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History and its Polyphonies

Kesavan Veluthat

By Romila Thapar
Penguin/Viking, New Delhi,, 2004, pp. xii 260, Rs. 375.00


An event takes place. It impresses different people in different ways. Situated at different points in time and with differing interests, they talk about it or ignore it variously in their writings. These writings form a whole body, or several bodies, of literature. Historians – not innocent observers but having their own predilections – use them as their “sources”. Their writings form one more “representation” of the event. Romila Thapar’s new book is about how different narratives grew around the raid of Somanatha and the breaking of the idol by Mahmud of Ghazni in the eleventh century. She discusses the nature and purposes of these narratives and shows the fallacy of looking at one of them as representing the truth. This book is, thus, less a reconstruction of what happened than an exercise in historiography, demonstrating how historical writing is about dealing critically with varieties of narratives. In discussing the factuality and causality of an event, the historian should also accept that different narratives can represent it differently. Although it is not possible to change the past or liberate ourselves from it, we can constantly engage with it through a process, legitimated by proper method, of continuous re-examination and reassessment of the sources.   The book is relevant not merely for this primary lesson in historiography; drawing from that lesson, it exposes the politics of hate, with its ideology based on particular versions, and specially manufactured images, of the past. Not surprisingly, the book has already caused some grimace: “Thapar’s scholarship is difficult to fault”, concedes a reviewer before caricaturing the book, for “She has meticulously studied various accounts...” But he is still sure: “nobody is going to believe her” (India Today, February 16, 2004, pp. 88-9). Yes, the problem is that of belief, not the evidence and the way in which it is examined. Luckily, Villa Serbelloni is not, unlike the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, located in Pune! Can the quotation from the XIIth Rock Edict of Asoka on p. v of the book, making a plea for respecting, and refraining from disparaging, others’ religion be more relevant than in India today?   The Prabhasa-tirtha of early historical times became Somanatha-Veraval in the early medieval period. A temple of importance came to be built there; so also a trading centre was opened with maritime contacts with the Arab world. Naturally, the centre received immense patronage from many sects and political authorities. Political patronage ...

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