Romila Thapar (born 1931) is an Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India.
After graduating from Panjab University, Thapar earned her doctorate under A. L. Basham at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London in 1958. Later she worked as Professor of Ancient Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she is Professor Emerita.
Thapar's major works are Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations, Recent Perspectives of Early Indian History (editor), A History of India Volume One, and Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300.
Her historical work portrays the origins of Hinduism as an evolving interplay between social forces. Her recent work on Somnath examines the evolution of the historiographies about the legendary Gujarat temple.
In her first work, Asoka and the Decline of the Maurya published in 1963, Thapar situates Ashoka's policy of dhamma in its social and political context, as a non-sectarian civic ethic intended to hold together an empire of diverse ethnicities and cultures. She attributes the decline of the Mauryan empire to its highly centralized administration which called for rulers of exceptional abilities to function well.
Thapar's first volume of A History of India is written for a popular audience and encompasses the period from its early history to the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century.
Ancient Indian Social History deals with the period from early times to the end of the first millennium, includes a comparative study of Hindu and Buddhist socio-religious systems, and examines the role of Buddhism in social protest and social mobility in the caste system. From Lineage to State analyses the formation of states in the middle Ganga valley in the first millennium BC, tracing the process to a change, driven by the use of iron and plough agriculture, from a pastoral and mobile lineage-based society to one of settled peasant holdings, accumulation and increased urbanisation.
Recognition and Honor
Thapar has been a visiting professor at Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the College de France in Paris. She was elected General President of the Indian History Congress in 1983 and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1999.
Thapar is an Honorary Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She holds honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago, the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, the University of Oxford, the University of Edinburgh (2004) the University of Calcutta (2002) and recently (in 2009) from the University of Hyderabad. She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009. In 2004 the U.S. Library of Congress appointed her as the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South.
In January 2005, she declined the Padma Bhushan awarded by the Indian Government. In a letter to President A P J Abdul Kalam, she said she was "astonished to see her name in the list of awardees because three months ago when I was contacted by the HRD ministry and asked if I would accept an award, I made my position very clear and explained my reason for declining it". Thapar had declined the Padma Bhushan on an earlier occasion, in 1992. To the President, she explained the reason for turning down the award thus: "I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not state awards". She is co-winner with Peter Brown of the prestigious Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity for 2008 which comes with a US$1 million prize.
Views on revisionist historiography
Thapar is critical of what she calls a "communal interpretation" of Indian history, in which events in the last thousand years are interpreted solely in terms of a notional continual conflict between monolithic Hindu and Muslim communities. Thapar says this communal history is "extremely selective" in choosing facts, "deliberately partisan" in interpretation and does not follow current methods of analysis using multiple, prioritised causes.
In 2002, the Indian coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) changed the school textbooks for social sciences and history. Romila Thapar, who was the author of the textbook on Ancient India for class VI, objected to the changes made without her permission that, for example, deleted passages on eating of beef in ancient times, and the formulation of the caste system. She questioned whether the changes were an, "attempt to replace mainstream history with a Hindutva version of history", with the view to use the resultant controversy as "election propaganda." Other historians and commentators, including Bipan Chandra, Sumit Sarkar, Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, Vir Sanghvi, Dileep Padgaonkar and Amartya Sen also protested the changes and published their objections in a compilation titled, Communalisation of Education. In turn, the historians were accused of offending the sensibilities of some religious and caste groups by their formulations of history.
Thapar's appointment to the Library of Congress's Kluge Chair in 2003 was opposed in an online petition bearing more than 2,000 signatures. Journalist Praful Bidwai criticized the petition as a "vicious attack" by communalists who are "not even minimally acquainted" with her work. A number of academics sent a protest letter to the Library of Congress denouncing the petition as an attack on intellectual and artistic freedom.
During the 2006 Californian Hindu textbook controversy, Thapar joined Michael Witzel in opposing changes proposed by US-based Hindu groups to the coverage of Hinduism and Indian history in school textbooks. She contended that while Hindus have a legitimate right to a fair and culturally sensitive representation, the proposed changes included unscientific, religious-based material that distorted the truth and pushed a political agenda.
Thapar's Interview with Pushpa Chari (Chenai, March 2012)
You are a pioneer woman historian who has given a social interpretation to ancient Indian history. What is your particular interest in being a social historian?
Well it's a case of giving an emphasis where it's due. When I trained to be a historian the major thrust was on political and dynastic history, but there were historians exploring social history. That was when I started working on Ashoka Maurya.
My fundamental interest was to see how a particular kind of ruler emerges at a particular time. So it meant looking at the historical context and trying to understand how his thoughts and actions relate to that context. And fortunately he issued many edicts which tell us about his personal predilections and the social context in which he was functioning.
Social history really takes a broader view than just dynastic and chronological history and attempts to analyse the social mainsprings of historical events.
Today, environmental history or understanding history through environmental change, is gaining ground. Have you built it into your work?
Environmental history is being researched in a much bigger way than before. This is apparent in discussions on the decline of Harappan cities. What caused the decline? Today we know that invasions and conquest are very often really quite marginal. More likely factors could be deforestation, possible changes in climate at that time, changes in sea level and the silting up of settlements, flooding, changing river courses like that of the Satlej or the disappearance of the Hakra, and the proximity of settlements to particular ecologies.
I wrote a paper called “Perceiving the Forest' where I've tried to look at the way people observed and wrote about the forest at different times, and to see how over time it changes. It starts off as the wilderness which is the unknown, and full of demons, the unexpected, feared. And then slowly it changes with settlements and with routes cutting through it, and gradually the forest is not feared, and becomes a part of the cultural scene.
We were a civilisational superpower in ancient times. We gave the world its first poetry, the zero, astronomical calculations .... Do you think we have the essence of civilisation?
I have a different take on civilizations. It is convenient to be an Arnold Toynbee and count 26 or so or to be a Samuel Hutchison who cheerfully counts eight. But this is unreal. My understanding of a civilisation is not the understanding of the 19th century, which packaged a civilisation within a limited bounded territory, speaking one language and supporting one religion: in the case of India it was the subcontinent, largely defined in terms of British India, speaking Sanskrit, and its religion was Hinduism. And that defined Indian civilisation and our contribution to the world.
Today we have problems with such definitions. Territorial boundaries kept fluctuating all the time. Languages develop, expand, become sub-languages or incorporate languages. We don't know what language the Harappans spoke. Subsequently, the most widely used language was Prakrit up to the early centuries AD and later was replaced by Sanskrit in northern India. Still later the regional languages came into use. In the south an early form of Tamil was current from the start and then the regional languages. To argue that there was always a single language is historically problematic.
Religion too had multiple forms and contradictory beliefs in many manifestations, sects, cults and the absence of a single dominant monolithic religion. Vedic Brahmanism, accessible to the few, yielded place to Puranic Hinduism and both were distanced from Buddhism and Jainism which had substantial followings.
The point of course is that civilisations could only rise out of interaction and exchange. They were essentially porous with indefinable contours. Boundaries were not inviolate and absolute. In fact I have argued that civilisations of the 19th century variety were cut across in the late first millennium AD. People were constantly travelling to and fro and migrating and exchanging goods, ideas, and forms of knowledge, such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, even bits of astrology, and all of these grew out of exchange. The circuit of trade contacts ran from Tunis via the Red Sea and south Asia onto Canton.
For me a civilisation is essentially an area which is conducive to the coming in and co-mingling of people and ideas, and the emergence thereby of new ideas.
You have written a specialised book on Somnath, which is in a sense an emotive subject, a symbol of Hindu India. When Lord Elgin brought back the gates of the Somnath Temple he said “I won it for the Hindus”. What made you write the book?
Well, it started with my thinking of how Somnath become a sacred place. I decided to trace its history from its beginnings to the present. I discovered that Sanskrit and Persian sources had been consulted by earlier historians but in a restrictive way.
We had adopted James Mills' periodisation of the Hindu Period with its Sanskrit sources, the Muslim period with its Persian sources, and the British period with its English sources; therefore the sources consulted were limited by this periodisation.
So Sanskrit sources were consulted up to AD 1200 and then historians dropped using Sanskrit sources and switched to Persian sources since this was now the Muslim period!
Yet the more interesting Sanskrit sources such as lengthy inscriptions and the Jaina histories relating to Somnath continued to be written in Sanskrit. So a whole chunk of history was omitted because of not using Sanskrit sources after AD 1200. This was a case of the preconceptions of periodisation thwarting historical investigation.
The importance of Somnath begins around the 10th century AD and continues. Instead of switching only to Persian sources I continued to consult Sanskrit sources moving forward in time and these provided a new dimension.
Inscriptions referred to Arab traders being given land from the estates of the Somnath temple to build a mosque by a local Hindu raja; and other inscriptions mention the trade by temple authorities with the Arab traders.
There was one very touching inscription: a memorial to a Bohra of Arab descent living in Somnath, who died defending Somnath against the attacks of the Delhi Sultan. I began to see that this was clearly a mixed population and their religious emotions were also closely intertwined. It would seem that the Persian chronicles were not reflecting the reality.
And then the British come in and read the Persian chronicles and speak of antagonism, and exaggerate it through their policies. Elgin wanted the British army to bring back the so-called gates of Somnath at Ghazni, supposedly carried away by Mahmud.
But when they were brought they turned out to be gates from Egypt and had nothing to do with Somnath. And I was just fascinated by the fact that different groups of people that had different interests in that one place, either played off these interests against each other or supported each other.
It's a very complex story, and quite different from the monochrome mythology of the rath-yatras of recent times, which is why the subtitle of the book is The Many Voices of History
It has been said that “We had a white revolution, we had a green revolution and now we have a greed revolution”. What do you think of corruption as a historical phenomenon? And in the context of India today?
Well, I think that corruption is something that has existed from the beginning of history. In the sense that there are always some people who want more, as is explained so cogently in Buddhist texts. And if you can somehow get more, which makes you powerful, then you continue to chase by every means. This domination and subordination of groups has existed in every society all over the world.
Kautilya says, in the context of officers collecting revenue, that if you place honey on someone's tongue the person is bound to taste it. The resentment against present day corruption is its magnitude and its omnipresence. The citizen has absolutely no resort to getting anything done without conceding to a corrupt practice of some sort.
When corruption becomes so rampant, we must recognise that we are living in a society which is founded on immorality and an absence of ethics. This is not what makes for a civilisation.
Why did you turn down the Padma Bhushan?
My reasons are very simple. I think that we — in our contemporary society and culture — do not respect the academic profession, nor do government agencies. Awards have been reduced to government patronage; it is predictable as to who will get an award under which government.
I did not wish to be a recipient of patronage from any government. When the respect for a profession in a society is diminished, the members of that profession also have less respect for each other.
Most of us reflect current social attitudes. By and large respect for fellow academics goes up when they get government recognition. I argued that I wanted my peer group to respect me (if they choose to) for what I am, and the work that I am doing and not because I've been given a Padma Bhushan.