Review of 'Bravehearts of Bharat' by Vikram Sampath
The author says in his introduction that the genesis of this book lay in a meeting with a friend of his, a fellow-writer who is also an economist, at which they noted that the history of “Bharat” could be criticised on two counts: one, that it’s centred around Delhi, meaning that the southern, eastern, and north-eastern parts of country aren’t represented fairly, and, two, that it consists largely of a series of defeats that ignores the heavy sprinkling of unsung victories claimed by smaller, regional historical figures who deserve more attention than they’ve got.
Here, then, are chapter-length biographies — vignettes — of fifteen “civilisational warriors”, to use a term that crops up in the prologue. And why only fifteen? It was a matter of choice for the author, and he imposed it after he decided to write the book. The greater difficulty was choosing the fifteen that he wanted to fit into it. He couldn’t go too far back, because there’s little material on less-known figures from the ancient past. He’s also chosen to exclude figures after 1858, after which the British government took over from the East India Company. The period from which he’s chosen the figures is from the 8th century BCE upto the 19th. He tried to balance it out: there are northerners and southerners, easterners and westerners, men and women, Hindus and Muslims, sailors and soldiers, and even the odd figure with a strong spiritual element... Someone looking for flaws will find much to cavil at in the list of the chosen, but, given the author’s constraints and the availability of historical material, I thought the selection was fine.
The fifteen are well known in their own regions. At a traffic island three kilometres from my house stands a statue of Maharani Abbakka Chowta of Ullal on a horse, with an inscription at its base that mentions her victories against the Portuguese. Raja Martanda Varma of Travancore is hardly unknown in Kerala and parts of Tamil Nadu: there’s even a silent movie based on him made in 1933. The discovery of fabulous treasures in the temple he rebuilt, the Sri Padmanabhaswami temple in Thiruvananthapuram, only shed more light on him. Rajaraja Chola? The recent — 2022 — hit Tamil movie, Ponnaiyin Selvan, is about him, as was a 1973 movie starring Sivaji Ganesan. There’s a recent — also 2022 — Gujarati movie about Rani Naiki Devi (Nayaki Devi in the movie). So, not one of the chosen is a small fry.
The sources he’s quoted are extensive, though there seem to be gaps, especially with the first and oldest of his figures, Lalitaditya Muktapida of Kashmir. The main source of information on Lalitaditya is Kalhana, a 12th century poet, the authenticity of whose work has been found questionable, as the author acknowledges. Going through the references at the end of the biography, however, showed no sign of Ronald M Davidson, who tends to be sceptical about accounts by Andre Wink and Hermann Goetz, whom the author has relied upon. Speaking as a layman, I would look for some more depth of reference in this particular biography, although an expert might differ.
But this is the only possible research weakness in an otherwise solid narrative. The references are broadly convincing, the research good, and the narration workmanlike, if occasionally verbose.
There is some cause for dissatisfaction. What does the “Bharat” in the title mean? All fifteen figures fall within the boundaries of modern India. Does Bharat coincide with modern India? Or does he refer to a geographical spread with a common civilization? If so, didn’t modern Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and other regions throw up any noteworthy “civilisational warriors”?
And what exactly does he mean by civilisational? What did Rajaraja Chola, for instance, or Abbakka Chowta, have in common with Lalitaditya Muktapida, separated as they were by thousands of miles and hundreds of years? Well, they were Hindus, of course, but Begum Hazrat Mahal wasn’t... So what was it about their culture or civilization that transcended geography and religion? Was it just that they had the gumption to face invaders? They fought for freedom and rights and to uphold their traditions and so on, but civilization goes beyond freedom and rights and traditions.
And then there are the empire-builders amongst these: the Cholas for instance. The Cholas, who ruled what is now Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, and parts of Karnataka, adventured overseas as well, in Sri Lanka and had many skirmishes with the Pandyas and the Cheras. Were all these expansionist wars in defence of Bharat’s civilization? Weren’t the many conquered kingdoms part of Bharat and its civilisation?
The fifteen biographies are doubtless worth reading, and substantial. If, however, the author had explained more clearly the common civilizational ground they were protecting in the wars they undertook, this book would have made much more sense.
Bravehearts of Bharat
pp. 334, Rs 799