Exhaustive peep into Malwa’s past
Reviewed by Harbans Singh

The City and the Country in Early India – A Study of Malwa
By P.K. Basant. Primus Books.
Pages 369. Rs 342

The City and the Country in Early India – A Study of MalwaThe effort is stupendous, the sweep is vast, the study exhaustive, and the impact enlightening. The City and the Country in Early India – A Study of Malwa by P.K. Basant is primarily about understanding the growth and development of urban centres of Malwa – a region in present-day Madhya Pradesh and not to be confused with the region in Punjab – in the context of its long history of agriculture. It is also, as the first part of the title suggests, the history of the city and the country in early India. Both the subjects are interwoven and the study of Malwa would have been inadequate in the absence of the larger context.

The author has drawn upon almost all the available sources that range from debates about the theoretical issues relating to urbanisation to archaeological and literary evidence as well as the transition from a pastoral-agricultural society to the making of a state. Thus a relationship, both confrontationist as well as collaborative, between farming communities and forest people is also established. This relationship gradually leads to chiefdom and the emergence of a ruler as we understand. In the process, the role of technology too is discussed and one begins to comprehend why iron ploughshare can be redundant in certain agri-conditions and how those conditions contribute towards the sustenance of those communities.

It is amazing that how by focusing on the study of inscriptions of the monuments of Sanchi, the author is able to reasonably reconstruct the composition of the society more than 2,000 years ago and even convincingly argue in favour of a Dravidian influence upon a region that is truly a link between the Aryan and the Dravidian cultures. In those inscriptions, he discovers the kinship structure of those times. If Kautilya’s Arthashastra helps the author understand the world view from the ruler and the state’s point of view then he also has Banabhatta and other poets who become the instruments for appreciating the city and the country as vibrant living spaces. He also discovers the vastly improved city life of Ujjaini of the fifth century BCE as compared to the century before and the readers can only wonder at the metropolitan nature of the citizenry with the amalgamation of the Greeks, Persians, Huns, Yavanas etc.

Though the author has not pointed out yet a discerning reader can smell the decadence that invariably follows too much prosperity and leisure in the characters depicted by one of the poets of the era.

It is ironical that though all evidence points to the antiquity and importance of the Malwa region as a connecting link between North and South India, determined by the geography, yet scholars as well as popular perceptions have continued to view the region from the perception of those who lived in the limited world of the Vedic period. This book exposes the hollowness of that limited world view and even explains how and why the marriage and the manner of it, of Arjun and Subhadra of the Mahabharata fame, took place.

It also explains a number of events alliances that mark that great epic. But importantly, it traces the beginning of agriculture from the middle of the third millennium BCE, its development and the resultant pattern of increase in the number and size of the agricultural settlements and, finally, the creation of a city during the post-Vedic period that was rich in its diversity, containing a variety of religious establishments and accommodating "diverse groups of people from various corners of the known world". The diversity of Ujjain "was a statement of the strength of urban processes" and after reading the book a reader might tend to agree that Malwa, as a region, is "better understood as a mosaic of many landscapes, many people and shifting, porous boundaries".

The book has been written in the conventional style of the academicians but after making an effort to read it one is amply rewarded in the form of a peep into a past that is so close to our collective consciousness.