ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Demystifying Indian Culture and Heritage

Bhairabi Prasad Sahu ( is with the Department of History, University of Delhi.


Indian Cultures as Heritage: Contemporary Pasts by Romila Thapar, New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2018; pp xl + 222, 599.


The book under review begins by focusing on the multifaceted dimensions of Indian culture through time, and urging for locating what we identify as heritage in their wider context with reference to the artisan, patron, the times that produced them, and conditions that allowed for their persistence. Usually, it is the dominant cultures across time and space that are seen as our cultural pasts, largely because their tangible imprints are easily identifiable in the material remains of past societies. However, it is suggested that this was a perspective derived from our colonial inheritance, and recent perspectives are far more inclusive of the multiplicity of cultures in our historical pasts. What is seen as the culture of the elites or “high culture” was not bounded but shaped in communication and interaction with popular culture all through. The production of objects of art provides a good instance of the meeting of the two cultures. Flowing from it, cultures of the Dasas, Avarnas, Mlecchas, Yavanas, Sakas and Turukshas need to be recognised and retrieved for a better appreciation of our vibrant pasts. Neither cultures nor civilisations were immutable islands and that imposes on us the requirement to perceive them in their interconnectedness.

Cultural Interactions

Ideas and institutions such as varna, jati, family, property, patriarchy and gender hierarchy were not given at any point in time; they evolved as a consequence of the conjunction of historical forces in varied locations and junctures. The spread of janapadas or settled agrarian localities and state-societies in pre-state areas—and these were continuous processes—expanded the ambit of cultures. Cultures like societies are not static but prone to change owing to internal developments and external linkages. They mutate deriving from conversations and communication with other cultures, occasionally even overlaps. All through the second millennium AD, cultures in North India and the Deccan, as elsewhere, benefited and enriched themselves as a result of the fusion of cultural traditions of the locals and the Arabs, Turks, Afghans, and Mughals. Dance forms, music gharanas and even architecture manifest the resultant exuberance. The period also witnessed the translation of Sanskrit texts into Persian at the Mughal court and the integration of local and provincial elites into the Mughal nobility. Admittedly, there were conflicts of interests between the local elites and the Turko–Afghan and Mughal ruling classes, but, as we are reminded, so were there confrontations earlier between the Brahmanas and Sramanas. Colonial expansion and the idea of race had much to do with the understanding of cultures of the colonised from the mid-19th century onwards.

In colonial constructions Indian society, including the village community, caste system and gender relations were projected as static, and the ruling indigenous aristocracy—the bulwark of the British Raj—and their cultures were seen as worthy of mention. That perhaps explains the slant towards the “high” or dominant cultures and the exclusion of the popular and multiple cultures.

The discussion then moves on to heritage, which is inextricably tied to culture. Early British efforts at understanding Indian society and history were influenced by their Brahmin collaborators and centred on Sanskrit and what they called Hinduism—an amalgam of deities and sects with various rituals, practices and texts, without precluding possibilities of the believer of one deity or sect having respect for other deities. Buddhism and Jainism were deemed to be a part of Hinduism despite their distinct ideas and institutions and Islam being a Semitic religion was not considered to be useful in perceiving Indian realities. Caste and religion in this perception then became the ingredients that constituted India. The reader is reminded that Indian borders have always been porous, and the sociopolitical and cultural linkages with Southeast Asia and Central and West Asia and their influences in the shaping of our heritage and cultures need to be factored in. The north-western frontier has experienced waves of migrations from the post-Mauryan times to the times of the sultanate and even after. The layers of cultural influences involving social practices, customs and traditions have been integrated and absorbed in the region over time. The Gandhara School of art bears testimony to the early fruitful interactions between cultures. As should be obvious by now, culture is not static and it is for us to appreciate and understand aspects of continuity and change through time. Viewing things through political lenses tends to distort and shrink the available possibilities.

An object or idea as heritage is an inheritance from the past. However, it needs to be located in its historical context to fully capture its significance, and not shorn out of context in constructing a cultural memory. In elaborating the argument the author makes fascinating use of the Ashokan inscriptions and associated issues, especially the Allahabad pillar inscription with its remarkable history over three millennia from the time of Ashoka to Jahangir, through Samudragupta. It leads to important questions such as who selects this heritage, for what reasons, and what we ultimately come to accept as heritage. Heritage is usually invoked to assert identity for various purposes. But then, we are told, that it raises the larger issue of the inclusion of a wide range of cultures, especially those that go beyond the elite, to justly claim to be representing Indian heritage.

Sense of Time and Science

Time was perceived and used differently by segments of society depending on their concerns and in that sense, it is said, it is a metaphor of history. Cultures in India were familiar with both cosmological and historical time. Unlike the colonial construction of cyclic time, and by implication imbuing the absence of a sense of history to India’s past cultures, in their conscious creation of the Other in the imperial climate of the 19th century, it is suggested that various forms of time reckoning were known in early India and they were familiar with both cyclic and linear time. Puranic literature, Caritas (biographies), Vamshavalis (paths of succession), regional chronicles and inscriptions used particular forms of time depending on their function and purpose. The layered representation of time is indicative of different segments of society viewing their pasts in dissimilar ways. One may add that on closer scrutiny within the cyclic view of time, certain linearity is also built-in. This is a fascinating chapter rich in interconnected histories through time.

Further, science as culture is located in society, and its spread is explained with reference to interactions, imitation and assimilation. The meeting of cultures in the past created the congenial atmosphere for major breakthroughs in sciences. Therefore, claims to who got their first are of little relevance. The Neolithic Revolution signalling the shift to agriculture and concomitant developments had its early origins in different parts of the globe, unlike the Industrial Revolution later. The latter through conscious control of knowledge owing to its association with power generated its own problems. In premodern times, there was a network of relationships between China, India and West Asia, which allowed for free flow of knowledge. The turn of the Christian era was marked by an expansion in medicinal knowledge in India. The shift from experience to experiment and analyses was remarkable. Buddhist monasteries played an important role in disseminating and contributing to the science largely because of their concern for the well-being of the monks. Paradoxically, however, the physicians’ association with diseased people cutting across jatis placed them in a low social category in Brahminical society. This was the period when India was open to West Asia and the Hellenistic world. Touching on the debate on how to characterise premodern sciences, Thapar concludes that because what is called proto-science actually happened to be the predecessor to science in the times of the Enlightenment; it would be in the fitness of things to call it science. Ideologically-driven scientists of recent years should take a leaf from the fact that the credibility of scientific knowledge lies “in ensuring that the rational is not converted into the irrational.”

Forms of Exclusion

In her treatment of women in early Indian cultures by juxtaposing the Brahminic and Shramanic traditions, the author successfully brings out the trends and possibilities in this area of study. Pointing to the limitations of the general expression status of women in early India, which was usually in circulation during the national movement, we are informed of the need and usefulness of studying women in their varied roles in society. The wife of the householder in Buddhist literature was substantially different from that of the dasi, who had to engage in doing the routine household chores. The wives of the peasants and artisans who shared in reinforcing family incomes would have been placed somewhat in between these categories. The distinction between the ganika or courtesan and the prostitute is again a pointer to the difference in their training, cultural accomplishments and consequently their status and earnings. While the Dharmashastras marginalised women and ensured their subservience to patriarchy, Buddhism and Jainism opened an alternate world for the nuns where they could engage in the pursuit of higher qualities with some degree of autonomy. Admittedly, within the samgha too she had to submit its rules framed by the monks. Differentiating between categories of women helps us to understand them in terms of their social locations. Interestingly, the courtesan and the nun did not find endorsement in the Brahminic literature, nor was “opting out” of society acceptable to them. However, the Bhakti movement and the rise of women saints such as Andal, Akka Mahadevi, Lallesvari and Mirabai questioned and undid the norms laid down by the Dharmashastras. These contestations are as much a part of our inheritance as the often cited normative Brahminical texts.

In denying women the upanayana, Brahminical society not only equated them with the Shudras but also “de-varnaised” them. This was a part of the series of hierarchies it created for itself. The Vedic Dasas, Mlecchas or those who were culturally different or inferior to the Aryas, the Yavanas or Hellenistic Greeks or those coming from the West, and the autochthons or Adivasis were the Other as envisaged by the ideologues of early Indian society. Among themselves the varna/jati order created its differences and divisions. However, the inclusion of several groups, including the dasi putra Brahmanas, into the fold of Brahmins and the ritual provisions laid down for the conferment of Kshatriya status on ruling elites suggest the inherent flexibility in the caste system in spite of its veneer of unchanging timelessness. Strikingly, such adjustments did not extend to all the communities. Exclusion of some kind or the other is practised in other societies too, but its manifestation in India with regard to the Chandalas is unprecedented. They had to live outside the settlement, receive leftover food and were ascribed with “genetic impurity.” Their pollution was emphasised to ensure the continuity of their essential services such as scavenging in urban settlements, carrying dead animals and maintaining the burial ground. Besides, their landlessness also was a source of assured labour during peak agricultural seasons for premodern agrarian societies. Even Christianity and Islam could not alter this extreme form of exclusion.

Spirit of Enquiry and Plurality

Knowledge is perceived as heritage that one generation leaves for the next. But then how is it to be cultivated and nurtured? Educational institutions need to focus on critical enquiry, and for it to happen students need to feel free to ask questions about the world they inhabit. Systematic questioning is tied to reading the basic works in the area, and it leads to better insights. This is an argument against having to learn out-of-date knowledge or learning by rote. There is also a plea for encouraging well-equipped libraries, new thinking, creating conditions for having knowledgeable teachers and bilingual education, which uses both the language of socialisation and the language of knowledge. The author is rightly critical of the use of one language, and the transmission of knowledge through translations, because they do not keep pace with the production of knowledge, and the thoughtless game of numbers in education. This is intertwined with an interesting short history of the changing forms of the language of knowledge, from Prakrit and Sanskrit to Persian followed by English.

The dreams, efforts and hard work that went into the making of Jawaharlal Nehru University into a world-class institution that nurtured and helped to imbibe some of the best practices, including, discussions, debates and new thinking have been beautifully woven into the thought-provoking essay. It is precisely because of its ideological antipathy to these ideas and values that the present regime is out to destroy this seat of higher learning along with some such institutions through the country. Universities are sites of nurturing the incorporative spirit of our cultural inheritances, and centres where multiple competing ideas should be allowed to bloom.

We are cautioned against the idea of the singularity of culture, usually linked to cultural nationalist claims of invented identity for political reasons. Nationalism is always inclusive of several cultures and all identities do not have to be subordinated to the national identity, or the identity of the majority. The idea is to make the reader aware of the many cultures in Indian society. Cultures are intertwined with history and are dynamic and vibrant. Migrations and interface of cultures and the consequent mutual borrowings and incorporations, we are told, need recognition. Interestingly, the legend in the Ghaznavid coins was bilingual in Arabic and Sanskrit, and the Ghurid coins carry Islamic titles and Shiva’s bull Nandi, while some of them carried the ruler’s name in Sanskrit. Furthermore, the Qutub Minar complex bears inscriptions suggesting its repair when necessary by Hindu craftsmen, as well as the attribution of the success of the renovation to their deity Vishvakarma. Significantly, it reinforces the larger point that the coming of the sultanate did not constitute a break in all important areas and practices, notwithstanding the usual shibboleths.

All those interested in the cultural and social history of premodern India and its bearing on contemporary times, as well as what ails India’s present education system, and why our young minds usually do not ask the necessary and relevant questions, leave alone find appropriate answers for them, will find this work by Thapar, as always, intellectually stimulating and extremely useful.


Updated On : 24th May, 2019


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