Migration has always been an important part of India’s history: Upinder Singh

‘A history of ancient and early medieval India’ (Pearson), as Singh explains, was written keeping in mind general readers who are interested in getting an in-depth understanding of ancient India and students of history.

The first edition of this book was published by Pearson almost 15 years ago in 2008. Almost 15 years after historian Upinder Singh published her comprehensive study of ancient and early medieval India, she has come out with a second edition of her book. ‘A history of ancient and early medieval India’ (Pearson), as Singh explains, was written keeping in mind general readers who are interested in getting an in-depth understanding of ancient India and students of history. Her book is celebrated for introducing budding historians to primary sources, historical methodologies and concepts in a thoroughly detailed and comprehensible manner. In her second edition, also published by Pearson, she keeps her original thoughts intact while adding newer research such as that on the history of less explored parts of the subcontinent like the Northeast and Kashmir, and the global networks that connected ancient India to the rest of the world.

1. What have you done differently in the second edition of ‘A history of ancient and early medieval India?’

The first edition of this book was published by Pearson almost 15 years ago in 2008. I had some specific aims in mind when I wrote it. I wanted to integrate archaeology and history, to include subordinated groups in social history, to give due importance to religion and philosophy, and to highlight the intellectual and aesthetic domains. I felt that books on ancient India did not have to be boring. There was a wonderful world of primary sources, including literature and art, that readers should be exposed to, and it was important to explain that none of these sources could be interpreted in a simplistic way. I wanted my book to be balanced but also forward my perspective. At the same time, I wanted to create a window for questioning, so that readers could approach debates with an open mind, and develop an ability to critically evaluate evidence and arguments. Historical inquiry is after all an on-going process and there can never be a last word.

I still feel strongly about all these things and they are reflected in the second edition also published by Pearson. But over the years, my perspectives and interests have expanded. I have become interested in the history of ideas, the interactions between the state and the forest people, the connections between art and history, and the subcontinent’s connections with other parts of the world. I have incorporated these interests into the second edition, so it is significantly different from the first. Also, of course, there has been a great deal of new work produced by other scholars on many aspects of ancient India, which I have gained from and cited. I wanted to especially draw attention to the work of the younger generation of historians on whom we depend to expand our understanding of ancient India in the future.

This edition contains a more detailed treatment of the history of science and mathematics. Certain regions of the subcontinent tend to get neglected in the history books, so I have included more material on Kashmir and the Northeast. This is actually a book on the early history of South Asia, so there is also more on the regions of South Asia beyond the modern boundaries of India, namely Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. When I set out to work on the second edition, I was aware that a lot of updating would be needed. It surprised me that some sections did not need any rewriting. But a lot of new details needed to be added. For instance, the discoveries at the stone age site of Attirampakkam (in Tamil Nadu), early rice at Lahuradeva (in Uttar Pradesh), and early Tamil-Brahmi writing at Kodumanal (in Tamil Nadu). I had to completely rewrite Chapter 7 which is about the Maurya period. When I wrote the first edition, I was of course aware that the Arthashastra is not generally considered a work of the Maurya period any more, and that it is a theoretical treatise on statecraft. But I still included it in the chapter on the Maurya empire. This time around, I discussed it in Chapter 8 (which deals with the period c. 200 BCE-300 CE), as a brilliant and influential work on statecraft and political ideas. In the last chapter of the book, which is on the early medieval period, I expanded the discussion of Islam, the Arabs and Turks, and how international trade led to the growth of multi-cultural and multi-religious communities on the western coast.

2. In your preface you say that you have tried to view the Indian subcontinent as part of an intricate network of interaction with other parts of the world. Could you please elaborate?

These interactions included war, trade, diplomacy, religious networks, and the circulation of ideas. Everyone knows about the Persian and Macedonian invasions of the northwest. But we don’t think enough about the centuries of invasions that took place between c. 200 BCE and 300 CE, between the end of the Maurya dynasty and the emergence of the Gupta empire. These are the invasions of the Bactrian Greeks, Shakas, Parthians and Kushanas. The political developments in north India during this period were closely connected with political developments in Central Asia and China. Even though the Shaka era is still used in India, the Shakas are very understudied. Archaeology has contributed a great deal to the understanding of trade interactions, especially across the Indian Ocean. Take, for example, the discoveries of hundreds of inscriptions and drawings on Hoq Cave in Socotra, a small island off the course of Yemen. A shipwreck found off the coast of Godawaya in Southern Sri Lanka, is the oldest shipwreck known in South Asia. Tamil-Brahmi inscriptions have been found at the ports of Berenike and Quseiral-Qadim on the Red Sea coast. Whether or not Pattanam is the ancient Muziris of Graeco-Roman accounts, this site in Kerala gives exciting evidence of flourishing trade with the Mediterranean, north Afghanistan, west Asia, and China.

The story of interactions is not only about trade. There are lots of tantalizing pieces in the puzzle, for instance, the ivory statuette representing the goddess Lakshmi or a yakshi found in Pompeii in Italy, the Buddha statue found at Berenike in Egypt, and the bronze statuette of the Roman sea god Poseidon found at Brahmapuri in Maharashtra.

Migration has always been an important part of the history of the Indian subcontinent, with people constantly coming in and going out. Quanzhou in China yielded over 300 Hindu images and artefacts, and a bilingual Tamil–Chinese inscription. This suggests the presence of a colony of Tamil merchants, perhaps members of a guild, in the 13th/14th century. There are references to Brahmin physicians and astrologers in Chinese courts. The spread of Sanskrit texts and Vedic rituals to Southeast Asia also presumes Brahmin migrations.

There was also rivalry, conflict and war. In the 11th century, the Cholas and Srivijayans sent diplomatic missions to the Song court in China. In a masterstroke of diplomacy, the Shrivijayans seem to have convinced the Chinese that the Cholas were the Shrivijayans’ subordinates! The subsequent Chola expedition to Srivijaya shows the connections between trade interests and war. It is a unique instance when an ancient Indian political power launched a trans-oceanic military operation.

The evolving religious networks are evident in the spread of Buddhism across Asia and the spread of Hinduism to Southeast Asia. We know about land grants made by kings of the subcontinent, but some Southeast Asian rulers also made religious grants in India. In recent years, looking at ancient India’s connections with Southeast Asia has become fashionable, but we seem to have regressed to the earlier ‘Greater India’ perspective which is obsessed with India’s influence on the world. I see India as part of a wider world we need to learn more about, as a centre of both influence and confluence. I hope that a young generation of scholars will develop the linguistic and other skills to contribute meaningfully to the production of knowledge about India–Southeast Asia relations. We also need young scholars who can focus on the intellectual exchanges between India and East Asia. This will involve a lot of training and hard work. But it will unveil exciting stories not only about connections, but also cultural specificity and difference. It will also open up the exciting field of the comparative study of ideas.

3. You have included a section on new scientific techniques used in archaeology. How would you say that these new techniques have enhanced our understanding of ancient India?

The amount of data produced by archaeology is likely to grow faster than that of other sources. Archaeological methods, including scientific dating methods are extremely important. Remote sensing techniques make it possible to study sites without invasive and expensive excavations. For instance, B. M. Rajani’s work on Nalanda has identified structures that are not visible above the ground. Another important example of the application of science to archaeology is the study by Kalyan Sekhar Chakraborty and others of animal bones and lipid profiles in pottery fragments at the site of Kotada Bhadli in Gujarat, which brings out the importance of dairy farming for the Harappans. Genome analysis is now an important part of the debate on the Indo-Europeans and Indo-Aryans. The genome study of a woman’s skeleton found at Rakhigarhi is important, but we need a much larger sampling and many more studies of ancient DNA. In the future, I am sure that genome analysis will add substantially to our understanding of the migrations and mixtures of populations across different parts of the world.

4. In the polarised world of today, how would you want budding historians to read and reflect upon ancient Indian history?

My book is simultaneously aimed at two audiences — general readers and students, basically anyone who is interested in an in-depth understanding of ancient and early medieval India. For both audiences, I think that balance is very important. I would like young students to understand that history is an exciting discipline based on a rigorous analysis and interpretation of sources and logical and creative reasoning. Budding historians should work hard to develop the linguistic or archaeological skills they need to interpret their sources. I also think that young Indian historians should broaden their horizons beyond India to explore the histories of other parts of the world. Historians are bound to look at the past through the eyes of their present, but readers must understand that all hypotheses are not equally valid. They must recognize the difference between historical interpretations that are based on sound analysis and argument, and those that are not. But this cannot happen unless historians clearly explain their methods and debates to non-specialists, especially students. I have tried to do that in my book.

I am aware that these days, a lot of stuff claiming to be history is circulating on the internet; a great deal of it is not sound history. Readers of books and consumers of internet material need to be able to distinguish between history and pseudo-history and propaganda. They should beware of simple stories of heroes and villains. History is complex and our past consists of many different strands. As I have pointed out in my book, Ancient India: Culture of Contradictions, understanding history requires abandoning simplistic stereotypes and preconceived notions; it requires a sensitivity to the nuances and complexities of the subject. I strongly believe that students should resist following any particular ‘line.’ They should resist becoming camp followers of whichever group happens to be powerful or influential at a particular time. They should critique existing views independently and fearlessly, ask new questions, find their own answers, and strike their own path.

5. What would you say has been the most challenging part about writing a textbook on ancient Indian history?

As it is not possible to include everything in a single volume, I had to make judicious choices about what to include and what to leave out. Maintaining a balance while conveying a perspective was very challenging. Another challenging part (and the most enjoyable) was to find ways of igniting interest. You cannot inspire interest if your book is boring. I tried to enliven my book through excerpts from primary sources, visuals, and discussions of new research, especially the research of young scholars. A larger aim of my book is to inspire young people to read and think beyond the book, to get interested in exploring neglected and new areas.

6. Is there any aspect of ancient Indian history that you think is yet to be adequately researched and written about by historians?

There are so many aspects of ancient Indian history that need more research. Archaeology is likely to add substantially to our knowledge about the Indian past. I think we need much more work on the archaeology of the early medieval period. We need much more work on the history of ideas. There are regions of the subcontinent such as the northeast that are very under-represented in history books. Sri Lanka is a small but very important island from the point of view of trade and religious networks. In fact, the history of ancient India has to be seen in larger global context. There are so many different kinds of connections with China, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe and Africa. We haven’t even reached the tip of the iceberg in studying these connections.

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