Wednesday, 28 September 2016

History - three perspectives

Here are three quotes about history, in particular Indian and Tamil history, that I find quite insightful and fascinating, all the more because they seem somwhat orthogonal to each other.

The first is by Bishop Robert Caldwell, famous for writing a book titled “Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages,” which ushered in a new era in linguistics. This particular quote is from his book “The History of Tinnevelly.” Tinnevelly is the British spelling of Tirunelveli, a town and district in the far south of Tamilnadu.

        “It is singular fact, that the Hindus, though fond of philosophy and poetry, of law, mathematics and architecture, of music and the drama, and especially of religious or theosophical speculations, seem never to have cared anything for History.”

This is a very common observation, by most historians. The contrast between the voluminous histories of ancient civilizations like China, Egypt, Rome, Persia and even Sumeria, stands in stark contrast to the lack of a historical sense among the Indian literati.

But here’s a very different opinion, from a contemporary of Caldwell, the American novelist Mark Twain, who visited India in the later 19th century. Obviously, Twain was no historian, but he had a sense of India as a culture that seems to transcend the dry series of events, that often constitute history.

      “India is the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend and the great grand mother of tradition.”

 A little hyperbolic, no doubt, but some of Caldwell’s British predecessors, like Sir William “Oriental” Jones, who founded and ran the Asiatic Society, and his remarkable successors like Horace Hayman Wilson, Henry Colebroke, James Prinsep and Alexander Cunningham and Lord Curzon would have wholeheartedly agreed. So would have the stalwarts of the Madras school of Orientalism, like Colin Mackenzie, FW Ellis and Walter Eliot. But the more lastingly famous Brits, like John Mill, Lord Thomas Macaulay and that irrepressible colonialist Winston Churchill would have and vehemently contest this. And it is their legacy that fills our history books, while the legacy of the Orientalists decorate the land and its musuems and the hearts of Indologists.

I give the final word on a sense of history, to one of my favorite historians, PT Srinivasa Iyengar, who begins his book “A History of the Tamils: From the earliest times to the sixth century AD,” thus:

“If by history is meant the story of rise and fall of royal dynasties, on the slaughter of an immense number of human beings on the fields of battle in the name of heroism, the tale of the displacement on the map of the world of large masses of humanity, eager to plunder the wealth accumulated by the patient toil of peaceful people, the narrative of rape of royal maidens and shedding innocent blood in revenge for the outrage, then Tamil India is the happy country, which has had no history to recount upto 600 A.D.

“On the other hand, if history means the slow evolution of the social and religious life of a people, under the stimulus of geographical conditions of the environment and the influence of contact with peoples who have developed different kinds of culture, the description of the slow change in the ways they ate and drank, played and loved, sang and danced, paid court to kings and gods, the relation of the story of development of their internal trade and commerce with foreign countries, far and near, the narration of the evolution of their literature from humble beginnings till a complicated scheme of literary convention was established, there are ample materials for reconstruction of the history of the Tamils from the earliest times upto 600 A.D. This story is attempted to be recounted in this book.”

On September 25th, I gave a lecture on the History of the Early Tamils, for the Southern India Cultural Series, conducted by Ramu Endowments and its founder RT Chari, at Tag Center Alwarpet. And I used Srinivasa Iyengar’s book as a major source for that lecture and my understanding of Tamil history.

If you liked this essay, you might enjoy these too
  1. Caldwell's discovery of the Munda Language Family
  2. The Keezhadi excavation near Madurai
  3. What did Brahmagupta do?
  4. Macaulay Sanskrit and English
  5. The Origin of Modern Chemistry
  6. Madras - India's first modern city


  1. The takeaway for me is that India and in particular Southern India has rich and extensive history, but we have had relatively less interest in "factually" (as in written by winners) tracking and narrating it, leaning more towards impressions and legend ("kaalakaalangalaga engal munnorgal" and so on).

  2. " And it is their legacy that fills our history books, while the legacy of the Orientalists decorate the land and its museums and the hearts of Indologists."

    So aptly said and it's sad. There is a need to rewrite history books. With the kind of magnificent temple architecture still around that stand to tell stories of those times, I have found myself helpless as a tourist and a parent, not knowing what those stories are and hence, not knowing what to look for. I marvel at the magnificence and leave the place with a feeling of "Did I really get all of what it once stood for?"