Thursday, August 02, 2012

Reminiscing with Romila Thapar over Tea and Biscuits


The year was 1947, when she passed out of School. Throughout the 40s, across the country there was an air of the impending independence of India. The core of nationalist feeling beat in every heart, just as surely as the fire lit in every kitchen for the day and the lamp burnt to light up the dark hours after dusk.  Mahatma Gandhi was under house arrest in the Aga Khan’s Palace in Pune, but during the time when he was set free, he held prayer meetings in the evening at Dr Mehta’s Nature Cure Clinic, near Wadia College in Pune. A young girl, after class at St Mary’s School, together with her friends, would attend those meetings. On one occasion she paid the mandatory, Rs 5, a princely amount in those days, to ask for Gandhiji’s autograph. As she was leaving, the father of the nation, held the sleeve of her kurta – “Yeh, resham hai?” he asked and she replied, “Jee haan!” “Resham kabhi nahi paheno. Khadi pehena karo!” This was followed by a tantrum with her parents who relented and agreed to her wearing khadi salwar-kurtas, if she so wished.

This young girl was Romila Thapar, still in School, in Pune, having breathed in the air of nationalism. These were the last years of school in Pune. Also brewing in her heart was her love for History and Literature and her love for Botany. And both were because of two lovely teachers – Ms Flemming in History and Literature and Ms Fraenkel in Botany. And while her friends scoffed at her love of Botany, her real love for ancient History was planted only after she completed her Senior Cambridge and she had six months of holidays before the next step to Wadia College in Pune. Having completed two years out of four at College, she then had to follow her father’s transfer to Delhi where Romila Thapar joined Miranda House.  But she finally graduated from Punjab University, with Literature Hons., and with History as a subsidiary subject.

Travelling from Rangoon to Lahore, it was a chance stop over made by her mother at her sister’s home in Lucknow, that saw the birth of Romila Thapar in Lucknow. Her father  Daya Ram Thapar, who was a Doctor in the Army had been transferred to Lahore. Before she joined her husband there, Romila’s mother Kaushalya, pregnant with her third child, Romila, stopped en route  at Lucknow and then found that it was too late for her to travel any further for the moment. Romila Thapar was born in Lucknow, on 30 November, 1931. Subsequently her father was transferred to the North West Frontier Province. The young child Romila soon proceeded with her mother to live at the Thal Fort. Her childhood was spent in six different places, as her father, was frequently transferred, as was the case with Army officers. While her two elder siblings, a brother and sister, spent their childhood and growing years in boarding school, Romila stayed with her parents. This meant changes almost every two years or so, of School, and later College too. The six months holidays, between completing the Senior Cambridge examination in School and her admission to Wadia College, both in Pune, were supposed to have been spent in leisurely reading and in her favourite sports of horse riding and swimming, but instead, along with her father, it turned out to be a journey to India’s past.

Her father had travelled to Madras, and on a free afternoon visited the Museum. The Chola bronze icons made such a deep impression on him that, on his return, he brought back with him many books on this subject. It is the reading and discussion between father and daughter that led to the igniting of the first deep interest in early Indian history, in the mind of Romila Thapar. The search had begun, and the road map became clear, when Romila, asked to go to London to do a degree in History.

“I have the money, which I have kept aside for you,” her father said, “but it is only enough for either a dowry or a degree from London University, so you must choose.” She chose the latter. In a sense this was in her genes. Her paternal grand-father was initially a school teacher before he was employed to do summaries of the vernacular press for the British administration. Her maternal grand-father, who practised law, insisted that each of his five daughters must be a graduate, Romila’s mother being one of them. This was quite remarkable for a father in the 1920s.

London changed everything for Romila. It opened the flood gates of her mind.   For a girl from an established social background, protected from the world in the culture of army cantonments, the intellectual buzz in London was like the wings of fire that took her to a destination, that was unknown to her but exciting. She was hooked! When she got her B.A degree from London University in 1955, her tutor, A.L Basham, who, is well-known for his book, “The Wonder that was India”, urged her to apply for a London university scholarship to do a Ph.D.  A hesitant, Romila, finally did apply, even as the last date of submission was well nigh. Sitting among a panel of many Professors, from the various branches of historical studies taught at London University, Romila passed through forty-five minutes of grilling, to finally qualify for the Scholarship, giving her three more years in London and a Doctorate from SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Closest to her heart, even to this day, after so many books and papers which she has published is her Ph. D thesis, Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas.

Despite many offers to remain in England, the nationalist in her, urged her to return to India, taking up a Readership at Kurukshetra University, which she left to join Delhi University. Seven years thereafter, she moved to spend the next twenty years at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi). Here in the august company of brilliant students and an academic environment that urged a new curriculum and new ways of thinking about the subject, she greatly enjoyed her teaching experience.

No article on Professor Romila Thapar, can go without reference to some of her work. Among a vast body of writing that we have in her studies on early India, I would like to draw the attention of the reader to her views on the “idea” that we are frequently confronted with in these times, namely, that India has always been a tolerant, non-violent country. The reader may be urged to look at India as a nation consisting of people from different religious sects among whom we can count Hindus, Buddhists, Jainas and Christians as some of the early ones, to be joined later by Muslims.

In her book “Cultural Transaction and early India” published by Oxford University Press in 1987, we are told that “The term Hindu, is used for the first time in Arabic sources referring to the inhabitants of the subcontinent across the Indus”  For them the term was initially geographical, meaning people who lived on the other side of the Sindhu river. If we include yet another of her erudite papers “Perceiving the forest: Early India”, published in the journal, Studies in History, in 2001, we get to understand one of the possible roots of the intolerance among sects in early India. The essay explores the theme which G. D. Sontheimer , in his study of pastoral activities explored, namely, the dichotomy of the vana/kshetra or the vana/grama, referring to the dichotomy of the forest and the settlement.  Prof Romila Thapar argues that in earliest times the grama, or village, need not have been a permanent settlement as it included a population that migrated from place to place with their domestic animals. Gradually the settlements became permanent.  With urbanization, some among the gramas evolved into nagaras or towns. Sects of Buddhists and Jainas promoted the idea of asceticism, which required people of any age or caste to retreat to the forests to pursue their personal goal to enlightenment. They occupied spaces in the forest close to the settlement  where they went about their daily pursuit visiting the grama or nagara for their bhiksha, or alms.

 When kings started giving grants of land to various religious sects, a competition developed between these sects for royal patronage. This added to the already existing ideological differences between them. It is perhaps this, which encouraged the intolerance of one sect towards the other. Apart from what they believed in, there was also the question of the possession of land and the demarcation of property given as gifts. These could be in the form of agraharas to brahmanas, either in the aranya and wastelands which were uncultivated lands, or in cultivated land.

“The granting of tax-free, cultivable land to special categories of persons – learned brahmanas and professionals working for the state – was also mentioned. This would have been cultivated land in villages, or else large acreages of uncultivated land to be brought under cultivation by the grantee. ....The incidence of this creating what came to be called agraharas can be traced back to the early centuries of the Christian era, when inscriptions attest to kings making such grants.”

“The institutionalization of renunciation developed early among the Buddhists, Jainas and a variety of non-brahminical sects referred to as Sramanas. Individual salvation, it was argued, was more easily obtained through renunciation and joining the Sangha or Order – a parallel or alternative society demanding the termination of social obligations at a personal level. But few of these renounces’ cut themselves off completely. Most lived in the proximity of settlements, for it was enjoined upon the lay follower that he had to support monks with alms and gifts. Such acts would earn merit for the lay followers.”   This led to the strengthening of the Sangha as an institution and also created a sense of community among lay followers. This was a contrast to the idea of varnashramadharma, which segregated and cordoned off, groups of people into castes.

 “This sense of community may have had something to do with the aggressive hostility meted out to Buddhists and Jainas by various sects of what we have come to call the Hindu religion. This hostility may account for the virtual weeding out of the alternate texts and perspectives, namely, those not in agreement with brahmanical tradition, from what we regard as our cultural heritage”.

Thus going back to early times we have evidence much before Mahmud of Ghazni came to India, of the persecution of Buddhists in Kashmir.  Hsuan Tsang the Chinese traveller in the seventh century A.D refers to the destruction of Buddhist stupas and sangharamas and the killing of Buddhists monks. In the Rajatarangini, (I, p 289, 307), which is a history of Kashmir, the author Kalhana gives an account of the Huna king Mihirakula, who was a Shaiva and gave land to brahmanas as agraharas, but who also killed Buddhist monks. The Kashmiri poet Bilhana, the biographer of the Calukya king Vikramaditya VI makes disparaging remarks about local Gujaratis, but curiously makes no mention of Mahmud of Ghazni who is said to have raided the Shaiva temple at Somanatha, even though the biography was written three generations after the supposed attack. In her book on Somanatha, Professor Thapar refers to inscriptions in Sanskrit of the early centuries AD that record the fact that local Hindu rulers donated land to the Arab traders to build a mosque. Some of this land was from the estates of the Somanatha temple. Encouragement was given to the trade between various local authorities and the Arab traders.  The much acclaimed bringing back of the gates of Somanatha from Ghazni, by the British army, back-fired on the British, since the gates were Egyptian in style, and not the gates of Somanatha. The British wrote the history of India for the period after AD 1200 largely from Persian courtly chronicles, ignoring the fact that there were other data from texts and inscriptions in Sanskrit and in the regional languages.
It appears that there was no pan-Indian Hindu community incorporating all the castes and sects in one common identity in early India. There were , “...a number of segments largely determined by caste, customs, language and region; and only at certain levels were religious identities recognised as being similar. For the rest, caste identities probably were more significant and the religious belief systems and actions of particular castes may have had some common features. “  An obvious example of this would be similarities among the learned brahmana castes.

So we may now recognise two important themes that surface in Indian history : one, there was no single pan-Indian community determined by a religious Hindu identity in early India ;  and second, that tolerance as we understand it today as a Hindu, or Indian phenomenon, did give way on occasion to extreme intolerance. Therefore, we cannot ascribe brutality, destruction and killings only to “the other” ethnic groups who came to India later, known as “Turushka/Turks, or Yavana/West Asian”, or the more generalised mleccha, meaning impure and covering a wide range of non-Muslims as well.”

Professor Romila Thapar’s contribution to early Indian history, upto c. AD 1300, lies also in the fact that she has been a pioneer in the Social History of these times and has brought to the forefront, the understanding that, whenever we chose to speak on any one subject, pertaining to that era or time, there are many interpretations whose value has to be assessed historically. These interpretations influence a larger span of time as well. Her brilliant and thought provoking work on Sakuntala – Texts, Readings, Histories published by Kali for Women in 1999 included the narrative from Mahabharata and Abhijnana – Sakuntalam of Kalidasa, and various other adaptations which are vastly different from each other. These suggest the different times and periods when they were written  thus opening up the text to multiple interpretations, covering even how the play was received in Russian literary circles, not to mention also the Braj and Urdu versions of the same.

Among her other works are A History of India, Ancient Indian Social History, Shakuntala, Lineage to State, Somanatha, to name only a few. There is one thread that runs through all her work that History has many voices, and this multiplicity emanates from the text and from its various interpretations. Hence, it is quite evident that it is not a single voice as we have been taught to believe.

Dr Romila Thapar is Professor Emeritus at JNU, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, She has also been visiting Professor at Cornell University, University of Pennsylvania and the College de France in Paris. She was the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South instituted by the Library of Congress, US. But, no honour or coveted appointments from Universities abroad have been able to keep her away from her native soil. It is here she finds her best audience, people who are alive and responsive to her work, both in terms of appreciating it as well as critiquing it and this is her best reward. Whatever she says or writes here, throws up debate and discussion for months on end.
In 2011 she was awarded the Padma Bhushan but she turned it down. When asked to give a reason she said that these awards and not really state awards but government awards, and therefore she preferred to stay away from them. Furthermore, she also felt that academics must give a higher status to professional awards than to government awards.

“We academics do not respect each other sufficiently. As academics, the professional awards we get from our peers have a much higher standing than what any State can give us, and that is why we should respect professional awards.”

Professor Romila Thapar, lives in a quiet and beautiful locality in Delhi. Her day begins with work in the morning. The evenings are more fluid and you might find her devoting herself to other readings, going out to meet friends maybe twice a week, or having someone over for dinner. Her home is a veritable treasure trove of books, which are her best friends too. She has a lovely Labrador, who can harmlessly bark at strangers, but not bite! A niece and a nephew and their children are her family in Delhi. Age has not had a chance to lay hold of India’s most respected, even loved Historian. The beautiful and gracious Professor holds on to her lifestyle with tenacity and power, not unlike her paternal grandmother, the Dadi, the matriarch, strong and unfailingly rooted in herself. So don’t get carried away by her gentle smile and her soft ways. Behind that is a history of very strong men and women, of brawn, beauty and intellect.

“Resham kabhi nahi pahena. Khadi pehena karo!” – Perhaps, these words from Gandhi had a much deeper meaning for India’s pioneering Social Historian of early India, albeit she has combined both but remained rooted in her homeland, India.




The author wishes to thank, Professor Romila Thapar, for igniting an interest in early Indian History in her, Professor Kumkum Roy, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, for giving reading material and negotiating for her to meet Professor Thapar, C. N Subramanian, ex- Director, Eklavya, Bhopal, for lending her books by Romila Thapar.  August, 2012


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