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Revolution in 19th Century Bengal

As many of you are aware that for this month, I hosted the The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore Read Along to celebrate the 100 years of publication of this great novel as well celebrate India’s 69th “new” independence from British Raj. I had the greatest pleasure and honor in reading the novel with Stefanie, Jane, Cleo and Brona and as we close this month, it seemed the time was appropriate to share some of my thoughts and ideas about this timeless classic.

Tagore wrote this novel in the back drop of partition of Bengal (for more information, you can refer to the details here) which led to the rise of “Swadeshi Movement”  –  a nationalist movement that demanded freedom from British rule and was a precursor to Gandhi’s non-violent movement, which would yield much more significant results. The novel opens with Bimala the lady of the house giving us a background of the house and family she has married into and more importantly the character of her husband. The family is a rich aristocratic family settled for generations in Eastern India. Nikhil, Bimala’s husband is the scion of the house, running his business and family to the best of his abilities in modern and enlightened lines. He is kind to his poor tenants and genuinely tries to improve their condition and the state of the country by trying out new agricultural techniques, indigenous factories to produce such daily needs like soaps and pens and deploy modern economics like banks. His schemes are not always successful but his kindness and moral standards have earned him the respect of one and all. He has tried to educate his wife Bimala and has had a British lady come and teach her and he hopes to bring her out as an individual, independent of her identity as his wife. The household also consists of his two widowed sister-in-laws, wives of his older brothers who had died young after a life of debauchery and profligacy, leaving these women without any resources and dependent on Nikhil. Bimla is often involved in petty arguments with her two sister-in-laws in domestic matters, while Nikhil teaches her patience and tolerance for creatures like them who have been deprived of practically all basic human joys through choices that were never theirs. Such are the conditions, when the “Swadeshi Movement” sweeps the country. Nikhil is wary of such frantic nationalism, though he continues to fund finances for Sandeep, his friend who is a leader of the movement. Bimala thinks of him as a selfish creature and does not approve of her husband’s financial support to Sandeep. Soon nationalism comes to their county and Sandeep comes to their house as a guest and his oratory inspires Bimala to step outside the inner sanctums and purdah and meet him. This unleashes a series of events which neither Bimla or Nikhil who always encouraged Bimala to come out of the purdah, foresaw with significant results!

Tagore’s literary masterpiece spoke of 3 important elements at once, through the interweaving of the first person narratives of Bimala, Nikhil and Sandeep. First, it acts as an allegory for the nationalist struggle that had spread across India and Bengal, that presents two opposing forces, that is fighting for the future of Bengal and India. Nikhil is the enlightened humanist who asserts that truth cannot be imposed; freedom is necessary for choice, and is critical to individual growth and fulfillment. Sandeep represents himself as a realist, one who brutally confronts the world.He presents all that is passionate and violent, believing that the end justifies the means and that if something is not given to him amicably, he will snatch it if need be. Secondly, it deals with the question of gender when it proposes the figure of the woman as the representative of the nation. Tagore brings out his woman – the central character of the novel and makes her cross the literal and metaphorical threshold between the world of the anter- mahal or the inner chambers, the private inhabited by women in traditional Indian families, and the world of politics, the public. Finally, the novel raises philosophical questions and brings in Tagore’s ever curious questioning of metaphysical conception of truth and see the world as a constantly attempting to ignore truth and believe illusions to be the truths, which cannot be self sustaining. There are some shortcomings in the novel for sure – too much of rhetoric and some very uni-dimensional characters, especially Sandeep, whose brilliance is overshadowed in portraying him as a complete villain. Amulaya’s character is another example of unilateral creation where his goodness belies everything! However despite these shortcomings, I am still in awe of the brilliance that Tagore displayed not only in the narrative but also in the way he could fortell the future and his understanding as visionary which he translated into words for the common man to understand. Well before the rise of Nazi Germany, well before the Serbian or Rawandan civil wars, Tagore could see the utter and complete destructive powers of the “nationalist sentiment” . He wrote extensively against blind patriotism and spoke strenuously from desisting from violence as means to an end. A humanitarian to the very core, the idea of hurting anyone, Hindu, Muslim or British was appalling to him and he was convinced any results achieved on such principles would not stand the test of time – a key of Tagore’s belief system. Sustainable things and not things of the a moment, were the ingredients for success in any endevour. His foresight was telling when he brought forth the unrest among the Muslim populace of Nikhil and other feudal lord’s territories. This unrest and discontentment would fester leading finally to the partition of Indian in 1947 on religious lines, leading to the creation of Pakistan. His humanism demanded that we treat Muslims no different from Hindus, and religion should be the last condition for understanding the value of an individual – a lesson valid now more than ever.His celebration of humanism and individuality is powerfully brought out in the character of Nikhil – the man who believes that true freedom does not restrict but liberate and who honors those principals even when his wife decides to make choices, contrary to him and his belief system. Finally in Bimala he beautifully depicts the confusion of the Indian woman, who is slowly stepping out in the world to try and take her place again after centuries of oppression and purdah. She is confused and dazzeled by the heading feeling of doing some important work in the arena of men. She is awe of the power, all the men around her seem to attribute to her and she thinks she is finally making a difference to her country. Her assertion of character first surprises Nikhil who, despite being hurt, allows her to follow her own path and later Sandeep who tries to dominate her, finally showing her, his true colors. Bimala is representative of many woman, including many woman of today, who come from a strongly male dominated arena and for the first time discover a world of their own. They lose a bit of ground initially, but are soon able to assert their strength. Bimala in fact constantly reminded me of many of my sorority sisters in college. Thanks to the struggles of my great grand mother and grand mother, the former a contemporary of Bimala , in the same age and same socio-economic background, by the time I was born, my family was liberated, educated and got confused when someone said a girl child was a burden. However many families to this day and age believe in restricting the freedoms of their daughters in this country for the sake of honor or some such imagined masculine pride. These girls, for the first time sent to college away from the domination of parents would lose all control, until their innate sense asserted themselves and some of them went on to become lawyers, lecturers and even politicians. Tagore in writing Bimala seemed to fortell the story of all these girls.

I have read The Home and The World several times before and each time, I find something new to delve into and think about. If this does not define a classic, I am not sure what will.

To end, I would like to thank you all who participated in this read along and stuck around through my tedious history posts and found time to read this wonderful book. Thank you for your time and constant encouragement. No way could I have pulled off this event, if you all were not standing around cheering me on!

All About The Absence

Hello! Hello! I know I have been away for nearly two weeks without a word, and some of you have been wondering where I have been! To begin with, a big Thank You to those who have been checking up on me; I really really appreciate the concern and feel blessed to have people who watch out for me!

I was away on a road trip all across what is considered the Himalayan Desert at about 15000 ft from the Sea Level. The region around 10th century used to belong to the then Tibet empire and still retains many of its culture and practices, which are especially evident in the Monasteries that are dotted all over the region.The place is called  and is a unique natural phenomena of a desert at a very high altitude,  located in the north-eastern part of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. “Spiti” means “The Middle Land” in Bhutia language, i.e. the land between Tibet and India.

While Spiti River surrounds the valley, the region is in a rain shadow area and is devoid of the lush green vegetation that usually forms the landscape of the Himlayas. However the barren brown mountains in the backdrop of the clear and deep blue skies are absolutely awe inspiring and in their presence you are intensely aware of a power at work, which is much greater than those of the mortal man. And then after range and range of imposing brown mountains, there would be flash of green and all kinds of wild flowers and it would seem like some one had taken a crayon and painted the whole natural canvass.No wonder, Buddhist monks chose this region to deeply meditate and some of the most powerful monasteries of the Buddhism is located here!

I took this trip again with the absolutely brilliant Shibani and her team at Wonderful World and only they could have managed to infuse a sense of comfort when the conditions were anything but, provide luxury when none existed to begin with and ensure we get a feeling of truly experiencing Spiti and her culture with a well thought through and extremely considered plan. For 10 days, managing 12 women across adventurous terrain, Wonderful World, this time led by Pooja Sharma, ensured that we all got to do what we wanted and keep calm in face of crisis including when my flatmate and cousin decided to take photos anywhere and everywhere  delaying the scheduled arrival time. Pooja was also wonderfully patient in helping me navigate some of more challenging trails, which became challenging thanks to the 224lbs that I carry with me! This team remains a girl’s best travelling companion!

This trip was not meant to be  relaxing vacation, a day at the resort; it was arduous and difficult. Every day we would drive about 8 hrs or so and then hike some more km. As the altitude increased, air became thinner and simple tasks required more effort and sleeping at a different place each night and living out of the suitcase for 14 days was anything but easy! But this was one of those truly life changing epic trips and the majesty and the brilliance of the landscape sears your soul, until you find yourself introspecting and come away with a heightened awareness of self and the surroundings!

I know I will go back there and at some point, move to the valley to spend the rest of my life there. Until those grand plans materialize, I leave you with some pictures of its grandeur!

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P.S. None of the photos have been Photoshoped and the play of colors and shadow that you see is a complete natural capture!

The Home & The World Read Along – Part III

This is the final post of the three part snapshot of Indian History (you can read them here and here), which I briefly and sketchily tried to summarize to help better understand the political nuances of The Home and The World, the Read Along, I am hosting for August. For those of you who still continue to read my long winded essays, Thank you for your patience and interest and I promise, this will be the very last of the Indian History 101!

The new century brought an increased awareness among the Indians – the states of Bengal, Bombay and Punjab especially had a growing population of educated class who were beginning to think for themselves and ask questions on the right of British to rule India. Bengal more than any other state was at the forefront as Calcutta, the capital of British India was located in Bengal and since the days of Siraj-Ud-Dula in 1700s, the Bengalees more than anyone else were in direct contact with the merchant rulers and were first to be educated in the English system and first to initiate reform for Indian woman. By 1900s they were producing authors, poets, statesman and scientist.The region was overflowing with intellectual brilliance and there was a need to curb its questions and revolutionary tendencies and to stem this, Lord Curzon came up with the plan to partition Bengal in 1905, apparently for administrative reasons, but on ground it was clear that it was an effort to divide the Hindu-Muslim population of the state and have them fight each other. This blatant act of tyranny, led to a mass scale agitation and protest by Indian called the Swadeshi Movement and it was during this time that the events of the novel unfold.

The Swadeshi Movement very simply put was an effort to boycott British made goods, from clothes to soaps, and instead support indigenous and small scale industries in India, by patronizing their product. The aim was to halt the unbridled commercial success of British trading community and therefore force the government in rescinding the order for Partition. One may ask to begin with, why did Indians buy British product – the simple answer is because Indian did not have their own products. For the previous  150 years,. India was used by the British to produce raw material from cotton to coal to Indigo and then dump all the manufactured goods back in Indian markets. The Indian industries which so far had been built on merchant guild lines and had no exposure to the industrial revolution of the West , could not keep up and folded up; the traders becoming indentured farmers or laborers. Under the Swadeshi Movement, there was an effort made to re-start the small scale industries by giving them the Indian market to sell their products.

The movement had a lot of ideological and bravado zeal; there were awe inspiring speeches , picketed against shops that sold British goods and made bonfires  to burn British products. it extended beyond economics and into other spheres- Indians began boycotting government jobs, use of British courts and schools and colleges.Most importantly socially, the political movement came to the masses; since inception of Congress, politics had been the dominion of some educated elites, but Swadeshi bought it to every home and hearth. The call for independence based on economic equality rang true to every man/woman. Meetings and processions, forming of committees, propaganda through press, and diplomatic pressure, every and each tool was used by the Indians to get their message across. Even Indian festivals were used as a platform to reassert Indian identity and strength.Richness of the movement extended to culture, science and literature. Traditional folk theater forms such as jatras i.e. extensively used in disseminating the Swadeshi message in an intelligible form to vast sections of the people, many of whom were being introduced to modern political ideas for the first time. Similarly authors from Tagore to others wrote pieces hailing the brilliant past of India and asking fellow countryman to seek out the country’s future destiny as well. Masses were educated for a bolder form of politics and colonial hegemony was undermined.There were a lot of student participation and some fiery young leaders,  took to the stage and adopted some aggressive means to drive the point. The indigenous and vernacular press also came of the age during this time, strongly condemning British force to curb non violent protests and faced shutdowns and imprisonment for writing against the British Government and jailed under Sedition charges. The British naturally also took other steps to curb the movements, including “lathi charge” – attack by long bamboo sticks to dispel protesters, imprisonment of many under the aforementioned sedition charges and use of terms like Bande Mataram (literally, “I pray/bow down to thee, Mother and a patriotic song penned during this time by the prolific Indian author, Bankim Chandra) were deemed illegal. (Making Bande Mataram illegal made it in fact the rallying crying of the Indian Independence movement until 1947)

Swadeshi movement for the first time in Modern History effectively united Indians and brought them together to fight what was an imperialistic policy. However there was one downside of this movement – the Indian goods because they were produced in smaller numbers, were expensive and not ubiquitously available. The British goods were cheap and constantly in supply; the common man living under severe poverty could barely afford to make his two ends meet, he need the cheap sugar and cloth of British factories and for a country whose average per capita income was below the Poverty line (1885 to 1921), even with best of intentions, supporting the slow and expensive Indian industry was out of question.To understand the grinding poverty of the time, here just one fact – The Lancet reported 19 million died from starvation and consequences of extreme poverty in British India, between 1896 and 1900. The other effect which made many, including Tagore draw away from the movement was the violence – the youth in patriotic fervor committed several acts of aggression, which principally makes Indian uncomfortable. A country which historically taught peace and acceptance, only wages wars as a last resource and acts of terror were as abhorrent to 20th century India as it was in 300 BC India.

Despite British repression and the discomfort of Indians, the Swadeshi movement did manage to pressurize the government to pull back the Bengal Partition order  and in 1911, Bengal again became a unified state. The Swadeshi movement was also a pre-curser to Gandhi’s Non Violent movement for freedom and Gandhi worked on the student population of Swadeshi Movement who were now established lawyers, doctors teachers and demand independence from British rule, finally leading to an independent India in 1947. The only blip in this heroic historic victory, was that India was partitioned into two states of India and Pakistan and left behind in its wake one of worst instances of religious violence and the largest displacement of a population. But that is another story for another day!

Finally my usual disclaimer, while I have not cited any particular sources, but my essay is based on readings of Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, A History of India by Percival Spear, From Plassey to Partition – A History of Modern India  by Shekhar  Bandyopadhyay, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

The Home & The World Read Along – Indian History Part II

Continuing from my last post, as part of my August Read Along Event – The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore, I come to part 2 of my snapshot of Indian History, in an effort to better understand the socio-economic backdrop of the novel and therefore better understand the nuances of this classic.

In 1498, Vasco Da Gama successfully discovered a direct sea route from Europe to India, which eliminated the need for Arab brokers and put Europe in direct touch with India. The Dutch and the French soon followed, but the most impact full of all these merchant ventures had a nascent beginning in 1617, when the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, impressed, by the ability of a European physician to cure his ailing son, granted a charter for trade to the physician’s company; the Company was called The British East India Company and this was the start of something which Jahangir could have little forseen! Soon, little by little, the British began to expand their commercial empire and the venture recieved a significant impetus, when the then Mughal Emperor  Farrukh Siyar granted them permits for duty-free trade in Bengal in 1717. The Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Dula, the de-facto Governor, naturally opposed these permits and this brought him in direct conflict with the British powers. However, he had not counted on the greed and treachery of many, including Mir Jafar, his commander in chief and Jagath Seth, his chief banker, who plotted with the British for overthrow of the Nawab in exchange of additional trading rights. If there had been any other company clerk at that time, perhaps this initiative would not have worked or fallen through; but Mir Jafar and Jagath Seth connived with one of the most brilliant and daring Britisher of that time – a little known ensign who would become the Governor of the Presidency of Bengal, Robert Clive. On on 23 June 1757, Robert Clive and the British Company Army under the command of Clive, defeated the Sirj-ud Dula and established the first foothold in India.

Following the colonization of Bengal, the British East India company adopted a series of expansionist policies, which began with open war and later incorporated any and every arbitrary policy from mis-rule as defined by the British to the hated Doctrine of Lapse to increase their colony.The first series of conquests happened in South of India, where the East India company defeated the French to conquer the Madras Presidency. They further consolidated their rule after the Anglo Maratha Wars ((1772–1818) which gave them supremacy over Bombay and conquered and annexed Punjab and Kashmir, following their decisive victory in the Anglo Sikh Wars in 1849. The British Colonial policy gained more territory, when they adopted the infamous Doctrine of Lapse, devised by Lord Dalhousie (1848 -1856). Under this policy, any princely state or territory would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”. The latter  clause especially violated the long-established right of an Indian sovereign without an heir to choose a successor, by adopting someone from his/her family.In addition, the British decided whether potential rulers were competent enough, making the Indian kings and Princes, puppets in their own country, expected to serve at the pleasure of The East India Company. They also initiated the  Divide and Rule policy, exploiting the age old religious rivaliries to further their aims, the results of which would be felt more than 100+ years later, when India gained her independence by losing much of its territory to the formation of the state of Pakistan.

The British East India Company not only bought English rule, but also English governance with them.  They introduced a land taxation system called the Permanent Settlement which introduced a feudal-like structure in Bengal, often with zamindars set in place, who lorded over the poor peasants for ungodly taxes. They also tried to “modernize” India by introducing the railways, the telegraph and the English education system. The latter especially would have far reaching results, as suddenly India, gripped in the miasma of medieval barbaric traditions was exposed to the works of Kant and Rousseau and Mill and re-discovered their Vedic roots. The education system which sought to provide clerks to help the company business, was suddenly producing thinkers and heralding a profound social movement termed as the Bengal Renaissance. This movement argued  by many historians began with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833) and ended with Rabindranath Tagore(1861–1941). This was social, cultural and intellectual movement that would force India into the modern nation states, and change the way Indians thought! The movement began by the questioning the then prevailing social evils in India – it argued for the ban of Sati (immolation of Hindu women on the cremation pyre of their husbands), fought against child marriage and was vociferous in its favor of education of girls and remarriage of widows,  both an anathema to then Indian Society.The movement received support of some of the more enlightened Governor Generals, with Sati being outlawed under Lord William Bentinck in 1829 and the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act being passed in 1856, legalizing marriage of widows. It was also under Lord Bentinck, under the misguided advise of Lord Macaulay, who believed that the Orient had nothing to educate its people, introduced many “modern” schools and universities in the country. The Hare School (1818), Scottish Church College (1830), Wilson College (1832), Madras Christian College (1837), and Elphinstone College (1856) and the founding of the first English style universities – University of Madras (1855) and University of Calcutta and Bombay (1857).

While the social reform from the current point of view seems a movement in the right directions, the middle 19th century India, did not seem to think so. Most of the common men, thought that a group of educated Indian elites were seeking to breakdown the Indian culture and tradition and most importantly their religion to gain complete control over the country. While the end was not completely inaccurate, and there were enough missionaries trying to convert “heathen” Indians, the education and the railways, were only to serve the British commercial needs. The changing rules in the British Indian Army, a much coveted post for Indians, also added to the growing disquiet. The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Enfield P-53 rifle.These rifles used paper cartridges that came pre-greased and to load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder.The grease used on these cartridges include tallow derived from beef, which would be offensive to Hindus and pork, which would be offensive to Muslims. Despite knowing the reservations the English continued the production of these cartridges and court martialed any Indian solider refusing to use these rifles. Such practices, along with social reforms that seemed to break down the Indian society  along with unlawful conquest of Jhansi, Saugar and Oudh, states which had stayed loyal to the East India company, under the uniformly abhorred Doctrine of Lapse , finally led to the eruption of the First War of Independence or The Rebellion of 1857, depending on the perspective of the historian narrating the event. The rebellion began as a mutiny of sepoys of the East India Company’s army on 10 May 1857, in the cantonment of the town of Meerut, and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the Northern and Central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, the then state of Oudh, northern Madhya Pradesh, especially around Jhansi, Indore and Saugar and the Delhi region. The Rebellion was a horrific event in Indian history and atrocities that belie imagination was committed by both races. The only two factors that came through this event was the British Crown took over the rule of India, ending the unique monopoly of a company and Indian National Congress was founded under the patronage of a British man names A.O. Hume, who thought this would provide a forum for the Indians to present their cause and therefore prevent any such events like the 1857 mutiny.

The Indian National Congress at this time comprised mostly of the upwardly mobile and successful western-educated provincial elites, engaged in professions such as law, teaching and journalism, with no clear aims except to act as a debating society that passed numerous resolutions on less controversial issues such as civil rights or opportunities in government which were submitted to the Viceroy’s government with nothing much to write home about. However by 1900, the the Congress had emerged as an all-India political organisation, especially with the enhanced socio-religious movements. The nationalistic sentiments now coloring the beliefs of  Congress  led to them demanding to be represented in the bodies of government, to have a say in the legislation and administration of India. Congressmen saw themselves as loyalists, but wanted an active role in governing their own country, albeit as part of the Empire. This trend was personified by Dadabhai Naoroji, who went as far as contesting, successfully, an election to the British House of Commons, becoming its first Indian member. It was under this atmosphere that the Nationalist or the Swaraj movement gripped the country. Bal Gangadhar Tilak  was the Indian statesman who pioneered this movement and  deeply opposed the then British education system that ignored and defamed India’s culture, history and values. In 1907,  the Congress was split into two factions: The radicals, led by Tilak, advocated civil agitation and direct revolution to overthrow the British Empire and the abandonment of all things British. The moderates, led by leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who wanted reform within the framework of British rule. In July 1905, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy and Governor-General (1899–1905), ordered the partition of the province of Bengal supposedly for improvements in administrative efficiency in the huge and populous region.It also had justifications due to increasing conflicts between Muslims and dominant Hindu regimes in Bengal. However, the Indians viewed the partition as an attempt by the British to disrupt the growing national movement in Bengal and divide the Hindus and Muslims of the region. The partition outraged the now educated and well informed Indians, especially the Bengalis. Not only had the government failed to consult Indian public opinion, but the action appeared to reflect the continued British resolve to divide and rule. This act kicked off what would be The Swadeshi Movement and which formed the background of our novel.

I will conclude this historic overview in my last installment with an insight on the Swadeshi Movement and the end of the British Rule in India.

Again while I have not cited any particular sources, but my essay is based on readings of Modern India by Dr. Sumit Sarkar, The Men Who Ruled India by Philp Mason, A History of India by Percival Spear, Awakening: The Story of Bengal Renaissance by Subrata Dasgupta, The Great Mutiny by Christopher Hibbert, Wikipedia and once more, class notes during my Graduate School days from the lectures of Dr. Tanika Sarkar.

The Home & The World Read Along Indian History – Part I

As many of you are aware, I am hosting The Home and The World Read Along for the Month of August, both to celebrate Indian Independence which happens to fall on 15th Aug but also to mark the centenary anniversary of this masterpieces publication. Now for the non-Indian reader, also may be some Indian readers, the book while a thin novella is a complex work because of the socio-political background in which the narrative is set as how it plays a critical factor in plot development. Therefore, I had promised by fellow readers a crash course in Indian history and women’s empowerment to better understand the nuances of the novel. Towards this end, I present, a capsule of Indian History, focusing primarily on Indian Independence movement.

Capsule is a very very adventurous term for trying to summarize 5000+ years of history, in 5 line paragraphs, but our focus is the novel and its background and not stand alone Indian history, therefore, one’s gotta do what one’s gotta do! For those, who are interested to know more, please let me know and I can share a more comprehensive bibliography for your edification.

The pre-historic remains found in Southern India point towards presence of Homo Erectus about 500,000-200,000 years ago. The homo erectus must have liked the place, because they hung around to evolve through the  Mesolithic period and Neolithic period to potentially help develop one of the first urban civilizations of the world – the Indus Valley civilization.From 7000 BC to 1300 BC, there flourished in the North Western part of India one of the most sophisticated civilizations of the world with such “modern” marvels as urban sanitation systems, waste water management and multistoreyed houses. It was scintillating civilization with advance metallurgy and hydraulic science capabilities.

The Great Bath

The Great Bath excavated at Mohenjodaro, one of the primary sites of Indus Valley Civilization

The Dancing Girl

The Dancing Girl -a bronze statuette dating around 2500 BC, Mohenjodaro

Unfortunately, the script of this civilization remains indecipherable and much of its life and times remains locked. The civilization began to decline in about 1500-1300 BC and the reasons for that remain speculative. The invasion of the Indo-Aryan tribes from Middle Asia was often cited as a common cause, but has been almost abandoned by many historians and now the theory states that the Aryans came in waves rather than a full blown “invasion”; furthermore, it seems difficult to grasp that such a sophisticated and advanced civilization would have been completely desiccated by what was essentially a nomadic primitive community. Change of seasons including the drying up of one of fabled rivers of India – Saraswati has been cited as a reason. There have been some adventurous commentaries on how Aryans where actually the people of Indus Valley civilization. The latter theory has been completely dismissed as there are far too different cultural markings between the two ages and people to consider Aryans as the natural inheritors of Indus Valley Civilization.The most agreed upon thought is the Indus Valley civilization gradually decline due to the climate changes and the coming of Aryans did kind of hurry the process along.

The Aryan or the Vedic Civilization (c. 1500 – c. 500 BCE) began with the slow migration of the Indo Aryan tribes into Northern and then north eastern India. These were primarily pastoral, nomadic tribes, who developed the great Vedic system on which rests the very foundation of Hinduism. The Vedic beliefs were closely related to the hypothesized Proto-Indo-European religion and the Indo-Iranian religion, though there are clear historical evidence, that the Vedic practices eventually adopted some part of the last remains of the Indus Valley people.The early Vedic society was a more tribal community divided into a caste system, originally derived as a labor classification system which sustained itself through agriculture and pastorialisim. It was during this period that Sanskrit as a language emerged and the Devnagri script, the primary script of all North Indian languages developed.It was during this period, that the great epics of Ramayana and Mahabharta were also scripted.

As the Vedic civilization developed there was second wave of Urbanization of city states, very much in Greek style called the Mahajanapadas. These early republics coexisted and waged wars among each other and developed a very urbane and liberated culture , including legal prostitution, where the women were given full rights and citizenships. It was during this phase that the commentaries on the vedic books – The Upanishads were written and Gautam Buddha, was born as the august son to one of prominent families of the republic, who would eventually leave all material comforts to preach a simple contemplative life and found Buddhism. 

The rule of the republics came to a halt as one republic from North Eastern India gained power over the other confederacies and led to the establishment of Kingdom of Magadh. It was during this time, that there were significant development in science, mathematics, astronomy, religion, and philosophy. In one of first form of federal governments, a lot of power was deployed at the grassroot level to villages and the administrations were divided into executive, judicial, and military functions.

The Greek invasion of Alexander happened during this period – Alexander came all the way from Greece, conquering Persia and Bacteria and defeating the Northern republics of India, only to turn back from the gates of Magadh – his solider tired of fighting and the great conquer himself beginning to fall in the throes of the illness which would finally lead to his death.The coming of Alexander did not create much disturbance in the Indian society, except create a confusion, which would be exploited smartly by one of the most brilliant political minds ever – Chanakya whose mind makes Machiavelli seem like a high school novice. He along with a brave and adventurous, albeit outcast youth, called Chandragupta would seize power and establish the first of many dynasties of India called the Maurya Dynasty. This is one of the first “Golden Eras” of Indian history and the Maurya empire saw immense development of economy, trade with Egypt, Mesopotamia and China and a very “modern” form of government where free trade ruled the day, unless the ruler intervened to prevent black marketing or to ensure the poor got their share!

Sanchi Stupa

The Sanchi Stupa, originally commissioned by the emperor Ashoka the Great, third ruler from the Maurayan Dynasty in the 300 BC

With the decline of the Maurya Dynasty, which lasted from 322 till about 185 BCE, India saw the rise of once again smaller kingdoms while there was significant strides made in literature and philosophy, but no single kingdom really stands out until the rise of what is termed as the Gupta Empire, circa 320-650 CE. The Gupta period was the second phase of the Golden Era which showcased extensive achievements in the fields of  science, technology, engineering,art, literature, logic, mathematics, especially the latter since it saw the modern numerals system as well as the  positional numeral system, originated in India and was later transmitted to the West through the Arabs. It was also during this rule that caste system moving away from an economic division of labor system became a social hierarchy where one could only be born to a caste and not inherit through his profession.However Buddhisim continued to flourish with all the support under the umbrella of freedom of religion despite an openly proclaimed religion of Hinduism by the state. More to a trivia, the much debated and infamous Kamasutra was also written in this era by a doctor/scholar called Vātsyāyana. Strong maritime trade also developed and colonies were established in East Asia including Java and Cambodia.

Borobudur

The Borobudur Temple Complex in Java, Indonesia, showcasing influence of Gupta architecture and colonialist aims

qutab-minar

Qutub Minar, the tallest minaret in the world, started in 1200 by Qutb al-Din Aibak and completed in 1220 by his son-in-law Iltutmish, both rulers of Delhi Sultanate

Post the decline of the Guptas, primarily due to invasion by Huns, India again receded to a smaller kingdom form of governance, with flashes of brilliant leaders including Harsha and the Chalukya Empires, the Pratiharas and the rise of the Rajput dynasties, the  ancestors of the Jaipur/Jodhpur/Udaipur clans. The Arabs, newly unified under the leadership of Prophet Mohammad, began raids to India, but for 300 years there was no significant impact, until the invasion by Mohammad Ghazni from Afghanistan, 1001 CE with which began the Muslim history of India. For the next 700 odd years, Muslim rulers from West – Afghanistan/Iran/Samarkand, would seek out an empire in India, establishing a syncretism that reflects in the society with a mix of Hinduism and Islam culture, which become the core identity of India. The Delhi Sultanate was the first in line of Muslim ruler, often called the Slave dynasty, since the founder was freed slave; this dynasty gave India her first Muslim woman ruler as well as the famous Qutub Minar. The Slave dynasty was then topped by the Khilji Dynasty, a hardline Islamist rule where Hindu women were put behind purdah to evade the kidnap/convert/marry law of the rulers and jaziya, a religious tax was imposed on all non Muslims. There were some powerful regional powers including the Great Vijayanagar Empire that grew during this time, but they were not strong enough to challenge the The Delhi Sultanate and were soon destroyed or occupied. The last of the Delhi Sultanate Dynasties was the Lodhi Dynasty, which would be completely destroyed in 1526, when a descendant of Timur and Chengiz Khan would sweep down from Central Asia in search of an empire to rule – his name was Babur and he founded the Mughul Empire of India, kick-starting the next golden era.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahail built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan between 1632–53 in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal

The Mughal Empire once again consolidated India, and brought great development in commerce and literature and especially architecture. It was during the rule of the Mughals, the Red Fort of Delhi and the very symbol of India – The Taj Mahal was constructed. Their rule was of benevolent despots who led their Hindu subjects be and even eradicated such discriminatory practices like the “jaziya” tax (The Great Akbar revoked the tax though his son Shah Jahan would reimpose it again) and were given equal places in the court. However with ascendance of Aurangzeb the fifth ruler, to the Mughal throne, this benevolent rule ended, and the hard line position was again adopted. The greatest tragedy was that Aurgangzed unified for the first time what was modern India, but his policies and practices had disenchanted even the staunchest of allies and with his death came the lowest point of India’s history where medieval archaic barbaric practices took to front, the country was divided among many petty illiterate chiefs and time was rife for a foreign intervention.

I will conclude the remaining 300 years in the next post and will bring into focus, the actual events that formed the backdrop of Tagore’s novel. These 1400 words were merely an attempt to give all the readers a flavor of the baggage that this country carried before the eruption of the events in twentieth century.

P.S. I have not cited any particular sources, but my essay is based on readings which  include A History of India by Romila Thappar, The Penguin History of Early India by Romila Thappar,The Wonder that was India by Al Basham, India by John Kaye, The Mughal World (Vol. 1 and Vol 2.) by Abraham Eraly, The Lost River by Michel Danino, Wikipedia and class lecture notes from my Graduate school days under the brilliant scholarship of the inimitable Prof. Emeritus Dr. Romila Thappar.

P.S.S. Stefanie, Cleo, Jane, Brona and all others who are joining me in this read along…I thank you in advance for your patience with the nerd me spewing Indian history till blood runs out of  the ears!!

 

 

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