I have been (pleasantly) inundated with Indian history all week. Having finished reading Empire of the Soul, I have turned my attention back to India: A History. Revised and Updated by John Keay. There is no way I’ll get it finished before I leave, and I won’t take it with me because it’s two inches thick, but I am still taking my leisurely time with it rather than trying to skim, and hoping I will retain at least a little of the knowledge I am picking up.
In recent days, the history has hit solid ground – instead of to informed speculation, Keay can now refer to documents that provide at least general dates of battles and invasions, and lives of specific individuals – most notably that of Siddharta Guatama, better known to us as the Buddha, who is thought to have been born c. 563 BCE in the area now known as Nepal. I have also read about Alexander the Great’s remarkable advance through northwestern India, starting in about 326 BCE. He withdrew several years later, mainly because his men were about to mutiny after eight years on the road, but they took the first known Indian expatriate back to Greece with them. Calanus, whose recorded behaviour indicates that he may have been a Jain, was a towering figure who impressed the Greeks not only by walking around naked but also by unflinchingly immolating himself on his own funeral pyre when he felt his end was drawing near: he didn’t want become a burden.
Tonight I turned on TVO to see an episode of The Story of India, a fascinating PBS/BBC series narrated by Michael Wood. Tonight’s segment, fifth in the series although it’s the first I have seen, was entitled “The Meeting of Two Oceans.” It concerned itself with India’s history from about 12oo to 1600. During this period, which includes the Renaissance, India was the richest and most powerful nation in the world. One of the most remarkable characters from that era was the Mughal ruler Akbar, whose fictionalized story I read only a few years ago in The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie. Akbar in real life, according to the PBS/BBC program, was remarkable for, among other reasons, his efforts to find a common ground among India’s religions.
Between leaping from 500 BCE to 1600 CE, and trying to keep a close enough grip on the present to keep track of what I need to take with me when I leave on my adventure (such as a plug adapter so that I can recharge my camera batteries and iPad), I have already got a sense that I am gradually losing touch with the mundane matters of my life (which also need my attention for at least another ten days!)