Review: A Traveller's History of India

A Traveller's History of India
A Traveller's History of India
Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda
The Windrush Press, Gloucestershire, Great Britain, 1997

Review Copyright © 1998 Garret Wilson — October 24, 1998; 2:00pm

Part of a complete Traveller’s Histories series, A Traveller’s History of India by Sinharaja Tammita-Delgoda gives a general overview of India’s history from prehistory to the present. This is not a bad introduction book; you won’t find just a speedy glance at India that you can read on the plane. In that respect, the "Traveller’s History" part of the title is misleading. This is a work that will actually allow a traveler or anyone else become adequately familiar with Indian history. Students and more serious history buffs may find this a good start, but for more scholarly work will need to look elsewhere.

I found that the information is complete enough that those without a background in Indian history will get confused if the details are dwelt on. On the other hand, the factuality of information is suspect in some places and no references are given so that one could do further research. For these reasons, it’s probably best to quickly read the book to get an overview of the important events that have occurred throughout India’s past. The following are those events as I took them:

2500 to 1500 B.C. — Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro

This time period was marked by the existence of two great cities, Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. Located in what is now Pakistan, these cities were only discovered early in the 1900's. They apparently made a "carefully planned and ordered world" (18) by their well organized (if not diverse) system of streets and houses, with a system of weights based largely on powers of two. The fact that this civilization faded around the time of invaders in 1500 B.C. is probably just coincidence.

1500-334 B.C. — The Aryans

The Aryans, "tall, fair-haired, and fair-skinned, with clear-cut features" (33), used to live in the steppes of Central Asia, particularly between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. In 2000 B.C. they left their homeland in Southern Russia. Some invaded Europe, becoming the "ancestors of the Greeks, the Latins, the Celts, and the Teutons; others invaded Asia..." The Hittites settled down in what is now Turkey (34).

In 1500 they moved into India, bringing the Vedas (e.g. the Rig Veda) and two epic poems, the Mahabarata and the Ramayana. Later, two other texts were added as commentaries to the Vedas, the Brahmanas and the Upanishads. Lastly, the Sutras, "a collection of legal and ritual treatises" were added (35).

These changes brought about less emphasis on the old Vedic gods, such as Indra and Varuna, which were "superseded by the great gods of Hinduism, Brahma,... Shiva and Vishnu," along with "other minority deities such as Hanuman, the Monkey God and Ganesha, the Elephant God." This was the birth of modern Hinduism (47). This same time period saw the creation of Buddhism and Jainism in the sixth century B.C. (49, 51).

As for languages, the Aryans brought Sanskrit, from which most of the languages of India were derived.

330-184 B.C. — The Mauryas

Alexander the Great conquered his empire (including some of India), died, and "left behind him several Greek colonies in Afghanistan and north-western India" (54). Chandragupta Maurya overthrew the power that was left behind. He was succeeded by his son Bindusara, and his son, Asoka, "one of the most famous figures in Indian history" (57). "Mauryan rule stretched from the foothills of the Himalayas to Mysore in the south, from Bangladesh to the heart of Afghanistan," including "almost the whole of the modern nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan (62). The government was very controlling, with a rigorous code of conduct for everyone, but this seemed to keep order and maintain a high level of prosperity.

184 B.C. — A.D. 647 The "Golden Age" of Indian Civilization

This period was marked by the rise of the Guptas under a different Chandragupta which "lasted for almost 150 years and saw... a brilliant outpouring of science, art, music, and literature" (76). Chadragupta was succeeded by Chandragupta II, Kumaragupta I, and Skandagupta. The Kama Sutra was written in this period and its contents reflect the conditions of that era (82).

"The empire was divided into provinces (desha), which were then subdivided into a number of districts (pradesha)" (80). Is this where the name, "Uttar Pradesh" comes from, I wonder?

647-1707 — The Rise of Islam

The first Muslim invasions into India came towards the end of the seventh century into what is now the southernmost province of Pakistan, but this was just a temporary introduction of Islam (92). In the meantime, the Rajputs dominated. The most famous figure was Prithvirag III, of which the long epic poem Prithvirajaso speaks. In the 10th century, Muslim Turks invaded from Afghanistan, bringing with them the Persian language. They eventually attacked the Rajputs and finally Prithviraj was defeated (97).

In the 16th century, a Muslim named Babur gained control of Kabul in Afghanistan and launched into India, founding the Mughal empire (109-110). He was succeeded by his son Humayun, whose widow built a grand shrine in Humayun’s memory. His son Akbar consolidated Mughal power, under whose rule Persion literature flourished (124).

Akbar was succeeded by Prince Salim, who took the title Jahangir ("World Grasper"). After Jahangir came Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal then later moved his capital from Agra to Delhi. His son Aurangzeb pursued a strict anti-Hindu policy (136) and also moved into southern India from the 1680's onward. He spent the rest of his life fighting the Marathas in the western Ghats (138-139).

1707-1947 — Decline of Mughals, Maratha Confederacy, British Rule

The Mughal empire declined, the Marathas made a confederacy, but then European infiltration grew, culminating in the British East India Company. After later Indian uprisings and World War II, the British granted independence to India in 1947, creating Pakistan in the process.

1947-1991 — Independent India

There were Muslim-Hindu riots, which Gandhi tried to quell by living with the Muslims grouped together in Delhi. Gandhi was assassinated. Nehru tries to mix democracy with socialism. In the 1950's India’s state lines were redrawn based on linguistic areas. Nehru died and Shastri became the second prime minister, in power during the 1965 Kashmir crisis.

Indira Gandhi (his daughter; no relation to Gandhi) was prime minister, the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War occurred, and Indira Gandhi declares "The Emergency" in 1975, after which the 1977 elections brought Morarji Desai’s Janata party to power. The 1980 elections brought Indira Gandhi back, who was later assassinated. Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1991.

As you can see, A Traveller’s History of India gives a good overview, if not a complete view, of Indian history. It has its shortcomings: Nehru’s several five-year plans and their effects are outrageously simplified (210-211), but this isn’t an economics textbook. And, even though this isn’t a science textbook either, its description of an 11th century temple with an image of "a phallus which seemed to float in mid-air without any visible support from above or below — it was in fact held in place by a magnetic force-field" (95) seems highly suspect based upon my guesses of 11th century technology. Despite its inadequacies, however, as a history for travelers A Traveller’s History certainly exceeds the needs of its proposed audience and provides groundwork for those who want to study further.