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Good Introduction for the Curious

A History of India - Hermann Kulke, Dietmar Rothermund

We’re covering about 4000 years of history in 350 pages, so you know it will be very superficial and introductory. As it happens, that’s what I needed, because my knowledge of Indian history was pretty much zero.  The book is roughly divided into five Eras:  Prehistory, the Age of the Hindu Princes, the Age of the Mughal Rulers, the Age of British Rule, and the Postcolonial Era.


The biggest misconception I had about India was dispelled in the first 50 pages. For some reason, I thought India lie hidden and inaccessible behind the Himalaya Mountains, relatively unknown and isolated throughout ancient times. I knew that Alexander the Great’s armies briefly reached India, but I pictured it as an aberration, and thought maybe they reached some far-off hilltop, from which they might have gazed at India, without actually trespassing. 


Wherever that idea came from, it was absurd, and plainly wrong.  Going back thousands of years, Uzbeks, Kurds, Persians, and Afghans all frequently penetrated into India, both as traders, scholars, proselytizers, and military invaders.  The Romans traded frequently with Gujarati merchants on the Northwestern Indian shore- as attested by the discovery of tens of thousands of Roman Empire mint coins there, as well as 1st Century Roman writings which describe the “monsoon passage” across the Arabian Sea, and the spice traders of Gujarat waiting to trade on the other side.


Alexander did reach India, and his armies battled the Hindu princes and their fantastical (to Greek eyes) cavalries of war elephants on the flood plains between the Indus and Ganges rivers. Of interest: Alexander did well against the less-organized Hindu princes, and might have had a more lasting presence in India, but was forced to turn back to Greece by his armies, who began to suspect that his higher-than-expected casualties was a ploy to avoid paying them.   


The Era of the Hindu princes was a time of small agrarian (mostly rice-based, but some wheat-based in the North) city-states, and Hinduism was a disunified patchwork of different local beliefs.


Moving into the period of the European Middle Ages, India thrived. Mongol invaders and traveling Chinese scholars facilitated cultural exchange with the East, while Persian invasion brought Islam and the more elaborate system of bureaucratic rule from the West.  The Era of Mughal princes marks a period of consolidation, social polarization between converts to Islam and Hindus, attendant homogenization of Hindu beliefs, expansion of domestic trade, and divergent evolution of the “Dravidic” character of the South compared to the “Aryan” character of the North.  The South develops extensive trade with Indonesia and Indochina (particularly the Angkor Kingdom in present-day Cambodia). The North gravitates towards Afghan and Persian influences, particularly in the Kashmir and Punjab regions… which persist in modern day as hotspots of territorial and cultural conflict between (Muslim) Pakistan and (predominantly Hindu) India.


The chapters about British rule focus mainly on how England got its foothold into India through the British East India Company, which found favor among traders in Bengal and Orissa by introducing a much-needed stable and non-counterfeitable medium of trade: silver.  Using cheap labor paid in silver, the East India Company set up spinning factories to spin cotton (locally grown, and later imported from Egypt and the American South) and later (after the Industrial Revolution) to weave them into textiles. While local princes fought each other and diminished each other, East India Company made itself indispensable to the Bengali economy. As East India Company officials were taken into confidence of the local rulers, they began to assert British principles of jurisprudence into local laws, and established courts based on British law, and largely attended and run by the British. From there, British schools were established, and the East India Company began to exact payment from local leaders for the “services” it was providing.  


The history of the British in India seems to be a story of “mission creep”. Even the founders of the East India Company never envisioned it as a vehicle for conquest.  Yet… by the mid-1700’s, Bengali princes who opposed the British were easily removed, and more friendly puppets installed in their places. British “fees” became taxes, and payment to East India Company shareholders as well as to the Crown became institutionalized as tribute paid by a colony. Technological advances such as the railroads, telegraphs, better-developed port facilities, and electricity were all installed, wholly owned and maintained by the British. Eliminating the Dutch and Portuguese  presence in India, and setting up a controlled national government were easily achieved at this point. Offical rule by the British government, as opposed to the British East India Company, was formalized in the mid-1800's after a series of rebellions were put down, which strained the resources of the Company, and exposed the absurdity of a textile and spice trading company ruling a nation of (at the time) 200 million.  


As an aside, the municipal history of Calcutta is covered here, which is an unlikely story of a small rice-farming village which just happened to be situated in the right location to become a sprawling metropolis and the epicenter of British government on the subcontinent for 350 years. 


Gandhi and the separatist movement is covered, and the part I found most surprising it how long it dragged out. In some ways, the British seemed to know that they could never hold power over so many subjects, located at such a distance from England, without their consent. From the earliest days of the East India Company, the Company sought (by necessity) to rule with minimal application of force, and when such force was needed, it was subcontracted out to hired "muscle" -often from Punjab, whose geography on the frontier to the Persian Empire caused them to develop their martial practice to a much more sophisticated degree than many other regions.


Throughout the India and Britain were starting to negotiate separation as early as World War 1, but always with dallying and British excuses. (Personally, I think this is how the European Union plans to stave off the British “Brexit”.)  The modern era is better known to most of us, and the 1982 movie “Gandhi”, starring Ben Kingsley, complements this portion of the book well.


Overall this is a good introductory book which assumes very little foreknowledge of Indian history. My one complaint is that it lacks adequate maps to accompany the text, and the maps which are provided have such small text that they are practically unreadable.