Friday, July 10, 2015

A History of India Vol I

Romila Thapar's early India is a revised version of her History of India, first published in 1966. Using political narrative as a frame, Thapar skilfully weaves in details of other aspects such as society, economy, religion, art and architecture. However, there are several problems in her interpretation of early India, not all of which will be immediately apparent to the general reader.

Although the book is about ancient India "from the beginnings", the author is impatient with prehistory. The mesolithic and neolithic phases are crammed together and the significance of many exciting discoveries in recent years - such as the early dates for prehistoric tools in the Shivaliks and the discovery of hominid remains in Madhya Pradesh - is not highlighted.

Thapar cautions against the temptation to focus on dominant cultures but her own analysis tilts in that very direction. Her discussion of the chalcolithic (copper and stone-using) cultures leaps straight into the Harappan civilisation. The fact that Harappan civilisation is part of a longer, complex story that involves many earlier, less glamorous cultures is not brought out.

One of the most problematic aspects of Thapar's interpretation of ancient India is the manner in which she uses Vedic literature as a master text for understanding the history of India between 1200 and 600 B.C. Thapar concedes we are dealing with complex issues and that not all loose ends can be tied. But her narrative glosses over the enormous difficulties in dating the Vedas and in extracting history out of them.

These difficulties are masked by a false certainty, perhaps to counter the opposite but equally dogmatic rightist interpretations. And although Thapar repeatedly asserts the importance of archaeological evidence, she does not integrate it into her narrative. This is not surprising as the archaeological picture does not match the one drawn from texts on certain important points.

In a book like this, balance and even treatment are crucial. This becomes difficult for periods that are the focus of major controversies. Historians have spent almost half a century tirelessly debating whether the early medieval period (roughly 500-1200 A.D.) was feudal or not. Thapar seems to oscillate between the different points of view.

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