Book Extract: The Making, Unmaking and Remaking of India

At a time when so much state energy is being expended onrewriting Indian history, a new volume sets the record straight

The remains of Nalanda Mahavihara in present-day Bihar (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The remains of Nalanda Mahavihara in present-day Bihar (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

G.N. Devy

The Asiatic Society was founded on 15 January 1784 to study the history, religion, languages, culture, society, flora and fauna of what was known at the time as the Orient. Later, similar institutions were founded in London (such as the Royal Asiatic Society), in India (the Asiatic Society of Bombay) and outside India in West Asia.

Scholars engaged in the work proposed by the Asiatic Society produced a body of studies and translations that became the foundational texts for nineteenth-century interpretations of Asiatic civilisations.

Inspired by it, several colonial scholars took interest in archaeology and history and brought to light various archaeological and cultural deposits, paving the way for the modern world to explore the ancient civilisations of Asia. Though immensely useful to us even today, the vast intellectual enterprise of those scholars is now described pejoratively as ‘Orientalism’, an intellectual quest guided by the colonial interests of European countries.

Scholars from Asian countries turned to these areas of inquiry during the nineteenth century and advanced the work of the Orientalists by bringing their knowledge of local languages to aid. From the second half of the nineteenth century, some illustrious institutions of Indology or Oriental studies were set up in India and neighbouring countries.

In India, the Baroda Institute for Oriental Studies, Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, Deccan College in Pune and the L.D. Institute of Indology in Ahmedabad contributed to furthering knowledge of ancient texts.

Dharmanand Kosambi (1876-1947) revived the study of Pali and as a result institutes for the study of Pali and Prakrit were set up in West Bengal, Rajasthan and Karnataka. Departments of Pali, Prakrit and Ardhamagadhi were considered essential parts of the university framework until the Second National Science Policy, which prioritised engineering as the main focus of education. 

Dravidian studies emerged with the Dravidian Language Family hypothesis proposed in 1816 by F.W. Ellis (1777-1819). [Other] illustrious European scholars contributed to this branch of Asian Studies during the twentieth century.

There is a long line of Indian scholars who stepped in and further developed the field. […] Suniti Kumar Chatterjee (1890-1977), Iravati Karve (1905-1970), H.D. Sankalia (1908-1989), Harivallabh Bhayani (1917-2000), Bh. Krishnamoorthy (1928-2012) and Iravatham Mahadevan (1930-2018) were the most illustrious among those who did their work in the second half of the twentieth century. The last mentioned, Mahadevan (d. 2018) established the links between the Dravidian-Brahmi and Harappan scripts.

The situation of this vast field of study has changed since Independence. Though the Archaeological Survey of India (established in 1861) initially had a much larger geographical spread under its purview, it is now focused more on conservation of sites. Even this has proven to be beyond its capacity and resources.

Throughout the twentieth century, national boundaries of most of the Asian countries have changed, new nations that did not exist previously have come into being, and the pan-Asian civilisation narrative has remained unattended, except by some universities in Europe and North America.

Book Extract: The Making, Unmaking and Remaking of India

Because of the new national boundaries that emerged throughout the twentieth century, and the linguistic boundaries that emerged within India, the narrative of India’s past, its people and their culture has become segmental and unmindful of the larger and complete narrative.

The narrative of the past and the present of none of the Asian countries can be complete if constructed in isolation from the comprehensive picture. In the case of India, a knowledge of India cannot be complete unless it is seen in the context of India’s historical links with countries from Syria, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan in the west, with China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Mongolia in the north and with Indonesia, Thailand and Japan to the east—in other words, with all of Asia.

In the last few decades, genetics has contributed much to establishing the routes of prehistoric humans from Africa to Asia and beyond. Archaeology today has advanced to non-invasive methods to investigate geological ocean-bed traces of human activity. Moreover, information technology has made it possible to make all the studies and reports produced available to scholars anywhere in the world.

It has not been the aim of this book to establish the origins of things. The somewhat simplistic and childish question ‘exactly when was the first...?’ has long ceased to be at the heart of the enquiries related to the past. The aim is to bring together as many accounts of numerous beginnings as possible in a spread-out gestalt that the pasts of Indian regions, sub-nationalities and communities forms.

One hopes that the collection of short texts by so many eminent scholars presented here covers discontinuities as well as continuities in India’s long past, spread over 12,000 to 18,000 years. The exchanges and encounters between prehistoric civilisations in West Asia and India, the mutual transformative impact of India and the world known to India during the historic years, and the intimate give and take between modern world and India form a vast range of fascinating stories.

Add to these, the population shifts within India, cultural interactions among the countless communities, and the hundreds of languages of India. [What] is offered is an overview of some or many of these.

The texts are designed to provide, to the extent possible, a lucid picture of population movements, emergence of social and political organisations, development of philosophies, diversity of languages, major social movements, the impact of colonialism on ideas and culture, the freedom struggle, and independent India till 2000 CE.


This volume on India’s past is conceptualised to provide space to the histories of various regions, faiths and languages that constitute the ‘idea of India’ founded in immense diversity. […] An often-overlooked phenomenon in Indian historiography is that the timelines of change and transformation vary from region to region.

None of the so-called ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ or ‘modern’ periods begin simultaneously in all parts of India. When one state/ area/ eco-cultural zone is moving towards values and ideas that can be called ‘modern’, other areas in the subcontinent may be [living] in ‘another time’.

[The] amazing coexistence of epochs in cultural practices or social systems makes it impossible to straitjacket them into ‘periods’.

(Extracted from the introduction by G.N. Devy)

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines

Published: 10 Aug 2023, 8:25 AM