In a scenario where the word ‘history’ is viewed as largely synonymous with mind-numbing boredom, Devika Cariapa’s labour of love, India Through Archaeology: Excavating History, is a welcome entrant. Foregrounding the archaeologist as a scientist who studies how humans lived, an intrepid adventurer who seeks to uncover lost civilisations, a detective who fills the gaping holes in our collective knowledge and a storyteller who assembles tales from the past, Cariapa surveys Indian history from the prehistoric times to the present, underlining the most exciting and/or spectacular archaeological discoveries over the years. Needless to say, the purported scope and breadth of this work is ambitious and immense but Cariapa shows herself more than equipped for the task.

At the outset, Cariapa provides a useful and comprehensive timeline, pertinent portions of which are repeated at the beginning of every chapter as a sort of ready reckoner. Each chapter is a mélange of interesting facts, illustrations, maps, photographs and stories as the book journeys from the Stone Age to the present. Cariapa manages to include a wide range of information culled from varied historical sources but with a very light touch so that the book never tips over into the realm of boredom. While the work reconstructs myriad aspects of life in the past spanning the political, social, economic and religious realms, care has been taken to make the information as comprehensive as possible. Thus, Cariapa incorporates details of men and women of both the royal and non-royal sections of society, and even extends her survey to animals in the past, providing snippets on them and, in some cases, their memorialisation in stone. Often, she buttresses her narrative with imaginative storylines to convey the immediacy of certain historical events. Additionally, Cariapa provides delightful archaeological vignettes from around the world as parallel tracks to the Indian archaeological landscape and that helps to flesh out the latter.

The book is, in addition, a visual delight. Photographs have been sourced with an eye to profusely illuminate the text. Ranging from the prehistoric cave art at Bhimbetka to Ashoka’s inscribed pillars to archaeological discoveries at Pattanam and Hampi, the visuals form a very important part of this work and highlight crucial moments of the past in a richly emphatic, even dramatic, way. Photographs of historical sources, such as coins, copperplate inscriptions and sculptures, are regularly juxtaposed with the text to enhance readability and comprehension very effectively. It must be noted, though, that when the book is already rife with beautiful visual material, the cartoonish depiction of archaeologists that weaves its way through the pages is an irritant that often detracts from the value of the stunning photographs as well as from Ashok Rajagopalan’s other interesting illustrations that supplement the visuals. The work is clearly not aimed at very young readers who would require this sort of prop to get them through it!

The few limitations of this book seem to be a factor of its self-imposed scope. As noted earlier, Cariapa does try to be as comprehensive as possible but the sheer chronological range involved in delineating the Indian archaeological past inevitably results in certain periods of history, notably the early medieval, being glossed over while inordinate attention is paid to, say, the tale of Muziris or that of Hampi. Caution also needs to be exercised in the casual and repeated use of the term ‘Hindu’, rather than the more appropriate ‘Brahmanical’, to describe early historical texts and while making generalisations, such as the assertion that archaeological material evidence “can hardly ever be matched with what is written down in texts” (p.157), which has been disproved in several cases where there has been a near-perfect conjunction between the two.

One also has to be careful to consciously veer away from stereotypical textbook equations of women with clothes and jewellery that convey this to be their sole preoccupation all through history, notwithstanding evidence to the contrary. As Cariapa does make a clear effort to integrate women into the narrative, certain statements like the one that notes that we get information on “clothes, jewellery, hairstyles…” from pictures of women and their attendants (p.131) appear all the more jarring as, in fact, these very pictures can equally convey other aspects of women’s public presence and role. In a similar vein, there is another statement on coins revealing political history through “the names of kings” (p.74) when there are so many instances of powerful women appearing on them.  These errors, however, appear to have been unwitting ones on Cariapa’s part that could have been rectified with more vigilant editing.

Minor quibbles apart (hyphens are sorely needed!), India Through Archaeology: Excavating History is a very important work that will be of great interest to young readers and to those who seek to acquaint themselves with popular archaeological history written in an eminently accessible style. Cariapa deserves credit for pulling off the deceptively simple but enormously difficult task of encapsulating India’s past through the archaeological record with such competence. This book is sure to convert many young ‘history-dislikers’ (if I may be allowed to coin a term!) into enthusiasts of the discipline.


Author: Devika Cariapa
Illustrator: Ashok Rajagopalan
Language: English
Page Extent: 160 pages
Price: ₹ 625.00
ISBN: 978-93-5046-840-1
Publisher: Tulika Publishers, 2017
Subject Category: Non-fiction/History/India
Age-group: 10+

Reviewed by Devika Rangachari

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