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!)
India has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. When I was given the incredible opportunity a few months ago to choose the “trip of a lifetime,” it didn’t take me long to commit to India for my destination. I have now booked a ten-day, small-group excursion in November that begins in Delhi and tours northern India for several days, then takes an overnight train to Mumbai for a quick look at that city before winding down on a beach in Goa.
I know that to say “I am fascinated by India” is simplistic, and sounds naïve. India is not a single thing—it is a blend of cultures, religions, economies, perspectives—and I also know that many of the things it is are likely to repel rather than appeal to me. I realize that India is nothing an outsider like myself can even begin to understand.
Maybe it is my perception of the impossibility of defining the subcontinent that attracts me to it. “I am fascinated by India” is a very different kind of statement than is “I am fascinated by Belgium,” or “I am fascinated by Kenya,” or even (to choose a larger geographical space) “I am fascinated by Australia.”
Being fascinated by India is like being fascinated by garam masala: I have no idea what it’s made of, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be all that familiar with the constituent parts; the mystery of the parts as well as of the whole is a lot of what makes it appealing. I know that India can be a dangerous place to go, and its dark side may be part of the attraction too. It ain’t Switzerland, and I know it.
All in all, I am beside myself with excitement at the prospect of going there.
It has become my goal to conquer in advance as much I can learn about India from books and other media – to gain intellectually what I can before I face the country emotionally and physically. What I already know about India’s cultures and its history I have learned primarily from novels (by Salman Rushdie, Vikram Shandra, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, E.M. Forster, and several others) and films (Deepa Mehta and Satyajit Ray, for example), but I have never made any attempt before to gather these bits of knowledge together into any kind of historical framework. After consulting several sources, I decided to start by reading India: A History by John Keay.
So far I have read the introduction and first chapter, and already I have learned some fascinating stuff:
- Despite evidence left behind since at least 2000 BC by several highly evolved civilizations in the geographical territory encompassing what we now call India (and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, etc), no one set the history of the area down in writing until about 1200 AD;
- The story of the flood that is found in both Christian and Jewish scripture may have come from a inundation that entirely wiped out the Sumerian city of Shuruppak, possibly around 3000 BC and/or from another flood or series of floods around 2000 BC that submerged the highly productive and sophisticated Harappan civilization, an agriculture-based society in the region of the Indus river basin;
- While the Harappan civilization left no written record of its existence, it did leave a legacy of artifacts and ruins that have been uncovered since 1920 in a wide swath extending (in terms of current-day geographical reference points) more than 1800 miles from the southern shores of Pakistan, down the coast of the Arabian Sea towards Mumbai, and west beyond the city of New Delhi;
- The first and most extensive archeological evidence of the Harappans is located north of Karachi at Mohenjo-Daro. Although this civilization left no written record that can yet be deciphered, it was evidently a sophisticated culture that used imprinted soapstone seals for trade, and created figurines, pottery, tools and jewelry from precious metals such as bronze and silver, and other materials like lapis lazuli and soapstone. Their buildings, including homes, granaries and public buildings, were constructed from brick;
- The Harappans are conjectured to have been the first civilization in the world to have planned their cities, woven cotton, and used wheeled transportation;
- Incredibly, at the same time as the Harappan civilization evolved and then disappeared without (apparently) leaving a single written word describing its existence, another whole civilization, the Aryan, was also flourishing, possibly in the same geographical areas and at approximately the same time. The Aryans, by contrast to the Harappans, have been thoroughly described in Sanskrit in the Vedas; also by contrast, there is no physical evidence that they existed.
It appears that the second chapter of India: A History will focus on this Aryan contribution. I’ve been hearing about Sanskrit since I took a course in English etymology in university, and I am looking forward to learning more.
Posted in My Trip To India, Preparation
Tagged Delhi, Goa, history of India, India, John Keay, Mumbai, New Delhi, Rushdie, Satya Ray, Seth, Tagore, Vikram Shandra