In my first article of this series I have mentioned about the tradition of Boita Bandana and Bali Jatra that commemorate the glorious maritime adventures of Odias in South East Asia. The businessmen who engaged in such maritime trade were known as sadhabas. There is a popular folk tale in Odisha about one of sadhaba families. This family had seven brothers and one sister whose name was Ta-a-poi. While the seven brothers are away on a trade voyage to Bali, this innocent daughter is tortured by the wives of of the seven brothers. Sounds familiar? You are not alone.
Apart from the above unbroken customs and the folk tale, the coins of Srilanka and other regions that have been excavated in some places in Odisha indicate to a rich marine history of Odisha. However, there are more questions than answers with regard to this chapter in Odia History. How did they build their boats? What did they trade in? Were these the people who carried Hinduism and Buddhism to these countries of South East Asia? There is no way to make a detailed reconstruction of events of those days.
The Hindu history of south east Asia was almost forgotten until the chance discovery of the forgotten temple of Angkor Wat. Not only at Angkor Wat, but in man places in Cambodia, original Hindu temples seem to have slowly given way to Buddhist Shrines. Apart from the island of Bali where there is a Hindu majority, it is Buddhism, Islam or to some extent Christianity which is followed by the majority of the population of different areas.
Based on the imprints of Hinduism found in these regions scholars have come up with many theories, all of which are still speculative. Detailed historical records are either not available or are not being made available to know in detail about the spread of Indian culture in these regions.
Even in case of ancient Indian history, different estimates are given by different scholars as to the period of composition of the vedas and Indian epics. Now a group of scholars in the west would like us to believe that Sanskrit originated in Europe. Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Homo Sapiens’ writes that there is a group of scholars who claim that yoga was invented by the Jews. The Indian yogis too are not of much help. Many so called self styled super yoga gurus attribute its origin to some mythical characters in our epics in stead of making any serious scientific study to know its history.
So at a time when we are able to find out the exact age of the sun and the earth, in stead of getting more facts on various periods and aspects of Indian History, things are becoming more speculative and controversial. What could be the reasons for such missing links in Indian History that evoke either wild speculation from vested interests or deafening silence from the seekers of truth. Maybe, once we know the reasons we may find some remedy or make efforts in the right direction to find the unbroken authentic history of India.
The Hindu concept of history
It is the western scholars who termed Ramayana and Mahabharata as mythologies. For the Hindus, the epics are purana and itihiasa. Hindu spiritual leaders still insist that these epics contain are our real history. In fact their thoughts are in line with the ancient Rishis who were more interested in setting examples and creating philosophies for the well being of the future generations than in describing in great details the actual historical events as Herodotus did. According to some scholars it is not important to know Rama’s exact date of birth or the exact date wise events of Krishna’s life. In any case there are more than a hundred versions of Ramayana. What is important is the lessons they teach and the mystic messages they carry.
In Hindu India of 500/600 BC, Jainism and Buddhism were the rebel religions. But they were not different from Hindus in myth making and in their attitude to history. To a Buddhist all the events in Jataka tales are as real as the events in Ramayana to a Hindu.
This is one of the reasons why none of the sadhavas ever bothered to pen down and publish their maritime adventures for the sake of posterity. Let us not forget that an important source of Indian History is the travel accounts of foreign travellers who visited India on various periods of History.
Hindu kings did not appoint court historians
Hindu kings did have court poets. There were also non court poets whose works are the only sources of some periods of Indian History. But they were nothing like the record keepers in a Moghul court.
I hate shopping, including its vicarious cousin – the window shopping, except when I am in a library or a book store. That is how the other day in a library I came across a rare book titled: Beyond the Three Seas- Travellers’ tales of Mughal India. The book is a compilation of articles extracted from various accounts of visits to India during the Mughal period.
The fourth traveller to be featured in this book is William Hawkins. Unlike other authors of this collection, his accounts are extracted from the reports he sent to his employer – the East India Company that had entrusted him to negotiate with Jahangir for trade concessions and permissions to establish a permanent base for its merchants. Emperor Jahangir bestows him with an enviable official position. This enables him to observe the court life very closely. An interesting thing mentioned by Hawkins is that everything done by Jahangir was recorded by official writers. The following is a verbatim extract from his report:
“… and whatever he doth, either without or within, drunken or sober he hath writers who by turns set downe everything in writing whatever he doth, so that there is nothing passeth in his lifetime which is not noted, no, not so much as his going to the necessary, and how often he lieth with his women, and with whom …”
Of course being official writers some of heir accounts could be highly exaggerated. Still, such records are very important primary sources of History. Such official records are the reason we have a plethora of literature concerning the Moghul period of Indian History. Another reason is that the frequency of travel to India increased after Vasco Da Gama discovered the sea route in 1498. Thus we have more travel accounts of India post this period than the period prior to the sixteenth century.
Subsequently India came under British rule. The British are notorious for their meticulous record keeping.
Bias of the kings and the historians
British educationist Sir Ken Robinson jokingly often says, “In England we don’t teach American history. We suppress it.” Distortion or partial suppression of history is something that all nations indulge in. The history text books of Pakistan tell a different story than those of India. In spite of being meticulous record keepers, in their text books the British portray their rule of India as a god given gift clearly omitting the period of famine and other atrocities.
But the matter does not end there. Quite often the contents of History text books undergo change with the change in governments. So, know that what ever you read as history in your text books is only a partial and partisan version of History. Thankfully, unless you are in China or North Korea, these days all sorts of information is available at finger tips. It would always be good to know the contrarian view. But how many have got the time and the inclinations to cross check.
These days we come across frequent allegations against those who dominate the history scene in India, namely Romila Thapar, Ramachandra Guha, Irfan Habib and their ilk. It is alleged that these historians being from the left back ground (thus being of anti-Hindu leanings) represented history in such a manner as to glorify the Mughal emperors and other cruel rulers like Tipu Sultan. At the same time they undermined the conquests of Hindu rulers like Shivaji or the Chola kings. There are also allegations that we are not taught much about what happened in India before the Mughal era. Almost ninety percent of what we read as Indian History pertains to the Mughal era and the British empire.
Without dragging myself into the above debate one factor I would like to highlight is that when it comes to the period prior to the Mughal empire there is utter lack of written records or any other reliable sources as I have already mentioned. Maybe some records are available for the overall history of India. But when it comes to regional histories there are many missing links.
Much of the Odisha history is based on Madala Panji – a system of record keeping followed in Jagannath Temple since 12th century AD. The history of Odisha before this period is vague and there are huge gaps in the chronology of events. Similar chronological gaps are found in other regional histories.
The so called prominent Indian Historians whose books dominate our libraries and bookstalls have done nothing in terms of original research. Western authors are the source material of their books.
It is only when more Indians with scientific spirit take to historical research that we will be able to establish, without any bias or controversy, the missing links of the history of greater Hindustan. By the way, greater Hindustan is a cultural concept covering the areas shown in orange and yellow on the map at the top.
“Those who fail to learn from History are condemned to repeat it”, said Winston Churchil. I wonder what he would say to those who fail to know their history?
PS : This is the eighth post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.
All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.