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Teaching Early Indian History

Kumkum Roy

It may seem somewhat paradoxical that teaching early Indian history is as exciting, challenging, and in some instances, more sharply contested in the 21st century than it was even a decade ago. Interested lay persons frequently interrogate practitioners—teachers and researchers, wondering why neat certainties are not readily available. It is in this context that we can explore the interrelated issues of the state of the discipline as well as of pedagogy. The last three decades have witnessed an enormous expansion of the frontiers of the discipline. Part of the expansion is the result of new discoveries. To cite a spectactular example, we have had excavations in Dholavira, Gujarat, which have revealed remains of a distinctive Harappan city. Clearly, it is imperative that we share information about such discoveries, as well as their implications, with learners at every stage.   But, there has been another kind of expansion as well, generated not so much by new discoveries as by asking fresh questions of existing material. Many of these questions have emerged from a wider socio-political context. For instance, the challenges posed by the contemporary women’s movement, as well as by dalit movements, and attempts to reconstruct the early histories of specific regions and tribal groups, have led to an examination of existing sources from new perspectives. And these, in turn, have produced fresh insights.   It would be facile to suggest that these insights can be fitted into tidy capsules of ”knowledge”. In effect, they are not necessarily incremental—they have the potential of unsettling earlier/existing frameworks of the discipline. to cite a simple example: many of us in Delhi teach early “Indian” history to bright young students from the Northeast. And, time and again, we have to confront the question of relevance. How relevant, for instance, is the study of the Mauryan empire, for a region that was never incorporated within it? At a more fundamental level, how important is it for those who have never been part of caste hierarchies to understand the intricacies of the origin and development of the system? And, as one student asked, why should we continue to refer to a set of languages as Indo-European or Indo-Aryan, when several present-day Indian languages are not a part of this “family”? As is evident, there are no easy answers.   Perhaps the gratest challenge we face is to share with learners a sense of the open-endedness ...

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