As a nation, we often take pride in our history, yet in my decade-long interactions with Indian students and teachers, I have rarely found any in love with the discipline. Rather, comments like “I hate history” or “History is so boring” sum up the general feeling. You are likely to share it if you open the latest history textbook prescribed for Class VI in 2010–11 by the Tamil Nadu government under its “common syllabus”.
Let us begin with the Indus or Harappan civilization, Chapter 2. On a map, an important Harappan site, Kalibangan, is shown inside Pakistan instead of northern Rajasthan (has Pakistan encroached on Indian land?); another site, Rupar, is placed right on the international border, while it is close to Chandigarh. The text informs us that “Harappa in Sindhi means ‘Buried City’,” even though Harappa is in Punjab, not Sindh, and its etymology is unknown. Harappan cities were so sophisticated that they boasted “street lights”—certainly a world first! Another gem: “The terracotta planks discovered here were engraved with letters”—as a student of archaeology, I confess my ignorance of what a “terracotta plank” might be; perhaps this is a garbled reference to Dholavira’s famous three-metre-long inscription, consisting of crystalline material set in a long-vanished wooden board. Curiously, Dholavira, one of the five largest Harappan cities, and the second largest in India, figures nowhere. Apparently, our textbook writers rarely believe in updating their knowledge.
Among the five reasons given for the decline of this civilization, the first is nonsensical: “Wooden articles would have got destroyed by fire,” as if that could have finished a whole civilization. The second is sheer fancy: “Rivalry because of the civil war.” The fourth —“The Aryans would have destroyed these towns in order to succeed” (succeed whom or in what is unclear) — was rejected by archaeologists over 40 years ago, and so has the fifth: “The heap of bones discovered in Mohenjo-daro is evidence of the invasion of the foreigners,” especially as there is no “heap of bones” anywhere, only a few scattered skeletons which belong to different epochs. The third reason alone — a change in the course of the Indus — is among the accepted factors, but is poorly expressed and quite incomplete.
Let us turn to Chapter 4, “The Vedic Period”, which opens with the arrival of the Aryans around 1500 BCE—a highly disputed colonial theory presented as hard fact. It adds piquant details: Aryan men, besides dhotis and shawls, wore turbans and had “bands on their foreheads”, an awkward and wholly fictitious combination. The Congress (I) will be delighted to learn that among other gods, the Aryans worshipped “Indira” (instead of Indra; another is “Varna”, instead of Varuna). A table summarizes the “qualities of Dravidians and Aryans” in two neat columns of nine points, the first of which attributes to Dravidians “dark complexion, medium height, dark long hair”, and to the Aryans “fair, tall and brown hair”. Clearly, we shall never move away from the racial theories of the colonial era, even if they stand wholly discredited in the light of modern anthropology and genetics.
The other eight points take it for granted that the Dravidians were the authors of the Indus civilization, a theory that has been around for decades but has few takers among archaeologists. That the Dravidian/Aryan contrast is viewed as purely racial is confirmed by the complete absence of a linguistic comparison, the only legitimate one today. In fact, there is no mention of Sanskrit; our Class VI student shall never learn that such a language existed, in conformity with the anti-Sanskrit stance of the Dravidian movement.
Tamil, by contrast, receives much attention. In fact, Chapter 3 on “Ancient Tamil Nadu”, judiciously placed before “The Vedic Period”, presents as fact the legend of the Kumari Kandam, a mythical land south of India, where the first two of the three Sangams flourished before the land was swallowed by the sea (to appear more credible, the textbook uses the word “tsunami”, unaware of the fact that a tsunami swallows no land). This occurred “before prehistoric period” and “this land mass was eight to ten times bigger than South India,” complete with “wide ranges of mountains”, “civilized people and efficient kingdom” (excuse the broken English). So we had civilization even before prehistory!
The textbook goes on to identify Kumari Kandam with the equally mythical lost continent of Lemuria, and asserts that “conditions were favourable for the growth of living organisms only at Cape Comorin which was submerged after the tsunami... Because of this the evolution of man would have taken place then. The language spoken by those people was the basic of Tamil language.” Humans thus evolved near Cape Comorin in Lemuria — not in Africa as we thought — and spoke Tamil right from the beginning. I have no problem with a mild dose of national or regional pride, but this planetary jingoism boggles the mind.
There is more. Lemuria was a “big land mass connecting Africa and Australia” and was so called after “the monkey Lemur” — but lemurs are not monkeys. Never mind, “it was believed that human beings evolved from the Lemurs. The language of the people was ancient Tamil” — in case you had forgotten. As regards humans being descended from Lemurs, this is a momentous discovery that will call for rewriting textbooks on human evolution. On geology, too: the supercontinent of the Southern hemisphere, which is thought to have included South America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Australia and Antarctica, is called Gondwana — not Lemuria — and broke up some 200 million years ago, according to current research. Compare this with two million years of human evolution, and the absurdity of a Lemur-descended, Tamil-speaking early humanity ought to be plain enough.
Legends and myths are wonderful windows on the ancient mind in any culture. But to present the Kumari Kandam tradition as a scientific finding (adding spicy details that figure nowhere in the Sangam literature) would be like asserting that Rahu’s swallowing of the sun during eclipses is the latest in astronomy.
There are more howlers in following chapters (we learn that “to attain the spiritual goal the Jains starved”; moreover, “they eliminated clothes”), but the above examples will suffice to illustrate the abysmal incompetence of some of our textbook writers. Remember, in most Tamil Nadu schools, students will not be allowed to move on to the next class unless they have mugged up this farrago.
Better textbooks (such as those published by NCERT) do exist, but are not free either from errors, confusion and lingering colonial stereotypes. In this Internet age, perhaps it is time, as forward-looking educationists suggest, to move beyond a textbook-centric education and make creative use of a variety of materials. This may involve some trial and error, but it cannot do worse than the above kind of disgraceful material.
(The author is a lifelong student of Indian civilization and culture; his latest book is The Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin India, 2010))