Journal : A Timely Reminder

From : Dilip K Chakrabarti,

Emeritus professor of South Asian Archaeology, Cambridge University :

For more than two decades, the politics of the past has been an important part of the theoretical literature of archaeology and ancient studies, although, apart from two books by the present author and some papers both by him and others, India does not figure in this literature.

The purpose of the present paper is to outline how and why the study of ancient India  including  its  archaeology  has  come  to  be  related  to  different  power  structures  and  ideologies which  have dominated the Indian scene from the beginning of the British rule to the present period.

On the most basic level, the controversy is about the position of India in the scheme of world civilizations. Has it ever been an original and innovative centre of technology and other material traits of  life  outside  the  domain  of  religion and  philosophy ? In the middle of the nineteenth century Max Muller provided the image of an inwardly turned India, and in the more modern times, A.L.Basham tried to perpetuate this  image  through  his  ” The Wonder that was India.”

This image of the other worldliness of India persists strongly even in the contemporary world. If anything related to India is a reasonably  popular  field of study  in  the Western universities,  that  is  Indian  religion and philosophy. The recent emphasis of a section of expatriate or non-Resident Indians on the hidden or unexplored depths of Indian wisdom in the Vedas, etc. is a part of this tradition. Similarly, the preoccupation of a large number of people with the various imagined mysteries of the  Sarasvati  river is a part of this tradition too.

But there are also people to whom the idea of a spiritually rich India is redolent of an unacceptably Hindu India. From this point of view, the Sarasvati has to be argued as a mythical river and Hinduism has to be interpreted as a phenomenon which developed only after the Aryans came to India.

From this perspective, Hinduism is as much native to the Indian soil as Islam and Christianity are. All of them came with the influx of new people, the Aryans in the case of the Hindus, the Muslims in the case of Islam and the Europeans in the case of Christianity. The idea of continuity of the Indian civilization does not suit the beliefs of this group of people.

Within this primary frame, there are various shades of opinions regarding various fields. The first is the unqualified acceptance of the idea of correlation between race, language and culture, of which the Aryans, Dravidians, etc. are logical offshoots. This led to the concept of the Aryan rule of India on the one hand and the genesis and persistence of the Dravidian movement on the other.

These concepts have many ramifications and deserve detailed discussions exposing their hollowness. If the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu has assumed a form in which scholars extolling the virtues of Tamil civilization are handsomely rewarded, the Aryanists in Tamil Nadu refuse to dissociate the origins of the Tamil civilization from the perceived migrations from the north. When a scholar of the stature of I.Mahadevan refuses to take the date of the earliest Brahmi inscriptions in Tamil Nadu earlier than the third century BC, even though in the neighbouring Sri Lanka they date from the mid-5 century BC and the archaeological sequence at sites like Kodumanal takes the Brahmi-inscribed sherds to c.500 BC, the most charitable explanation I can offer is that to Tamilians of higher castes, the idea of an early literate Tamil antiquity is not particularly acceptable.

The terms like the Aryans, Dravidians, etc. are still freely used in Indian archaeology with unhappy implications. B.B.Lal, for instance, puts the ‘Aryan  homeland’ in India whereas to those familiar with the concerned literature behind the Aryan idea, this Aryan idea is nothing but a racist myth and should be discarded forthwith. On the other hand, there is no lack of attempts in recent times to seek the Aryans in such places as Bactria or the southern part of Siberia.

The  second  sub-area of dispute is the extent to which the different technological elements like food-production, metallurgy, etc. are the results of diffusionary spreads or indigenous developments. At almost every stage of the Indus civilization we have encountered such disputes, including those about its chronology, and in a later context, still there are people unwilling to accept an early date for the beginning of iron in India.

A detailed item by item discussion on these and other issues is beyond the scope of the present paper, but it may be useful if we remember the contexts which have given rise to them.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the study of ancient India still suffers from certain basic infra-structural problems such as the absence of a national level laboratory devoted to various kinds of dating and other scientific and technical analyses of archaeological objects.

It would also be nice if the concerned archaeologists could publish their findings without waiting for their retirements.


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