India: An Illustrated History, by Prem Kishore & Anuradha Kishore Ganpati
Admittedly, I was a bit disappointed by this book. Any time an entire subcontinent’s history is covered in about 200 pages one can expect that the coverage will be superficial and that is certainly the case here. A substantial amount of space is devoted to India’s religious beliefs, which is among the least interesting thing about India for people who are not of Indian descent nor of particular fascination for heathen worship practices. Yet one could expect at least a little bit of insight in how India kept (if it kept) a unified civilization in the face of centuries of persistent political disunity that made it significantly easy for European imperial powers to strongly influence the country. The authors want to claim that the period of imperial rule was simply a little blip but that clearly wasn’t the case since the Portuguese started their efforts to control the trade of the Indian Ocean going back to the early 1500’s and the British raj and Portuguese possession of Goa lasted until after World War II. Overall this book is clearly written with the agenda of making India’s culture seem to be particularly important as far as the world is concerned, and that task is subtly undermined by the lack of concern that the authors show to large swaths of Indian history.
This book is a bit more than 200 pages and is divided into two parts and seventeen chapters. After a preface the first part of the book consists of a discussion that focuses on Indian political history (I). The authors begin with a brief discussion of the Indus River Valley civilization (1) before moving to a longer discussion of the Vedic age (2) that includes a lot of discussion about the origins of Hindu epics, Jainism, Buddhism, and Bhakti. After that the authors discuss the first Indian Empire in the Mauryans and how that period ended in the ferocity of foreign invasion (3), after which the author discusses the Gupta dynasty that followed (4) as well as giving a very brief look at the Andhras, Pandyas, Pallavas, Cholas, Cheras, Hoysalas, and Vijayanagars of South India (5). A discussion of the Rajput era (6) then leads into a look at the rise of Islam (7) and the period of the Moghul dynasty (8) as well as early European voyages that led to the coast of India becoming dominated by the Portuguese, Dutch, Danes, French, and finally the English (9). At this point the author very briefly discusses the British raj as is it is something to be ashamed of (10) before spending a substantial time talking about the Indian Nationalist movement and Congress’ political power during the early period after independence (11) as well as a look at India today that focuses on continuity with the Hindu past and contemporary technology (12). The second part of the book then contains a look at India’s “living traditions” (II), including religion (13), various heathen rituals and customs (14), crafts (15), music and dance (16), as well as food (17), after which the book ends with a bibliography and index.
Ultimately, this book provides a stellar example of C.S. Lewis’ hostility towards chronological snobbery. A substantial portion of the book’s space devoted to history is spent looking at the history of the post-independence India since 1947, which is all the more striking given the thousands of years of Indian history that existed before that. More time is spent on the post-independence period of Israel’s history than spent on the period of the Gupta dynasty, South Indian kingdoms, Rajput era, and the rise of Islam in India combined over the course of more than 1000 years, as well as more than the entire time spent talking about the Moghul dynasty and early European voyages, which demonstrates a severe lack of balance in the material covered. The authors seem to want the reader to think that India is impressive today and that a focus on Hindu festivals and the Nehru dynasty of politicians will impress those people who read about this book and who presumably come to it with little knowledge about the history of India as a whole, which is sadly not something that they will find to a great degree here.