She stares at us through the centuries with her right hand placed on her hip, her bronze face with her thick lips tilted up in a challenge. She emerged from the silt laden mud of the Indus Valley to take her place amongst the tumult of armies led by the kings and conquerors riding down the Khyber Pass, or jostled her way along with the merchants and monks who have travelled across the narrow mountain passes and plains of the Indian sub-continent to make their home. The little ‘Dancing Girl’ is just nine inches high and finely wrought in bronze. She is one of the iconic figures who stamps her invisible feet to draw the attention of the reader in this lavishly illustrated volume devoted to an archaeological discovery of India.
It’s in much the same way that Devika Cariapa has used a rich repertoire of images and anecdotes to tempt her audience to follow her into the rabbit hole of history. She digs through mud, stone and brick to bring alive the story of the people of India by the material remains of their cities and settlements. In one of the earliest chapters, Cariapa introduces us to an Englishman, a geologist named Robert Bruce Foote. As she tells us, it was while he was mucking around in a gravel pit near Chennai, at Pallavaram, that he made an important discovery, stone tools made by pre-historic inhabitants in the area. Further explorations made by Foote led him to a site named Attirampakkam, also close to Chennai.
As Cariapa writes, describing the stone tools that are now displayed at the City Museum: “And a chill will run down your spine as you realise you are looking at something that was held in the hand of someone who lived thousands and thousands of years ago, as she chopped firewood for her cave, or tried to skin an animal he had hunted.” Not only has she the ability to make the past throb into life with her own passion for the telling detail, by co-incidence the first scholar she has chosen to highlight, Foote, a geologist by training has just been celebrated in a documentary film made about him by Ramesh Yanthra entitled, The Father of Indian Pre-history.
Cariapa started off writing for children, but somewhere there was the passion of a student of archaeology. Combining these two strands, Radhika Menon who has been at the helm of Tulika Publishers, a Chennai-based publishing house that has until now devoted itself to producing bright and peppy volumes for the modern Indian child for the most part in English, but also in excellent translations of Indian languages, wanted to expand into a more serious genre. She had been thinking of a series that explored India through various themes – people, places, art, science and so on. When she met Cariapa, it seemed possible to think of a book on India through archaeology.
As she describes the brief she gave Cariapa: “What we have in mind is a large-ish format book that is very visual – with illustrations, photographs, maps, that kind of thing. We’d like the idea of cross-cultural influences to be a thread that connects the series and runs as a motif through the book – the underlying focus.”
Not being a specialist worked in Cariapa’s favour. She was also vividly assisted by the choice of an illustrator in Ashok Rajagopalan. His cartoon characters that pepper the text with cheeky figures of sola topi wearing archaeologists puzzling over layers of mud filled debris and wonderful maps that mirror the changing landscape of the Indian subcontinent. For instance the map showing the extent of the Mauryan empire is illustrated not with palaces and forts, but by the rich animal and forest wealth of the time.
Even more arresting is the map that details the amazing confluence of cultures, people and trade that is suggested by the lifeline called ‘The Silk Route’ both on land and across the ocean. There are also comic-strip like images taken from the examples of earlier artists like the cave painters at Bhimbetka in Madhya Pradesh, who are linked to their peers in faraway places such as the Lascaux caves in France, Altamira in Spain, the Aboriginal people of Australia, right up to our age and the artists of the Warlis, Gonds, Bhils and Rathawas. Rajagopalan ends the list with an image of a young girl busy texting her friends on her cell phone. The book is always aware that it needs to talk to its ideal reader, the ten-year-old millennial of today.
How did Cariapa and her editors – besides Menon, there is Deeya Nayar of Tulika– compress the enormous wealth of the region into a mere 160 pages? One explanation might be that they adapted a method taken from Indian examples of weaving a story in a circular fashion around a central character, or symbol. It’s often been said that the Indian mind is not content with a linear method of looking at events, but prefers a cyclic of dynamic way of looking at the recurrence of certain themes and ideas. Be that as it may, the editors provide a very clear timeline for the different ages using standard terminology to indicate different periods.
Taking the idea of standing stones, or megaliths, or menhirs, or hero stones for instance, Cariapa has a chapter entitled ‘The Cult of the Dead’. As she notes, this was the beginning of one of those dramatic shifts in mankind’s history. It co-incided with the start of the Iron Age that made it possible to hew large pieces of stone. It implied more permanent settlements that may also have meant the marking of territorial boundaries. The idea of tracking time is also suggested. There are some wonderful images of such stone alignments taken from different parts of the country. These are linked to other cultures around the world that have used menhirs from Stonehenge, UK, to Carnac in France and the extraordinary Moai giant heads staring at the Pacific Ocean on Easter Island, Chile. There’s even a small cartoon celebrating a famous menhir maker of our times – Obelix from the Asterix series.
Cariapa then circles back to the edicts of Ashoka and all the pieces of what she describes as a puzzle that finally allowed scholars to create a picture of Ashoka the great. The extraordinary impact of his change of heart after the conquest of Kalinga and the promulgation of his famous edicts and its unraveling form an important part of the puzzle. From Ashoka to Kanishka the trail takes the reader on a trek to Peshawar where the warrior king – who was also an ardent Buddhist – built what Cariapa describes as a “great stupa” which are based on the accounts of the famous Chinese travellers here called Xuanzang and Faxian. In just one page, the visuals and text talk of the syncretism of artistic styles and thought that appeared under Kanishka’s rule. Or as Cariapa writes – “Two different schools of art came up-one centered in Mathura, and one in northwestern India, known as the Gandhara school of art…the Gandhara area was a meeting point for artists and craftsmen from all over Central Asia, Bactria and India. Greece was part of the Roman empire those days, and Kanishka personally invited many Graeco-Roman artists to come and work in his kingdom. These artists brought their own style of working to Indian themes.”
It’s not that there is anything new in what Cariapa or the book tells us. Nor does she engage in those controversies that delight scholars, for instance was there ever a Harappan horse pulling a proper wheeled chariot, or merely, the asses that still roam the Rann of Kutch? Nor does she engage with the fabulous accounts that make our legends and epics such an open-ended treasure trove for those inclined to project a dismal sectarian view of the past that is fearful of change and diversity. Instead she talks of Hampi as seen through the eyes of its Portuguese visitors; of Muziris described by the Greeks and which may now re-surface as Pattanam, in Kerala, near Kodungallur. She describes the pepper that may have been exported from Muziris to be used in the embalming of the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt as far back as 1213 BCE. In the final chapter built around the Purana Qila at Delhi she creates a kaleidoscope of all the rulers and their dynasties that have risen behind its walls.
It once again reminds us that no matter what the assaults of narrow minds, and even shallower dogmas, the lessons of the past are an invitation and reminder that every generation creates its own myths.
Geeta Doctor is a journalist and writer.
This article has been edited as the previous version erroneously stated that Nayanjot Lahiri was one of the editors of the book.