Another Browncast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
The history podcast returns to South India. Shrikanth and Mukunda are in conversation with Maneesh, on all things South of Vindhyas from 500-1000 AD. We talk about Chalukyas, Pallavas, Rashtrakutas, Cholas and more. The episode covers the political and cultural history of the period in great detail. A pivotal figure in sub-continents history- Shankaracharya makes and appearance. As do some of the landmark temples and king’s whose legacy survives to this day.
@shrikanth_krish @raghman36 @maneesht
Sources and References:
A History of South India – KA Nilakanta Sastri
South Indian Inscriptions – Archeological survey of India
Studies in Chola history and administration – KA Nilakanta Sastri
Introduction to Madhaviya Shankara Vijaya – Swami Tapasyananda of RK Mission
The Dancing Siva in Early South Indian Art – Douglas Barrett (paper)
Pallavas and Chalukyas – Coopetition in Stone – Gurpreet Chopra and Bharath
India’s complexity is a perennial source of inspiration for commentary, columns and books.
Shrayana Bhattacharya, a World Bank economist, joins the list of authors who have tried to explain India with their books.
The book is about contemporary Indian women.
Ms. Bhattacharya, who trained in development economics at Delhi and Harvard university, uses her years of experience in primary research, to bring us her own, and stories of women from a cross-section of society.
The cornerstone of these stories is Shah Rukh Khan, one of India’s most famous movie stars.
In a career spanning over three decades, Mr. Khan has built, through his cinema and his off-screen presence, an image of an ‘industry outsider’ who dominates the Hindi film industry with the dint of his hard work and sincerity.
His choice of unconventional roles for a leading man, in the early part of his career, and his off-screen image of a loving husband and family man stand him apart.
This is in contrast with the usual tropes of a male Hindi movies star , the good guy who charms his way to audiences’ heart on screen and whose umpteen romantic dalliances they read in the press.
Khan’s popularity, in the Hindi heartland and amongst the diaspora, is the string Bhattacharya uses to stich tales of gender disparity and loneliness.
We get a ringside view, Bhattacharya takes us through her own and lives of five other women, as they struggle with lack of income opportunities, denial of agency and grapple with every day challenges of living in India, exaggerated by their gender.
What holds these women together is their love for Khan’s cinema and in turn Khan himself.
When they need joy, inspiration in their lives and an escape from every day struggles, the women seek Khan’s onscreen roles and his offscreen persona.
The pictures that Bhattacharya paints, are colored by facts.
The protagonists of her stories come alive, unlike in Khan’s movies, as she vividly explains their lives with a sharp eye for detail.
When giving context to their struggles, she backs her submissions with reams of hard data.
Annexures include a table that captures share of dialogues for women in some of Khan’s movies.
She gives the women who shared their stories and their unbound love for Khan with her, their own voice.
The writing is not rhetorical flourishes with clichés thrown in. That bane of most commentary on India. The book engages.
Even for those who live in India and see the every day reality, the book is thought provoking. The passage where she describes the transactional nature of relationships is worth a chapter of its own.
Where the book misses out is on exploring the other impact of Khan’s filmography.
Barring notable exceptions, Khan’s work since his seminal hit Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, has comprised of Yash Raj school of saccharin cinema.
Movies where characters are super rich, beautiful with ‘love’ as the only thing missing in their lives.
It’s the kind of cinema that’s as far from the everyday India as cinema can get.
Khan and his cinema have done their bit in building the hegemony of ‘How much money do I make? How do I look?’ lifestyle.
The characters in her book struggle with these questions too.
Khan’s role in shaping a consumerist, trying to ‘fit in’/ ‘cool’ individual persona is left unexplored.
I found Khan’s portrayal as an all-India star an over-played hand. Khan’s as much a pan India phenomenon as Dal Makhani, the ubiquitous North Indian delicacy, is a pan India delight. The cinema crazy south Indian states have temples of their movie stars and Khan is not in one of them.
As she writes on the state of affairs, Bhattacharya skips the raging phenomenon sweeping urban India. The Dating app. Where the society has failed markets have stepped in. Technology is helping even the scales for women. The progress is slow and it does not include the majority but it’s a start.
India is a large complex place with everyday challenges being met head on by a young and an energetic populace.
Bhattacharay’s book captures some of these challenges and the forces taking them on, impeccably.
Anybody trying to get a sense of the churn going through India and its society will be well served by this book.
One hopes her fellow commentators will be inspired by her lucid writing and her love for data.
In this episode of the History series, we return to North India and talk about the Age of the Guptas. We touch upon the military genius of Samudragupta and various Gupta emperors, the emergence of Classical Hinduism and various forms of Art, Music, Science which consolidated during this era. The speakers of the episode are Gaurav Lele and Jay Vardhan and the discussion is moderated by Maneesh.
Sources and References:
Books and Blogs
Upinder Singh – Ancient India.
Upinder Singh – Political violence in Ancient India.
Upinder Singh – Culture of Contradictions.
Romila Thapar – Ancient History
RS Sharma- India’s Ancient Past
Gupta Vakataka Age RC Majumdar
Live History India (Paid + unpaid)
Early Hinduism — the epic stratification | by Gaurav Lele | Medium
The History of India Podcast – Kit Patrick
Echoes of India Podcast – Aniruddha Kanasetti
The rule of the imperial Guptas is generally considered as a Golden Age or Classical Age of Indian history. Generally arguments for “Golden Age” are rife with retrospective imposition or wishful thinking, but still nonetheless the Gupta Age still deserves to be recognized as an age of immense consequence.
Rome fell in the 5th century, a topic on which whole hundreds of careers have prospered over the centuries. On the other hand, the Imperial Guptas – their rise, their fall and their legacy all remain somewhat uncertain but that may be down to Indian history in general. While Rome as a empire existed from before common era, the rise of the Guptas was a much later event. But there would be some interesting parallels in which these two empires. Rome began becoming increasingly Christian during the 4–5 centuries CE. Guptas who were devoted to Bhagvata sect are also seen as the Great Hindu rulers of the subcontinent. One of the major reasons of the fall of Imperial Rome were the series of events triggered by invasions of violent Huns led by Attila the Hun. Similarly the Hunas who invaded subcontinent are said to be distantly related to the Europeans Huns (only distantly) — but essentially nomadic cavalrymen invaded both these empires and fall of these giant empires is in large part attributed to these Central Asian “Barbarians”/ Mlenchhas.
If we assume (as is the case according to most scholars) — that Indian armies were mainly infantry supplemented by elephantry and cavalry — the tactics used by Skandagupta and later indian rulers to defeat these Hunas must have been fascinating — interesting pop culture parallel would be the Dothraki versus the unsullied.
Integration of Classical Hinduism:
Hinduism as we define it today became something clearly recognizable during this time. One interesting way to look at Hinduism is using the metaphor Rajiv Malhotra uses — about Indra’s net — in terms of Software Hinduism is a open architecture software based on the Vedic traditions where different Apps and programs can be installed as long as they are compatible with open architecture. If we are to explain using that analogy — then the various Sampradayas and local deities cults slowly got integrated into the Vedic architecture. The devotional cults of Vishnu and Shiv and Devi clearly had some Vedic as well as non Vedic antecedents . The Bhagvata cult from North India may have had its origins in the Vedic period around the Vrishni Hero Krishna Devakiputra & others like Samkarshana, but by the time of Guptas the Bhagvata sect become something very different. The Puranas which were composed around these times played a key role in the linking of these various cults and deities into a somewhat coherent (yet extremely contradictory) mythology.
Apart from Vaisnava sect — various traditions of Shakta, Saivism and Tantra were also becoming popular. According to most scholars — Saivism was more popular at this time than Vaisnavism. Apart from the imperial Guptas, most other rulers of the time were devotees of Shiv. Whereas the Vaishnava traditions were more synchronized with Vedic traditions, some local, Tantra and Saiva traditions were not accepted in the mainstream Vedic religion. There are many stories of initial conflict of such local cults with Vedic traditions while these cults were slowly integrated into the Shrauta Vedic traditions. (Something I have touched previously in this piece – Hindu Integration: Brahmanas and Gramadevatas – Brown Pundits). The mechanisms of this integration are varied and complex — some deities become avatars of Vishnu — some become children of Shiv and some are added into the complex narratives of the Puranas. Kumārasaṃbhavam by Kalisada is also a fine example of the storytelling employed by composers while weaving this complex mesh of Hinduism.
Devi also becomes increasingly interwoven with other deities — as illustrated by the tale of Mahisasur Mardini from the Puranas. The Udaygiri cave complex is a fantastic example of one of the earliest manifestations of such rich stories and motifs and their interplay — Vishnu as Varaha, Shiv Mukhalingam, Mahisasur mardini, Skanda, Ganesh etc.
In a way traditions based on Vedic Yajna based practices which are more transactional began giving way to more devotional forms of worship. These include grand temples, Teertha Kshetras and Shakti Peeth. Small temples may have existed before — we cannot be sure as archeological record is sparse; but during these times ruler began to patronize rich temples complexes — like the Udaygiri caves, Pravareshwara temple complex – which were mediated by Brahamanas practicing Vedic traditions but focus began shifting on the devotional aspects on faith.
One of the interesting foreign accounts we have of this time is that of Fa-hien — a Buddhist monk from China — who writes about a somewhat Golden age — where crime and punishments are low and people are wealthy, where vegetarianism is a norm and people even abstain from garlic and onions. The important thing to glean out of this is the fact that practices like Vegetarianism were becoming widespread around these times — something that has been linked heavily with Vaisnavism as well as Sramana traditions — especially Jainism. This era was also the time when the Mahabodhi temple, Nalanda university were constructed, so Buddhism was also in fashion as was Jainism — though Jainism seems to be more dominant in the west and south.
Architecture and Art:
The oldest Hindu temples clearly go back to pre Gupta times but the recognizable Hindu temple forms also took shape during these times. Early temples used to be short constructions made of mainly wood — around 10–10 feet square. Temples with their distinctive “Shikhar” began becoming constructed around this time.
In Cave architecture , apart from the Udaygiri and Elephanta caves (which are not firmly dated) — cave architecture seems to have been predominantly Buddhist — as attested in the fantastic Ajanta caves. Even though some of the early caves of Ajanta cave complex go back to the Satavahanas — like the Karla and Bhaja caves, the more spectacular cave art — both paintings and sculpture goes back to the age of the Golden age of the Vakatakas – around the end of 5th century.
In the times of the Kusanas the art form known as Gandhara sculptor developed (with influence from Greeks), during the Gupta period, the Mathura & Sarnath schools continued to innovate to new heights. The Sarnath Buddhas are considered as one of the greatest art produced in India. Among some other famous sculptures of this times are the terracotta of personified Yamuna and Ganga from Ahhichattra . Yamuna-Ganga figures along with the royal standard Garuda denote the Gupta and their patronage as the Gupta originated from the region of Prayaag.
The Natyasastra which is dated to the first and second centuries CE also deserves a mention while talking about the classical age of India. One of the central concepts of Natyasastra is Rasa — Rasa is what the audience is supposed to feel as an effect of the performance. Rasas and not emotions but they map on to emotions — like Shringara Rasa with love, Vira Rasa with energy — Rasa is not the feeling or emotion but Reaction— which i have to say is a very sophisticated way of looking at it. Audience was not supposed to be a passive observer, but a highly trained and sophisticated participant in the process of Drama. The Natyasastra also prescribes that death, love making, bathing, eating should never be shown on stage and dramas should always end on a positive note — unlike famous Greek tragedies.
Fa-hien also talks about buildings which acted as hospitals existing in north India. The Sushruta Samhita which probably goes back to the late Vedic or early Mahajanpada period, but the Caraka samhita which has many layers was probably work in progress till the Gupta era. The Bower manuscript which is dated to 5–6th century CE gives a fascinating peek into the developments of Ayurveda. It refers to passages from or commentaries on the Caraka Samhita. The text also refers to Sushruta as the one who originally got this knowledge from the king of Kashi.
Legacy of invaders, Indian Kingship and religions:
By and large Indian kings right from the times of Bimbisara, rarely persecuted religions sects even if they were personally devoted to some competing sect. This made good pragmatic political sense — this is the argument made by a section of scholars while looking back at these policies of religious pluralism. Many of the ruling elites after the times of the Mauryas like Hunas during this age — were “foreigners”/ Mlencchas — like most steppe warriors of these Hunas must have mostly practiced some form of Iranic religion like the earlier Sakas and Kusanas or Shamanism like the later Mongols. But inspite of what we noted earlier — about Mihirakula being among the few ancient Indian rulers to resort to religious (anti religious) zealotry — the Hunas went native quite soon. These streams of invaders who came to shape the subcontinent from the time of the Buddha to the fall of Gupta empire — Persians, Macedonians, Bactrian Greeks, Sakas, Kusanas, Hunas — we find that all these identities melted into the Melting pot of India. Indian religions — especially Hinduism and Buddhism in large part absorbed, reshaped and restyled the faith systems of the invaders. From between a few generations to few centuries all these invaders “went native” — so in a way what became Classical Hinduism was shaped by these invaders. This integration of the “invaders” would stop in the coming centuries.
Here is a quote from Upinder Singh — History of ancient and earlier medieval india.
On Twitter I ran into a peculiar argument about vegetarianism and Brahmanism:
This is just factually wrong from what I know. The standard narrative I was taught is that the shift toward vegetarianism was driven by non-Brahmin-led religious movements, in particular the Sramanic sects like Jainism and Buddhism (that seem to have had a Kshatriya and Vaishya “class” base). Rather, post-Vedic Brahmanic ritualism was changed by the influence of these movements, with the Brahmin caste becoming followers and expositors. This probably aligns with the idea that much of late Indian Buddhism was actually incorporated into Advaita, so the idea that Buddhism is a “daughter” religion of Hinduism is actually not correct.
Now, it is totally true that today militant vegetarianism is often correlated with upper castes and is instrumentalized in an exclusionary manner. But that is the endpoint and operationalization of vegetarianism, not its root. The original commenter was making a political and rhetorical point, so truth was pretty irrelevant. But those of us who value truth need to periodically bring up pedantic aspects because otherwise the lie becomes truth, and that is true perversion.
A Hindu friend clued me into the fact that this was Lord Rama’s birthday. Since I’m not Hindu or from a Hindu background I had no clue (to be fair, Google calendar is how I know when Ramadan starts). I don’t know much about Rama as I have not read the Ramayana (after all these years I’m only 2/3rd of the way through an English translation of the Mahabharata), but, I’m pretty sure I know which Y haplogroup he was, so much respect!
The figure to the right is from a Substack post I wrote last year, Stark Truth About Aryans: a story of India. In it, I posted about the different streams of ancestry that led to the variation in the modern Indian subcontinent. In short, there are three primary threads:
1) Steppe Indo-Aryans who are identical to the Sintashta Culture of the upper Volga ~4,000 and gave rise to the Andronovo Horizon
2) “Ancient Ancestral South Indians,” who have more affinity to the peoples to the east of Eurasia, and are distantly related to a clade of humans that brackets the Negritos of Southeast Asia, the Andamanese, and the people of Australia (this clade diversified between 35 and 45 thousand years ago, so these are not close connections). Though the modern Andamanese are often used as a substitute for AASI, the reality is that they diverged more than 30,000 years earlier and these tribal populations probably derive from modern Burma, rather than India (the Andaman Islands are an extension of the Burmese geological formation).
3) Lastly, there is a component that has been termed by some as “eastern Iranian,” but really defines a little-understood population that represents the easternmost extension of the Zagrosian farmer stock. These eastern people that extended likely into the northwest of the subcontinent are distinctive in that they lack any admixture from Anatolian farmers, which is ubiquitous to the west of Dasht-e-Kavir. Not only do these people not have any Anatolian admixture, but they also have enrichment for Paleo-Siberian ancestry, likely mediated along the pastoralist fringe of Central Asia
The vast majority of subcontinental populations have some thread of ancestry from these three groups. The major difference is proportions. You can see this in an admixture graph I ran a few years ago (yes, I need to update it). In the graph AHG = AASI, while steppe is pretty straightforward. But, the Indus_Periphery group is a mix of “eastern Iranian” and “AASI.” Concretely, I simply picked the highest quality and least AASI samples to capture as much eastern Iranian ancestry as I could. But I would estimate that 10% AASI is still a rational lower-bound (probably not higher than 20%) estimate for my Indus_Periphery construct. This means even the Kalash of Pakistan, who are ~0% AHG in my model, do have AASI ancestry, it’s just mediated through their 70% Indus_Periphery.
In regards to the steppe ancestry, the reality is that it is present across the vast majority of groups. The exceptions are a very few South India tribal and most Munda populations. Groups like Reddys and Nadars will clock in at 5-10% steppe ancestry. This makes sense when you note that Y chromosome R1a1a-Z93 is found in even tribal groups with the exception of the Mundas. There are other details that are curious. Many groups in the Sindh/Gujurat region are very enriched for Indus_Periphery but have very low AHG proportions and less steppe. In contrast, some Gangetic populations have far more steppe than these, but far more AHG.
This brings me to the point of the post: when people say that Dalits or Adivasis are the indigenous people of the subcontinent, I think it does not necessarily have as strong of a human demographic basis as one might think. That is because to a great extent Dalits and almost all Adivasis are made from the same threads as other subcontinental populations, even if the proportions may differ.
Let’s walk it back and understand the ethnogenesis of the subcontinent.
First, it is quite possible that the AASI are not indigenous to the portion of the subcontinent to the north and west of the Thar desert. Their natural ecological locus was likely in the east and the south. Biogeographically the northwest of the subcontinent is somewhat different than the south, center, and east, which resemble Southeast Asia more (albeit at a remove). During the peak of the Last Glacial Maximum, the Thar Desert was drier and larger, serving as a boundary zone between southwest Eurasia and southeast Eurasia.
The ancient DNA from the Swat valley as well as the genetic character of modern Punjabi populations compared to the ancient samples from the IVC make a strong case that AASI ancestry is intrusive to the northwest. By this, I don’t mean that AASI tribes migrated in that direction, rather, as the IVC expanded it clearly mixed with AASI populations to its south and east, and as the IVC was an integrated cultural zone, mixed individuals moved north and west over time.
The Swat transect shows a decrease in IVC proportions between 1000 BC and 0 AD, and increased steppe and AASI ancestry. This is part of what I call the “integration phase” of Indian civilization, as gene flow occurred not just from the northwest with Indo-Aryan expansion, but Indo-Aryan reflux migration must have occurred into the west. These eastern Indo-Aryans mixed extensively with indigenous people in the Gangetic valley, explaining why Brahmin populations in this region have noticeable more steppe ancestry than groups like Sindhis, but also far more AASI ancestry. Indo-Aryan tribes all mixed with IVC people when they arrived in the subcontinent (while there are populations that are ~0 steppe, and others that are ~0 AHG, there are no populations in the subcontinent that are ~0 Indus), but a subset moved east and south fast so that they arrived with a higher steppe fraction when they settled down to mix with indigenous tribes.
Second, even outside of the northwest, it is not entirely clear that the AASI is not a recent early Holocene migration from Southeast Asia. Genetically they are part of the continuum with the indigenous Negrito people of Southeast Asia. I think it is less likely that there was massive Southeast Asia migration during the Holocene, but for most of the Pleistocene, Southeast Asia had many more humans than India because India was far drier.
Finally, outside of exceptional groups like the Munda, whose language and mythology seem derived from the 20-30% of their ancestry than is Austro-Asiatic Southeast Asian (and all-male), almost all subcontinental populations come out of the cultural matrix whereby Indo-Aryans synthesized with indigenous populations (much, but not all of whom, were Dravidian-speaking). The earliest Tamil has a clear Indo-Aryan influence, while the retroflex in Sanskrit is indicative of Indic influence very early on.
Where am I going with this? Genetically a Jat from Haryana is very different from a Dalit from Tamil Nadu. A Jat is 10-20% AASI (aggregating the AHG estimate with the AASH fraction in the Indus_Periphery), and 25-30% steppe. The Dalit is 75% or so AASI (again, aggregate), and only a few percent steppe. This is a massive genetic difference. But culturally it is clear that both come out of an Indian milieu that was shaped in the period between 1500 BC and 500 BC, as the Indus Valley Civilization collapsed, and its remnants were transmuted by Indo-Aryans. The tribes in the north that continued their Indo-Aryan language were clearly transformed, but the Dravidian-speaking polities of the south were also imprinted by the Indo-Aryans. It was reciprocal.
Both light-skinned northern Indians who like to claim “actually” they are “Iranian” and dark-skinned South Indians who claim to be “indigenous” emerge out of this process, this dynamic. And they share equally within it. India came out of the mixing of many disparate elements which then disaggregated in various ways, but all went through the same sieve.
In the comments below there’s a lot of discussion on colorism among brown subcontinentals as well as a fixation on particular facial features. Since I’m an American coconut I don’t really understand many of the nuances, though I’m curious from an anthropological perspective. Much of it obviously seems ludicrous for American browns. What’s the point in commenting on whether one sibling is lighter-skinned than another when you live in America and most of the population is far whiter than even “light-skinned” Indians could aspire to? (ironically, or not, the ‘black-fishing’ swarthy Kardashians look like a lot of light-skinned Indian celebrities to Americans)
But about half of the readership of this weblog now readers from India. Cultural values differ, and so does offense. For example, for Americans asking how much money you make is a very offensive question. For people in other societies, it is not. Why is it so offensive to Americans? Because money is really all we care about! The trigger tells you something deep about our values.
Recently I’ve been meeting many more Indians (from India) on Clubhouse, and I’ve been trying to interrogate differences in values. And one thing that I’ve encountered is a strong aversion to being called “kaala.” Even the most well-off and Westernized Indians seem to wince at the term, and will privately tell me to stop using it the way I am (addressed to people). I ask what the problem is, and they won’t want to get explicit, sometimes saying the connotation is negative. That’s obvious literally true, but how are you going to ever change the connotation unless you change practice?
This is obviously a form of cultural imperialism. Though blackness is not always positively connoted in the US, as a term it doesn’t have the same strongly negative valence as it does in Asia. During the summers I get very kaala in my exposed body parts because I don’t avoid the sun. When my mother asks how I’m doing I say I’m fine, but also I tell her next time she’ll see me I’m “kalo” (Bengali). She gets mad but is used to me talking in this way because being kalo is not really bad substantively (it isn’t). Americans care about whether you are fat or not. Though I don’t condome being mean to fat people, being fat is associated with lots of health ill-effects, and just the way you move is often unnatural (those of us who gain and lose weight can attest to the biomechanical variation). In contrast, being dark or light doesn’t matter too much now since most people don’t need to work outside.
Even in India (and Pakistan and Bangladesh) there will come to be a time when the generation of aunties who grew up in the 20th century will pass on. At that point, the generations who grew up when kaala was a term of opprobrium used by older generations should perhaps rethink their conditioning. I’m not judging, but it’s not really “natural,” it’s conditioning.