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Romila Thapar

Romila Thapar
Born (1931-11-30) 30 November 1931
Lucknow, British India
Nationality Indian
Alma mater Panjab University
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Occupation Historian, Writer
Known for Authoring books about Indian history

Romila Thapar (born 30 November 1931) is a distinguished Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India. She is the author of numerous substantial books including the popular classic, A History of India, and is currently Professor Emerita at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.


  • Work 1
  • Recognition and honours 2
  • Views on revisionist historiography 3
  • Controversy 4
  • Bibliography 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


After graduating from Panjab University, Thapar earned her doctorate under A. L. Basham at the School of Oriental and African Studies, the University of London in 1958.[1] She was a reader in Ancient Indian History at Kurukshetra University between 1961 and 1962 and held the same position at Delhi University between 1963 and 1970. Later, she worked as Professor of Ancient Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she is now Professor Emerita.[2]

Thapar's major works are Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations, Recent Perspectives of Early Indian History (editor), A History of India Volume One, and Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300.

Her historical work portrays the origins of Hinduism as an evolving interplay between social forces.[3] Her recent work on Somnath examines the evolution of the historiographies about the legendary Gujarat temple.[4]

In her first work, Aśoka and the Decline of the Maurya published in 1961, Thapar situates Ashoka's policy of dhamma in its social and political context, as a non-sectarian civic ethic intended to hold together an empire of diverse ethnicities and cultures. She attributes the decline of the Mauryan empire to its highly centralised administration which called for rulers of exceptional abilities to function well.

Thapar's first volume of A History of India is written for a popular audience and encompasses the period from its early history to the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century.

Ancient Indian Social History deals with the period from early times to the end of the first millennium, includes a comparative study of Hindu and Buddhist socio-religious systems, and examines the role of Buddhism in social protest and social mobility in the caste system. From Lineage to State analyses the formation of states in the middle Ganga valley in the first millennium BC, tracing the process to a change, driven by the use of iron and plough agriculture, from a pastoral and mobile lineage-based society to one of settled peasant holdings, accumulation and increased urbanisation.[5]

Recognition and honours

Thapar has been a visiting professor at Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the College de France in Paris. She was elected General President of the Indian History Congress in 1983 and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy in 1999.[6]

Thapar is an Honorary Fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. She holds honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago, the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, the University of Oxford, the University of Edinburgh (2004) the University of Calcutta (2002)[7] and recently (in 2009) from the University of Hyderabad.[8] She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.[9]

In 2004 the US Library of Congress appointed her as the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South.[8]

In January 2005, she declined the Padma Bhushan awarded by the Indian Government. In a letter to President A P J Abdul Kalam, she said she was "astonished to see her name in the list of awardees because three months ago when I was contacted by the HRD ministry and asked if I would accept an award, I made my position very clear and explained my reason for declining it". Thapar had declined the Padma Bhushan on an earlier occasion, in 1992. To the President, she explained the reason for turning down the award thus: "I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not state awards".[10]

She is co-winner with Peter Brown of the prestigious Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity for 2008 which comes with a US$1 million prize.[11]

Views on revisionist historiography

Thapar is critical of what she calls a "communal interpretation" of Indian history, in which events in the last thousand years are interpreted solely in terms of a notional continual conflict between monolithic Hindu and Muslim communities. Thapar says this communal history is "extremely selective" in choosing facts, "deliberately partisan" in interpretation and does not follow current methods of analysis using multiple, prioritised causes.[12]

In 2002, the Indian coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) changed the school textbooks for social sciences and history, on the ground that certain passages offended the sensibilities of some religious and caste groups.[13][14] Romila Thapar, who was the author of the textbook on Ancient India for class VI, objected to the changes made without her permission that, for example, deleted passages on eating of beef in ancient times, and the formulation of the caste system. She questioned whether the changes were an, "attempt to replace mainstream history with a Hindutva version of history", with the view to use the resultant controversy as "election propaganda."[15][16] Other historians and commentators, including Bipan Chandra, Sumit Sarkar, Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, Vir Sanghvi, Dileep Padgaonkar and Amartya Sen also protested the changes and published their objections in a compilation titled, Communalisation of Education.[15][17]

Writing about the 2006 Californian Hindu textbook controversy, Thapar opposed some of the changes that were proposed by Hindu groups to the coverage of Hinduism and Indian history in school textbooks. She contended that while Hindus have a legitimate right to a fair and culturally sensitive representation, some of the proposed changes included material that pushed political agenda.[18]


Thapar's appointment to the Library of Congress's Kluge Chair in 2003 was opposed in an online petition bearing more than 2,000 signatures, on the grounds that she was a "Marxist and anti-Hindu" and it was "waste of US money" to support a leftist.[19] Journalist Praful Bidwai criticised the petition as a "vicious attack" by communalists who are "not even minimally acquainted" with her work.[20] A number of academics sent a protest letter[21][22] to the Library of Congress denouncing the petition as an attack on intellectual and artistic freedom. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) supported her appointment by calling her "a liberal with a scientific outlook".[23] Martha Nussbaum has stated that Thapar is neither a communist nor a Marxist historian and the Library of Congress treated the petition with "the indifference that it deserved".[24]


  • Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, 1961 (revision 1998); Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-564445-X
  • A History of India: Volume 1, 1966; Penguin, ISBN 0-14-013835-8
  • Ancient India, Medieval India, 1966, 1968 sq.; NCERT Textbooks[2]
  • The Past and Prejudice (Sardar Patel Memorial Lectures), National Book Trust, 1975, ISBN 8123706391
  • Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations, 1978, Orient Blackswan, ISBN 9788125008088
  • Exile and the Kingdom: Some Thoughts on the Rāmāyana, Rao Bahadur R. Narasimhachar Endowment lecture, 1978;[25]
  • Dissent in the Early Indian Tradition, Volume 7 of M.N. Roy memorial lecture, 1979; Indian Renaissance Institute[26]
  • From Lineage to State: Social Formations of the Mid-First Millennium B.C. in the Ganges Valley, 1985; Oxford University Press (OUP), ISBN 978-0195613940
  • The Mauryas Revisited, Sakharam Ganesh Deuskar lectures on Indian history, 1987; K.P. Bagchi & Co., ISBN 9788170740216
  • Interpreting Early India, 1992 (2nd edition 1999); Oxford University Press 1999, ISBN 0-19-563342-3
  • Cultural Transaction and Early India: Tradition and Patronage, Two Lectures, 1994; OUP, ISBN 9780195633641
  • Śakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories, 2002; Anthem, ISBN 1-84331-026-0
  • History and Beyond, 2000; OUP, ISBN 978-0-19-566832-2
  • Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History, 2003; OUP, ISBN 0-19-566487-6
  • Early India: From Origins to AD 1300, 2002; Penguin, ISBN 0-520-23899-0
  • Somanatha: The Many Voices of History, 2005; Verso, ISBN 1-84467-020-1
  • India: Historical Beginnings and the Concept of the Aryan, Essays by Thapar, et al., 2006; National Book Trust, ISBN 9788123747798
  • The Aryan: Recasting Constructs, Three Essays, 2008; Delhi, ISBN 9788188789689
  • The Past before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India, 2013; Permanent Black, Harvard University Press, ISBN 9780674725232
  • The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History, 2014; Aleph, ISBN 9-38-306401-3
  • Communalism and the Writing of Indian History, Romila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia, Bipan Chandra, 1969 People's Publishing House[27]
  • Situating Indian History: For Sarvepalli Gopal, 1987; OUP, ISBN 978-0195618426
  • Indian Tales, 1991; Puffin, ISBN 0-14-034811-5
  • India: Another Millennium? 2000; Viking, ISBN 978-0140298833
Select papers, articles and chapters
  • "India before and after the Mauryan Empire", in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Archaeology, 1980; ISBN 9780517534977
  • "Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity", Paper in Modern Asian Studies, 1989; doi:10.1017/S0026749X00001049
  • "Somanatha and Mahmud", Frontline, Volume 16 – Issue 8, 10–23 April 1999
  • Perceiving the Forest: Early India, Paper in the journal, Studies in History, 2001; doi:10.1177/025764300101700101
  • Role of the Army in the Exercise of Power, Essay in Army and Power in the Ancient World, 2002; Franz Steiner Verlag, ISBN 9783515081979
  • The Puranas: Heresy and the Vamsanucarita”, Essay in Ancient to Modern: Religion, Power and Community in India, 2009; OUP, ISBN 9780195696622
  • Rāyā Asoko from Kanaganahalli: Some Thoughts, Essay in Airavati, Chennai, 2008;
  • Was there Historical Writing in Early India?, Essay in Knowing India, 2011; Yoda Press, ISBN 9789380403038


  1. ^ "Romila Thapar". Penguin India. Retrieved 12 December 2014. 
  2. ^ a b "Romila Thapar, Professor Emerita" (PDF). JNU. Retrieved 7 December 2014. 
  3. ^ "Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History By Romila Thapar - History - Archaeology-Ancient-India". 2003-02-03. Retrieved 2014-08-18. 
  4. ^ Perspectives of a history – a review of Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History
  5. ^ E. Sreedharan (2004). A Textbook of Historiography, 500 B.C. to A.D. 2000. Orient Longman. pp. 479–480.  
  6. ^ "Romila Thapar". 
  7. ^ Honoris Causa
  8. ^ a b "Romila Thapar Named as First Holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South at Library of Congress". Library of Congress. 17 April 2003. Retrieved 4 April 2007. 
  9. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter T" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 21 June 2011. 
  10. ^ "Romila rejects Padma award" – Times of India article dated 27 January 2005
  11. ^ "Historians Peter Robert Lamont Brown and Romila Thapar to Share 2008 Kluge Prize". 
  12. ^ "The Rediff Interview/ Romila Thapar". Rediff. 4 February 1999. 
  13. ^ Chaudhry, D.R. (28 April 2002). "Critiques galore!".  
  14. ^ "Hating Romila Thapar". 2003. Retrieved 3 September 2014. 
  15. ^ a b Mukherji, Mridula and Mukherji, Aditya, ed. (2002). Communalisation of Education: The history textbook controversy (PDF). New Delhi: Delhi Historians' Group. 
  16. ^ Thapar, Romila (9 December 2001). "Propaganda as history won't sell".  
  17. ^ "Communalisation of Education: Fighting history’s textbook war".  
  18. ^ Thapar, Romila (28 February 2006). "Creationism By Any Other Name...". Outlook. Retrieved 4 April 2007. 
  19. ^ "Romila Thapar's appointment to Library of Congress opposed"- Rediff article dated 25 April 2003
  20. ^ Bidwai, Praful (13 May 2003). "McCarthyism's Indian rebirth". Rediff. Retrieved 4 April 2007. 
  21. ^ Gatade, Subhash (June 2003). "Hating Romila Thapar". Himal South Asian. Archived from the original on 9 December 2006. Retrieved 4 April 2007. 
  22. ^ (Text) "Letter of Protest by Scholars and Intellectuals Against the Attack on Romila Thapar". South Asia Citizens Web. 7 May 2003. Retrieved 4 April 2007. 
  23. ^ "And Now in USA… Attack on Romila Thapar". People's Democracy. 11 May 2003. Retrieved 11 July 2013. 
  24. ^  
  25. ^ "Exile and the Kingdom: Some Thoughts on the Rāmāyana". Worldcat. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  26. ^ "Dissent in the Early Indian Tradition". Google Books. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  27. ^ "Communalism and the Writing of Indian History". Google Books. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 

External links

  • Audio of Romila Thapar's 2005 lecture, "Interpretations of Early Indian History" at the Walter Chapin Simpson Center for the Humanities
  • ", A report in 2002, New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University, IndiaCommunalization of Education: The History Textbooks Controversy"Delhi Historians Group's Publication "
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