The perception, valuation, and manipulation of human environments all have their own layered histories: so Sumit Guha argues in this sweeping examination of 500 years when successive empires across Asia struggled to harness lands and peoples to their agendas.
Guha compares the practices of the Mughal and British empires to demonstrate how their fluctuating capacity for domination was imbricated in the formation of environmental knowledge itself. The establishment of imperial control transforms local knowledge of the world into the aggregated information that reproduces centralized power over it. That is the political ecology that reshapes entire biomes. Animals and plants are translocated, human communities are displaced or destroyed. Some species proliferate, others disappear.
But these state projects are overlaid upon the many local and regional geographies made by sacred cosmologies and local sites, pilgrimage routes and river fords, hot springs and fluctuating aquifers, hunting ranges and nesting grounds, notable trees and striking rocks. Guha uncovers these ecological histories by scrutinising little-used archival sources. His historically based political ecology demonstrates how the biomes of a vast subcontinent were changed by struggles to make and to resist empire.
Sumit Guha is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin. His many books include History and Collective Memory in South Asia (Permanent Black, 2019), and Beyond Caste (Permanent Black, 2017).
“Brilliantly researched, analytically rich, and field-shifting. Guha introduces us to an entirely new method of doing environmental history” – Debjani Bhattacharyya
“A major work of original scholarship that provides an eye-opening perspective on the history of South Asia over the past five hundred years, putting ecology and environmental change at the heart of the story” – Sunil Amrith