About Composite Culture

Jaffna has a post on the Left and it’s role in Indian history education (link via Varnam).

This reminds me of my experience in Class 7, where we used the NCERT textbook on medieval India. History classes mostly consisted of reading the textbook aloud. So eventually we got to a point where my teacher was reading aloud about how the Islamic invasions of India had led to cultural interchange as India absorbed Turkish and Persian influences in architecture and culture.

So I lifted my hand and pointed out that interchange meant that the other culture also absorbed influences, so what did India contribute to Persia and Turkey? At which my history teacher looked flummoxed and gave a confused reply.

I was twelve years old, so I wasn’t really trying to put Hindutva fundaes in the classroom. And it doesn’t even prove that whoever was writing the textbook (I think it was Bipin Das) had an Islamic bias- just that he (or the NCERT editor) was sloppy with language.

Ahem. But there’s still a sin of omission we have to deal with.

Let’s  accept the Leftist position that the Persian and Turkish invasions eventually led to a Muslim-Hindu composite culture. Yes, it may have come only after the invaders destroyed major existing cultural centres. and it may have been restricted to the nobility, but it was created and it was a good thing.

But if composite culture is such a good thing, why do the NCERT textbooks maintain such a deafening silence on composite culture created through peaceful processes?

From Class 6 to Class 10, the NCERT textbooks never mentioned the spread of a Buddhist-Hindu composite culture in South East Asia and Indochina through the Srivjayan Empire, driven more by traders and missionaries than by armies and navies. We get to know that there was a Roman trading outpost near Pondicherry, but we never learn that the outpost was there to trade spices, and the impact of the spice trade on the kingdoms of Kerala. Or about how Indian and Arabic shipbuilding techniques were exchanged across the Arabian sea along with Indian teakwood and how that contributed to the development of seafaring. And if I recall correctly, Bodhidharma’s journey to China, which is the origin of such rich seams of folklore, was never mentioned at all. I had to learn about all these things ten years later in quizzes and books (including this wonderful one by John Keay).

The Class VIII textbook (Modern India) was positively shy about the composite culture created by British colonisation (okay, to be fair, it was written by someone else). No mention of how Indian words swamped English, how Indian haircare and cuisine entered Great Britain, and on the long term cultural impacts of British technology transfers.

And in all this discussion, there’s no mention of composite culture in the current context- and how technology, trade and globalisation create new composite cultures faster than ever before – and do so without military campaigns or vandalising existing cultural structures. Nothing demonstrates that concept better, really, than the YouTube video below:

It’s almost as if our eminent historians prefer invasions and plunder to trade.

0 Responses to About Composite Culture

  1. vin says:

    i think anyone trying to tell kids about wars and invasions would fall short of trying to explain exactly what the whole point of any war is.. atleast if there’s any positive to it. hence the stress on “cultural interchange”…… well, perhaps. and anyway history teaching is stereotyped to being about wars and invasions more than anything else. i was never a history enthusiast at school mainly because it ended up in requiring me to learn by rote dates of the nth panipat wars instead of trying to learn how the world came to be as it is. not until i read 1984 did i realise how important history is. i kind of drifted, didn’t i…

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