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Getting to know the past better
By Romila Thapar
Historian Romila Thapar
Almost the first problem,
was that of questioning the validity of the periodization of James Mill.
Periodization tends to provide a frame and to some degree conditions how one
looks at the sources. Mill's periodization did not reflect the flow of
Indian history. There cannot be two thousand years of the rule of Hindu
dynasties, consistently described either as backward or as a prolonged
golden age, followed by eight hundred years of the rule of Muslim dynasties,
again described either as an improvement on the previous period or as
We know that in history, there are periods of rise and periods of decline.
No age is consistently glorious or tyrannical and no age can be
characterized only by the religion of its ruler. So the notion of
periodization came in for major reconsideration. Periodization has to
consider not just the religions of dynasties but other more significant
aspects of history: the interconnection and lives of people at different
levels of society and the kinds of issues that were important to people
throughout these ages.
During the period from the 1950's to 1970's in present day India, there were
many social science disciplines that emerged as strong intellectual
disciplines: economics, sociology, anthropology, demography, human
geography, archaeology. These were not only established, but their concern
was really with analyzing problems relating to Indian conditions. And this
really is the important difference between just having social science
disciplines and having disciplines that are pertinent to a particular
society. History then became a very important part of this search for
understanding what had happened in the Indian subcontinent and in Indian
society prior to the modern period.
The history of early India began to shift gradually from what used to be
called Indology, which was largely the study only of texts and events, to
the social sciences which were more analytical and began to ask questions
related to how historical change took place? What brought about the change?
When did it occur and, most importantly, why did it occur?
These were the kinds of questions we were concerned with. And I say this
with a certain amount of autobiographical inference, because this was
precisely the period when many of us were exploring these new ideas in
history and were stimulated both by the readings that we were doing, and by
the discoveries that we were making and by the very open discussions and
debates on historical interpretations. All this meant that there was a focus
within the historical discipline on what we today call the historical
method. In other words, the historian was no longer just anybody who read a
dozen books and summarized them and called it history, to a person who had
to discuss issues such as the reliability of the evidence and the logic of
the analysis. These had to be done meticulously and rigorously. This was
also tied into a much greater emphasis on investigating the causes of events
and historical change, and ascertaining a priority in these causes.
There was a gradual broadening of the issues that became important to
history. We moved away from saying that an event had a single cause. When
one starts asking the question that if an event has more than one cause, one
has to justify and explain the multiple causes, and command a range of
possible reasons as to why an event took place and why history changed?
So there was a broadening of the historical context and there was a demand
for much fuller explanations for events. This was assisted by new types of
evidence such as the discoveries of archaeology that filled in gaps and gave
new direction to interpretation. The other area in which there was much work
was in the study of inscriptions, and more particularly in revealing
information on society and economy as contained in the inscriptions.
Inscriptions generally carry a date, and inscriptions are precise about
recording an event. There may be a fictional element here and there, but one
can see through that. Therefore, inscriptions are useful data. Both
archaeological and inscriptional sources extend the range of evidence and
thereby of historical interpretations.