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Archive | 2011

Indian History Carnival – 48: Gibb, Taj Mahal, Air India, New Delhi, Coins

This is the 4 year anniversary edition of the Indian History Carnival. So let me take this opportunity to thank my contributors who e-mail me various links. This has become important as various other things, like work, has been keeping me terribly busy leaving less time for reading and blogging. So Sandeep V, Feanor and others – Thanks for making my life easy.

  1. Shubo Bose has an excellent blog which looks at the coins of India with lots of pictures.
  2. The Taj Mahal diamond owned by Elizabeth Taylor is going to be auctioned. That rock has an interesting history.
  3. Though the gem is associated with one of the most famous marriages of this century- the one of Burton and Taylor, its provenance goes back to one of the greatest love stories in history. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahangir gave it to his son Shah Jahan who in turn gifted it to his favorite wife Mumtaz-i-Mahal and later built the Taj Mahal in her honor.

  4. Matthew Gibb (1849-1920), great-grandfather of the Bee Gees, was a military man and he served in India. Fëanor writes
  5. He was one among the many BOR – British Other Ranks – soldiers from these isles who served in India, along with the much larger native forces. They bivouacked in Cantonments waiting to be called out on campaign. When he joined, India was the largest and most important of British colonies. The Army acted as a vast Imperial police force, maintaining law and order and British interests in the region. Gibb was one of sixty thousand white soldiers living and working along with Indian army men in garrison towns across the subcontinent.

  6. New Delhi is 100 years old and the NYTimes blog has the story of its birth.
  7. Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens, the two architects appointed to design much of the city, seemed to be curious choices for such a venture. Baker worked in South Africa, where he had become a disciple of the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Lutyens, who previously had mostly designed English country houses, was known for his occasional prejudiced outbursts against India. In a letter to his wife, for example, Lutyens described Indian architecture as “essentially the building style of children.” Even the Taj Mahal, he complained, was “small but very costly beer.” Both men reveled in their assignment to create a monument to imperialism.

  8. Bhaskara has a detailed history of Air India from its humble origins in 1932. This is only the first part in a three part series.
  9. During World War 2; the growth in new routes slowed for Tata Airlines. But because the War was relatively docile in India; demand on existing routes continued to grow. They upgraded their fleet constantly; eventually jumping up to a fleet of 3 Stinson Model As, as well as multiple 14 seat Douglas DC-2s. This new lift helped Tata spread its wings to Bangalore, Nagpur, Calcutta, and even Baghdad, Iraq by June of 1945 (nearing the end of the war).

If you find interesting blog posts on Indian history, please send it to varnam.blog @gmail or as a tweet to @varnam_blog. The next carnival will be up around Jan 15th.

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Briefly Noted: Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Sati. Check. Inter-caste love affair. Check. A clownish Hindu who thinks a Black shipmate is an avatar of Lord Krishna. Check. Amitav Ghosh’s book, which is set in during the period when opium was cultivated in India and exported to China, has all the typical Booker Prize ingredients (The book was a finalist). 

In Operation Red Lotus, Parag Tope writes that the East India Company was a state sanctioned monopoly for drug trafficking  during this period; the manufacture of the drug was controlled by the company either directly or indirectly. In 1837, following the First Opium War, the trade ran into some hiccups causing the British traders to come up with a new strategy. During that time the following conversation happens between them:

This elicited an instantaneous response from Mr. Burnham, who placed his wineglass forcefully on the table. `Evidently you have mistaken my meaning, Raja Neel Rattan,’ he said ‘The war, when it comes, will not be for opium. It will be for a principle: for freedom – for the freedom of trade and for the freedom of the Chinese people. Free Trade is a right conferred on Man by God, and More so perhaps, since in its absence many millions of natives would be denied the lasting advantages of British influence.’

As the war was being planned,Benjamin Burnham, the owner of Ibis, a slave carrying ship from United States had no other option, but to divert to transport coolies to Mauritius. It is into this ship that an assortment of characters step in. They include the recently widowed Deeti and her Ox cart driving husband, Zachary Reidm a freed slave , Neel Rattan Halder, a Raja whose land was seized and turned into a convict by the British, Paulette Lambert, a French orphan and an assortment of characters.

A large porition of the book is plain narrative where the characters and their back story are established. Very soon it lapses into a Films Division style documentary on life during that period. But that period is described meticulously and the amount of research that has gone into the habits, costumes and food is really impressive. I recently started reading Ken Follet’s The Pillars of the Earth and found much more vivid historical detail in Ghosh’s work. The book drags in the middle and there is a rush of action towards the end.

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Multiple Universes

Episode 4 of the PBS show Fabric of the Cosmos is truly mind bending. In this episode Brian Greene talks about multiple universes and how the math proves that many universes could theoretically exist. The evidence for this comes from the fact that the universe is expanding and the math of string theory. The possibility that there could be another copy of me in another universe with a blog which has more than ten readers is very disturbing.

You can watch all the four episodes of Fabric of Cosmos online.

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Abraham Eraly’s Facile Spring

Abraham Eraly has a new book on the Gupta period which is considered a Golden Age in Indian history. There are two reviews of The First Spring.  The first review by Bibek Debroy has Eraly’s theory on why this period was considered as the Golden Age.

First, Buddhist (and Jain) ethics emphasised equity and access and human enterprise. “Fatalism” had not set in. Second, agriculture went through a transformation. There was monetisation, capital formation and trade, with increase in literacy. Third, guilds provided skills and their standardisation, and testing and certification of goods and services. They also regulated prices and working conditions of labourers. Fourth, kings had contractual obligations, not a divine right to rule. More importantly, s/he possessed executive duties of ensuring domestic and external security, with almost no legislative powers and limited dispute resolution powers. “One of the most laudable aspects of the political developments of the classical age was the robust growth of village self-government in many parts of India.” To use today’s jargon, we had better governance and decentralisation, with optimal provision of public goods and services. Fifth, there was urbanisation, not a retreat into a rural Arcadia. Sixth, cross-fertilisation led to innovation and experimentation. Seventh, rigidities of caste had not set in. Individually and in isolation, each of these propositions is plausible and known. Taken together, they represent a coherent story of why civilisations rise (and fall). The reversal into dark ages is explained by a reversal of each of these trends. Though not an Eraly estimate, there are rear-casts that between 500 BC and 500 AD, India had a per capita income of about $150. That made it one of the richest regions of the world.[Lessons From The Golden Age (H/T Yashwant)]

Eraly is a believer of the Aryan Invasion Theory and has romantic notions of Buddhism. His analysis of Vedas is based on translations by Wendy Doniger and so his observations have to be taken with quintals of salt. Nayanjot Lahiri’s review bursts Eraly’s balloon.

Eraly’s new book brings more than a millennium within the ambit of ‘Classical India’. This makes the scope of The First Spring highly ambitious, including in it India’s sprawling landscape, polity and society, economy and everyday life, philosophy and literature, even arts and religion, across 1,300 years and more.

Unfortunately, this is compromised by unsubstantiated generalisations, by an ignorance of archaeology and the kind of information it has yielded on many of the issues examined here, and by a complete disregard for some segments of the India it claims to describe.

Anyone with a working knowledge of ancient India would be appalled, for instance, by the book’s characterisation of classical Indian civilisation as essentially Buddhist. Is this a reaction to what Eraly supposes to be a “common misconception that it was a Hindu civilisation”? He should know that such labels are no longer used to characterise Indian history and, certainly, the millennium he examines was neither Buddhist nor Hindu but one marked by multiple religious traditions. Mathura is one example where there were Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu practices besides the worship of fertility deities. Nagarjunakonda is another instance of religious heterogeneity, with over 30 Buddhist establishments, 19 Hindu temples and some medieval Jain places of worship.

Eraly ignores the evidence of archaeology, goes for unproven generalisations, and doesn’t include the Northeast in his narrative.

Similarly, if Eraly had cared to look at the details of ordinary living that have emerged from excavations in the Gangetic plains, he’d find it difficult to believe that the Aryans “changed farming techniques” and introduced iron there. Rice began to be cultivated in the Gangetic alluvium in the 7th millennium BC and communities with broad-based farming patterns were flourishing there from the early 2nd millennium BC onwards. If the area did not have to wait for the putative Aryans for the consolidation of its agricultural base, neither did it require them for producing metallic iron, which was used there from the middle of the 2nd millennium BC itself.

Eraly’s description of cities also ignores archaeology, including the splendid ruins of urban Taxila, the most extensively excavated urban landscape of ancient India. Even when he describes Ujjain, he does not say anything about the town plan and building tradition that various seasons of digging has revealed.

These, though, are just the small things that Eraly so often forgets to mention. The most serious lacuna is that a big chunk of India, from Assam to Nagaland, is missing from the narrative. You wouldn’t know from the book that the epigraphs of the kings of Assam, for instance, have been extensively used to reconstruct the agricultural practices and the settlement pattern of the Brahmaputra valley or that there are Gupta type architectural remains near Tezpur. Nor would you learn about Tripura, not even about the presence of Buddhism there, otherwise so central to this book, as the relics of the Buddhist stupa at Shyam Sunder Tilla so dramatically reveal.

This is a book which aspires to have a reach. Alas, that aspirational reach exceeds its author’s intellectual grasp.[Facile Spring (H/T Yashwant)]

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Indian History Carnival – 47: Sabha, Mughal Miniatures, Calicut, Linnaeus Tripe, Project “Sesame”

  1. Sriram explains how the Sabha culture originated in Chennai
  2. Chennai was uniquely positioned for the birth of such a concept. When Chennai or Madras first came into existence in 1639, the performing arts were dependent exclusively on the patronage of the rulers, landholders and noblemen. They held private soirees to which their intimate friends were invited or on occasion sponsored public performances in temples or open spaces where the ordinary folk could attend. Temple festivals and weddings in the houses of the rich were occasions when people could attend these performances without invitation.

  3. Fëanor has some photographs of the Mughal miniatures he saw at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin
  4. Based on the 17th century notes by Roger Hawkes, Maddy gives us a glimpse of life in Calicut during that period.
  5. 7. We see that the textile traders in Calicut were mainly from West Godavari regions.

    8. We see that the Shabander or governor had responsibility for repayment of goods sold. Dubious practices of him needing to be bribed can be seen as a lack of law and order, and more consistent with activities today. We also see that he had authority to decide who got control of the goods cleared through customs.

  6. One of the earliest photographers in India was Felice Beato. But before Beato, there was Linnaeus Tripe who took photographs of South India and Burma. India Ink has more with some of the photographs.
  7. The part of Mr. Tripe’s career that he is most well-known for can be broken into three parts: The first was in December 1854 when, on leave again, he went to photograph the temples at Halebid and Belur in Mysore. One of Sotheby’s portfolios contains 56 prints from this trip, including 26 unique prints and three previously unknown photographs. One of the newly discovered images is of a Hoysala-era Ganesha statue at the temple in Halebid.

  8. Apparently, the plan to move the capital of India from Calcutta to Delhi was a secret, writes India Realtime blog
  9. Those who did know about it referred to the plan by the codename “Sesame.” The queen wasn’t told about it till the party arrived in India, according to architectural historian Robert Grant Irving. The viceroys of the provinces concerned weren’t told a thing till the night of Dec. 11.

    The ceremonial laying of the foundation stone of the new capital, which took place on Dec. 15, isn’t mentioned anywhere in the detailed official program of the week’s events, which had been released earlier. Two days after the Durbar, 500 invitations were hurriedly distributed for the stone-laying, wrote Mr. Irving.

Thanks: Sandeep V & Fëanor

If you find interesting blog posts on Indian history, please send it to varnam.blog @gmail or as a tweet to @varnam_blog. The next carnival will be up on Dec 15th.

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