(What is India. What was India. This is a talk by Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic adviser to Indian government, and a celebrated author, for the Festival of Bharat which is worth the time of every Indian. NewsBred couldn’t think of a better Republic Day gift for its readers. This has been transcribed and heavily edited for reading purpose by Bhumika Arora).
Most people expect that a decade from now, we will be the world’s third largest economy. We are also going through major social and political changes. Within a generation, we will be an urban majority country. It’s interesting though we have been all through this many times before.
This is important to understand because it is embedded in the way the Indians, and more specifically Hindus think about time. When you look at other societies, whether Western or more specifically Christian conception of time, the Marxist conception of time, it basically moves in one direction. It’s a linear movement.
For example in the Christian conception of time, you have God creates the world, creates Adam and Eve and from there history moves linearlly till the end of time where the kingdom of god is re-established. So it’s a linear time frame.
The same thing happens with the Marxist’s Time: A determined process of historical materialism drives history forward and in the end of that process have a Communist state. And then finally that State withers away again.
However, the Indian conception of time is cyclical. And now what’s cyclical?
One simple explanation for that obviously is our climate. We live in a place where every year we see the cycle of monsoon, winter, hot summer, and then life seems to get sucked out of trees, lose their leaves, the grass dries up and the sun beats down. Then Monsoon comes and it is alive again.
This is a simple reason but there is a deeper one. And it is that the Indian history has gone through many cycles over long periods of time. We have urbanized and de-urbanized many times in our history.
The very first round of this happened in the Bronze Age. The conventional histories tell us about great cities of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa but the fact is that urbanisation was a much more generalised affair as we are finding out across northern India. There were large number of initially small cities and then larger cities. Settlements began to come up around about the 5000 to 6000 BC. Some even earlier at 7000 BC. You see in Baluchistan, you see them along the Indus, and dry riverbed of the Ghaggar which was called in our ancient text the Saraswati river.
Many have heard of Indus Valley Civilization but Indus wasn’t even the first iteration along the Saraswati river. We are now finding the sites which predates the Harappan period. There are similarly sites in the Gangetic plains.
Till very recently we were under the impression that the cities of the Gangetic plains came up in the Iron Age. But we are now finding out that in the area between Allahabad and Varanasi, many ancient sites existed. Some of them with large settlements and one could argue some were even urban.
From the very beginning, India was in the centre of large numbers of migrations going in different ways. The latest genetic data suggests from the very beginning, these people lived in the NorthWest of India in what we now call the Harappan civilization. They were mixing, trading, exchanging ideas with the rest of the world, particularly with the Middle East. In fact both genetic and archaeological, as well as cultural remains, suggest that there was something called, what I would call the Indo-Iranian continuum.
The reason for that is very special. Baluchistan at that time was not a dry desert we see today. It was a grassland and people walked back and forth all the time. So there was a cultural and genetic continuity from India all the way through to eastern Iran.
By the mature period, which is around third millennium BC, we also see enormous amount of trade going back and forth between India and the Middle East. So you begin to see Indian settlements pop up in the Sumerian region. Many Sumerian texts mention there was a community called the Meluhha, the foreigners who came to trade from the East and brought with them products which are clearly Indian products, including peacocks as it happens to be. You also see Harappan products pop up in Oman in what is now Qatar, Bahrain and so on. You see a lot of Indian presence in the Middle East. And then all of it suddenly comes to an end around about 2000 BC.
Major changes happened in our climate. Incidentally, this doesn’t only happen in India. There are records of major droughts and climate changes happening in Egypt, Sumeria with devastating impact. Our Saraswati river, already in trouble, completely dries up. Cities that were based in NorthWest of India completely fell apart. The people who lived there began to migrate. Those who remained there became much more rural. They changed their crop pattern from growing wheat, rice and barley to growing millets and so on. So big shifts happen with the collapse of economy and massive migration. But there is also continuity and this is interesting to remember.
It is not that people are completely replaced. There are many sites that appear later to show clear continuity with their Harappan forefathers. You have later sites, called the Late Harappans, popping up closer to the Himalayas in the north. The Harappans of Gujarat clearly moved on to the Narmada Valley, many of them moved inwards to the Gangetic plains and there is also evidence of some leaving India, going westswards.
This, after a few centuries, is replaced by another round of urbanization, another round of growth. These sites now begin to grow very fast but with a new technology. This new technology is iron. Where did it come from? This is very interesting. You see South India had not participated at all in the Bronze Age boom. It had largely remained a hunter-gatherer society. But we now know that in and around what is now Hyderabad, and the Godavari basin, for the first time anywhere in the world, the systematic use of iron begins to pop up. This happened around the same time when cities of the northwest are falling apart, around 2000 BC. This technology by about 1500 BC becomes quite common place in the Gangetic plains. So using this technology there is another, new round of growth. What is interesting is that unlike the ancient Harappan cities, where it’s not very clear which city was what, we actually have a very good idea about this time because many of these places are named and mentioned in our epics. This incidentally includes Delhi which was known to have been the site of Indraprastha, the capital of Pandavas. In Purana Qila, many digs show a very old settlement though its not quite as old as the early Iron Age. They are, as far as I know, only go back to 5th century BC. It’s possible further archaeology show evidence which may suggest that this was even older site. Popping up near Meerut there is a site where Hastinapur is supposed to have been and so on and so forth. There’s clearly a boom in urban India in the Iron Age.
The result is a network of City-States, some of them Republics, popping up all across and at some point in time, larger empires began to appear, the largest of which seems to have happened in Magadha and then it culminates of course in the more great Mauryan Empire which covered more than what you know as Indian sub-continent. It extended into Afghanistan, and in fact far out in eastern Iran. Then this empire disintegrates, and it disintegrates in the face of large number of invasions from northwest, Indo-Greeks, Parthians and Bactrians and so on. But this collapse of the empire doesn’t appear to be the kind you notice with Harappans. There are empires like the Satavahana in the south; which fight back against these invasions. There continues to be a boom in trade across the Indian Ocean. In fact, there is a period in which Indians really take to the sea. If earlier there was trade through the land route to Middle East, now Indian merchants are sailing off to SouthEast Asia, sailing to Vietnam, even further on to China and Korea. In fact, the Korean history starts with the marriage of a local prince to a princess from Ayodhya in India.
There is a huge boom similarly on the west coast of India. There is trade with the Greeks and then with the Romans. There are two major trade routes, one was called the Uttara path and the other the Dakshin path. The Uttar went from what is now Afghanistan across India all the way through to Bengal through the Gangetic plains. The Dakshin path began somewhere in and around the Allahabad-Varanasi area and made its way down first through the Central Asia, where one branch went off towards Gujarat; and the main route then went down south all the way towards Kishkinda, and the southern tip of India.
Where did these two highways meet? They met just outside Varanasi in a place called Sarnath. This is the reason by the way that when Buddha wanted to spread his message, he went to this place to give his best sermon, the place where two most important roads meet.
Buddhists were not the only ones who went there to spread their ideas. The early tirthankar as went there too. This was also a very sacred site for Shaivism. In face the name Sarnath is derived from Saranganath which means the lord of the deer which is another name for Shiva. Even today there is a Saranganath temple in Varanasi where an animal festival is held.
The logic of that trading system is still alive today. Uttra path later became the Grand Trunk Road and today survives as the National Highway 2 which is the single most important highway in northern India. The Dakshin path today survives as National Highway 7 which starts at Varanaasi and goes all the way down to the southern tip of India. And guess where these two highways meet? They meet even today at Sarnath.
When the British built the railway system guess where they created the central node/ This is a place called Mughal Sarai which is right outside of Sarnath. So the underlying logic of transportation trade exchange even today is the same. It’s not surprising when prime minister Narendra Modi decided to fight for election outside his home state he chose Varanasi. Because in many ways it’s the central heart of India and has been so from the beginning.
Now this period of growth culminated in some great empires. In the north, there was the Guptas, in the south like the Pallavas, the Cholas. This was therefore a period of great cultural outpouring as well as of trade with the rest of the world. Scholars came from around the world to study in India. Indians also travelled abroad to get new ideas back to Indian civilization. India was a great civilization precisely because it engaged with the rest of the world over long periods of time.
In the 11th and early 12th century, India was one third of the world economy. The north sort of that highway on which this world economy functioned was a trading route which began in the eastern Mediterranean with the Fatimid empire of Egypt and made its way to southern India which was then ruled by the Cholas. It then made its way through Southeast Asia to China which was then ruled by the Song Dynasty. There was a large amount of trade going back and forth along these highways.
Unfortunately, at the beginning of the 13th century, all these three civilizations faced a major shock with invaders coming in from northern, from Central Asia now. It’s not very clear why suddenly these hordes of central Asia turned up. Remember, all these empires were very used to dealing with central Asian armies for hundreds of years and had dealt with them quite successfully. So it’s not very clear what exactly caused these three civilizations to suddenly collapse on the face of this pressure.
But the first round of it happened in Iran and in India where the Turkic armies suddenly appeared, rushed through northern India and finally into southern India, destroying pretty much everything all the game. But if the Turks were feeling smug, they were not so for long. They were later replaced themselves by an equally vicious groups of armies coming in from Mongolia. It of course devastated all the Turkic cities in central Asia and then made its way up all the way into the Middle East with of course the horrific sacking of Baghdad.
On the. Other side also, the extremely brutal Mongol conquest of China, and here in India of course, starting with the Slave Dynasty, followed by the Khiljis and then with the Tughlaqs. Those great cities that had developed in the previous period of urbanization and expansion, they were sacked; the temples were looted; literally hundreds of thousands if not millions of people were massacred. If you want to read a history of that period a good source is Farishta. You will see the extraordinary brutality of that period.
Now this was a shock for all three civilizations but it was a particularly bad one for India because much of India’s wealth was based not on individual traders going out to the world but through a highly organized system which included corporatized guilds which produced artisans who produced the products like cotton cloth or metallurgical products and so on. All of this was funded by very rich temples.
People are under the impression that temples were rich because the kings handed over their wealth to these temples. Now while emperors and kings built large temples in the hope they would be remembered, they were certainly not handing over the fiscal reigns of their empires to temples. The reason why temples were rich was because they acted as banks; much of this trade, the venture capital and so on was funded by these temples. That’s why they had such a lot of gold.
Now the Turkic invasion essentially destroyed this financial system completely. And as a result of this, the economic system on which the whole system was based, totally collapsed. This had devastating impact. Even after the initial shock of Turkic and Mongol invasion had been over, you see the Chinese and then later on even in the Middle East, the Arabs and the Iranians sort of built their civilizations back. India really reeled from this situation a lot longer because their economic networks had been so badly damaged. It resulted in a major loss of civilizational confidence. Many communities then imposed on themselves Caste rules; that crossing the seas was somehow a bad thing and that in many ways worsened and prolonged this decline. It meant that you sort of restricted yourself as a people.
Now, despite this shock, by about the 1400-1500s, you begin to see some sort of comeback. It happened in the south with the Vijaynagar empire. Indeed, it would grow by 1500 to be the world’s largest city. In the north, you had the Mughal empire happening in the 16th century. Although the Mughals themselves were invaders, they did over a period of time imposed some sort of peace in northern India and established some sort of trading systems. They also developed a more tolerant culture than had been the case under, say the Khiljis and the Tughlaqs. So in the sort of cultural renaissance in north under the Mughals and in the south under Vijayanagar, you go through another round of expansion and revival. New cities are built in the north and in the south. Many cultural innovations happened.
Sadly, this whole thing fell apart in the 18th century. It happened for a variety of reasons, one of them of course was coming of European colonial powers. They didn’t turn up in one shot. This happened in waves, beginning with the Portuguese. Very often people forget that the Portuguese were effectively the Mongols of the seas. They were very vicious and had devastating impact on trading networks that had just about sort of revived after the Turki-Mongol shock. You begin to see the European colonization, by the 18th century, began to eat up much of India. There is a short period, almost a heroic attempt by the Marathas to try and stem this. For a few decades it did manage to establish some sort of control over a large swathe of India. But unfortunately, because of the pressure from the Europeans and a lot because of internal bickerings, this attempt by the Marathas to re-establish order in India broke down and net result is that we have again a round of devastation and chaos.
And Then Came The Europeans
The late 18th century and early 19th century, economic breakdown had a lot to do with the fact that Europe at that time had begun to go through the Industrial Revolution. As a result of it the production of new products that India historically used to produce through an artisan mechanism, communities of various kinds, indeed till the 18th century, India had been the world’s largest producer of textiles. Contrary to what many people think, India’s exports of spices was actually not so important. It was textiles. The early 19th century expansion of industrialised cloth production began in England but then spread to other parts of the Atlantic that had a devastating impact on the Indian economy.
This devastation happened in various ways. Former artisans, once highly prized, were forced to go back to the land. They are forced to grow opium which the East India Company then bought from them at ridiculously low prices and sold it on to the Chinese. But even out of this devastation, yet again a new round of growth begun.
The colonial powers began to build their own cities in Calcutta, in Chennai, in Mumbai. There were buildings in Delhi. After independence, this process of growth has accelerated. India is going through an economic boom. We are yet again urbanizing.
This story of civilization, up and down, is the heart of why Indians have to think about time in cyclical terms. If you don’t understand this history, you would never understand why we have this view of the world. Through all of this there is a continuity. In many ways, the Bronze Age texts like the Vedas are still in daily use. Millions of Hindus get up every morning and chant the Gayatri Mantra which was composed 4-6 thousand years ago. You have Iron Age epics that are not just used in TV serials but in everyday thing. You will see the impact of ancient India in every nook and corner. People don’t realize that the largest Hindu temple in the world is not in India but in Cambodia.
There is of course the impact of Turkic-Mongol period; the languages of India may have very ancient roots but everyday language, whether it is Hindi or Bengal, is full of words brought in fro Turkish, Mongol, Arabic, Persian. Our food won’t be recognizable today without the contributions, for example, Portuguese who brought crops and plants like tomatoes and potatoes and chillies without which the modern Indian food would be unrecognizable. Without the British, we won’t have the language I am speaking to you or cricket which is nearly a religion in India.
So this is a long history with lot of things picked up and pulled along the way. It’s a very ancient civilization but not the kind which has survived by being unchanging; but by gathering along the way and absorbing influences from all over the world. We are again at the throes of another period of expansion. May this period of expansion last long.