This essay in the series from Kashmir to Haridwar is about Sanskrit and cross-civilisation routes in the Northern Frontiers of the Indian sub-continent or Sanskrit in the Indus river basin.
I embarked upon this discovery because of a few people in my family. First my grandfather, Amir Chand who left me with amazing stories of his sojourns to Lahore and second his brother-in-law, Pt. Gouri Shankar who was a professor of Sanskrit, Hindi and Punjabi in Lahore University before partition and whom my grandfather visited.
After the first war of Indian independence of 1857 which the British termed Great Mutiny, Delhi was destroyed and Lahore emerged as a new intellectual center in the north western region(1). Incidentally this was also the time of the geopolitical Great Game whence the European powers were trying to understand and conquer the unruly frontiers beyond this region.
Understandably for the next hundred years Lahore became home to some of the best orientalists and philologists of the world including Pt. Gouri and his teachers.
Pt. Gouri was also the first Dogra to be awarded a full paid scholarship for Dlit at Oxford in the 1930s. The history of Pt. Gouri’s forefathers, all Sanskrit vidvans, amazingly juxtaposed many facets of the history of knowledge communities, particularly of Sanskrit linguistics, literature and overall cultural heritage in the Indus basin in the northwestern Himalayas.
Centuries ago Pt. Gouri’s forefathers had migrated thousands of miles from Marahatta to Akhnoor in today’s Jammu, to work as Purohits for a rajwada (princely state). Through their history I went on to discover much that can open up new vistas in our understanding of the history of this region and perhaps the history of knowledge communities in river basins.
In this historical matrix there’s another interesting character: Pt. Gouri’s grandfather, who was appointed as the first librarian of the Sanskrit manuscript library established by second Dogra Maharaja, Ranbir Singh.
This library was interestingly set up during the peak of the Great Game in 1861. Incidentally the Great Game also involved a competition between the great powers and other European exploratory expeditions for Sanskrit manuscripts and this Dogra library was first cataloged on the initiative of Auriel Stein, the greatest of the Great Game explorers and archeologist.
The northern routes I took to retrace the journeys of my ancestors in north-western Himalayas have only become more revealing with each passing day. They have also led me to numerous ancient routes that connected the east with the west as well as Central Asia with the Indian subcontinent. I call them civilisational routes.
Traversing through the massive Indus basin, the north-western Himalayas and the trans Himalayas – these routes since thousands of years have brought in people, culture, language, religion, spirituality, trade, armies. In the past few decades, the same routes brought in terrorists and counter-operations; nuclear threats as well as deterrence.
In the ancient past these routes were the center of the inland as well as Eurasian trade (2) and cultural confluence. With the Indus basin overlapping with the Oxus (or the Amu darya basin) towards the north-west and Gangetic basin in the south-east, this massive region became a hotspot of ancient civilisational richness. It was fertile, water fed, with forest patches, also with access to rich pastures and it was connected inside and with the outside.
While on one hand rivers and their basin’s fertility were akin with economy–the temples were akin with learning and knowledge traditions. In the civilisation cultivated by various dharmic traditions, it wasn’t possible to separate rivers from society, society from temples, temples from learning, learning from traditions and various vocations. And you can’t divide all of this from the way the society traversed along these routes under the impact of inspiration, ambition or calamity. That’s why you can’t define these routes singularly. You can’t separate these routes from wider knowledge traditions that came along in various ages.
About a thousand years ago the region invited invaders primarily for the same reasons: First the geo-politics in its neighborhood changed giving rise to new expansionist forces who were antagonistic in their civilisational world view. Second, these forces started invading and looting India’s centers of wealth and learning i.e. the temples because that was key to social subjugation then.
They started forcibly converting people because eventually in every geo-political context, historical or modern, the war is waged and conquered in the minds of the people. That’s what the narrative war targets – if you conquer the spirit, you conquer the world!
Doesn’t this historical situation juxtapose in some way with what happened during colonial India’s partition. The time of the creation of new nations in the subcontinent was also the first time that indigenous nation states replaced the numerous kingdom states. Doesn’t India’s partition cut through the most fertile and the economy-driving regions of the sub-continent which were also the prime civilisational regions since ancient times!
However, you can never realistically cut through rivers and mountains and their basins! For a civilisation that is synonymous with rivers and their fertility, cutting people from their roots means sowing perpetual seeds of trauma and regular conflict. For an economy fed by fertile basins, drawing unnatural boundaries means cutting through an economic lifeline and creating crippling competition–social as well as political.
The realities of this region have become only more complicated, more destructive with time. History is complex with multiple narratives and debates today.
Yet the truth remains that the wider region has collective history and heritage and a shared geography. This historical context is important to understand the present geo-politics of the region.
Overlaying what I said above, my journey towards discovering the collective civilisational heritage of this region including my own personal ancestral history took me to Sanskrit communities of the yore across the northern frontiers.
Sanskrit communities and traditions moved along these civilisational highways and evolved an unparalleled intellectual genius, impacting a wide range of language, socio-political traditions, sciences and scientific aptitudes of those times, spirituality, religion and other facets of human culture.
Through a few stories including some outstanding ones from my own family, this essay is done sincerely, straight from the heart and I hope it inspires you..
If you feel inspired, I hope you make some effort to know and preserve your own community/family heritage. It may not be related to Sanskrit, it may involve some other practices and traditions but if you can discover them, you may feel inspired to understand the latent genius and in that case you may work to preserve, document or even restore some of those skills, competences and techniques.
If you do or if you want to take this up within your community and need my thoughts, support and inputs, please write to me at email@example.com.
(1) Diamond, J. M. (2011). The Orientalist-Literati Relationship in the Northwest: G.W. Leitner, Muhammad Hussain Azad and the Rhetoric of Neo-orientalism in Colonial Lahore. South Asia Research, 31(1), 25–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/026272801003100103
(2) Ancient India and Ancient China, Trade and Religious Exchanges AD1-600 by Xinru Liu.
Ninth in a Special Series titled ‘From Kashmir to Haridwar’ based on family history, anecdotes, cultural linkages and ancestry by journalist Venus Upadhayaya. Read the other articles here.