Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Story of India (2007)


Presented By: Michael Wood


The Story of India is a BBC documentary series, written and presented by historian Michel Wood, about the history of India. He explains historical events by travelling to the places where they took place, examining archaeological and historical evidence at first and interviewing historians and archaeologists, as well as talking with local people.

As far as I remember from my school days, we were taught India's Independence movement and 20th century world events including the world wars as part of history course during tenth standard. In eighth/ninth standards, we were taught the events from 1500 AD including the Mughal rule in India based on how I remember me mugging up dates and events from those times. I am quite sure that all history pre-1500 were taught before ninth standard which means when we were less than 14 years old. What I mean to say is that these interesting parts of history were taught in a drab manner at an age when we were patently not capable of appreciating it or be interested by it. Most of us don't take up history courses after tenth standard as we have a fixation on becoming engineers or doctors and this means that plenty of us don't have much of a clue about history, which is very sad. In my opinion, a knowledge of history is a must and as they say: 'History might not repeat itself, but it does rhyme'. These days I am busy catching up with whatever I can learn about world history and I have found Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast to be very useful tool while being quite engrossing at the same time. I had seen BBC's 'The Story of India' some three or so years ago and decided to watch it again yesterday, just like that. It consists of six episodes covering the entire history of Indian subcontinent.

Episode-1: Beginnings

It begins with footage from Alapuzha- Kerala, capturing a ceremony by Brahmins involving chants which have been transmitted orally through generations over thousands of years and it resembles bird sounds. It must have been from a time before languages were invented and the ceremony is a twelve day Yaga dedicated to the fire God. Before watching this documentary, I had no idea that such a thing occurred just hundred or so kilometers from where I lived. 

Michael Wood proceeds to visit places in what is Pakistan these days, where ruins of Indus valley civilization of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro were discovered in early twentieth century. They existed from around 2500 BC to 1900 BC and at that time they were the most advanced in the World. Michael Wood looks at the data from scientists to speculate that the civilization ended due to climate change which caused the Eastward drift movement of rivers.



Then he takes a look at the origin of Sanskrit as a  language through Sanskrit text of Rig Veda which is from around 1500 BC. Based on studies, the current theory is that Sanskrit, Latin and Persian languages came from a common source and Wood examines it by citing the similarity in words used for father, mother and horse in all the three languages. This is tied in with the Indo-Aryan migration theory and Aryans were supposed to have come from central Asia. Rig Veda is supposed to be about these Aryans and there is a theory that after they invaded and occupied most parts of India, Caste system originated in India as a method to maintain societal hierarchy and community purity. Aryans are supposed to be the ancestors of Brahmins and they had a monopoly on education and thus the usage of Sanskrit. Michael Wood visits a recent archaeological discovery in Turkmenistan, which is supposed to be a city that developed during the Aryan migration. They stayed there for some time and had to move again due to another climate change event that affected the associated river. Some of them went Westward to Persia and the rest went East reaching India. The Sankrit epic, Mahabharatha, is supposed to be an historical text with fantasy elements depicting post Aryan invasion of India and is supposed to have originated between 900-800 BC. Wood visits Kurukshetra and Hastinapur, where some discoveries have been made giving credibility to the depiction of events in Mahabharata.

The foreign origin theory of Sanskrit is contested by the figures from the Hindu Nationalist Movement and they are not generally fans of the scientific method. They claim that it originated with Indus Valley civilization sometime around 4000 BC and this revisionism increased in intensity post 1990. They fantasize about India's Vedic past, by taking things very literally, and claim that thing like airplanes, cosmetic surgery, knowledge about nuclear physics etc existed during the Vedic times.

Episode 2: The Power of Ideas

This episode moves on to the revolutionary years after 500 BC-the age of Buddha and Mahavira, leading to Buddhism and Jainism respectively. Michael Wood takes a look at the teachings of Buddha, who advocates against any sort of attachments if you want to remain happy. His teachings were so revolutionary that he even advocated against the idea of God, as it also represents a sort of clinging. 

In 331 BC, Alexander the Great had reached the planes of Indian sub-continent and a boy is said to have looked admiringly at his multinational army. The boy, Chandragupta Maurya, went on to establish Mauryan empire which during his time occupied the entire sub-continent except for the state of Orissa and regions of Tamil Nadu. His chief adviser, Chanakya, passed a series of major economic and political reforms. A strong central administration was established patterned after Chanakya's text, 'Arthashastra' (Economics & Political Science). It was a time of great social and religious reform in India and Buddhism and Jainism became increasingly prominent. Chandragupta went on to become a Jain after renouncing his throne and proceeded to starve himself to death.

'Ashoka the Great' was the grandson of Chandragupta who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent circa 269 BC to 232 BC. The empire's capital was Pataliputra in present day Bihar with provincial capitals at Taxila and Ujjain. In about 260 BC, he waged a bitterly destructive war against the state of Kalinga (modern day Odisha), after which he had an epiphany leading to him embracing Buddhism and a path of non-violence. He is now remembered as a philanthropic administrator who addressed his people as children and mentions that as a father he desires their good. He was maybe the first ruler in the world who had advocated human and animal rights along with secularism. Ashoka Chakra, the wheel of righteousness, has been included in the Indian national flag. Sanghis (Hindu nationalist thugs), who thinks secularism to be a Western idea imposed on India by Nehru, should maybe take a look at the history of Ashoka and the Maurya dynasty.

Episode 3: Spice Routes & Silk Road

The discovery of monsoon by the West and the subsequent exploitation of the Monsoon winds led to the trading of spices and gold with ancient Romans and Greeks, thus putting the Indian sub-continent at the heart of Global Commerce during the time of great Roman empire. The trading (for Pepper, rice and silk in exchange for Gold) was done through the Western coast ports of India, and particularly through the lost port of Muziris. Some recent discoveries have been made regarding the location of Muziris near Kochi (North Paravur, Kodungalloor). The Kochi biennial which started in 2012 is named as Kochi-Muziris Biennale. It was the trade with the West during those times that led to the first Jewish settlement in Kerala along with the origin of Syrian Christians here. There is even a theory about Doubting Thomas visiting India having landed in Muziris with the travelling Jews.

This episode also take a peek at Tamil Nadu, which boasts the last surviving classical civilization and language. One can understand why Tamilians were so riled up when there was a campaign to adopt Hindi as the sole official language of India. After independence the plan was to have Hindi as official language with English continuing as associate official language for a period of fifteen years. Many of the states in South India and East India can't/don't use Hindi and the protests were led primarily by DMK of Tamil Nadu. To allay fears, Nehru enacted the Official Languages Act in 1963 to ensure continuing use of English as official language beyond 1965. It did not satisfy DMK as they feared subsequent administrations might not honor the assurances and continued with the protests. It played a major role in it coming to power after winning the assembly elections in 1967 after which Congress have never regained power in Tamil Nadu.

The last half of this episode takes a look at the Kushan empire, whose rulers originated from northern part of China during first century AD. They established Silk route through their Westward expansion and finally reached India through Afghanistan and Khyber pass by second century. They were the middle kingdom of the World with diplomatic contacts with Roman Empire in the West and Han China of the East. Their north Indian presence stretched at least till Varanasi.

Kanishka was the emperor of Kushan Dynasty in 127-151 and was famous for his military, political and spiritual achievements. The capitals of the empire was in Peshawar with one of the other major capital being Mathura in India. His conquests led to the development of Silk Road. He was a devout follower of Buddhism and played an important role in the transmission of Buddhism to China. He let his subjects in India to follow the religions they like but there was still unease about him as he was ultimately a foreigner. The Kushan empire fragmented into semi-independent kingdoms by third century AD. 


Episode-4: Ages of Gold

The Kushan rule in India was displaced by the Gupta Empire which was founded by Maharaja Sri Gupta. They ruled from approximately 320 to 550 AD and covered much of the subcontinent. According to many historians, it is a Vaishya dynasty and appeared as a reaction against oppressive rulers. The peace and prosperity created under the leadership of Gupta empire enabled the pursuit of scientific and artistic endeavors. This period is called the Golden age of India and the period produced scholars like Kalisdasa, Aryabhata, Varahamihira, Vishnu Sharma and Vatsyayana. This era marked the invention of zero and Aryabhata excelled in both Mathematics and Astronomy. The idea of Earth revolving around the sun was already known in India and Arybhata had correctly calculated the circumference of Earth. Vatsyayana is of course famous as the author of Kamasutra, which is a very prominent Indian export to the World. The Gupta empire collapsed in the sixth century.



This episode also covers the Chola kingdom in of Tamil Nadu, in South India. The height of the Chola empire was during the reign of Raja Raja Chola 1, who ruled between 985 and 1014. The capital was located at Tanjore and Raja Raja expanded his empire as far as Srilanka in the south and Kalinga in the north-east. They also established trade links with Indonesia and China.  

Episode 5: The Meeting of Two Oceans

The fifth episode examines the coming of Islam to the subcontinent. It began with the expedition Mahmud of Ghazni to Somnath where he plundered the temple. Even though Islam reached India through trade links, it spread rapidly in India after Islamic conquests. There were forced conversions and thus began the uneasy relationship between Hindus and Muslims. Wood jumps over to 16th century to explain the establishment of Mughal empire when Babur defeated Ibrahim Lodhi, the Muslim ruler of Delhi, in the battle of Panipat. The Mughals were originally from central Asia and had Mongol origin, but oriented more towards Persian rather than Turko-Mongol culture. Babur was a descendant of Genghis Khan from his mother's side.


Babur's grandson, Akbar, was the greatest of the Mughal emperors who established his capital in Agra. To unify the vast Mughal state, he adopted a centralized system of administration and adopted a policy of conciliating conquered rulers through marriage and diplomacy. He adopted policies that won him support of non-Muslim subjects and decreed that no one religion could hold the ultimate truth. But his dream of unity ended with civil war between his great grandsons-Darah and Aurangzeb. Darah had modeled his thinking based on Akbar's ideals but Aurangazeb wanted a return to Muslim orthodoxy. It all ended with a war in which the latter emerged as winner. Aurangazeb cut-off his brother's head and sent it to his imprisoned father, Shajahan, who had built the world-famous Taj Mahal. Taj Mahal also symbolically represent the reason for the decline of Mughal empire, a nobility steeped in opulence while the rural populace suffered from extreme poverty.

Episode 6: Freedom

Unlike other foreign rulers of India who came through Khyber pass, the British East India company came through Oceans establishing their first base in Eastern coast port city of Madras. Their influence grew over the entire east coast, finally reaching Calcutta. European traders in India coalesced as one led by British and the other by French. Their disputes and wars in Europe was replicated in South India. The British East India Company acted as a multinational corporation backed by the state and driven by profits. All came to a head in 1857, in what we call now as first war for independence, which the British described as Indian mutiny. It was the biggest rebellion against any European colonial rule and marked the end of both British East India Company as well as Mughal dynasty, with the British government taking direct control over the Raj.

Indian National Congress was established with the help of a British rebel, A.O. Hume, had the remit of obtaining freedom. The British had the habit of classifying Indians based on religion and this identity politics partly led to the stark division of people along communal lines. Muslim league leader, Jinnah, demanded a separate state for Muslims which led to the formation of Pakistan. The ambivalence and carelessness of the British, with all other parties involved also being culpable, led to the partition being a bloody affair with an estimated deaths of one million people. Consequences of the same is still reverberating but India as a democracy have survived somehow.

Post Script

Overall the documentary is a great watch giving a macro overview of the Indian history. It is impossible to cover everything in six hours but it is a very worthy effort backed  by big budget from BBC and great presentation by Michael Wood. The Indian historians will of course criticize the same just for being a foreign production. Well, they can do one. In India we don't have a documentary culture regarding these things and the academia is not in the habit of making their work accessible to ordinary people. It is only fitting that the British, who contributed very much to the discovery of our own History, is making this kind of documentary.

Rating: 5/5