History is not just what we’re in the past, but it’s also what we’re at the present and what we’d be in future. History is like the seed that was sowed sometime in the past but has now grown up into a big tree. Like a tree that grows and dies and some other tree comes up, history is also the story of growth and decay of several civilizations and nations. But the humanity and life keep moving on – from the past to present and from the present to the future. What’s present becomes the history of tomorrow. The change is the only thing that doesn’t change.
History fascinates me more than anything. Everything has a history, be it a nation or a personality or a music or a piece of art. It’s like a story that unfolds with all its mysteries and highs and lows.
I’ve divided the ‘World’ of history into two categories – Indian and the World, both seen through the eyes of India.
The story of India is not just about the wars and the fights – son killing his father, brother killing his brother, invaders plundering temples and ravaging villages, as we generally read in our history books. Rabindranath had expressed his shock over this type of history which gives but a crooked and narrow idea of a civilization which has been existing for more than 5000 years. In Discovery of India Jawaharlal Nehru says – “India has had many distressful periods in the course of her long history, when she was ravaged by fire and sword or by famine, and internal order collapsed. Yet a broad survey of this history appears to indicate that she had a far more peaceful and orderly existence for long periods of time at a stretch than Europe has had“.
India is a story of amalgamation of so many creeds, faiths and cultures. It’s the story of an all-inclusive development of millions of people across a vast land which has shown ways to the world in various ways. It’s the story of prosperity that attracted people from faraway places. It’s the story of the best of the sciences, the best of the art, literature, architecture and music. It’s the story of a land
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Where knowledge is free, where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls,
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection,
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought.
India is the story of everyone who has come here from everywhere with their own self and got mixed into the “vast sea of humanity – that is India. Here I stand with arms outstretched to hail man divine in his own image and sing to his glory in notes glad and free. No one knows whence and at whose call come pouring endless inundation of men rushing madly along to lose themselves in this vast sea of humanity that is India. Aryans and Non-Aryans, Dravidians and Chinese Scythians, Huns, Pathans and Mogols all are mixed, merged and lost in one body” – that’s my body – the body of an Indian.
India is the story of impeccable harmony, tolerance and all-inclusive civilization. Ashoka turned into a Buddhist and played a great role in spreading Buddhism to major part of Asia Pacific. Statistically the spread of Buddhism during the reign of Ashoka and the successive Buddhist Rulers of India over the few centuries was much more than what the Caliphs could attain in the first few centuries after the birth of Islam – and all that without any force. Even though the whole of China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, Sri Lanka and many other countries turned Buddhist, India still remained a majority Hindu nation. Have you ever heard of any conflict between the Hindu and Buddhist? Ashoka, Kanishka, Harshavardhana, the Palas and many more emperors of India, though themselves Buddhists, never antagonized the Hindu rituals and traditions. In the same way the Hindu Guptas allowed Buddhism to flourish. The result of this harmony was off course Taxila and Nalanda Universities, the centers of learning and education for the entire world for almost 1500 years, till the rise of Baghdad during the Golden Age of Islam. People from all over the world flocked to Taxila and Nalanda, which were the centers of great discussions, arguments, debates that resulted in the greatest researches, inventions and discoveries in the field of science, mathematics and astronomy.
The greatest example of harmony is perhaps the period between 1200 and 1800 AD, when most part of India was ruled by Muslim rulers, all of whom came from outside. It’s remarkable that elsewhere Islam just swept across all the places where ever it went. Almost 100% of Persian Empire (covering Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Asia Minor and major parts of Middle East) and Arab land was converted into Islam over a few centuries. Traces of pre-Islamic culture and religions were wiped out since the decline of the Golden Age of Islam (8 to 12th Century AD). But despite the 600 years of Muslim rule in India, only a fraction of India had converted to Islam. From this point of view the Muslim rulers in India were undoubtedly much more tolerant than their Western counter parts. This is also an example of the Indian tradition of tolerance and harmony, which existed even before the advent of Islam in India. None of the Muslim rulers elsewhere in the world had non-Muslims in critical positions as in India. Akbar’s reign is just incredible from that point of view – 4 out of 9 in his Nava Ratna were Hindus. None of the Muslim rulers elsewhere in the world ever thought of amalgamating different religions and creating a new religion called Din-i-Ilahi like Akbar. Beyond the Islamic Golden Age, there were very few instances of free debates and discussions on religion and philosophy between people of various creed and cultures in the West. For three hundred years, the mullahs of the Ottoman Empire objected to the introduction of the printing press saying that the Word of God (the Qur’an) would be defiled if it came in contact with the wood or the metal of the press. It was only in the year 1728, three hundred years after it made its appearance in Christian Europe that the printing press was allowed into the Ottoman Empire. Contrary to that, Dara, one of Aurangzeb’s brothers had translated Upanishad from Sanskrit to Persian. The first Ramayana in Bengali was written with the initiative of the first Muslim Rulers of Bengal. Has anyone heard of any Muslim King naming his capital after a Hindu God? Well, that would be just a blasphemy in Arab world. But Tipu’s capital was actually called Srirangapatnam – the city of Vishnu.
The other side of the story is also equally enchanting. The Bengali San Calendar, considered to be a Hindu calendar, was actually synched up with the lunar Hijri during Akbar’s reign, but the counting remained Solar. That’s why the date in the Bengali San calendar is quite close to that in Hijri. This means that my marriage, on some auspicious day as per Hindu norms, has a reference to the day when Prophet Mohammed marched from Mecca to Medina. Well, you might argue that Akbar might have forced this on the Bengalis. But then the Bengalis didn’t change this ever – even after the death of Akbar or the end of the Muslim Rule in India. Is there any other place in this world where a Muslim calendar is synched up with Christian era or vice versa? Has anyone spoken about this? The sound of Shehnai is part of the ritual in any Hindu marriage in North India even though till date I haven’t heard of any Hindu playing Shehnai. In older days even the staunch Brahmins used to invite the Muslim Shenai players to perform in their marriages. Is there any ritual in any part of the world where people of different faith play such a great role? Bismillah Khan’s shehnai was one of the main attractions in the temples of Banaras till his death. Can you show me any single church or masjid in the world where a Hindu has been asked to sing Bhajan? Have you ever heard of any Hindu preferring the Brahmin Kishore Kumar Gangopadhyay over a Muslim Mohd. Rafi for religious reason? Have you ever heard of any actor becoming superstar by virtue of his religion? Khans are the rulers of Bollywood. Some of the richest Muslims, the likes of Wadias and Azim Premji, of the corporate world are in India. The biggest real estate company, Prestige, in Bangalore is owned by Muslims. One of the poorest persons, also a Muslim, from one of the remotest villages went on to become the top boss of India’s premier defense research organization and later the President. Ask Abdul Kalam, ask Mohd. Rafi, ask the Wadias, ask Azharuddin, ask Bismillah Khan, ask Shahrukh Khan, ask Amjad Ali Khan and Ali Akbar Khan, ask the sexy Katrina Kaif, ask Omar Abdullah, ask Ghulam Ali if they have ever faced any discrimination? No…. India has never discriminated. That’s why the Parsis never found any problem to establish the biggest business houses in India where as they had to flee from their home land – Persia. The Tatas are as much Indians as are the Birlas and Ambanis. Have you heard of anyone discriminating between Tatas and Ambanis because of their religion?
But sadly I don’t get to read this story very easily. “Discovery of India” is indeed one of the liveliest books about Indian history. Most history books become uninteresting because they deal with just facts of lives, but not with the life of facts. Perhaps history is meant to be that way. But I never like a lifeless history. If history can’t bring life into someone who has died hundreds of years ago, then what’s the point in reading it? India’s history is a story about life – a life that is so lively, so charming, so benign, so loving, and so prosperous too. Some glimpses of the true and lively story of India come out in some of the novels written by well researched people. The life that Tarashankar Banerjee had infused into the people of Hampi during the days of Vijaynagar rule in his Bengali novel “Tungabhadrar Teere” is something that lasts much longer than some mere facts read in a history book. The rulers of Vijaynagar had indeed fought many a battle, but the prosperity of the people, the art and culture that flourished during that time, the happiness of the normal people, and the hustle and bustle of the main street leading to the Virupaksha Temple say much more about the period than the battles. During my visit to Hampi some ten years back I was feeling as if I myself had walked down the streets sometime in the past. Each and every building, temple seemed to be known to me. Sadly, not many books have been written like this.
With the urge to see the history of India not as a repository of fights and battles but as a story of constant rising and awakening, constant creation of highest form of art and culture, constant urge for acquiring the highest forms of knowledge in various aspects, really long stretches of prosperity and unity. I also wanted to figure out how many times a pan Indian nation had emerged through the ages. Thanks to Wikipedia, my personal collection of books of Lively Indian History like “Discovery of India”, “Argumentative Indian”, various novels (mostly in Bengali) and a wonderful site for online maps of the different kingdoms across ages, I’m able to create a concise single page chart of the time line of Indian history highlighting almost all the important events and dynasties spanning across 5000 years, starting from Indus Valley Civilization. The maps are very important to appreciate the history of any nation or kingdom because that speaks the best about the gradual growth and development of any civilization and nation over the ages. It also speaks of the neighbours whose culture and religion have always played an important role in shaping up India’s art, culture, music, architecture, language, literature… and what not. Alongside the rise and fall of dynasties and kingdoms, which are just the natural phenomenon which can’t be prevented even by the strongest of the emperors, wars and battles I’ve also marked
- The events, personalities and times associated with an extraordinary, universal and all inclusive developments in art, culture, science, religion or any renaissance
- World Heritage Sites – which traces extra ordinary achievement in the field of art and architecture that has significant socio-cultural relevance over a long period of time and can be considered as an epoch in the annals of a period or age. Though not always true, but in general a dynasty generally creates the best of the architectures during its golden period when the administration is also at its peak and the nation or kingdom experiences an all-inclusive growth and prosperity. That’s why marking the Word Heritage Sites also indirectly marks the Golden Ages in the annals of history
- Emergence of Pan Indian nation and times of remarkable administration and prosperity.
The result of this is really very striking. Almost every century there has been some very important development in the field of art, culture, science, religion or administration that has played a very important role in shaping up the culture, philosophy and prosperity of India. Nehru was not wrong when he remarked that India “had a far more peaceful and orderly existence for long periods of time at a stretch than Europe has had“.
The multicultural and multi ethnic atmosphere of tolerance, arguments and debates provide the ideal ground for renaissance, which comes once in thousand years to any nation or civilization. But India never stopped from having renaissance in some sense throughout her history. In 2nd century BC when Maurya Empire was declining somewhere else people were creating the wonderful paintings of Ajanta caves. When the Tamil Sangama Age was ending in the south during third century AD, the Kushanas were creating the Bamiyan Buddha in the North West. When the Gupta Empire was declining and the Hun invasion was creating turmoil in the 6th century AD the first Rajput Kingdom of the Pratiharas and the Chalukyan Kingdoms were being established in North and South respectively. When Mahmud of Ghor was creating devastations in the North in 12th century AD, the Hoyasalas were creating the wonderful temples of Belur and Halebidu and the mathematician Bhaskaracharya was born. Even during the last phases of Mughal Empire in the 19th century, the best Urdu poetries were being written by Mirza Ghalib. Amir Khusro brought a renaissance in Hindustani Classical Music during a time when politically India was not so stable in the 14th century. At the time when the British Rule started, after the Sepoy Mutiny, the Indian’s were having most recent cultural and social renaissance – nationalism was emerging in a strong way during this time. Throughout her history she never ceased to grow or prosper despite everything. This is indeed the true history of India – the story of continuous growth and prosperity and renaissance!!