Historiography

Book Review: ‘The Making of Regions in Indian History’ reconstructs the evolution of premodern Odisha

Print edition : May 07, 2021

“The Making of Regions in Indian History: Society, State and Identity in Premodern Odisha” by Bhairabi Prasad Sahu (Primus Books, 2020)

Lingaraja temple in Bhubaneshwar which dates to the 12th century. Sahu’s book discusses the evolution of temple architecture in medieval Odisha, as also the epigraphy and iconography in temples such as Lingaraja in their particular political contexts. Photo: Benoy K. Behl

A remarkable collection of 13 essays, written over three decades in the best traditions of Indian historiography, on the making of Odisha as a region.

One of the characteristic features of the historiography of pre-colonial India that developed from the 1970s onwards is the remarkable shift in geographical focus from nation to region. This is not to argue that the production of regional histories was unknown in earlier times. Even a passing familiarity with history-writing in India since the late 19th century will tell us that the rank of historians who explored regional histories in earlier times make up the who’s who of the discipline.

Ever since the idea of linguistically organised provinces began to take shape in the last quarter of the 19th century, the production of regional histories has been pursued with care and passion. The shift of the 1970s was of a different order, though. It was conscious of the historically contingent character of the region itself. Unlike the earlier accounts where regions figured as an already existing territory, the new histories studied historical processes of the region in the light, inter alia, of the evolution of the region. As Professor Bhairabi Prasad Sahu, a prominent representative of the new historiography, puts it, these were not regional histories, but histories of the region. Heralding the shift, so to speak, was the German Orissa Research Project of the 1970s, resulting in The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa, a 1978 volume of essays edited by Anncharlott Eschmann, Hermann Kulke and Gaya Charan Tripathi.

Sahu’s new work, The Making of Regions in Indian History, is an intellectual inheritor of this shift. It is a collection of 13 essays written over a period of three decades. Organised into three thematic sections, its focus, as in Sahu’s previous works, is on Odisha. In his earlier interventions, Sahu had advanced the thesis—the larger dimensions of which the historian Kunal Chakrabarti had traced in his 2001 book, Religious Process—that regions evolve as products of the historical interface between autochthonous traditions and brahmanical ideology. His explorations were directed towards locating the contours of this interface for the period that historians now call the “early medieval” (i.e. 600-1200 CE). While this line of thinking informs the present work in most parts, Sahu has now made earnest beginnings to expand the temporal scope of the region-making process to the 15th century. He has also set out to complicate the picture by taking into consideration aspects such as language (in relation to vernacularisation) and architecture (in relation to agamic temples). The impressionistic picture thereof notwithstanding, it persuades us to look beyond the autochthon-brahmana interface without losing sight of the interface itself. This makes Sahu’s treatment of the question definitive in certain ways, captured in effect in the concluding observation of his introduction that “all identities are constructed, but they are not necessarily always arbitrary” (page 21). In the last chapter of the book, Sahu presents a brief account of the making of this historiography in the context of Odisha, which is a helpful companion for researchers. One must admit, however, that a narrative bibliography should have served the purpose better, more so because the book does not carry a bibliography.

Framing the investigation here is a schematic overview of how the areas that eventually came to constitute Odisha grew in complexity from the earliest state of food production in the late Neolithic period (Chapter 2). Sahu gives us a telescoped account of a series of successive developments: urbanisation in the third century BCE, the appearance of the state in the first century BCE, agrarian expansion and the appearance of private property in land after the fourth century, followed by the rise of the region. The period between the fourth and the seventh centuries CE “appears to be seminal in many ways.” It is in this phase that “the spread of agriculture and the peasantisation of the autochthons seems (sic) to have taken great strides” (page 29).

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Sahu argues that between the Mauryan period and 300 CE, Odisha was only transitioning to the early historical period “where the contours of development were not fully established” (page 58). Long-distance and intra-regional trade provided a measure of dynamism, but coined money did not circulate in considerable measures before the early centuries CE. Inscriptional evidence does not point to the existence of local traders either (page 74), which marks off Odisha from the Deccan, where these features of the economy were relatively advanced.

Dynastic records produced between the fourth and the seventh centuries present us with a different picture. Inscriptions from Kalinga (southern Odisha and northern Andhra), which are mostly copper-plate charters of land grants, begin to mention “rural settlements, boundary markers, including natural boundaries, revenue terms, administrative units and officials” (page 91), a picture that the surviving records from Dakshina Kosala (western Odisha and Chhattisgarh) also confirm (page 94). Coterminous and causally related to this new feature was the rise of several janapadas (localities) that made the process “segmented, spaced out and gradual, depending on how historical forces converged or did not converge”.

The new milieu that arose was dotted by abundant peasant settlements marked by variations and many levels of uneven development. We now hear of a bewildering variety of functionaries in the service of the state—srisamanta, mahasamanta, maharaja, rajanaka, rajaputra, antaranga, dandanayaka, vishayapati, tadayuktaka and vyavahari, in addition to chata, bhata and vallabha. Also in the service of the state are scribes, identified variously as kayastha, lekhaka and pustakapala. Inscriptions also inform us of the existence of physicians, poets, masons, braziers, record keepers, goldsmiths, traders, garland makers, herdsmen, milkmen, engravers, astrologers, oilmen, betel-leaf sellers, jaggery makers and conch-shell bangle makers, who are all conspicuously missing in records before the fourth century CE. Commercial towns with active merchant and artisan participation is now a common feature of the region, and brisk trade is noticed in the hatta (marketplace) of which there were a certain number. The diversities that characterised this process also informed the diverse ways in which the state and its rituals and legends unfolded, a fact that comes to light with admirable clarity in Sahu’s comparison of political life in Kalinga, Dakshina Kosala and Khijjingakotta (Chapter 8).

The region was not the immediate product of these developments, as what arose from them were “historical subregions” represented as mandala, desha or rashtra. Sahu identifies the region as a product of “the gradual coming together” of several of these subregions (page 161). Within the region, Shakta and Shaiva temples spread into the subregions. Buddhism began to spread widely with major monastic complexes coming up in places such as Ratnagiri, Lalitagiri and Udayagiri. There arose a two-tier varna structure of brahmanas and non-brahmanas, with the kshatriyas and vaishyas failing to congeal into distinct varnas. The autochthons, on the other hand, came to be incorporated as so many castes without their internal organisation, including customs and beliefs, being seriously interfered into (page 193).

Temple architecture

It is within this analytic that Sahu places the evolution of temple architecture, which followed subregional styles of their own (Chapter 11). He touches upon regional conventions of architecture, laid out in texts such as the Bhuvanapradipika, the Shilpaprakasha and the Baya Chakada, which enunciate aspects concerning style as well as describe the process of construction. Epigraphy and iconography in temples such as Shatrughneshwara, Parashurameshwara, Brahmeshvara and Lingaraja, are discussed in their respective political contexts, with the later temples understood as representing the ideology of kingship.

This is followed by an examination of prashastis (eulogies) that occur in the royal inscriptions that provide us with information of the genealogy of the ruling houses. With a case study of the Eastern Ganga inscriptions, Sahu argues that the eulogies embodied a form of historical knowledge that was forerunner to later-day regional chronicles such as the Madala Panji (page 230). The Eastern Ganga eulogies, antedating texts such as the Rajabhoga Itihasa and the Vamshavalis, were, in this assessment, “the earliest historical writings in Odisha.”

Vernacularisation

Into this variegated description of the region Sahu brings a leaf drawn from Sheldon Pollock’s monumental work on literature to introduce the question of vernacularisation. This investigation centres around the 15th-century poet Sarala Dasa’s Mahabharata. Sarala Dasa’s Odia adaptation not only brings the Sanskrit text to the regional language but also domesticates it by infusing the story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas with the region’s life-world. In this sense, Sarala presents us with fifteenth-century Odra-desha and not the Kuru-Panchala territory (page 247).

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Sahu’s is not a comprehensive account of the making of Odisha as a region. It makes no claims to this effect either. I would have loved to see a chapter on the Madala Panji and one on the Panchasakha saints of the 16th century, in addition to some discussion on Markanda Dasa’s Keshaba Koili and Sarala Dasa’s fabulous Bilanka Ramayana. And in respect of the conceptual frame, an extended discussion on the emergence of private property and changing structure of land relations across time—for which we have superb models for Tamil Nadu in the writings of Y. Subbarayalu and Noboru Karashima—would have made this remarkable collection of essays a historian’s envy. This is not to suggest that such interventions would have made this a comprehensive work. In its existing form, Sahu’s work succeeds in upholding what is perhaps the most influential and least faulted historiographical tradition in India today, even as it refines and expands the tradition in no small measure.

The new historiography of the 1970s on “early medieval” India is now half a century old, and it has been four decades since Hermann Kulke and Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya laid out its conceptual contours in the early 1980s. The historiography has, like history itself, been uneven in its scale of production and degree of influence. The region has had the benefit of sustained historical reflections and examinations in recent times. There is, nevertheless, no gainsaying that a student of Indian history continues to live with the absence of monographic studies that tell us in the language of the political economy how regions evolved at different times.

The Making of Regions in Indian History is no monograph, but in this work, Sahu is arguably closest to such a text. It addresses a long standing lacuna with vast learning and thoughtfulness. Should a student of history approach me to ask how he/she must begin his/her study of the evolution of a region, I now have an answer: “Start with Bhairabi Prasad Sahu’s new book!”

Manu V. Devadevan teaches history at the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, and is author of The ‘Early Medieval’ Origins of India.

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