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Indian History Carnival–73:Bodhicaryāvatāra, Carnatic Music, Deccani Paintings, Burmese Ramayana

Burmese painting of the Ramayana

Burmese painting of the Ramayana (via British Library)

  1. Early Tibet has the history of Bodhicaryāvatāra or “Way of the Bodhisattva”, which is one of the most  read texts in Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

    Writing much later still, in the 17th century, the Tibetan scholar Tāranātha claimed that there were three versions of the Bodhicaryāvatāra: a version from eastern India in 700 verses, and two different versions from Kashmir and central India in 1,000 verses. Tāranātha then tells a story of two monks being sent to Śāntideva to ask which was the correct version, to which the author replied that it was the one found in central India. The same story is told by Buton in his history of Buddhism. These look very much like post facto justifications that the version already accepted in the Tibetan tradition was indeed the correct version.

  2. Maddy writes about Tanjore and its Carnatic music legacy

    Indian Classical music has its origins attributed to Vedic times and also celestial beings like Narada, but the form familiar today was originally popularized during the 13th and 14th centuries by Purandaradasa (the pitamaha or grandsire), Bhadrachalam Ramadasa and Kshetrayya in the Kannada rajya while a senior contemporary Annamacharya also composed and sang his songs in praise of the Tirumala Lords. The most luminous of the composers and originators of the Carnatic style of music was Pundarika Vittala. The Haridasa bhakti tradition popularized songs sung in praise the celestial and Purandaradasa codified and consolidated it by evolving several graded steps such as sarali, jantai, thattu varisai, alankara and geetham.

  3. BibliOdyssey has images of 19 Deccani paintings compiled in the 19th century CE. These were called the ragamala series since it is a visualization of a musical note or melody.
  4. The British Library has an exhibit of manuscripts from Indonesia, Thailand and Burma. The highlight of the one from Burma is an illustration of the Ramayana.

    It was created at the royal court, where a team of painters served. The paper of this 19th century Burmese folding book of the Ramayana was handmade from mulberry bark. Shown here is the famous scene where Rama is lured away to shoot the golden deer. Meanwhile, his wife Sita is captured by Ravana in the guise of an old hermit, after which he returns to his original form of a fearful ten-headed giant. Dramatic performances of the Ramayana emerged in the Konbaung Period (1752-1885). The king’s minister Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa converted the Ramayana Jataka into a Burmese classical drama and he also composed accompanying music and songs. Ever since, Ramayana performances have been very popular in Burmese culture.

If you have any links that are to be featured, please send them by any of these channels. The next carnival will be up on Mar 15th.

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Indian History Carnival–72: Aryan Invasion Theory, Buddha, Ramayyan Dalawa

Painting of the parinirvana of Gautama Buddha. Sanskrit Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript written in the Ranjana script. Nalanda, Bihar, India. Circa 700-1100 CE.

Painting of the parinirvana of Gautama Buddha. Sanskrit Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra manuscript written in the Ranjana script. Nalanda, Bihar, India. Circa 700-1100 CE.

    1. Koenraad Elst writes about the Vedic Conference that happened in Kozhikode in January and how the Aryan Invasion Theory still lives on

      Having spent time in the real world, interacting with real scholars, I know the real situation, which is that the AIT is still taught from all the important platforms. People who tell you diferently, live in a fantasy world and only interact with village bumpkins who accept their word for it; so as feedback they ultimately only hear their own opinions. Fortunately, we can ignore recent history including these Hindu will-o-the-wisps, and start work on the really available testimonies to ancient history.

    2. GeoCurrents has the third part of the series of posts on the Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies. The latest one has a section on how it is dealt in India.

      Meanwhile, the legacy of Müller and his peers have came under increasing attack from another quarter altogether, that of Indian nationalism. This school is epitomized in D. N. Tripathi’s edited collection of 2005 entitled A Discourse on Indo-European Languages and Cultures. The various contributors to this volume understandably object to the old narrative of the Aryan invasion of the sub-continent, a story that emerged in the 19th century from a combination of philological inquiry and racial science. According to this account, superior Aryans invaded South Asia in the Bronze Age, conquering and ruling over the indigenous dark-skinned people and then creating the caste system to ensure that the two groups remained distinct and unequal. Support for this theory was supposedly found in the Rigveda, one of humankind’s oldest text. Yet as Trautmann shows, this neat and simplistic narrative of Aryan invasion had actually been opposed by most of the leading European Sanskritologists of the 19th century. It has also been rejected by modern mainstream scholars, who deny stark racial divisions and tend to posit plodding infiltrations of Indo-European speakers into the Indian subcontinent, along with a gradual and complex development of caste ideology. And regardless of the seemingly clear division of South Asia into an Indo-European north and Dravidian south, it has long been recognized that the entire region shares numerous linguistic features, making it a Sprachbund or linguistic convergence zone.

    3. Few months back, there was a popular news article which claimed that new clues from Lumbini pushed back the date of Buddha. Jayarava, after reading the original paper, writes

      There is no doubt whatever that the find at Lumbini is significant and fascinating. But Coningham et al (and Coningham himself) have overstated the claims for what this find signifies. In particular it tells us nothing whatever about the dates of the Buddha. What it tells us about is the dates of human occupation and use of the site at Lumbini. This is intrinsically interesting, but is only an outline that requires considerable filling in. Specifically it tells us nothing about who the occupants were. The authors of the article seem to have been carried away by the minutiae of the discovery and the assumption that all archaeology on an Asokan site is ipso facto Buddhist.

    4. A while back I did a post on the origins of Aviyal. Maddy writes that in Travancore it was also known as Ramayyar kootu and has a post on Ramayyan Dalawa, who was Chanakya and Shakuni rolled into one.

      If you were to study the successful reign of Marthanda Varma, you will quickly notice that there was one person who faithfully tended to him and guided him through those hectic days. In fact that person had been around even before MV took the throne, rightly or wrongly, from his uncle Rama Varma. The shrewd man was not only a Shakuni and Chanakya rolled in one, but also a very able administrator. Krishnan Raman or Ramayyan, that was his name, of Tamil Brahmin stock, was a good cook and a person of stern behavior, great logical outlook and acute intellect. Well, if you were to look at his story, you would be surprised at the involvement he had with the illustrious king, and not only that but you will also come across a large number of anecdotes attributed to him and retold even today. He is also considered to be the inventor of the Malayali dish Aviyal or what is sometimes termed as Ramayyar kootu in Travancore.

That’s the 6th anniversary of the carnival. If you have any links that are to be featured, please send them by any of these channels. The next carnival will be up on Feb 15th.

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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 – 43: Sree Padmanabhaswamy, Vasco da Gama, Buddha, Indus Script

The Inscription on Vasco da Gama's tomb, Kochi (Photo by author)

  1. manasa-taramgini has an interesting post which goes into the question of illiteracy of Indo-Aryans. This TED talk will provide a good introduction to the subject.
  2. Indeed when one analyzes the early brAhmI inscriptions from megalithic sites in India and Lanka they routine co-occur with graffiti. The dravidianist Mahadevan claims that the use of these symbols especially in sites in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Lanka means that the Indus people were Dravidians – they continued to use the script after being pushed South by the Arya-s. What he seems to conveniently forget is that brAhmI, which is also found in these inscriptions to encode Tamil, is also used to encode Indo-Aryan languages and was primarily developed for the latter.

  3. Anuradha Goyal has a short book review of The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer by Charles Allen
  4. The book takes you through the excavations of stupas spread across the terai region on the border of India and Nepal towards the end of late 19th century. A stupa that lies in the estate that belonged to an English family is discovered by accident and then carefully excavated by the owner of the estate. All the finds of the excavation that included stone caskets with bone relics and a whole lot of items in precious metals, stones and gems are recorded and shared with the archeological authorities of that time. One of the caskets has an inscription on it that went around the world for an interpretation and is commonly believed to say that the bone relics belong to the Buddha himself, a part of the relics received by his kinsmen when they were divided into 8 parts.

  5. We are all familiar with Buddha’s biography. But did you know that there was a less familiar version in Ariyapariyesanā Sutta without the trappings of the melodramatic one? Jayarava has a post on this
  6. Another interesting thing about this passage is that his mother and father — mātāpita — are unwilling witnesses to his leaving. He doesn’t sneak out at night, there is no servant, no horse, none of the rich symbolism of later times. Notice in particular that his mother is present. The Buddha’s mother seems not to have died in childbirth in this account. The stories of her death were presumably part of some important legendary strand that is not unlike the sanctity attached to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though early Buddhists rejected most notions of Brahmanical ritual purity this is not true of later Buddhists.

  7. Since the major news of the month is the discovery of staggering wealth in the underground cellars of Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple, here is a backgrounder from offstumped.
  8. The first is the covenant from 1949 that was entered into by the states of Travancore and Cochin. In that covenant is clearly described the manner in which the Trust of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple will be managed.

    The second and perhaps most pertinent to the current debate is an extensive piece in the Chicago Tribune from May 1932 on Gold exports from India to Britain which specifically describes both the manner in which wealth was contributed to the Temple in Thiruvananthapuram as well as an estimate on both the annual value of the contributions and the total wealth in the vault.

  9. Sharat Sunder Rajeev explains how Marthandavarma (1706-1758), who is responsible for the present shape and structure of the temple, transported a large chunk of granite to the temple.
  10. Stone masons were employed to cut the large boulder into required size and the mathilakam records states that Nair and Ezhava labourers toiled for days to get the large boulder to the worksite near Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. A large cart with huge wooden wheels was made for the purpose of transportation and the stone was hauled by elephants. A new road was made by the labourers, connecting the granite quarry to the temple. The road running through Poojappura, Karamana, Aranoor, Chalai and connecting to Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple is still in use. A small guild of stone masons was located near the quarry and they were assigned the task of hewing granite blocks into required size for making the pillars and roof slabs. The descendants of these masons still live there.

  11. The Malayalam movie Urumi showed a fictional depiction of Vasco da Gama’s death. Maddy goes into what really might have happened
  12. Vasco was destined for Cochin, some eight weeks later, and was by then very sick. It became clear that he was dreadfully ill, and rumors swirled around the Portuguese bureaucracy. Questions like who would take over and what their responsibilities were going to be, bounced back and forth. The interesting question was what his ailment was all about. Some said it was malaria and some said nothing. But later studies point out that he had contracted anthrax.

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 Aug 15th.

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The Destruction of the Buddhist site of Mes Aynak

Bamiyan

When Buddha met Taliban (via Hadi Zaher)

Last December, the Hosni Mubarak’s government gave 2.8 square kilometers of land around lake Qarun to developers to build a tourist resort. If the resort was built, a Neolithic site would have been lost. Now, due to the revolution, that land deal has been revoked.

Archaeologists say the remains of rain-based Neolithic farming in the reserve may hold vital clues to a technological leap that led to irrigation-based farming along the Nile.

Around 4,000 BC, humans occupying a strip along the northern shore of the lake seized a window of only a few centuries of rainfall to grow grain in previously inhospitable desert, archaeologists say.

“We have the evidence of the earliest agriculture activity in Egypt. So it’s before the Pharaohs, it’s before the early dynastic period when Egypt becomes a state,” said Willeke Wendrich, an archaeology professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.[Egypt’s revolution may save Neolithic treasure]

But the Buddhist monasteries of Mes Aynak in Aghanistan are not so lucky.

Mes Aynak (Little Copper Well) lies 25 miles south-east of Kabul, in a barren region. The Buddhist monasteries date from the third to the seventh centuries, and are located near the remains of ancient copper mines. It is unclear whether the monastery was originally established to serve the miners or if the monks set up there to work the mines themselves.Here, 7,000 ft up the mountains, Bin Laden set up a training camp in 1999 to prepare terrorists for the 11 September attack. All traces of the camp have gone, but the region still remains a Taliban stronghold.

During the early 2000s, widespread looting occurred at the Buddhist sites after the Kabul government found it difficult to impose control. Archaeologists are now uncovering dozens of statues with missing heads that were broken off to sell.

Mes Aynak’s fate changed again in 2007, when the government negotiated a 30-year mining concession with the state-owned China Metallurgical Group. The archaeological remains sit on the world’s second largest copper deposit. The $3bn deal represents the largest business venture in Afghanistan’s history.[Race to save Buddhist relics in former Bin Laden camp]

Now that mining the place is lucrative, you can say bye bye to the monastery next year. After all who wants that in Afghanistan now? Definitely not the Chinese and definitely not the folks who run the country. In 2001, the Taliban used  mortars, dynamite, tanks and anti-aircraft weapons to destroy Bamiyan. Now the Chinese are going to use dynamite and heavy machinery to destroy the remains of an Indic religion.

There is not much in the news about this Bamiyan type destruction. There are no screaming voices in the Guardian from international award winners who usually get upset when they hear the word mining.

If you want to know more about Mes Aynak and what the world is losing, please take a look at the ebook created by The Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology. (blog)

 

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