The early Indian past

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A comprehensive, lavishly illustrated overview of Indian history from the beginnings

R. Champakalakshmi

A HISTORY OF ANCIENT AND EARLY MEDIEVAL INDIA — From the Stone Age to the 12th Century: Upinder Singh; Pearson-Longman, 482, FIE, Patparganj, Delhi-110092. Rs. 3500.

This is a voluminous text book. It covers a long span of Indian history from the Stone Age to the 12th century, a comprehensive range of issues and regions of the Indian subcontinent. It may well prove to be an introduction and guide to all initiates to the study of Indian history. Its production is of a high quality, printed in art paper from cover to cover, accompanied by excellent photographs and useful maps, sketches and diagrams, which makes it a lavish project. Priced prohibitively high at Rs. 3500, it is out of reach even for teachers, not to speak of students. Its purchase is likely to be limited to libraries or the very rich. Its unusual format consists of not only a narrative text, but boxed information from original sources and research works, and on key concepts, which the students will find instructive. The author has presented an exhaustive and reader friendly narrative by bringing together information from the pioneering works up to the most recent research, in fact summarising and even quoting from many of the recent books which are of high standards of research, interpretation and analysis. The website for further references and reading makes a supplement to the narrative. The list of further readings is impressive.


Titled “A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century”, it follows the standard periodisation, which has evolved over the last four decades: Pre-Historic, Harappan (Chalcolithic), Vedic and Post-Vedic, Early Historic and Early Medieval periods. Using, however, a different terminology for the chapters, the author creates great expectations through catchy titles (for example “Cities, Kings and Renunciants: North India 600-300 BCE”, “Power and Piety: The Maurya Empire C. 324-187 BCE.” and “Interaction and Innovation 200 BCE-300 CE”) tracing Indian history from the tribal Hunting-Gathering, Food Producing—Pastoral and Agricultural—stages of the Pre-historic and Proto-historic periods to the evolution of state societies and emergence of larger polities in the subcontinent in the early historical period, continuing to regional polities in the early medieval period. Due attention is paid to regional histories, especially South India and sources in regional languages (in translation).

The other chapters start with political history, while the processes that led to the development of society, economy and polity, religion and culture, are treated in separate sections within a region-wise division. The regions under which the various themes are discussed follow the same pattern, notwithstanding the possible overlaps and changes in the configurations of different archaeological cultures and trajectories of regional histories. This creates a problem in presenting a single site like Atranjikhera, which has an archaeological stratification over a long period (as other sites also do) — from the Late Harappan to the Early Historic — (from village to town) by splitting the evidence in different archaeological strata under different chapters dealing with the author’s thematic titles. This may be confusing even for the mature student and may lead to a failure to understand historical processes reflected in the site’s archaeological strata over the centuries.

Parallel images

Upinder Singh says that there are currently (?) two parallel images of ancient South Asia, one based on literary sources and the other on archaeology, a statement that is not in keeping with the way in which history has been presented so far. The author’s own narrative discusses textual and archaeological (and epigraphic) sources separately, showing the author’s reluctance to accept attempts to correlate them, although such attempts are necessary and have been meaningful in many contexts, despite the varying degree of reliability and nature of the sources. The example of the well-known text on polity, the Arthasastra, is cited by the author herself as an important text for the Mauryan period (in spite of it being dated to later period by many historians), on the basis that both the archaeological/epigraphic evidence and the text project a powerful state.

Presenting the viewpoints and interpretations of different scholars, Singh criticises Romila Thapar’s view that the decline of the Mauryas was due to economic factors (the Mauryans were unable to restructure the economies of the core and peripheral areas) as anachronistic. This would be valid only if a viable alternative is suggested by the author, instead of saying that “such things we should not generally expect to find in ancient states” and that “explanations have to be very general.” In the same manner Shereen Ratnagar’s explanation of the decline of the Harappan Civilisation as due mainly to the decline of trade is rejected and again the author has little to offer as an alternative argument.

Marxist historiography is described as text centric and as following a unilinear historical model. Hence the views of R.S. Sharma on the prevalence of feudalism in early medieval India are predictably rejected. While critiques are legitimate in academic research, the author would have done well to put forth an alternative theory and/or interpretation of the agrarian organisation and state societies. The author merely presents differing views of other scholars, such as the theory of the Segmentary State and the Integrative State models of Burton Stein and H.Kulke and B.D.Chattopadhyaya, whose works have questioned political breakdown in the early medieval period marked by an intensive process of state formation at the regional and sub-regional level. How they have taken the discussion forward, if she thinks they have, is not indicated. The nature of the Brahmadeya and its ramifications are not clearly understood especially the significance of Taniyur, as also the Pallava kottam, a pastoral-cum agricultural unit.

Trade and urbanism

“Patterns of urbanism” in each chapter summarises the recent studies on trade and urbanisation discussing the growth of cities and trade, regional and long distance, and guild activities. A compilation of different types of information on trade and traders is provided, as for example, from a 11th century Jain work on the ethical code of merchants without discussing what might be of wider interest in this code.

The author’s approach is nowhere clearly stated. If one assumes that it is an integrated and inter-disciplinary approach, it is hard to explain why each chapter starting legitimately with political history, has to isolate all other social, economic and cultural processes under different sections following the same pattern of spatial (regions) presentation and thematic divisions such as rural society, patterns of urbanism, state and administrative structures, religion, art and architecture.

Singh underlines the need for a thorough investigation of the different strands of religious thought and practice in their own right, as they are important areas in history. A section on religion in every chapter briefly surveys the various religions of India with the aim of looking at the history of religions beyond the framework of “isms” (whatever that may mean) and the idea of conversion. Even the Tantric forms in Buddhism and Brahmanical religions are mentioned, but there is a puzzling omission of the Agama, the canon which is crucial to Puranic religion and the temple, the mainstream religion.

Religion and history

The statement that religious studies are marginal to mainstream historical writing in India and that there is a tendency to treat religious cults and traditions primarily as ideologies reflecting social and political power structures of the time (the Marxist view) ignores the enormous research output on the development of religion in India and the multiple or pluralistic traditions that constitute what is called Hinduism, apart from the Buddhist and the Jain. One of the ways in which religion has made its impact is in the realm of ideology, which is essentially used as a legitimising and integrative force in various contexts, especially in state formation. The link between the Buddhist monastery and the merchant guilds in early historical trade, the Brahmanical temple and the agrarian and urban geography of South India as also the state synthesis under regional dynasties are the main focus of recent studies. The political rationale behind the propagation of Dhamma by Asoka has also been explained, although as many have said, there is undoubtedly a Buddhist core in his inscriptions. Among the multiple means adopted for legitimacy of royal power, religion has a major role to play in all ancient and medieval societies. While it is true that the Bhakti movement questioned social hierarchy, it also provided a dominant ideology for the Chola state.

In the sections on society Singh points out that the subordinated and marginalised groups, labouring groups and tribal communities have been neglected in the study of social history, as also women and gender issues. The four fold Varna is interpreted as hereditary classes(?), while it is also suggested that it is better to leave Varna untranslated while Jati is more relevant especially in view of the crystallisation of occupational groups into castes (Kayasthas).

Descriptive accounts of art and architecture, literary forms, medicine, astronomy — the stock themes of text books — are given in the relevant chapters, but one wishes that the links with political and social history are shown.

A publication of such a high technical standard, should be free of errors. Some have crept in. In the Map 10.5, Uraiyur is wrongly located on the Tamraparni and not on the Kaveri.

The reading of the name Bindusara in a Sanchi inscription is incorrect and the long used routes from Pune to Kanchipuram and from Goa to Tanjavur-Nagappattinam mentioned by the author are hardly assignable to the early medieval period.

The book covers a long span of the Indian past, but in explaining historical processes we are given much data but less of its readings. As a text book it will doubtless be useful to the under graduates.



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