More than mapping

Print edition : December 14, 2012

A significant intervention in the historiography of ancient India for which students of history will be grateful to the authors.

IT may not be quite a coincidence that the senior author of this Atlas of Ancient Indian History is a student of Professor C.C. Davies, author of An Historical Atlas of the Indian Peninsula (1949) which most of us used for our map study in colleges. The distance that the student has covered from his teacher is an index not only of the growth of the student but also of the territory that Indian historiography has conquered between the two publications.

This Atlas embodies by far the most exhaustive and comprehensive mapping of Indian history in what is described as its ancient period, from the earliest times to c. A.D. 800. It has two major parts: a) 12 detailed maps and b) texts explaining these in 110 closely printed double-column pages of double demy size. The bibliography, printed in a font smaller than that of the texts, runs into seven double-column pages. There are three indices: Places with their coordinates and references to the maps in the Atlas; Tribes, Territories and Kingdoms with their coordinates and references to the maps; and Ancient Rivers, again with coordinates and references to the maps.

This brief description of the Atlas should be sufficient to show its sweep and scope, which go far beyond just plotting places, territories and rivers mentioned in historical sources. It presents visually the pattern of development in the subcontinent in matters of culture, language, economy, society and polity, with all its complexity and unevenness. Data presented in it start speaking meaningfully as, for example, when we see the extent of the Harappan civilisation against isohyets (Map 3). (Isohyets are lines drawn on a map connecting places receiving equal rainfall.) The Harappans did not cross the 30 inch/75 cm isohyets. Considering the technology of the age with some bronze tools, with a heavy sprinkling of stone tools, this makes sense as the somewhat dense forests of the regions with heavier rainfall could not have been cleared by the Harappans. Incidentally, D.D. Kosambi had suggested this more than half a century ago.

Similar patterns emerge in the map on Neolithic India (Map 2). The distribution of the Mesolithic cultures shows a south-north spread. The earliest dates for microliths are from Sri Lanka, with a gradual progression northward through the Indian peninsula. The obvious conclusion is that the technology originated in the south in the South Asian context and diffused northward. Given that microliths are absent in the Indus basin and the Afghanistan region, the conclusion is also that the Mesolithic cultures of India are practically of subcontinental origin, the first transformation having taken place in Sri Lanka. The pattern presented by the Neolithic is interestingly in the reverse, the earliest Neolithic sites of South Asia being in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the diffusion being in a south-easterly direction. Mehrgarh on the Bolan Pass is a remarkable site where the whole process of Neolithic Revolution is archaeologically illustrated with an extraordinary degree of clarity. At the same time, the Habibs have shown that there was another direction in which Neolithic influence could have been received, namely the east, from China via South-East Asia, Myanmar and Assam. This pattern, or the lack of it, of directions in the diffusion of the Mesolithic and the Neolithic also underlines the fact that one did not succeed the other as a matter of course. The Habibs point out some contradiction in the dates obtained by stratigraphy and carbon dates as, for example, in the case of the Neolithic in Kashmir: the carbon dates for pre-ceramic Neolithic at Burzahom is later than the ceramic Neolithic. Here they evoke that supremely uncommon sense called common sense. This, as well as other discussions of the Neolithic in south India are all done with the caveat that the reader must appreciate that fresh carbon dates could alter the picture.

The map and the discussion of the Indus civilisation and the antecedent and contemporary cultures are important in ways more than one. First, the selection of sites is very judicious. As all sites, not even all the excavated ones, cannot be represented on a map like the present one, the authors have used clear criteria for their selection. Settlements covering an area of more than 15 hectares or more are invariably presented. Besides, they have shown all type-sites of particular cultures such as Sothi, or sites defining cultural boundaries; or those of strategic importance such as Suktagen-dor; sites of commercial importance such as Lothal or Shortughai; or sites that provide evidence of economic importance. However, one may not be able to go all the way with them when they choose a site out of many, for the simple reason that there appeared to be a number of settlements in the area and to leave it bare in our map will give a wrong impression about the pattern of distribution. This not only is arbitrary but also violates the principle adopted. Numerous sites is a legend that an atlas should avoid as it does not help the reader in any way.

That is only a minor point. The information that the chapter provides is rich and up to date. The economic information, including details of production and exchange, is meaningfully plotted. Similarly, details of population and levels of urbanism are shown with significant insight. When sites are categorised according to cultures, the pattern of the distribution of not only the cultures that were antecedent to the civilisation but also those that went into the making of it is articulated in a clearer manner than could be presented verbally. The internal chronology within the civilisation emerges with great clarity and in a meaningful manner. The criterion adopted for the plotting of river courses and the discussion of it are both refreshing. This will also set at rest all the claims to rename the civilisation whose basis is less than academic.

Map 4 is on the archaeological cultures during the period c. 1800-600 BCE. It is the array of Neolithic and Copper-Bronze cultures that is mapped here and taken up for discussion in the text. Although it was during this period that the hymns of the Rgveda and even the later Vedic texts were composed, the map goes far beyond the limited geographical extent in which those activities were happening. The concern is with India as a whole, and not the limited geographical area covered by the Vedic literature. This can lead to questioning the notion of a Vedic Age in Indian history in a big way. It should be noted that it is not because the authors consider literature less important: a whole map, Map 5, covering the same period as this one does, is devoted to the information on historical geography derived from the Vedic texts. This one on archaeological cultures, therefore, is able to present the material culture while details of other information derived from literary texts are reserved for the next map. It is true that the Aryan problem, which has tormented much of historiography in relation to this period, cannot be discussed any more without reference to archaeology, and in that respect, the exclusion of the important copper hoard sites is not exactly a wise thingwhatever the plea on which they have been excluded. This is particularly felt when one sees the discussion of evidence relating to the evidence of horse.

That apart, the information contained here is rich. Despite the inadequate indications of locations available in archaeological reports and the insufficient details of dates, the authors have done a commendable job. The discussion of environmental changes and operations in areas with rainfall above 40 inches/100 cm is a case in point. The technology of pottery, of metal work, glass, and so on provides important information. The size and pattern of settlements raise an important question regarding urbanism, and seen with the absence of the art of writing, this tells us how the Harappan tradition had really vanished. That is achieved even without accusing Indra, as Mortimer Wheeler had done long ago.

The evidence presented in this map and its annotation in Chapter 4 have to be read with what is contained in Map 5 and Chapter 5. The authors explain why there are two maps dealing with the same period and the same geographical spread. They tell us that down to the present day, the archaeological and historical evidence have not been successfully synthesised. This is extremely significant because it helps us steer clear of much of the emotional debates concerning this period. Moreover, this second map also helps us to have a clearer understanding of the languages of India in the millennia BCE. The discussion of the different linguistic families in India draws on the most modern scholarship in the discipline of linguistics. This is truly interdisciplinary, where answers to questions in one discipline, when they are not available within its frontiers, are sought beyond its frontiers and where the boundaries themselves start wearing thin. Accordingly, no linguistic family is given a foundational status, and the first treatment of the Dravidian, therefore, should not be read as anything more. The discussion of the Indo-European languages and their distribution, in a similar fashion, is refreshing. Geography as could be gathered from the Rgveda and the later Vedic texts is treated separately. In fact, this is a brilliant exercise in historical geography as it can be reconstructed from literary texts.

The period between the sixth and third centuries BCE is the subject of the next map. It draws information from largely Buddhist literature, Persian and Greek accounts, Achaemenid inscriptions and the like. Archaeology now becomes an important source with more definite information and clearer correspondence with data from literature. Coins appear for the first time and they too help in identifying places, territories and peoples. The questionability of the claim that Tamil Brahmi predates Asokan Brahmi is exposed. The next map of Mauryan India (Map 7) and the related discussion are perhaps among the boldest. In discussing the age of the Mauryas, it is a convention to doubt the acceptability of the Arthasastra as a Mauryan document; but when it comes to the details, information from that text is used liberally. The authors of this Atlas have shown the courage to regretfully put it aside. This is honesty. The list of inscriptions and information from them is up to date. The proceedings of a Delhi seminar held in August 2009, Reimagining Asoka: Memory and History edited by Patrick Olivelle, Janice Leoshko and Himanshu Prabha Ray, came perhaps too late for the discussion on the inscriptions to be incorporated. In the discussion of Tamil Brahmi inscriptions, it would appear that the authors take up the cave, leave labels alone, leaving out the significant corpus of pottery inscriptions, copious information regarding which is already available in the article of Subbarayalu cited by the authors (page 37) and elsewhere. However, for the exhaustive information on towns, regions, physical features and linguistic divisions, the map is extremely rich. It is at its best in dealing with economic information. Political details such as administrative divisions and imperial boundaries are also traced.

Political geography

Political geography and economic geography form the subject matter of the next two maps (8 and 9). A question may be asked why the period from 200 BCE to A.D. 300 is taken up for political geography while that from A.D. 1 to 300 is taken up for economic geography, but there is no doubting the magnitude of the effort. As it is related to periods which lack as much clarity as the earlier and later periods, this is among the best parts of the Atlas. The authors are modest in their claims: What results is essentially a depiction of the historical evidence of the inscriptions and not a map based on a properly cohesive interpretation of this evidence. But the result is immoderately more than what this may suggest.

There may be a few drawbacks or inaccuracies in certain statements. A case in point is the one that the Tamil Brahmi inscriptions do not give the name of any ruler, except for the Jambai inc, while in reality at least a couple of them from Pugalur speak about Atan Cel Irumporai (Nos. 61 and 62 in I. Mahadevans corpus), a Chera ruler who is celebrated in early Tamil literature. So also, the authors failure to consult the important Historical Atlas of South India, which has been in the public domain for more than seven years now ( and to which K.M. Shrimali had, in his review of the maps presented by these authors to the Indian History Congress, drawn their attention, is a major drawback. These problems do not detract from the immense value of the Atlas in any case.

Maps 10 and 11 as well as the relevant chapters deal with the political geography of India in the period from A.D. 300 to A.D. 750, and Map 12 plots the economic map of India from A.D. 500 to A.D. 800. Impeccable as the material presented here and the critical understanding the authors have brought to bear on it, there are again a few inadequacies. For, it is questionable if Kerala listed on page 89 is a name of a region or a lineage of rulersthe weight of evidence is still in favour of the latter (See Irfan Habib, ed., India: Studies in the History of an Idea, Delhi, 2005, pages 117-125). These, however, do not minimise the stupendous nature of the work.

What we have here is more than a mapping of the details available in relation to the history of India up to A.D. 800. It is a significant intervention in the historiography of the period. Although the authors used to describe themselves somewhat self-effacingly as two laymen when they were presenting these maps to the sessions of the Indian History Congress, they have put specialists to shame. This is a contribution for which students of history for several generations will be grateful.

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