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A History

John Keay

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A History

John Keay

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The British historian and author of Into India delivers "a history that is intelligent, incisive, and eminently readable" ( Kirkus Reviews, starred review). Fully revised with forty thousand new words that take the reader up to present-day India, John Keay's India: A History spans five millennia in a sweeping narrative that tells the story of the peoples of the subcontinent, from their ancient beginnings in the valley of the Indus to the events in the region today. In charting the evolution of the rich tapestry of cultures, religions, and peoples that comprise the modern nations of Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, Keay weaves together insights from a variety of scholarly fields to create a rich historical narrative. Wide-ranging and authoritative, India: A History is a compelling epic portrait of one of the world's oldest and most richly diverse civilizations. "Keay's panoramic vision and multidisciplinary approach serves the function of all great historical writing. It illuminates the present." —Thrity Umrigar, The Boston Globe

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Grove Press

The Harappan World
c3000–1700 BC

IN HINDU TRADITION, as in Jewish and Christian tradition, history of a manageable antiquity is sometimes said to start with the Flood. Flushing away the obscurities of an old order, the Flood serves a universal purpose in that it establishes its sole survivor as the founder of a new and homogeneous society in which all share descent from a common ancestor. A new beginning is signalled; a lot of begetting follows.
In the Bible the Flood is the result of divine displeasure. Enraged by man’s disobedience and wickedness, God decides to cancel his noblest creation; only the righteous Noah and his dependants are deemed worthy of survival and so of giving mankind a second chance. Very different, on the face of it, is the Indian deluge. According to the earliest of several accounts, the Flood which afflicted India’s people was a natural occurrence. Manu, Noah’s equivalent, survived it thanks to a simple act of kindness. And, amazingly for a society that worshipped gods of wind and storm, no deity receives a mention.
When Manu was washing his hands one morning, a small fish came into his hands along with the water. The fish begged protection from Manu saying ‘Rear me. I will save thee.’ The reason stated was that the small fish was liable to be devoured by the larger ones, and it required protection till it grew up. It asked to be kept in a jar, and later on, when it outgrew that, in a pond, and finally in the sea. Manu acted accordingly.
[One day] the fish forewarned Manu of a forthcoming flood, and advised him to prepare a ship and enter into it when the flood came. The flood began to rise at the appointed hour, and Manu entered the ship. The fish then swam up to him, and he tied the rope of the ship to its horn [perhaps it was a swordfish], and thus passed swiftly to the yonder northern mountain. There Manu was directed to ascend the mountain after fastening the ship to a tree, and to disembark only after the water had subsided.
Accordingly he gradually descended, and hence the slope of the northern mountain is called Manoravataranam, or Manu’s descent. The waters swept away all the three heavens, and Manu alone was saved.1
Such is the earliest version of the Flood as recorded in the Satapatha Brahmana, one of several wordy appendices to the sacred hymns known as the Vedas which are themselves amongst the oldest religious compositions in the world. Couched in the classical language of Sanskrit, some of the Vedas date from before the first millennium BC. Together with later works like the Brahmanas, plus the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, they comprise a glorious literary heritage whence all knowledge of India’s history prior to c500 BC has traditionally been derived.
Brief and to the point, the story of Manu and the Flood served its purpose of introducing a new progenitor of the human race and, incidentally, explaining the name of a mountain. Such, however, was too modest an interpretation for later generations. Myth, the smoke of history, is seen to signal new and more relevant meanings when espied from the distance of later millennia. In time the predicament of the small fish liable to be devoured by larger fish became a Sanskrit metaphor for an anarchic state of affairs (matsya-nyaya) equivalent to ‘the law of the jungle’ in English. Manu’s flood, like Noah’s, came to be seen as the means of putting a stop to this chaos. And who better to orchestrate matters and so save mankind than Lord Vishnu? A minor deity when the Vedas were composed, Vishnu had since soared to prominence as the great preserver of the world in the Hindu pantheon and the second member of its trinity. Thus, in due course, the Flood became a symbol of order-out-of-chaos through divine intervention, and the fish (matsya) came to be recognised as the first of the nine incarnations (avatara) of Lord Vishnu. Myth, howsoever remote, serves the needs of the moment. So does history, in India as elsewhere.
Some historians have dated the Flood very precisely to 3102 BC, this being the year when, by elaborate computation, they conclude that our current era, the Kali Yug in Indian cosmology, began and when Manu became the progenitor of a new people as well as their first great king and law-giver. It is also the first credible date in India’s history and, being one of such improbable exactitude, it deserves respect.
Other historians, while conceding the importance of 3102 BC, have declared it to be not the date of the Flood but of the great Bharata war. A Trojan-style conflict fought in the vicinity of Delhi, the war involved both gods and men and was immortalised in the Sanskrit verse epic known as the Mahabharata, the composition of whose roughly 100,000 stanzas constituted something of an epic in itself. This war, not the flood, was the event that marked the beginning of our present era and must, it is argued, therefore belong to the year 3102 BC. Complex astronomical calculations are deployed in support of this dating, and an inscription carved on a stone temple at Aihole in the south Indian state of Karnataka is said to confirm it.
But the Aihole memorialist, endowing his temple 1600 kilometres from Delhi and nearly four thousand years later, may have got it wrong. According to the genealogical listings in the Puranas, a later collection of ‘ancient legends’, ninety-five generations passed away between the Flood and the war; other evidence based on sterner, more recent, scholarship agrees that the war was much later than the fourth millennium BC. This greatest single event in India’s ancient history, and the inspiration for the world’s longest poem, did not occur until ‘c1400 BC’ according to the History and Culture of the Indian People, a standard work of many volumes commissioned in the 1950s to celebrate India’s liberation from foreign rule and foreign scholarship.
Nevertheless, 3102 BC sticks in the historical gullet. Such are the dismal uncertainties of early Indian chronology that no slip of the chisel is going to deny the historian the luxury of a real date. Corroboration of the idea that it may, after all, apply to a Flood has since come from the excavations in distant Iraq of one of Mesopotamia’s ancient civilisations. There too archaeologists have found evidence of an appalling inundation. It submerged the Sumerian city of Shuruppak, and has been dated with some confidence to the late fourth millennium BC. In fact, 3102 BC would suit it very well.
This Sumerian inundation, and the local Genesis story in the Epic of Gilgamesh which probably derived from it, is taken to be the origin of the legend of the Flood which eventually found its way into Jewish and Christian tradition. Yet in many respects the Sumerian account is more closely echoed in the Indian version than in the Semitic. For instance, just as in later Hindu tradition Manu’s fish becomes an incarnation of the great god Vishnu, so the Sumerian deity responsible for saving mankind is often represented in the form of a fish. ‘It is the agreement in details which is so striking,’ according to Romila Thapar.2 The details argue strongly for some common source for this most popular of Genesis myths, and scholars like Thapar, ever ready to expose cultural plagiarism, see both Manu and Noah as relocated manifestations of a Sumerian prototype.
The tendency to synchronise and subordinate things Indian to parallel events and achievements in the history of countries to the west of India is a recurrent theme in Indian historiography and has rightly incurred the wrath of some Indian historians. So much so that they sometimes go to the other extreme of denying that any creative impetus, any technological invention, even any stylistic convention, ever reached India from the west – or, indeed, the West. And in the case of the Flood they may have a point. Subject to the annual deluge of the monsoon and living for the most part on the flat alluvial plains created by notoriously errant river systems, the people of north India have always had far more experience of floods, and far more reason to fear them, than their neighbours in the typically more arid lands of western Asia.
Floods, though now associated more with the eastern seaboard of the Indian subcontinent and Bangladesh, still annually inundate vast areas of the Ganga and Indus basins. They have always done so. One such Gangetic flood, dated by archaeologists to about 800 BC, destroyed the town of Hastinapura which, after the great Bharata war, had become the capital of the descendants of Arjuna, one of the war’s main protagonists. Since the flooding of Hastinapura is also recorded in Sanskrit textual tradition, and since the same tradition says that the town was then under its seventh ruler since the war, an approximate date for the war itself of about 975 BC has been postulated.
Thus, for the titanic struggle recorded in the Mahabharata, we already have three dates: 3102 BC, c1400 BC and c950 BC. A couple of millennia one way or the other is a long time even in prehistoric terms. India’s history, though undoubtedly ancient, leaves much room for manoeuvre. A mistranslated word from one of the many voluminous, difficult and defective texts wherein, long after their composition, the Vedic verses were eventually written down, can create havoc. Similarly a chance discovery of no obvious provenance can prompt major revisions.
Another flood, later than the Sumerian one but much earlier than that at Hastinapura and so perhaps a serious contender for the one which Manu survived, is thought by some to have once inundated the plains of the lower Indus in what is now Pakistan. Geologists date it to some time soon after 2000 BC, and believe that it may in fact have been a succession of inundations. Whether they were the result of climate change, of tectonic action lower down the river resulting in damming and the formation of inland lakes, or simply the cumulative effect of annual siltation is not clear. But whatever the cause, the floods were bad news for those agriculturalists who had pioneered a highly productive economy based on growing cereals in the fine soil alongside the river. Managing the river’s seasonal rise so as to enrich and irrigate their fields was the key to their success. An annual surplus had generated wealth, encouraged craft industries and fostered trade. Settlements had become cities. Along the lower Indus and its tributaries had grown up one of the world’s first urban societies, a contemporary of those on the Nile and the Euphrates and a rival for the tag of ‘the cradle of civilisation’.
Then, soon after 2000 BC according to the archaeologists, came the floods. If they did not actually overwhelm this precocious civilisation, they certainly obliterated it. In time, layer after layer of Indus mud, possibly wind-blown as well as water-borne, choked the streets, rotted the timbers, and piled high above the rooftops. The ground level rose by ten metres and the water table followed it. Meanwhile the river resumed its regular flow and found new channels down which to flood. On top of the cities, now consigned to oblivion beneath tons of alluvium, other peoples grazed their goats, sowed their seeds and spun their myths. A great civilisation was lost to memory.
Not until nearly four thousand years later, in fact in the early 1920s, was its existence even suspected. It was pure chance that Indian and British archaeologists, while investigating later more visible ruins at Mohenjo-daro in Sind and at Harappa in the Panjab, made the prehistoric discovery of the twentieth century. They called their find the ‘Indus valley civilisation’, and drew the obvious comparisons with those of Egypt and Sumeria. Indeed they thought that it might be an offshoot of the latter. Later, as its sophisticated and surprisingly uniform culture became more apparent, the Indus valley civilisation was accorded distinct status. And when the extent of its cultural reach was found to embrace a host of other sites, many of them well beyond the valley of the Indus, it was renamed after one of these sites as the Harappan civilisation.
Suddenly India’s history had acquired a rich prehistoric pedigree of archaeologically verifiable antiquity. Here, it seemed, was a worthy companion to that Sanskrit literary heritage of equally impressive, though maddeningly uncertain, antiquity as comprised by the Vedas and associated texts – the Brahmanas and Puranas as well as epics such as the Mahabharata. Perhaps these two very different sources, the one purely archaeological and the other purely literary, would complement one another. An ancient and immensely distinguished civilisation would thus be revealed in multi-dimensional detail.
The Harappan finds included buildings, tools, artefacts, jewellery and some sculpture. Intimate details about Harappan housing, diet and waste disposal came to light. Maritime trade with Sumeria was attested and led to some cross-dating. The Carbon 14 process produced comparative dates accurate to plus or minus a century or so. Amongst the Harappans there was even what looked like a system of writing: some four hundred characters were identified, each, it was deduced, representing a single word; and they read from right to left. Sanskritists were soon clear that this was not Sanskrit, the language of the Vedic heritage. But it might be some kind of proto-Dravidian, the parent of south India’s languages, while the script did suggest similarities with Brahmi, the earliest Indian script hitherto identified and read. It seemed only a matter of painstaking study before the Harappan language would also be understood and the secrets of its civilisation revealed.
Unfortunately this script, despite the best endeavours of international scholarship and despite the code-cracking potential of computers, remains undeciphered. Totally lacking, therefore, is any intelligible record of the Harappans written by themselves. Who were they? What did they worship? Had they established a recognisable state or states? They tell us nothing. How did they come to be there? And what became of them in the end? We don’t know. Here was history complete with approximate dates, cities, industries and arts, but absolutely no recorded events. Here too was a society with a distinct and extensive culture but, barring some not very helpful bones, no people, indeed without a single name.
Names, on the other hand, were precisely what that Sanskrit literary tradition of the Vedas provided – in mind-boggling abundance. Kings and heroes, gods and demons, places and peoples, tumble from the Vedas, Brahmanas, Puranas and epics as if ready-made for the compilation of a historical index. Although no single site, no potsherd or artefact, can certainly be identified with the people who composed these verses, and although their chronology remains shrouded in that maddening uncertainty, we know that they called themselves arya – hence ‘Aryan’ – and we know of their lifestyle, their social organisation, their beliefs and their innumerable antecedents and descendants. Here, in short, was a people proudly obsessed with the past, who defined themselves in terms of lineages reaching back through the generations to Manu, and whose records might therefore provide for the enigmatic Harappan civilisation precisely the human detail that it so notably lacked.
Would that it were so. In fact, as will be seen, though the two civilisations – the Harappan and the Aryan – overlapped in geography and possibly also in chronology, no shred of coincidence certainly connects them. India’s history starts with the apparently irreconcilable. Only in the last few years have sustainable connections between its Harappan and Aryan constituents been tentatively proposed. These connections, though tantalising, remain few and far from conclusive. India’s history as currently understood must be seen as beginning with two woefully unconnected cultures.
This state of affairs may, however, serve as a warning. Despite the pick-and-preach approach of many nationalist historians, geographical India is not now, and never has been, a single politico-cultural entity. In fact, its current three-way division between Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, far from denying some intrinsic unity, is a notable simplification of its traditional plurality. Analogies should be drawn, if at all, not with Egypt or with Greece but with regional constructs of a similar size like the Middle East or Europe. And just as in the Middle East those early civilisations in Egypt and Mesopotamia flourished simultaneously yet quite independently, or just as later in Europe the Byzantine and Carolingian empires could both claim pre-eminence without necessarily coming into conflict, so it is in India.
Sadly, though, this is not a situation which makes for fluent narrative history. In a global landmass as vast and varied as the South Asian subcontinent an orderly linear progression from one cultural flowering to another, one dynasty to another, or one empire-builder to another will prove elusive. Only a still far from certain chronology, and not any sequential progression, demands that the Harappans and their archaeology take precedence ahead of the Aryans and their literature.


To anyone familiar with the Egypt of the Pharaohs, the warren of dun diggings which is an excavated Harappan site may seem unimpressive. It is hard not to sympathise with the first archaeologist to survey Mohenjodaro. ‘I was greatly disappointed,’ wrote Mr D.R. Bhandarkar in his report. He was visiting the largely desert province of Sind in the winter of 1911–12 as Superintending Archaeologist of the Western Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India. ‘Mohenjo-daro’, he noted, meant ‘the Mound of the Dead Men’. There was one big mound and six smaller ones. And in words that must subsequently have haunted him, the Superintending Archaeologist dismissed the lot as ‘not representing the remains of … any ancient monument’.
According to local tradition, these are the ruins of a town only two hundred years old … This seems not incorrect, because the bricks here found are of the modern type, and there is a total lack of carved terra-cottas amidst the whole ruins.3
Wrong in every detail, this statement must rank amongst archaeology’s greatest gaffes.
Today’s less qualified visitors, though willing to forgive the absence of ‘carved terra-cottas’, tend to bemoan that of more obvious features. For at Mohenjo-daro no pyramids or ziggurats, no sculpted towers or mighty henges frown over the deep and dusty thoroughfares. On first acquaintance it is as if the most extensive of the Harappan sites was never really a city at all, merely the footings and foundations of one.
This, though, is decidedly not the case. Deep in ‘the Mound of the Dead Men’ there was once activity and industry. Behind the extant façades of blank featureless wall families lived, craftsmen plied their trades and vendors sold their wares. If there was an absence of eye-catching memorials it was not, as will appear, through any lack of civic pride or direction. It may tell us something about the nature o...

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Citation styles for IndiaHow to cite India for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Keay, J. (2011). India ([edition unavailable]). Grove Atlantic. Retrieved from (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
Keay, John. (2011) 2011. India. [Edition unavailable]. Grove Atlantic.
Harvard Citation
Keay, J. (2011) India. [edition unavailable]. Grove Atlantic. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Keay, John. India. [edition unavailable]. Grove Atlantic, 2011. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.