ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Continuities between Ancient and Contemporary India

The Idea of Ancient India: Essays on Religion, Politics and Archaeology by Upinder Singh, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2016; pp 439 (hardback), 1,250.

Much is known about the urban layout of the Indus Valley Civilisation, its management of surplus (the Granary), sophistication of water usage (the Great Bath), and its likely trading partners. However, little can be said about the thoughts and emotions of its people. This is because we failed to decipher what they have, in words, pictures and pictographs, left behind as expressions of their quotidian and aspirational lives. In staggering contrast, we know so much about the fears and anxieties, and joys and sorrows of the Indo–Aryans, through soaring poetry and rich spiritual explorations of the Vedas. But, we do not know of the shapes of their homes, their spaces of worship, the children’s toys, or their ornamentations. Thus, these two historical moments in the subcontinent, now appropriated as the unshakeable bedrock of Hindutva, are, in fact, incomplete. Perhaps, that explains how and why isolated and unconnected “facts” can be strung together such that they serve the will to power: rivers change course, migration becomes emigration, gods are born before their time, and an eternal and glorious civilisation, predicated on ethnic and religious identity, emerges from history’s equivalent of the primordial soup whence any narrative can take life.

Within the clamour of such a concerted and determined project to reconfigure contours of the past, it is untenable to think or write about any historical narrative without comparing it to, and placing it in, the context of these other narratives that openly and aggressively contest it. India, in the decades since independence, has had at least three generations of superlative historians who have, as the foundations of their work, concrete material and research from multiple and varied sources; wide-ranging imaginations that allow them to pull their disparate sources into coherent, plausible and engaging narratives; and the ability to write clearly and well. They have trained at home and abroad, written and spoken prolifically, defended their theories and perspectives, and performed the role of public intellectuals when needed the most. The ideology (now under siege) that has guided their work—historical materialism—has produced histories of inclusion and vulnerability, unlike the monolithic, dogmatic and unitary versions of the past that are now being developed as a challenge to their position.

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Updated On : 24th May, 2017
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