This book is about the history of India’s geography although I do not have any formal training as either a historian or as a geographer. Yet, as I wrote this book, it felt like I have been preparing for it for all my adult life. Ideas, facts and conversations that I seem to have hidden away somewhere in my head all came tumbling out as I wrote out the chapters one by one. My profession as an economist, my love of old maps and wildlife, my studies of urban habitats and my many travels through India and South- East Asia began to slowly fit together into a mosaic.
Still, it was no easy journey. I read through ancient religious texts, the writings of medieval travelers and scores of academic papers on seemingly unrelated and arcane topics. Often it took several readings before I could makes sense of them, but I struggled on because an obsession. It drove me eventually to take time off from mu professional career to travel around India for two and half years to collect material. Indeed, I discovered that many of the texts make sense only if one has actually visited the places to which they refer. I would probably have kept going if my editors at Penguin had not simply taken the draft away from me.
Give the eclectic nature of this book, it could not have been written without the advice and support of many people. Let me begin by thanking Ravi Singh and Michel Danino, who were ready with advice and encouragement at every stage of the book. This book benefitted greatly from their extensive collections of papers and books. I am grateful to Divyabhanusinh Chavda, Vidula Jayaswal, R.S. Bisht, Pratik Bhatnagar, Mahesh Rangarajan, Partha Majumdar, Manoshi Lahiri, Susheel Menon, Ranachandra Guha, Jose Dominic, Abdul Hakim, Lalji Singh and Jacob Thomas for their many suggestions. Let me also thak the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (Mussorie), the survey of India (Dehradun), the World- Wide Fund for Nature, the Archaeological Sruvey of India, Madhaya Pradesh Tourism, The Sushant School of Art and Architecture, Vivekanada Kendra and the Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore.
I enjoyed the hospitality of many kind hosts on my travels. Let me take this opportunity to thank Suresh Neotia, aaupendra Gupta, Sajjan and Sangita Jindal, Dushuant Singh, Abhijit Pandit, Sheila Nair, Maharaj Gaj Singh ,Ranjit Barthakur, Shre Raman, Vineet Saran and Praveen Rengaraj. My dear friends Jayant Sinha, Peter Ruprecht, Ashish Goyal, Siddharth Tog and Arvind Sethi read drafts at different stages and gave me useful insights on style and readability.
Of course, the book would not have been possible without the diligence and enthusiasm of my editors Udayan Mitra and Ameya Nagarajan. It was pleasure working with them I am also grateful for the support of my extended family, particularly my father, with whom I continue to debate the meaning of the Rig Veda. Lastly, I wish to thank my wife Smita who put her life on hold for almost three years, accompanied me on my travels and patiently heard me read out the very first draft of each chapter.
As we make our way through the second decade of the twenty-first century, India is undergoing an extraordinary transformation. This is visible everywhere one looks; After centuries of relative dcline, the Indian economy is reasserting itself. The result is an urban construction boom that defies imagination,. Almost overnight, whole new cities are being built. Nowhere is this more true than in Gurgaon where I llived as I wrote this book. Where there had been wheat and mustard fields till the mid-nineties, there arenow malls. Office towers apartment blocks and highways. Even as I write these words, I watch yet another condominium block rise up.
Boomtowns like Gurgaon, however, are merely one facet of the changes being experienced by India. Mobile telephones and satellite television. Combined with rising literacy and affluence, have changed the dynamics and aspirations of rural and small –town India. The children of farmers are moving to the cities in the millions. By all accounts, India is likely to become an urban-majority country within a generation and its cities need to prepare for the influx of hundreds of millions of people. Existing cities will expand, new cities will rise and villages will be transformed. The old ways are clearly declining.
The economic rise of India is to be welcomed in a country that has long been plagued by poverty but change is not without its price. Natural habitats are being drastically altered and often ravaged by activities like mining, sometimes legal but often illegal. I am told that there are now barely 1706 tigers left in the wild. Dams and canals are altering the fortunes of sacred rivers even as factories and cities empty their untreated waste into them. As urbanization and modernization churn the population, communities are being torn apart and with them we are losing old customs. Traditions and oral histories. Many reminders of the country’s history are being paved over by new highways and buildings.
I am very conscious that we live in a time of rapid change. However, it is important to remember that India is an ancient land. In the long course of its history, it has witnessed many twists and turns. Cities has risen and then disappeared. There have been ‘golden’ periods of economic and cultural achievement as well as periods of defeat and humiliation. Over the centuries, many groups have come to India as traders invaders and refugees, even as Indians have settled in foreign lands. The country has endured dramatic changes in climate and natural habitat. In short, India has been through all this many times before. The scars and remnants of this long history are scattered all over the landscape. If one cares to look, they will stare back even from themost umlikely of places. New Delhi, the national capital, is a good example. It is merely the latest in a series of cities t have been built on the site. Amidst the frenetic pace of modern life, the older Delhis live on in grand ruins, place- names, urban villages. Traditions and sacred site. Even older are the ridges of the Aravalli Range, arguably the oldest geological feature on Earth.
Much has been written about Indian history but almost all of it is concerned with sequences of political events- the rise and fall of empires and dynasties, battles, official proclamations and so on. These are undoubtedly important but I have little to add to what has already been said about the emperor Akbar’s mansabdari system or the Morely –Minto reforms of 1909. However, history is not just politics –it is the result of the complex interactions between a large numbers of factors. Geography is one of the most important of these factors. Moreover, this relationship works both ways- just as geography affects history, history too affects geography.
This book is an attempt to write a brief and eclectic history of India’s geography. It is about the changes in India’s natural and human landscape, about ancient trade routes and cultural linkages, the rise and fall of cities, about dead rivers and the legends that keep them alive. Great monarchs and dynasties are still important to such history but they are remembered for the way in which they shaped geography.
Thus, the book focuses on a somewhat different set of questions: Is there any truth in ancient legends about the Great Flood? Why so Indians call their country Bharat? What do the epics tell us about how Indians perceived the geography of their country in the Iron Age? Why did the Buddha give his first sermon at Sarnath, just outside Varansi? What was it like to sail on an Indian Ocean merchant hunts lions? How did the Europeans map India? How did the British build the railways across the subcontinent? The process of change still goes on and, in the last chapter; we will book at the huge shifts being caused now by the process of urbanization and rapid economic growth.
While the primary focus of this book is on the history of India’s geography, the converse, too, is a secondary theme that runs through the book. In other words, the book is also about the geography, of India’s history and civilization. One canot understand the flow of Indian history without appreciating the drying up of the Saraswati river, the monsoon winds that carried merchant fleets across the Indian Ocean the Deccan raps that made Shivaji’s guerilla tactics possible , the Brahmaputra river that allowed the tiny Ahom kingdom to defeat the mighty Mughals and the marshlands that dictated where the British built their settlements. Furthermore, the book will also consciously bring out the technologies-from kiln- fired bricks and ship building to map – making and railways – that have influenced the way we think of India.
The very idea of India , its physical geography and its civilization, has evolved over the centuries. Yet, despite all these changes, it is astonishing how India’s civilizational traits have survived over millennia. The ox-carts of the Harappan civilization can still be seen in many parts of rural India, essentially unchanged but for the rubber tyres. The Gauatri Mantra, a hymn composed over four millennia ago, is chanted daily by millions of Hindus. This is not just about longevity but about a civillizational ability to take aling an incredible mix of ideas, cultures and lifestyles that, despite their apparent differences, are still a part of the overall patchwork. There are still remote tribes that retain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle that has changed little since the first humans entered the subcontinent. This is not just about a lack of ‘development’. The Sentinelese tribe of the Andaman Islands deliberately retains its stone Age culture and ferociously resists outside contact despite repeated efforts by the government. Who are we to ‘civilize’ the’?
One of the persistent misconceptions about India history is that Indians have somehow never conceived of themselves as a nation and, consequently, never cared about their history. This idea was often repeated by colonial-era officialdom for obvious political ends. As Sir John Strachey put it in the late nineteenth century, ‘The first and most essential thing to learn about India-that there is not, and never was an India.’ Half a century later, Winsto Churchill would echo the some point when he said that ‘India’ is a geographical trem. It is no more a united nation than the equator’. A corollary to this point of view was the argument that since Indians were never conscious of their nationhood, they did not care for their history (or their freedom). Curiously, this colonial-era idea has somehow remained alive-it is still not uncommon to hear people, even scholars, say that Indians are an ahistorical people. As we shall see, this is totally incorrect. There is more than enough evidence to show that Indians have long been conscious of their history and civilization. Indeed, from very ancient times as well as to create linkages to those who came before them. This sense of civilizational continuity is so strong that foreign rulers, including the British, have repeatedly acknowledged Indian civilization even as they have tried to give themselves legitimacy.
Indeed, the British systematically drew on the political symbolism of India’s past. In front of the Rashtrpati Bhavan symbolisn of India’s past . In front of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (President Palace) in New Delhi is a tall column called the Jaipur Column. It is a Sand stone shaft topped by the ‘star of India’. There is an inscription on its base, conceived by Lord Irwin and Sir Edwin Lutyens, that reads as follows: ‘In though faith,/ In word wisdom,/ In deed courage,/ In life service,/ So may India be great.’ The column was a gift from by the British when they built a new imperial capital in the early decades of the twentieth century.
At that time, the British may not have known that India would become independent a few short years after they had completed the project. However, it is as if they were very conscious that they were inheritors of a very ancient imperial dream . They would have been aware that in the context of India’s long history, the period of British rule would one day become just a speck. Therefore, by erecting column, they were determined to leave a stamp of their times. In doing so, they were following a practice that went back at least to the third century.
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