In the chapter titled “Environment” in her book Time Pieces: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, Nayanjot Lahiri makes a confession: that she (perhaps like many of us?) grew up with a childhood notion that ancient habitations were anchored around rivers. The Euphrates-Tigris, the Nile, and the Indus: the cradles of civilisation, the “obvious and natural bases for human settlement”, as Lahiri puts it. She goes on to add, however, that now she thinks differently: “I feel tentatively aware of the dangers of imposing such a pattern upon the flux of human existence.”

Two things are worth noting about this admission. One, that Lahiri’s was a fairly innocuous assumption, and not completely illogical. Two, that this is someone who has accepted that she may have been wrong in her assumption.

Contrast this with the wild claims that are today touted – and that too with startling self-confidence – as historical fact about ancient India by everybody from politicians to the man on the street. People in ancient India used aeroplanes. Plastic surgery and gene editing was practised, televisions were in use: not just wishful thinking, but dangerous wishful thinking, since it is grossly misleading. Especially to a gullible public, happy to believe that ancient India was some sort of utopia.

How ancient Indians actually lived

In Time Pieces, Lahiri aims to set the record straight. Through ten brief essays on some of the basic aspects of everyday life in ancient India, she attempts to explain what it really was to live in the Indian subcontinent in the time of Ashoka, in Harappa, during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya, and so on. This is not a book which sets out to be anything like a text book: it does not discuss politics, it does not list dynasties or contain maps that show the extent of empires. The closest it comes to a timeline is in its first chapter, titled “Journeys”, in which Lahiri explains how and approximately when our ancestors first made their way from Africa, across West Asia, and into the Indian subcontinent.

Instead, what Time Pieces does is to explore the areas few text books venture into, such as: What people ate. How hygiene and sanitation was maintained. How and why people travelled, what their relationships with their environment and with the inhabitants of neighbouring ecosystems were like. What art they created and why (if at all one can pin down a reason for making art). What their concept of self, in terms of the individual as a person, not just as a member of a clan or a varna, was.

At less than ten pages per chapter (and that includes photos to illustrate and support several of the examples Lahiri provides), this is a slim book. It does not go deep into detail, but it covers the ground – and it piques the interest. There are tantalising little nuggets of information that would probably make the reader who is not very conversant with ancient India sit up and take notice. For instance, the fact that in the 3rd century BCE, a sculptor named Devadinna left a brief inscription on the wall of a cave in modern-day Chattisgarh, immortalising his love for a devadasi named Sutanuka – making them, as Lahiri speculates, the “first couple” of India.

Of course, many prominent figures are mentioned: Ashoka, Kautilya, Alexander, and even the courtesan Amrapali. But the bulk of Time Pieces is peopled by the relatively nameless: the young women who were buried alongside goats in Baluchistan, the traders whose seals are among the most common markers of identity, the sculptor who carved monkey doctors in stone at Mathura.

What lies beyond history

Lahiri brings an astonishingly wide range of knowledge to this work, not just from her own field but also from other fields. She quotes from global literature, discusses romantic (or salacious) graffiti from countries across the world, and draws parallels between ancient India and the rest of the world – and does all of it in an easy, conversational style that is very readable and often imbued with a sense of humour.

Besides the history that Lahiri explains through the book, she also makes several important points. One, of course, is the exploding of many myths surrounding ancient India that seem to be in vogue today. From vegetarianism to sexual abstinence, she shows how a lot of what is considered synonymous with a “golden age” of ancient India was actually not quite so all-pervasive. Often, there is a tongue in cheek reference to matters as they stand today:

“… This great enthusiasm for sarcastic verse in which no one, from the divine to the human, is spared, has a lesson for India today where poking fun at anyone in the public domain, especially gods and goddesses, ruffles all kinds of feathers…”

Another important point is about the scientific way in which ancient history is unearthed (often literally). Lahiri’s explanation of how archaeology teams up with other sciences, such as geology, zoology, and chemistry, helps understand how so much can be inferred from what would seem so meagre.

If there is one hitch in the plethora of fascinating facts in Time Pieces, it is in that sometimes the brevity of a fact leaves it with several questions unanswered. For instance, the author mentions in passing the discovery of an ostrich-shell bead, an example of a tiny work of art. This, for the curious reader, raises questions: how did ostrich shells arrive in India? Was the subcontinent once home to ostriches? If so, when did they die out? Or could it have been that in the waves of hominins migrating from Africa, some brought along ostrich eggs?

For this reason alone – the facts that give rise to further questions – one would have liked this book to be longer. Still, it’s an invaluable work for anybody interested in ancient India. It is highly informative, it is insightful, and it is entertaining: truly a satisfying whistle-stop tour of ancient India.

Time Pieces: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, Nayanjot Lahiri, Hachette India.