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An Entirely New History of India – Francois Gautier

by Venky

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This imaginatively titled book – originally penned in French as ‘Nouvelle Histoire de I’Inde’ – by the former South Asian correspondent for multiple reputed French-language dailies, Francois Gautier, is an interesting bricolage of studied socio-cultural and political events that have spanned the civilizational course of the world’s largest democracy, and which unfortunately have been mired in contradictions and counter claims. S. N. Balagangadhara, professor emeritus of the Ghent University in Belgium, and once director of the India Platform and the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cutuurwetenschap (Comparative Science of Cultures), in his absorbing book, ‘Reconceptualizing India Studies’, writes about the urgent need to move away from the perception of ancient India that has been bestowed with more than just a tinge of Eurocentrism. There is a palpably evident shifting of mindset currently prevailing across Asia (and just within India) for reclaiming and reinstating History to a pedestal of deserving accuracy. Gautier aims to make an honest beginning with his book.

Spanning the ancient and the contemporary, a majority of the issues and events addressed by Gautier in his book, are in themselves so seminal, that they warrant standalone books of their own. The book gets off to a rousing start with an introduction to the ‘protohistory’ of India followed by an addressal of the controversy surrounding the existence (or otherwise) of the river Sarasvati. Gautier takes recourse to publicly available archeological records and documented satellite images that have enabled a ‘reconstruction’ of the birth and decline of Sarasvati. According to the said records, the river is supposed to have originated in the Bundapaunch Massif (present day Garhwal), descended through Adibadri, Bhavinpur, and Balchapurand before draining into the plains. Interested readers can refer to the extraordinarily gripping and authoritative book on this subject, by Michael Danino, titled, ‘The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati’.

Yet another contentious topic finding space in Gautier’s book is the Chapter ‘The Myth of The Aryan Invasion’. This is one topic that has cleaved historical opinions and historians alike. Finding early encouragement with Sanskrit scholars such as H.H.Wilson during the late 1950s, the Aryan Invasion Theory took steam and gained momentum. This was notwithstanding the fact that earlier historians, archeologists and evolutionary biologists had cast more than mere aspersions and healthy degrees of skepticism about this postulation. Some early debunkers include figures such as British biologist Julian Huxley, and John Marshall, director of the Indian Archeological Service. The latter had in 1856 itself debunked this premise. But the embers connected with the topic continue burning unabated with acclamied anthropologists like Dr. D.N. Jha standing by the Aryan Invasion Theory. ‘Aryan Invasion: Myth or Fact – Uncovering the Evidence’ by Shiv Sastry, along with ‘The Myth of Aryan Invasion of India’ by David Frawley represent the latest installments to a category of books that take up this issue with great gusto!

Gautier also summarises the advancement India made in the Iron Age (Swords made out of Indian iron were procured by the Greeks and the Romans as evidenced by the observations of Pliny the Elder), and the philosophical and spiritual leaps taken by the country in nurturing and encouraging a macrocosm of multi-cultural faith (rulers in ancient India were unbiased and impartial patrons of variegated faiths till such time a marauding bunch of Mughals put paid to such amicability, with the exception of Akbar) that found expressive output in works such as the Vedas.

The book also covers regal empires and resplendent dynasties that ruled the length and breadth of India. The reigns of the Guptas, the Mauryas, the Cholas, and the Vijayanagar kingdom etc. ushered in an era of untold prosperity for India. An enviable maritime fleet and chartered routes ensured that there was a burgeoning volume of trade taking place between India and the rest of the world extending as far as Greece. In fact, the much-vaunted navy of the Cholas led to an untrammeled expansion of empire that stretched from the South of India to encompass Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and the Maldives! As Gautier informs his readers, in the 12th Century, when the Cholas were at the apogee of their powers, their naval fleet boasted an impressive array of 100 friends manned by greater than 10,000 sailors.

The book also traverses the path taken by India in its fight for Independence. Denoting an agglomeration of the violent (The Sepoy Mutiny etc.) and the peaceful (Quit India Movement etc.), the legacy left behind by a valiant mass of humanity who sacrificed their own lives as a result of which the tricolour now flies proudly over our heads is both endearing and enduring.

“An Entirely New History of India”, whets the appetite of the reader and induces a spontaneous urge to explore more and understand the glorious history of a nation seeped in culture and emblematic of hope.

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