Discovering India Anew: Out of Africa to Its Early History, Alan Machado (Prabhu) (Orient BlackSwan, June 2024)
Discovering India Anew: Out of Africa to Its Early History, Alan Machado (Prabhu) (Orient BlackSwan, June 2024)

Where does one begin to tell a story that spans many thousands of years, a story whose origins are obscured by stubborn mists that will not lift and enduring myths that will not shift under the weight of ages of telling Discovering India Anew reconstructs the history of Indian peoples, taking off from where the history of Indians really begins: Africa. Exploring their earliest journey out of Africa through the colonization of South Asia by different genetic groups to the end of South Asia’s first urban civilisation, Harappa, and the arrival of the Indo-Aryans, the author asks a fundamental question: Who are we Indians?

For two centuries, the Xiongnu people—a vast nomadic empire that covered modern-day Siberia, Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Xinjiang—were one of the Han Dynasty’s fiercest rivals. They raided the wealthy and prosperous Chinese, and even forced the Han to treat them as equals—much to the chagrin of those in the imperial court.

The centrality of Central Asian nomads to world history has, after decades of neglect, more recently become something of a truism. If you’re not up on your Scythians, Saka, kurgans, Xiongnu, deer stones, Pazyryks and the like, there are better places to start than Petya Andreeva’s Fantastic Fauna from China to Crimea, an analysis of the (mostly) iron-age objets-d’art of the peoples of the Eurasian steppe, which is detailed, granular and assumes more than a little familiarity with the peoples and history.

For almost seven centuries, two powers dominated the region we now call the Middle East: Rome and Persia. From the west: The Roman Republic, later the Roman Empire, later the Byzantine Empire. From the East: The Parthian Empire, later replaced by the Sassanian Empire. The two ancient superpowers spent centuries fighting for influence, paying each other off, encouraging proxy fights in their neighbors, and seizing opportunities while the other was distracted with internal strife. The relationship culminates in an almost-three-decade long war that so exhausts the two powers that they both end up getting overrun by the Arabs years later.

Over the course of two centuries (between 133 BCE and 89 CE), China’s Han empire fought a series of conflicts with a confederation of nomadic steppe peoples known as Xiongnu. As Scott Forbes Crawford notes in his fast-moving, readable narrative history The Han-Xiongnu War, the Han and Xiongnu were east Asian “superpowers” whose struggle for power impacted smaller city-states, such as Yiwi, Loulan, Khotan, Yarkand, and Kashgar in what is now northern and western China. The Han empire brought to the conflict greater resources and organization, while the Xiongnu’s strengths were speed, mobility, and maneuverability. In the end, the Han’s superior numbers won out.

Coming to the end of its run, this exhibition of Bronze Age artifacts is well-named: “gaze” is about all one can do at objects for which there are few if any visual or artistic touch-points. No culture is entirely unique, but second-millennium BCE Sanxingdui comes as close as any. And without any written records, very little is known about the culture, the people of the Kingdom of Shu, the political entity to which these archaeological sites in Sichuan are believed to have belonged; “mysterious” is, for once, an apt description. There’s a lot of gazing; quite a lot of information; rather less understanding.

The venerable Charles Allen left perhaps his most contentious subject for his last (and posthumously-published) book. The Aryans: The Search for a People, a Place and a Myth is a wide-ranging discourse on history, science, archaeology, linguistics, the history of all four, interleaved with commentary on some two centuries of highly-objectionable politics and political discourse: he opens with a chapter titled: “The Rise and Fall of Superman: Aryanism and the Swastika”.