Over the years, Nayanjot Lahiri has earned widespread acclaim as one of India’s finest historians. An authority on ancient India, archaeology and heritage, she is currently Professor of History at Ashoka University. Lahiri, an award-winning author of books as stellar as Pre-Ahom Assam, Finding Forgotten Cities, Marshalling the Past: Ancient India and its Modern Histories, Ashoka in Ancient India, Time Pieces and so on, spoke to Open on a range of subjects, including the Harappan Civilisation, Buddhist India, Ashoka, geographical idea of India and Nehru. She notes that what makes a historian unhappy these days is the hubris of our political classes. Edited excerpts:
Why do we need to study history, especially ancient history?
This is for the same reason why we study history — to explore and understand the human past. Also, ancient history constitutes the longest part of that past. Antiquity, in a manner of speaking, goes back to 3 million years ago and continues well into the first millennium of the Common Era.
Further, it is one which is still around us. There is much about ancient India that can be encountered in the land we inhabit. The food habits of ancient farmers where rice of various varieties was vastly enjoyed across large parts of India are as familiar to us today as are their glass bangles and beads. The template for a civilized society that is frequently mentioned is that of the third millennium BCE Harappan Civilization whose city builders’ extensive use of bricks is similar to how we work with them, and whose superb sense of waste disposal, we are constantly told, was much better than our own.
The main reason why the Buddhist symbols of the wheel and the lion are our national symbols is because they grace a famous pillar associated with Ashoka, India’s most admired emperor. He set up the lion capital at Sarnath in north India in the 3rd century BCE which 2200 years later, became India’s national emblem. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in fact, saw himself as the modern inheritor of the Ashokan legacy.
Among other practitioner of politics, the name which is invoked when India’s politicians play less lofty power games is also an ancient one. They are seen as acting Kautilyan, after Kautilya whose treatise on statecraft called the Arthashastra has much crafty advice for kings and ministers seeking political success. Early India is known to have birthed the brutal social system which continues to physically outcast large chunks of our own people. Consequently, the resistance of excluded Dalits today is most often described by them as a revolt against the ancient law code of Manu.
The canvas of ancient India fascinates and repels Indians today for all kinds of reasons. It is hardly seen as something dead and gone. Instead, people project back onto it the fantasies and fears of their own era in a living and palpable way.
You are an authority on ancient Indian history and you have written world-class papers and books about various aspects of it. Why is that India’s ancient past is being meticulously glorified?
Well, first because there is some glorious stuff. Think of the ‘kavya’ of Kalidasa. It inspired people across the centuries including a Rabindranath Tagore. Rabindranath engages deeply with his long poem Meghaduta (‘The Cloud Messenger’). In fact, Tagore’s Meghaduta corpus, five poems written over fifty years, has a central motif that he took – that of ‘viraha’ – from Kalidasa and made it one with which he relates to the deep past. Or think of the Harappan Civilization and its structures which show unusual engineering skills – from the construction of wells to large reservoirs – and also the minute attention paid to waste disposal. They are quite extraordinary.
In the case of the Harappan civilization, part of the sense of awe about the ancient past also comes from the dramatic way it was discovered and how it provided material evidence for the ideas that Indians themselves had about the antiquity of their civilization. Since India was then a colony, this was even more important because it bolstered a sense of self-respect. The Larkana Gazette in 1926, for instance, said something about Mohenjodaro to the effect that the beauty of the dilapidated buildings and of articles discovered proves the truth of the historical statement that in ancient times India was a great and powerful country and was not helpless as she is now.
‘In view of this evidence of India’s ancient greatness, Britain should treat her, if not as a superior, at least as an equal and respect her and set her free immediately.’ Among Indian scholars too, if you were writing at a time when India was colonized and the most widely read history book was that of Vincent Smith which saw the stimulus of all high culture in ancient India as emanating from the West, naturally you would critique those ways of thinking by pointing to contrary evidence.
Then, specifically with regard to archaeology, there has always been an emphasis on the large phenomena that are recovered – from fabulous fortifications to stunning burials. In all this, the less visible, the underside of society, tend to get forgotten. When you think of the cast(e)ing out of large segments of our own people or imagine the lives of those who cleaned the drains and bathrooms of ancient India, the past comes to be viewed in a more sober way.
More recently, it is the respectability that the state has given to its version of ‘good and glorious’ that has led to all kinds of stuff passing off as archaeology and history. Think, for instance, of the exhibition ‘Rigveda to Robotics’ in 2015. The exhibition, organised at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi, was the brainchild of the Institute of Scientific Research on Vedas whose director was a retired member of the Central Board of Direct Taxation. With support from the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Ministry of Culture, its message was that ‘Vedic Culture provided the foundation on which the superstructure of Indian civilisation is being laid till date’.
The message was writ large in the various panels that presented a great deal of ancient India within the Vedic framework. It is Vedic people, it maintained, who set up advanced centres of learning like Takshashila, Ujjain and Nalanda!! If weaponry was found in sites stretching from Haryana to Uttar Pradesh, these are seen as part of the Ramayana references to weaponry. Dates on the basis of astronomical observations in Vedic texts and the epics were shown in the exhibition as a ‘sure-fire way’ to predict, among other things, the exact birth date of Ram – which is said to be January 10, 5114 BCE. In fact, from Baluchistan to the Ganga plains, archaeological sites from 7000 BCE to 2000 BCE were presented as supporting a cultural continuum which represents ‘Vedic culture’. This kind of enterprise would not get as much attention as it does if it didn’t have state support.
How much of knowledge of ancient past of India was acquired thanks to migration and sharing of knowledge through constant interactions among similar ‘civilisations’?
Considering that there was plenty of interaction within an area that extended from India to the Mediterranean, sharing of knowledge is not surprising. The use of the Aramaic script in some Ashokan inscriptions in the northwest, for instance, and the emergence of Indian Kharoshthi from this script are results of an interaction between India and West Asia. Also, the Yavanajataka, a Sanskrit text, reflects transmission of Hellenistic astronomical ideas into India. However, there were breakthroughs that were made here. Aryabhata was the first astronomer to provide a scientific explanation of eclipses. With regard to mathematics, the decimal system of notation, based on the place value of the first nine numbers and the ‘bindu’ for the zero was an important Indian discovery.
You have said earlier that the beginning of the caste system, perhaps the biggest scourge of Indian society — thanks to which the majority could not afford to be independently creative — can be traced to the Indus Valley civilisation where they had open drainage systems and therefore needed people to clear them. Could you please elaborate?
Actually, what I have pointed out is that some Harappan cities had lots of houses whose waste facilities were far from street drains and were linked to sewage catchment vessels. These had to be manually cleaned, something which is still done. Also, cess pits in drainage systems had to be manually cleaned. By human hands. Since it is unlikely that such human hands will have been elite or affluent human hands, the natural inference is that ancient India, like modern India, was kept clean by a caste or class of personnel whose lives were devoted to cleaning up after their social superiors.
Are you generally happy with the understanding of ancient Indian history in contemporary India where even people in positions of power make statements claiming India to be the intellectual and technological nerve centre of the world in its ancient past?
Lots of political power with little domain knowledge can be a fatal combination. That is what we are seeing today. This is what hubris is about. It is not something that can make any historian happy.
What did ancient Indians and Harappan people eat? What would they have thought of the current excessive obsession in certain quarters with vegetarianism?
The Harappans loved their meat. Interestingly, cattle bones account for more than 70% of the bones and, in fact, any Harappan site where bones have been found, without exception, have yielded cattle bones. Evidently, while cattle were used for agricultural operations and as draught animals, their meat was vastly enjoyed. Mutton was the other food that was commonly consumed as were pigs. Animal teeth have also been studied to understand when the victims were killed. At Harappan Oriyo Timbo (in Gujarat), nearly 15,000 animal bones were recovered and annular rings accurately fixed the age and season of death of fauna. The microscopic annuli on a dental substance known as cementum was carefully assessed. Among terrestrial mammals one narrow, dark line formed in the late fall, winter, or early spring, while during the warmer months a broad, lighter band was deposited. The narrow band, arising from slowed growth, is termed a rest line; the broad band is the growth zone. By counting the number of rest lines, an estimate could be derived of the number of winters an animal had survived, hence it absolute age. What these revealed was that cattle, sheep and goat slaughtered from March to July. Usually, very young animals not killed, and that slaughtering was most common in cattle samples at 30 months and 18 months in sheep/goat. Mature animal bones were also very common which underlines that adult animals were valued for their productive capacity. Among wild animals, there were various types of deer and antelopes that were hunted, and many varieties of birds, turtles, fish, crabs and molluscs were found ‘in the kitchen refuse.’ Rhino too is known to have been consumed.
All this should, as I have said elsewhere, make modern advocates of vegetarianism who want to make ancient Indians in general and Harappans in particular appear to be like them, pause in their tracks. Harappans would most certainly have scoffed at any attempts to make them vegetarians even as they chomped through chunks of roasted cattle and pig.
When did the geographical idea of India start to develop? Were kingdoms of yore aware of such an idea?
This is there in the idea of the domain of the universal emperor. The rulership of the earth contemplated in the Arthashastra is understood as not the conquest of the whole world but for the operations of the vijigishu or would-be conqueror, it is the region lying between the Himalayas and the sea. This is what is said: deshah prithvi. Tasyaam himavatsamudraantarmudeecheenam yojansahasraprinaamam tiryak chakravarti kshetram (Place means earth. In that, the region of the sovereign ruler extends northwards between the Himavata and the sea, one thousand yojanas in extent across. There are various types of land: forest land, village land, mountainous land, marshy land, dry land, level land and uneven land. In them, he should start work that would augment his own strength).
It is, thus, a total subcontinental land mass which constitutes this ideal domain. So, the ideal of political unity as covering what is described geographically as the Indian subcontinent was there, although the ideal was only rarely achieved.
How violent was ancient India?
All states are premised on coercion and violence, not only in antiquity but across time. That is also the reality of political power in ancient India. However, as Upinder Singh’s book on Political Violence in Ancient India reveals, what is unprecedented is that from the sixth century BCE, violence, nonviolence and renunciation became among the most powerful and debated ideas in Indian culture. As she underlines, the connections between renunciation, violence and nonviolence were central not only to Buddhism and Jainism but also within the Brahmanical tradition as seen in the Dharmashastras. There are similarities too between religious traditions and the world of mahakavyas – renunciation as a political value is there in the Jaina tradition of great kings turning their backs on power and the Raghugamsha of Kalidasa where renouncing kingship is a desirable virtue. The Mahabharata is a magnificent example of this, wrestling constantly with the question of justice and violence, all to be expected in a text marked by unceasing bloodshed and yet, where nonviolence is described as the greatest dharma.
What are the values of ancient India that we still can invoke to bring about more peace and tranquillity in today’s India?
History is not moral science and we don’t study it to imbibe lessons. Therefore, there is no point in exploring the past looking for values. Also, it is such a large canvas that all kinds of lessons, depending on your social and political position, can be drawn from it. It is better to study history in order to learn about the past and not from the past.
Please enlighten us on the fall of Buddhist India, from present day Kashmir to Odisha? Why are no tears being shed over the end of India’s Buddhist culture and influence?
Actually, it is a staggered decline, and how this unfolded is well described by KTS Sarao whose book on the decline of Buddhism has taken a regional approach. It has shown, for instance, that in parts of northern India and some segments of South India, the primary reason for the decline was urban decay and decline in trade. Buddhism was supported by the patronage of urban communities and thus, this dwindling support base was likely to have serious consequences. However, Buddhism was flourishing in other areas, as in Odisha, well into medieval times and it is possible that along with royalty, the landed gentry was supporting it. Buddhist monasteries at Sanchi and Amaravati continued to flourish till the 12-13th centuries CE.
In Kashmir, the Shrinagara Jayendra monastery declined by the 11th century but the Ratnagupta monastery and the Ratnarashmi monastery at Anupamapura flourished till the 12th centuries. So, even while in several places, with attacks launched by invaders, monastic centres suffered, Buddhism was flourishing in other parts of India. It, in fact, never vanished from the Himalayas. So, Buddhism did not completely disappear from the subcontinent but it did decline and over time, was relegated to the margins in many regions where it earlier had a larger-than-life presence.
You have written one of the best books on Ashoka. Why does he still fascinate people in modern India?
For one, Ashoka got a great visibility thanks to Nehru. Nehru thought of himself as a modern Ashoka, the first ruler of modern India who headed a nation-state that came into existence on the back of a national movement which was marked by ideas and phases of nonviolence. Not only Nehru, Emperor Ashoka has fascinated generations of modern writers and scholars. Part of this has to do with his presence, through a profusion of words, in public arenas across large parts of India. Partly, the fascination with him stems from the fact that we are drawn to leaders and public figures whose ideas and actions have influenced the lives of large populations.
In this case, that Ashoka was an indefatigable communicator till almost the end of his life, seen in the context of public communication in contemporary cultures, makes him even more distinctive. In part, this is also because of Ashoka’s own keenness to appear to posterity not as imperious but as a flesh and blood emperor. An ancient sovereign who took responsibility for a politically reprehensible action, the carnage at Kalinga, he seems at times less a political figure than a strikingly self-reflective individual. The contrast with the archetype of a self-serving politician is so stark and rare that Ashoka arouses an admiration virtually unseen in Asia until the appearance of Mahatma Gandhi. Like Gandhi, in fact, he belongs to a genre of universal Indians.