Once Upon a Time in the East

The tangled histories that have shaped today’s great eastern metropolises

01 May 2013

SPEAKING AT the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Mid-Century Convocation in March 1949, Winston Churchill argued that, though war appeared likely to break out between the communist bloc and Western European nations, it was far from inevitable. He reminded the audience that:

Four or five hundred years ago Europe seemed about to be conquered by the Mongols. Two great battles were fought almost on the same day near Vienna and in Poland. In both of these the chivalry and armed power of Europe was completely shattered by the Asiatic hordes. It seemed that nothing could avert the doom of the famous Continent from which modern civilisation and culture have spread throughout the world. But at the critical moment the Great Khan died. The succession was vacant, and the Mongol armies and their leaders trooped back on their ponies across the seven thousand miles which separated them from their capital in order to choose a successor. They never returned till now.

Though they did not return, the Asiatic hordes menaced Europe’s imagination for centuries. The barbarians were perpetually at the gates, threatening the cultural as well as ethnic purity of the continent. Nazi propagandists used the phrase “asiatischen Horden” for the Red Army, on the basis, presumably, that Russia had in the past been ruled by Mongols. The word ‘horde’ originates in ‘ordu’, the Turkic and Mongol term for army camp, but ‘Asiatic hordes’, which has equivalents in most major European languages (‘hordes asiatiques’ in French, ‘hordas asiáticas’ in Spanish), eventually came to represent any perceived Eastern threat, whether from invaders or migrants.

Girish Shahane studied English literature in Mumbai and Oxford, but now writes mainly about visual art. He is adviser to the Skoda Prize for Contemporary Art.

Keywords: Mumbai development colonialism architecture modernity minorities East-West