Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Romila Thapar and the history of India

I had twice started Romila Thapar’s Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300 with the hope of reading the book from cover to cover. Both times I abandoned the book early. Partly because I realized that the history of the Indian subcontinent is not something that can be consumed whole at one go, but mostly because Thapar’s is a very dry history: paragraph after paragraph with valuable information drifts dully by; there are no pictures to aid the reader; and the maps, all of them lumped at the end of the book, are not well tied to the text.

But despite all this, Thapar’s scholarship, the depth and reach of her knowledge shine through. There are many who rant against her – one only has to read through the reviews on Amazon of her book to get a sense of the grudges, most of which are of the political kind. And Thapar can’t be absolved of the charge of promoting her own motives either; the first chapter of her book, Perceptions of the Past, is overtly political.

But since it is the sort of book with too much good information to ignore, I found myself drawn again to it a few weeks ago. I decided to be deliberately unsystematic this time: I skipped chapters and boring passages, and read only sections that interested me. It has worked better. I’ve realized that there are surges and ebbs in Thapar’s writing. And I've stumbled on some good portions -- portions I'd missed on my prior attempts -- where she’s been able to recreate the mood and sensibilities of a very long time ago, and point to broader patterns.

Her detailed descriptions of the one of the important periods of Indian history, the time from 5th-2nd century BC, are particularly informative. It was at this time that almost all of the subcontinent was first brought together under a single empire by the Mauryans. Later empires would attempt to do the same; but it was only fifteen hundred years later that the Mughals managed to reunite a large swathe of the subcontinent.

It was also around 5th century BC that villages and small settlements began to coalesce into cities, which led to many social changes. Jainism and Buddhism and other counter-cultural movements emerged and challenged Vedic Brahmanism. The cities of Magadha and Pataliputra on the Ganges plain rose to eminence. Alexander reached the northwestern part of the subcontinent and replaced Persian rule with that of the Greeks; the Mauryans later took over the region. And it was in the intellectual climate caused by this constant shifting of empires and commingling of cultures that the city of Takshashila or Taxila prospered as a major center of learning.

And, of course, a mention of the Mauryans cannot be complete without a mention of Ashoka, whose earnest efforts at maintaining an “ethical” empire – I use the word ethical here as a loose substitute for the Prakrit Dhamma or the Sanskrit Dharma – are evident in the many edicts he left in the far-flung parts of the subcontinent.

Thapar brings together all these disparate elements well. There are a few light moments too: in the excerpt below Thapar writes of how the views 0f Greek historians and philosophers might have contributed to later ideas of India as a fantastic, exotic place.
“The Greek accounts [of India] remain a curious mixture of fact and fable, as much a comment on the Greek view of the world as an attempt to describe Indians. Greater familiarity with India in the ensuing centuries corrected some of their more incredible stories, but the attraction of the exotic could not be suppressed. The play on fantasies and marvels is of interest for what they perceived of India, but it also contributed to imprinting the idea of India with the mythical and the extraordinary in the mind of Europe over the centuries.”
Here’s an example of what Thapar is referring to – this is a description of India by Strabo, a Greek historian and philosopher:
“…there were men said to be ten feet tall and six feet wide some of whom have no nose but only two orifices above the mouth through which they breathe. Some were brought to court who had no mouths…they dwell near the source of the Ganges and subsist on perfumes and the savour of roasted flesh. Some had earrings reaching down to their feet and they could sleep in them. And then there were ants that dug up gold and left it on the surface so it could be picked up.”
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Finally, to close this post, here is the link to an article that discusses the political tensions that underlie Thapar's history writing. And here is an interview of Thapar from Rediff. Thapar's intentions have been questioned and her Marxist leanings targeted for some time now: here is the petition against her appointment as the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at the Library of Congress in the United States. Wikipedia's entry on the controversial Aryan Invasion Theory is here.

Even a cursory reading of these pieces reveals just how vicious the debate on Indian history is.

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