Into India (2)

I had hoped to get to see the magnificent exhibition Maharaja: The Splendour of India’s Royal Courts at the Art Gallery of Ontario (it was organized in cooperation with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London) for a third time before I left town for a family vacation in late April, but it was not to be. The first two times I had visited Maharaja, I had stayed for about two hours each time—but I could have gone a third and fourth time and still not have given any appropriate amount of attention to the artifacts on display.

Quite aside from the hundreds of individual pieces of jewelry—(one platinum necklace designed by Cartier for Maharaja Bhupinder Singh in 1928 originally contained 2,930 diamonds), art, drapes, pillows, furniture, clothing, weapons, even thrones, carriages and the “Star of India” Rolls Royce, each opulently decorated with jewels, embroidery, filigree, carvings and enamelling—the exhibition offered so much written and video history that in fact it would have taken weeks to absorb all of it in any way that could have hoped to justify the monumental effort that had gone into the curatorial process.

I was surprised by one of the historical perspectives I acquired in my visits to the Maharaja show: I realized that the maharajas had been largely figureheads, at least from the time of the Mughal Empire through the era of the British Raj, which was shortly before their decline in the latter years of the 20th century. These noblemen are depicted in art and photographs emerging on festive occasions from their  palaces clad in diamonds, rubies and silk, riding on an elephant or, later, in one of their elegant carriages—only to fall into line behind the then-rulers of their countries—the Persians, various Europeans, the officers of the British East India Company and other governmental leaders.

I was also interested to note evidence in the Maharaja exhibits of the freedom that royal women evidently enjoyed in the 1600s and 1700s, participating publically in hunting expeditions and military exercises. This was quite a contrast to the article I read recently in the New York Times, “Improving Women’s Status, One Bathroom At A Time,”  that pointed out that the shortage of public bathrooms for women in India has an enormous effect on their ability to participate in the workforce or go to school. But perhaps this contrast has more to do with birth status than the century in which these women live or lived.

I turned back to John Keay’s India: A History, looking forward to finding out more about the Aryan civilization to which 19th century historians had attributed the evolution of Sanskrit language—one of the important influences on all “Indo-European” languages including English—but when I finally had time to read Chapter 2  I discovered that there are two histories to be taken into account in all matters Aryan: and probably all matters historical when it comes right down to it. First there is the actual history which (obviously) the historians are attempting to uncover; then there is the history of the history that the historians are uncovering. If you get my drift.

In this case, after the 19th century excitement among historians and the public about the possibility that a huge Aryan civilization had once spread across much of eastern Europe, which was followed as we know by widespread efforts particularly on the part of certain Teutonic leaders in the 1930s to show themselves to be direct descendents from this “pure” “white” civilization, new evidence came to light that suggested that there might never have been such a civilization at all.

Early in the chapter called “Vedic Values: C 1700 to 900 B.C.,” Keays says, “Questions tantamount to heresy among an earlier generation of historians are now routinely raised as to who the arya were, where they came from, and whether they were really even a distinct people.”  (p. 19).

Take that, Klu Klux Klan and Adolph Hitler!

Keays goes on to explain how the confusion came about, which was primarily as a result of efforts by historians to explain how the Sanskrit language had come into being. He also points out that this investigation led to an interesting series of discoveries in which probable historical events were deduced on the basis of philology, or the study of how language changed.

The philological study of the Sanskrit Vedas, songs or hymns which are held sacred by Hindus, led to intriguing revelations such as that the word used for “plough” in the Vedas was not a Sanskrit word but was adopted from another language—which meant that the original speakers of Sanskrit did not have ploughs. (I love this stuff.) Sanskrit originally (and ironically) also has no words for “writing” or “scribe.” It does, however, contain lots of terms relating to managing herds of sheep and cattle, so it is likely that the arya cultures were pastoral rather than agrarian. Nice, eh?

Anyway, one of the sums of all these findings is that today historians think that a group of ethnic influences on language (Sanskrit), priesthood (brahmans) and social structure (castes) either invaded or migrated into India, or perhaps it was far more subtle: maybe over the centuries the influence of the thinking of these speakers of Sanskrit merely had increasing sway over the thinking of others among whom they lived and worked.

Keays then explores the related and similarly fascinating (to me) subject of how the Vedas, which were passed down generation to generation by word of mouth, affected the subcontinent’s religion, culture and even scientific thought for the next several hundred years.

I must admit that the story of India seems to grow even more complex and unfathomable the more I attempt to learn about it, but mysteries that are too easily resolved are boring, so I’m okay with this.

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