Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Why the rest of India should read Wayanad adivasis’ retelling of the Ramayana

 Their version of the Ramayana is less black-and-white, more feminist, and they reflect difficult histories.

For the adivasis of Wayanad, Kerala’s northeastern border district, the Ramayana is not a scholarly import from the Hindi belt, as is popularly imagined. It is a story they own, which is set in their villages, where Rama and Sita live a tribal life and suffer the same injustice and abuse they do as a marginalised community.

Wayanad’s adivasis make up about 38% of Kerala’s tribal population and their histories and identities are as varied as their telling of the Ramayana. Azeez Tharuvana, a Malayalam scholar and teacher who has written extensively on Wayanad’s Ramayana, had encountered this fascinating episode told by Mathe Vaidyar, the late elder of the Adiya (slave) tribe. As the story opens, Pakkathappan, the lord of Pakkam – a local area – is talking to Sita, a tribal woman. 

He orders her to leave his country with all her belongings. Tharuvana has an explanation for this unique story: the Adiyas had for generations been slave labourers for landlords in Thrisseleri and Thirunelli in Wayanad, and Kodagu in neighbouring Karnataka. Being bullied and thrown out of their homes and lands was a familiar story.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Poverty and landlessness are woven into the epic. “The rich people exhibited their wealth by bringing exquisite clothes in bullock carts and buffalo carts,” says the recounting of an Adiya Ramayanam story in Tharuvana’s book, Wayanadan Ramayanam. “The poor, who had no clothes except the ones they wore, stayed away watching all this drama. They did not lose any tree, because they were landless.” This is the point where Hanuman is setting fire to the trees of Lanka.

Tharuvana’s book has just been made into an award-winning documentary and was shown recently at a seminar at the history department of Delhi University. It reaffirms the point made so strongly by scholar and poet AK Ramanujan in his much-debated essay, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation, that the Ramayana has always been open to interpretation by the communities that own it. It may be recalled that seven years ago the essay was dropped from the Delhi University syllabus after protests from hardline Hindu groups.

(Right) The late Mathe Vaidyar was an expert on Adiya Ramayanam.

“These stories are particularly significant in the times we live in when multiculturalism is under threat,” said Tharuvana, an assistant professor at Farook College in Kozhikode. “Ramayana is a literary text in the hands of Valmiki, Kamban, Tulsidas and Ezhuthachan, but it is a living oral tradition for many like the adivasis of Wayanad. The stories change with time and change from one village to another, staying fluid and real for those who believe in them. 

There are tellings where Sita is serving kaapi (coffee) to Rama, or taking a bullock cart to Lanka, or commanding Hanuman to bring kerosene to set fire to Lanka.”

Wayanad’s Ramayana stories are entirely orally transmitted. How they came into the adivasi folklore tradition is an interesting story as well. Up until the 1950s, temples and other sacred spaces where Ramayana readings took place were closed to all but the high upper castes. So where did the tribals, who did not have the education to read the text, encounter the epic? Likely, said Tharuvana, they heard them being recited at some distance as they worked as slaves in the homes of the upper caste landlords.

A good 18% of Wayanad’s population is adivasi and they are divided into around 12 communities – Adiya, Kurichiya, Kurumar, Karimbalan and Chetti among them – many of which migrated from neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Like most tribal pockets in India, they have been subject to denial of human rights across Kerala as the recent story on the lynching in Attapady showed. Up until 1975, Tharuvana said, there was no ban on the sale of slaves on the occasion of Valliyoorkaavu temple festival in Wayanad.

Valmiki Ashramam, Ashramakolly.

“Some of what is reflected in these stories could then be seen as a defiance of the mainstream narrative of the epic,” Tharuvana said. “For instance, Rama, Sita and Hanuman are not at the head of the divine hierarchy in Wayanad’s Ramayana. That position is reserved for the local deities like Nenjappan, Mathapadevva and Siddhappan.”

Sita, believe the Adiyas, called for the intervention of the local gods when her twin sons tied up the Ashwamedha horse let loose by Rama to establish his imperial might. The boys, according to local legend, also tied Rama and Lakshmana to a tree. The tribal deities arrive and hold court and question Rama on why he abandoned his pregnant wife. “This is almost unheard in any other Ramayana tradition,” Tharuvana pointed out.

Since the adivasis here led a fairly insular life up until recently, and Wayanad itself is sealed in by its geography, the stories are all set in a 40 sq km area stretching from Muthanga and Pulpalli, according to Tharuvana.

Papanashini pond, where Rama and Lakshmana performed rituals as per folklore

Valmiki’s ashram is in Ashramkoly and Sita is believed to have gone plucking flowers in Irulam (place of darkness). As Rama vainly clutches at her when she is being drawn into the earth, all he is left with is a fistful of hair. 

Jaddayettakavu is the grove where Sita lost her tresses. And Sita is called Chaddetilamma after the site of the story.

Irulam and Althara are both sites where local belief says a distressed Sita rested in her lone journey into the forest. 

Rampalli is where Rama stopped on his way to Alinkulam, where his sons had captured his Ashwamedha horse.

Every aspect of the adivasi life is pencilled into these Ramayanas – the rich biodiversity of the land, the hills, the medicinal herbs, local rivers and sacred groves. In Tharuvana’s Wayanadan Ramayanam, when Hanuman sets Lanka aflame what goes up are coconut trees, areca, coffee plants and banana plantations. When Sita and her children start life afresh at the ashram, it is rice, elephant yam, taro, coffee and pepper they grow, along with bitter gourds and beans.

Ramayana traditions of Wayanad. Credit: Sahapedia.

In some of these adivasi interpretations, you don’t see the stark black-and-white strands of stories as in the classical Ramayana – Ravana himself is not an arch villain and Sita, says Adiya Ramayanam, met him long before she met Rama, peaceably travelling to Lanka with him till Hanuman arrives on the scene to tell her of Rama’s love for her.

“These stories are ever-changing for Wayanad’s tribals,” said Tharuvana. “The bullock cart in the stories may make way for the auto – because Ramayana reflects everyday life.”

(Source: Scroll)

Monday, 19 April 2021

Did the Namboodiris change Malayalam to add Sanskrit elements to the language?

 An excerpt from ‘Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through Its Languages’, by Peggy Mohan

[Earlier] we imagined a place in the north-west of this subcontinent where a local Dravidian population – remnants of the Harappan Civilisation that had unravelled a few centuries earlier – was joined by men coming in small groups from the Eurasian Steppe about 3500 years ago, speaking a vernacular variety of the Sanskrit we find in the Rig Veda.

Our main source of support for this scenario, along with recent Y-DNA studies, is the Rig Veda itself, which is full of the poetry the migrant men composed, but which tells us nothing about the languages spoken by the people they met, except to say that their speech was “garbled”. The sounds of the local languages were unfamiliar to the Vedic men, sounds that must have found their way into the local accent when local people tried to speak Sanskrit.

The Namboodiri associate their immigration to Kerala with the legendary creation of the region by Parasurama. | Drshenoy / CC BY-SA 3.0

We know that the Vedic men were patrilineal, because they had patronymics, while the local people they met must have been matrilineal, and were referred to by matronymics. From what we know of contact situations in other parts of the world, and Dravidian features that have survived in the sound systems of languages now spoken in the North-west, we can expect to see strong signs of an old Dravidian gene pool in the people now living in the North-west.

Indeed, local Dravidians should have greatly outnumbered the Sanskrit-speaking men, at the time of first contact, as agrarian communities tend to have high population densities, though the history we get to see is from the victors’ point of view, omitting the details of the people they engulfed. Meanwhile, the other local people would have continued to live on the fringes of this population merger, unchanged in their genetics and their language loyalty.

This scenario is not far-fetched. It is the story of many countries in the New World: think of Mexico, for example. Local communities were engulfed by Spanish conquistadores who were almost totally male, creating “mestizos” – children whose mothers were local and whose fathers were Spanish. And on the fringes of this mixed community were people who were fully indigenous, many of whom learnt Spanish while preserving the old languages.

There is a place in India, all the way down the western coast, where we can still see an echo of the old North-west of our imagination: Kerala. Malayalam, the language of Kerala, is part of the Dravidian language family, though it has grown a thick top coat of Sanskrit. These Sanskrit words have been adapted to the sound system of a Dravidian language in exactly the way the first Prakrits spoken by the earlier people of the Rig Vedic North-west were.

The presence of Sanskrit in Kerala traces back to the arrival of Namboodiri Brahmins in the region around the eighth century CE, on the invitation of local kings who offered them tax-exempt land grants under a system called janmi if they performed śrauta fire rituals, rooted in the Vedas. These rituals were done in order to legitimise the kings’ status as rulers, while the ownership of landholding temples and the attached villages allowed the Namboodiri Brahmins to become a major force in the socio-economic life of the region.

Namboodiri Brahmins were patrilineal, and they also followed rules of primogeniture. That is, the eldest son was to marry a woman of his own caste and keep strict control of the family land as it passed from generation to generation. However, the younger Brahmin sons were not allowed to marry within their own caste and have Brahmin children, as that would fragment the landholdings. They could instead have sambandams, marital arrangements with Nair women, who were from the same caste as the kings, while the Nair men were engaged in battle far away.

Nairs were matrilineal, so this allowed younger Namboodiri men to go on living as Brahmins in their own homes and never actually move in with their wives, while these women stayed on in their original family homes and brought up the children of the relationship as Nairs. In time, nearly all the kings of Kerala had Namboodiri fathers, though they themselves were Nairs.

The Namboodiri Brahmins knew Sanskrit, being the community that was entitled to recite the Vedas, and they had a rich tradition of recitation. This ensured that pronunciation, down to the uniquely Vedic pitch accents, remained absolutely pristine. While that would make them essentially fluent speakers of Sanskrit, it is hard to see them as native speakers, since long before the eighth century CE Sanskrit had moved on from being a first language.

There is no real evidence of what the Namboodiris spoke in their daily conversation when they first reached Kerala – not surprising, since we also know nothing at all about the vernaculars used by the old Rig Vedic migrants. Less literary languages do tend to get ignored in the writing of history. What is known about them is that they came from the North, and that they travelled to Kerala along the west coast, transiting through Gujarat and Maharashtra.

It is hard to imagine that the Namboodiris were too different from other Brahmins of their time. They would probably have spoken a Middle Indo-Aryan dialect from their original homeland, the sort of variety that in Sanskrit is called an Apabhraṁśa, which only means a “corrupted” language that did not follow the norms of Pāṇinian Sanskrit.

It would have included Sanskrit-linked vocabulary with the Dravidian-inspired phonology of the early Prakrits: not the original Sanskrit words, tatsama (“the same as” the original), but words from Prakrit which had passed through the crucible of evolution, and were tadbhava (“born from” the original words, but now mutated).

This would mean that the Namboodiris knew both Sanskrit, which they used in their Vedic recitation, and a more modern dialect with Prakrit words already adapted to Dravidian phonology. This dialect might have had an affinity to early varieties of Marathi, spoken directly to the north of Kerala, in a region that already had a strong Brahmin presence.

Soon the new migrants, despite their wealth never a large and growing community, would have had to pick up the local language, Malayalam. And since the place of Malayalam in their lives would have been essentially the same as that of the Apabhraṁśa they had come with, and since their relocation to Kerala was permanent, it would have made sense for them to move on from the old Apabhraṁśa and switch to a new first language.

There is no trace in the literature of their original vernacular to suggest that it persisted, and Sanskrit – a literary language learnt only after infancy – was not an option as a first language either. It is common for migrant groups to give up their vernacular languages. When they shifted to Malayalam, however, they would have infused it with tadbhava words from the Apabhraṁśa they were speaking earlier. And later when they moved on to writing in Malayalam, they brought in the tatsama Sanskrit words that, they felt, were more suited to the rarefied world of literature.

Malayalam is, despite this, a Dravidian language. Its basic DNA did not change with these superficial additions. In its syntactic structure, it remained essentially the same as its neighbour, Tamil, the archetypal Dravidian language. Its pronouns, ñān (I), nī (you), avaḷ (she), ayāḷ (he) are the original Dravidian ones, with no sign of influence from a northern Apabhraṁśa or from Sanskrit.

Just as significant an indicator of its genetics is the fact that its numerals and its basic verbs are also the old Dravidian ones. The overlay of Sanskrit did not trickle down to affect core vocabulary, the way that words from the European languages did with creoles, or the Prakrits did with the languages of north India.

The numerals from one to five are still essentially the same in Tamil and Malayalam. The verb “come” is va, and the verb “go” is po. But still, if you ask any Malayali, you will be told that Sanskrit words are “everywhere”.

Excerpted with permission from Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India Through Its Languages, Peggy Mohan, Penguin Viking.

(Source: Scroll)

Sunday, 18 April 2021

How harpists were portrayed in the tales of the Buddha’s former lives

 The theme of these stories revolves around longing and heartache.

In my previous blog, I gave examples of how female harpists were depicted in Burmese manuscript illustrations. In this blog, I will discuss stories of male harpists that appear in Jātakas, or tales of the Buddha’s former lives, in the British Library’s Burmese manuscripts collection. The theme of these stories revolves around longing and heartache.

The Sussondi Jātaka recounts the story of Sagga, a harpist-minstrel. He is sent by the king of Benares (Varanasi) to find the queen who has disappeared. Unbeknownst to the king, the queen had in fact fallen in love with the Garuḍa king, who had taken her with him to Nāga Island.

The king sends Sagga, his harpist-minstrel, to search for Sussondi, his queen. | British Library

While looking for her, Sagga crosses the sea with a ship of merchants who implore him to play his harp. He responds: “I would make music, but if I do, the fish will be so excited that your vessel will be wrecked.”

The merchants disbelieve him and insist, and in the end, he plays and sings with great beauty. The fish start splashing about and a sea monster who lives in the area leaps up falls onto the ship and sinks it. Nevertheless, Sagga manages to reach the shore of the Nāga island clutching onto his (boat-shaped) harp.

Queen Sussondi, who was strolling on the shore in the absence of the Garuḍa king, finds him. She recognises Sagga and welcomes him with open arms. They become lovers and Sussondi hides him from the Garuḍa king whenever he returns.

Sagga is shipwrecked by jumping fish, but manages to swim to shore with his harp. Photo credit: British Library

The next time a group of merchants reach the shore, Sagga sails back with them to Benares (this time successfully), where he plays his harp and sings the song of Sussondi, replete with his own longing of her, to the king.

Sagga makes the return voyage by boat. Photo credit: British Library

The Burmese harp or Saung is a very old instrument that has a continuous history that spans over a thousand years. Many temple reliefs and wall frescoes from Bagan (ninth century-13th centuries) depict harps, although Judith Becker has suggested these harps may be different from the Sri Ksetra harp (see previous blog), which in turn resembles quite closely the modern Burmese harp.

Sagga returns to the palace and sings the story of Sussondi to the king. Photo credit: British Library

There probably were many different kinds of harps in use at the time. Although the terminology for the harp varies, the word Saung first appears at the Lokatheikpan temple in Bagan (c. 1125), where it describes “monks, who can play the harp”.

Indeed, the Saung seems to have an inextricable connection with Buddhism and, according to Becker, the disappearance of the harp accompanied the decline of Buddhism in certain parts of South Asia.

The earliest known songs thought to have been composed for harp music date to the early 14th century. Although song-texts were inscribed on palm leaf, there was no musical notation, and so the musical tradition was passed on orally with the music itself being impressed on memory when performed.

The oldest harp music that still survives is the “Three Barge Songs”, attributed to Wungyi Padei-tha-yaza (1683-1754), a minister at the Toungoo court. These songs purportedly describe a river voyage from Lake Meiktila to Tagaung.

A blindfolded Brahmin plays the harp to his wife, while her lover hits him from behind. Photo credit: Mss Burmese 202, f. 75v

The Aṇḍabhūta Jātaka (Mss Burmese 202) makes use of the harp for a lighthearted slapstick humour scene. It recounts the story of a Brahmin who has gone to great effort to find and keep a wife who has never seen any other men.

Here he plays the harp to her at home for her entertainment. Unbeknownst to him, however, she has taken a lover and tricks him into being blindfolded through the pretence of her being too shy of him watching her dance. While he is blindfolded in this way, the lover, who is currently staying in the house, hits him on the head and hides.

The Dīghītikosala Jātaka (Or 13538) tells the heart-wrenching story of a prince (the Bodhisatta), whose parents are cruelly slain by a deceitful rival. He is devastated, but instead of seeking revenge he goes to stay with the keeper of the red elephant of the palace and leads a simple life.

Slowly he recovers from his heartache and when the monsoon rains fall he sings and plays beautiful songs of acceptance and reconciliation with his harp.

In the next instalment of this series of blogs on the Burmese harp, I will talk about the Saung’s relationship with Gautama Buddha.


Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: Its Classical Music, Tunings, and Modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

Judith Becker, “The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma”, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 20 (Mar., 1967), pp. 17-23.

E.B. Cowell (ed.), The Jātaka or stories of the Buddha’s former births, Vols. I-VI. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2004-2005.

(Source: Asian and African Studies blog)

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Hidden women of history: Hélisenne de Crenne, the first French novelist to tell her own story

 In 1538, a new author burst on to the literary scene in Paris. Published by Denys Janot, four new works appeared within five years by a writer known as Hélisenne de Crenne.

The first was Les Angoysses douloureuses qui procedent d'amours (The Torments of Love), a novel that depicted the disastrous consequences of an adulterous affair.

In 1539 came a collection of letters that explored women’s speech, education, friendship and legal rights among its topics.

Vittore Carpaccio’s portrait of a woman reading (1510). Wikiart

In 1540 she published Le Songe (The Dream), a moral and didactic work in which a woman and her lover reflected upon the perils of lust.

Her last known work was a translation into French prose of the first four books of Virgil’s Aeneid (1541), dedicated to the king, Francis I.

Hélisenne de Crenne was the pen name of Marguerite Briet, the daughter of a legal family from Abbeville. Few details of her life are certain, but we know that she obtained a legal separation from her husband, Philippe Fournel, Lord of Crenne, and moved to Paris, the centre of French literary activities and publishing. There she owned several properties. It appears that her son, Pierre, was a student there in 1548.

Hélisenne was the first living woman of the century to be printed in France and hers was the first autobiographical novel to be published in French. The publication of her works was remarkable in several ways.

Speaking out

Women represented less than 1% of all identifiable published authors in 16th-century France. Female literacy and broader education was not as high as for men at the same social levels.

Women at court were producing sophisticated intellectual and creative works that circulated in manuscript. Print publication provided a more open and visible expression than manuscript circulation, but was limited to a more select few. Even women in powerful social positions acknowledged expectations that women should restrict their speech to the domestic sphere.

An illustration from the translation of Virgil’s verse depicts Hélisenne presenting it to the king. Bibliothèque nationale de France

Most women writers provided lengthy justifications or apologies for their venture into print. Hélisenne claimed to hesitate to make “mention of immodest love, which according to the opinion of some shy women could be judged more worthy to be conserved in profound silence than to be published for a widespread audience”. Nevertheless, she pressed on.

Rather than locate herself in a line of female authors, Hélisenne identified herself in a tradition of the male canon for her authority to write. The opening phrase of her Le Songe recalled none other than Cicero as her model:

…in imitation of him, the desire arose in me to relate in detail to you a dream worthy of recording.

Small books to carry

Print publication offered a woman without elite networks access to a large pool of readers, and perhaps a way to reach potential patrons at court.

The dedication of her translation to Francis I and her praise of his sister, Marguerite de Navarre (another prolific author whose works appears in print over the course of the century), in her Letters suggests that Hélisenne may have hoped for their patronage.

Le Songe de madame Helisenne Crenne (1541) Bibliothèque nationale de France

The staggered release of her writings seems to have been planned to heighten their impact. Her publisher, Denys Janot, mainly published works in French, targetting a popular market and using on-trend Roman typeface rather than the heavy, old-fashioned Gothic script.

Most of Hélisenne’s works, like those of other female writers, were in small sizes such as octavo, duodecimo and sextodecimo. These were portable and cheap, unlike the larger-sized folio and quarto scholarly and religious works intended to be consulted in libraries as part of a long-lasting record, though her translation of Virgil’s Aeneid was produced as a folio, with extensive woodcut illustrations.

A female perspective

Hélisenne was one of the first women writers who sought publication of her work seemingly as a conscious contribution to contemporary popular literature.

Her novel, The Torments of Love, involves an unusual structure, retelling the same events from the perspective of three different narrators: Hélisenne, her lover Guénélic, and Guénélic’s best friend, Quézinstra. Each section offers new insights to the overarching narrative, and each has its own distinctive tone and style.

The work’s balancing of elements from chivalric literature and a new emotional sensibility culminates in its conclusion as a battle between Athena and Venus over the book itself.

A nineteenth-century artist’s imagined Helisenne. Wikipedia

Her translation of Aeneid was equally radical, creatively embellishing the original from a female perspective with a highly sympathetic presentation of Dido’s plight and women’s loyalty in love.

She was very proud of her publication in the city that was the intellectual and publishing centre of France, saying:

… it is an inestimable pleasure to me to think that my books are on sale in this noble Parisian city, which is inhabited by an innumerable multitude of wonderfully learned people.

A commercial success

Hélisenne’s work were a commercial success, going through nine editions in a short, intense period to 1560.

Torments of Love is Hélisenne’s only work to be dedicated to female readers who she called “all honest ladies”. Elsewhere, she assumed her works would be of interest to everyone, including the king.

A later editor did not agree. Claude Colet explained in the introduction to the 1550 edition of her works that his extensive simplification of her Latinate style for young ladies was “to render the obscure words or those too much like Latin into our own familiar language, so that they will be more intelligible to you”.

The last known evidence of this groundbreaking author is in 1552 but, in her lifetime, she had achieved a remarkable series of literary firsts.

(Source: The Conversation)

Friday, 16 April 2021

This book visits the sites of India’s civilisations to reimagine 4,000 years of history

 Namit Arora combines the evidence gleaned from travel and research to draw informed conclusions in ‘Indians: A Brief History of a Civilisation’.

The book Indians: A Brief History of a Civilisation offers an unusual saunter through more than 4,000 years of India’s history. The milestones on the journey on which Namit Arora takes us are wondrous yet oft-ignored locales including Dholavira, Pataliputra, Nagarjunakonda, Nalanda, Khajuraho, Hampi and Varanasi.

Clockwise from top left: Historical sites at Dholavira, Nagarjunakonda, Hampi, and Patliputra. | Dholavira: Rahul Zota / CC BY-SA 4.0; Nagarjunakonda: Sabyk2001 / CC BY-SA 3.0; Hampi: Hawinprinto / CC BY-SA 4.0; Patliputra Manoj / Public Domain

As guides in addition to himself, Arora enlists history’s well-known travellers from other lands: Megasthenes from Greece, China’s Xuanzang, Central Asia’s Alberuni, Marco Polo the Italian, the Portuguese who visited Vijayanagara, Bernier the Frenchman, and more. Meeting the reader in chronological sequence, these travellers’ accounts form part of this 296-page book, along with Arora’s own reflections and comments, including those on philosophical debates and architectural puzzles.

The net result is a sobering assessment that greatness in our land was joined far too often by callousness and neglect, even though elements from the past continue to strike awe in the reader’s mind.

Imagining daily life

Arora is someone who abandoned his Silicon Valley perches (for which IIT Kharagpur had equipped him) for his love of India’s irresistible places. Also in play, it would seem, was a thirst in the writer to understand the springs of India’s history as also the statics/dynamics of Indian society. Pulled, too, by the capabilities of the camera – which, going by the book’s stunning colour photographs, he wields with great skill – Arora has repeatedly visited the celebrated landmarks.

He has studied these places intensively and reflected deeply on them. He scrutinises the aforementioned travellers even as he quotes them. In Indians, we see these observers in their national contexts too, not just as reporters of India, and thus glimpse their likely motivations.

But it’s more than the camera or the travellers. The book’s quotes and notes confirm to us that Arora has absorbed what a great many other scholars have written about these places and their histories. He also feels free to offer his own takes, and why not?

A refreshing feature in Indians is Arora’s effort to imagine the life and bustle of each locale in its heyday. After providing recorded perspectives and knowledge extracted from archaeology, Arora daydreams a bit. These short reveries where the past is recreated for the reader appear plausible and lifelike. Here, to give an example, is Vijayanagara’s large-scale construction activity in the 14th and 15th centuries:

“I imagine labourers, masons and sculptors doing the hard, back-breaking work of quarrying, moving, cutting, shaping and raising stones with the basic technologies of the day: chisel and hammer, ropes and ramps, human and animal muscle. Countless must have died in accidents.”

Through traveller’s eyes

Earlier, depicting how Chinese travellers during a period of three centuries (“400 -700 CE”) ended up enlightening Indians about India, Arora makes a different point: “Many Indian monks also went as missionaries and scholars to China but none of their observations have come down to us.” While the world has always described India, why is it that Indians, exceptions apart, have shown little interest in portraying the peoples beyond their borders, even when living amidst them?

Providing history’s dates with seeming certitude, Arora is similarly unequivocal and bold in his appraisals and assertions. Where the exact date or duration of a past exercise remains unknown, scholars are certainly entitled to offer their considered estimate, even if it’s a rough one. And if after examining arguments for or against a particular position, a scholar reaches a conclusion, there is something to be said for offering that conclusion in clear and even categorical language. Which is what Arora does.

How Buddhism was swept aside in India, including by being absorbed in Hinduism, is part of the history Arora examines. His historical tour also shows, sadly, that sati was an old and indigenous practice, recorded in the first century BCE, not something forced on Hindu society by aggressive Muslim males, whose religion entered the Indian scene many centuries later.

Of Alberuni’s famous text on India, written “around 1030” after the author spent “most of thirteen years” in India and learnt much (including Sanskrit), Arora says: “Alberuni approached India like a scholarly journalist… [His] is the work of a deeply intelligent, curious and decent mind.” Arora reminds us that Alberuni ended his book by writing, “We ask god to pardon us for every statement of ours which is not true.”

Some of Arora’s binaries may be too sharp. In his chapter on Varanasi, the city of (among so many others) Kabir, Ravidas and Tulsidas, Arora places Tulsidas in one column of “personal piety” and “the status quo”, and Ravidas and Kabir in an opposed column of “a casteless and classless society”. In countless homes, such a conflict was unknown or ignored. Many Indians were (and I hope are) raised on the similarities in the devotion and thought of these amazing poets. We learnt the songs of all three.

In Indians, caste seems to emerge as Indian society’s principal characteristic and bane, but coercions and oppressions within “low” castes are also visible. Much was indeed golden in India’s history, but was there a golden age that foreigners destroyed? Unfortunately, Arora’s long “tour” does not reveal any sizeable period when most of India gleamed.

Painstakingly researched, Indians is a pleasure to read. Significant arguments accompany the utterly fascinating information showered by it. Any rival history that wishes to refute this book’s conclusions had better find credible dates and solid evidence, for Namit Arora has set a high bar.

(Source: Scroll)