Book Recommendation: India Discovered by John Keay

India Discovered
India Discovered by John Keay

Sometime in the fourteenth century, the then Sultan of Delhi Feroz Shah sited a curious column in a village near Khizrabad (modern Haryana). Something was inscribed on it, but it was in a script he didn’t understand. He was quite taken by it though, and decided to move it to his capital Firozabad. It took efforts of thousands of men, but Sultan was committed and it got done. Then he sent for learned men, including many Brahmins and Hindu Devotees, and asked them to decipher the inscription. None of them succeeded.

Brahmi script was already forgotten by the fourteenth century. Nobody knew of the now-famous Ashokan inscriptions that were strewn all over the country. And yet, today, in the twenty-first century, we know all about them. We know exactly what they say. We also know enough about Ashoka’s life to make a daily serial out of it (not to take away the credit from amazing fiction writers involved with our television industry!!).

How did we figure all that out?

Did you curse under your breath in your History lessons that the founders of two different empires, separated by centuries (and birth of Jesus Christ), should both be called Chandragupta and try you in your exams? Take heart; the Chandraguptas confounded people who tried to piece together our history too.

That the way History is taught in our schools is broken is a foregone conclusion. But even as adults, when we fight over history, we often forget to ask how we know. And how much can we know for sure? Is whatever we know set in stone (despite the inscriptions, pardon me!)? We forget that nobody was recording history for us as it happened, much less so in India, and go on to talk about events from centuries or millenniums ago with the confidence of an eye-witness. We try to settle the questions that would affect millions of people today with the “experience of thousands of years”. We do not realize that we really do not have the memory of those years preserved neatly somewhere.

It in such moments of complacence and superciliousness that a book like India Discovered can help us to humility. We can, then, start questioning history, and our knowledge of it, a bit more. The book is not about the history of India, but about how it was pieced together, especially with the almost complete absence of any accessible historical documents of the pre-Mohammedan period. And the story is as fascinating as it is enlightening. People have spent their lives (often cut short by their inability to adjust to Indian climate) traveling across the length and breadth of India. They have worked their bodies and mind to exhaustion and madness trying to decipher the old scripts. Some of the most fascinating work has been done by people purely out of passion, with no official backing and with personal finances. It is the story of those people and their work.

The book mostly covers the work done by people from 18th century to 1930s. And it traces the discovery of India as it appeared to European eyes. This requires me to put up a few clarifications about the book:

  1. Given the political situation of the period, most of the work was indeed done by Europeans, especially the people of British Raj. So, we need to keep our nationalistic pride aside and accept that a large part of our past was indeed re-discovered by them.
  2. It does not mean that the Indian past was necessarily discovered by unsympathetic eyes. Yes, there was often a tendency to attribute any astonishing Indian achievement uncovered by studies to outside influence. The Brahmi script was initially conjectured to be bastardized Greek, and Ajanta cave paintings done by ancient Egyptians! But a large number of people working on the ground had more scholarly and scientific sentiments than those who needed to push an inferior racial agenda for political purposes. Then there were some who were such fierce India apologists that they may put our modern-day nationalists to shame. There were also biases against Indian art and architecture because it refused to fit into anything the contemporary European sensibilities could appreciate. But the findings and increasing appreciation of Indian life and culture pushed through those biases and ultimately shone.
  3. Since the book is written for a non-Indian audience, its style can get jarring at times. For example:
    1. He draws parallels from European and Mediterranean history to explain the importance of something Indian. It probably does make the subject accessible to the book’s intended audience, but I often have to rush to Google or Wikipedia to figure out how important was that finding with which he is comparing the discovery of Indus Valley Civilization.
    2. Then there are episodes where you wonder how it would look to an Indian eye. The discovery of Buddhism’s origin in Indian seems to be a big deal. I wonder if it was a big deal only to the Europeans or to the Indians too? What about the countries where Buddhism was being practiced. The temple at Bodhgaya was in the custody of Brahmins. They reported some foreigners coming there with old prayer books and reciting unintelligible prayers. They turned out to be Burmese Buddhists. So, Burmese Buddhists definitely knew about Bodhgaya and even the exact temple supposedly erected at the site of Buddha’s enlightenment. It is implied that the Brahmins didn’t recognize the Buddhists. But Buddha had supposedly been assimilated as an avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism. Did they know about that Buddha? Was he in the Indian religion consciousness? As an Indian, these are the questions I wanted the answer for, but they were not addressed in the book.
    3. There are tales of people who studied and wrote about a specific Indian population and helped Europeans understand Indian better. Someone wrote about Rajputs, someone about Sikhs, and someone about tribals. Was their work important for Indians too? Had we also forgotten the history and resplendence of Rajputs? Or was its importance limited to making Europeans appreciate India in its own right?

It is clear from reading the book that 200 odd pages are not sufficient to capture the story of the discovery of Indian history. It is also likely that the contributions of non-English people have been overlooked (purely a conjecture – I don’t know.) Discovery of South Indian history has not been adequately covered.

Despite all that, it makes for a very readable book that keeps you interested chapter after chapter. I know that nobody is going to listen to my recommendation of including it in the History curriculum at our schools. But as readers, you have control over your destiny. So, pick up the book. It is totally worth a read.

If you need motivation, try answering this. How do we know that those inscriptions are Ashokan? None of them mention King Ashoka.


  • I wonder how the temple of Bodhgaya was wrestled away from the Brahmins? Try that at any place of worship today!
  • Don’t worry that reading about the European discovery of Indian history will colonize your mind. The good Christians were as horrified at the nude sculptures and exaggerated sexuality of figures like yakshi as the self-appointed custodians of our culture today would be.
  • There is evidence that covering the upper body was optional in Mauryan times, even for women. At least in that respect, our daily serial is not authentic.
  • All the statements about Indian television should be consumed with salt to the taste.

Book Description

Below is the book description from the publisher’s website.

The Recovery of a Lost Civilization

Two hundred years ago, India was seen as a place with little history and less culture.Today it is revered for a notable prehistory, a magnificent classical age and a cultural tradition unique in both character and continuity. How this extraordinary change in perception came about is the subject of this fascinating book.

The story, here reconstructed for the first time, is one of painstaking scholarship primed by a succession of sensational discoveries. The excitement of unearthing a city twice as old as Rome, the realization that the Buddha was not a god but a historical figure, the glories of a literature as rich as anything known in Europe, the drama of encountering a veritable Sistine chapel deep in the jungle, and the sheer delight of categorizing ‘the most glorious galaxy of monuments in the world’ fell, for the most part, to men who were officials of the British Raj. Their response to the unfamiliar – the explicitly sexual statuary, the incomprehensible scripts, the enigmatic architecture – and the revelations which resulted, revolutionized ideas not just about India but about civilization as a white man’s prerogative.

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