1 How, When and Where
How Important are Dates?
There was a time when historians were
fascinated with dates. There were heated
debates about the dates on which rulers
were crowned or battles were fought.
In the common-sense notion, history was
synonymous with dates. You may have
heard people say, “I find history boring
because it is all about memorising
dates.” Is such a conception true?
History is certainly about changes
that occur over time. It is about finding
out how things were in the past and
how things have changed. As soon as
we compare the past with the present
we refer to time, we talk of “before” and
Living in the world we do not always
ask historical questions about what we
see around us. We take things for granted,
as if what we see has always been in the
world we inhabit. But most of us have our
moments of wonder, when we are curious, and we ask
questions that actually are historical. Watching
someone sip a cup of tea at a roadside tea stall you
may wonder – when did people begin to drink tea or
coffee? Looking out of the window of a train you may
ask yourself – when were railways built and how did
people travel long distances before the age of railways?
Reading the newspaper in the morning you may be
curious to know how people got to hear about things
before newspapers began to be printed.
Fig. 1 – Brahmans offering the
Shastras to Britannia, frontispiece
to the first map produced by
James Rennel, 1782
Rennel was asked by Robert
Clive to produce maps of
Hindustan. An enthusiastic
supporter of British conquest of
India, Rennel saw preparation
of maps as essential to the
process of domination. The
picture here tries to suggest that
Indians willingly gave over their
ancient texts to Britannia – the
symbol of British power – as if
asking her to become the
protector of Indian culture.
Look carefully at Fig.1 and write a paragraph explaining
how this image projects an imperial perception.
2 OUR PASTS – III
All such historical questions refer us back to notions
of time. But time does not have to be always precisely
dated in terms of a particular year or a month.
Sometimes it is actually incorrect to fix precise dates
to processes that happen over a period of time. People
in India did not begin drinking tea one fine day; they
developed a taste for it over time. There can be no one
clear date for a process such as this. Similarly, we
cannot fix one single date on which British rule was
established, or the national movement started, or
changes took place within the economy and society. All
these things happened over a stretch of time. We can
only refer to a span of time, an approximate period over
which particular changes became visible.
Why, then, do we continue to associate history
with a string of dates? This association has a reason.
There was a time when history was an account of
battles and big events. It was about rulers and their
policies. Historians wrote about the year a king was
crowned, the year he married, the year he had a child,
the year he fought a particular war, the year he died,
and the year the next ruler succeeded to the throne.
For events such as these, specific dates can be
determined, and in histories such as these, debates
about dates continue to be important.
As you have seen in the history textbooks of the past
two years, historians now write about a host of other
issues, and other questions. They look at how people
earned their livelihood, what they produced and ate,
how cities developed and markets came up, how
kingdoms were formed and new ideas spread, and how
cultures and society changed.
By what criteria do we choose a set of dates as
important? The dates we select, the dates around which
we compose our story of the past, are not important on
their own. They become vital because we focus on a
particular set of events as important. If our focus of
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