Many voices of history

Romila Thapar: Respect me for my work. Photo: R.Ragu   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

An internationally acclaimed historian, Dr. Romila Thapar has used the Western historical analytical method to give a new approach to social history. Professor Thapar earned her doctorate in Ancient Indian History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and is Professor Emerita at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Delhi. Among the many distinguished caps she has worn are Visiting Professor at Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania, and the College de France in Paris. She is also the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South instituted by the Library of Congress, US. Her well-known books include Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Ancient Indian Social History and A History of India. Excerpts from an interview during a recent visit to Chennai:

You are a pioneer woman historian who has given a social interpretation to ancient Indian history. What is your particular interest in being a social historian?

Well it's a case of giving an emphasis where it's due. When I trained to be a historian the major thrust was on political and dynastic history, but there were historians exploring social history. That was when I started working on Ashoka Maurya.

My fundamental interest was to see how a particular kind of ruler emerges at a particular time. So it meant looking at the historical context and trying to understand how his thoughts and actions relate to that context. And fortunately he issued many edicts which tell us about his personal predilections and the social context in which he was functioning.

Social history really takes a broader view than just dynastic and chronological history and attempts to analyse the social mainsprings of historical events.

Today, environmental history or understanding history through environmental change, is gaining ground. Have you built it into your work?

Environmental history is being researched in a much bigger way than before. This is apparent in discussions on the decline of Harappan cities. What caused the decline? Today we know that invasions and conquest are very often really quite marginal. More likely factors could be deforestation, possible changes in climate at that time, changes in sea level and the silting up of settlements, flooding, changing river courses like that of the Satlej or the disappearance of the Hakra, and the proximity of settlements to particular ecologies.

I wrote a paper called “Perceiving the Forest' where I've tried to look at the way people observed and wrote about the forest at different times, and to see how over time it changes. It starts off as the wilderness which is the unknown, and full of demons, the unexpected, feared. And then slowly it changes with settlements and with routes cutting through it, and gradually the forest is not feared, and becomes a part of the cultural scene.

We were a civilisational superpower in ancient times. We gave the world its first poetry, the zero, astronomical calculations .... Do you think we have the essence of civilisation?

I have a different take on civilizations. It is convenient to be an Arnold Toynbee and count 26 or so or to be a Samuel Hutchison who cheerfully counts eight. But this is unreal. My understanding of a civilisation is not the understanding of the 19th century, which packaged a civilisation within a limited bounded territory, speaking one language and supporting one religion: in the case of India it was the subcontinent, largely defined in terms of British India, speaking Sanskrit, and its religion was Hinduism. And that defined Indian civilisation and our contribution to the world.

Today we have problems with such definitions. Territorial boundaries kept fluctuating all the time. Languages develop, expand, become sub-languages or incorporate languages. We don't know what language the Harappans spoke. Subsequently, the most widely used language was Prakrit up to the early centuries AD and later was replaced by Sanskrit in northern India. Still later the regional languages came into use. In the south an early form of Tamil was current from the start and then the regional languages. To argue that there was always a single language is historically problematic.

Religion too had multiple forms and contradictory beliefs in many manifestations, sects, cults and the absence of a single dominant monolithic religion. Vedic Brahmanism, accessible to the few, yielded place to Puranic Hinduism and both were distanced from Buddhism and Jainism which had substantial followings.

The point of course is that civilisations could only rise out of interaction and exchange. They were essentially porous with indefinable contours. Boundaries were not inviolate and absolute. In fact I have argued that civilisations of the 19th century variety were cut across in the late first millennium AD. People were constantly travelling to and fro and migrating and exchanging goods, ideas, and forms of knowledge, such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, even bits of astrology, and all of these grew out of exchange. The circuit of trade contacts ran from Tunis via the Red Sea and south Asia onto Canton.

For me a civilisation is essentially an area which is conducive to the coming in and co-mingling of people and ideas, and the emergence thereby of new ideas.

You have written a specialised book on Somnath, which is in a sense an emotive subject, a symbol of Hindu India. When Lord Elgin brought back the gates of the Somnath Temple he said “I won it for the Hindus”. What made you write the book?

Well, it started with my thinking of how Somnath become a sacred place. I decided to trace its history from its beginnings to the present. I discovered that Sanskrit and Persian sources had been consulted by earlier historians but in a restrictive way.

We had adopted James Mills' periodisation of the Hindu Period with its Sanskrit sources, the Muslim period with its Persian sources, and the British period with its English sources; therefore the sources consulted were limited by this periodisation.

So Sanskrit sources were consulted up to AD 1200 and then historians dropped using Sanskrit sources and switched to Persian sources since this was now the Muslim period!

Yet the more interesting Sanskrit sources such as lengthy inscriptions and the Jaina histories relating to Somnath continued to be written in Sanskrit. So a whole chunk of history was omitted because of not using Sanskrit sources after AD 1200. This was a case of the preconceptions of periodisation thwarting historical investigation.

The importance of Somnath begins around the 10th century AD and continues. Instead of switching only to Persian sources I continued to consult Sanskrit sources moving forward in time and these provided a new dimension.

Inscriptions referred to Arab traders being given land from the estates of the Somnath temple to build a mosque by a local Hindu raja; and other inscriptions mention the trade by temple authorities with the Arab traders.

There was one very touching inscription: a memorial to a Bohra of Arab descent living in Somnath, who died defending Somnath against the attacks of the Delhi Sultan. I began to see that this was clearly a mixed population and their religious emotions were also closely intertwined. It would seem that the Persian chronicles were not reflecting the reality.

And then the British come in and read the Persian chronicles and speak of antagonism, and exaggerate it through their policies. Elgin wanted the British army to bring back the so-called gates of Somnath at Ghazni, supposedly carried away by Mahmud.

But when they were brought they turned out to be gates from Egypt and had nothing to do with Somnath. And I was just fascinated by the fact that different groups of people that had different interests in that one place, either played off these interests against each other or supported each other.

It's a very complex story, and quite different from the monochrome mythology of the rath-yatras of recent times, which is why the subtitle of the book is The Many Voices of History

It has been said that “We had a white revolution, we had a green revolution and now we have a greed revolution”. What do you think of corruption as a historical phenomenon? And in the context of India today?

Well, I think that corruption is something that has existed from the beginning of history. In the sense that there are always some people who want more, as is explained so cogently in Buddhist texts. And if you can somehow get more, which makes you powerful, then you continue to chase by every means. This domination and subordination of groups has existed in every society all over the world.

Kautilya says, in the context of officers collecting revenue, that if you place honey on someone's tongue the person is bound to taste it. The resentment against present day corruption is its magnitude and its omnipresence. The citizen has absolutely no resort to getting anything done without conceding to a corrupt practice of some sort.

When corruption becomes so rampant, we must recognise that we are living in a society which is founded on immorality and an absence of ethics. This is not what makes for a civilisation.

Why did you turn down the Padma Bhushan?

My reasons are very simple. I think that we — in our contemporary society and culture — do not respect the academic profession, nor do government agencies. Awards have been reduced to government patronage; it is predictable as to who will get an award under which government.

I did not wish to be a recipient of patronage from any government. When the respect for a profession in a society is diminished, the members of that profession also have less respect for each other.

Most of us reflect current social attitudes. By and large respect for fellow academics goes up when they get government recognition. I argued that I wanted my peer group to respect me (if they choose to) for what I am, and the work that I am doing and not because I've been given a Padma Bhushan.

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Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 2:45:19 PM |

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