MISSING: GABRU

I belong to Punjab or that’s what I have been told. Growing up in India’s many urban cities, we needed an emotional anchorage; an anchorage that was our village, our place of origin, and our belonging. “Where’s your native place?”, my brother and I were quite often asked by a legion of kids we went to school with. The answer to that question was a confused smile or in my brother’s case a facile reply, “We don’t know!”

Always a curious historian, I asked my mother about our rather muddled roots. “Tell them you belong to Punjab!” , she exclaimed. We did belong to Punjab, although our Punjab was far away, across the border; but fixating ourselves to a place abound with agrarian lands and rivers, that not only fed the people who inhabited its banks but also stood witness to several historical events, seemed convenient.

As we grew up, Punjab was glorified, largely in films. The films, opened into a mustard field, an omnipresent yellow, and there emerged a young man, adorned in a pathani kurta, tending to his land. Enter ‘gabru’, the simpleton, who swore by his community, took immense pride in his land and swept many girls off their feet.

Quite smitten by the gabru , I once agreed to be squired around the state, the supposed place of our ‘nativity’. Perambulating through many, almost desolate pinds (villages), and overwhelmed by hospitality, that is unprecedented, my search for the gabru began.

During our visits to rock gardens, lakes, and intermittent indulgences in lassi, paranthas, generous quantities of butter, home made paneer and so on, the gabru was not to be found. As the travel progressed, it was slowly and sadly revealed, that gabru had gone missing, many years ago.

Where was the handsome lad who sauntered through his fields?

He was perhaps hiding from his own men, who now satiated themselves with alcohol and banned substances, instead of lassi, from his men who replaced their imposing tractors with sleek ‘s classes’ and pretentiously macho SUVs; he was running away from those who maddeningly migrated to lands abroad for odd jobs, in a bid to establish a newer identity, an identity that had a mark of a foreign citizenry, he was avoiding those who chose baggy jeans, diamond studs and underground music over mystic sufi verses and a white pathani. The gabru had succumbed to years of conflict, ill planned money laundering revolutions, rampant migrations to foreign lands and unemployment. He had paid a price for distancing himself from his fields, his land that fed his family, his village, his state, and his nation at large.

My search ended in vain, for the gabru went missing, carelessly slipping into oblivion!

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THE GHALIB I FORGOT

My ‘doctoral cronies’ would agree that pursuing a PhD formulates an event of a lifetime. From the day the idea germinates, research determines every aspect of your life; the hypothesis evolving every second. It follows you to the library, the park, the gym, the dinner table and also pays a visit or two in your dreams. ‘You are married to your research, Moon Moon’, my supervisor once said as she excitedly took a few sips of Coke. Sitting at our university canteen, she pointed out at the drudgery that was my PhD. ‘It’s like having a demanding husband or a boyfriend or like carrying a baby or a monster sitting on your back’. Despite the dramatic portraiture, the travails of my research were soothed, nonetheless, by my guide, whose convivial and unconventional style of supervision, made this marriage a happy one indeed.

The marriage ended soon. Unlike my friends, who were rooted in academia and immersed in their doctoral specialisation, my frivolous, albeit adventurous, research endeavours made me part ways from my 5-year relationship of sorts. From Bahadur Shah Zafar’s court in late Mughal Delhi I made my way to the hilly terrains of India’s North East, wherein the tribes and their traditional textiles would offer a plethora of avenues to explore. Travelling to the farthest of villages every year, I gradually distanced myself from the sepoys who marched to Delhi in 1857, the helpless emperor, caught between the English and the rebels, and the soldiers of a Company, that had established its supremacy over our princes and peasantry.

Zafar’s Delhi remained forcibly renounced, until our Prime Minister, now visiting Iran, chose Ghalib over diplomatic jargon to describe Indo-Iranian ties. ‘Once we make up our mind, the distance between Kashi and Kashan is only half a step’, he quoted the poet and an applause resounded the Saadabad palace. While the Prime Minister signed the historic Chabahar port treaty, my mind steered back to the 1800s when Ghalib refused an offer to teach Persian at the Delhi College. The Delhi College, founded on the ruins of a madrassa, was a symbol of Delhi’s literary flowering in the early nineteenth century. An educational institute, it was a space for acquaintance and ideological debates. Lieutenant- General Thompson, of the North Western provinces, once took on the administrative reins of the college and invited Ghalib for an interview. Parking his carriage at the entrance of the college, Ghalib awaited a formal welcome from the Lieutenant. When Thompson did not oblige to this princely behavior, Ghalib turned away, refusing to impart knowledge, until his honorable status was acknowledged.

Ghalib’s story is that of a man seeking prestige. It appeared that his writings were dwarfed by his desire for grandiosity. He wrote: ‘My ancestors have been warriors for a hundred generations, I don’t need to write poetry to acquire honorable status’

The writing of history became a ‘headache’ for Delhi’s Goethe as he shunned his research of the Mughal empire. ‘I am no historian’, he wrote, ‘the tales of love and loyalty are all my stock in trade.’ Despite the barmy take on his own capabilities, Ghalib’s verses resonated through Delhi even when he pawned his way to jail and indulged in profligacy. On his spend thrift aristocracy he said: ‘When I was young, a perfect guide told me that piety and asceticism did not please him, and he would not forbid gay and sinful living. I could eat and drink and make merry. Only I should remember to be like the fly that sits on crystal sugar, not like the one that sits on honey.’

Couplets, like these, became a part of my daily reads, as I researched, Zafar, his Dilli and its eccentric poet, Ghalib. He sometimes presented to be an iconic writer, much ahead of his times and sometimes, a sycophant, an opportunist, a man to whom ‘poetry bought no honour’.

This quest to understand a man and the times he lived in, ended abruptly as I successfully defended my thesis. With it came the end of Delhi, its twilight years, and also Ghalib, now easily forgotten.

ROOTED IN PARTITION

PERSONAL HISTORIES AND MORE

As the grueling summer sets in, I am reminded of my days in school when the month of May came with the much needed respite from textbooks, surprise tests, failed attempts to understand algebra and many such activities that my regimented and monotonous school life had to offer. What followed was an ephemeral joy of discovering Jane Austen, Jules Verne, R.L. Stevenson and Louisa May Alcott, who kept me good company during those dry and arid afternoons. Summers were also a time for grand parents and their stories, encompassing everything from Hindu mythology to fairytales. My grandfather, or dadaji, as I fondly called him, did not believe in drawing influences from tales that were not real. His stories were narratives from his own life, with every experience being a lesson to be learnt. One such summer, he shared a portentous experience of his life . While my fellow classmates busied themselves in finishing their holiday assignments, I, choosing to ignore the need to improve my weak mathematical skills, sat on his lap and heard out the story of my family’s migration. A migration that began in a village, now located in Pakistan, and ended in a tent at a refugee camp in Delhi. The story, now imprinted in my mind, was to surreptitiously shape my personal and professional life.

It was in 1947 that my family found itself at the doorstep of history. While living a life, full of contentment and luxury, with his wife and two daughters in Lahore, my dadaji was perhaps oblivious of the political turmoil brewing between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League, two significant parties leading India’s struggle for independence. The demand for a separate state for the Muslims was an ongoing one and was eventually realized after the passage of many government acts, missions and direct action days!

As Sir Cyrill Radcliffe, Chairman of the Border Commission, demarcated the line between India and Pakistan, my dadaji hurriedly packed, wanting to catch the next train to Amritsar. In a state of disquietude, he left his home of many years, escaping the prying eyes of his neighbors, who may now have turned his enemies. Having survived history’s bloodiest migration, he first made his way to Delhi and then to Lucknow, where he would give his family a new life and a new belonging. Years later when my brother and I were born, we were made to believe and accept that our roots lay in Lucknow, when actually they were far away in a country with whom we have fought many a wars and continue to be at political loggerheads.

My family made no contribution to any events leading to the partition of the country. Their signatures and names do not appear on any essential governmental documents, pertaining to the partition. Whether my dadaji wanted to be uprooted and displaced from his native village, his place of birth, his physical and emotional anchorage, did not matter to those chalking out a division plan in their corridors of power.

However, does that relegate his presence in history? Study of history in India is isolated in the periodic shells of Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Battles, leaders, movements overcast many a histories, hitherto hidden and untold. Beneath our monuments are buried personal histories of individuals, families, who may not have delivered a momentous speech but their lives closely intertwined with an epoch making event. The partition became that event for dadaji and my family. Their story of this gory migration remains unwritten and unheard.

My dadaji is no more and his presence is dearly missed, especially during dry summer afternoons, when his tales of personal experiences provided lessons for life. It’s summer again and I have no school duties to render to, thankfully! It’s perhaps time to unshackle the historian within me, caught between the Mughals and the British, and bring to fore my dadaji’s personal history, the story of my family’s long journey from Pakistan to India. Delving into this personal history, will also bring about a discovery of my own belonging, not in Lucknow, not in Delhi, but deeply rooted in my dadaji’s narrative of the partition.

 

COMMUNISM, JEWS & A FORT: MORE FROM GOD’S OWN COUNTRY

Musings during a road trip, NOT based on any thorough research, and written with some help from Wikipedia! (Read it at your own risk)

In a dimly lit room, three boys seem to be having a discussion. With Che Guevara looking over them, and the communist symbol of the sickle and the hammer on the adjacent wall, the deliberations could well be on the upcoming assembly elections in the state. The red walls and the communist flags around the room is a reminder of the political ideology that has shaped and guided the history and politics of the state over the years. Decades ago, Kerala became the first state to democratically elect a communist government. Nurtured by leaders like P.Krishnapillai, E.M.S.Namboodiripad and A.K.Gopalan, the ideology took germ during India’s struggle for independence and evolved in secrecy as Nationalist leaders struggled for freedom from the British yoke.

During my political science lectures in college, our professors spoke of the red might in Kerala and the many progresses that the state made, with cent present literacy as being the most admirable. More than its tea estates, backwaters and national parks, it was the political ethos of the state that caught my attention and ,therefore, a road trip with friends came as a good opportunity to explore a state, claiming to be God’s own.

As one drives along the Western Ghats in Kerala, Communist flags dominate the terrain as much as its dense tropical forests. It does come as a surprise that this is the same party that declared its establishment with tar writings on the wall and was termed as a banned outfit in the pre-independence era. Marx and Lenin found acceptance amongst the workers and farmers of Kerala and the party was designated as a legal political body only in 1942. Comrades worked in far corners of the state, mobilizing many peasant movements and also assisting the down trodden to get their due share in the society. Post independence, the mergence of the states of Travancore, Cochin and parts of Malabar to form a unified state of Kerala, gave the state a new political structure. A structure, in which the Congress had to make way for a 11 member ministry, comprising of men, known for their most impeccable intellectualism and committed to the ideology of the hammer and the sickle. In the wake of the first communist ‘ballot box’ victory, a struggle against the regimented Hindu caste system, monarchial autocracies and exploitative landlordism began to take shape in the state. A simultaneous development in the literary sphere followed, with library and literacy movements, led largely by school teachers, gaining momentum. It is perhaps these series of reforms that has helped Kerala achieve success across varied sectors, primarily health, education and economy (Information once again sourced from my political science lectures in college!) The year 2011 marked the end of the communist regime. The red flag that fluttered for many years was buried by Kerala’s educated citizenry, half of which owes its riches and success to years of hard work in the Gulf.

Amidst the colorful flora of the Western Ghats, a dominant red always makes an appearance, either as flags on the highway, posters in the many tea shops, or in the form of little temples built in the memory of comrades who dedicated their life to the communist cause. In the narrow alleys of Kochi, the red displays a sense of confidence, a resurgence in the making. Are the Communist set to make a comeback this year? Will the citizens of Kerala, give this historic party another chance? Will the hammer and the sickle once again govern the state? I wish I had enough time to gauge the political mood in the state. However, my political observations, were more often than not replaced by the many distractions our road trip had to offer: tasting local cuisine, getting wooed by the, sometimes monotonous, tea estates and, of course, endless efforts to spot at least one elephant, if not a parade.

I will, for now, let the three boys in the dimly lit room discuss the return of the red brigade. While Che’s iconic portrait in the room and the communist symbol, makes for an interesting composition, hard for a photographer to resist, it is however, the architecture of the building that stands out, a glaring symbol of Kerala’s multi cultural history. Located in Fort Kochi, the building brings together European and indigenous forms of architecture. A similar blending of architectural forms is seen in the spice godowns, built along the waterfront. Now abandoned or converted into art galleries, restaurants or cafes, these many spice godowns are scattered across Fort Kochi and speak of the island as being a centre of economy and industry.

Getting off the boat jetty at Fort Kochi, one is  welcomed by a line of colonial style houses. As the name suggests, you would, quite naturally, expect a line of rampart walls merging into a façade. However, the sightings of a fort further dims, as you’re surrounded by an array of foreign tourist, locals, children’s park, a beach, and some Chinese fishing nets. But where is the Fort, I ask? My rather sketchy historical research (forgive me for my Wikipedia indulgences this time!) tells me that there was once a Fort Emmanuel built by the Portuguese, after their victory over the Raja of Kochi. It was later destroyed by the Dutch. As the walls of the fort were being pulled down by the Dutch, the Fort was to be remembered only in name. Being a domain of largely European powers, the Portuguese, the Dutch and then the British, Fort Kochi once bustled with Arab, Chinese and local traders, the intermingling of cultures imparting this water bound region a unique ethos, akin to many coastal towns and cities in India.

Not far from the Portuguese Catholic Church of St. Francis (Vasco Da Gama was once buried here) located in Fort Kochi, is the Jewish Colony of Mattancherry. The Jewish symbols of the Star of David, the Menorahs and the Mezuzahs, writings in Hebrew, make slight appearances in an area dominated by Kashmiri shopkeepers. After politely nodding away to the many Kashmiri shopkeepers, urging you to buy a Pashmina, the appearance of a synagogue brings order to my, by now, rather distorted historical imagination. A sense of semblance is restored as I think of the Jewish presence in India, their history stretching back to the time of King Solomon. Arriving as traders, the community flourished in this part of Kerala and were known as the Paradesi Jews. With only a few Paradesi Jews remaining now, the historian in me awakens and I wish to indulge in a detailed research of the community, in a dusty archive, far away from the online comforts offered by Wikipedia and the likes. However, once again I settle, instead, for some beer and snacks at the Sea Gull’s and an evening out with friends, now rounding off their ten day road trip.

As we recollect our good times spent in the hills and a houseboat, I am reminded of a time in Munnar where a hotel offered the view of a Mosque, built in close proximity to a Church and a Hindu temple. I am later told that it is this religious harmony that has made Kerala God’s own. However, this road trip came as a revelation of sorts. A revelation, which impels me to understand Kerala, beyond it’s recognition as being God’s own country. That varied religions co-exist in peace in a tiny strip of land, is indeed commendable. It is, however, the state’s political nature, its history and multi culturism that gives it a distinctive character.

Perhaps, another road trip is in the pipeline. One, which explores the rise of an alternative political ideology, traces the history of a fort that no longer exists, and hurriedly documents a diminishing community. Only this time, my co-travellers would be EMS Namboodripad’s Kerala: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, a notebook and a pen!

 

 

 

 

 

Why do we need Kanhaiya?

‘Complete your engineering first and then pursue your dreams’ is what I woke up to this morning as I religiously checked my whats app messages. Waking up to whats app, as opposed to a newspaper, has now become a norm in my house and the first question asked every morning is not , ‘why the milkman isn’t here?’ or ‘what will become of this country’ but, quite simply, ‘Kya wi-fi chal raha hai’? (Is the wi-fi on’?) Unfortunately, I have also succumbed to the, rather erratic, functioning of our wi-fi router.

Coming back to the message I read first thing in the morning, I was reminded of my times in school when I was asked to forgo my passion and love for history to make way for a degree either in ‘engineering’ or ‘finance’. I never understood Physics, looking at numbers gave me the creeps and maintained an arm’s length distance from the periodic table. As my classmates in school prepared themselves for the great American dream, I drowned in the works of Romila Thapar, Durga Das, Bipan Chandra and understood the shaping and evolution of my country’s history. Political ideologies followed next and analyzing Marx seemed more relevant than decoding US Immigration rules. My readings and writings, over the years, inspired me and I am now a happy researcher delving into the different eras of Indian history.

While I was being transformed from a student to a researcher, the world around me was changing. Malls mushroomed in the neighborhood and in the blinding light of capitalism were shadowed the principles of Nehruvian socialism. Not that I am a self proclaimed Communist or a Socialist, neither do I oppose globalization and its manifestations. Changing economic trends do require for us to open our markets and becoming a part of the global economy perhaps has benefitted us ( I am no economist to assess that either!) However, it is the rapidly developing superficial ‘capitalist’ culture that I question. In those swank malls, are coffee shops (which I also frequent many a times) where one finds the youth, discussing their next investment plans, rise in the corporate ladder, mind boggling pay packages. Congratulations to all of them on their achievements. In this rush to accommodate ourselves in a corporate milieu, is our sense of social, political and cultural awareness dwindling.

In the days when Starbucks was far far away, not just from our imaginations but also from our malls, lanes and bylanes, tea ‘addas’ or ‘coffee houses’ ruled the roost. My father recalls, coffee house, teashops as being spaces were the youth gathered to discuss political situations. Ideologies came to a clash over endless cups of tea and political and national consciousness prevailed amongst a larger section of the society, which included everyone from government servants to students, and lawyers to businessmen. Participation in debates and discourse was something that interested all and was not just the domain of a handful of academics, activists or scholars. Unfortunately, these tea addas and coffee house could not withstand the dizzying rise of liberalization, privatization and globalization. With their disappearance also withered away the culture of political idealism, which my grand parents and parents so fondly talked about.

It is this idealism that is now so easily forgotten. While our economic achievements are worth appreciating, it has also, sadly, given rise to political apathy. An apathy in which our youth fail to recognize our social ailments, are largely unaware of our political processes and to adhere to any form of ideology is now forgone. Politics and idealism may not be everyone’s cup of tea but in a country where discrimination along religious and caste lines continue, famers commit suicide, female feticide continues to rise, we can’t always hide behind the shiny curtains of a corporate life and culture.

That is why we need Kanhaiya. When he takes the mike we are reminded of the many drawbacks of our society. His speeches have brought about freshness in ideas and have compelled us to look beyond our everyday hackles and for once logically question the society we live in and the political structures that govern us. His arrest, followed by the student led protests have brought to the fore political idealism, which now restricted only to university boundaries, was losing its relevance in our society. It has made the youth, caught in a money making frenzy, aware of an alternate thought process. A ‘thought process’, which to some might seem like ‘university enthusiasm’, but instead has the potential to shake the corridors of power.

We also need Kanhaiya, for his village in Bihar and his family tell us the story of a life led without wi-fi and not dictated by whats app and numerous forms of social networking. We need Kanhaiya to remind those parents who force upon their children a management degree when they perhaps might want to write poetry, act, study literarture or perhaps like Kanhaiya make a mark in politics and public life.

In the wake of the JNU sedition case, a recent blog in the Huffington Post questions, ‘Why are so many Humanities students activists?’ It states “Humanities students in India mainly study history, political science, philosophy, economics, sociology, anthropology and literature. If you think about it, what they study is the way in which the world came to be what it is today, and how it works.” Yes, the time has come for us to understand how this world functions and perhaps promoting the studies of humanities over sciences and finance might change the perception of the youth. A youth well versed in the humanities and provided with ample job opportunities, for once may step out of the role of an activist and through their writings, participations in public life, debate, discourse, arguments, done on a much larger scale than now , will usher in a new form of development. A development that does not only give rise to a ‘corporate style-mall culture’ but penetrates deep into our society and brings about a balanced reforms both in the rural and urban areas.

Therefore, while some of us might not agree with Kanhaiya’s ‘student activism’ and the political mud slinging it has brought, we need him for a much needed paradigm shift.

INDIAN HISTORY: MYTH AND POLITICAL PROPAGANDA

INDIAN HISTORY: MYTH AND POLITICAL PROPAGANDA

 Mythology and History are counterposed. Myths need not go to earlier times but they in some cases carry forward earlier ideas. However, their fluid chronology, and the fact that they are generally not records of actual happenings, myths can be used only in a limited way and cannot be treated as a factual account. Yet the prizing out of the social assumptions implicit in a myth can be helpful to restructuring some kinds of history. The interpretation of myths, if handled with caution, can invoke some of the fantasies and subconscious beliefs of their authors, while the structure of the myth can hint at the connections and confrontations in a society of those sustaining the myths. Since history now reflects many voices, some from sources other than those from the courts of the rulers, mythology or the more popular traditions can no longer dismissed as unimportant.[1]

It is still a popular belief that Indians were an ahistorical people and kept no records of their history. The ancient Indians did keep records of their history. They kept records of those aspects which they felt were significant and worth preserving. It is true that most of these records do not deal with political events and activities. They are more in nature of genealogies, legends and monastic chronicles – all legitimate constituents of a historical tradition but not, unfortunately, very useful as a description of contemporary happening. Even the factual records of this period were written largely in the Brahmi script which could not be deciphered. Systematic record keeping began only after A.D. 500 when court chronicles and historical biographies of considerable authenticity were maintained by the Turkish and Mughal courts. Hence, the study of Ancient Indian history is largely riddled with myths.

The paper aims to highlight the popular myths in Indian history, particularly the ancient and medieval period. It will then go on to discuss how some of these myths have acquired political prominence and have been used as tools of propaganda in recent years.

  

MYTHS IN INDIAN HISTORY

The discovery of the Indian past was initiated under the auspices of the new rulers, the British. When the Europeans arrived in India and began to look for histories of India, they found ample evidence on the period after about A.D. 1000. The earlier centuries remained historically blurred. Research in the history of ancient India was initiated by Sir William Jones who was followed by James Mill. Europe in the first half of the nineteenth century was exploring different avenues of research. Linguistic studies, especially which of Sanskrit, helped develop the discipline of comparative philology in Europe, which in turn led not only to encourage the study the early languages of Asia but also to re-reading the early history of Eurasia. It was also during this period that the notion of racial superiority swept Europe. Traditional aristocracies upheld ones status in the society and also incorporated them in the new colonial hierarchy that was rapidly developing. Sanskrit and the ethnography of India were studied in the context of racial purity and superiority.[2] Hence, the origin of the Aryan ‘race’ became the primary subject for research. In his address to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal Sir William Jones stated that languages like Greek, Latin, Gothic, Celtic, Persian and Sanskrit have the same source of origin.[3] One the basis of this similitude of languages, he concluded that Europe was the original homeland of the Aryans. The argument was supported on the basis of physical similarities and the description of th the flora and fauna in the Vedic texts. Max Muller, a German scholar, who also reflected on race while studying Sanskrit. His study of the Vedic Sanskrit and philology brought him to his theories of the Aryan race. Max Muller maintained that the Aryans had originated in Central Asia, one branch migrating to Europe and another settling in Iran, with a segment of the Iranian branch subsequently moving to India. He dated the earliest composition of the latter, the Rig-Veda, to about 1200 BC. The Aryans, he maintained, had invaded in large numbers and subordinated the indigenous population of northern India in the second millennium B.C. They had introduced the Indo-Aryan language, the language of the conquerors who represented a superior civilization. The latter emerged as Vedic culture and become the foundation of Indian culture. Since a mechanism for racial segregation was required, this took the form of dividing society into socially self-contained and separate castes. Race was seen as a scientific explanation for caste and the four main castes or varnas were said to represent the major racial groups. Their racial identity was preserved by the strict prevention of intermarriage between them. Max Muller’s theory and the other theories propounded by European scholars gave rise to the ‘myth of racial superiority’ of a particular section of the Indian society and was later deeply embedded in the Indian psyche.

The Aryans who had colonized the whole of the Punjab were not likely to remain inactive on the banks of Satluj or the mythical river Saraswati. The tide of their conquests moved onwards and they crossed those rivers and explored the distant shores of the Jamuna and the Ganges. They settled across the Ganges and marched further eastwards to found new colonies and new Hindu kingdoms. Historically, this was the period of the sixteen Mahajanapadas or the sixteen political republics that were formed during the age of Buddha.[4] The texts which claim to reflect this period are the epics- Mahabharata and the Ramayana. They began as oral traditions and were more informally memorized and frequently added to, and were converted to their present textual form in the early first millennium AD.

The Mahabharata as it survives today is among the longest single poems. Traditionally its composition is ascribed to Ved Vyas. The main action revolves around what has become the famous contest between the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and is set in the fertile and strategic region around Delhi. The geography of the Mahabharat focused on the Ganges-Yamuna and adjoining areas and also is Saurastra in Gujarat, where the Yadvas, the clan to which Lord Krishna belonged, were based. Incidentally, these two were the more active cities after the decline of the Harappan cities. The Kauravas with their capital at Hastinapur, one of the 16 Mahajanapadas, were the hundred sons of Dhritrashtra, and the Pandavas the five sons of Pandu were their cousins. The Pandavas became heirs to the Kuru territories, since Dhristrashtra was blind and therefore not eligible to rule. But Pandu had a skin ailment that made succession of the Pandavas uncertain. Dhritrashtra, in the hope of avoiding a conflict between the cousins, divided the territory and gave half to the Pandavas, who ruled from Indraprastha, which is in the vicinity of Delhi. But this arrangement did not satisfy the Kauravas, who challenged the Pandavas to a gambling match. The later staked all their wealth and also their wife which they lost and spent the next few years in exile. The Kauravas were still unwilling to allow them to rule, so the matter had to be settled through a war. They battled for eighteen days on the plains at Kurukshetra, resulting in the annhilition of many clans, including most of the Kauravas. The Pandavas after ruling peacefully, renounced leadership, installed a grandson and went to the City of Gods in the Himalaya. Intervening frequently in the narrative, as a close friend and adviser of the Pandavas, was the Yadava chief, Krishna.

Krishna renounced war in Mathura for the greater good of the people living in the region and founded the city of Dwarka in Gujarat. Krishna’s Dwarka finds a mention in the Mahabharata, and it is said that this Dwarka was located near the site of the current city of Dwarka, but was eventually deserted and submerged into the sea. Whether the original city of Dwarka actually existed is a subject of debate and is also included in the many myths of Indian history.

The other mythical epic, the Ramayana, is much shorter than the Mahabharata despite later additions. The scene is set further east into the middle Ganges Plain and the Vindhyan forest. The original version of the Ramayana is generally dated to the mid-first millennium BC. The original version is attributed to the poet Valmiki who merged bardic fragments and poetic traditions to create this hallmark of early Sankrit literature. The story revolves around the legendary Price Rama, the heir of the King of Kosala, who married Sita, the princess of Videha. Rama’s stepmother wanted her son to succeed to the throne and successfully contrived to have Rama banished for fourteen years. Accompanied by his wife and his younger brother Lakshman, the exile took them to the forests of the Peninsula where they lived as forest dwellers. But Ravana, the demon King of Lanka- kidnapped Sita. Rama organized an army, taking the assistance of Hanuman, the leader of the monkeys. They built a bridge across the ocean and reached the shores of Lanka. A fierce battle was fought against Ravana, in which Ravana and his army were destroyed and Sita was rescued. The fourteen years of exile ended and they returned to the Kingdom of Kosala.

Despite being mythical documents, the two epics have come under the scanner of many historians and have been subjected to many historical interpretations. The Mahabharata and Ramayana have at times been declared as myths. Dr. D.C. Sircar, an eminent Epigraphist and a former chief Epigraphist to the Government of India, declared that the Mahabharata was a myth, devoid of little historical facts.[5] The epics are each concerned with events that are difficult to date since many passages were added at a time later than the original composition. The versions we have today are generally placed in a chronological bracket between the mid-first millennium BC to the mid-first millennium AD. Therefore, they can hardly be regarded as authentic sources for the study of a narrowly defined period. Incidents from the epics can have some historical authenticity provided they are supported by some archeological evidence that can be found to bear them out. An example of this case is the flood at Hastinapur, which has found a mention in the epic and is also corroborated with archeological evidence. This particular evidence has been used to date the war to 900 BC. But such co-relations have so far proved futile. Poetic fantasy and epic poetry is undoubtedly fascinating but cannot be an ally of historical authenticity.

However, the epics help in the greater understanding of the society at large. Mahabharata speaks volumes about clan based societies which had become very common during the period from 1200 BC- 600BC. It also refers to the complexities of administering kingdoms. Originally, the Mahabharata may have been the description of a more localized feud, but it caught the imagination of bards who described the events in the form of a fantasy. The conflict between Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana also reflects an exaggerated version of local conflicts, occurring between expanding kingdoms of the Ganges plain and the less sedentary societies of the Vindhyan range. Both these battles in the two epics symbolize the end of small clan based societies and chiefdoms and the establishment of much larger Kingdoms that were formed in the subsequent centuries.

The emergence of the great Mauryan Empire marked a shift from the 16 republics. Founded by Chandragupta Maurya, it become the largest empires during this period (321 BC-185 BC). Perhaps, the greatest myth surrounding the Mauryan empire is the mysterious accession of its emperor Asoka to the throne. It is believed that when his father and the incumbent, Bindusara became gravely ill, Ashoka succeeded him, although one hundred of his other brothers were mysteriously murdered. Many historians believe Ashoka had his own brothers eliminated so that he could succeed his father.[6]

Asoka’s reign as emperor began with a series of wars and bloodshed, culminating in the Kalinga War. The mammoth loss of life and suffering witnessed on the battlefield made him turn away from war. He subsequently became deeply influenced by Buddhism, and adopted the righteous path. Historically yet to be proven, the myth surrounding Asoka’s accession to the throne and his redemption after embracing Buddhism is largely circulated in today’s time. It is done to re-affirm the fact that it was infact the influence of Buddhism that stirred Asoka’s inner soul and turned him into a man of benevolence and virtue. People today are asked to emulate the same. Myths in such cases are developed to highlight the contrast between the good and the bad.

In the Islamic era, it was the desecration of temples initiated by Emperor Babur that has become a controversial myth. Akbar’s wife, Jodha bai, continues to be a myth. In recent times, the issue came to the fore with the release of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Jodha Akbar.[7] A lot of popular history regarding Akbar, Jodha Bai and Salim seems to have been derived from the movie Mughal-e-Azam. However, there is no conclusive historical record. The love story of Anarkali and Salim which was encapsulated in the magnum opus Mughal-e-Azam is one of the greatest myths of medieval history. Anarkali is the quasi-mythical character of a slave girl in love with the Mughal Prince Salim, later to be known as Emperor Jahangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this liaison and had the girl walled up at the Mughal court in Lahore. Shattered in love, the prince later built a mausoleum in her memory sixteen years after her death. The monument is still standing at Lahore and is famous as Anarkali herself but historians are not contended that the monument in fact belongs to Anarkali.

MYTH AND POLITCAL PROPAGANDA

The image of the past is the historian’s contribution to the future. However, this image can be used by his contemporaries for political mythmaking. Such political projections of society seek intellectual justification from the theories of historians and other social scientist.[8] To mention, some rather obvious examples – the myth of the racial superiority of the Aryans came in very useful to Hitler and the formation of Fascism and Nazism.

The reaction in India to the myth surrounding the invasion of the Aryans was wide-ranging even among those who were not historians. It came to be used in the political confrontations of different groups. Since the early half of the twentieth century, this view gradually shifted from supporting the theory of the Aryan invasion to denying such an event. The theory largely supported by Veer Savarkar and other votaries of Hindu spirituality concluded that the Aryans in fact were the original inhabitants of the land and had not arrived from a foreign region. It was later claimed that only the Hindus, the believers in Vedic culture, were the lineal descendants of the Aryans. They were therefore the true inheritors of land, the aliens in turn were the Muslims and the Christians whose religion had originated in west Asia. This viewpoint was driven more by compassion than any empirical evidence. Over the years it led to the emergence of the hard-line Hindutva ideology which was to play an integral role in the division of the country in 1947 and also the assassination of Gandhi.[9]

In the later half of the twentieth century, the use of myths became integral to the politics of the Sangh Parivar, a chief representative of the Hindutva ideology. The first issue to come to the core was the reality behind the epic Ramayana and Lord Ram. Oral versions of the Ramayana have circulated for centuries. It has been told, retold, translated and trans-created throughout the country and it continues to be performed in dance, drama, puppet shows, songs and movies all across Asia. From childhood most Indians learn the characters and incidents of these epics and they furnish the ideals and wisdom of common life. The epic binds together the many peoples of India, transcending caste, distance and language. However, ever since Ayodhya became a disputed territory, Ram and instances from the Ramayana have become at the centre stage of the political mobilization. Beginning with the movement for the construction of the temple at Ayodhya, the Sangh Parivar engaged in providing authenticity to various myths surrounding the life of Rama. The central issue of the Ayodhya movement was the identification of the exact birthplace of Rama, which was difficult to ascertain owing to the lack of evidence. Local tradition identifies Ayodhya through a popular myth, which runs as follows: After Treta Yuga when Ram was supposed to have been born Ayodhya could not be located. While Vikramaditya was looking for Ayodhya, a saint told him to leave a calf loose and the place at which the calf secreted milk would be the place where Ayodhya was located. Vikramaditya did as he was told, and where the calf secreted milk he located Ayodhya. This mythical story became the basis for the identification of Ayodhya as well as the birthplace of Rama.

In the accounts given by leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the place of birth became an indisputable fact of history. Following this identification, the VHP accorded historical status to a series of myths. These include the existence of the Ram temple at the site of the Babri Masjid and the attempts by Hindus to reclaim the temple through several battles against the Muslims in which many sacrificed their lives. It later led to the demolition of the Babri masjid at this very sight in December 1992.

Soon after Ayodhya, the issue of Ram Sethu emerged as yet another issue when myth was intertwined with politics. It was the mega marine Sethusamudram Ship Channel Project (SSCP) launched by the Government of India that brought the Ram Setu controversy to the core. The project envisaged the dredging of the shallow ocean region in the south-eastern Bay of Bengal to create an artificial channel-like passage for ships across the island formations called Adam’s Bridge or Ram Sethu.

The bridge, or sethu, is a discontinuous chain of sandbars dotting a 30-km stretch in the east-west direction between the southern tip of the Rameswaram island in India and Talaimannar in northwestern Sri Lanka, creating a geographical divide between the Palk Bay and the Gulf of Mannar, which form part of the southern Cauvery basin. Scientifically, the Rama Sethu is shown to be a pre human structure, called ‘tombol’, a sand deposition due to natural process. The Geological Survey of India ruled out its being manmade. The inference from NASA satellite pictures is that it is due to sedimentation of clay and lime stone. It is tombol in NASA language, connecting one land with another, and that it is from times when human habitation is doubtful. However, the scientific explanations and its economic viability were questioned when different political agitations supported by the various Hindu organizations or the Sangh Parivar criticized the project. According to myth and popular belief, the Ram Sethu was derived from the epic Ramayana wherein Ram built this bridge with the help of his allies, the monkey army, to reach Lanka and rescue his abducted wife Sita, thus giving rise to the belief among Hindus that the island chain is was made by an army of monkeys. 

CONCLUSION

Mythological bridges driven by political goals and emotions have been constructed in recent years. Myths have now become authentic histories and not only are they paraded as historical facts but they have found place in textbooks as authentic history.[10] Over a period of time, many of these facts could become part of popular history also.

Myth represents reality but symbolically and metaphorically. Yet they tend to mask reality. Therefore, myths are illusory representations of man and his world. Given their illusory nature, myths may not help to unravel the historicity of an event but are an important means to understand reality.[11] Given this overlap, myths are often used or misused for a variety of purposes. So far they have been used to understand natural phenomenon, the origin of certain races, and the understanding of the growth of certain societies. Unfortunately over the years, they have also become tools of political propaganda.

Myths go beyond facts and empirical evidence. In the process, they guide us in analyzing the society from a different perspective. Hence, their importance as sources of history cannot be ruled out. However, at a time when attempts are being made to use myths for political advantage, it is imperative to impart a secular and unbiased character to them so that dispassionate research can be encouraged.

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References:

[1] Romila Thapar, Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin, New Delhi, 2002, p. xxii.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] L.P. Sharma, History of Ancient India, Konark Publishers, New Delhi, 1987, p. 15.

[4] G.P. Singh, Republics, Kingdoms, Towns and Cities in Ancient India, D.K. Print World, New Delhi, 2003, p. 93.

[5] S.P. Gupta and K.S. Ramachandra (eds.), Mahabharata: Myth or Reality, Agam Prakashan, Delhi, 1976, p. 7.

[6] Romila Thapar, Early India, pp. 176-178.

[7] Omair Ahmed, ‘Once upon a Fable’, in Outlook, Vol.48, No. 7, 18th February 2008, pp. 77-78.

[8] Romila Thapar, Past and Prejudice, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1994, p.2.

[9] Ibid., p. 14

[10] Ibid.

[11] K.N. Panikkar, Myth, History, Politics, 28th September 2007, Countercurrents.org