Anything that moves

Rani Padmini and four other Hindutva history myths exploded

As it turns out, some commonly held stories about our 5,000-year-old past simply aren't true.

The biggest news story coming out of India in 2014 was the triumph at the polls of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Led by the charismatic Narendra Modi, the BJP achieved what many considered impossible: an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. Modi and a number of his colleagues subscribe to ideas I have described in a previous column as Raving Loony Hindutva History. The BJP’s misreading of history, however, is also underpinned by versions of history that circulate as truth within the mainstream. Here, in reverse chronological order, I list five major myths that have gained mainstream acceptance in India.

1. The Myth of Rani Padmini

In 1303 AD, Alauddin Khilji, the Turkic Sultan of Delhi, captured Chittorgarh after a long siege. Two hundred and thirty-seven years later, an Awadhi poet named Malik Muhammad Jayasi composed a poem titled Padmavat about the fall of Chittor. The tale was picked up in succeeding eras by historians such as the chronicler of Akbar’s reign Abul Fazl.

The story of Padmini varies from one writer to another but the basic contours are similar. A sorcerer banished by the king of Mewar Ratan Singh finds refuge in the Khilji court, where he fills the Sultan’s ears with tales of the beauty of Ratan Singh’s wife, Padmini. Alauddin manages to get a glimpse of her, and is enraptured. He captures Ratan Singh by deceit, and offers to release him in exchange for Padmini. The Rajputs hatch a cunning stratagem to free their king, but lose several warriors in the process. Alauddin defeats the weakened Rajput army, only to discover that Padmini and all other women in Chittor fort have committed jauhar.

Rani Padmini is not mentioned in any Rajput or Sultanate annals, and there’s absolutely no historical evidence she existed. Alauddin Khilji, one of the finest generals in India’s military history, certainly required no treachery to subdue Chittor. He repelled successive Mongol invasions while conquering much of Rajasthan and Gujarat. But what has survived of him is the image of a lustful, deceitful, tyrant pitted against chivalrous Rajputs.

2. The Myth of Prithviraj Chauhan

History, they say, is written by the winners. The best poetry, though, is often composed by the losers and, in India at least, outweighs historical accounts. Prithviraj Chauhan ruled Delhi in the late 12th century AD. In 1191, the Afghan ruler Muhammad Ghuri took the fortress of Bhatinda on the border of Prithviraj’s kingdom. Prithviraj advanced towards the frontier, and met and defeated Ghuri’s army at Tarain. The next year, Ghuri returned with a stronger force, defeated Prithviraj, and had him executed.

Pretty standard give-and-take for that age. In the hands of Prithviraj’s court poet Chand Bardai, and several later writers who embellished the narrative, the chivalrous Prithviraj defeated and imprisoned Ghuri, but generously set him free. The foe returned, attacked unfairly at night, captured and blinded the Rajput king, and took him back to his capital. Prithviraj’s companion convinced Ghuri to let the blind king demonstrate his skill as an archer. Instructed by the companion, Prithviraj killed Muhammad Ghuri before ending his own life in a suicide pact.

I grew up believing this to be historical truth, thanks to the volume of Amar Chitra Katha about Prithviraj’s life. I suppose children today watching television serials about Prithviraj and Padmini swallow the same fictions. It is noteworthy that no cases have been filed in any Indian court against these erroneous retellings of Indian history.

3. The Myth of a Non-Violent India

“…our religion is truer than any other religion, because it never conquered, because it never shed blood.” Swami Vivekananda, who assiduously propagated the myth of peaceful India, often used “religion”, “nation” and “race” interchangeably. In Colombo in 1897, he said, “India has for thousands of years peacefully existed… We, of all nations of the world, have never been a conquering race, and that blessing is on our head.” Ironically, Sri Lanka is one of the countries that Indian kings (Hindu ones at that, for in such a reckoning only Hindu kings count) have repeatedly invaded. The Cholas also launched naval expeditions against towns and regions across South-East Asia in the 11th century AD.

Hindu rulers rarely hesitated to invade neighbouring domains, with all the killing and plunder associated with the business. If they rarely ventured outside the subcontinent, it had less to do with a reluctance to shed blood or invade foreign lands than with the juicier targets close to home. A simple cost-benefit analysis explains why it made sense for Afghan and Turkic cavalry to raid the fertile Indian plains, and no sense for Indian kings to transport their elephants, thousands of foot-soldiers, and complicated supply lines into the mountains to conquer a land of sheep herders. Shah Jahan tried invading Samarkand, out of a sense of duty to his forebears, and his army paid a terrible price.

4. The Myth of Sanskrit

Sanskrit has produced a marvellous quantity of hymns, philosophical meditations, poems, epics, plays, and treatises. It is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most culturally significant languages in the world. What it is not is the “mother of all languages”, or even the foundational tongue of the branch to which is belongs, known as the Indo-European family of languages.

The first person to discover this language family, William Jones, suggested back in 1786 that Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, “have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists”. He was exactly right. That source is now called proto-Indo-European, and is considered to have been spoken in the vicinity of the Black Sea around 5,500 to 6,000 years ago.

In India, though, the idea is anathema that an ancestor of Sanskrit was spoken by pastoral nomads living in what is modern-day Turkey and Ukraine. For that would make Sanskrit essentially a language like many others. Which is what it is.

 5The Myth of a 5,000-year-old civilisation

Our Foreign minister Sushama Swaraj recently attended a function celebrating the 5151st anniversary of the Bhagavad Gita. That dating belongs to Raving Loony Hindutva History, but the 5,000 year mark is commonly used to describe everything connected with Hindu culture. The Vedas? At least 5,000 years old. Ayurveda? 5,000 years old. Yoga, 5,000 years old, or a little more. Indian art? 5,000 years old. Mathematics, astronomy, grammar, you name it, it is all 5,000 years old.

In truth, almost nothing in India is 5,000 years old. The ruins of the Harappan civilisation come closest, but the artefacts that have survived, aside from a few pot shards, don’t date earlier than 2500 BC. The earliest literature we have was composed about 3,500 years ago, and there’s precious little art that’s datable to a period before 500 BC. India’s major mathematical achievements originated almost exclusively in the medieval era, while the asanas used in contemporary yoga have, in a majority of cases, an illustrated or descriptive history going back little over a century.

The fake 5,000-year figure plays into the hands of those who believe India once enjoyed a golden age before it was corrupted by, take your pick, the Kalyug, Muslim invaders, British imperialists, all of the above.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Uninterrupted power supply during natural disasters can be a reality

The right material can protect electricity poles from getting damaged even during natural disasters.

According to a UN report, natural disasters in the last decade have occurred almost twice as often compared to two decades ago, with Asia being the hardest hit. The report reveals that the number of such events had gone up 14% annually between 2005 and 2015 compared to the period 1995-2014. Such findings have driven countries like UK and USA to accelerate their resilience building measures. ‘Resilience’ implies preparedness and having a robust coping mechanism to deal with the damage wrought by hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and other violent natural events. The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) has even launched a campaign called Making Cities Resilient which suggests, among other things, increasing the resilience of infrastructure for crucial services including electrical power, transport, healthcare and telecommunications.

India’s vulnerability to natural disasters

The UN report lists India as third among the countries hit by the highest number of weather related disasters in the past decade. The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in its Annual Disaster Review for 2014 also listed India among the five countries most frequently hit by natural disasters.

According to the National Cyclone Risk Mitigation Project, almost 5,700 kilometers of India’s 7,500 kilometers of coastline are highly vulnerable to the impact of tropical cyclones and related meteorological hazards. Research by Verisk Maplecroft also shows that 82% of the population in India are exposed to natural hazards, compared with 50% of the population in China.

What is also disturbing is the increased vulnerability of populous Indian cities to the effects of these natural disasters, caused by growing population density, haphazard construction activities and inadequate preparedness. The recent Mumbai floods which crippled the city in August 2017, for example, were exacerbated by the city’s out-of-date drainage system and unbridled construction over the city’s natural nullahs, which otherwise could have effectively drained excess water. A report on World Disasters by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), lists Mumbai among the 10 most vulnerable cities in terms of floods and earthquakes. A survey shows that, on an average, 21 Indian cities scored between 2.5 to 4 points out of 10 on governance parameters that measure preparedness for disasters.

Regions like the North East in India are particularly susceptible to natural disturbances like earthquakes, floods and landslides. According to the National Flood Commission, Assam, for example, accounts for 9.4% of the total flood prone area in the country. The commission estimated that due to floods, Assam suffered a loss of Rs, 3,100 crores in the past five decades. The whole of Brahmaputra Valley in Assam is in fact considered one of the most hazard prone regions in the country, with more than 40% of its land (3.2 million hectares) being susceptible to flood damage.

All these point to the need for resilience building measures, particularly to protect crucial infrastructure like electrical power – one of the first casualties during a natural disaster. For example, when Hurricane Sandy struck the US East Coast in 2012, about 2,427 utility poles were toppled or broken, reportedly shutting off power to more than 8.5 million households. Back home, when Cyclone Wardah hit Chennai in December 2015, power supply was disrupted in the city and its neighbouring districts of Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur. Reports said thousands of concrete poles just collapsed and reportedly 32,000 poles had to be replaced in the three districts. Government officials were even quoted as saying that the estimated loss from uprooted poles alone was about Rs 65 crore. Inability of electricity poles (also called utility poles) to withstand strong winds contributes significantly to the disruption of power supply during such natural occurrences.

So how can critical infrastructure like electricity poles be saved during a disaster like a cyclone? One way could be to use better-suited material.

Ensuring power supply during natural contingencies

When typhoon Rammasun hit Guangdong in China, more than 70,000 concrete and metal poles collapsed. Earlier, in the aftermath of the massive Chuetsu earthquake in Japan in 2004, about 3,400 utility poles supporting communication cables were broken or toppled.

A post-event assessment revealed that many of the damaged poles were concrete. Concrete poles are comparatively difficult to repair or replace because of their weight and dependence on heavy machinery to install them. Besides, concrete has low tensile strength and often requires the use of materials like steel for reinforcement. When moisture seeps in through cracks in the concrete, the steel reinforcement rusts leading to further deterioration of the concrete pole.

There have been other instances of concrete and metal poles being completely destroyed by natural forces. In tornadoes that ripped through Florida in the late 90s for example, even 100-foot spun concrete transmission poles tested to withstand 250 mph winds, toppled. Ice storms such as the 1998 North American Ice Storm caused over a 1,000 steel towers to collapse under the accumulated weight of the ice. Some of these incidents led to the continued use of wood as a preferred material for utility poles. But environmental concerns emerged due to the use of certain chemicals for treatment of the wooden poles. Additionally, wooden poles are also vulnerable to natural disasters - in the earlier mentioned ice storm, over 30,000 wooden poles were found to have collapsed in addition to the steel ones. In the last few years, research has been conducted into the use of various other materials for utility poles even as wood, steel and concrete remained popular choices. But while all of them have their advantages, they also come with distinct disadvantages.

Concrete, for example, is strong, fire resistant and termite/rot proof, but has as previously mentioned, other disadvantages. Galvanized steel offers similar advantages as concrete, while also being lighter. However, it is also expensive, energy intensive to make, and hazardous since it conducts electricity. Wood, traditionally a popular material for utility poles, is also prone to decay and termite attacks, besides having low resistance to fire when unprotected.

All these factors have led to the development of new materials such as fibre reinforced polymer (FRP), which have proved to offer durability even during high intensity typhoons. For example, in the Rammasun typhoon mentioned earlier, a group of FRP utility poles were found to stand firm even when exposed to strong winds. These poles are made of a special kind of high-strength, high-flexibility polyurethane (PU) composite material called ‘Elastolit®’ developed by BASF. The poles have a strength that is easily 10 times greater than their weight and are only 250 kg, making them easy to transport and install them virtually anywhere. They are more durable and resilient than concrete poles, can withstand severe weather conditions and can also be optimized for specific conditions.

As in the case of Guangdong in China, replacing concrete poles with these FRP poles in areas facing high exposure to natural disasters in India has the potential to reduce the disruption caused to power supply during such events. To know more about BASF’s initiatives in this regard, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.