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Interview with Romila Thapar

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Conversation between distinguished historian, Professor Romila Thapar, and Professor P.J. Cherian, Director, Kerala Council for Historical Research, on January 8, 2015, in New Delhi

P.J Cherian: Could you speak about how you see the significance of Pattanam because you have been closely observing it—it is something that came out of barefoot archaeology and developed into a major research concern. So from the larger sub-continent’s perspective in looking at the past, what do you think is the potential of Pattanam studies, and how should we go further?

Romila Thapar: Well, let me try and put it in a little bit of a context, in the sense that I see Pattanam as the kind of site that is introducing us to a new dimension of Indian history and archaeology, which is of now having to look at the Indian Ocean. It is not enough simply to talk about the sub-continent, you have now to look at the Indian Ocean and the kinds of communication and contacts that existed across the Indian Ocean and also between smaller areas like West Asia and India and then India and Southeast Asia. So in a sense sites like Pattanam, with the kind of international reach that they have, are extending the borders of the unit that is called India in terms of history and archaeology. I think that is one reason why it’s very important.

Secondly, what Pattanam has demonstrated is that when one is excavating what might be called a slightly exotic site—in the sense that it is not a 100% only Indian, it has got people coming from elsewhere as well—it is very necessary to do a completely thorough excavation. Unfortunately, places like Arikamedu were touched and left, and touched and left, and so the data that a site like that gives us is not nearly as fulsome and significant as the data that a site like Pattanam is giving us because of the fact that it is being excavated in a much fuller way than before. There is that.

And the third aspect of course which I think is very important for the way in which archaeology is done, which is that as you begin to get sites where there have been other cultures that have come in—and even if there haven’t been dominant but have simply participated in the activities of the site—it is necessary for Indian archaeologists to be familiar with those other cultures.

Now here you had a prime example of cultures from the Eastern Mediterranean with a Roman linkage coming in, interested in the site, active in the site, really in a sense creating a whole body of reasons for why the site became a port, and we don’t have a single Roman archaeologist in India and yet we keep talking about this. Similarly, when it comes to Arab trade in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Arabs come and settle down, there is intense trade with the Arabian Peninsula, with the Horn of Africa, later on with East Africa. We have no specialists.

So, obviously we have to import people like that and I think one of the really impressive things about Pattanam was that you people didn’t hesitate to invite the specialists to come in. And obviously there was something very important there because the specialists have not just come in and fiddled around and gone back, they have stayed put, they have worked there, they have worked with you and the results are really extremely impressive. And so you know people who sit down and say, as some people say, that ‘Oh, these sites have simply attracted foreign archaeologists and the Indian archaeologists are doing nothing’, this is really a load of nonsense. Because it is very important at sites like these for Indian archaeologists to work together with archaeologists who are specialists in that region, both to learn and also to be able next time round to do the excavation themselves. I mean the kind of expertise that you have got, for example, on your amphora sherds, you would never have got if you hadn’t invited people from European centres and the British Museum and so on, who are experts on these objects. And just think about the amount that we have learnt as a result of their expertise and their work on this material.

PJC: In a lighter vein, there is a lot of public attention on the question of whether this is Muziris or not. People want to glorify it, some people want to say no, but we used to keep this question at a distance. But I used to wonder how you felt about it, whether…?

RT: Well, you can’t be a 100% certain unless you have that clinching evidence and that clinching evidence at the moment isn’t there. Everything seems to point to this perhaps being the place that is being mentioned. One would like to think that it is that place. It seems to have all the background and the qualifications to be able to be identified with Muziris but we are still waiting for that one little pin that will pin the identity together.

PJC: A more academic question would be that the State is a constant factor that worries many of the social scientists in terms of looking at the archaeological data that was coming, because there is already a lot of given knowledge that we had a society which was not equipped to have long-distance trade, because we don’t have the social organization of a State, trade guilds, things like that. So was it something that was happening in isolation or how do you see the study of the State and polity of the times? What is the new perspective that it demands?

RT: I think that this question raises another question, which is that is state-organized trade the only kind of trade you can have? This is the very fundamental question for early societies because many early societies do not have a strong state organization…that comes later. Does that therefore eliminate the possibility of trading links or do we have to look up the pattern of trade as being somehow different—that the pattern of trade in itself is based on small, decentralized groups and not on a large kingdom controlling the trade? And I think that it is a legitimate question that needs to be asked when you are excavating a site like that.

PJC: In your opening remarks you said when you look at the oceans, it is interesting to note that not much conquest or confrontation would occur on the sea; mostly what taking place was trade. Do you think it was one of the most secular and civilizing influences in human history in terms of trade and we became territorial, we became land-centred and…?

RT: Well, certainly from the point of view of becoming territorial, yes, obviously, there was no territory to be controlled. And from the point of view of trade, the communities that were involved in this trade certainly became much more cosmopolitan, no question, much more cosmopolitan. Now, whether in fact this led to conflicts with their hinterland communities that were more conservative and you know sort of straitjacketed, I don’t know. But certainly this was what I meant when I said that civilization can no longer be seen as self-contained, because there are all these points at which you have made your cosmopolitan centres and they are also impacting civilization of the hinterland. So it has an effect in the sense that you have to reconsider this whole notion of these monolithic civilizations that we were brought up with.

PJC: You are talking in the background of the first major exhibition that has happened in the national capital and these people are actually documenting that. So what do you feel?

RT: I think it has been a very successful exhibition, partly of course because it is not the usual thing where you take four walls and you put objects up against each wall and say that is an exhibition. You have taken the trouble to break it up into units, you have taken the trouble to display the objects differently—your display of pot sherds and pottery and the reconstruction of the pottery so that the ordinary person who is not an archaeologist, when he or she comes in, they understand that these sherds actually mount up to form an object which looks like this. And also the whole display of small items as well, as they are called in archaeology. No, I think it has been…and that map is superb, the map is superb really.

PJC: …one of the oldest maps

RT: And it gives you such a good idea of what were the kinds of navigational things people worked with through the ages, I mean the map is relatively late, but it is not a modern map and it has an immense interest.

(Edited transcript of a conversation between distinguished historian, Professor Romila Thapar, and Professor P.J. Cherian, Director, Kerala Council for Historical Research, on January 8, 2015, in New Delhi)