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The Penguin History of Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300

The Penguin History of Early India: From The Origins to AD 1300
Item Code: NAD004
Author: Romila Thapar
Publisher: Penguin Books
Language: English
Edition: 2002
ISBN: 9780143029892
Pages: 588 (7 B/W Illustrations & 13 Maps)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details: 8.0 Inch X 5.0 Inch
weight of the book: 432 gms

It has been almost four decades since the first version of this book was written and in that time there have been substantial changes in the readings of Indian history. These have come about as a result of some new data together with many fresh interpretations of the known data. My attempt here has been to incorporate the essentials of the new data and interpretation while retaining some of the older arguments where they are still relevant.

A major amendment to this book lies in its chronological span. It now closes at AD. 1300 instead of Ad 1526 as in the earlier version. After many years I have finally persuaded Penguin that the history of India should be convered in three volumes did not do justice to the important period from AD 1300 to 1800 and this is now being corrected. The final volume bring the narrative up to contemporary times. This change also provides more space for each volume. An introduction already exists to the Pre-history and proto-history of India in the volume by F.R. and B. Allchin. The birth of Indian civilization revised in 1993 also published by Viking in 1997 I have therefore given only a brief overview of prehistory and protohistory.

In the course of writing this book I have drawn on many friends for comments on various chapters of an earlier draft. Among them I would like to think R. Champakalakshmi, Madhav Gadgil, Dennis Hudson, Xinru Liu, Michael Meister, Vivek Nanda And K.N. Panikkar. My Special thanks go to Susan Reynolds not only for observations on specific chapters but also for many conversation about the book. I was delighted when Ravi Dayal Suggested that he might like to read the penultimate draft and ploughed his way through it with helpful remarks on what he had read. Naina’s postings of not clear have hopefully made the narrative more lucid. Lucy Peck gallantly agreed to do rough drafts of all the maps thus allowing me to include maps relating to every chapter. I would also like a thank the Homi Bhabha fellowships Council for the award of a Senior fellowship. The research carried out during this period contributed to the shaping of the earlier half of this book. And I would also like to thank David Ludden for arranging a series of lectures at the university of Pemsyhavnia which broadly covered the same themes.

Gene Smith was fanatasically generous with time and effort when he painstakingly scanned the earlier version onto disk and this made the mechanics of rewriting much easier. Shirish and Gautam Patel and Chris Gomes have been unruffled by my frequent cries for help when the computer behave unpredictably and have patiently set me right a patience also shown by Vivek Sharma. Rajani was the one person who over the years kept insisting that I revise the earlier book and finally her instance has had effect.


A book originally written when one had just been initiated into the profession, now being revised late in life, has elements of an autobiography. Returning to a book of almost forty years ago has brought home to me the substantial changes in the readings of early Indian history, some arising out of new data and many more from new interpretations of the existing data. There has been much discussion on these readings and my participation in these has shaped my own understanding of this period. The attempt here is to incorporate such readings that I think are valid without writing an entirely different book. Inevitably, however, there is much that is different in this book. Many ideas that were merely glanced at in the earlier version have now been further drawn out. One may not have been aware of it at the time, but the earlier version was written at a nodal point of change when early Indian history, which had begun essentially as an interest in Indology, was gradually becoming part of the human sciences — a change that I hope to demonstrate in the first chapter on historiography. I have stayed largely within the framework of the earlier book since! thought it was still viable and did not requite radical alteration. Chapters have been re-oriented so that some contain more new material, while in others the emphasis is on new interpretations. The reading of early Indian history has seen considerable changes in the last four decades and I have sought to capture these in the narrative that follows.

The new readings emerged from various ongoing assessments. Some were of colonial interpretations of the Indian past, which also had to contend with the attitudes to Indian culture that were prevalent in the period just alter Indian Independence, In the popular imagination of Europe, India had been the fabulous land of untold wealth, of mystical happenings and of an association with ideas that reached beyond mundane experience. From Old-digging ants to philosophers who lived naked in the forests and meditated on the after-life of the soul, these were all part of the picture of India formed by the ancient Greeks, for example, and these images persisted in Europe into more recent centuries. As in every other ancient culture, wealth in India was limited to the few. Publicizing myths, such as that of the rope trick, was also the preoccupation of just a handful of people. It is true, however, that acceptance — sometimes bemused — of such notions was more extensive in India. Whereas in some cultures the myth of the rope trick would have been ascribed to the prompting of the devil, and all reference to it suppressed, in India it was received with a mixture of belief and disbelief. A fundamental sanity in Indian civilization has been due to an absence of Satan.

Other reactions contending with earlier colonial and nationalist views of Indian culture were different. One was the rather simplistic reaction of annulling or reversing negative statements about Indian civilization and exaggerating the positive statements — a reaction that now seems to be capturing some part of the popular Indian imagination. The more serious concern with history was its recognition as a discipline with a method, including the search for readings that incorporated viable alternative ways of explaining the past. It is the latter that is being set out in this book.

To begin at the beginning then, is to start by asking how histories of India’ came to be written, who the historians were, why they were writing and what were the intellectual and ideological influences that shaped their histories, in short, that which is now called historiography. History is not information that is handed down unchanged from generation to generation. Historical situations need to be explained and explanations draw on analyses of the evidence, providing generalizations that derive from the logic of the argument. With new evidence or fresh interpretations of existing evidence, a new understanding of the past can be achieved. But interpretations have to conform to the basic requirements of using reliable evidence, analytical methods and arguments drawing on logic. Following from these, a sensitivity is needed to the ways in which people from earlier times led their lives and thought about their past. Historiography therefore becomes a prelude to understanding history as a form of knowledge.

Interpretations frequently derive from prevalent intellectual modes. These constitute shifts in the way history is read. Looking at how histories are written is in part the intellectual history of the period under discussion and can therefore be vibrant with ideas and explanations. The starting point in the history of a society, therefore, has to be a familiarity with its historiography .- the history of historical interpretation. This provides recognition of the intellectual context of history, instead of setting this aside with a preference for just a narration of events. Familiarity with the context encourages a more sensitive understanding of the past. This awareness of historiography has contributed substantially to the change in understanding Indian history over the last half-century.

Historiographical change, incorporates new evidence and new ways of looking at existing evidence. The inclusion of perspectives from other human sciences such as studies of societies, economies and religions has led to some important reformulations in explaining the past, resulting primarily from asking different questions from the sources than had been asked before. If earlier historical writing was concerned largely with politics, today it includes virtually all human activities and their interconnections. These are crucial to the argument that the image of reality, as reflected in the human sciences, is socially and culturally controlled and that actions have multiple causes. Advances in knowledge would inevitably change some of these perspectives. Historical explanation therefore creates an awareness of how the past impinges on the present, as well as the reverse.

Among the new sources of evidence, quite apart from the occasional coin, inscription or sculpture, have been data provided by archaeology, evidence on the links between environment and history, and the insights provided by historical and socio-linguistics. Aspects of the oral tradition, when used in a comparative manner, have often illustrated the methods that are used to preserve information, either by societies that are not literate or by those that chose to use the oral form in preference to the literate. The possibility of applying these methods to an earlier oral tradition has been revealing.

In recent years the early history of India has increasingly drawn on evidence from archaeology, which has provided tangible, three-dimensional data in the artifacts and material remains discovered through survey and excavation. These were once used to corroborate the evidence from literary and textual sources (and in some theories about ancient India they continue to be thus used). But archaeological data may or may not corroborate literary evidence, and, where they do not, they provide an alternative view. In the absence of written evidence, or where the written evidence remains undeciphered, artifacts can fill lacunae. The corroboration is not one-to-one since archaeological data are substantially in the form of artifacts, whereas textual information is abstract, and both are subject to the intervention of the historian’s interpretation. The relationship of archaeological data with literary evidence is complicated and requires expertise in each category. Reacting against the earlier tyranny of the text, some archaeologists today would deny the use of texts, even in a comparative way.

Sophisticated methods of excavation and the reading of excavated data are far more complex than in the days when an archaeologist had merely to dig and to discover. Various techniques from scientific disciplines ate being used in the analyses of archaeological data, and the scope of the information provided by these has expanded enormously to include data on climate, ecology, settlement patterns, palaeo-pathology, flora and fauna. Palaeobotany — the study of plant and seed remains from an excavation — relates to flora and environmental conditions, and therefore adds another dimension to the understanding of human settlements. Some of this data can lend itself to a modicum of statistical analysis.

India still sustains an extensive range of societies, some even suggesting a stone age condition. This ‘living pre-history’, as it has been called, underlines the continuity of cultural survivals. Attempts are now being made in the cross-discipline of ethno-archaeology to correlate ethnographic studies with the excavations of human settlements. The correlating may raise some doubts, but the usefulness of such studies lies in the asking of questions, for instance, on forms of social organization or on the functions of artifacts. In areas where there are some cultural survivals, these procedures can endorse the assistance occasionally provided by fieldwork as an adjunct to textual studies, and, as has been rightly argued, this is particularly pertinent to the study of religion in India. Fieldwork provides insights that can enhance the meaning of the text. The changes that occur, for instance, in rituals incorporate elements of history, particularly in societies where for many people ritual activity or orthopraxy is more important than theology or orthodoxy. The entirely text-based studies of religions are now being supplemented by comparative studies of the practice of various religions.

Impressive evidence, both in quality and quantity, has come from sites dating to the second and first millennia sc excavated during the past half-century. It is now possible to map the settlements of the period subsequent to the decline of the first urban civilization in north-western India and this provides some clues to the successor cultures. This raises questions of whether there were continuities from the earlier cultures. Equally significant is the identifying of the nature of successor cultures. There is also evidence on some of the precursor settlements in the Ganges Plain and its fringes in central India, providing clues to the nature of the second urbanization of the mid-first millennium in the Ganges Plain. However, these questions can only be answered after there have been horizontal excavations of the major sites, an activity that awaits attention. Megalithic Burials of various kinds dating from the late second millennium BC, are especially characteristic of the Peninusla. Their origins and relationships to settlements remain somewhat enigmatic but at least they provide evidence of cultural levels and networks prior to the information from inscriptions coins and texts.


List of Illustrations viii
Acknowledgements xi
Note On Bibligraphies xii
Chronology C.1000 BC-AD 1300 xiii
Introduction xvii
1Perceptions of the Past 1
2 Landscapes and Peoples 37
4 Towards Cheifdoms and Kingdoms c.1200-600 BC 98
5States and Cities of the Indo Gangetic Plain C,600-300 BC 137
6 The Emergence of Empire Mauryan India C.321-185 BC174
7 Of Politics and Trade c.200BC –AD 300209
8 The Rise of the Mercantile Community c.200BC-AD 300245
9Thershold Times C.AD 300-700280
10The Peninusla Emerging Regional Kingdoms C, AD 500-900326
11 The Peninsula Establishing Authorities and Structures C, AD 900-1300363
12 The Politics of Northern India C, AD 700-1200405
13 Northern India: Distributive Political economics and Regional Cultures C, AD 800-1300442
Select Bibliography 516
General Bibliography 542

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