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Romila Thapar … “Historical writing is not a free-for-all in which anyone can claim to be writing history.”Romila ThaparProfessor Romila Thapar was recently in Chennai at the invitation of the Prakriti Foundation, known to bring to the city the best among scholars and artists for an enlightened audience. She gave two lectures at the Museum Theatre on two unusual but important themes — “Perceiving the Forests: Early India” and ” Somanatha: The many Voices of a History”. They made Thapar’s lectures almost dramatic in their presentation with a rich artistic background to the stage, but the scholar performer had members of the audience glued to their seats with her highly academic and lucid presentation, which needed no setting or backdrop.

The two lectures were highly illuminating and were marked by the historiographical advance of recent scholarship, which has revolutionised our understanding of the nature of the discipline and our vision of the past. What was of interest to the audience was that they demonstrated the kind of historiographical changes that have taken place in both the handling of new themes and in the re-interpretation of existing theories. The first lecture on the forest was undoubtedly a new theme and the subject of the forest in history may have been puzzling to some, but the intention of the lecture was not only to show that such non-conventional subjects are relevant to the study of history but also to narrate changes that have taken place during a long span of time — Fifth Century B.C. to Seventh Century A.D. The choice of the theme is noteworthy. It indicates the importance to historians today of themes that had been neglected in the past or not even recognised as important in historical processes which would extend to societies such as pastoralists and forest dwellers and their contribution to mainstream history, and also those who had been at the lower end of society or had been marginalised.

Professor R. Champakalakshmi spoke to Professor Thapar on the significance of the choice of themes.

HOW important is the study of the forest for the present, especially in India?

Its relevance to the present is in the form of two aspects. One is the varied symbolism of the forest in Indian literature and culture, which has not really been investigated or fully explored, e.g., in the epics, exile is into the forest and the forest becomes a central space for the activities of the heroes. The question of why the forest was chosen relates to the early views in some North Indian texts, of the dichotomy between the forest and the settlement (aranya and grama or vana and kshetra). The interface between the two concepts is played out in many later texts. The second is the attitude of our present day society to the forest. There is a tendency to almost ignore the centrality of the forest and the people who live in it because their culture and living pattern is regarded as different if not inferior.

Has this attitude always existed?

Attitudes to the forest have changed in time and space. In some texts there was a dichotomy posed between the settlement and the forest. The forest was initially regarded as an unfamiliar space, a wilderness hosting people whose culture was alien. Sometimes the descriptions of such people are projected as realistic as in the description of, for example, the Nishada and Sabara, although even this supposed realism becomes a stereotype. At the other end the question may be asked as to whether the references to the Rakshasa, the Preta and the Daitya, demons and ghosts of various kinds could have been a reference to the alien people of the forest. Demonising the “other” is sometimes a technique to justify holding such people in contempt and even attacking them.

Was the relationship between the settlement and the forest always a contested relationship?

No. This was not always the case. There are other texts in which the relationship is depicted as distinct but harmonious or symbiotic, as in the Tinai ecologies of the Tamil Sangam texts, a concept that is just beginning to acquire importance in environmental history and needs to be discussed further. There is also the romanticising of the forest, as for example in the plays of Kalidasa. The forest is symbolic of nature and although there is some tension between the settlement and the forest, the forest is not a wilderness or an unknown place and is not associated with evil. In fact these changes in attitudes come about in different kinds of societies in different periods.

If the subject is relevant today, then what was the attitude of the state to the forest in the early past?

One major difference between the depiction of the forest in creative literature and the concern of state policy is the example of Kautilya’s Arthasasatra. The forest here is a resource from which the state derived revenue. The products of the forest such as timber, gemstones and elephants contribute to revenue as also does the clearing of the forest and converting the land to cultivation. From mid-first millennium A.D. onwards, the state increasingly made grants of land to religious authorities and institutions and to a lesser extent to those who served the state. Where such grants were of waste land or in the forested area they entailed the conversion of forest land to cultivation. Doubtless such activities would in some areas have been resisted by those who habitually derived their livelihood from the forest.

Where the relationship was not confrontational, what form could it have taken?

This is actually a very important area which has been discussed by social scientists working on recent history in relation to the conversion of non-caste groups to castes. It is one aspect of what some sociologists have referred to as the process of change from jana to jati. This process can be recognised in some sources of the early period but needs more detailed investigation. The argument that is sometimes made is that when caste society comes into juxtaposition with the peoples of the forest, there is a process of what might be called osmosis, where the conversion of the forest people to caste can take place, although frequently they continue to observe their kinship patterns, customary laws and religious beliefs and practices. As has often been stated by historians working on the history of religion, new forms of deities and new rituals were possibly contributed through this osmosis. The osmosis could be an end product of confrontation or of juxtaposition, depending on the particular circumstances.

Does this not suggest that it is entirely ahistorical to maintain that Indian tradition goes back to a single source and is monolithic? What you are suggesting is that there has to be a study of the multiplicity of sources and contexts that went into the making of Indian religious tradition.

Yes. I agree entirely.

For environmental history, your approach would seem to be a preliminary but necessary step towards further analysis of past attitudes to environment, man-nature relationship and ecological changes.

Yes. It is. One hopes that such subjects are taken up and analysed further.

Taking the lecture on Somanatha, it was in many ways a demonstration of a methodologically significant analysis of one of the most challenging of historical events — the raid of Mahmud of Ghazni on Somanatha in A.D. 1026. What is of value in this analysis is that the sources have all been well known to all historians in the past but their inter-relationships have not been probed and the event has been repeatedly misrepresented and abused for political ends. Your re-appraisal of a wide range of sources (six categories), situating them in their historical contexts reveals varied perspectives, diverse and even contradictory perceptions even in a single category of sources viz., the Turko-Persian chronicles and narratives, in projecting the raid as a crusade and Mahmud as a champion of Islam, the ideal Islamic ruler who founded Muslim rule in India, which is historically an inaccurate statement. You rightly attribute it to the erroneous periodisation of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British, which made it into a national event, as also the languages of their major sources viz., Sanskrit, Persian (especially for the Medieval period) and English, ignoring all other contemporary and later sources in other languages of other regions, particularly the contemporary Sanskrit inscriptions and Jain biographies and chronicles, apart from trade and mutually supportive agreements between traders and local big men regarding land and property for religious purposes. The colonial interpretations, which made it a national event, constructed the memory of a trauma among the Hindus, depicting Muslims as uniformly tyrannical and oppressive causing a deep Hindu-Muslim divide. Thus an event which had a restricted local significance and a political motive was blown out of proportion and constructed as the social memory of a traumatic national disaster. Equally important is the fact that what comes through in the lecture is the centrality of the context of the sources to the historian. The method followed in this lecture reveals the need to see the interface between various sources and not rely uncritically on just one category. What made you turn to the range of sources that others had not done so far?

If one is studying the history of an event or a location, one inevitably has to consider all the sources and their many voices. Unfortunately in the past, priority was given to the Turko-Persian chronicles, without considering a comparative study with Sanskrit sources and the Jain chronicles of the same period, the Rajput epics and popular traditions of the Nathpanthis and the Tantric texts, all of which have a relevance to the history of Somanatha and thereby a perception or otherwise of Mahmud’s raids.

Essentially this was an event that concerned a specific region, i.e. Gujarat and parts of North India and there appears to be no awareness of such an event in other regions and other sources of that period. What was a local event was projected as a national event and a traumatic one at that. Why was a local event projected as a national event?

The absence of reference to the raid of Mahmud in other sources other than the Turko-Persian chronicles remains an enigma. The wider coverage was initially in the Turko-Persian chronicles. But it was after the colonial endorsement of the event that the larger dimension came into the picture. This was then taken up by some sections among the Indian nationalists who treated it as a national event.

If you are using such a wide range of sources, can there be a single criterion for assessing their reliability?

The evaluation of the reliability of each category of sources is crucial because each has what would today be called an ideological context. These contexts have to be recognised as different from one another. Court chronicles, whether of the Sultanate or of the Chaulukya (Solankis of Gujarat) court carry their own biases as do the statements of traders and of popular preachers or for that matter the use made of Indian history as part of colonial policy as much as subsequently by religious nationalism.

Would you then say that this historiographical advance makes it imperative that historians realise that history is as rigorous a discipline as any other science and that teaching and research have to be constantly updated, both in content and methodology? And that students are made aware of the importance of multiple and diverse perspectives of historical processes and events, which cannot have a mono-causal explanation?

As you know, we have all been arguing for many years now that the writing of history has to be based on what historians now call “the Historical Method”. Stated briefly this requires ensuring the reliability of the evidence that is used (and this requires wind-ranging training in handling sources), the critical analyses of the evidence, assessing the priorities among multiple causes and the logical basis of the historical arguments that follow. Historical writing is not a free-for-all in which anyone can claim to be writing history. The use of the Historical method has primacy in historical writing.

Yes, it is a rigorous discipline. It is the same with the more intellectually challenging writing in all subjects. It is this kind of change that encourages advances in knowledge.

The advances are also dependent, as you rightly say, on constantly updating the content and methodology of the discipline. In the case of history, an awareness of the method and the changes also come through historiography — that is, the history of ideas relating to historical explanation. Inevitably this becomes a component of historical method.

R. Champakalakshmi is former professor of history, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

The Hindu, Forgotten themes, S.R. RAGHUNATHAN, Sunday, Dec 19, 2004

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