and Practices of the Eighteenth-Century Khalsa” in Sikhism and Women:  History, Text and Experience, ed. Doris Jakobsh. New Delhi:  Oxford University Press, 2010


Reading the Texture of History and Memory in Early Nineteenth-Century Punjab,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, Vol. 29, Issue 3, (2009).


“Ram Sukh Rao’s Jassa Singh Binod:  A Novel Approach to Writing a Sikh History,” in Patronage and Popularisation, Pilgrimage and Procession: Channels of Transcultural Translation and Transmission in Early Modern South Asia, edited by Heidi Pauwels (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2009)


“Redemptive Pasts and Imperiled Futures:  The Writing of a Sikh History,” Sikh Formations:  Religion, Culture, Theory, Vol. 3, Issue 2 (2007): 111-124. (Reprinted in edited volume Time, History, and the Religious Imaginary in South Asia, ed. Anne Murphy. London: Routledge, 2011.



Purnima Dhavan and Heidi Pauwels, “Controversies surrounding the reception of Valī “Dakhanī” (1665?-1707?) in Early Tazkirahs of Urdu Poets,”Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 25 (4) (2015): 625-646.