Search
  • Romila Thapar

Writing the Early History of India



This blog is the Transcript of the Karwaan Distinguished Lecture delivered by Prof. Romila Thapar on the Facebook Page of Karwaan, published with her permission.


I was invited to give this talk by Eshan Sharma, who together with some other of his student friends at Delhi University have set up an organization called Karwaan : The Heritage Exploration Initiative. It is an impressive initiative and the fact that students have organized it is even more encouraging. In these days of lockdowns and in fact even in the post-lockdown days, it is a great idea to have historians and others speak on matters of serious interest to students and even the public at large.

As a public we neither read enough nor think enough about our historical past. We accept rumours and hearsay about the “so-called” facts of history from the print and visual media, as indeed also what floats around on the social media, because it is easier to do so than to make serious enquiries about our history orf to spend time in reading on historical subjects. In this situation the lectures organized by Karwaan may well distract from the sensationalism of the media but would lead to understanding what history is really about. Pursuing knowledge about the past is crucial not only to the knowing the past but also to comprehending the present. What we are today has its roots in history. We therefore have to search for these beginnings and not just satisfy ourselves with conjuring up an imagined past.

So after Eshan invited me to speak and I agreed, I spent a little time thinking of what I should speak on. There are two themes that I have repeatedly gone back to. The first of these have been aspects in the study of the Mauryan period and the second was the writing of Indian history. I decided to speak on the second subject, as apart from being a subject I like to think about, it is important to understanding history, and hopefully will kindle an interest in you. The talk involves explaining how the history of early India came to be interpreted in various ways in the last two centuries.

Let me begin with the basic question of what was involved in studying the writing of history. It meant investigating the form it took – primarily from inscriptions and chronicles that function as records of the past, although other forms also tell us about the past in other ways. One has to enquire about who writes the history in early times, who are the authors and whether they are bards, officers of the court, or literary persons. Another important question is that of the purpose of the text. Is it a record of events, or is it to be used in the way history is popularly used, to get legitimation from the past. The present often seeks legitimacy from the past. For example, when we speak of something being traditional we assume that it comes from the past. That is often not actually so. Tradition is frequently invented in more recent times, and is passed off as tradition from the past. When all these aspects are interwoven and investigated the study becomes a part of historiography.

My particular interest has been to ascertain how Indians in the past saw their past and wrote about it – part of which they saw as their history. It is not a subject that is popular among Indian historians, even these days. I worked on it segment by segment. Every time I got a research grant I would take up one segment. I would publish that as a paper that could be commented on. Finally I pulled it all together in the form of a book - rather late in life in 2013. The book was The Past Before Us : Historical Traditions of Early North India.

So how did this interest start ? In 1956 a conference was held in the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and I was a research student there in those days. So we were allowed to attend it. The Conference was on historical writing in Ancient, Medieval and Modern India. I noticed that whenever there was a discussion on ancient India it was often prefaced by the remark that there was no historical writing and no historical consciousness in ancient India. Even today it is often said that “Indians lack a sense of history.”

I kept thinking this was unacceptable because every society has a way of representing its past. The representations may change form when there are historical changes, and the historian has to understand to what extent and why the different forms reflect the changes. The work of the historian is not merely to collect what is said about the past and retell it, but to try and understand why the narratives about the past were written the way they are. What are the narratives trying to convey other than just the story. Equally important – the historian has to check whether what is said about the past is authentic in describing what actually happened.

So I decided to take up the study of historical writing and do it in two stages. The first was to study modern historians reconstructing the ancient past and observing how and why the historians differed. My first paper on historiography was on this subject. The second stage was to go further into the past and see how the texts of early times, represented the past. This evening I am going to speak about the first of these. I did not write a book on this aspect but have discussed it in various papers.

History as we define it today began to be written in India two centuries ago. Over this period the interpretation of the past has changed in various ways. The historian has to explain both why there was an initial and particular reading of the past and then why did it change. We have to attempt an understanding of the reasons for the changes.

The writing and therefore the interpretation of Indian history went through phases depending on who was writing it and what was the intention. Broadly speaking I would argue that there were three phases : first, Indian history began to be written by colonial authors in the early nineteenth century and they used their own theories in trying to understand the Indian past ; the second phase was nationalist historical writing in the early twentieth century when many more Indian historians began writing history, even though colonial historians continued to do so but to a lesser extent ; the third phase followed in the later part of the twentieth century when the concept of history itself changed – history was included as a social science. Defining these phases means asking what were the innovations in interpretations that were introduced into this study ?

To begin with I shall speak about the first phase of colonial writing. I would like to focus on four theories that were important to colonial thinking and influenced the writing of history. These included first, the idea that there was absence of history in pre-modern India ; the second was the two-nation theory ; the third was the theory of Aryan race ; and the fourth was Oriental Despotism. I shall now comment on them one by one.

The first was the idea that there was an absence of historical writing in early India. History for the colonial administration had only one format that of the Greco-Roman historians and this they could not find in India. The Indian equivalent of Herodotus, Thucydides or Tacitus could not be recognized. So it was declared that there was an absence of historical writing in India. The follow up to this was the claim that the colonial writers would have to discover Indian history from scratch and would write it up in a way that made sense to them. Some of us have been contesting this supposed absence 0f historical writing. What it means in effect is, that when looking at the past, no distinction was made in Indian writing between a fantasy on the past and what actually happened. Therefore such a perspective allows all kinds of myths to be claimed as factual as well as people in the present imagining a past and insisting that it was historical. But historians today argue that there was a distinction in the writings of early times. Early Indians made a distinction between what they regarded as a free projection about the past, and what was treated as a record of events.

For example, there was a difference between creative literature – such as poetry, epic and drama that reflect reality up to a point and can do so in the form of fantasy ; this is a contrast to texts with an altogether different function, such as royal inscriptions and court chronicles, that were generally limited to being records of events. The authors are different, the language is different, the style or format is different, the purpose is different. This is one reason why modern historians differentiate between categories of texts. For instance, if one examines the edicts of Ashoka Maurya a certain impression of the king is formed on the basis of the ideas he expresses, and then when one consults the Pali Chronicles of Sri Lanka, representing the opinion of the Buddhist Sangha and which have much to say about Ashoka Maurya, the perspective on him differs. The historian does not try to conflate the two but instead tries to explain why there were similarities and why there were differences in the two sources. The investigation of the source itself becomes important.

Let me turn now to the second theory commonly found in the colonial reconstruction of Indian history. It relates to the idea of the two nations of India. The first history of India by a colonial author was that of James Mill in 1817, The History of British India. He was new to the study of India and had little accurate knowledge. What emerged was a strange mixture of ideas about the Indian past. His major theory that became very influential was that India has always been peopled by two nations – the Hindu and the Muslim ; that they were constantly hostile to each other; that the hostility was controlled only when the British ruled India. And further that Muslim rule was tyrannical and the Hindus were victimized. The coming of the British therefore saved Hindus from this continuing tyranny. Some added that for this the Hindus should be grateful.

The theory of Mill also became the basis of periodizing history into the Hindu, Muslim and British periods. The labels were later changed to Ancient, Medieval and Modern, but the reason for the periodization remained the same as before. This theory had a role to play in events leading up to Partition in 1947 and is not absent from current politics.

The arrival of what is generally called the ‘ Muslim rule’ in India is dated to the second millennium AD. Historians of medieval India have shown that there is little to support the theory of the two nations. The investigation of Indian social functioning and of religious practices, frequently contradict it. Community relations varied according to time, location, and incident. There were both situations of confrontation and also of amicable living together, as there always are in all inter-community relations. Confrontations emanating from social and religious status had existed earlier in pre-Islamic times between for instance the Shaivas and the Buddhists. Relationships therefore have to be viewed specifically as was the case with all inter-community relationships. There were no nations in pre-modern times because nationalism and the nation-state that it creates is a modern concept.

The third colonial theory pertaining to ancient India is also very topical these days. This was the invention of the Aryan race in the latter part of the nineteenth century. It was used in aspects of European history and extended to India. On this theory Max Mueller wrote at length. It was argued that civilization came to India with the arrival of the Aryan-speaking people from Central Asia. They are said to have invaded north India and established their culture in the mid-second millennium BC. This became the foundational culture of Indian civilization and of the Hindu religion. The language, Indo-Aryan belonged to the larger family of the Indo-European group of languages that had its genesis in Central Asia and also included Old Iranian from North-Eastern Iran, as well as the Celtic languages of Europe. Indo-Aryan therefore was part of a wider Eurasian culture. Some even claimed that because the British and upper-caste Indians originated from the same Aryan race they should be regarded as parted cousins ! There was complete confusion between language and race. It did not bother them that language is a cultural creation invented by humans in order to communicate, and that race, if at all it can be said to exist, is biological. The two have entirely different origins.

European and American Theosophists - such as Col Olcott and Mde. Blavatsky – went a step further. Olcott was the first to argue, that the Aryan-speakers did not come from Central Asia but were indigenous to India. Civilization therefore spread from India to the west. There was also an emphasis on Aryan racial superiority.

The theory concerning the Aryans has run into many problems. I will only refer to a few. There is first of all the intervention of archaeological data that create problems for the nineteenth century narrative. The Indus civilization was discovered in the 1920s. It was entirely different from and predated Vedic culture. This created a problem regarding the foundations of Indian culture and of Hinduism. Historically the Harappa Culture is now the starting point of Indian civilization, and not the Aryan culture. But in order to assert that Aryanism is the foundation, there are those who maintain that the creators of the Indus civilization were also Aryans.

This is unacceptable to many historians for a variety of reasons. Among them are to begin with that there is only a small geographical overlap between the two cultures in the upper Indus and Panjab as far as the upper Doab. The earliest Vedic text, the Rigveda, is not familiar with the larger area of the Harappa Culture – the lower Indus, Gujarat and across the sea to Oman where some Harappan sites have been found. Harappan artifacts found at sites in the Persian Gulf and in Mesopotamia point to some communication with the Harappans. The Harappan geography therefore covers the area of the entire Indus plain, Gujarat and the head of the Persian Gulf and has contacts westwards. Aryan migrations on the other hand went eastwards from the upper Doab into the Ganges plain. The Rigveda shows no knowledge of these other areas associated with the Harappans.

The Harappans had carefully planned cities, and a sophisticated urban culture, whereas the Aryans were agro-pastoralists and do not refer to living in cities. The Harappans used a pictographic script. The notion of writing is alien to Aryans. The use of the horse has also featured in the discussion. The horse was domesticated in Central Asia and not in India. Horse-herding was known to the people of the steppes, but is not known to India. We have to keep in mind that the horse was never easily bred in India as it is thought that the pasturage and climate were not suitable. Horses, essentially for use in the cavalry wing of the army, were imported from Central and West Asia throughout history and often even at great cost. The basic horse transportation of chariots that took wheels with spokes, were widely used in earlier times in Central Asia but came later to India in the second millennium BC, and became common with the horse culture depicted in the Rigveda. The technology of wheels suggests that solid wheels are better drawn by bullocks and horses are more functional drawing vehicles that have wheels with spokes. This is one example of the kind of technical information that historians have to know when dealing with a source based on a particular technology.

A further complication in the theory of Aryan race is that since the 1950s and 60s, the linguistic analyses of Vedic Sanskrit have indicated the presence of elements from other language systems, pre-eminently Dravidian and some have argued for Munda as well. The Vedic sources have many references to people who are not aryas such as the dasas, dasyus, asuras, chandalas. A major differentiation is that they do not speak the language of the aryas. They are described as mridhra-vac, speaking incorrectly or aggressively, and are also called mleccha, again for speaking incorrectly or not knowing the language. So we know that there were other communities living in the area that spoke non-aryan languages. That some elements of these languages are present in Indo-Aryan is not impossible.

Elements from other language systems are of various kinds. For example, a striking feature of Indo-Aryan is that is has retroflex forms that are absent in other languages of Indo-European origin such as Old Iranian and the Celtic of Europe, but are present in Dravidian. The suggestion therefore is that the speakers of Indo-Aryan were living in the proximity of Dravidian speakers and the language of the former came to incorporate elements from the language of the latter. These small changes in language do happen if there are situations of bi-lingualism. Similarly some vocabulary from Dravidian seems to have been picked up by Indo-Aryan speakers, an example of which is the word for the plough, langala. This suggests a possible bi-lingual relationship between Aryan and other language speakers. We can also ask who were these other speakers and what was their cultural role in the pattern of living that evolved in this period ? The compositions of the aryas record differences in custom between the aryas and the others.

The other aspect of these studies is that Indo-Aryan cannot be studied in isolation. It does belong to a larger language family that spread over Eurasia, therefore comparative studies are called for and the area covered by the history of this period is far larger than just the boundaries of India. To go on maintaining that the Aryan-speakers and their culture originated within the boundaries of India is rather self-defeating. There is limited but clear evidence of pockets of Aryan speakers scattered across Northern Syria and the Euphrates plain, but with no intermediary connections to India. There are parallels between Rigvedic culture and that of the earliest texts of North-eastern Iran such as the gathas of the Avesta. The latter describe a migration from Central Asia to the Indus. That there were close links in the language and mythology between Iran and the upper Indus has been accepted. This has a bearing on the discussion of the migration of Aryan speakers.

The colonial theory of an Aryan invasion was discarded by the mid-twentieth century. So those who keep on saying that they are attacking the theory of an Aryan invasion are actually flogging a dead horse. In my address to the ancient history section of the Indian History Congress in 1969 at Varanasi, my focus was on disproving the Aryan invasion theory and which I, as a matter of fact, had never held. And yet to this day some non-historians who write on the Aryans accuse me of supporting the idea of an Aryan invasion. There is nothing I can do with people who do not or can not read what I and others write, so they go on repeating a completely discarded idea. There are others who equate invasion with migration since they do not understand the difference. This I shall clarify shortly.

More recently an unexpected area of study has surfaced. Genetic evidence is now introducing another kind of evidence on the subject. This is the newest of the other disciplines, and more especially the scientific disciplines, that can shed light on the discussion. It involves a study of DNA patterns gathered from evidence going back to early times. The earlier population – the Ancestral South Indian - was that of hunter-gatherers together with farmers linked to Iran and this population included the Harappans. In the second millennium BC a strain coming from Central Asia was added to the population to make up the Ancestral North Indian people.

The genetic evidence therefore as it stands so far, distinguishes between the Harappan and post-Harappan populations as not being identically the same. Evidence from Harappan burials therefore would not carry a Central Asian strain. It further suggests the arrival of a strain from Central Asia in post-Harappan times. As migratory groups they would not have arrived in one fell sweep but as more scattered over time during the second millennium BC. This therefore questions the theory of the indigenous origin of the Aryans in India and seems to support the idea of peoples from Central Asia migrating into India. Although some take this evidence as establishing the theory of a migration of Central Asian people into India in the post-Harappan times there are also some scholars who broadly accept it but would prefer to wait for more evidence to make it firmer. The presence of R1a1 in the Central Asian strain has led some to link it to the Aryan-speaking people although others are waiting for further affirmation.

There are many kinds of investigations of a scientific nature that are being made such as those that relate to hydrology with changing river courses and others linked with climate change. These studies are relatively recent and more detailed research will help define the possibilities. But the point is that that there is a potential from such seemingly unconnected studies, such as the sciences, that may provide information on the history of early India.

To return to the four major theories in the colonial interpretation of Indian history, the fourth theory was that of Oriental Despotism – a theory that emerged in Europe and was applied eagerly to Asian history. It pertained to the economy and administration and maintained that India had never known a state system, had always been ruled by despots who owned the land and controlled an impoverished peasantry via the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy collected vast revenue from the peasantry and this kept royalty and the court in lavish splendor. This is said to explain the wealth of Indian rulers. The economy of past times did not call for detailed study since this pattern was thought of as being sufficient to explain the continuous exploitation.

Among those writing professionally on Indian history and discussing these ideas there were fewer professional historians among the colonial writers and more civil servants, exemplified by Vincent Smith. Much of their basic research in discovering sources, such as the deciphering of inscriptions and recording art and architectural remains and the introduction of archaeology, was of fine quality. The problem was with the interpretation of early history in which their bias was obvious.

The change came in the next phase when Indian historians took up the writing of Indian history. These were Indians educated in colonial universities. They were largely from the professional middle class and from land-owning families or those involved in the administration of the colony. They were familiar with colonial writing and much was generally accepted. Most academics, with some exceptions of course, accepted the flow of the colonial narrative. But it was also the period when Indian nationalism became vocal. From the ranks of these historians there arose what is sometimes called the nationalist school of history.

Most Indian historians, but not all, were generally supportive of two of the interpretations that I have spoken of and ignored the other two. Interestingly the two they took up were concerned with questions of Indian identity and these had a bearing on current politics. Curiously the acceptable theories were the theory of the two nations – Hindu and Muslim, and the origins of Indian civilization being traced to the Aryans. The question of Indians lacking historical writing was largely ignored as was the theory of Oriental Despotism. It’s refutation required a study of the economic history of early times. This had to wait until recent years.

Nationalism is a reflection of how people in a society think about their collective self. The collective means the entire citizenry that constitutes the nation with no minority groups that can be excluded ; and further the entire citizenry is included as equal citizens. But when nationalism is defined by a single identity, which can be either a particular religion or a language, with priority for those of that particular identity, then nationalism gets derailed into majoritarianism, and that is not nationalism. Secular democratic forms are essential features of nationalism. Because nationalism is a modern phenomenon it accompanies the change to democracy and secular functioning of both the ruling authority and those ruled.

In the struggle for independence there was the all-inclusive nationalism of Indians opposed to British colonial rule. This was a secular anti-colonial nationalism. But the colonial insistence on two nations, which was also acceptable to some Indians - Hindus and Muslims - led to a different idea that was called nationalism but it was different since it was and is defined by a religious identity. This means that the identity of the citizen is based on a single religion. The two-nation idea surfaced in the creation of Pakistan as an Islamic nation. In current India it is teetering on the edge of creating its Hindu equivalent. In each nation the focus is on the contribution of one religious’ community, the others being elided. So history is sought to be rewritten to support religious nationalism. This rewriting is what many historians are contesting in our times. The right of the historian to research and write history on any historical subject has to be strongly defended.

Eric Hobsbawm wrote that history is to nationalism what the poppy is to the opium addict. He is right. All nationalisms the world over seek legitimacy from the past and construct a past that appears to provide that legitimacy. Nationalism seeks support from the past in formulating identity. Where nationalism is not all-inclusive but gives priority to a particular identity such as a religious identity, there history is also written in terms of this identity, even if such an identity, or identities, did not exist in the past or were not the dominant identity. This led to sharp differences between historians and those projecting these identities. We have witnessed this in the battles over the content of history text-books. The battle continued right through the later twentieth century and into this century, and it has taken place in each of the democracies of South Asia, with their variant national identities.

The nineteenth century propagated the concept of civilization. The world was divided into a number of civilizations, and societies were either civilized or were not. At the core of each civilization there had to be a pristine utopia that was the foundation of the golden age, and a golden age that presented all the requirements of a near-perfect society. The notion of classicism became central. It was to be an age that boasted excellence in philosophy, literature, the arts and architecture and subsuming all this, the prevalent religion. Indian nationalism found the golden age in the Gupta period. But with history turning to other forms of investigation, the centrality of having a golden age began to fade somewhat.

Nationalism in the writing of history raises other problems. Whereas it is most helpful in projecting the vision of a single nation and maintaining that vision, when regional demands surface they sometimes distract from that vision. How does one c0-relate regional history and national history ? Identities jostle for status and these identities may well differ from region to region. Not all changes in history take place simultaneously in every region, as for example the evolution of urban centres. A thousand years and as many miles separated the Indus and Ganges urbanizations. It means understanding and integrating a complex history.

We have to remember that neither identities nor hierarchies are permanent. Identities evolve from a coming together of peoples and practices. Labels may continue as with castes but the people who constitute it do change. Religions change to a considerable degree over time. The founders of religions would probably be amazed to see what happens to their teachings over a millennium.

Nevertheless, the changes seek legitimacy by linking themselves to some aspect of the past.

Theories about the past are subjected to being questioned as are all theories that claim to be knowledge. Of the two that were initially important to nationalist historical writing, namely, the theory of Aryan race and the two-nation theory, both were questioned by subsequent historians. I have already discussed the problems that have arisen with the first theory given new evidence and new methods of enquiry. Similarly the two-nation theory has not stood up to historical analysis. It has been amply shown that the events of the medieval period were not invariably conditioned by religious concerns. In every period of history some events did have a connection with religion, but a larger part of what happened had various explanations not all of which were based on religion. The same holds for the medieval period. The non-religious explanations have come from deeper analyses of the society and economy of the time. However, Hindu religious nationalism as it calls itself, has remained loyal to the colonial version of pre-modern history, and endorses these two theories that have their origins in colonial interpretations of early history.

Having spoken about the colonial and nationalist interpretations of history I shall now come to the third and last phase. I have spent time in discussing the first two phases not because professional historians still adhere to these theories. On the contrary none of us give them much attention in our research because the study of early history has moved on into other more meaningful directions. These I shall shortly mention.

But let me say that one has to understand why colonial readings, shunned by historians nevertheless have validity for political ideologies that see India in terms only of religious communities. So the two-nation theory and the racial superiority of indigenous Aryans, are used politically and in the process they are revived. In endorsing these theories there is a continuing loyalty to the colonial reconstruction of the Indian past. There is a difference and a distance therefore in what is projected publicly largely by non-historians as historical theories and concerns, and what professional historians are actually working on and are concerned with.

To return to the work of professional historians. It was towards the middle of the last century that historians in universities across the world, began to look at many other aspects of the past and in new ways. This was due in part to the emergence of what we today call the social sciences. History being included among the social sciences meant at least two innovations. One was that historians had to have some familiarity with the other disciplines focused on aspects of human society, largely in terms of what questions they were asking of the societies they were studying and why. Anthropology and sociology study social institutions. To this has now been added ecology and the natural environment of people. Economics is concerned with simple and complex ways of organizing livelihood and income. For the historian technological change can provide an indication of historical change. Politics studies governance and why its forms differ. And so it goes on. History began to draw on these disciplines in order to make new enquiries about the past. Knowing the kind of questions that are asked in other disciplines is sometimes useful when asking questions of historical sources. For example, enquiries into early peasant society has been enriched not by making parallels with modern systems, but by enlarging the range of questions that can be asked about such societies through enquiries into other disciplines. Some questions are relevant some are not and the historian can choose.

The second advantage of history being included as a social science is that there are new methods of discovering information, analyzing it and arriving at conclusions. Previously history simply required the reading of the sources on a subject, collecting information from these, and then making statements about the subject. But now there is a need to follow a recognized method of analyzing sources and then making statements based on logical and reasoned argument. This is largely what distinguishes a historian from untrained people claiming to be historians – of which there are so many.

Let me deviate for a moment and illustrate this by talking about sources, since they are basic to historical reconstruction. We say that a statement claiming to be historically valid, has to be based on evidence from sources. What does this mean ? It means that the source quoted must be relevant and have proven reliability. Each source has to be checked by questioning the source itself. This involves assessing the credentials of the author, his purpose in writing what he has written, and the audience for whom the text is intended. And so on. Such questions make a lot of difference to understanding the source and moving away from imagined history.

The next step is to make the causal connections. This is when the historian tries to explain why an event happened, and can say that ‘A’ was the cause of ‘B’, the connection being based on the evidence. Or to put it another way, that B arose from A. It is obvious that a causal connection attempts to explain the cause of the event. Again it has to be based on logical and reasoned arguments. Some call this procedure as ‘the historical method’. It is the essential method in the investigation of all and any knowledge. It is also crucial to assessing the quality of the history being put forward. When this analytical method is applied it does lead to, and requires the asking, of more questions. History is not written just by reading a few books and by summarizing them. Asking questions is assisted only if one reads widely on the subject of interest. The historian is after all trying to understand and explain the past, hopefully also to bring some clarity to the present.

In the last part of this talk I shall take up some examples of the way in which other disciplines relate to the study of history, given that we are part of the social sciences. Lets look at the landscape – Geography. We were all taught in school – and derived comfort from the fact – that northern India was protected by a semi-circle of high mountains, some of the highest in the world. Yet history tells us that people from Central Asia were constantly arriving and settling in northern India – the Aryans, Shakas, Kushans, Huns, Turks, Afghans, Mongols and others. Some came as invaders and some as migrants.

This raises an important issue that present-day historians have commented on, namely, that invasion and migration should not be confused. They are not the same thing and have distinctly different processes with results that differ. Invasion brings in a large body of disciplined, armed people whose intention is to use violence to conquer, loot and rule over the region they attack. The degree to which they impose their own laws and cultural items depends on what they want from the conquest ; as also the degree to which they take control of the administration and revenue of the conquered territory. The cultural interface between the local and the foreign could well be a matter of degree depending on the relations between the two. Soldiers did not plan to settle in the conquered area. They were employed by the king or else were hired as mercenaries who would move off to wherever soldiers were required by whomever.

Migration is a more peaceful and gradual process. The people involved are not soldiers. Most often they are pastoralists or in smaller numbers, traders. Peasants are less inclined to migrate since they are permanently settled in the areas they cultivate. They are seldom associated with long distance migration across deserts and seas as are traders. Some reference is made in texts from early India to discontented peasants, suffering from heavy taxation who leave the kingdom where they are settled, and migrate to the neighbouring kingdom where conditions are thought to be better. Kings fear this happening because it results in a loss of revenue.

Migration is not an invasion because it is not an army marching in but instead it is people in small groups who travel at leisure with their goods and chattel and with their animals, or in the case of traders with a minimum amount of items for exchange. Why do they migrate? Pastoralists generally migrate when there are environmental changes in their homeland and they have to search for fresh pastures or extensive sources of water. Their problem is the welfare of their animals. They often arrive, search for hospitable places to settle in, and spread quietly. The spread of the Gujjars could be an instance. Traders migrate to where the facilities for exchange and the availability of such items are more lucrative. Migrants move to new areas because their intention is to settle in these areas.

Settlements often take a leap-frogging pattern : that is, a settlement is established either in a new area or in the vicinity of a society already settled there. After a few generations some of the erstwhile migrants leave the original group and go further to settle in another area. This pattern is repeated and the settlements are quite widespread. Usually by then the original culture has been diluted as the group moves on or has been mixed with that of the host society if there is one. Where there are pre-existing cultures in the vicinity there would develop an intermingling of the two cultures. So historians have to look for changes in the cultures of both. Iranian Avestan texts not unconnected with the Vedic, mention gradual migrations from point to point. The move is from the Oxus to the Indus. A Vedic text describes a migration from the Doab to the Ganges plain.

However, a different kind of migrant came from West Asia and settled along the west coast of India from Gujarat to Kerala. These migrants were traders not pastoralists and were itinerant and scattered in the early centuries AD, chasing the cargo of pepper and cotton textiles. They grew in numbers from the seventh century AD when traders from West Asia, largely Arab, settled in the ports and coastal towns, took up administrative positions with the local rulers such as the Rashtrakutas, married locally and supported the identity of new communities. They were initially called Yavanas as they came from the west or Tajiks. Later they took the labels of the communities they helped to found such as the Bohras, Khojas, Navayathas, Mapillas, in each case having some elements of local non-Islamic practice and the Islamic. Each of these communities created their own cultures mixed and rich in forms. Migrations have played a significant role in the making of many Indian cultures. We as historians need to give them more attention.

In the case of traders migrations are not always one-sided. The society that hosts the in-coming migrants can sometimes go out as migrants to settle in areas where they have established trade relations. Therefore we should be tracking the history of people from the sub-continent going out to new areas. If we are to understand the cultural changes in northern India brought by the entry of the Kushans, such as the import of horses, or the shape and value of coins, or the form and representation of deities, we equally, must understand the history of the Kushans in the Oxus plain. What went from India to Central Asia - such as Mahayana Buddhism and why did it play such a crucial role in much of Asia.

Migration gives a new dimension to cultural interaction in its impact on the pattern of life as in language, social institutions and belief systems. Frontier areas, such as the Panjab, provide a fascinating history. These interactions need to be studied from when they first began with the coming of the Aryan-speaking people and continuing with other migrant cultures throughout history. The social sciences have urged historians to accept that societies host a range of co-existing diversity and that this diversity has reasons for its presence. Historians now ask more questions from the sources. Previously long periods of history were treated as an undifferentiated whole. So we went from 600 BC to AD 1200 treating it as the ancient period with little substantial change. It was assumed that all societies were ruled as standard kingdoms from Vedic times to the medieval. Now we recognize historical change in far shorter periods and seek explanations for the change.

Comparing descriptions from historical sources with analyses from, for example social anthropology, can and often does suggest new ways of reading the sources. We now differentiate between the rule of clans, the establishing of a kingdom, the varieties of kingdoms, and the complexities of governing an empire. Kingdoms and empires are distinct and the structure of an empire is far more complex. It is no longer correct to simply add the term ‘empire’ after the name of every dynasty. States also differ according to how they were created. State formation therefore is being subjected to investigation.

The two areas in which there has been maximum dialogue are in the study of society and of the economy. The formulation of caste in the dharma-shastras for instance, can no longer be taken literally and comparisons have to be made with other sources. The distinction between varna and jati comes into play ; also the implications of changes in a caste that occur in differing historical situations. Often the hierarchy is maintained among the varnas but their actual occupations may not be what is prescribed in the dharma-shastras. An example of this is the brahmanas who became wealthy donors through horse-trading in North-west India in the late first millennium AD. New castes are hardly mentioned at first but they are when they gain prominence, as with the kayasthas. The views of theorists on Indian society or on social history generally, ranging from Karl Marx to Max Weber have been much debated by historians and sociologists. The works of more recent thinkers have now become essential reading for historians as well.

Two categories consistently ignored have now gained some prominence. Studies include the history and status of different categories of women, placed squarely in the context of caste society. This has been a major departure from earlier studies of the history of women that stopped with just gathering information on them and where ‘women’ were treated as a single category. There is now recognition of the differing statuses of women at various levels as essential members of a society. This diversity has to be explained and how it affected the form of society.

Another subject of interaction between historians and sociologists is of groups treated as being of the lower castes and others as being outside caste. Finding evidence for such groups in the early period is a little problematic as texts that survive from that time are authored by the elite and are concerned with their own social circles. The sources have to be combed for references to those at the lower end of the social scale. This information is necessary to complete the picture of society and see it from another perspective. This change of perspective can act as a corrective.

Economic history began tentatively by contradicting the theory of Oriental Despotism but turned to examining more fully the economies of earlier times. The emphasis from colonial times has been on the study of the agrarian economy as the basis of the state system, the new studies contradicting the notion of Oriental Despotism. Agrarian history provided evidence of both state ownership of land and private ownership. Inscriptions recording grants of land to private persons became common from the late first millennium AD onwards. Some historians linked this to the introduction of a feudal economy. This was challenged by others and resulted in an extensive debate on whether there was feudalism in India. Interest in the commercial economy has grown steadily and more so now with increasingly information especially on maritime trade. It is only recently that the economies of pastoralism are attracting attention. Yet these are important because they concern not only pastoral migrants from outside India but also the internal migrations of adivasi and other communities.

These interests have also led to a more perceptive and nuanced study of religions. The focus may remain on the texts and ideas of the belief system but there have been studies also of religious practices and religious orientations of social institutions and the broader social meaning of these. Recognizing religion as an avenue of socialization means that its history now bears on how it interacts with social institutions. Historians are now examining its close relationship to social change of various kinds. Religion as a belief system in itself continues to be studied, but the study of its imprint on social groups is also necessary in order to comprehend its historical role.

Let me conclude by saying that I have tried to suggest that the study of historiography is essential to seeing how history gets written and equally importantly how historians think. As with all knowledge the intention of the study of history is not that it should arrive at a closure. There is always the possibility of fresh information from a new category of sources or the use of data from new disciplines. There are always new methods of investigation as long as the philosophical theories of explanation continue to be debated and the historical method is not given up. So, as historians we are always waiting to write the next exciting install

1,006 views0 comments