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Old Wine in a New Bottle

Environmental History of Early India: A Reader edited by Nandini Sinha Kapur (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp 282, Rs 695.


Old Wine in a New Bottle

Shonaleeka Kaul

textual and oral traditions, have little on them here. The introduction to the book could well have done with a mention of this kind of cultural history of the environment as a desideratum. Vijay Nath’s familiar

andini Sinha Kapur claims in the introduction to this edited volume Environmental History of Early India: A Reader that there has so far been no compilation of works on the early environmental history of India and that this is an “important gap” (sic) which this book fills. She is very right: Though considerable work has been done on environmental issues for the colonial and postcolonial period, there exists no unified anthology on this theme for the ancient period. And in today’s times of environmental hyper consciousness, this indeed seems a lacuna in early Indian historiography. Unfortunately, the reader under review does little to remedy the situation.

Non-Environmental Focus

Far from a sense of ecological patterns in the past emerging from this collection of 17, mostly well known essays, the book does not even propose an up-to-date framework for what environmental history is or could be. Barring a couple of e ssays, it seems to be content, in a rather old fashion with reducing environmental history to a reflection and extension of economic and political history.

In other words, the focus of the book is not the environment – vegetation, wildlife, soils, land and water bodies – but phenomena like agriculture, state formation, pastoralism, settlement patterns, rural economy, irrigation, etc. Thus, a host of vintage works on these, mostly agrarian matters have been brought together, including truncated extracts from the writings of R S Sharma (“Agraria n Expansion”), David Ludden (“Patronage and Irrigation in Tamil Nadu”), V K Jain (“Geographical Setting and Agrarian Eco nomy”), Nayanjot Lahiri (“Settlements and Economy”) and Ranabir Chakrabarti (“Natural Resources and Human Settlements”). Remarkably, importan t archaeological studies with implications for the landscape and environment, such as the ones by Kathleen Morrison, have been ignored.

Now, while processes like agrarian expansion and pastoralism obviously involved

Environmental History of Early India: A Reader

edited by Nandini Sinha Kapur (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp 282, Rs 695.

an interface with the environment, preindustrial civilisation hardly had the capacity to be a marauding juggernaut. There were limits to early state society’s spread and reach and access to natural resources. Thus, for example, the concept of “deforestation” would have a completely different meaning for early India than for modern times. It is not the same as the ad hoc clearing of forests, which is what would have accompanied agrarian expansion in what were, by and large, formative times. So even if environmental history is to be seen as the story of man’s growing encroachment on and economic exploitation of nature, the pace and scale of economic growth in different periods of time, related among other things to demography, would be of the essence. The book does not quite comment on this aspect or chart changes in that pace/scale.

Current Questions

Nor does it engage with the debate over the colonial watershed, i e, the constructed opposition between an assumed precolonial eco-equilibrium and colonial despoliation. Did early Indians follow a self-consciously conservationist creed or is the very notion of conservation for conservation’s sake an anachronism for early India? Indeed, what were the ideas of nature and the cultural and social meanings of the natural world in early India, and the ideological impulses behind them? These are the types of questions engaging environmental historians today.

The classic essays by Romila Thapar (“Perceiving the Forest: Early India”) and Aloka Parasher Sen (“Of Tribes, Hunters and Barbarians”) do present forays of this type, namely, discussing perceptions of forests and forest dwellers. However, other features of the landscape like rivers, mountains, animals and birds of different kinds, that are invested with much symbolism and significance in indigenous thesis on tirthas and tribal acculturation and K Sivathamby’s on tinais and the Tamil economy, hardly do the job. The urban environment has also been overlooked in the obsession with an agrarian perspective.

Unecological Mode of Enquiry

The book’s implicitly unecological mode of enquiry is given away by its indifference to the mind -boggling diversity of ecological profile in the Indian subcontinent – topographical, biological and climatic. Thus, we come away with little knowledge of the range of flora, fauna, natural habitats, their classifications, distributions, relations and representations in ancient India. (Anil Rawat’s paper on “Life and Plant Sciences in Ancient India” is something of an exception.)

A mapping of this kind, one would imagine, should be the starting point of an environmental history, especially of a variegated region like the subcontinent. From this would also follow a sense of what were endemic natural resources and what exogenic, or those that came from foreign lands (for example, plant species), if any, and went on to affect the local environment. After all, early Indians were actively seafaring and trading people with rich foreign contacts. An external perspective such as this kind would have been welcome.

The introduction could also have benefited from a deference to the long duree, knitting together micro-strands that the different e ssays represent and tying up, if possible, with later, medieval or modern denouements.

As things stand, Environmental History of Early India is but a valiant effort to cobble together a rather dated version of the discipline based on essays that were meant to do something else. Nonetheless, the very act of its compilation and publication is due and timely acknowledgement of an essential aspect of the human past that mainstream historiography of early south Asia would do well to incorporate.

Shonaleeka Kaul ( is with the Department of History, University of Delhi.

Economic & Political Weekly

JULY 16, 2011 vol xlvI no 29

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