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History

Indians: A Brief History of a Civilisation and Why We Need to Know it

Taking on such charged and sensitive topics in this series also means that almost everyone will find something to dislike in it. Informed disagreement is of course fine and necessary for better scholarship.

The story of India is one of profound and continuous change. It has been shaped by the dynamic of migration, conflict, mixing, coexistence, and cooperation. In this ten-part web series, I’ll tell the story of Indians and our civilisation by exploring some of our greatest historical sites, most of which were lost to memory and were dug out by archaeologists. These sites include the Harappan city of Dholavira, Mauryan Pataliputra, the Ikshvaku capital at Nagarjunakonda, the Buddhist centre of learning at Nalanda, enigmatic Khajuraho, Vijayanagar at Hampi, Delhi of the Mughals, and historic Varanasi. I’ll also focus on ancient and medieval foreign travellers, such as Megasthenes, Xuanzang, Alberuni, Marco Polo, François Bernier and others, whose idiosyncratic accounts conceal surprising insights about us Indians.

 

Throughout the series, I’ll be surveying India’s long and exciting churn of cultural ideas, beliefs, and values—some that still shape us today, and others that have been lost forever. I won’t dwell much on boring dates, battles, and kings—the sort of stuff that turned you off history in school. Instead, I’ll explore the roots and the evolution of deeper cultural and social currents that have made us who we are, using carefully curated visuals to illustrate my story.

The series mostly mirrors – and often extends – the contents of my book, Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization (Penguin India, 2021). For both the book and the series, I’ve leaned on diverse academic scholarship as well as primary sources—from archaeologists’ site reports to travellers’ accounts to archaeogenetic research. My hope is to advance a fresh understanding of our past that’s rooted in sound scholarship, while illuminating some of the most consequential trends, transformations and fault lines of Indian civilisation. 

In doing so, I’ll also be discussing some of the most polarising topics of our history today. Questions like, who were the Harappans and what language did they speak? Did the Aryans really migrate into India, and why is that debate so hot today? What are the origins of varna and caste in India and how old is untouchability? How did Indo-Aryan culture gain a foothold in India and how did it spread? What caused the end of Nalanda and the demise of Buddhism in India? Why did the people of Khajuraho carve explicit erotica on temple walls, next to their gods—and why did this tradition disappear? What are the origins of Sati and other patriarchal practices in the subcontinent? How vibrant was India’s intellectual culture and science before the Turko-Persian invasions? Was the Vijayanagar Empire truly a self-conscious bastion of Hinduism bravely resisting the ‘onslaught of Islam’? What is the Mughal era’s record on mass conversions and temple desecrations? Is it true that India was a wealthy country before the British colonial period? And much else.

Taking on such charged and sensitive topics in this series also means that almost everyone will find something to dislike in it. Informed disagreement is of course fine and necessary for better scholarship. But I trust that viewers will assess my arguments in context, in light of all evidence, and avoid responding selectively and reductively. To focus narrowly on one argument, wilfully misread it, or make it stand for the whole, swayed by one’s own passionate beliefs, may gratify some. But it’s unlikely to promote a more nuanced public discussion about history, which is my aim with this series – and an urgent need in India today. In that spirit, I urge you to watch Indians. Bring an open mind to it, and see what you might discover!

Namit Arora is a Delhi-based writer and author of Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization (2021), and The Lottery of Birth: On Inherited Social Inequalities (2017).