Pratibimb / प्रतिबिम्ब

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Michael Wood’s ‘The Story of India’ (BBC)

with 3 comments

BBC’s 6-part documentary on Indian history, ‘The Story of India’, is indeed a most awe-inspiring and uplifting account of India’s religious, linguistic, intellectual and cultural diversity. Presented by Michael Wood, it is a mostly unbiased re-telling of the 6000-year-old story of the Indian subcontinent. This was aired on BBC on account of the 60th year of independence of India and Pakistan.

This story is presented in the following 6 parts :

  1. Episode 1 – Beginnings : Indus Valley Civilization, Aryans, the Vedas, Caste system, the Mahabharata
  2. Episode 2 – The Power of Ideas : Alexander’s Invasion, Rise of Buddhism, Mauryan Dynasty, Ashoka’s empire
  3. Episode 3 – Spice Routes and Silk Roads : Trade routes, Kushan empire (Kanishka), the Lost Stupa, Mathura and Madurai
  4. Episode 4 – Ages of Gold : The Gupta kindom (Chandragupta Vikramaditya) in the North and the Cholas (Rajaraja) of the South
  5. Episode 5 – The Meeting of Two Oceans : Foreign Invaders, Delhi Sultanate, Mughals, Akbar’s empire
  6. Episode 6 – Freedom and Liberation : Europeans in India, East India Company, First War of Independence, British Raj, Nationalist Movement, Partition

Revelations :

  • The whole of Episode 3. This is an almost forgotten period of Indian history. Even the standard history books don’t say much about Kanishka and the Kushan empire. The fact that Mathura was their capital and such an important city during that era. And finally the Lost Stupa in Peshawar. Could have been a wonder of the world had it still existed there.
  • Chandragupta Vikramaditya, another hazy figure in Indian history. It was actually in his period that India earned the title of the proverbial ‘Golden Bird’. Also the lesser-known Cholas and King Rajaraja, with their massive temple complex in Thanjavur. Also a fleeting mention of Ayodhya being ‘discovered’ by the Guptas, which poses scores of uneasy questions.

Inconsistencies/Controversies :

  • The long-standing controversy of whether the Aryans came from Central Asia or were natives of India is as old as the Aryan theory itself. Apparently ‘Soma’ and horses are put forth as two reasons why Wood suggests that the Aryans were from outside India.
  • The equating of Kanishka to Kansa – the maternal uncle of Krishna who was killed by Krishna and Balaram, seems almost funny at first glance. Even from a historical perspective, Krishna was from the Mahabharata period. And though the Mahabharata period still only exists as a legend, it was definitely nowhere near Kanishka’s period, the common capital city (Mathura) notwithstanding.
  • Wood stops short of dismissing Ramayana as a piece of mythology. The Guptas ‘rediscovered’ the city of Ayodhya and renamed it. But it isn’t just Ayodhya that defines Ramayana. Several places all along the Indian peninsula and Sri Lanka all correspond to the places described in the Ramayana. But Wood prefers not to tread on a treacherous road.

One or two inconsistencies notwithstanding, ‘The Story of India’ has all the elements which make a great documentary: research, facts and presentation. And it has a moral message too, which Wood presents from time to time at various points during the course of his journey: That since the very ancient times, India has represented the equality of beings, the yearning for knowledge, and a readiness to adapt to change. And these very qualities have led to the assimilation of all cultures that exist even today.

Watching this documentary was like watching the secrets of the past unfold before my eyes. If you’re an Indian, it will certainly have that feel-good factor about it throughout, which Michael Wood takes care to maintain. I’m not a history freak, but it is important to know the past, so that we may learn from it. Being citizens of such a vast and diverse country, it is supremely important to respect other communities: religious, ethnic or linguistic. This respect will only come from knowing our roots : how we managed to preserve our culture through all these millenia, how India was really made.

A must-watch for every Indian.


Written by timir

January 31, 2009 at 9:32 pm

3 Responses

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  1. i agree with you


    February 6, 2009 at 2:43 pm

  2. Michael – your programme was so inspiring that I have decided to go to India soon. I live at the southernmost tip of Africa and would appreciate if you would tell me where to go for Navratri( not in the big cities) end September.
    I hope you get this and would be eternally gratefull
    Richard Davies

    richard davies

    August 28, 2009 at 6:39 pm

  3. I mostly agree with your comments, but Michael Wood was wrong and irresponsible in the presentation of the origin of Rig Veda and you have mentioned this in your comment as well. Here is a copy of the letter I wrote to Michael Wood regarding this topic:

    Dear Michael Wood:
    In response to Kamala, you have stated “our series was not made to support ‘shameful’ or ‘despicable racist behaviour’ or ideas, or to ‘vandalize’ Indian history”. It may well not be your intent; however in the end your episode “beginning” will do just that – promoting unproven theories as facts and emboldening people in India and abroad to promote “despicable racist behavior”.
    Here are some of my strongest objections to your documentary, as it relates to the origin of Rig Veda:
    Linguistic evidence – In your series and in your response to Kamala, you have considered the linguistic ties between Sanskrit and European languages as the primary reason for your conclusion that Rig Veda originated outside Indian subcontinent. You imply that linguistic evidence supersedes all other evidence. To this end, you have taken what may be a universally accepted theory that Sanskrit and European languages have a common ancestral language (proto Indo-European language) and cleverly leaped to the conclusion that since proto Indo-European language is outside of India, both Sanskrit and Rig Veda must be from outside of India. This logic is irrational, irresponsible and not supported by factual evidence. We will never know the geographical birth place (“homeland”) of proto Indo-European language – despite your claim by ‘Time-depth’ linguistics on the reconstruction of the language. While most linguistic will agree that there was a proto Indo-European language, they will also agree that reconstruction of such language is conjecture at best.
    Even if we assume Proto Indo-European language originated outside India, how does that prove that Sanskrit was from outside India? And even if we assume Sanskrit was from outside India, how does that prove that Rig Veda was composed outside India? Any study or research you or your staff may be able to present to support your irrational conclusions is conjecture and cannot be proven.
    Applying your logic to other scenarios can lead some very absurd conclusion. For example, we can conclude that American Declaration of Independence was written in Athens – after all both Greek and American English have a common ancestral language. And your approach would have no problem ignoring all other evidence – including those in the document itself.
    Horses and Chariots – You site lack of any evidence of horses in the subcontinent prior to the arrival of “Aryans” as a case for Rig Veda’s origin outside the subcontinent. However, bones of horse were found in many of Harappan archeological sites. The bones found at Surkotada in 1974 were subject to considerable and contentious analysis. In 1994, Sandor Bokony, Hungarian archaeologist and one of world’s leading horse specialist concluded that theses bones were horse bones. As Harappan civilization preceded Vedic period, horses were not new when the “Aryans” came to the subcontinent. Likewise, tablets with wheels and spokes have been found at Harappan sites – evidence that they used chariots – before the arrival of “Aryans”.
    DNA Evidence – The DNA of people in the subcontinent remained remarkably unchanged for thousands of years, until the arrival of Greeks around 500 BCE. You acknowledge this and compare it to how the British did not leave a significant DNA impact in the subcontinent. While this appears to be a clever argument, the two situations are not comparable. The “Aryans” made the people of subcontinent to abandon their culture and language for those of the “Aryans”. That did not happen with the British. If “Aryans” did not mingle with the people of the subcontinent, where did they go? We know the British went back to their island, but there is no evidence of “Aryans” DNA in the subcontinent or elsewhere. This can only mean that the “Aryans” – as defined by Europeans – did not exist. In Rig Veda the term “Aryans” refers to noble men who followed Vedic way of life. Rig Veda also recognized others who did not follow Vedic way of life. They both were indigenous to the subcontinent when Rig Veda was composed.
    Eastern Migration – You state that Rig Veda discusses eastern migration. From this you conclude that Rig Vedic composers migrated from Europe. You ignore the possibility that it could be eastward migration within the subcontinent. You have also ignored many other hymns that lead to the conclusion that Vedic composers were in the subcontinent for a long time.
    As I have previously acknowledged, you have stated that your intent was not to support shameful behavior. However, this is contradictory to your own statement in the documentary when you say that “this (your conclusion that Rig Veda came from outside the subcontinent) is very controversial in the subcontinent”. You choose to imply that while this is controversial in the subcontinent, and not anywhere else. To me this clearly documents your colonial bias and guilt.


    November 20, 2011 at 2:38 pm

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