Contributions of Romila Thapar in Indian Society

Contributions of Romila Thapar in Indian Society

Last updated: November 19, 2019


  • We would discuss the writings of Romila Thapar related to the historical development of Indian society.

History of India:

  • There are two volumes of A History of India.
  • While the first one contains a classic introduction to the history of India written by Romila Thapar, in the second volume, Percival Spear handles the Mughal and British periods.
  • The first volume begins with the culture of the Indo-Aryan civilization.
  • There is already a useful study of Indian pre-history and proto-history in the Pelican series.
  • Without repeating the same material, the first volume covers the history of the sub-continent until the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century.
  • The choice of the date 1526 is terminal only.
  • Thapar traces, in this volume, the evolution of India before contact with modern Europe was estab­lished in the sixteenth century.
  • Her account of the development of India’s social and economic structure is arranged within a framework of the principal political and dynastic events.
  • This absorbing narrative covers some 2,500 eventful years of history, from the establishment of Aryan culture in about 1000 BC to the coming of the Mughals in AD 1526 in northern India and the first arrival of European trading companies.
  • In particular, Thapar deals interestingly with the many manifestations of Indian culture, as seen in religion, art, literature, ideas, and institutions.

Division of History:

  • Emphasis on dynasties led to the division of Indian history into three major periods:
    • Ancient
    • Medieval
    • Modern
  • The ancient period frequently begins with the coming of the Aryan culture.
  • Concludes with the Turkish raid in Northern India in AD 1000, which in turn inaugurates the medieval period, lasting until the coming of the British in the mid-eighteenth century.
  • The division was buttressed by the inappropriate equation of ancient and medieval with Muslims.
  • Since most of the dynasties of the first period were Hindu in origin and those of the second Muslim.
  • Religion was by no means the pre-eminent motivating factor of change in Indian history, as these titles would imply.
  • There are five important aspects of Indian society:
    • Religion.
    • Culture
    • Caste
    • Agrarian system.
    • Polity.

Geographical Structure:

  • There are two parts of the geographical structure of the sub-continent:
    • The vast northern Indo-Gangetic plain lent itself more easily to the emergence of large unitary kingdoms; and
    • The southern half of the sub-continent, the peninsula, was cut up into smaller regions by mountains, plateau, and river valley.
  • The northern kingdoms based their strength primarily on acquiring large areas of territory, and their revenue came mainly from the land.
  • The structure of the southern kingdoms had also to take into account the more than marginal effects of sea power and the economics of maritime activities, which produced a more compli­cated pattern than that of the north.

Population in the Past:

  • An estimate suggested for the sub-continent at the end of the fourth century BC is 181 million (Datta, 1962) whereas another estimate for the early seventeenth century is 100 million (Moreland, 1962: 21).
  • The first census of the British Indian Administration covering the entire sub-continent carried out in 1881 put the population at a little over 253 million.

Ethnic Composition:

  • The ethnic composition of the people inhabiting the various cultures of India was not identical.
  • Ethnological studies have revealed six main races in the Indian sub-continent.
  • The earliest was apparently the Negrito and this was followed by the Proto-Australoid, the Alpine, the Mongoloid, the Mediterranean, and later those associated with the Aryan culture.
  • There is evidence of the Proto-Australoid, Mediterranean, Alpine and Mongoloid in the skeletal remains at Harappan sites.
  • Presumably, by this time, the first five of the races mentioned above were well settled in India.
  • The Proto-Australoids was the basic element in the Indian population and their speech was of the Austric linguistic group, a specimen of which survives in the Munda speech of certain primitive tribes.
  • The concentration of the Mongoloid people was in the north-eastern and northern fringes of the sub-continent, and their speech conforms to the Sino-Tibetan group.
  • The last to come was the people commonly referred to as the Aryans.
  • Aryan is, in fact, a linguistic term indicating a speech group of Indo-European origin and is not an ethnic term.
  • The Golden Age in India had existed prior to the coming of the British and that the ancient past of India was a glorious period of this period of history.
  • This view was natural and inevitable adjunct to the national aspiration of the Indian people in the early twentieth century.

History and Beyond:

  • Historiography links many facets, concerned as it is with inter­pretations of the past.
  • In recent years, historical interpretation has drawn on other disciplines and this is evident in Inter­preting Early India.
  • The subject is history, but the discussions in this work move beyond history to provide a glimpse of explorations of new historical territories relating to early India.
  • Societies have varying forms of time, depending on functions and percep­tions.
  • Conventional attempts to assign these particular forms of time.
  • Either cyclical or linear – have now been questioned.
  • The most meaningful understanding of time and history is to view time at the intersection of the cyclic and the linear within the same society.
  • Culture suggests alternative ways of assessing the early Indian tradition.
  • Using more recent concepts of culture and tradition, it distances itself from the static notion of fixed traditions and exclusive high cultures.
  • From Lineage to State discusses the history of India from about 1000 to 400 BC Moving away from conventional treatment of this period, it attempts to locate the processes of state formation and social configuration.
  • The evidence, both literary and archaeological, is linked, using a comparative framework, with studies of similar societies from other sources in order to suggest a multifaceted reconstruction of this history.


  • The term ‘tribal’ refers to a community of people claiming descent from a common ancestor.
  • Lineages emphasize succession and descent with the implication that these are decisive in determining social status and control over economic resources.
  • It also helps to differentiate between chief ships where lineage dominates and kingship, which as a different category, evokes a larger number of impersonal sanctions.
  • The concept of Vamsa (succession) carries a meaning similar to lineage and is central to Vedic society with its emphasis on succession even as a simulated lineage.
  • Lineage also becomes important in the structure of each varna defined by permitted rules of marriage and kinship and by ranking in an order of status, the control over resources being implicit.
  • In this sense, the emergence of the four varnas is closely related to the notions of a lineage-based society.


  • In a stratified society the reinforcing of status is necessary.
  • In the absence of taxation as a system of control in the Vedic period, sacrificial ritual functioned as the occasion for renewing the status of Yajamana, initially a rajanya or a kshatriya.
  • Apart from its religious and social roles sacrificial ritual also had an economic function.
  • The display, consumption and distribution of wealth at the major rituals, such as the Reajsauya and the
  • The tax collections were voluntary and random although the randomness gradually changed.
  • The formation of the state is, therefore, tried into this change.
  • This highlights the difference between appropri­ation in the earlier system and exploitation in the latter.
  • The gradual mutation which took place becomes evident from the frequent references in the Pali sources to the Gahapati.
  • Gahapati is ahead of the household.

Religious Ideology:

  • But, its significance grows when the social background of this belief is one of the increasing disparity.
  • In fact a fundamental doctrine of this age which was to have far-reaching consequences on Indian society.
  • That it should have been secret and originally associated with the Ksatraiyas raises many questions.
  • But this is only a partial answer and much more remains to be explained.
  • These are not the only kinds of connections relevant to a history of the period.
  • Upper and lower groups or even classes, treated as monolithic, belie social reality.


  • The political institutions of India visualized largely as the rule of Maharaja and Sultans.
  • The rulers were dynastic.
  • Therefore, the early histories were “administrator’s histories”, concerned mainly with the rise and fall of dynasties and empires.
  • The protagonists of Indian history were the kings and the narration of events revolved around them.


  • The historians of India have in the past been regarded primarily as orientalists.
  • They focussed on language.
  • The nineteenth-century concept of oriental studies has changed in the present century, both in Europe and in India.


  • The Vedic period saw a change from the lineage system to a combined lineage and house-holding.
  • In the Indian situation, lineage society gave shape and form to caste structure.
  • The continuance of varna is in a sense the continuance of an aspect of lineage society and of ritual status.
  • On the whole, we have indicated the institutions and events which have contributed to the evolution of Indian culture.
  • In the preceding pages it has not been our objective to describe the history of ancient India.
  • Nor are we capable of doing it.
  • Besides being a historian she was a cultural analyst.
  • In all her works, she has tried to understand the evolution of Indian social institutions.
  • She tries to establish the institutions of lineage and state.
  • This makes her a social thinker with a historical bias.
  • Quite like Karve, Thapar has tried to formulate that the state has its origin in lineage kinship.
  • Both Karve and Thapar deny the divine right theory of kinship

Contributions of Romila Thapar in Indian Society

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Contributions of Romila Thapar in Indian Society Introduction History of India Geographical Structure Division of History Population in the Past Ethnic Composition History and Beyond Lineage Economy Polity Religious Ideology Orientalist  Contributions of Romila Thapar in Indian Society Conclusion


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