You are on page 1of 4

Why we like to believe the Taj Mahal was

built on a temple. And oh, that 36 percent of


NASA scientists are Indians.
What these persistent myths say about what we feel about
our place in the world.
By Sidin Vadakut | Grist Media 7 hours ago


Share0


Print

Surely youve heard how the Taj Mahal was really built on top of a Hindu temple called the
Tejo Mahalaya? Or that 36 percent of the scientists in NASA are really Indian? And has India
never really invaded another country in 10,000 years? I have heard these truths half my life.
Especially since I began using the Internet.
But have you ever tried to verify any of these facts? If you have, that makes you a skeptical
patriot, like me. So is any Indian who listens to the received wisdom from anyone parents,
family, school, social or political leaders but also demands, show me the data. I think its
good for a country to have lots of young people who are skeptical (not cynical), and this election
season is the perfect time to ask such questions.
I examine a handful of these India facts in my book, The Sceptical Patriot: Exploring the
Truths Behind the Zero and other Glories. Facts that many Indians love to brandish to justify
their countrys wonderful past. While their truth varies, the interesting question these facts raise
is what they say about us, and how we see ourselves in connection to our history.
In the course of writing this book I have amassed a list of 50 or 60 facts in my notebooks. Only
a few of them found their way into The Sceptical Patriot, but one India fact I was sad to leave
out was the number of Indians working in NASA. Its impossible to prove or disprove the 36
percent (or whatever the latest figure is that people throw around), because NASA doesnt
release data on the nationality of their employees. Its incredible how many people believe it
anyway
And the Taj Mahal being the Tejo Mahalaya its been repeated so many times its a bit of a
joke. I really wanted to look into the origins of this urban myth, but it was something I couldnt
do because I didnt have the time to go to Agra or speak to people in the Archaeological Survey
of India about it.
But for me, the most interesting India fact by far and one that did make it into the book is the
idea that for the last 1,000 or 5,000 or 10,000 years (depending on whos telling you the story),
India has never colonized or invaded another country.
The popularity of this fact speaks volumes of the modern Indian approach to history, the idea of
nationality, and the idea of India. When it comes to India, weve just decided that all internecine
warfare (the repeated Chola invasions of Sri Lanka, for example) doesnt count as invasion a
somewhat convenient reflection of a post-colonial Indian mindset towards history. It also
captures very well the bitterness that a lot of people have about stuff that happened centuries
before they were born. Ive often seen this being held up as a certificate to justify what Indias
doing today, or to justify why everyone else should be nice to India Look, please be nice to
us, weve never invaded anybody else.
Its wonderful how these India facts can be found everywhere, from blogs on the Internet to
government reports to investment proposals to books by eminent politicians and public figures.
A particular dubious quote by Macaulay (one that I analyze in the book) appears in numerous
government reports and books. For instance it features prominently in India Vision 2020, a
document published by the Planning Commission in 2004. Each time this quote is parroted over
and over again, without any attempt being made to verify its truthfulness or provenance. It must
be true, the authors seem to say, because it simply is.
It also says something about the quality of academic research while researching for a chapter
on the origin of plastic surgery in India for instance, I found many journal articles on the subject
in which the sourcing was circular, dubious and full of mistakes. Its clear that the authors
havent bothered to look at the original sources theyve simply cut and pasted things from the
Internet. Its more common than you think, and it makes finding facts phenomenally difficult.
People you might normally think of as having brains functioning perfectly well believe in some
of these India facts with a devoted passion. Sometimes I meet people saying things like: India
was perfect until the British came, if they hadnt imposed a western way of living on Indians, we
would have been as great a power as the Japanese. I dont call these things myths because
some of them might be true. But one of the reasons I think they work so well, and that intelligent
people repeat them, is because they slot very easily into how wed like our narrative of history to
flow.
* * *
Ill make a frank admission when I started writing it was with the idea of debunking these
myths. But when Id started to write the book, my wife suggested that if I started off with the
idea of debunking them, then I wouldnt do justice to them because I would only look for facts
to confirm my biases. It was very important that I tried to approach them as neutrally as possible,
and in the process I discovered something completely different, fascinating and new at every step
I had lightbulb moments in almost every chapter. Did you know the Chola navies used public-
private partnerships? Who the heck would have guessed? (By the way, the Cholas were around
for 1,600 years. I probably know more about the last Chola king than he ever knew about the
first Chola king. Just think about that. Imagine how much the idea of being Chola would have
changed in 1,600 years! Its mindboggling.)
This is the kind of thing thats so widely written about in academia but doesnt cross over into
the realm of public knowledge. A lot of people pooh-pooh pop history books for not being
academic enough, but if you ask me, Ive read a lot of science books in my life, but nothing
works as well as Bill Brysons A Brief History of Everything. Quick snapshots of history that tell
you enough but encourage you go out and look up more on your own thats the kind of book
Id love to see more of, not another 1,000-page tome on the reign of Akbar.
We dont engage enough with our history, or do enough to preserve it. The Chaturbuja temple
beside the Gwalior fort that I mention in my book, which dates back to the 9
th
century, contains
an inscription proving the existence of zero. If this were the West, thered be a museum to the
zero, a gift shop on the zero, evening concerts at the venue. Heck, thered be a volunteer
organization Friends of the Zero supporting the temple.
I also think our history is nuanced, and requires a careful look. On examining the India facts in
my book, I found them too complex to dismiss as true or false, so I rated them at the end on scale
of 1-10. Thats because Im 100 percent certain people will read the book, and disagree with me.
Especially fans of Jagdish Chandra Bose according to an India fact, he is supposed to be the
real inventor of the radio, and not Marconi who has a massive following online that defends
him at every turn. I know how a lot of Indians are going to read the book, and somebody
somewhere is going to be outraged by something. India is not a country that celebrates
skepticism (Im making a broad generalization here). Thats why I decided to include a section
with additional questions, so people could pursue their own lines of inquiry.
We need to question what it means to be Indian. We often have it defined for us in school and
college in an extremely shallow sense, and for many, it boils down to one thing this
overwhelming feeling that Indias always got a raw deal because (insert various conspiratorial
reasons).
We could have been great if only the British hadnt invaded. We could have been great if only
Sardar Patel had become prime minister and not Jawaharlal Nehru. We could have been super
great if in 2004, the BJP had won instead of the Congress. There is no end to the if only. For a
lot of people, it is genuinely couched in a sense of inferiority, that were a lesser nation, and we
havent achieved as much as other nations. So we pick up the few scraps of glory we can and
completely blow them out of proportion.
The sad thing about this is in the rush to defend against anyone questioning this history or notion
of greatness, were actually killing curiosity, and refusing to let young people figure out for
themselves what it means to be Indian. You cant tell them today that they should feel Indian in
the same way that somebody did in the Gupta or Mauryan empire did. A person in the twentieth
century may not want to feel Indian because the zero was invented they might want to feel
Indian because polio has been eradicated here, or because the economy is now booming.
Knowing ones history is important, but you cannot let it define who you are as an Indian citizen
today. If my book provokes more people to ask questions, Ill be a very happy man.
Sidin Vadukut is an editor and columnist with the Mint newspaper. He also contributes to a
variety of international publications. He lives in London, blogs at www.whatay.com and tweets
with the handle @sidin.

Related Interests