A lot of any country’s history needs to be mined out of millennium-layers of myths and legends covering it. This is true for India as it is for Iceland. It is here that the second and significantly updated volume of Professor Upinder Singh’s A History of Ancient and Medieval India assumes an urgent and immediate relevance.

Upinder’s is a timely and scholarly work primarily intended as a textbook. However, it is of equal or greater importance to a lay audience deeply influenced today by factually incorrect but persuasive social media narratives of our past. With almost every turn of page Upinder Singh, a well-known historian and teacher, enlightens us about our distant and contested past in ways unmatched by any other historian.

By all standards the book is an ambitious undertaking, The period it covers in 10 parts is vast going way back in time to South Asia’s Palaeolithic (3 million to about 11,000 BC) and Mesolithic (10,000 to about 5,000 BC) periods, to the 12th century CE covering the early entry of Islam into India from the seventh century CE and invasions and conquests that followed from the 8th century CE onward.

The book is lavishly illustrated with high resolution drawings maps and photographs complementing its textual narratives. Its several boxes highlight aspects specific to the periods the book covers. These include graphic accounts of the people behind the unravelling of India’s past especially foreign - mostly British - and Indian archaeologists, palaeontologists, epigraphists, and numismatists and those from several scientific disciplines. The accompanying maps are relatively large in number and add considerably to our understanding of India’s past in cultural, religious literary and civic dimensions.

Ringside view of history

In her book, Upinder gives us a ringside view of history as it keeps unfolding with new discoveries, the Harappan period straddling India and Pakistan being a case in point. As we continue to unearth sites of archaeological importance, we are just beginning to understand a civilisation beyond town planning and drainage. Recent studies have given us an idea of how healthy the Harappans were, what they ate, the animals they domesticated or worshipped and the geographical extent of their civilisation. The last pushes the boundaries of the Harappan civilisation all the way to Shortughai in Afghanistan.

The evolution of society and political organisation in India not just in its core but its periphery as well (especially in the North East and South areas most historians ignore or underplay) are well covered by Upinder. What is noteworthy is the clarity and detail with which she presents the philosophical and religious evolution of Hinduism including those of caste and gender as well as sacrifices and rituals. The Vedas get detailed treatment in the book as do the growth and spread (and decline) of Buddhism and Jainism.

Political evolution of India

The book brings out the political evolution of India as well as ideas of kinship and political power. Ashoka the Great (268 to 232 BC) gets excellent coverage. The account of the extent of his empire and its Buddhist basis are complemented by very apposite photos and boxes such as the ones on the stone portraits of Ashoka at Kanaganahalli in northern Karnataka, and an account of Patliputra and Ashoka’s palace by the Greeks, Arrian and Aelian.

Upinder’s book gives us an idea of an India engaged with the rest of the world both to its west and east – especially West Asia, Greece, Rome, and China. Where the book falls short, however, is in its limited treatment of Islam’s engagement with India. While it gives us an idea of how the faith reached India through traders who established India’s oldest mosques in what is now Kerala and Gujarat, it is surprisingly economical in its coverage of the Arab incursion into India in 712 CE by Muhammad Bin Qasim of the Umayyad Caliphate as well as the invasions by Muhammad of Ghazni between 1,000 and 1,027 CE and by Muhammad Ghori between 1,173–1,206 CE.

The book has a few shortcomings starting with its index, which is sketchy. It is also unwieldy, heavy and impossible to read except when laid flat on a table. The soft cover quickly - and annoyingly - curls up at its edges.

In length and breadth Upinder’s book can easily accommodate two biggish paperbacks with room to spare. But all this should not detract from the fact that Upinder Singh’s A History of Ancient and Medieval India is a unique work and a go-to textbook for students of ancient Indian history as well as the lay reader and therefore well worth owning.

(The reviewer taught public policy and contemporary history at IISc)

Check out the book on Amazon.

About the book
Title: A History of Ancient and Medieval India - From the Stone Age to the 12th Century
Author: Upinder Singh
Publisher: Pearson India Education Services Pvt Ltd - NOIDA -UP - 2024
Pages: 817
Price: ₹1,999