Keynote Speech: Romila Thapar

The Past as Present
By Romila Thapar


To have been asked to address the Lahore Literary Festival this year makes me feel extremely privileged. I would like to express my deep appreciation for the honor that you have done, both to me and to the discipline of history. My visits to Lahore—even though not many—have been moments of much nostalgia, entwined with memories of childhood. So thank you for giving me yet another occasion for recalling my own past.

I shall be making a few comments on the history of the subcontinent, more specifically on the way in which the past and the present have impinged on each other in our understanding of ourselves as historical societies. My focus of study has been early India, but inevitably in such studies, the shadow of the present hovers over the past. Its visibility depends on the historian’s awareness of both the shadow and the substance.

Let me begin with a question that we should ask ourselves but we seldom do. Are we aware of the past that is implicit in our current actions? I am not referring to the individual level where we all have pasts and keep conversing with our memories. I am referring to us as a collective—as a society, a culture, a nation. Do we stop to ask how much of what we call our tradition or our heritage is actually from the past? Or are we inventing it as we go along and then passing it off as coming from the past? We like to think that the present is different from the past but continuity suggests security.

The historian E. H. Carr maintained that history is a dialogue between the past and the present. The contradiction is that we as historians try to see the past on its own terms but our reading of it is mediated by the present. Perhaps it would be better to say that history is a dialogue between the present and the assumed past, where the assumptions do indeed come partly from the requirements of the present.

This is where historiography, that is the history of the historians writing history, becomes central. The author of a historical text is placed under scrutiny. To what degree does the historian quote evidence that is reliable and draw out logical arguments that present a reasoned explanation of past events and persons. What is the historian’s intellectual framework? More recently some of us, who write on periods further back in time, have been asking the question of how societies in the past have represented their perceptions of what they saw as their own past. We are attempting to extend history beyond what is familiar.

The study of how history is written is crucial. This was recognized in discussions that emerged during the European Enlightenment. Two new ideas took shape in linking the past with the present. One was that the historian’s perspective can be influential in interpreting history. The other was that the sources used by the historian have to be as complete as possible and that they have to be assessed for reliability. History is not fantasy, however attractive imagined history may be. These ideas came to India together with Colonial scholars in the 19th century and they wrote the history of India starting from scratch. They conveniently claimed that Indians never had a sense of history and therefore wrote no histories of their own. This meant that the history of the subcontinent would have to be discovered and written up by Colonial scholars. This they began to do.

These investigations led first to recovering records that had been forgotten, and then to interpreting them as data for histories. This first exercise was a remarkable breakthrough based on deciphering scripts, excavating ancient sites and studying ancient texts, all done in a systematic way. But the interpretation was largely tied into backing up contemporary Colonial policy. It was sought to be legitimized through the Colonial understanding of the Indian past.

Two basic theories emerged from this that skewed our pre-modern history and have dominated our understanding of our societies in modern times. Not that history controls our thoughts and attitudes but it becomes the bedrock of self-comprehension. One theory was that of James Mill in his History of British India in 1818, two centuries ago. Indian history was projected as that of two relatively independent nations, the Hindu and the Muslim defined by religion, and forced to live in the same territory, and this led to immense mutual hostility.

This kind of argument was appropriated by religious nationalisms, both of the Hindu and Muslim variety. The Colonial view was that the British had salvaged Indian civilization from this destructive antagonism. The Hindus, it was said, were released by British rule from the tyranny of Muslims and thereby from centuries of slavery. This is sometimes reiterated even today. This became an axiom of some aspects of Colonial policy. It is surprising that more Indian historians did not seriously investigate the veracity of such statements. It reflects the nature of Colonial control on the thinking of the colonized and the shackles that have not been entirely removed.

The other theory that took root in the later 19th century was the theory of Aryan race. It began with Europe searching for its ethnic origins, and the search getting entwined with ancient texts from India. It was much debated in European scholarly circles, especially in Britain, France and Germany. In Europe the debate was fueled by the search for origins, with a deliberate negation of the Semitic—hence the attraction of Aryan ancestors. The closeness of the Greek and Sanskrit languages suggested that they possibly originated from a common language. A jump was then made from ancestral language to ancestral race. Vedic Sanskrit texts described as Aryan led to Europe and India being linked through language and ethnic connection. Max Mueller, a stalwart propagator of the idea, referred to both Emanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and to the Vedas, as Aryan heirlooms. Keshab Chander Sen, at a more pragmatic level, regarded the coming of the British to India as the reunion of parted cousins. This theory of Aryan origins gave added status to upper caste superiority.

Some European thinkers who did not subscribe to the theory of Aryan race, such as Hegel, emphasized the negative characteristics of Indian civilization. A substantial number of Colonial scholars thought likewise, although there were some who were more appreciative. But the Aryan foundations of Hindu civilization became a popular theory. It is now seeded in discussions on Hindutva/Hindu-ness and in the concept of Hindu Rashtra. This requires an extension of the Aryan identity to accommodate the Harappans who were discovered a century later. So now it is being said by some that the Harappans were also Aryans.

However, not all versions of the theory were similar. There were a few alternate reconstructions that turned the theory on its head, as it were. Among them, Jotiba Phule argued that the original inhabitants of the subcontinent were the non-brahmana castes and the Dalits, and that the Aryans were alien brahmanas who through deceit and conquest became the ruling oppressors. This reading favored the lower castes as the initial legitimate inhabitants. It coincided with lower caste and Dalit movements seeking political recognition.

Those writing on the Aryans in India seldom gave a cross-reference to the debate on Aryanism in Europe. Nor was there the same degree of discussion on the origins of the non-Hindus living in India. Since caste, despite conversion, was not discarded in non-Hindu religions, the upper castes in each religion often claimed an ancestry from lands across the borders, but all the rest were given local origins.

Most historians supporting the nationalist ideology questioned some of the theories of Colonial history writing. But golden ages remain necessary to nationalisms of every color. So, they maintained that kingdoms in ancient India were governed by constitutional monarchs, poverty was unknown in early times, Indians were given over to spirituality unlike the West that had succumbed to materialism, and ancient India was the golden age. As is normal in all societies, groups seeking power in the present often acquire self-confidence and legitimacy by glorifying those whom they regard as their predecessors. The golden age is preferably in the remote past so that it cannot be closely questioned. The theories of James Mill and Max Mueller remained largely unchallenged.

Let me turn now to a different kind of history that my generation has been writing. Departing fundamentally from Colonial interpretations, we have suggested alternate perspectives on history. We have moved away from the earlier myopic view of giving priorities to the religious identities of elite groups when explaining all events. In the process we have questioned those nationalist interpretations that still subscribe to the theories of James Mill and Max Mueller. Let me just add that the issues I shall be discussing are linked to the history of the entire subcontinent. They are not just issues linked to the history of present-day India.

In periodizing Indian history some historians had replaced the labels Hindu, Muslim and British with Ancient, Medieval and Modern, since the latter sounded more secular. But this was effectively a continuation of the earlier periodization with only an alteration of the label. Recently however, new markers have replaced these older labels. They are more in keeping with the new perspectives on historical change.

The religion of rulers that had been emphasized often made little difference to society at large. And of course even within royal families, patronage to particular religious sects changed from one king to the next. Royal families, since they used marriage alliances as part of their diplomacy, also had to accommodate more than one religion. Thus some Mughal rulers had Hindu Rajput mothers.

Religion in the Indian past was not invariably a well-defined, precise system of belief and practice. For many it remained somewhat ambiguous. At the level of the larger society beyond just the elite, the most prevalent religious practices and beliefs were neither formal Hinduism nor formal Islam. The larger number of people followed mixed systems derived largely from Bhakti and Sufi teachings and from local folk belief and practice. There was of course no concept of majority and minority religious communities until the introduction of these categories into Indian society by the British-Indian Census. Had the Census given the option of identifying oneself by a religious sect, the Bhakti-Sufi sects may well have constituted the majority religion.

Nor were religious communities monolithic and self-contained, neatly identified as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, and so forth. Religion was more in the nature of a mosaic of sects, shading off into a pattern most suited to local people. The identity of these sects drew on caste, language and belief. Regional differences affected belief, custom and language but were open to negotiation. The Meos of Rajasthan had little in common with the Mapillas of Kerala, but both were placed under the formal category of Muslim in the British Census. Yet the matrilineal practices of the Mapillas were unorthodox, but essential to their social functioning and nonexistent among the Meos. Laws of marriage and inheritance, constituting the structural backbone of society, when implemented, often preferred following customary law rather than the norms of religious codes. Ethnography may provide a better historical understanding of the practice of religion in the subcontinent than theology.

Tensions and conflicts among the religious sects were by no means absent, but were localized. Conflict was not projected as that of one vast religious community against another. The connection between caste and sect also influenced the degree to which a religious textual code was observed or else social identities were negotiable. This is a different pattern of interface between religion and society as compared to societies where caste is absent, as for instance in China or in Europe. One litmus test of the prevalence of caste rules was whether any religion prohibited the practice of untouchability. We know that despite rejecting it in theory, almost all formal religions in India observed this segregation.

As historians therefore, we searched for the more fundamental reasons for change than merely the religion of the rulers. Historical debates were initiated on changes in society and economy, on culture and on the social function of religion. As a result perceptions of the relation between the past and the present underwent spectacular change from the 1960s, when history came to be written from these perspectives.

Ancient history was no longer one long unchanging stretch of 3,000 years. Substantial variations were recognized within this time span. The Harappan cities flourished for a millennium and then declined. Yet our knowledge about their governance or their religion is, as yet, based on intelligent guesses. Their decline is attributed to environmental causes. It has also been suggested that the supply of copper and lapis lazuli to the Mesopotamians may have sustained the Harappan economy, so when the states in West Asia declined it had a negative effect on the economy of the Harappans. This might be a salutary message for us today, dependent as we want to be on a single market-economy, not of our making.

The next period was that of agro-pastoralism, as suggested by archaeological evidence and Vedic texts. Communities of village settlements in northern India, were distinctively different from the urbanism of the Harappans. This has become a period of much controversy in contemporary India, not unconnected to the identity politics of the present.

The controversy is over the origin of the Aryans. The authors of the Vedic texts were speakers of Indo-Aryan and popularly called Aryans. Did they come from Central Asia, or Eastern Iran and the borderlands, or were they indigenous to India? If they were indigenous then it meant that they were from within the borders of British India. Remember that in ancient times alien identity was determined by cultural markers rather than by political boundaries. There were no boundaries drawn on maps as maps did not exist. Borders were anyway never permanent. The argument goes that if the Aryans were indigenous to India and that the Harappans were Aryans, then the Hindus, as Aryans, have an unbroken descent of 5,000 years and can therefore claim priority in today’s Indian citizenship.

If they were not indigenous then it raises more challenging questions for the historian. These are the kinds of questions that historians ask in all situations experiencing an incoming migration even in later periods. How did Indo-Aryan come to be the dominant language, given that there is evidence of other language speakers, such as Dravidian, coexisting? This would have applied to the northwest and the Punjab and other parts of northern India as well. The old idea of an Aryan invasion has long since been discarded for lack of evidence. The alternative to the indigenous origin is that there were small-scale migrations of Aryan speakers from the northwest. This led to new patterns of settlements, and possibly the use of new technologies, technology being a significant factor of change. If the language was adopted by existing inhabitants then there would presumably have also been an intermeshing of cultures? Did the populations remain separate or did they mix? The historian has now to learn about DNA analysis and genetics, since this data has recently come into the history of populations.

Another major debate in history that questioned the earlier periodization and relates closely to the past and the present focused on the formation of states and kingdoms in the first millennium AD. By about the 7th century, society and economy underwent a substantial transformation. A category of land-owning intermediaries was visible between the king and the peasant. Some historians described it as feudalism, but others disagreed. This led to a widespread debate initially focused on the Marxist definition of feudalism. Marxism and history came in for discussion and existing Colonial perspectives were further questioned. Much new evidence came from increased investigations into regional history, and as a consequence, a marked increase in questions. It was further suggested that the same basic system continued into the period of the Sultanate, although the grantees of land were more varied some having come with the Sultans.

History is now a central discipline in the social sciences. This leads to questions of a diverse kind, some of which come from other social sciences. But we haven’t lost our moorings in the humanities. What this change means is that the explanation of causes becomes far more complex than it was before. It adds enormously to the intellectual excitement of what one is analyzing. But this does of course increase the distance between the professional historian and the public—and especially from those in the public who rush to pronounce on the past, even if they lack both information and the ability to analyze.

History has to rise beyond the politico-religious contentions that clouded the gaze of some historians a century ago. Historical writing now has to address itself to understanding and explaining the past. Testing the reliability of evidence is more exact. Historical investigation is based on a recognized method of critical enquiry. This is a necessary step before making a statement of fact.

Given this change in the orientation of historical studies, some of us took time off from research and wrote history textbooks for middle and high schools. We maintained that history was not like a multiplication table and that dates and events were not merely to be memorized. The student has to be encouraged to see the past from various aspects; and has to be taught that the past, going back to the earliest times, can be investigated. This helps in understanding its relevance. It teaches the young that learning how to constructively question existing knowledge is essential to being educated. The historian then becomes something of a detective working with limited clues.

Our textbooks were effectively questioning the mythology that accrues to popular historical narrative. The books were used for four decades up to 2005. Attempts were made to have them proscribed and we fought back. Fundamentalists of various hues were obviously unhappy with secular history that disallowed their mythologies.

When history starts interrogating the sources then the questioning becomes incisive. Let me illustrate what I am saying by referring to the familiar history of a monument, the temple at Somanatha. A monument is a physical fact, whether it is a temple, mosque, palace, or whatever. It becomes history when we know who built it and why, at what cost and labor, what determined its location, whom did it empower and legitimize, who bestowed wealth on it, and additionally in terms of its history, did its role change from past times to the present? As I went deeper into the history of this temple, the narrative became curiouser and curiouser, and I began to feel just like Alice in Wonderland.

The temple at Somanatha in Gujarat is embedded in layers of history and in modern myth-making. It is a great example of the past speaking to the past, and then the recent past speaking to the earlier pasts. In this case the historical perceptions of the monument became larger than life especially when its history was subjected to popular political perceptions as well. We all know the story that we grew up on. Mahmud of Ghazni desecrated the temple at Somanatha about a thousand years ago and destroyed the icon. Colonial writers claimed that this act created a trauma among Hindus and that it was the initial reason for Hindu-Muslim antagonism. This is another example of our accepting the Colonial version of our history without investigating it.

What I did not know is that the history of the event and subsequent events is immensely complex with many perspectives and nuances. These are drawn from an array of sources some of which obviously contradict each other. It is not the simple story that is popularly accepted. So let me give you a small taste of the complexity.

The event is celebrated in a series of chronicles written by chroniclers to the Sultans and visitors from the Islamic world. In these, Mahmud is held up as an exemplar of an Islamic ruler. This imagery has been much embroidered both by medieval chroniclers and modern commentators. His marauding was confined to only one region of the subcontinent and beyond that he was unknown. Plundering wealth was not an extraordinary achievement, however much the chroniclers and some Persian texts eulogized it as a triumph over idolatry. The wealth after all was used to ensure further plunder.

It remains quite unclear as to what he destroyed at Somanatha. The object said to be destroyed strangely enough changes from one chronicle to the next. This naturally alters the historical explanation for the attack. The range of what may have been the destroyed object is vast. Some accounts say it was a lingam, either with a face or sometimes without one; or it is said to be the Arabian goddess Manat, either aniconic or in female shape, ordered to be destroyed by the Prophet; or there are stone figures of deities with jewels cascading out of their stone bellies; or a stone image but with arms that moved; or even more intriguingly, a metal lingam suspended in midair by a huge magnet placed in the ceiling of the shrine, arousing the curiosity of those who saw it. This last contraption is described in an entirely different context in another part of the subcontinent and had obviously captured the popular imagination. Surely these contradictory descriptions cannot be taken seriously by us? Could they be a competition in fantasy? Clearly none of these authors knew quite what Mahmud had destroyed, nor was there a consensus about what had happened. The interesting question is: Why are the chroniclers fantasizing the event? Was it really to glorify its reading as a religious act? Should we not be asking what the connection is between the temple, the object, the fantasy, the purpose of the chroniclers, and Mahmud?

And then there are stories of what happened to the temple. One chronicle tells us that Mahmud burnt the temple to ashes. Others write that subsequent to Mahmud’s raid the temple was converted into a mosque. But strangely, every Sultan that came to the area, and there were many in the early centuries of the second millennium AD, each claimed in turn to have destroyed the structure. Why would Sultans be attacking a mosque and then taking credit even if the mosque was a converted temple? This somehow echoes the stories of Mahmud desecrating the Shia mosques in Multan and Mansura, although the reasons were different and did not apply to Somanatha. The texts of others who were not chroniclers continue to refer to it as still being a temple and much visited. And we know it remained a temple at least until the 16th century when Akbar is said to have given it a grant as a temple. So the dome built over a part of it in an attempt to convert it into a mosque may have been later.

And there are many other sources too. An interesting bilingual inscription in Sanskrit and Arabic from Somanatha is a legal document recording the building of a new mosque at Somanatha by Nur-ud-din a Persian trader. It dates to a couple of centuries after Mahmud and tells an entirely different story. The administrators of the town and the management of this and other temples in the vicinity were active participants in the trade with the Arabs and Persians. They also made a grant from the Somanatha temple estate towards the building of a mosque. The relationship is cordial, the mosque is referred to as a dharmasthana, a sacred place, and there is no mention of the temple being converted into a mosque.

A Jaina chronicle of the 14th century mentions the Chaulukya king, Kumarapala, rebuilding the temple at Somanatha as an impressive Shaiva temple. It is said to have fallen into disrepair because of neglect by its uncaring management and by intensive weathering of the stone, brought on by the spray from the sea beating against its walls—the temple being located on the shore of the sea. The remains of the earlier temples at this site were excavated in 1951. They confirm that some sculptures appear to have been deliberately mutilated but many suffered weathering by sea spray.

So how does the idea of the trauma of the Hindus and the hostility of the Hindus and Muslims first get currency? The story of events at Somanatha continues. A discussion takes place in the British Parliament, in the House of Commons, in 1843 on the action of the Governor-General in which Mahmud’s raid on Somanatha is referred to. The Governor-General had issued the famous Proclamation of the Gates, asking his commander in Afghanistan to bring back the wooden gates from Mahmud’s mausoleum said to have been taken by Mahmud from the Somanatha temple. The gates when brought back turned out to be from some other part of West Asia and not in the least bit Indian. In the course of a debate on whether the Governor-General acted rightly or wrongly, a member of the House of Commons mentioned for the first time that the Hindus are likely to have suffered a trauma because of Mahmud’s raid, which event had led to hostility between Hindus and Muslims. The suggestion became a historical statement in Colonial discourse, and subsequently in various nationalist discourses. The trauma was thus established without recourse to contemporary evidence. Avenging the raid of Mahmud, held responsible for creating this trauma, became a part of 20th century politics.

Those who worshipped in temples would not have relished such places being looted, but their reaction in this case seems not to have been a continuing trauma as has been projected in earlier reconstructions of the narrative. This is yet another instance of not questioning even the premise of the historical reconstruction, quite apart from recognizing its impact on the modern politics of the subcontinent. We have here an example of an event of the 11th century being used by a series of later medieval chroniclers in various ways for legitimizing their patrons and their religious affiliations and for political purposes; and now people in our time are using those very versions to legitimize current political activities. The event is so enveloped in these perceptions that it becomes difficult to assess it for what it was. This echoes the Roshomon presentation where each person gives his or her version of an event as each perceived it. We take the versions at face value and ignore the intensive investigation of the entire range of sources that should always be a prelude to statements about the past.

How do we look at it now? Mahmud undoubtedly desecrated the temple of Somanatha. What actually followed if we put all the sources together is a far more complicated story than the one we are familiar with. It has multiple ramifications, involving trading arrangements, grants of land, the rebuilding of the temple, and the fascinating way in which these fragmentary narratives became entwined in folk narratives (an aspect of the narrative that I do not have time to go into here). It is necessary to locate and consider all the sources in narrating the event and the context of the period. It is these that the historian has to investigate in wishing to understand the past and to hear the dialogue between the past and the present.

The past then can become an agency in the construction and legitimizing of current ideologies. Eric Hobsbawm had a memorable comment on this when he said, “For history is the raw material for nationalist or ethnic or fundamentalist ideologies, as poppies are the raw material for heroin addiction. The past is an essential element, perhaps the essential element, in these ideologies. If there is no suitable past it can always be invented.”

Ideologies that were intended to encourage the creation of nation-states in the subcontinent now are in need of reassessment. Our nations have come into existence. Our concerns should be with reexamining the Colonial stereotypes that still color our perceptions of who we are and where we are going. The Colonial readings should be viewed for what they gave birth to. They need to be replaced by nurturing a sensitivity as to how we listen to the dialogue between the past and the present; how we determine the authenticity of the past; and how we recognize when a past is being configured only for use in the present, rather than for an understanding of itself.

And, as I have tried to suggest, it is not just the recent past that needs to be looked at afresh. We have to remember that even the events of today have elements of a long gestation of centuries. Perhaps what we need to understand is how, in the relationship between the past and the present, each impinges on the other. Such an insight is crucial, not only for itself but even more, for how we move towards our future.

Thapar’s keynote speech, above, opened LLF 2015 on Feb. 20.