A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India

A Review of Upinder Singh’s book by D.P. Agrawal

A Review of Upinder Singh’s book by D.P. Agrawal

For both new and old authors Singh’s book should serve as a role model, though I must admit that the hyper-publicity and the VIP connections of the author had initially prejudiced me a bit. On the back cover of the jacket, mostly foreign scholars’ opinions have been quoted which of course shows that both the author and the publisher have better global connections, than Indian. Very few Indian scholar shave been able to express their opinions perhaps because of its prohibitive price of Rs 3500/-. In fact, I myself ordered it only after reading somewhere that it is available on a subsidized price, otherwise I could hardly afford to spend so much from my modest pension. The book seems to be targeted at a foreign reader as it takes about forty pages to explain the types of sources Indian history is based upon. To an Indian, such sources are quite known.

However, when I went through the thick volume, I gradually realized that both the publisher and the author have lavished considerable effort and concern on producing an excellent and interesting book on Indian history. The author must have put in a lot of hard work in procuring hundreds of high resolution, quality pictures to illustrate her book. The sketches and colorful maps add to both its quality and readability. Irfan Habib has however pointed out some serious mistakes in the maps, which he alone could detect as they have a very well equipped cartography unit at Aligarh.

Covering such a large span of time from the Stone Age to Medieval Period is quite an ambitious undertaking. Once one goes into the Stone Age, one is obliged to give the world picture of the early hominids, as prehistory is a global discipline. Dealing with prehistory requires one to bring in the excitement of tracing our ancestry to the African great grandmother, the Mitrochondrial Eve, traceable back to 150,000 years ago. One also expects the mention of the excitement of finding the miniature hominids found in Liang Bua in Indonesia by Situkna et al. The Homo floresiensis (mini humans of Indonesia) existed with modern humans as late as 13000 years – though both had descended from the tall Homo erectus. One also expects something about the recent discoveries about the causes of the disappearance of the Neanderthals though they seem to be as well equipped as the Homo sapiens. The main problem with taking up such a vast span of time is that it is very difficult to scan the ocean of literature that is available on hominids. In India, where hardly any hominid remains are there, Sonakia’s picture with Narmada skull does give it its due importance.

The problem is that with the flood of literature that is available now, it is difficult to cover vast spans of time even for archaeologists of the caliber of Gordon Childe. If one tries to summarize such a vast amount of literature covering the human existence of the last two-million years and more, in a single volume, one can only skim superficially. I too faced this problem when I had to revise my book, The Archaeology of India (1982). I found it impossible to condense the recent data of the last 25 years in a single volume, so I had to publish separate volumes on Prehistory, Bronze and Iron Ages, Indus Civilization and even on Harappan Technology!

The author gives an accurate description of 14C and TL dating techniques and even mentions fission potassium organ dating. A reader would also expect some information about the different Indian laboratories working on these techniques and the significance of their contributions. Under the discussion of the Bronze and Iron Ages, one expected some more details about metallurgy; also some explanations about the long gap between the emergence of iron technology and the Gangetic urbanization. Some recent finds of the Copper Hoard like anthropomorphs from Uttarakhand would have made her treatment more up to date.

In her references, she seems to have a selective bias for foreign scholars or those who are associated with her Delhi University. References to very important works of several scholars are simply missing. Major works of VN Misra, Vibha Tripathi, SP Gupta, etc. are hardly mentioned. Mercifully, she has referred to my 1982 book, though she seems to be blissfully ignorant of the other 20 that I published and are very relevant to the period she is covering. It is thus easy for a reviewer to find faults, but Singh’s work can not be dismissed merely as an overambitious attempt of an amateur.

Singh has achieved a grand success in hitting her target of giving us a lucid and well-argued account of Indian history. The problem is not with her selective bias/filters, but with our human limitations. One can easily write a small book covering the whole of Indian history for young children but to write something for the graduate students or educated layman; covering such a vast span of time is difficult but not impossible, as Singh has so convincingly proved.

Every scholar and historian has a right to have her/his opinion but when one is writing a book for the general reader, it is necessary that she/he should be able to give a balanced picture. If controversies have to be discussed, both the sides should be represented. It goes to the credit of Singh that she has tried to present a very balanced and sobre account both of different religions and different historiographies. Inclusion of a rare photograph by the great Marxist polymath DD Kosambi’s, who had brought about a paradigm shift in Indian historiography, was a pleasant surprise. Singh however does not waste any effort on flogging the Aryan horse nor in trying to offer the Indus Civilization on a platter to the Aryans, as our saffron fringe tries to do. What is important is a more detailed study of all the aspects of the Indus Civilization as these people were the most innovative yet very modest ancestors that we ever had.

The book makes an overwhelming impression that the author is a great teacher and scholar. She has synthesized a variety of vast amount of data and presented it in a very lucid and interesting manner. In fact, we would very much like to use her book as a model for the series of books that Infinity Foundation is bringing out on History of Science and Technology. She has made very effective and innovative use of boxes. Quite often, she starts a chapter with an anecdote and thus capturing the readers’ attention takes her into the intricacies of her chapters. I wish we had more such interesting books on different subjects. Though, I had thought the author has taken too much on her plate by covering such a vast span of time, but now I am convinced that we need such books also which give you a bird’s eye-view of major chunks of your history by putting in a gigantic effort of collecting a variety of data, synthesizing it and expressing it in a very interesting manner. She has thought of the reader at every step and has added an extended glossary, a key to diacritics and also chapter-wise hints for further reading.

I must confess my ignorance of ancient languages and literary texts. Because of my ignorance, the history of the Common Era becomes a bit dense for me but Singh’s treatment of history has made it a fascinating reading and I learnt a good deal from her later chapters. Even the titles of the chapters (Cities, Kings and Renunciations; Power and Piety; Interactions and Innovations; Aesthetics and Empire) are not only innovative but also so enticing in capturing your attention. As a result of her laudable efforts, Singh has been able to produce an eminently readable, cogently argued, and balanced view of Indian history. I am sure everybody interested in ancient India would find it a fascinating read if of course one can afford the price. I do hope that UGC, NBT or some business house will come out with a substantial subsidy so that a cheaper edition could also be brought out, which would enable a larger readership to savour the beauty and erudition of the book. I do hope that my review is not sounding too negative. It is indeed a brave attempt to cover such a vast span. As a good teacher and scholar, she has been very successful in bringing out the essence of Indian history through such profusely illustrated, extremely well written and beautifully designed book. We are grateful to the author for this commendable feat. For all those interested in Indian history and culture, Singh’s book is an essential read.

Delhi: Pearson-Longman. Pages 677. Photographs 330; Maps 30; Figures 51. Price: Rs. 3500/.

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