Living in Ancient India

I am as mostly everyone knows skeptical of writing of India, whether by Indians or non Indians and should that writing be a work non fiction, especially History, I am even more wary! We Indians, as everyone knows have over the past 5000+ years produced a lot of history and sometime, to paraphrase Saki, way more than we can consume! With so much of history therefore lying around ( you walk into the main street of any small/big town and right next to a big snazzy modern condominium will be an 17th century Makhbara  aka a tomb) almost everyone thinks of themselves as Historian, after reading a book or two. Many of the writing is ridiculous and most have nothing new to say, except put together excerpts from primary resources to substantiate a theory, I have already forgotten by chapter 2.  I am sure the author did his best, but really I have no idea as what was the point of this book. At the cost of sounding like an intellectual snob, when you learn from the Doyens of Indian History (read Dr. Romilla Thapar & Dr. Harbans Mukhiya), you do tend to wonder, why does everyone want to write histories! Therefore I dismissed, Nayanjot Lahiri’s – Time Pieces – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, though Dr. Lahiri is an academic of the first order and has been widely published! However a chance reading of a review by Madhulika Liddle, made me look up the book a second time, buy it and then read it!


Time Pieces is unlike any other history book and it does not talk about the rise and fall of rulers and empires of Ancient India. Instead, Dr. Lahiri takes through a tour of ancient India, through the eyes of things that are everyday. In 10 neat chapters, titled as follows –  Journeys, Art, Hygiene, Food, Environment, Love, Laughter, Identity, Death and Afterlife, she tries to give the readers, a snapshot of how the common people of India lived, what they ate, who they loved, how did they define identities and their beliefs of deaths and afterlife. While she does touch upon a the edicts of the great kings, including Ashoka, she uses them to shed light on the daily lives of the masses, to give the readers some idea of the lives and times of Ancient India instead of the usual focus on the great dynasties and their empires. Instead she tells the readers about the massacre of the local population by Alexander’s forces, when they invaded India, the prehistoric art in the Bhimbetka caves, the yearning of an ancient couple, Sutanuka, a Devadasi and Devadinna, a sculptor and of court jesters who could be dispense caustic judgments on the ruling kings, under the guise of a joke! We come across, poets, painters, court dancers, politicians, merchants and a host of characters that inhabited ancient India and we get a small insight on how they lived and what they loved!

The book is not academic and is not a tome. It is less than 200 pages and is exactly what the title claims to be – a Whistle Stop. Dr. Lahiri, shares insightful nuggets, on some selected aspects on India and no more and no less. While she sources all kinds of academic first source research, the narrative is more of a raconteur rather than a historian, with wide references from literature to music to drive home her point, without stooping to such weird allegories as India as a pizza base and her people her toppings (I DID read this and I AM rolling my eyes). She makes history come alive and throb with the vibrancy of life, which is a running thread in history of a land more than 5000 years old. And yet, without managing to sound didactic or pedagogic, she forces you to think and open your mind – Alexander’s invasion to India is always a milestone in Indian History as it set the ball rolling for the rise of the first of the mightiest dynasties of India – The Maurayan Empire. It was also a well documented part of Indian history, as one of the Greek ambassador’s to the first Emperor’s court, Selucid left a detailed account of the life and times. However, Dr. Lahiri is the first historian to point the amateur reader, to a lesser known aspect of Alexander’s invasion – massacre of men and women and children in Multan, then northwestern India and now modern Pakistan, on a scale, that would be termed in modern day as genocide.  She speaks about identity and stories of women, often lesser known in such works as Therigatha, where court dancers, mothers and queens come alive with their narratives of loves, lives and deaths. The book is replete with with interesting information as to why Indian Buddha’s do not smile, to descriptions of food, that defined power and largess and things which are often overlooked in more serious tomes, more so because there is just so much to write and also because, the details of daily life of Indian between 5000 BCE to 1000 AD is rather touch to decipher. This brings me to what I consider, the most important feature of the book – this could not have been a easy book to write, even for such an accomplished Historian as Dr. Lahiri simply because narratives about everyday life in India is far and few. We have the Buddhist texts and a lot of religious texts, but to glean out the earthy secular facts from the more metaphysical – philosphical texts cannot be an easy task. Yet it is accomplished and beautifully so! The book is a must read for anyone interested in India, History or both!

The Ocean of Tales

Yet another post that should have seen the light of the day earlier, atleast 19 days earlier. But then life continues to be challenging and we flow along as well as we can with the changing of the river course! Anyhow, late last year I had signed up for the the The Official TBR Challenge 2018 hosted by Adam at The Roof Beam Reader; and as part of the challenge, I had committed to reading 12 books through the year, that have been on my TBR the longest. The first book in this series was Kathasaritasagar by Somadeva, translated by Dr. Arisha Sattar.

Way back, as kid growing up in early 1990s, before cable and satellite television invaded Indian homes, most of us relied on the state funded Television channel for our information and entertainment. While options did seem limited, the quality was excellent and way better than what we are served today. The news was accurate, up to date and independent of any political influence; and the entertainment was top notch, comedy, drama, romance, all served with quality and sensitivity! One of the series that made an incredible impression, was this series of unrelated stories from what I now understand as ancient India. There were stories in stories, of princes and priests, of jackals and lions which captured an 8 year old’s imagination. My father told me that these stories had been taken from a book called Kathasaritasagar by Somdeva and it took me yet another 26 years before I actually found the book and read it cover to cover!


Kathasaritasagar literally means Ocean of Stories was written in 11th century by Somadeva as the offering to Queen Suryavati, the consort to King Anantdeva, who ruled all of Kashmir, the northern most state of India. However, the tales are in itself older than 11th century and have been handed down orally, until Somadeva collated them together for this collection. Interestingly, the intent behind this effort was to divert the Queen’s mind even for a while, from the worship of Shiva and acquiring learning from great books!

The Book opens by Goddess Parvati, asking her consort, the supreme God Shiva to tell her a tale, that has never been heard before! As Shiva narrates the tales, they are overheard by one of his attendants, who latter narrates them to his wife, who happens to be Parvati’s doorkeeper! The doorkeeper then re-tells the story to Paravati, who is enraged at the audacity of the attendant and curses him to be reborn as a mortal Gunadhya, where he will remain, until he spreads the tale far and wide! Gunadhya thus eiled from heaven writes his tales Brhatkatha,(The Great Story) the collection of 7 stories and presents it to the Satavahana King who rejects it as inferior work. Scorned and dejected, Gundhaya begins to burn his stories and all but one are destroyed before a heavenly Prince named Naravhanadatta rescues the document.When the Satavahana King here;s this, he is entranced and asks that the  manuscript not only be persevered, but the story spread far and wide!  Thus begins the stories of Kathasaritasagar with beautiful maidens and their fearless lover, of jackals to advise the lion kings, of Brahmans who covet power, stories of statecraft and intrigue, of love and friendship, peopled with kings, mendicants, aesthetics, merchants, princesses, prostitutes, drunkards and gamblers, all who come together for a rip roaring adventure in ancient India!

To begin with, this book, unlike any other work in Sanskrit literature, does not provide any moral judgement; in a unique stand  of each to his own, this book talks of everything under the sun, from infidelity to greed to intrigue and it simply tells the tale. Women are crafty, so are men, but there is no moralizing in these stories! In yet another departure from standard Sanskrit texts. it does not talk about spiritual well being and the need for austerities to attain Nirvana; instead it delights on all earthly pleasures of love and generosity, of power play and intrigue and all earthly emotions! The tales despite being set in an era more than 2000 years ago, retain a sense of universality, with human interactions and emotions being as relevant today as 2000 years back! There is an element of what-happens-next that keeps the reader on the hooks and keeps the page turning! There is some timeline confusion, Nandas, the rulers of 300 BCE India, interact  with Rig Vedic Aryans, the latter preceding the Nanda’s by 1500 years! But considering the time it was written in and the oral narrative sourcing of the tales, such confusion is understandable. One thing that stood out starkly, as a commentary on Indian society is the status of women and those deemed as lower castes in Hindu society. Written in 11th century, it comes out clearly, while women were considered to have fulfilling lives only as wives and mothers, the reality is different – they had affairs, they remarried and even controlled property and finances in the absence of their husbands.  There is also immutability and fluidity in the caste system, the lower castes mingle with the higher castes and even compete for same rewards! Therefore, in yet another testimony that original Hinduism was a liberal institution, changed beyond its original complexion by zealots and subsequent invasions, which narrowed the position of women and lower castes and turned them into oppressed beings!

To end, this is one brilliant book, that needs to be read by anyone interested in India and her history and culture, that also just happens to be an all out entertainer!

The Home & The World Read Along Indian History – Part I

As many of you are aware, I am hosting The Home and The World Read Along for the Month of August, both to celebrate Indian Independence which happens to fall on 15th Aug but also to mark the centenary anniversary of this masterpieces publication. Now for the non-Indian reader, also may be some Indian readers, the book while a thin novella is a complex work because of the socio-political background in which the narrative is set as how it plays a critical factor in plot development. Therefore, I had promised by fellow readers a crash course in Indian history and women’s empowerment to better understand the nuances of the novel. Towards this end, I present, a capsule of Indian History, focusing primarily on Indian Independence movement.

Capsule is a very very adventurous term for trying to summarize 5000+ years of history, in 5 line paragraphs, but our focus is the novel and its background and not stand alone Indian history, therefore, one’s gotta do what one’s gotta do! For those, who are interested to know more, please let me know and I can share a more comprehensive bibliography for your edification.

The pre-historic remains found in Southern India point towards presence of Homo Erectus about 500,000-200,000 years ago. The homo erectus must have liked the place, because they hung around to evolve through the  Mesolithic period and Neolithic period to potentially help develop one of the first urban civilizations of the world – the Indus Valley civilization.From 7000 BC to 1300 BC, there flourished in the North Western part of India one of the most sophisticated civilizations of the world with such “modern” marvels as urban sanitation systems, waste water management and multistoreyed houses. It was scintillating civilization with advance metallurgy and hydraulic science capabilities.

The Great Bath
The Great Bath excavated at Mohenjodaro, one of the primary sites of Indus Valley Civilization
The Dancing Girl
The Dancing Girl -a bronze statuette dating around 2500 BC, Mohenjodaro

Unfortunately, the script of this civilization remains indecipherable and much of its life and times remains locked. The civilization began to decline in about 1500-1300 BC and the reasons for that remain speculative. The invasion of the Indo-Aryan tribes from Middle Asia was often cited as a common cause, but has been almost abandoned by many historians and now the theory states that the Aryans came in waves rather than a full blown “invasion”; furthermore, it seems difficult to grasp that such a sophisticated and advanced civilization would have been completely desiccated by what was essentially a nomadic primitive community. Change of seasons including the drying up of one of fabled rivers of India – Saraswati has been cited as a reason. There have been some adventurous commentaries on how Aryans where actually the people of Indus Valley civilization. The latter theory has been completely dismissed as there are far too different cultural markings between the two ages and people to consider Aryans as the natural inheritors of Indus Valley Civilization.The most agreed upon thought is the Indus Valley civilization gradually decline due to the climate changes and the coming of Aryans did kind of hurry the process along.

The Aryan or the Vedic Civilization (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE) began with the slow migration of the Indo Aryan tribes into Northern and then north eastern India. These were primarily pastoral, nomadic tribes, who developed the great Vedic system on which rests the very foundation of Hinduism. The Vedic beliefs were closely related to the hypothesized Proto-Indo-European religion and the Indo-Iranian religion, though there are clear historical evidence, that the Vedic practices eventually adopted some part of the last remains of the Indus Valley people.The early Vedic society was a more tribal community divided into a caste system, originally derived as a labor classification system which sustained itself through agriculture and pastorialisim. It was during this period that Sanskrit as a language emerged and the Devnagri script, the primary script of all North Indian languages developed.It was during this period, that the great epics of Ramayana and Mahabharta were also scripted.

As the Vedic civilization developed there was second wave of Urbanization of city states, very much in Greek style called the Mahajanapadas. These early republics coexisted and waged wars among each other and developed a very urbane and liberated culture , including legal prostitution, where the women were given full rights and citizenships. It was during this phase that the commentaries on the vedic books – The Upanishads were written and Gautam Buddha, was born as the august son to one of prominent families of the republic, who would eventually leave all material comforts to preach a simple contemplative life and found Buddhism. 

The rule of the republics came to a halt as one republic from North Eastern India gained power over the other confederacies and led to the establishment of Kingdom of Magadh. It was during this time, that there were significant development in science, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy. In one of first form of federal governments, a lot of power was deployed at the grassroot level to villages and the administrations were divided into executive, judicial, and military functions.

The Greek invasion of Alexander happened during this period – Alexander came all the way from Greece, conquering Persia and Bacteria and defeating the Northern republics of India, only to turn back from the gates of Magadh – his solider tired of fighting and the great conquer himself beginning to fall in the throes of the illness which would finally lead to his death.The coming of Alexander did not create much disturbance in the Indian society, except create a confusion, which would be exploited smartly by one of the most brilliant political minds ever – Chanakya whose mind makes Machiavelli seem like a high school novice. He along with a brave and adventurous, albeit outcast youth, called Chandragupta would seize power and establish the first of many dynasties of India called the Maurya Dynasty. This is one of the first “Golden Eras” of Indian history and the Maurya empire saw immense development of economy, trade with Egypt, Mesopotamia and China and a very “modern” form of government where free trade ruled the day, unless the ruler intervened to prevent black marketing or to ensure the poor got their share!

Sanchi Stupa
The Sanchi Stupa, originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great, third ruler from the Maurayan Dynasty in the 300 BC

With the decline of the Maurya Dynasty, which lasted from 322 till about 185 BCE, India saw the rise of once again smaller kingdoms while there was significant strides made in literature and philosophy, but no single kingdom really stands out until the rise of what is termed as the Gupta Empire, circa 320-650 CE. The Gupta period was the second phase of the Golden Era which showcased extensive achievements in the fields of  science, technology, engineering,art, literature, logic, mathematics, especially the latter since it saw the modern numerals system as well as the  positional numeral system, originated in India and was later transmitted to the West through the Arabs. It was also during this rule that caste system moving away from an economic division of labor system became a social hierarchy where one could only be born to a caste and not inherit through his profession.However Buddhisim continued to flourish with all the support under the umbrella of freedom of religion despite an openly proclaimed religion of Hinduism by the state. More to a trivia, the much debated and infamous Kamasutra was also written in this era by a doctor/scholar called Vātsyāyana. Strong maritime trade also developed and colonies were established in East Asia including Java and Cambodia.

The Borobudur Temple Complex in Java, Indonesia, showcasing influence of Gupta architecture and colonialist aims
Qutub Minar, the tallest minaret in the world, started in 1200 by Qutb al-Din Aibak and completed in 1220 by his son-in-law Iltutmish, both rulers of Delhi Sultanate

Post the decline of the Guptas, primarily due to invasion by Huns, India again receded to a smaller kingdom form of governance, with flashes of brilliant leaders including Harsha and the Chalukya Empires, the Pratiharas and the rise of the Rajput dynasties, the  ancestors of the Jaipur/Jodhpur/Udaipur clans. The Arabs, newly unified under the leadership of Prophet Mohammad, began raids to India, but for 300 years there was no significant impact, until the invasion by Mohammad Ghazni from Afghanistan, 1001 CE with which began the Muslim history of India. For the next 700 odd years, Muslim rulers from West – Afghanistan/Iran/Samarkand, would seek out an empire in India, establishing a syncretism that reflects in the society with a mix of Hinduism and Islam culture, which become the core identity of India. The Delhi Sultanate was the first in line of Muslim ruler, often called the Slave dynasty, since the founder was freed slave; this dynasty gave India her first Muslim woman ruler as well as the famous Qutub Minar. The Slave dynasty was then topped by the Khilji Dynasty, a hardline Islamist rule where Hindu women were put behind purdah to evade the kidnap/convert/marry law of the rulers and jaziya, a religious tax was imposed on all non Muslims. There were some powerful regional powers including the Great Vijayanagar Empire that grew during this time, but they were not strong enough to challenge the The Delhi Sultanate and were soon destroyed or occupied. The last of the Delhi Sultanate Dynasties was the Lodhi Dynasty, which would be completely destroyed in 1526, when a descendant of Timur and Chengiz Khan would sweep down from Central Asia in search of an empire to rule – his name was Babur and he founded the Mughul Empire of India, kick-starting the next golden era.

Taj Mahal
The Taj Mahail built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between 1632–53 in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal

The Mughal Empire once again consolidated India, and brought great development in commerce and literature and especially architecture. It was during the rule of the Mughals, the Red Fort of Delhi and the very symbol of India – The Taj Mahal was constructed. Their rule was of benevolent despots who led their Hindu subjects be and even eradicated such discriminatory practices like the “jaziya” tax (The Great Akbar revoked the tax though his son Shah Jahan would reimpose it again) and were given equal places in the court. However with ascendance of Aurangzeb the fifth ruler, to the Mughal throne, this benevolent rule ended, and the hard line position was again adopted. The greatest tragedy was that Aurgangzed unified for the first time what was modern India, but his policies and practices had disenchanted even the staunchest of allies and with his death came the lowest point of India’s history where medieval archaic barbaric practices took to front, the country was divided among many petty illiterate chiefs and time was rife for a foreign intervention.

I will conclude the remaining 300 years in the next post and will bring into focus, the actual events that formed the backdrop of Tagore’s novel. These 1400 words were merely an attempt to give all the readers a flavor of the baggage that this country carried before the eruption of the events in twentieth century.

P.S. I have not cited any particular sources, but my essay is based on readings which  include A History of India by Romila Thappar, The Penguin History of Early India by Romila Thappar,The Wonder that was India by Al Basham, India by John Kaye, The Mughal World (Vol. 1 and Vol 2.) by Abraham Eraly, The Lost River by Michel Danino, Wikipedia and class lecture notes from my Graduate school days under the brilliant scholarship of the inimitable Prof. Emeritus Dr. Romila Thappar.

P.S.S. Stefanie, Cleo, Jane, Brona and all others who are joining me in this read along…I thank you in advance for your patience with the nerd me spewing Indian history till blood runs out of  the ears!!