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The Story of India

Your Questions and Michael's Responses

Total time it took to film the episodes

Ketan, Mclean VA

Hi Michael,

I must congratulate you and the team on producing a great work on India. I must say it has a great narration, beautiful visuals, and some eye-opening historical facts and stories. My questions are:

  1. How long did it take you'll to shoot the entire series? How long were you in India?
  2. How long did it take you'll to do the research on the history of India?
  3. Were the locations pre-determined?
  4. Did you finished filming the entire series in one single journey? Meaning did you had to ever break your journey, go back to UK, do some work in UK and then come back to India?
  5. Was this the first venture you had taken in India?
Michael Wood

Hi Ketan, thanks very much for your kind words: glad you enjoyed the films so far. The series took twenty-one months from start to finish, which is a very short time for a series involving so much foreign shooting. We shot in India over an eighteen-month period, on and off for a maximum of three weeks and then went back to the UK to edit as we went along. As for the team, you may be interested to know that the camera/director and the sound man came from the UK, the second camera from India; the series producer and production organizer were in London with two (Indian) researchers. The Indian production team in Delhi set up all the shoots and advised on everything: some of the local fixers (like our old friend, Kannan, in Chennai) we have worked with over many years (our company, Maya Vision, has a long Indian connection — one of our founders was a Bengali, hence the name, Maya). So it was a real collaboration. Regarding your other questions, as you will have gathered this was not our first time filming in India: some of our Maya friends worked with us there nearly thirty years ago! So in terms of thinking about ideas and locations, we had a lot of background to draw on and the research was really the product of a long period of time and experience.

Caste

David Stravers, Hudsonville MI USA

What about the inter-caste and inter-religious violence, which lies at the heart of Indian politics for the past two decades? What does this suggest about India's future stability?

Michael Wood

Hi David, yes you are right: there have indeed been worrying signs: especially the inter-religious violence that culminated in the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992, and then the terrible violence in Gujarat in 2002. I'm not sure what it tells us about India's future stability. Perhaps the very calm reaction to the recent Mumbai attack is a hopeful pointer. India has no doubt many problems — rural poverty being another massive and intractable issue — but most people would say that India has come a long way since the Brits left — and the Brits after all did not leave the country in great shape. Obviously though, we were not making a current affairs documentary: ours was an attempt to do a broad survey of thousands of years of history, not to make a portrait of India today, and episode 6, apart from a short coda, ends with Independence in 1947.

BUDDHA

Rakshya, Dalls [Dallas?]

In the synopsis you have written "India gave birth to some of the most remarkable characters in world history, including the Buddha". But Buddha was born in Lumbini, Nepal. He was enlightened in Gaya, India.

Michael Wood

Thanks Raksha. I take your point, though most writers refer to the Buddha as an Indian prince because Lumbini is part of what they call "the greater Indian culture zone". That's the usage I followed in the films: i.e. in the early and medieval periods using ‘India' as a general geographical designation for the subcontinent in general. I'm sorry if Nepalis might find that a bit annoying! The kingdom of Kapilavastu in which he grew up stretched though across the modern boundary between Nepal and India: indeed many believe the city itself is inside today's India..

The vandalizing of India's history through Aryan Invasion lie

Kamalawatee (Kamla), Ridgefield

Although the Aryan Invasion theory has been repeatedly debunked through overwhelming archaeological, scientific (GPS, DNA), mathematical, geographical evidence, supporters of the theory, for racial and political reasons, continue to promote this false teaching. Many western scholars, as well as US dept of education, promote it through textbooks. It is a shameful and despicable act of racist behavior against Hindus. Please try to include, or do a separate series in which all the facts can be presented, and show how the Aryan Invasion is nothing but a myth that promotes injustice to India and its history. Western scholars continue to make claim that Sanskrit is language of white people, and that white "Aryans" wrote the Vedas. These are lies that must be erased. It is painful to Hindus like myself to see how my ancestors are being undermined. They should be praised for their contribution to civilization, and be misrepresented through the Aryan Invasion lie. If you believe in the decency of promoting truth through your journalism, please take this issue to heart. Many Hindu and Western scholars can show you the evidence to prove that Aryan Invasion is a deliberate lie. I can give you many names. Please help me. I believe that my people have been harmed greatly through this injustice.

Michael Wood

Thanks Kamla for your very thoughtful and obviously deeply heartfelt letter. I am going to put up a longer answer on this, explaining the reasoning behind following one argument rather than another as many people have written on this issue and it obviously matters to lots of Indians, whether in India or living abroad. Some of you will know that the ‘Aryan' question was recently at issue in a court case involving the California Board of Education regarding the teaching of Indian history in schools.

As I hope you must surely have realised, our series was not made to support ‘shameful' or ‘despicable racist behaviour' or ideas, or to ‘vandalize' Indian history; but made with honest intent, sound research, and above all with great affection for Indian culture. Personally speaking, if you were to look, for example, at my book, ‘Smile of Murugan (A South Indian Journey)' you would, I hope, see evidence of my feelings towards traditional Hindu culture. But that is not what is at issue here. The question is, of course, very complex and is hotly argued over, and there is no question that the ‘Aryan theory' in the 19th century was subject to many racial interpretations in Europe where there was a fundamental antipathy to Hindu culture among many in the colonial class (this is recounted in a fine book by Thomas Trautmann — 'Aryans and British India' Vistaar Publications New Delhi, 1997). But I think over this, big misconceptions have crept in — along with a lot of pseudo science. The issue it seems to me is not in the end one of ‘archaeological', ‘mathematical', ‘geographical' or genetic or even (as some claim) astronomical science (though sure some of these may well be able to help resolve it in time). Nor emphatically is it about skin colour as you suggest. The issue is simply one of linguistics. And as Prof Pitchappan, one of India's (and the world's) leading geneticists says in our first episode, you must never confuse ethnicity with language. Geneticists can tell us that the DNA of India has remained remarkably constant for ten thousand years save for relatively small influxes from NW and NE. But that does not tell us about language (e.g. search in India's DNA for the British and where would you find them despite the wide spread of their speech?). I think you have overstated the case when you say that the ‘Aryan' migration theory has been debunked (not ‘invasion' by the way — I never used the term). In fact as far as I can tell the majority of language scholars in the world still believe that the ancestral language of Sanskrit cannot have been born inside the subcontinent but must have come from the outside. Many eminent Sanskritologists believe this is plainly revealed in the earliest layers of the text of the Rig Veda, both in its content and in linguistic borrowings from Dravidian, and in Central Asian language connections. Recent work on ‘Time-depth' linguistics (which tries to reconstruct the branches off the main trunk of language, family trees as judged by language change) has reconstructed the Indo-European family tree in some detail (earliest recorded being Hittite) and in the eyes of most experts the language moved southwards and eastwards into Iran and NW India. In our films we said this was controversial, but it remains the most plausible hypothesis and is backed up by the totality of the evidence. As for the dating, we'll speak more on this but clearly the earliest Rig Veda hymns have to be 2nd millennium BCE (to take only one fact, horse drawn chariots have to be after the invention of the chariot and the arrival of the horse in the subcontinent). But thanks very much indeed for your mail: I know many of you disagree strongly with this, and over the next weeks no doubt we'll all correspond more on it

Musical Score of The story of India

Charu Ashar, Lagrangeville

I loved the musical score of your series and wondered how I can buy it.

Michael Wood

The majority of the music for our documentaries over the years has been composed by the wonderfully talented Howard Davidson and played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. We also used some additional tracks by the great Bollywood composer AR Rahman who has just won a Golden Globe for his music in Slumdog Millionaire. You can download the soundtrack from iTunes by searching for ‘The Story of India' in iTunes.

The Happiest and Saddest Part of your Journey

Raj Balasubramanian, Charlottesville, VA

Dear Michael,

What for you was the happiest and saddest part of your journey through India? Is there one moment that made you feel if only time could stand still now or another that made you wish you had the power to change this moment? Raj.

Michael Wood

Hi Raj, our personal memories were almost universally happy ones, but of course moments like the bombings in Varanasi (we arrived in the immediate aftermath) were very chilling: similarly, to stand in the back streets of Ayodhya (a wonderfully atmospheric and attractive town despite its recent association with violence) and to hear the tales of the 1992 riot from both Hindu and Muslim locals made me sad: both communities spoke of how close they had been prior to the modern political campaign which led to the 1992 disaster; we even met a sweet old Hindu gentleman who was the custodian of a little Muslim Sufi saint's shrine which was loved by everyone in the neighbourhood, of whatever faith. The locals blamed the riots on ‘unscrupulous politicians and outsiders' and just wanted their town and their neighbourhood to get back to where it once had been. Not sure it will though. As for time standing still, don't you find that seems to happen more often in India than anywhere else? Allahabad at the time of the great bathing festivals...the banks of the Ganges at Varanasi as night comes on…the tank at Madurai under a full moon...Brindavan in a torrential monsoon downpour ...I could go on!

Aryan migration question

Girish Venkat, Herndon, VA

I completely enjoyed watching "Beginnings" episode. I thought that it was well done. One question though — why can't the migration of "aryans" happened outbound from the dead cities of Harappa/Mohenjadaro and other Indus valley cities (or the cities that were along the now extinct river that you mentioned) to Turkmenistan/Turkey/Iran and into Gangetic plan. Was there any cataclysmic event in Turkey to indicate that an Aryan migration had to happen?

Michael Wood

Hi Girish, thanks for your comments and your question. These are difficult questions as you can see from my answer above to Kamla, I stress I am no expert. I simply took the advice of experts, including I should say scholars like the great BB Lal and Prof SP Gupta who don't believe in an ‘Aryan' (or Indo-European speaking) migration. To be honest, it's one of the frustrations for a filmmaker of never having enough time to go into things in enough depth. The question of the Indus cities and the so-called ‘Aryans', Sanskrit and where it came from, etc., would be worth a big documentary film on its own. Inevitably we can only deal in broad strokes. But remember in all this the time scale that we rushed over in a few minutes: the spread of ancestral proto-Indo-European languages took place over several millennia (maybe from the Anatolian region — others disagree) starting maybe nine thousand years ago or more (others disagree!): the spread from Central Asia towards the Bactrian Margiana region well after 4th millennium BCE; and then into Iran and India (again, if you believe this version of the theory!) after 2000 BCE. Some experts think it possible that proto-Sanskritic speakers were already in Afghanistan and the NW Frontier before the Indus cities collapsed: but most experts believe that the earliest level of the Rig Veda hymns, shows no awareness of a great city civilisation like the Indus/Harappan world; nor does the Indus civilisation show any real similarity with the world portrayed in the Rig Veda hymns. All of which fits with complex interconnecting linguistic evidence suggesting the Rig Veda hymns go back to around 1500 BCE.

The Vedas and Celtic traditions

Brian McGuire, Glen Ridge

I loved your show very amazing. Do you touch on the connection between the Vedic and Celtic traditions? I am fascinated about the similarities between the Mahabharata and the Celtic myths. There is a great link to Shiva and the horned god Cerrunnos at http://www.realmagick.com/articles/93/1493.html. I would love to hear if you came across any of this in your travels. Thank you again for your wonderful show.

Michael Wood

Thanks Brian, you are right. It's absolutely fascinating stuff—if only we had had time. There's a fascinating book by the Irish Sanskrit scholar Myles Dillon (who wrote The Celtic Realms) on the Old Irish and the Indo-Aryans. I can't remember its title, but he showed fascinating parallels in Irish myth and poetry and even some striking narrative and linguistic links. Homer's Greek is another area where, since the 19th century, great work has been done finding parallels with Sanskritic poetics, including very precise parallels in repeat phrases, similes and epithets. For example, Martin West, in his books, especially his recent Indo-European Poetry and Myth (2007) and also his important article on Rise of Greek Epic (Journal of Hellenic Studies 1988), offers some amazing connections with Rig Vedic poetry — and even themes, stories and phrases in the earliest strata of the Mahabharata which in its hypothetical first recension may originally have been composed orally in the Iron Age not far from the time Homer (c 700 BCE) composed. The logical upshot of all this must be that there was a tradition of poetry among the wider ancestral language group before say the Indo-European speaking ancestors of the Greeks entered Greece — and before the ancestral Sanskritic tongue entered India.

Mahabharata timeline and invasions of South East Asia

Vikram Venkatasubramanian, Chelmsford, MA

In the text of the Mahabharata, there are references to very specific celestial events such as eclipses, comets, etc. Has there been any research into using this information for a more accurate dating process of the Mahabharata, which also allows for better dating of the Aryan cultures?

Michael Wood

The problem with the Mahabharata, as far as I understand it, is that there is an enormous time span for the creation of the poem, as was well known and recorded in Indian tradition: Panini, the grammarian in the 5th century BCE talks of a version maybe a fifth the length we have now. A Greek writer in the 2nd century CE talks of the Indians having ‘an Iliad of a hundred thousand verses', which sounds pretty much like what we've got today. The recension as we have it though, mentions Romans and the Hellenistic city of Antioch and the invasion of the Huns (5th c CE) so it must have been committed to writing around that time. As regards archaeology, BB Lal's dig at Hastinapur, and his work elsewhere suggests the core of the Mahabharata tale could have included real places and events from the 9th c BCE.

Mis-representation of Tamil Nadu on Map

At the beginning of the Part I, when the map of India is shown, Sri Lanka has been presented to all the viewers as Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu is an Integral part of India and not an Island. Sri Lanka is another country by itself. I would sincerely request you to correct this error.

Michael Wood

Thanks for your care and attention, and sorry if there was any misunderstanding. Of course we are well aware where Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu are, having been working there for so long!! Though the name label ‘Tamil Nadu' goes over Sri Lanka (they are after all only a few miles apart), Tamil Nadu lights up on the map when the name comes up. It's difficult when maps have to cover such huge distances for the nametags to be precise, and sometimes they can obscure the place they are describing.

Som Tea

Paul Shimizu, Glen Arm. MD

That was an interesting piece on the som tea, but you never said what it tasted like or if it had any effect on you.

Michael Wood

It did! I didn't know what strength to make it and felt extremely fizzy afterwards. Not surprising I guess as the main ingredient in the ephedra plant is natural ephedrine.

Religion

Carl Forscht, Carlisle, Pennsylvania

Michael: Has your observation of India's religions had any impact on your personal religious beliefs and/or practices?

Michael Wood

Thanks Carl. Over the years I have climbed the Chinese sacred mountains, slept at Kumbh melas by the Ganges, been to Imam Hussein at Karbala, and climbed the glacier to Quoyllur Riti in Peru, among other unforgettable experiences; so I have to say I am fascinated by the world's spiritual traditions — as part of the collective memory of humankind: the ‘givenness' of the past handed down by our ancestors, encoded memories built up over sometimes thousands of years. I love their richness and difference, and their unfailing capacity to respond to something inside us: however I am deeply sceptical of religions that claim a monopoly on the ultimate truth, whatever that may be.

Soma (som)

Julie Falsetti, York, PA

What exactly was in 'soma'. First you said it was a leafless plant. Then later another man said it was a mixture of poppy, cannabis and ephedra. I am confused.

Michael Wood

Hi Julie. The plant called ‘som' or ‘hom' in Afghanistan is the leafless twig you saw in the film, whose active ingredient is ephedrine; and that's what I boiled up as a kind of tea in the teapot in Peshawar bazaar. The rituals deposits Victor Sarianidi found at Gunur Tepe in Central Asia also included traces of opium poppy and cannabis. As that's a so-far unique discovery your guess is as good as mine as to how widespread such a custom might have been. Definitely not recommended if you were driving heavy machinery though, I would imagine!!!!

Gita and Ramayana

Manoj Chowdhary, Seattle, USA

Thank you for a beautiful documentary on India. I have just watched the first 2 hours and plan on watching the rest of it also. However I would like to ask you — while covering Indian history, why did you leave out Gita and Ramayana? Both of which are fundamental to Hinduism for the past 2000 years. Without these 2 "grantha", the story of India is incomplete.

Michael Wood

Thanks Manoj. Well the Gita did actually appear briefly in episode 1 in the interview with the Holy Man talking about Arjun and Krishna by the tank at Kurukshetra. But for Rama, watch episode Four, with among other things, the Ramlilas at Varanasi, Ayodhya and the Tamil Ramayana film. It's frustrating, I know, that there isn't more time to develop these ideas. On Rama in particular, we shot masses in and around Ayodhya that we would have loved to put in but lost because of the pressure of time.

10,000 year old Brahmin chant

Melanie Wilson, Oak Park

In the documentary you mention that the chant they Brahmin priests were reciting for the fire god (Agni?) that had been passed down orally, that could not be written down, that no one knew what the words meant, that were the earliest human sounds (I hope I am remembering all of that correctly), had been unchanged for 10,000 years. Since this chant has always been passed along orally, how do we know that it hasn't changed?

Michael Wood

A very good question! The answer is that we don't know. This is an assumption based on other Indian oral traditions, like the recital of the Rig Veda which scholars tell us was passed down orally from the second millennia BCE in accurate early Sanskrit of the Bronze Age. The assumption about the Kerala Nambudiri chants (which are part of much longer rituals in Vedic Sanskrit) is that they have come down from before the full development of language, and that as they can be shown to have elaborate patterns — 'rules without meaning' as one of the scholars working on them has said, it is assumed that they may have been passed down from even earlier in time: otherwise why would they have been preserved in this fashion?

What made you do this documentary?

Meera Subramaniam, Clinton, New Jersey

Which incident took you by surprise and how did you react. And what is it that you will always cherish.........based on your experience.

Michael Wood

Thanks Meera. India of course is always full of surprises. Thinking just about what we filmed, maybe one of them was arriving by rowing boat at Ramnagar near Varanasi to film the Ramlilas (the play cycle on the life of Rama) to find thousands and thousands of people, most of them ordinary people from the countryside, many of them with little printed play texts, who had come to watch a cycle of plays that run several hours into the night and take thirty days to perform! It was a fabulous reminder of how powerful the traditional ‘handed down' culture is in India.

I can honestly say that I will cherish the whole experience of making the films. Like the whole team I loved every minute of the shooting even though I had worked in India, and travelled there, over quite a few years. There was always something new and fascinating. Thinking about particular Indian regions, I should maybe mention the South in particular, which gets less publicity than the North, the Agra-Taj triangle, or Rajasthan or Goa. I've been to the South many times. The first time I went I found it a magical place, and I fell in love with the whole thing: landscape, climate, people, culture: the seasons, especially the hot season, what the Tamils call ‘mutirvenil', the ripe heat. I love Chennai with its culture and its easy going style of life; and the landscape of the River Cavery, the palm forests, the small towns, the ornate temple towers rearing over emerald green paddy fields. Just to have a dosa at home with family and friends on a Friday night in Chidambaram, then saunter along to the temple (the stone flags still warm under one's bare feet) and listen to the nageswaram and drums, and the oduvars' songs by the Chit Saba — it's simply lovely — ‘the place of our karmic memories' as a great Tamil scholar put it to me. It's those sort of things one cherishes in the memory, don't you think? In 1992, our friends took me on a bus pilgrimage down to Kanyakumari, Tiruchendur Madurai and Palani. It was a great (and fun!) experience. Sixty Tamil pilgrims from all walks of life, and one Brit who was usually the butt of the tour leader's humour! I wrote book about it, ‘The Smile of Murugan' now re-issued as 'A South Indian Journey' by Penguin. Little touches or faint memories of that journey resurfaced in our films — like the bus pilgrimage to Tiruvannamalai in episode 4!

Food

Lauren Van Praag, San Diego

What a timely show! I am going to India in February for the International Yoga Festival in Rishakesh. My question is about food. I noticed you freely drinking and eating during the show. Did you ever get ill?

Michael Wood

No, touch wood — only once from a roadside stop on the by-pass round Patna on a very hot day. But I still worked next day. I am vegetarian, which helps a lot in India. Eat it fresh cooked, avoid buffets, watch the water and wash your hands: you'll be fine.

Buddha

Raghupati Boorla, Fort Worth, Texas

First, I want to thank you for bringing this story to the western audience. I heard you narrate about Buddha and mention that he was a meat eater. This is somewhat of a surprise to me because no one to my knowledge has mentioned that fact. He being a proponent of non-violence, it is hard to believe that he ate meat. Can you give me a reference or source where you got this interesting fact? Thanks for your time.

Michael Wood

Thanks Raghupati: you'll find the story of him eating pork for his last meal in all the standard biographies, though of course none of the traditions is strictly contemporary.

How could you skip Ramayan completely?

Somesh Dixit, Herndon, VA

More than 75% of India's culture is based on Ramayan and there are so many places that still bear the same name from Kashmir to Sri Lanka that's written in Ramayan. There was no mention of Ramayan. I was little surprised to not find Ramayan story.

Michael Wood

Rest assured we didn't miss Rama out!! How could we??!! The answer is that it's a six-part series! The Ramayana is in episode 4 tied to the Gupta Age (c 300–550 CE) when most literary scholars agree the story becomes a ‘national epic' in North India and Rama becomes enshrined as an avatar of Vishnu. A further thought or two that may be of help or interest: Many scholars of the versions of the Rama story detect a major shift in the character of Rama from human to divine hero through the middle ages from Valmiki‘s Sanskrit text to the great regional versions like Kamban, then Tulsidas's 16th century Hindi version which is the template for the preeminent modern devotional standing of the text at least in the North (about 70 million hard back copies sold in the Gita Press version alone if I remember right, and what were then the biggest ever TV audiences for the Ramanand Sagar TV version).

Of course the orthodox religious view is that Rama's story took place in a different ‘yuga' or era of time, nearly one million years ago according to the traditional priests and pandits of Ayodhya with whom I have talked this over. BB Lal's project to excavate the Ramayana sites found on the contrary that none of the sites that figure prominently in the tale was earlier in the archaeological record than the sixth century BCE. The core of the tale then looks like being from the Iron Age centred in a small area of the Ganges plain between the Ganga valley and the Gogra. BB Lal in his latest book (Rama 2008) argues Rama was a ‘real-life person', but highly distinguished as Lal is as an archaeologist; not many will agree with his conclusions, or his ideas about the geomorphology of the Setu-Adam's Bridge between Rameswaram and Sri Lanka.

Part 7 — The first 50 years?

Nitin Tripathi, Torrance, California

Hi Michael, I have seen your documentary and I liked it a lot as it touched my heart. Being an Indian, I really think it was amazing and I appreciate your effort.

My question here is that since it's made in the present it should have one more chapter of post independence India analyzing what went right or what went wrong or rather what happened after that. What was India's contribution to the world, if any or something like that. Does the story of India ends with the freedom or it starts with it?

Michael Wood

Thanks! You are absolutely right, Nitin. You could say the story of India only begins in 1947, and yet at the same time it begins thousands of years ago! We were limited to six films and I would have loved to do more on the Freedom Struggle and the period post-Independence. I think the Freedom Struggle is the greatest liberation movement in history, and Nehru and Gandhi two of the most interesting figures in modern history. Our brief simply didn't make it possible to go into more detail — frustrating when the story is so dramatic and important. But we hope to continue our engagement as filmmakers with India and one project we would love to do at some point is a documentary life of Gandhi.

Oldest, most influential?

Charles Labelle, Ottawa

Thanks for a wonderful and informative first 2 parts of your series on India.

Does the Sumerian civilization not predate that of India? Is there evidence that India was affected by the great flood?

Michael Wood

Thanks very much for your kind remarks Charles: and perhaps you are right to point out a little bit of hyperbole there! But the recent finds in Baluchistan and the Indus valley have large stone built settlements like Mehrgarh going back to 7000 BCE with unbroken links to the Indus cities and to later Indian civilisation. My stress though really was on the continuity: India's is unbroken. I suppose you could say the early towns in Jordan and the Fertile Crescent are a little earlier than Mehrgarh: but those in the subcontinent are definitely/demonstrably ancestors of the later civilization. Sumer of course had the first cities and the first writing: but the plain of South Iraq is not settled till later (first small villages 5000 BCE, earliest shrine at Eridu before 5000 BCE, first cities 4th millennium BCE). I'm not sure about the ‘Great Flood' though the rise of sea levels 20,000 years ago may well have left some sort of collective memory: certainly the Flood myth seems to exist in most cultures?