When you think of India’s ancient cities, you think of khaki archaeologists digging crumbling structures out of ancient mud. Urban spheres, from this perspective, often look as dull as the dust from which they emerge.
But the early Indian city wasn’t like that at all, says Shonaleeka Kaul; it was certainly not only brick-and-mortar, nor merely an agglomeration of built-up space. In Sanskrit literature these cities were alive, vibrant, teeming with variety. Kaul examines Sanskrit kāvyas over about a thousand years to see what India’s early historic cities were like as living, lived-in, entities. She looks at ideologies, attitudes, institutions, and practices in ancient urban areas, showing the ways in which they often cohered into a worldview, a mentalité.
This is also a book about Sanskrit literature. Scholars have long argued for a nuanced use of literary texts to achieve a more rounded understanding of ancient history, and Kaul achieves exactly that. She takes forward the idea of a Sanskrit ‘literary culture’, arguing that genres influence methods of historical representation. Her book gives us a fresh view of the early city, showing distinctive urban ways of thought and behaviour which relate in complex ways to tradition, morality, and authority. In advocating Sanskrit kāvyas as an important historical source, it addresses not just ancient India specialists but also scholars of literary history: the kāvyas rework history, says Kaul, providing us with ‘transhistoricity’ rather than ‘ahistoricity’.
By asking new questions about early Indian cities and ancient Indian texts, this book asks to be read by every scholar of history, urbanism, cityscapes, literary history, Sanskrit writings, and South Asian antiquity.
Shonaleeka Kaul teaches in the Department of History, University of Delhi. She was at Jawaharlal Nehru University for her PhD. As part of visiting faculty, she has also taught at Yale.