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Synthesizing a Period of Ferment

Supriya Varma

By Krishna Mohan Shrimali
Tulika Books, New Delhi, 2007, pp. 160, Rs. 300.00


The book under review is part of a series titled A People’s History of India whose general editor is Irfan Habib. It deals with the period between c. 700 and c.350 bc in which several important historical developments have been identified in the spheres of economy, society, polity and religion and each of these is discussed separately in the four chapters of the book.   The first chapter takes up the much debated issue of iron, surplus and economic change. While the earliest occurrences of iron artifacts have been archaeologically attested from about 1000 bc in the Gangetic valley, Professor Shrimali is somewhat sceptical about these early dates on two accounts: one due to inconsistent radiocarbon dates and the other being a misreading of the stratigraphy. The beginning of iron around 800-700 bc has been considered here to be more acceptable. Even then, the point is made that the true Age of Iron, marked by a rapid spread of iron, can only be placed between the sixth and fourth centuries bc. Further the Iron Age is viewed as representing a new stage in the progress of agricultural and craft production. Although information about agricultural implements, crops and irrigation has been listed from textual and archaeological evidence, a little discussion on subsistence strategies would have been useful.   In peninsular India, the beginnings of iron is placed around 1000 bc, accompanied by an increase in the size and number of sites as compared to the preceding neolithic-chalcolithic period. In this case, attention has been paid to the subsistence economy and there is a suggestion that the ‘megalithic people practised a mixed economy based on agro-pastoral production’. Perhaps a distinction should have been made between mixed farming and agro-pastoralism. The former is generally considered to be an integrated system in which farming and animal husbandry are both equally important. On the other hand, in an agro-pastoral system, the more people depend on livestock, the less is the reliance on agriculture. In other words, there is an inverse ratio of pastoralism to agriculture.   It was D.D. Kosambi who in the 1950s and early 1960s first made the causal connection between iron technology, plough agriculture and clearance of the fertile but densely forested plains of the Ganga valley. This, he suggested, ensured on the one hand an assured supply of food, including a surplus, and on the other increased trading networks, metallic money, emergence of towns and ...

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