March 08, 2008

The Indic civilisation - The Shashi Tharoor Column

YOU INDIANS have allowed yourself to forget that there is such a thing as Indic civilisation. And we are its last outpost.”

The words were spoken to me 25 years ago by the Khmer nationalist politician and one-time Prime Minister Son Sann, lamenting India’s support for Vietnam in its conquest of Cambodia in 1979. To Son Sann, Cambodia was an Indic civilization being overrun by the forces of a Sinic state, and he was bewildered that India, the fount of his country’s heritage, should
sympathise with a people as distinctly un-Indian as the Vietnamese.

Given that Vietnam’s invasion had put an end to the blood-soaked terror of the rule of the Khmers Rouges, I was more inclined to see the choice politically than in terms of civilizational heritage. But Son Sann’s words stayed with me.

They came back to mind during a recent visit to Angkor Wat, perhaps the greatest Hindu temple ever built anywhere in the world — and in Cambodia, not India. To walk past those exquisite sculptures recounting tales from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, to have my Cambodian guide tell me about the significance of the symbols protecting the shrine — the naga, the simha and the garuda, corresponding, he said earnestly, to today’s navy, army and air force! — and to marvel at the epic scale of a Hindu temple as impressive as the finest cathedral anywhere in the world, was also to marvel at the extraordinary reach of our culture beyond its own shores.

Hinduism was brought to Cambodia by merchants and travellers more than a millennium ago, and it has long since disappeared, supplanted by a Buddhism that was also an Indian export. But at its peak it profoundly influenced the culture, music, dance and mythology of the Cambodian people.

Even today my Cambodian guide at Bayon, a few minutes’ drive from Angkor Wat, speaks with admiration of a sensibility which, in the 16th century, saw Hindus and Buddhists worship side-by-side in adjoining shrines within the same temple complex. (If only we could do that at Ayodhya, I found myself thinking.)

Perhaps Son Sann was right, and Cambodia is indeed the last outpost of Indic civilization in a world increasingly Sinified. But what exactly does that mean?

At a time when the north of India was reeling under waves of conquest and cultural stagnation, our forefathers in the South were exporting Indianness to South-east Asia. It was an anonymous task, carried out not by warrior heroes blazing across the land bearing swords of conquest, but by individuals who had come in peace, to trade, to teach and to persuade.

Their impact was profound. To this day, the kings of Thailand are only crowned in the presence of Brahmin priests; the Muslims of Java still sport Sanskritic names, despite their conversion to Islam, a faith that normally requires its adherents to bear names originating in Arabia; Garuda is Indonesia’s national airline and Ramayana its best-selling brand of clove cigars; even the Philippines has produced a pop-dance ballet about Rama’s quest for his kidnapped queen.

But contemporary international politics has rendered all this much less significant than the modern indices of strategic thinking, economic interests and geopolitical affinities. India is far less important to the countries that still bear the stamp of “Indic” influence than, say, China, whose significance is contemporary, rather than civilizational.

Should we care, and is there anything we can do about it? Of course we should care: no great civilization can afford to be indifferent to the way in which it is perceived by others. But what, today, is Indic civilization? Can we afford to anchor ourselves in a purely atavistic view of ourselves, hailing the religious and cultural heritage of our forebears without recognising the extent to which we ourselves have changed?

Isn’t Indian civilization today an evolved hybrid, that draws as much from the influence of Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, not to mention two centuries of British colonial rule? Can we speak of Indian culture today without qawwali, the poetry of Ghalib, or for that matter the game of cricket, our de facto national sport?

When an Indian dons “national dress” for a formal event, he wears a variant of the sherwani, which did not exist before the Muslim invasions of India. When Indian Hindus voted recently in the cynical and contrived competition to select the “new seven wonders” of the modern world, they voted for the Taj Mahal constructed by a Mughal king, not for Angkor Wat, the most magnificent architectural product of their religion. So doesn’t Indianness come ahead of the classically Indic?

I would argue in the affirmative, which brings me to the second part of the question: what can we do about it? It seems to me that we ought to be pouring far more resources into our cultural diplomacy, to project the richness of our composite culture into lands which already have a predisposition for it.

I’m not a fan of propaganda, which most people tend to see for what it is: I believe the message that will really get through is of who we are, not what we want to show. But just as, in economic terms, the Government must provide the basic infrastructure and let the private sector get on with actual ventures, so too in the field of cultural promotion, the Government has to create the showcases which individual Indians can then proceed to fill.

The Nehru Centre in London is a great asset for India, but why on earth is there only one such centre? We should have them in Cambodia, in Indonesia, in Thailand, in Malaysia, and for that matter in South Africa, in Nigeria, in Brazil, in Canada. Once they exist, they can serve as a catalyst for locals and visiting Indians to perform, speak, sing, argue and screen their work, thus enabling others to see the products of our civilization, the multi-religious identities of our people, our linguistic diversity, the myriad manifestations of our creative energies.

Then we can speak of a civilization that is “Indic” in its heritage, Indian in its contemporary relevance.

No comments: