In the late 1860s, a German businessman, enthusiastic about Greek history, started digging in the small town of Hisarlik in Turkey, in search of a Homeric site. He claimed to have discovered Troy, made famous in Homer’s Iliad with the story of the Trojan horse. There was much debate and excitement among anthropologists and enthusiasts and when the dust settled, the conclusion was that the site was indeed Troy. This discovery was significant because neither the locals nor any annals had maintained the linkage between Troy and Hisarlik through the centuries. The link was broken as Turkey went through many cultural and political transformations: Greek ethos gave way to the Roman civilisation, which was then replaced by the Byzantines. The Persians, the Arabs and the Ottomans who followed them, erased ancient memories, replacing it with new ones chosen by the new rulers and the new religions.
Contrast this with a similar archaeological discovery made during our times. In the 1990s, a team of Indian and Italian archaeologists conducted excavations near a village in Farrukhabad district of Uttar Pradesh. A mound just outside the village was excavated, which led to the discovery of the ancient town of Kampilya, the capital of King Drupada from the Mahabharata. However, this discovery generated neither any debates nor any significant discussions, and the excitement was limited to the archaeological circles.
What can explain the absence of excitement for a seemingly similar discovery? Are Indians not interested in their own past? Is it because it wasn’t a businessman who had sponsored the excavation of Kampilya? Or is there another explanation?
The answer is simple: Kampilya, unlike Troy, was never lost and its excavation was never a discovery. For the locals, the mound was always known as Drupad kila (Drupad’s fort), Although the fort had been buried for thousands of years, knowledge about the fort was transmitted over generations without a break. Also, not surprisingly, the name of the village was Kampil (a variant of Kampilya).
Unlike Turkey, where no local stories had survived the two and half millennia since the legend of Troy, the villagers in Kampil in their own history of at least five thousand years, not only knew about Kampilya, but also about Drupad, his daughter Draupadi and the battles fought near their village. Drupad’s story was neither legend, nor Kampilya legendary; they existed as real places with stories that have lasted hundreds of generations.
The absence of excitement in India about ancient discoveries is not surprising, because India is a unique civilisation with ancient memories that remain alive. In fact, India is the only place where there is an unbroken continuity between the land, the people and their stories that have been narrated across the generations. Consider other ancient civilisations west of India. Egypt, Rome, Greece, Iran and Mesopotamia still exist, but they are not the same places with whom India traded during ancient times.
In Egypt, it was the archaeological discoveries during and following the Napoleonic invasion that actually connected Egyptians to their forgotten past. For Greeks, the Minoan, Mycenaean and Hellenistic Greece are all relics of the past and modern day Greeks don’t live by the same religion or follow the same culture. Although the land and the people continued, the stories were replaced with biblical ones.
Similarly, towards the east, in the case of China, Buddhism became a cultural force that dramatically altered the fabric of the society from the traditions of the Xia, Shang and the Zhou dynasties. Various pre-Buddhist ideologies that dominated the society were replaced by new concepts of dharma and karma. From 200 BCE and over the next millennium, Buddhism became a powerful force; stories of Buddha in various forms pervaded society. Shaolin’s foundation by Indian monks and the subsequent role that institution played in Chinese political balance further entrenched Buddhist thought into China’s political discourse.
The Jewish people have a long memory as well. However, their cultural continuity was detached from their land as the Jews were forced to disperse into various parts of the world. The geography that encompasses modern day Israel and its neighbours went through several social and political changes similar to those witnessed by Mesopotamia, Turkey and other ancient civilisations in that area.
The pre-European inhabitants of North-America and Australia also maintained a long memory of their civilisation. However, the near genocidal attack on their existence by Europeans all but vanquished many of the tribes. Those who survived are attempting to resurrect and piece back their memories. The memories peoples of South-America and Africa were also erased as foreign political forces brought the full force of their religious dogmas and replaced the original memories with those considered holy in their respective books.
When it comes to India, Kampil is not a unique instance where memory was preserved over a long period of time. The memory of the Vedic Saraswati was preserved in local folks songs, Rig Veda and the Mahabharata. Another example is the case of the star Vega or Abhijit, which was at one time given the status as one of the 27 nakshatras (a special star along the ecliptic used for tracking planetary and solar motion). The memory of Abhijit becoming the pole star, 13,000 years ago, is known to Indians even today in the form of it losing its status among the pantheon of 27 nakshatras.
One can witness this continuity in several walks of life as well. For example, the ratio 5:4 was commonly used by the people of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation for constructing cities, the Vedic people for building fire altars, Varahamihira for building palaces, and the artisans who built the Delhi Iron pillar. Even now the proportion is used by the Jaipur Royal family in their flag. This continuous usage exceeds a span of at least five millennia.
This civilisational continuity is ingrained in the attitude and actions of the people. In the 19th century, much before the arrival of modern archaeology, the people of Ujjain knew that their city was built on top of another ancient city and for building a house, they could get well-baked bricks just by digging into the ground. The Archaeological Survey of India conducted twelve expeditions of marine excavations near Dwaraka in Gujarat, based on the description in Skanda Purana. Dwaraka, which was known as Kusasthali, was described as being situated at the confluence of Gomati and the Western Sea. These excavations yielded pottery, seals and epigraphs, which were possibly from the 17th – 18th century BCE.
Indians have always known about India’s uniqueness vis-a-vis other ancient civilisations. Allama Iqbal expressed these exact thoughts when he wrote:
युनानो-मिस्रो-रोमा सब् मिट गये जहांसे
अब तक मगर है बाकि नामो निशां हमारा
कुछ बात है कि हस्ति मिटती नहीं हमारी…
Greek, Roman and Egyptian civilisations have all vanished without a trace
Yet, our identity remains unbroken
There is something unique about us, that preserves our existence…
Indian history, with its unbroken continuity has accumulated the memories of the past into stories that remain live even today. Other civilisations within their finite periods of existence are visible to us through annals and records that appear as discrete narratives. Therefore, Indic history can be described as being “accumulative” history, versus other civilisations having “discrete” histories. This key differentiator between India and other civilisations is important to consider as India attempts to reassess its own history.
Although that is an important differentiator, there are other aspects as well which makes India unique. Because other ancient civilisations are no longer living. The techniques used for understanding them are similar to a post-mortem, and therefore unsuitable for understanding a living civilisation such as India. Later articles in the series will demonstrate that Indian society had the ability to perceive, discern, and select what to preserve for posterity.
Today, a nationalistic Government is leading India, and that presents an unprecedented opportunity to undo the damage that has been caused by forces hostile to Indic ethos. A natural reaction would be to take an opposite position to reverse the damage. For example, it would be tempting to replace the current “official” history that is out of touch with India, with one with a nationalistic outlook. Towards that goal, it would be expedient to replace the heads of the central institutions with ones who can write volumes about nationalistic history.
While removing the individuals in power who are hostile to Indic ethos is a necessary first step, the question to ask is, what are our expectations from the new appointees? Should they be also writing volumes on history?
This series takes a step back and analyses the mechanisms used by our ancestors. Had they developed a framework for recording history that is staring at us but we don’t realise? If so, can we decode that framework and can that decoded framework offer us guidance in creating an analytical approach to reassessing history?
The rest of the articles in the series will attempt to answer these questions. In the next part, we review the politics of “official” history, and in the subsequent parts we decode the unique Indic methodology of editorializing, preserving and transmitting, not only narratives but even lessons learned. The final part will look at how that decoded knowledge can help formulate a new framework for reassessing Indic history, and perhaps even the history of humanity.
- Indian History Carnival-80: Medicine and Colonialism, Atmaram Jayakar, Prem Nem, Sven Gahlin, Camels
- In Niti Central: Politics of ‘official’ History