It was a few months back at CSMVS that I had heard Romila Thapar speak, and she was mesmerising! Thapar sets a benchmark when it comes to historical narrative. Her idea of presentation of history is very much evident in the book. Romila Thapar has often argued that history should not be treated as reproduction of facts given in textbooks. History should give a scope of further thinking. In this book, the author has tried to do the same. Romila Thapar is seen to incite some questions that demand creative ways of thinking. Thapar discusses the culture in India and what should be the heritage. This particular book asks to differentiate between elite culture and the culture that does not form any dialogue now.
On be cover is an astrolabe. Romila Thapar does talk about astrolabe or science as heritage. But the cover itself looks like a lazy design. Just picking out something from inside the book and putting it on the cover is not innovative although most non-fictions tend to follow the same format. I wish there was more thought given into the cover designs of non fictions too.
No item of heritage is an island in itself.
Thapar begins with introducing culture and heritage. She demands that culture be seen as a verb rather than a noun. Culture involves activities around it that goes on to give it a form. Similarly heritage is what is inherited. It is recognised in various ways- from genes to geometrical structures, from the ways in which a territories were organised to how people belonging to various strata of society were treated, from property to economic activities. This goes in making of our cultures and our civilisation, linking the past to the present. Once the understanding of culture and heritage is established, Thapar goes ahead to categorise the elite culture then the other kind that never gets a mention. Dominant cultures backed by wealth leave the maximums traces on a society. They have texts describing their ideas, icons in stone and metal, their architectural forms indicate their religious preferences. Subordinate groups leave no such traces.
Hence what we decipher as our heritage is actually representation of only the elite crowd of the country. However, we all agree that culture and heritage are not static. They keep changing. Therefore, if heritage is not a fixed item and can be added to or subtracted from, then we have the opportunity to argue over its representation.
Romila Thapar has divided her chapters talking about the culture that we have inherited through different mediums. In Heritage: The Contemporary Past, Thapar introduces the heritage from different era for example Maurya and Chola period. The religions that were prevalent then and the different branches of these religions that spread across the world. This the religions today have a distant intermingling that has resulted in their forms today. She explains how different religions came about and how the intermingling has caused a great mix of cultures within religions as well. Territorial understanding of different cultures and spread of the same is understood with special dialogue on the relics left behind by each.
Further, in Time Before Time, time as a concept is seen as a part of heritage. As per Hindu traditions Time is both linear and cyclic. The Purans come after one another hence they showcase the forward movement however the different Yugas are cyclic. One Yuga comes after the other and repeats as a cycle. Time has been a very evident part of our heritage with different epics narrating itself in accordance with the time. In Mahabharata Krishna proclaims, Kalo’smi- I am Time. There could be more understood about the history when the different patterns of time is explored. Time again becomes an intangible heritage.
In Science as Culture, Thapar insists the importance of including science in heritage. She however differentiates between the science based on experiments and observation versus the science that is propagated by religions without any experimental data. Early scientific ideas need to be correlated with different heritage and observed with greater perspective. For example- did Aryabhatta’s geocentric theory of the earth rotating around the sun influence in any way the description of universe as described in contemporary puranas, if not, why not? Did it have any impact on philosophical thought?
Further comes the culture of discrimination that talks about the initiation of caste in the Indian social context. The coming together of different varanas and those who were not a part of the system, called avaranas are talked about in detail. Statues of women in the society has often been a topic of much discussion. There indeed were class divides in amongst the women also which however were depended on what the men of the house did for living or the absence of them altogether. The loss of dialogues that comes with the subordination of the lower caste and women of no importance needs to be explored further. Narratives need to be questioned. If Brahmans used to carry out the last rights who cleaned the dead and prepared them for it? If Kings went out hunting who assisted them with paths of findings and elephants to ride on? The missing pieces of jigsaw puzzle will give a greater understanding of representation of those from subordinate castes. Who achieved the most with the stringent rules of patriarchy and caste division?
Thapar concludes with insisting upon inclusion of knowledge in the brackets of heritage. A formal inquisitive approach in propagation of knowledge in required in establishing different narratives. The point of education should be to question and argue with appropriate evidences. She elaborately talks about the decline of education system of the country and that it is made to appease the political parties and those in power. As the power changes hands the syllabus n schools changes as well. The representation of knowledge in heritage is underestimated.
Overall, Thapar argues that heritage needs to be seen in a new light with fillings the holes that conventional narratives leave. This book comprises of different lectures the author has given across the globe. It forms a great guidebook on how history needs to be taught.
This could be the only drawback of the entire book. The language comes across as academical. For a first time history reader, this may not be a favourable aspect.
The content is object of brilliance. Thapar is very clear with her concepts. It is a delight to read someone of such academic brilliance.
I completely disliked the cover. As if history isn’t already least read, the cover makes it even more uninteresting. I wish the language was a little more easy to read. It requires a lot of concentration.
I am glad I finally read Romila Thapar. It is one of the best history books I have read thus far.
Whom do I recommend this to
This is for those who think of history as fluid and not stringent. This is for those who love to question conventional narratives to derive further meanings of truth.
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