Ancient 'India'

The ‘Subcontinent’ of the ‘Past’

Whenever we speak of a region’s history today, we tend to delineate that space on the basis of nation state borders. But Nation States have never existed from the beginning of time; they are not primordial spaces that give birth to primordial cultures distinguishable from other primordial spaces and corresponding cultures. Nation States are territories on account of the historical powers that ruled them and who also decided their borders.

To give an account of ancient peoples will before the advent of nation states, we must give an account of polities and the pre-modern politics that characterised them, of tribal wars and conquests, of treaties and pogroms, of settlement and genocide, of urbanisation and emerging civilisations, of ancient crafts and trades, of splendid monuments and refined court poetry, of international trade and seafaring; of royal patronage and grand gestures; this history has many strands of good as it has strands of bad but essentially it is the history of courtly privilege and not the history of nation states.

Whenever this history is recounted, we will inevitably learn of the Kings and Emperors that ruled ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’ dominions. We will learn of the successors and the Kings and Emperors they defeated but seldom will we learn of the peoples they ruled, the cultures they embodied and the languages they spoke.

The ‘India’ of past generations is likewise the history of sovereign realms and their independent rulers. It is the history of ancient Kingdoms and ancient Empires, of polities that emerged and then disappeared, and of wars that were fought across regions for the aggrandisement of expanding Kingdoms.

This ‘India’ is very different from the ‘India’ we take for granted today with its internally fixed ethnic categories and fixed regional boundaries. Its modern labels would have had little or no resonance for the pre-modern inhabitants of its internal-regions. Take for example the generic ascription ‘Indian’ which we apply to India's diverse peoples and all sorts of things that fall within the modern boundaries of the State. But it would have been an alien concept to the ancient peoples who supposedly owned the label. In this vein we can speak about perceptions of the landmass associated with the territories of the British ‘Indian’ Empire – lands all delineated ‘Indian’ lands by outsiders. Essentially, we are dealing with modern projections. In fact the British were the first foreign invaders to actually map the entire subcontinent giving it a coherence that previous conquerors had failed to germinate.

The British colonialists were by no means unique in how they dealt with their ‘Indian’ colony. Like previous conquerors, they too were attracted to the Asian subcontinent by virtue of its vast troves of immeasurable wealth.

Invaders to the subcontinent have come and gone in droves in almost unceasing chronological order, one after the other on such an unprecedented scale that for a large part of the subcontinent’s written history, its various polities were intimately linked with centres of power outside their own territorial borders. The subcontinent’s fabled wealth and vast human and natural resources lured Empires from far afield and ambitious potentates alike for the amassing of fortunes unparalleled elsewhere. Cyrus the Persian and Alexander the Great were some of the ancient Kings who tread that path.

Of course indigenous tribal republics or confederacies existed and the natives of a region did exercise sovereignty over their tribal polities. In difficult mountainous terrain or hard to reach areas, many of these polities were nominally independent. But this usually occurred within a hierarchy of sovereignty and more often than not, tribal polities were eventually subsumed within the larger structures of the new order, for whose upkeep many of the local tribes offered their mercenary services.

To give some perspective to this dynamic, these polities had the highest economic output of any comparable polity outside the subcontinent. It was on account of ‘India’s’ fabled wealth that Christopher Columbus in the 15th century CE sought to discover a new route to the subcontinent as the older routes were blocked by the emergence of the Ottomans on the edge of Europe. As we all know from our school-days, Columbus went on to ‘chance-discover’ the ‘New’ World. The indigenous peoples of North and South America were wrongly identified as ‘Indians’ and it is on account of this misunderstanding that the term is still in vogue as in the terms ‘native Indians’ or ‘Red Indians’; the latter term is considered offensive.

And so for centuries well before the discovery of the New World and the British colonisation of ‘India’, migrants from West and Central Asia had been traversing the mountain passes to settle Indian lands. Aside from fleeting raids, a perpetual problem for the native populations living on the Indian frontier, many of these tribes, both nomadic and sedentary eventually put down roots. At times they uprooted older communities who had no choice but to seek a future elsewhere. But more often they coalesced with the ‘natives’ assuming new tribal identities on the basis of changing tribal configurations.

Where harmony was not possible entire tribes moved from their ancestral tracts to shelter elsewhere. It is on account of these persecutions, that Europe’s Roma communities (as they were later identified) left North West India during the advent of the 11th century CE. These realities were nonetheless fluid and constantly evolving as old tribal ascriptions were exchanged for new ones just as the older alliances fell apart or were eclipsed by new political arrangements. Sometimes the invaders adopted the religion of the conquered and at other times the conquered adopted the religion of the invaders. Some of these conquerors were enlightened and benign whilst others are still remembered for persecuting communities they did not like.

Whoever these people were and wherever they came from, they added to the subcontinent gene pool. It is indeed the case that their numbers were small in comparison with the huge population of the Ganga-Yamuna region of North India and so they were unable to change India’s overall genetic profile but this does not mean that they did not come to ‘India’ at all. They came and they stayed and coalesced with the existing population to such an extent that the initial cleavages created by their violent forays have all been forgotten except for the classical historian.

In time even their linear descendants had forgotten about their foreign origin as they pointed their finger accusatorially at the most recent intruders. This is especially poignant for those of us who live on that frontier through which these hordes entered the subcontinent from Central Asia. The famous or infamous Khyber Pass was literally the choice of entry for many invaders and it was firmly located within our region. The dynamics behind such migrations have greatly influenced the nature of our societies and the tribal configurations that emerged.

It is in this context that cultural-regions make sense outside the simplicity of fixed ethnic identities that we too readily take for granted especially when we think that they are somehow wedded to ‘Nation States’ or their internal sub-divisions or 'provinces’. There is a wider point in mentioning cultural-regions as opposed to narrating the history of a ‘country’ and its corresponding ‘nationals’. Whenever we speak of cultural-regions, we are speaking of spaces that transcend the traditional geographical or political borders of modern nation states and their administrative sub-divisions.

This is particularly salient for those of us who would like to narrate the history of our cultural heritage outside political frameworks. The Pahari-cultural-sphere is one such cultural-region that transcends the administrative sub-divisions of Pakistan, Pakistan-administered-Kashmir and Indian-administered-Kashmir. In historical times, it stretched further west into regions that are now part of Afghanistan particularly around the environs of the Kabul River. Its traditional heartland in Peshawar no longer forms part of its cultural-sphere today as the Peshawar basin and the Swat valley are predominately populated by Pashtun-speaking tribes.

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