Canberra, 14 November 2012
Part 1

An Introduction

This is the beginning of a series of essays which will cover the history of India from the recorded beginning, starting with a narrative of the ancient civilisation on the banks of the great river Indus and finishing on the eve of independence from British rule in August 1947 when the first Prime Minister of ‘independent’ India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru proclaimed to the world, “Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long supressed, finds utterance.” This rousing speech in its entirety will form the epilogue of the collection of essays that mark the trek through Indian history that is being undertaken.
There are two limitations in this collection of essays that must be placed in front of the reader at the outset. First, the essays do not go beyond the declaration of independence because the story of the nation thereafter is contemporary politics, with all the murkiness, diffusion, pettiness, greed and ambition common to political activity, especially visible when events being studied have taken place in the immediate past. This is an arena into which this author does not wish to enter. Second, as far as possible no footnotes or other references are being provided in individual essays in order to keep the narrative in a simple format, devoid of any academic pretensions. However, at the very end of the series, a Bibliography of all publications that have been referred will be published so that readers, who desire to study or read in greater detail the events discussed in the essays, can do so at their own time.
The intention and endeavour in the series of essays to follow are to tell the story of India in as simple and unbiased a manner as possible with the interpretations of historical events that have been proven to be factual being what the author believes to be appropriate. There is a clear dichotomy between these two assertions, since individual interpretations are by themselves susceptible to being biased. A conscious attempt is made throughout to keep the balance as even as possible. History is perhaps the most studied subject if one considers the multi-faceted spread of its sub-sets, and it is also the most intriguing. Even though history deals with things past, and irrespective of the brilliance of the analyst, it still does not give away the entire story at any one time. The best one can hope to achieve is a somewhat believable chronology of events and then produce a swath of speculation regarding the reasons and the whys and the wherefores.
There are also two overarching caveats that apply to this collection of essays, which will make their understanding easier. First, in studying Indian history, the first impression one gets is that in understanding the early periods—whatever that era is termed, whether ancient, early or prehistoric—a great deal of uncertainty continues to prevail even though a great deal of study has been undertaken on the subject. This is particularly apparent when trying to establish the chronology of events since different sources and available interpretations tend to be at odds with each other. This situation is exacerbated by the literature of the period that are currently available, the ones that have been deciphered, not providing specific dates for events but being generic in terms of describing events as having occurred over a period of time. Second, there is a fundamental factor that must always be borne at the back of the mind when dealing with Indian history—India or Indian did not exist as an entity before the two centuries of British rule (or Raj, depending on one’s proclivity to interpret the two centuries). However, in this series of essays the term is used to indicate the entire geographic subcontinent from the earliest times, as has been the practice with a number of historical works. When necessary the geographical extent of kingdoms will be separately indicated. 
There is a prevalent belief that India suffers from a lack of a sense of history, especially in the pre-Islamic times, which constitutes more than half the known history of the sub-continent. This is a fallacy. The ancient dynasties were as assiduous as their medieval and modern counterparts in keeping records and proclaiming their greatness for posterity. The Islamic invasions and then the British conquests aided in creating a slightly skewed version of not only historical events, but also of their interpretation and the manner in which ancient Indian history was understood and projected. Over the past few decades there is an increasing awareness within the circle of Indian historians and academics of this lacuna although remedial measures are slow in being initiated. However, it is not inconceivable that fresh interpretations of the pre-Islamic times in Indian history will be forthcoming in the future. The earliest history of India is reliant equally on archaeology and the study and interpretation of literature that originated at that time. This dual-source approach provides both alternate sources to corroborate occurrences as well as a broader understanding of events in a contextual manner. Further, the combination of archaeology and literature provides a clearer grasp of the socio-economic situation of the time.
There are three aspects of Indian history that bear reiteration. First, there are various interpretations regarding the impact of religion throughout Indian history. The religion of the Harappan civilisation that flourished in pre-historic times is unknown even today. In fact it is not even known whether or not the concept of religion itself was part of that civilisation. The practice of Vedic Brahmanism that followed in the wake of the Indus Valley civilisation was focused on sacrifices and did not tend towards formalised worship of images or other practices that constitute religious adherence. A number of historians believe that the religiously identified communities that are reported in history publications originated from a colonial perception that was superimposed on the entire history of the sub-continent. Throughout the history of the sub-continent it has been a fact that the religion of the ruler did not characterise the entire society or the nation that he or she ruled. Therefore, a study of history through the identification of religion and its impact on society is at best unlikely to be fully accurate and at worst fraught with the risk of being almost completely wrong. However, for ease of interpretation early history is looked at within a holistic religious and cultural basis because of a distinct lack of political and social certainties.
Second is the compression of history that has taken place over a period of time. This phenomenon may not be unique to Indian history, but more easily visible in its case, thereby making historical analysis and study in the Indian context somewhat different. The lack of a coherent chronology in the earlier part of Indian history, as mentioned earlier, and the co-existence of a large number of dynasties—at times as  many as 20 to 30—in the sub-continent at any one time, adds to the density in the narrative and increases the possibility of chronological confusion. The differences, some even factual, in the various narratives relating to the Early period of Indian history should be viewed as exceptions that emphasise the continuity in the chronology of the broader historical plots. Third is the impact of geography and the less than optimum importance that it is given in the study of Indian history. In the Indian context, geography must be further sub-divided into the physical divisions of the sub-continent according to terrain and a separate appreciation of its river systems. The sub-continent can be geographically divided into the Himalayan Mountain Ranges in the extreme north; the Gangetic Plains that is a swath of fertile green that spread below the Himalayan foothills across the broadest point of the entire nation; the inhospitable and expanding Thar Desert in the north-west; the high plateaus of Malwa, Chotanagpur and Deccan that jut out into the peninsula almost fully consuming it; the coastal plains of the Konkan and Malabar coasts in the West and the Northern Circars and Coromandal Coast in the East; and the island chains of the Andaman and Nicobar in the Bay of Bengal in the east and the Arabian Sea islands of Lakshwadeep in the west.
River Systems of India. From time immemorial, river systems have been critical for the development of civilisations and the vital determinants of historical change. It is from the bounty of the river systems that the first civilisations, as we know them today, sprang, developed, flourished and subsequently perished when the river system either dried up, or in some cases, changed course. As civilisations evolved and developments took place towards the formation of formalised societies, the river systems became a tool for administering the areas under the rule of a particular king or dynasty, necessitating control of these lines of communication. The river systems have been a constant and critical element in human history. All major rivers of India originate in one of the three major watersheds; the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges, Vindhya and Satpura ranges and Chotanagpur plateau in Central India, and the Sahyadri or Western Ghats in the west of Peninsular India. There are five major river systems that can be recognised in the sub-continent—three flowing from the Himalayan ranges, one originating in the Vindhyas and the fifth forming the Peninsular river system. The three Himalayan ones are the Western, Central and Eastern systems. The Western River System is predominated by the Indus and its five tributaries Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum; the Central System consists of the mighty Ganges with tributaries that by themselves are large river systems, Jamuna, Chambal, Betwa, Gomti, Ghaghara, Son and Kosi; and the Eastern System built around the Brahmaputra with its tributaries of Tista, Manas and Luhit. The Central System creates the largest cultivable plains in the sub-continent known as the Gangetic Plains that by itself is a geographic entity (mentioned above). In combination, these three systems make the northern part of India the most fertile region of the sub-continent. The system originating in the Vindhyas, the Deccan System, has only two large rivers—Narmada and Tapti—that are also the only two major rivers that flow into the Arabian Sea in the Peninsula. The Peninsular System consists of Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Penner, Palar and Cauvery, all of which originate in the Western Ghats and flow into the Bay of Bengal.
The impact of geography on Indian history cannot be overemphasised. Even though the major river systems are located in the north of the sub-continent, the northern part is made up of large and open plains that are conducive to the movement of large military forces that facilitate expansion through conquests and the spread of cultural influence through trade and commerce. In contrast, the Southern Peninsula has far too many physical obstacles—rivers, mountains, and plateaus—and therefore is not easily overrun by conquering armies or traversed without difficulty by merchants and traders. Because of this geographical barrier the early historians were unable to fully understand the progression of events there and could not comprehend the potential inherent in the southern part of the sub-continent. Although most of the Peninsula was conquered by Asoka the Great between 260 and 235 BC, it remained a separate entity for much of Indian history. Even the current culture of modern Peninsular India is distinctly different form that of the North, reinforcing its separateness developed over the years.  
Almost all currently available literature from Early Indian history followed the oral tradition that inevitably involved the imaginative blending of mythology and history. Mythology, as the term suggests, is normally not factually correct although a great deal of assumptions can be derived from it regarding the social norms, standards of living and the status of the nation vis-à-vis its governance. These assumptions can thereafter be extrapolated to confirmed facts to create a more ‘filled out’ picture, thereby embellishing the history that is being carried forward. Another aspect of oral traditions is that they can be particularly rigid in some cases and very loosely formed and evolving in some other. For example, the Vedas have an extremely rigid tradition that does not lend itself to even the slightest change or interpretation over the years, in fact centuries; whereas, the epic of Mahabharata, it has been confirmed, has been enhanced through the years by the telling and in its current version is perhaps a great deal different from the original.
The essays in this collection that tell the history of India attempts to understand the reasons why a historic event took place and then to analyse the repercussions of the event through looking at it from a lens that combines the political, economic, social and religious elements prevalent at the time of its occurrence. It is fervently hoped that the essays will intertwine these elements to establish the patterns of change that took place. Obviously, the lens will also be coloured by contemporary perceptions and the author’s own understanding of history, although these two factors will, as far as possible, be kept to the barest minimum. However, the interpretations finally are my own, and therefore could be contested or even completely ignored as irrelevant. That is a risk that has to be undertaken if one is going to take even one step outside the beaten path.
So here goes—Sanu Kainikara’s Essays on the history of India, “From Indus to Independence: A Trek through Indian History’. And like a trek, the essays will meander and stop, question and debate, analyse and conclude, for that is the true meaning of history—an ever evolving interpretation of the past viewed through the prism of contemporary norms and seen through the eyes of the narrator!

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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