The treasure called history

I was barely out of high school then, and was visiting an uncle’s native place to attend a function. I didn’t know why but the name of that place sounded familiar – Suryagarha, a small agricultural village on the banks of Ganga. At the Railway station though, the board said Surajgarh. And then it struck me why it sounded ‘heard-before’. Wasn’t this the place where Mughal army of Humayun lost a famous battle to a rebel? That battle almost changed the history of Medieval India, almost – they say almost because Mughals reclaimed the empire a little later only after that rebel lost his life in a freak accident a few years later.

Somewhere in Surajgarh, on the banks of River Ganga and Kiul, Sher Shah defeated the Mughal Army in 1534 to start his journey towards becoming the ruler of most-of-India. For those who didn’t know this much history, Sher Shah was the king who first built our National Highway #2 (Kolkata to Amritsar today, Dhaka to Peshawar then, or the Grand Trunk road). I remember asking a few folks there if they knew this bit about their place. Some said they did, but didn’t know where that battleground was.

Talking more Sher Shah, less than hundred km out of Patna, towards Delhi, you get this tiny place/station called Chausa. This is where his army defeated Mughal emperor Humayun (1539). They say Humayun jumped into Ganga to escape the battle, and a poor man saved his life by bringing him ashore. Humayun repaid the debt later by making his savior the emperor for a day after he reclaimed the throne!

Surajgarh and Chausa weren’t the only places that gave me those ‘why do we neglect our history’ thoughts.

If you have ever traveled from the North to Kolkata by train, you may have noticed this small station called Plassey (pronounced pa-laa-see) just before Bardhaman. Remember what happened there back in 1757? Plassey was a small dull station last time I saw it, and I hear the place still isn’t that big on tourism either.

Going back and talking bigger, a place not far from my native place has the ruins of what was once a big thriving university over a thousand years ago: Vikramshila. They say the university was as big as the famous Nalanda itself. But how many even know about this place? (A story of neglect here)

I bet you will have your own stories of neglect like this. Seriously, tell me why, why do we not spend some effort to develop history based tourism to target both local and international travelers? There is just so so so much to offer! And the bye-product, a little bit of research into our ancient or medieval history will be a nice bonus to have.

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8 Responses

  1. “That battle almost changed the history of Medieval India.”

    battle of haldighati, battle(s) of panipat, alexander vs. paurava… instances are innumerable where the “good” should have won but the invaders won out. unfortunately for us, india has always been a land of so near yet so far, be it our history, be it our sports, be it our scientific explorations. it is probably our laidbackness, our lack of killer instinct (literal or figurative), our back-stabbing, our insidious subdivisions/lack of unity, you name it that did us in in the past. hopefully, the current generation will exterminate some of these causes of our backwardness.

    when i was in india last december, i picked up a book on india and indian history by khushwant singh. though it was just the basic stuff, he has written it well. i have to grudgingly admit that i liked the book, though the weekly column that he used to write (hindustan times and illustrated weekly) were typically raunchy and used to be major turn offs.

    – s.b.

  2. Pranav,

    Another marvellous place that I visited was a place called Dhauli. This is about 15 k.m. from Bhubhaneshwar and is the place where Ashoka fought the Kalinga war. You can still see the rock cut edicts there.

    I had been there in Jan 1996 when I visited a friend in Bhubhaneshwar. We went at night. There is just a peace pagoda built by a Japanese Buddhist orgn. No noise, no hustle and bustle. Fantastic!!

    I think they’ve done a good job of the Buddhist circuit itself, with direct flights from Bangkok to Gaya. I myself want to visit Bodh Gaya and Nalanda. Will do that later this year after the summer.

    Srivathsa

  3. pranav,
    nice post.

    on a slightly tangential note, i wonder why our history classes did not cover local history at all. when i was working with a group, its founder pointed out that kids have an idea of what the map of india looks like, but they cannot draw the village/town/city map.

    it is sad to hear that even the mughal history is not living well. imagine the plight of NE.

  4. Sad state of affairs but true – Indians have one of the least pride in themselves, their culture, history etc. Exceptions like people of Tamilnadu who are fiercely proud of their language are few and far between. Any and every (including third-rate) phoren stuff is revered.

    Indians who stay / have stayed / visited for some meaningful time abroad tend to appreciate Indian stuff more – to the chagrin of their friends/relatives who have “moved” with times and embraced only the trashy/easy Western concepts. With all the (illegal or otherwise) moolah floating around, people need to have the sense to invest it back in the country than buying phoren items and/or stashing it in foreign accounts – all it does is fatten somebody else’s pockets.

    Siddharth Kak (of Surabhi fame – remember that beautiful series?) is apparently devoting his energy and time toward preserving. More information at interview and website

  5. pranav:

    both vikramshila and dhauli have indian railways’ trains named after them. off the top of my head, i believe one of the terminii for vikramshila express is patna and one of the ones for dhauli express is bhubaneshwar.

    tarle:

    our cbse texts (kendriya vidyalaya) had indian history too when i was in school quite some time ago – don’t know when and where you studied. ironically/unfortunately, i was more interested in the world history portion and did not pay much attention to indian history.

    – s.b.

  6. some body, I have read a few books on Indian history, one I liked a lot is by John Keay, this one – India: A History. IMHO, very hard to find good books that touch upon ancient history well.

    Tarle, good point! Local history meant little more details about the state, but not the city or town.

    N, being proud or ashamed comes next. Preserving and constructing what we have comes first. We do have a real rich history, and very intriguing at that – world’s first planned cities happened here (Harappa), yet we never ‘planned’ a single city after that (may be Jaipur)! Fragmented political structure despite no hard geographical divisions. No attempts to record history (they blame this bad habit of our ancestors for lack of data and evidence on our ancient history), yet elaborate religious texts and epics with god-knows-how-much fiction in them.

    Confusion about Harappans (how the hell did they just disappear?), the flawed Aryan invasion theory, spread of Vedic (aka Hindu) religion down South yet survival of Dravidian languages, mysterious disappearance of Buddhism – go on and on and on about things still not sorted out from pre 1000 AD period. I think exciting and research-worthy material abounds.

    Sri, Buddhist circuit is okay, but not excellent. I was in that region a decade ago (97), may be things have become a lot better since then.

  7. IMHO – history was (and probably is) taught (at least when I studied) in a dry and uninteresting manner. It was almost as if all the things that have been written in our books were found growing on trees just waiting to be plucked. Hardly much coverage was given to how difficult it is to piece together clues to build a story about the past.

    I learnt a heck of a lot of history. In ICSE we covered Indian history all the way from the Indus Valley civ. till Indian independence. Also had to cover world history. so no dearth of “facts” being stuffed down my throat. But it is only now that I actually enjoy reading history. Maybe not having to memorise and regurgitate stuff in an exam helps :)

    Even now the Indus script has not been deciphered. I hope to visit Mohenjo-daro and Harappa one day. Quite fascinating that an urban civilization flourished 5000 years back. No signs of a monarchy in that no palatial structures have been found.

    How many of us know that one of the oldest republics in the world was in Vaishali (north of Magadha). That there is a close relationship between Sanskrit and the old Zoroastrian launguage. That Ahura Mazda (their god) would be called Asura Medha in Sanskrit. That almost all the South East Asian languages – Thai, Khmer, even Vietnamese follow the Sanskrit system of alphabet – a aa i ii and k kh ga…? Why are these things not taught to children. I am sure they will be amazed and maybe the imagination of a few will be fired up and they will become historians.

    Of course now with Discovery and the History Channel and all that, there are some creative ways of learning. So hopefully all is not lost.

  8. Hope you guys read this bit about Nalanda on Rediff. Will be interesting to see if state can bring this University back to life!

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