Uncanny craft of manufacturing myths for history

Uncanny craft of manufacturing myths for history

If history is defined as only a record of the past, it is only half truth. History has much to do with the present as well, for it is a continuous interaction between the past and the present.

As only a fraction of what has happened in the past is recorded as history, the very discipline is selective in its presentation. History, therefore, depends on the individual perspective of those who invoke the past to reconstruct it. It is but natural that what we value most in the present, we tend to search in history.

While the past is constant, the process of its reconstruction vastly varies. The multiplicity of recording the past provides scope to contest. A healthy contest in the writing of history is essential for a better understanding.

But on the flip side, more often than naught, it also results in inducting, at times, parochial and divisive view of the past. Instances galore when interpretations that border on myths and legends are inducted into the writing of the past to give credence to vested agendas.

The art and science of creating myths to be passed on as history is as old as history writing itself. There were times when the dividing line between history and myth was blurred, or was non-existent.

The need to present history on scientific lines based on reliable sources was felt only from the 19th century. It was not until Leopold Von Ranke (1795-1886), noted German historian, that the foundations for such source-based scientific history were truly laid. In the absence of a systematic Rankian approach, there is the danger of myths and legends creeping into history.

The palegars, who dominated the political scene as powerful chieftains in South India after the decline of the Vijayanagar empire, for example, had the practice of getting their family history, popularly known as pravara, written. In most of these pravaras, the narration of the origins of the ‘palem’, the source of wealth – used to build the new town and the fortifications etc. – are explained.

They narrate how the founder, while on hunt, saw his hounds chased by the hare and the place thus was chosen for the new town as “it would breed a martial and valiant race”. The story of the hare chasing the hounds and the sudden discovery of the treasure trove are found in pravaras of every palegar of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Needless to state, the story is only a replication of what is famously told of Harihara and Bukka, the founders of the city of Vijayanagar, in choosing the site where their hunting dogs were chased by the hare. The story of the ‘hare hunting hounds’ and ‘finding treasure troves’ give credibility to the palegar in the eyes of his subjects.

Myths have myriad forms. They are also intelligently planted to absolve the misdeeds of powers of the past. The British imperial school of historians for example, to justify the nature of the British rule in India, popularised several make-believe myths. One such relates to battle of Plassey and the conquest of Bengal in 1757.

Siraj-ud-doulah, the Nawab of Bengal, was a sworn enemy of the British and wanted to cancel trade privileges. He wanted to expel them from his kingdom. The British were not willing to lose lucrative trading facilities and decided to crush him.

They sent Robert Clive and Admiral Watson from Madras, who with their armies, waged battle of Plassey in which Siraj was killed and Bengal was occupied in connivance with an insider, Mir Zafar.

Difficult to believe

However, the reason to declare war on Siraj as per the British historians, was the ‘tragedy’ of Black Hole of Calcutta. Siraj, they said, after attacking Fort William, captured British civilians numbering 143 and dumped them all in a small cell measuring 18’’X 18” on a sultry June night, suffocating them to death.

When news of this “ghastly” act of the Nawab reached the Company administration, it decided to “teach a lesson to Siraj”.

The entire episode of “black hole tragedy” was later proved to be a concocted story, a product of fertile imagination planted by vested interests to find an alibi for unjustly dismembering Siraj-ud-doulah. Dumping 143 people into such a small cell, on the very face of it, is next to impossible.

Similarly, the British apologists wrote that the Revolt of 1857 was largely due to the belief Indians held that the railways, when introduced, were seen as ‘monsters which ate coal, drank water and emitted smoke’ and were designed to pollute countryside.
Such stories were intentionally planted to cover up serious acts of commission and omission on the part of the Company administration. In the absence of systematic scrutiny and evaluation, such myths will  don the garb of history.

As we know, the past leaves behind several sources like inscriptions, documents, coins, edifices and an array of artefacts and also a number of myths. The historian has to challenge the myths, making use of the sources to produce analysis.

The sum total of such analysis forms the body of knowledge that we call as history. Therefore, myths are antithesis to the discipline of history.

Recent public discourses even in responsible quarters, with a view to project a sectarian line of national history asserting that ancient Indians were conversant with aspects of modern science such as plastic surgery, aeronautics, the use of drones etc., appear to cause more harm than anything.

In the absence of needed corroborative evidences, such claims only appear as attempts to inject fresh myths into the already myth-infested history. However, history is anything but myth and the purpose of history should be to deconstruct such myths.

(The writer is retired Professor of History, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad)

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