This collection of essays contains nine articles on different aspects of the archaeology and ancient history of the Indian subcontinent. Written by young scholars, they provide an indicator to the direction which Indian historiography, particularly in relation to the earlier periods, is taking in the twenty-first century. They raise refreshing questions and bring together new research reflecting certain approaches recognized as central to the study of ancient India. The questions are answered in a way which reassures us about the future of the discipline, cynical doubts about its relevance in a postmodern condition notwithstanding. The first essay by Sanjukta Datta is on the emergence of a nonofficial archaeological sphere in Bengal in the colonial context. Archaeology in India doubtless had its origin as a handmaid of colonial ideology and an aid to the exercise of power; but it should at the same time be remembered that that led not only to the uncovering of India’s past but also to training some of the first rate archae-ologists that the world has seen in the twentieth century. Datta shows how Indian scholars and learned societies took the lead and together paved the way for a systematic understanding of the archaeology and ancient history of Bengal.
Mudit Trivedi’s piece reports the results of a courageous one-man exploration on the surface of the Delhi ridge, particularly the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University with 1500 acres of land full of vast archaeological potential. Trivedi’s archaeology goes beyond picking up a tool here and an artefact there: in a brilliant analysis, he tries to make sense of these by placing them in perspective. For him, it is also an attempt to understand the situation in which man interacted with nature. Trivedi’s analysis operates at two levels. At one level, he seeks to provide a summary of aspects of the geological past of the region from the earliest periods of rock formation to the deposition of the youngest Holocene sediments with a view to highlighting the archaeological implications of each of them. At another level, Trivedi examines the Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic horizons of this area. This piece deserves commendation for a variety of reasons: the hard work that has gone into its making, the meaningful interpretation of the data, the clear and cogent.presentation and the confidence with which it all is done.
Shibani Ghosh provides an archaeological perspective of human-plant interactions in the middle Gangetic plain from the Mesolithic period to the early third century bc Such analyses, which bring to bear a truly interdisciplinary approach on the study of the past, helps in re-examining received wisdom in relation to the land-use and agricultural practices in the Gangetic plain. For instance, Ghosh’s study makes it somewhat difficult to go all the way with the all too linear formula of iron/forest-clearing/agrarian-expansion for the Gangetic valley. Even when such wisdom of pioneers is implicitly questioned, this is done without any arrogance that usually goes with youthful enthusiasm, and this is to the credit of the author. The Tables and Maps show the discipline and rigour that have gone into the research.
Uthara Suvrathan takes up the problem of meagaliths in the context of the Vidarbha region. The scholar occasionally goes to the idealistic, as for example when she asks questions like ‘what new features . . . the rise of the Satavahanas introduce[d] in Vidarbha’, in an attempt that may make D.D. Kosambi, who said that ‘rather than the Satavahanas introducing the plough in the Deccan, it was the plough that introduced the Satavahanas in the Deccan’, stand on his head. It is not dynasties and rulers who introduce new features; it is a combination of circumstances brought about by new features that make state and rulers possible. However, the importance of the research, with solid data on the subject, presented in a systematic and disciplined manner, as demonstrated by the Tables and Maps is hard to miss.
Meera Viswanathan deals with early Tamil poetry, conventionally known as the Sangam literature, and tries to see the landscape of heroism there in her article ‘Of Death and Fertility’. She makes a plea for interrogating, re-examining and reconsidering the so-called ‘chiefdom hypothesis’ for early historical south India although her central concern lies elsewhere. While it is certainly important to question the understanding of earlier generations of historians, such questioning should be based on fresh data or the reinterpretation of existing evidence using new tools of analysis. Her summary rejection.of the approach of the historians doing a serious quantitative analysis and integration of texts with archaeology as ‘clearly flawed’, without showing how it is flawed, borders on the immature, particularly when she had no access to the Atlas under reference which was only under preparation. In the end, one legitimately starts wondering how far she has gone beyond the hypothesis she wants to reject. Moreover, the profusion of misspellings of proper names in Tamil makes the author’s familiarity with the original sources suspect, and that does not exactly do credit to the quality of any research.
Susan Verma Mishra writes about religious coexistence in Gujarat in the period from ad second/third to the eighth century. Although the theme sounds a little too hackneyed, its importance cannot be exaggerated, especially in the present context when the pluralism of our society is under serious threat and the dividends of the freedom struggle are fast dwindling. Apart from this contemporary significance, her study also documents, in a disciplined manner, the coexistence of different religious persuasions, with emphasis on the resource-base of each of the sites she has taken up for consideration. This aspect of the material base of the sites is extremely significant as it helps the scholar to raise questions beyond what have been hitherto asked about the origins and patronage of religious institutions.
Shivani Agarwal’s archaeological study of the terracotta from the Mathura region covers the period from 400 bc to ad seventh/eighth century not only documents the different terracotta figurines from the region but also seeks to identify a pattern. She classifies the major types of female figurines and makes intelligent surmises about the possible nature and function of these. However, her sneer at the work and formulations of earlier scholars such as Devangana Desai as ‘economic deter-minism’, in the absence of systematic refutation of their argument and a better alternative, is not quite inspiring. Throwing stones at stalwarts is not exactly the best way to earn fame.
Shonaleeka Kaul’s brilliant reading of urban behaviour from the kavya archetypes in Sanskrit breaks new ground in the use of texts in analysing behavioural patterns. Historians have used the dharmasastras for analysing social history; an occasional reference in the romantic literature has also been summoned to testify in support of a point in political, social or economic history. In putting altogether new questions to the creative works of the early medieval period, Kaul tries to retrieve patterns of behaviour of the typical man about town. An excellent analysis of the complex figure of the nagaraka is what follows, with all the details of understanding what it is to be a cultivated gentleman, especially in the midst of comely ladies. The study would have done better to consider the image of the man-about-town in art history as Devangana Desai has done in her Presidential Address to the Ancient Indian History Section of the Indian History Congress held at Gorakhpur. Even without this, this piece is among the best in the volume.
Examining literary texts, particularly the Rajatarangini of Kalhana and the Samayamatrika of Kshemendra, Devika Rangachari tries to lay bare gender relations in medieval Kashmir. Gender studies have been gaining in importance in India and ancient history too has benefited considerably from this line of enquiry. On the one side, there is the representation in Rajatarangini of women who occasionally sat on the throne and more often acted as the power behind it and, on the other is the portrayal of the women-of-the-street in Samayamatrika. The Nilamatapurana, a considerable source for Kalhana, contains statements corroborating both the pictures. By a judicious analysis of these texts, Rangachari concludes that women in Kashmir ‘enjoyed a more equal status vis-a-vis men than those elsewhere’. In the absence of detailed studies of other regions to show that women enjoyed ‘a less equal’ status there, this would sound Orwellian. However, the consistency with which Rangachari has been pursuing this theme is interesting.
We have thus a collection giving us samples of the ongoing research in the history of early India. It is another question that one may not be able to go all the way with the ideological position, or the lack of it, in the case of some of these authors; but it is a fact that the discipline looks up at the hands of these young scholars. The editors need to be congratulated for identifying these talents and bringing them together.