There are three different books that I am currently reading – Romila Thapar’s Early India, Michel Danino’s The Lost River and JRR Tolkein’s The Hobbit (part of my periodic pilgrimage to middle earth). And three different lines written in altogether different contexts seemed to somehow link up.
Gollum, waiting hungrily to eat up Bilbo, poses a riddle:
This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kings, ruins town.
And beats high mountains down
The answer is Time. Bilbo almost did not get the answer and in a bid to ask Gollum for more time, shrieked “Time! Time!”.
However, when reading about the Saraswati, Michel Danino talks about the drying up and disappearance of the river over time. One major tectonic event that may have happened was the Yamuna tear. It is believed that an earthquake shifted the course of the Yamuna (which was earlier feeding into the Saraswati) southwards. Danino writes:
… a small opening and eastwad tilt in the slopes would have been enough to funnel parrt of the glacier-fed rivers through the new gap; erosion would have done the rest in the course of time.
This among other events like the westward shift in the course of the Satluj has led to the Saraswati disappearing. From being “limitless, unbroken, swift-moving” as described in the Rig Veda, it becomes “Saraswati’s streams lost in the barbarous sandy wastes” in Kalidasa’s Shakuntala. Over two-three millennia, the river had become a lost stream.
The fact that “Ancient” history covers such large literally earth-changing events along with the resultant changes in civilisation makes Romila Thapar write:
“Ancient” in Indian history remains an imprecise term, conveying little of the nature of the period, and “Medieval” merely means the middle. In addition, the Ancient period covers a large enough span to include major changes within it.
She then proceeds to suggest an alternate periodisation just to cover the “Ancient” part of the story. This includes the period of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and early farmers; the first urbanisation of the Indus plain and north-west India upto the Mauryan state c 200 BCE. Her logic being:
Determining periods in history is important, but it is equally important to determine the cause of change, a question sometimes referred to as that of the transition from one period to another. Even specific changes may begin casually, but if they occur with sufficient frequency they can give a new direction to the way society functions and this encapsulates historical change.
Thus, three different perspectives on time. And to close on a humourous note, the classic from Sir Humphrey Appleby:
… at the appropriate juncture, in due course, in the fullness of time…