• Search 


call for papers

Volume: IV, Issue: I, January-June 2013

Ranabir Chakravarti, Exploring Early India up to c. AD 1300, Second Edition, Macmillan Publishers India Ltd., Delhi, 2013, xx 412pp., 12 maps, 32 figs, ISBN 978-9350-59312-7


Book Review by Krishnendu Ray

Keywords Content

Ranabir Chakravarti, Exploring Early India up to c. AD 1300, Second Edition, Macmillan Publishers India Ltd., Delhi, 2013, xx 412pp., 12 maps, 32 figs, ISBN 978-9350-59312-7 The historian reconstructs the past events of human societies in the light of available traces which human beings have left in innumerable shapes/forms ranging from useful utensils to monuments through ages. Thus s/he attempts to explain it as intelligibly and as meaningfully as possible to the reader. This the author of the present book has done in a broad overview from as early as the days of the emergence of human beings in the Indian subcontinent to c.1300 CE. The author has taken up this great initiative in view of the fact that there has been recently a ‘growing interest in early Indian history as a curricular subject at undergraduate/post-graduate level, as a subject attracting the informed general public and as a specialized field of in-depth research’ (p. XV). The author has synthesized a vast body of scholarly published works concerning different aspects of early Indian history. The reader will also find the author’s comments on the recently produced knowledge relating to the history of early India. In this regard the author is concerned with the Indian subcontinent and not the present nation state of India for his historical space. It is because of the fact that the history of India takes the reader thousands years back when there was no concept of the nation state of India and many areas of present day nation-states of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh are found on different occasions in early Indian historical studies. The historian attempts to identify and explain changes in the past of human societies in its spatial dimensions. Thus India as a spatial unit stands for the subcontinent. The author has referred to the ancient nomenclatures---Jambudvīpa and Bhāratavarṣa or India, Shen-tu and Hindustan-- of the Indian subcontinent and discussed their denotations. As a vast historical area it is known to have contained long traditions of diverse experiences linguistic, social, etc which human beings have acquired through ages.

The reader is therefore naturally directed to chronological labels in early Indian history. The reader is reminded that the system of periodization in Indian history as Hindu, Muslim and British or ancient, medieval and modern is now given up. Recent scholarship also does not describe the entire period from the Palaeolithic culture to 1300 CE ‘as an undifferentiated ancient phase.’ The reason is that there occurred innumerable changes in Indian history during this long period. The ancient period of Indian history terminates around 600 AD because, according to the author, the period after 600 AD witnessed many ‘significant’ socio-economic, political and cultural changes in India. Therefore scholars including the present author are in favour of regarding the period from 600 AD to 1300 as early medieval in Indian history. Of course, the two other labels---post-Gupta and late ancient—of the period are also referred to. According to the author, both the ancient and early medieval periods together in Indian history up to 1300 AD make the label Early India more meaningful than the label Ancient India. The author of the present book favours the label Early India for Indian history up to 1300 AD. The author informs that Early India witnessed three more phases called pre/proto historic phase, early historic phase and classical phase. These chronological labels should not be used without considering regional variations. At this point, the reader finds that instead of expressions like early historic/classical, a chronological bracket as ‘Threshold Times’ (300 AD to 700) is useful to locate ‘historical changes and processes’ during that phase in early Indian history. Naturally, these changes have been explained in the light of a good number of primary sources like literary, epigraphic, numismatic, field archaeological materials particularly for understanding both the pre-literate phase and historical developments like settlement patterns etc of early India. The purpose is twofold: a) to substantiate observations on the past and b) to help the reader to understand how the historian reconstructs the past of human societies on the basis of primary sources. This is clear in each chapter. The author also brings it to the reader how different approaches to sources can lead to debates in history. The book has seven chapters. Each chapter deals with a particular phase of early Indian history. Each chapter is provided with a select reading list. Each chapter is again sub-divided into a number of sections. The first section of a chapter often mentions the relevant sources and the historiographical issues relating to the phase. Then the author offers extensive discussions on political, social, economic and cultural life with historical experiences in different regions in early India. The focus is to show that these are mutually interacting and not watertight compartments. In this context the author has referred to the patronage by non-royal donors like merchants etc. to Buddhist and Jain establishments during the period from 200 BC to 300 AD. Their patronage led to the emergence of cultural centres. Such activities of patronage, according to the author, might have enabled them to improve their actual social status. The author also informs that such acts of patronage were located in and around urban centres and urban proliferation was linked with the spread of state society. Thus the author thinks that without combining such diverse activities one cannot understand the importance of the socio-economic, political and cultural changes during the period from 200 BC to 300 AD. The author is also attentive to regional characteristics in course of his discussion on a particular period. The author welcomes fresh insights from the reader concerning the historical reconstruction of early India. All these constitute the Introduction of the book.

The chapter 1 ‘From the Beginning of Human Presence to the First Civilization (up to c.1500 BC)’ is sub-divided into seven sections. Here the reader finds that archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, botanists, zoologists together help us to understand human beings of ‘the remotest possible times’. The reader also gets detailed scholarly studies including recent ones on the Neolithic-Chalcolithic cultures, Mehrgarh material culture as well as early Harappan culture of the subcontinent. The relevant maps and figures are helpful. The website address www.harappa.com given by the author is important. The chapter 2 ‘India During the Days of the Vedic Corpus (c. 1500-600 BC)’ is divided into eight sections. The chapter discusses the Vedic corpus and its components; the recent debates and controversies relating to the antiquity, spatial character, authorship and people of the days of Vedic literature; the terms like Aryan, Indo-Aryan, Indo-Iranian, and Indo-European; the historical geography and expansion of settlements; the controversy regarding the identification of the river Sarasvatī; the significance of the terms like nŗpati, bhūpati etc in the context of the polity of the days of the Vedic corpus; the literary and archaeological details about the economic life of the people of the period; the social life of the people including the recent researches of Sukumari Bhattacharji, Kumkum Roy and Uma Chakravarti on the position of women in the society during the period; the cultural life concerning the beliefs, rites and rituals together with ‘a spirit of enquiry’ of the people of the period and the significant information about the ‘archaeological cultures beyond the Vedic milieu’. The relevant map is helpful.

The chapter 3 ‘Mahājanapadas, Urban Centres and Heterodox Religious Movements (c. 600-300 BC)’ contains nine sections. The chapter provides discussions on political situation including the details of the emergence of sixteen territorial polities called mahājanapadas in the Gaṅgā valley; the map showing the territorial location of the mahājanapadas; details about the Achaeminid rule and the Macedonian invasion and the powers of the north-western borderlands of the subcontinent; detailed discussion on the ‘Economy and Society’ of the period; a good discussion on the question of urbanization; a detailed discussion on ‘Social Divisions’ including the growing complexities of the society of the age and the religious thoughts and philosophical speculations of Ᾱraṇyakas, Buddhist etc. of the period.

The chapter 4 ‘The Maurya Empire (c. 325--185 BC)’ is divided into nine sections. In this chapter the reader is provided with a detailed discussion on the foundation and beginning of the Maurya dynasty in 324 or 321 BC and the achievements of Chandragupta Maurya; the Maurya policy of maintaining diplomatic relations with the Greek rulers of west Asia during the reign of Bindusāra (300-273 BC); the ‘Expansion and Consolidation’ of the Mauryas focusing Aśoka (273-232 BC); the author’s remark concerning the accommodation and integration of regional diversities by the Maurya rulers; the scholarly opinions on the nature of the Maurya polity including Aśoka’s policy of Dhamma; the economy and society including Megasthenes’ view about the Indian society during the period; the ‘visual culture’ of the Mauryas; the ‘decline and collapse’ of the power of the Mauryas and then the statement of the legacies of the Maurya empire in India. The author presents a very useful map based on the Asokan inscriptions showing India during the days of the Maurya empire.

The chapter 5 ‘Confrontations, Commerce and Cultural Scenario (c. 200 BC –AD 300)’ is divided into fifteen sections. The reader is informed about the author’s ‘Preliminary Remarks’ about the developments of the period; the political situation in north India under the Śuṅgas (c. 187 -75 BC), the Kāṇvas (c. 75 – c. 30 BC) and the ‘political exploits’ of Khāravela (c.30 BC) of the Cedī house in Kaliṅga; the ‘political exploits’of the Greeks, Śakas, Pahlavas and Kuṣāṇas and new researches thereon; the critique of the nationalist historian’s stand on the role of the non-monarchical powers like the Yaudheyas etc in terminating the ‘foreign’ rule of the Kuṣāṇas in India; the ‘political exploits’ of the Sātavāhanas and the Kṣatrapas in the Deccan; the politics in the far south concerning the Colas, the Ceras and the Pāṇḍyas including new researches thereon; some ideas about polity and administration based on a number of citations from original texts; the details of the ‘Economy and Society’ of the period; craftsmen and their activities; many significant details including the recent antiquarian discoveries from the Karakorum highway sites about trade and commerce; maritime trading linkages in the Indian Ocean together with the ports of both the west and east coasts of early India and the recent Pattanam excavations bearing on the ancient port of Muziris and the recent Kharoṣṭī-Brāhmī inscriptions referring to the trading linkages in the Bay of Bengal; the most mature phase of urbanization with new urban centres in the peninsula; the genesis of varṇasaṅkara (admixer of varṇas) and miśrajātis (mixed castes) in the society of the phase; the eight forms of marriages according to śāstras and the position of women in the patriarchal society; and the ‘Cultural Scenario’ concerning the religious beliefs, gods and goddesses; architectural details and the stone and terracotta sculptures reflecting the rural life, the urban life, religious cults and sects of the phase. The map showing the political powers like the Śakas etc. is useful.

The chapter 6 ‘A Political, Social and Cultural Overview: The Epoch of the Guptas and their Contemporaries (AD 300 to 600)’ is divided into fourteen sections. The reader is provided with extensive discussions on two conventional historiographical beliefs and their criticism; the political conditions under the Guptas in north India and new lights on the political activities of the Hūṇas in India on the basis of the three recent copper-plate inscriptions from Sanjeli in Gujarat; their responsibility for the downfall of the Gupta empire; the political activities of the Vākāṭakas and the researches thereon by Ajay Mitra Sastri and Hans Bakker; the political activities of other powers like the Nalas, Traikūṭakas etc; the political activities of the Cholas, Pāṇḍyas, Cheras, Kadambas etc; the polity and political processes with a number of historical experiences; the tires of administration of the powers, the significance of the administrative designations and the relevant administrative terms of the period; economy and society with emphasis on agriculture and land system and measurements; the agrahāra system with scholarly studies thereon including ‘the construction and maintenance’ of irrigation (setu) projects; different crafts; trade and commerce; the social situations, particularly varṇa-jāti and marriage systems and the scholarly opinions concerned; a survey of literature reflecting the cultural scenario; religions like Vaiṣṇava, Śaiva, Sūrya, the goddess cult, Jainism, Buddhism; the art and architecture as manifested in religious structures of the period; B. N. Mukherjee’s important contribution to the numismatic art of the Gupta rulers; sculptures of religious significance; the author’s comment that ‘neither society nor politics was stagnant and repetitive,’ and ‘civilization not to be labelled after some precious metals’and the importance of the expression ‘threshold times’ ‘which is not static but is being continuously reviewed and re-shaped by historians’. The map showing the subcontinent during the period is also helpful.

The last chapter ‘Realms and Regions: Profiles of Economy, Society and Culture (c. AD 600—1300)’ provides an overview of significant changes, political, economic, social, cultural, in the subcontinent during the period from c.600 CE to 1300. The reader finds that these changes should be looked at in an integrated manner and not through dynastic shifts alone. The chapter is divided into twenty-nine sections. These provide information about regional and local ‘Politics and Powers’ such as the Later Guptas, Maukharis, etc and the rivalries concerned; political rivalries between political powers like the Pratihāras, Pālas etc and the so-called Tripartite Struggle for mastery over Kanauj; the Ghaznavid invasions and the nationalist historiographical stand on it; the Rāṣṭrakūṭas, Pālas, Senas etc and their political exploits and the erroneous idea about the establishment of the Turkish rule in Delhi and the adjoining doab regions terminated Hindu India and thus the ‘medieval period under Muslim rule’ started; power politics in the Deccan and the far south and the concerned political powers such as the Cholas, Pāṇḍyas etc and their political activities; polity and political processes; the perceptions of Feudal Polity, Segmentary Polity and Integrative Polity with important details; the early medieval economy with scholarly arguments for and against the formulation of the feudal economy during this period; agrarian expansion and the uses of hydraulic resources; the spread of settlements and irrigation projects in different parts of the country and the development of ‘agro-based crafts and industries’ and the craftsmen’s organizations with Vijaya Ramaswamy’s researches on textile production in south India; commercial activities and centres, media of exchange, the commercial linkages of the two mercantile organizations—Ayyāvole and Maṇigrāmam—of south India with the researches of A. Appadurai, M. Abraham etc; the Indian Ocean trade and India’s involvement in it; the importance of the letters of Jewish merchants in connection with India’s exports; the recent researches of N. Karashima etc. in the Colas’ attitude towards commerce in the eastern sector of the Indian Ocean; Tansen Sen’s analysis of Chinese sources pointing to the Cholas’ ‘appreciation of the importance of trade’ in the eastern Indian Ocean; the issue of the medium of exchange; B. N. Mukherjee’s researches in Harikela and Paṭṭikera coins; J. S. Deyell’s studies in early medieval north Indian coin hoards and its importance; the important details of ‘Third Urbanisation’ and the concerned scholarly opinions; the early medieval social scenario with text-based details regarding the proliferation of jātis, varṇa-jāti and the position of women in a patriarchal society and some new social features like practising prāyaścitta (purification by expiation), vratas (vows), visiting tīrthas (pilgrimage centre) in early medieval India; the western perceptions of the Indian caste system and the Indian response to it, the Hindu methods of tribal absorption and Sanskritizaion; scholarly opinions that the Indian society is more complex than as explained in the norms of the Brahmanical Śāstras; the cultural situations with scholarly studies on the religious life and thoughts, Śaṅkarācārya (c. late 8th to early 9th)’s contributions and contestations thereto; the Bhakti (devotion)-oriented religions and devotional sects; languages and literatures and the development of the Tamil, Telugu and Kanarese languages and literatures apart from Sanskrit literature and the visual arts including temple architectures with regional styles and sculptures of the period. The maps given will also be helpful.

The Bibliography contains two sections. The section A refers to those books which are relevant to all the chapters. And the section B contains those books/articles which are useful for specific chapters of the book. The author also refers to recent works in the Bibliography. The Bibliography is accompanied by a list of abbreviations of the journals used. The author also gives a Transliteration Table for the convenience of the reader. Then an Index is provided. However, one may expect the bibliographic details about the works of two Japanese archaeologists Aboshi and Takahashi concerned with the excavations at Śrāvastī. One may also expect bibliographic detail of the researches of S. Mazarino in connection with Hippalus. Barring these the book is comprehensive, holistic, and therefore, very useful. Students of undergraduate and post-graduate levels as well as IAS, NET/SET level examinees will benefit a lot from the book. The general reader will also get a clear conception about early Indian history from the book. The author is successful in his initiative. The book demands newness.