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The Story of India

Your Questions and Michael's Responses

Aryans and the language

Jen, Hanover, NH

If Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin are derivative of the Aryan language, then where did the Aryan language come from? Where did the Aryan people come from? Were they from India?

Michael Wood

Hi Jen: The language of the so-called Aryans was an early form of Sanskrit that is preserved in the earliest hymns in the Rig Veda (c. 1500 BCE?) Latin and Greek and the western Indo-European languages are definitely not derivative but sister languages. Linguists can tell us for certain that Greek and Latin etc did not come from Sanskrit but are on another branch of the linguistic family tree: Indo-Iranian (Avestan) the old language of Persia/Iran, and ‘Indo Aryan’ i.e. Sanskritic are very close akin indeed.

The Aryans

Joe Ezekiel, Portland, OR

My mother is a Parsi, so I was fascinated to see that the Aryans may well have been Zoroastrians. That would dramatically change the history of the Zoroastrians in India by several centuries. Could you clarify if this is definitive?

Michael Wood

Hi Joe: Yes this does need clarifying! There is a lot of argument over the date of Zoroaster, the prophet of the Zoroastrians, but many scholars -- like Mary Boyce in her recent four volume history of Zoroastrianism -- believe that he must be about 1400-1200 BCE because the language of his songs and prayers, the Gathas, is so close to Rig Vedic Sanskrit that they cannot be far separated in time. The theory would then be that speakers of this branch of the Indo-European family tree came out of Central Asia into the Turkmenistan region (Bactria-Margiana complex especially) before 2000 BCE and then dividing into Afghanistan and NW India, and also into what is now Iran. In his interview about the excavation at Gunur Tepe near Merv, Victor Sarianidi used the word Zoroastrian to describe certain aspects of the material culture he found there: e.g. fire altars, chariot wheels, horses, soma/homa etc, but we need to be careful about using such terms so far back. But don’t mix them up with Parsees: the Parsees are people of Zoroastrian descent who came into Western India a thousand years ago from Iran: they haven’t been there since ancient times. In fact I think the term Parsee (i.e. ‘Persian’ or ‘from Persia’) is relatively modern? Hope that clarifies things for your mum. By the way, I filmed with the Zoroastrians in Yazd in Iran a little over ten years ago for our series In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great and went on the pilgrimage to Pir-i-Sabz, which was a wonderful experience. We (or a Zoroastrian friend who could handle a big camera!!) actually filmed the sacred fire and its rituals in Sharifabad with the Belivani family -- its on the DVD if anyone wants to see it.

Oral traditions: unchanged over the millennia?

Bill Watkins, Baltimore, Maryland

I believe you stated that the bird-song-like chants from Kerala and the Vedic stories have been passed on unchanged (or words to that effect) for thousands of years. Is that really possible? By chance, I am reading Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy,” which explores the oral transmission of stories, as cultures have made the transition from no written records to a written literature. If I have read him correctly, I believe he would state that it is impossible for humans to memorize and transmit unchanged stories for even short periods of time, much less millennia. (He cites examples from storytellers in Africa whose tales were written down at intervals: the stories changed over time.)

If I misheard you, my apologies. If I heard you correctly, my question is probably just a minor quibble, in that even with large changes, the orally transmitted stories can still tell us much about the past. But perhaps the question is not so trivial: the children’s game of telephone/Chinese whispers shows how even short sounds become garbled. Despite the effort made by the Kerala Brahmins, is it not possible that that over time whatever sounds and meanings were originally there have degenerated into total gibberish? Presumably there is an article or book that addresses this, and I would appreciate the reference.

Michael Wood

Thanks very much Bill. A very good question: and perhaps we sacrificed a bit of clarity and information for drama in that opening sequence. However scholars do think that in India there are many examples of texts being preserved accurately over very long periods of time: one of the best examples -- which was in our first film -- is the Rig Veda: the earliest layers of the thousand hymns are thought by many to be mid 2nd millennium BCE, and were therefore transmitted orally for two thousand five hundred years or more: but scholars say they have preserved Bronze Age language with a high degree of accuracy even when the meaning has been lost. I agree with you about the mantras in Kerala: there is more than one way of explaining what they are and how they have been transmitted, but the fact is that they are not linguistic, they don’t have meaning, but they follow rules. Have a look at Frits Staal’s Rules Without Meaning, which is a lengthy analysis of the implications of these particular mantras within the Agni ritual.

Bollywood and more

Tina, Bend, Oregon, USA

Mr. Wood,

Will you be exploring how Bollywood has shaped society in India today? Or anything at all with regard to the Bollywood industry? (I noticed that some Bollywood movie clips were used) Bollywood movies are often idealized if not entirely. Slumdog Millionaire is one of few movies (not Bollywood) that show an accurate depiction of some of the realities of India today. How do you account for stark contrasts between the fact that India can be seen in two very different lights, i.e. the world's largest democracy/fast-growing economy vs. the absolute poverty? What are the actions being taken now to bridge this gap?

Michael Wood

Thanks Tina: Really our shows are about the history of India, and the present day is only a coda at the end of the last episode: so no analysis of Bollywood I’m afraid, fascinating as it is. I just like the way Bollywood (and Collywood!) resonate all these themes, and their movies are so dynamic that’s its fun to use them in shows like this. I agree with you about Slumdog: it certainly gives a realistically gritty feel of life in urban India today. (That was not what we were trying to do of course, though I think that you get a sense of that in some of the places we filmed.) The poverty gap is huge in India today as you rightly say: the Congress government was elected in 2004 precisely to address that, and will stand or fall on that issue. But you always have to remember where independent India started from: the Brits (and I say this as a Brit) left India in a very bad way in 1947: they’ve come quite a way since. Whether they’ll solve the massive problems of poverty, destruction of the environment etc., is a big question. But then so it is for all of the world. (And the Indian subcontinent as a whole, remember, has about a fifth of all the world’s population.)

Caste system

Dana Shaw, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

How were the people selected into specific castes at the beginning of the caste system?

Michael Wood

Hi Dana: A great question to which I don’t know the answer. The origins of the caste system are much disputed, but it clearly originated in the Bronze Age or early Iron Age: no one is sure. Some scholars think the ‘Aryan’ migrants imposed it on the indigenous peoples – hence the use of ‘varna’ as one of the distinguishing words for caste: it means colour. Other scholars however vigorously dispute this interpretation. DNA testing recently has offered all sorts of interesting new light on all this: though geneticists seem to disagree about the significance (or even existence) of genetic differences on caste lines: E.g. at random I pulled this from the net:

A 2002-03 study by T. Kivisild et al. concluded that the "Indian tribal and caste populations derive largely from the same genetic heritage of Pleistocene southern and western Asians and have received limited gene flow from external regions since the Holocene.” Studies point to the various Indian caste groups having similar genetic origins  and having negligible genetic input from outside south Asia... However, a 2001 genetic study, led by Michael Bamshad of the University of Utah, found that the affinity of Indians to Europeans is proportionate to caste rank, the upper castes being most similar to Europeans... The researchers believe that the Indo-Aryans entered India from the Northwest and may have established a caste system, in which they placed themselves primarily in higher castes." Because the Indian samples for this study were taken from a single geographical area, it remains to be investigated whether its findings can be safely generalized...

Others, Dana, however have speculated that the caste system had developed already before the (putative) arrival of Indo-European speaking so called ‘Aryan’ migrants as a ruling elite:

Again from the net:

A 2006 genetic study by the National Institute of Biologicals in India, testing a sample of men from 32 tribal and 45 caste groups, concluded that the Indians have acquired very few genes from Indo-European speakers.

(Dana, many geneticists affirm that this is true, though of course it has no bearing on the spread of I-E language!) It's complicated then and you need to look carefully if you want to go into it further: there’s lots of disagreement!!

‘Bird Songs’ of Kerala

Mita Das Mayoraz, Cupertino, CA

I enjoyed your Part I of the series immensely and am looking forward to more! I would like to know more about the DNA study pinpointing the descendant of the first Indian in Tamil Nadu. Also am interested in linguists studying the "bird songs" of Kerala. Any leads will be highly appreciated.


Michael Wood

Hi Mita: Ramasamy Pitchappan at Madurai University was our informant on all this: he’s involved in the National Geographic Human Genome Project: have a look at their website and its links; look at Professor Pitchappan’s own articles available on the net; and on the Agni ritual in Kerala and its speculative interpretation see Frits Staal Rules Without Meaning. In addition to his big study called (I think) Agni.

Indian Government Role in the Documentary

C.C. Talisaysay, Flushing, New York City

Was there a restriction imposed by the Indian government on the coverage of the country's history?

Michael Wood

None at all: India is a democracy and an open society.

The government did not interfere in any way.

Saraswati River

Rajeev Kaula, Springfield, MO

Mr. Wood,

I must congratulate you on your efforts in outlining the history of India. Having seen the first two parts your research is truly impressive. The origins of Soma were very enlightening. However, I came across a YOUTUBE video pointing to your interactions with Imperial College Professor Sanjiv Gupta that mentions about the missing Saraswati River. Apparently it has been edited out. I don't understand your reasons to exclude the mention of Saraswati River, since Mahabharat makes copious mention of this river and it is part of Indian history and folklore. In fact the tectonic movements you mention in the Himalayas for the movement of people from Indus Valley area, were also instrumental in the drying up of Saraswati. Consequently the blockage of water flowing into Saraswati at the Aravelli range, split to give rise to Yamuna and possibly Ganga as the core rivers for Hindu belief. Also in the last decade researchers had dug out under the dried out riverbed of Saraswati (now known as Ghaggar) the sample of water.

I have seen your other series on Greece, Anatolia, etc. and have been impressed by your historical presentation skills. Look forward to the remainder of the series.


Rajeev Kaula.

Michael Wood

Thanks Rajiv: And thanks for your kind remarks. Yes sadly part of the excellent interview with Sanjiv Gupta about the Lost River was cut from the US version, but simply because we had to cut the shows down as the US versions for PBS have to be shorter than in the UK and India. Everyone felt it was quite a long and detailed sequence –and looking at computer screens! - And it was set in the UK rather than India. Also within the scope of the whole show maybe not crucial in its detail. I don’t think anyone thinks the Saraswati (Ghaggar-Hakra) gave birth to the Ganga: but it does seem as if the Sutlej and Jumna may have changed course due to earthquake activity. I’ve already posted some thoughts on all this, and will post a longer piece in due course: but don’t forget that the Ghaggar Hakra system didn’t die out in distant prehistory: it was not only a living river through Harappan times down to c. 1700 BCE. But still (on a narrower bed) supported sites in the Iron Age period marked by Painted Grey Ware (1st millennium BCE). Sarsuti still flows today as a smaller river from the Himalayas. At the seaward end, above the Rann of Kutch, the Nara still supported towns in the Middle Ages and was still a very imposing seasonal flow with often huge lakes even in the 19th century, as described in British surveys, district gazetteers and travellers reports. I’ve written on this at greater length in my book The Story of India and would love to do a film on it one day.

Human Migration Routes

Ram M. Cheerath, New York, NY

I am a history buff, originally from Kerala, India. (My grandfather was the Zamorin of Calicut, and therefore I have a special interest in Kerala and its people). While I have thoroughly enjoyed your show, I find that there is an inconsistency in the way you describe the way early migrants came to Kerala, India from Africa. I believe that they migrated when the subcontinent was still attached to the African mainland and not by traveling around what is now Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and then to south India. This route that you describe could not have possibly been the route of their migration especially in light of your later theory that the Indus Valley civilization (which per your finding flourished long after this migration), then perished because of the upward drift of the Indian land mass, and resulting change in climate, monsoons etc. If the Indian landmass was not joined to/with the Asian land mass prior to the time of the Indus Valley civilization, the early migrants to south India could not have come via that land route, and that leaves the possibility of them either having traveled by sea (highly improbable considering the lack of sea faring skills in those early days), or by walking across what was still one land mass. I would appreciate your response.

Ram M. Cheerath, Esquire
New York, NY

Michael Wood

Thanks Ram for your letter and your query.

Simply, you have to remember that when we talk of movement of continents we are talking of vast periods of time-the Triassic is 200 million years plus ago; I think in our show Dr Sanjiv Gupta dates the Indian subcontinent’s ‘collision’ with the Himalayan/Tibetan plateau to 165 million years ago? That’s aeons before any hominid walked the earth! Homo sapiens only came out of Africa seventy or sixty or maybe fifty thousand years, at which point India was in the position it is now. The big difference was that a sea rise since then of between 100 and 200 feet (I’m writing this from memory, but roughly right) some 20,000 years ago means that the land bridges between South India and Sri Lanka, Andamans and Nicobar, Indonesia and Australia are now gone which enabled early humans to walk all the way to Australia.

Quote from the Buddha

Tom Payton, Washington Court House, Ohio

Hi I was watching the first episode on Monday and you quoted the Buddha but I did not get it down and cannot find it on the Web. It started as, "All created things must pass away.” There was more and I wanted to know the rest. The plant I have been working in for 33 years is closing and I need to keep these words in mind. Thank you for helping me out. Tom

Michael Wood

Hi Tom, thanks very much for your mail. I am very sorry to hear about the closing of your plant. These are hard times for lots of people aren’t they, both here and over there with you. I hope things take a turn for the best for you and your family. Sometimes these setbacks can lead to a fresh start, don’t you think. The main bit of the Buddha quote is very simple, though variously translated:

"You are the community now. Be a lamp for yourselves. Be your own refuge. Seek for no other.
All things must pass. Strive on diligently. Don’t give up."


Earl, Lincoln

This is a two part question aren’t all the thousands of gods in India and all living entities of the world just incarnations and creations of one GOD {Krishna}? So in fact Hindus believe in One god, who spreads himself as many. Also is there any proof that lord Krishna ever walked on the earth?

Michael Wood

Hi Earl. Wow!! Only a question about the meaning of everything!

Historically there is no one religious system to what we moderns call Hinduism though many modern Indian theorists and holy men and women have tried to shape them into one. And it is perfectly true that from way back in time many Indian mystics and religious scholars have affirmed that the thousands of Indian gods are only manifestations of the one ultimate reality, and indeed that all religions are ultimately the same. The great devotional poets and mystics of India like Kabir, Dadu Mirabai, and dozens of others have all insisted on this, as did the Sikh guru Nanak, and the Muslim prince Dara Shikoh. Today as in the past many worshippers of Vishnu acknowledge the other Hindu deities but see him as the supreme deity, manifested in his earthly forms e.g. in Rama and Krishna: Worshippers of Shiva see him as Creator and Destroyer. The Hindu religious systems are vast and all embracing: for an introduction see our PBS website.

As for your last question: Of course to the historian or the scientist there is no proof deities walked the earth: indeed historians would say that all texts by definition are human-created. But that’s a whole other issue...

How you were received by the people...

Jason Kooken, Amesbury, MA

Could you elaborate on how you were welcomed in your journey, and the reactions of the people to your inquiries of the history of the people and culture of India? Was there a difference between regions and countries you visited? Where were you made to feel the most welcomed and where did you feel the least?

Thanks you so much Jason.

Michael Wood

To be honest India is a very welcoming country, a very open country, and the people are fantastically hospitable to visitors. I have never had a bad experience there- we’ve had great times travelling with our kids too when they were little. What was so generous too was that they were accepting of a Brit coming to film their culture- given that the Brits’ record in India was very mixed and that they left India in terrible circumstances in 1947. From the crew of an old wooden boat in the Arabian Sea to the temple priests in Madurai (who let us put a camera crane by their great bathing tank inside the temple) to the audiences and actors at the Rama and Krishna plays in Benares and Mathura, everyone made us feel welcome.

Question on partition of India

Dipankar Das, Greenwood, Indiana

Do you believe that partition of India back in 1947 resulted in a partial loss of identity of India as we see in your portrayal of India through the ages?

How would you react to my comment on the fact that India lost parts of its heritage through this partition? Would you agree that partition of India also caused a permanent destabilization in the region as well?

What would you say if I say that pure politics and not just religion was behind this maiming of this piece of civilization? Who should we blame for this? We have been seeing people from this part of the world suffering now and would continue to suffer for generations to come because of what took place in the year 1947. I do not see any historian trying to find anyone or any organization accountable for such devious and gruesome acts!!! No one seemed to care about such damage to a country's history and the long-term consequences!! The future generations would now be paying the price of this silly arrangement that was agreed upon by so many political leaders. It would be interesting to see how the partition shapes the future of India with its limbs cutoff.

Your documentary was absolutely a great piece of work, a must for students studying about India.

With our deepest appreciation and with best wishes,
Dipankar Das

Michael Wood

Dipankar, thanks ever so for your kind remarks. I agree that Partition was a very damaging event for the subcontinent, in the destruction, in the loss of life, in the exchange of populations, and also in the aftermath of war arms races, Kashmir, etc. The damage to traditional Muslim culture in the subcontinent of course was especially hard- ironically as Partition was supposed to be in their interests. -Lahore losing its place as a great centre of N Indian Muslim civilisation; Lucknow and its neighbours cut off from the other great Muslim cities of the NW. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t have a pang of regret about it, even in Pakistan. Jinnah hoped the two would come back together again in time, and of course all who love the subcontinent will fervently hope that this happens in some way: at least as friends. And why shouldn’t it? After all, the civilisation of the subcontinent is the Mother of all who live there, of whatever faith or community.

As regards blame for those events I don’t think the Brits can be absolved from their share: read Stanley Wolpert’s Shameful Flight for a recent look at the disaster of '47.

Western civilization

Joseph R. Caruso, Newburgh Indiana

Why do modern historians insist that "the brief heyday of the west" is over? Western science and technology, ideas about democracy and individual freedom, economics and drama, and even the whole concept of the modern day state seems to me to be very much alive in the world today. Of the 24 or so civilizations that have existed throughout history the only non-ossified one (like China or Islam) is ours. It's the only one that has demonstrated the resilience and adaptability to move forward today.

Michael Wood

Joseph you may be right-and I plead guilty there to deliberately being a tiny bit provocative! I’m sure the USA and Europe will still be doing pretty well in the next 50 years if they can respond effectively to climate change. But China and India will be there too, as they were for much of history before the rise of the West after 1492. But point taken!!!


Somshankar Bose, Madison WI/Mumbai

Your series is the most comprehensive view of Indian history. Your view is more interconnected, deeply empathetic in understanding of Indian culture and ethos (if it can called so) and an admiration of the land and its people. Your view despite the minimal exotist view is still pleasantly not condescending and telescopic like the historians from the west has subjected pieces of Indian history to over the many years. You may be the beginning of Indian history be retold by informed erudite westerners and Indian historians (like Amitav Ghosh, Amartya Sen) etc… and truly reflect what Indian subcontinent is all about. Don't worry about the criticism of facts and specifics...I think Indian themselves are still learning and comprehending their own history.

Michael Wood

Dear Somsthankar. I really appreciate your kind letter: That is truly generous of you.

None of us ever gets it all right of course, and it’s deeply frustrating to have to cram things into a mere six hours, which sometimes makes things very superficial. But if the shows inspire people-especially kids-to want to find out more, then we’ll be delighted.

India's struggles

Chakradhar, Rochester, MN

What is your opinion and solution -?

India's inability to provide all its citizens’ basic needs but boasting itself as a nuclear power/economic giant.

Michael Wood

Hi Chakradar. It’s a conundrum isn’t it? The biggest issue is poverty-especially rural poverty (on which platform Congress was elected to power in 2004) and those issues of inequality, caste discrimination (still), women’s rights, etc. are still huge with hundreds of millions living on a dollar a day or less. The government is well aware of that of course, but how you bridge the gap while the rich get richer? And while the environment worsens and resources become scarcer: they are issues we all face across the world, but they are growing more severe in India: Gandhiji of course, like many great Indian thinkers of the past, argued for self sufficiency and rejecting consumption and acquisition as a goal of civilisation. How right they were, but how hard to achieve. For us all.


ART, Chennai, India but now in Dallas, TX

Why do you kill the names of Indian places and stuff? If you are doing a program on India shouldn't you have a better control of your tongue. It feels a little like you are insulting us!

Michael Wood

Did I? If I did, I’m sorry about that. (Though Indians themselves sometimes use more than one pronunciation-e.g. where the stress is on Varanasi, or how you say the last syllable of Madurai.) We had lots of discussion about place names (i.e. do we use the new pronunciation or form against the older –e.g. Kolkata v Calcutta), and sometimes we adopted the older one when in a historical context. For most names I usually used what I have heard on the bus or in the station booking hall. Apologies if it didn’t always come out perfect.

Telugu Language is the oldest language compare to Tamil

Chary, CA, USA

As an Indian we are really thankful to you. This is a wonderful work.

There is always controversy about the 'ancient/oldest language' in India, Tamil or Telugu.
Did you come across any controversies and proofs about the ancient 'living' spoken language?

I read somewhere that Archeologists found a proof of written Telugu language script.

Do you have any information on that?

Once again thank you.

Thanks very much Chary.

Michael Wood

Haven’t heard the argument about Telugu, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff on the Dravidian language group as a whole which must be older than Sanskrit as the earliest hymns in the Rig Veda have borrowings from Dravidian. For a short guide Try Kamil Zvelebil’s Dravidian Linguistics (published in Pondi about 15-20 years ago).


Bart Ostro, Oakland CA

The first episode talked about how the Aryans brought so much to India. My question: where did the Aryans obtain their own heritage, culture and language?

Michael Wood

I must stress again that these things are hotly contested and disputed by many inside and outside India who think that the ‘Aryans’ and their language were indigenous (try on this e.g. BB Lal’s recent book Homeland of the Aryans, or the two collections of essays published I think in the US- Thomas Trautmann (editor), The Aryan Debate (2005) and Edwin Bryant, The Indo-Aryan Controversy (2005).

The key things would be among other things the Sanskrit language, and the root ideas of Vedic religious culture (fire altars, soma, etc.) the old Vedic gods-Indra Mitra Varuna, the Asvins etc.- plus the horse, chariots, chariot and horse warfare etc;

This culture we know developed in Central Asia beyond the Caspian from c. 4000 BCE, and Victor Sarianidi has found the same kind of material culture in his spectacular ongoing excavation at Gonur Tepe on the edge of the Merv oasis in Turkmenistan, where the sites were abandoned in around 1800 BCE. Presumably some of these peoples migrated into the Iranian plateau and Afghanistan, and later into NW India??


Mani G. Iyer, Needham, USA

Michael, in your opinion, do you think the Mahabharata actually happened or is it just a figment of Sage Vyaasa's imagination?

Michael Wood

I think that as you saw in the interview with BB Lal, the excavation at Hastinapur (and Lal’s examination of over thirty other sites mentioned in the Mahabharata-most of which have never been excavated) proved that the mythic story (rather like Schliemann’s excavation of sites named in Homer’s Iliad) did go back to real places that existed in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age (Lal thought Hastinapur was abandoned in the ninth century BCE and that the Great War in the Mahabharata might have taken place around 860 BCE). Now obviously this doesn’t prove that the war actually took place, or that the heroes were real people; but correlation with the historical layers of the Rig Veda –the battles of the Purus and the Bharatas, the battle of the Ten Kings, etc. - suggests a real context to such wars. I have a feeling that closer examination of the later hymns in the RV may take us closer to the real wars between the Ravi and Kurukshetra in the late Bronze/early Iron Age.

Madurai Meenakshi

Lekshmi, Chicago

Loved your documentary on the Madurai Meenakshi temple years ago. So happy to see this new series you've created. You have interacted with so many different types of Indians - Hindu/Muslim, Brahmin/lower caste, intellectual/laborer, and north/south/east/west. You have probably had more candid conversations with people from these various backgrounds than the majority of Indians have had.

What insights has this given you about India's potential to shake off societal prejudices? Are you hopeful about the future of Indian society?

Michael Wood

Hi Lekshmi. Thanks very much for your enthusiasm: it’s much appreciated. It’s certainly been a great experience. And as Amir Khusro wrote centuries ago, what wisdom you meet in the ordinary people of India. That’s still true. I am no expert of course, and India’s social systems and customs like caste, or the subordination of women in some regional cultures, etc., are no doubt deeply rooted -especially caste: but everywhere in India I have always met the capacity to welcome and cope with difference -that’s something Indians have done for centuries. What it often comes down to is how people react in times of stress as opposed to times when things are going ok. And also whether unscrupulous politicians, as sometimes happens, whip up difference for political gain. But India wouldn’t be alone in that would it? For what its worth I am hopeful for India’s future in so far as one can be hopeful at all in today’s environmental decline, climate problems, and the failure of altruism in politics. Fingers crossed!

Tamil Nadu - The oldest Civilization on earth?

Etan, Tarzana

After traveling 1 year in remote rural, untouristic villages throughout Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala, I would like to know please what makes Tamil Nadu more connected to its roots then most of India’s remote villages. How do you make a definition of cultural and traditional authenticity?

Michael Wood

Hi Etan. Very simply, I think, India’s deep south escaped the waves of foreign invasion that changed the north so much: the great Tamil scholar Kamil Zvelebil once wrote that Tamil Nadu was the only surviving classical civilisation!

Only 1 Indian epic mentioned in the episode

Kaveeta Nijhawan, Mumbai

Why was only "Mahabharat" mentioned as the Indian epic shaping the beliefs of Hindus? "Ramayan" was written much before and is of equal importance as far as shaping beliefs on Hindus is concerned.

Michael Wood

Hi Kaveeta: As maybe you’ve seen now the Ramayana came up in episode Four at some length: Though Indian tradition says Ramayana was long before events in the Mahabharata- nearly a million years ago in traditional time! - Archaeologists and textual critics are generally agreed the surviving manifestations of the Rama story come much later. After his dig at Hastinapur and his survey of over thirty Mahabharata sites BB Lal excavated six key Ramayana sites (you can find details on the net) all were dated after the Mahabharata sites (PGW pottery) by the NBPW pottery (i.e. 6th century BCE-2nd century BCE). This seemed to indicate that the Rama story grew up in a small region between the Ganga and the Gogra (as you’d expect of course) but only after the founding of towns in the Ganga/Jumna doab circa 500 BCE.

Adi Sankara

Geetha, Cleveland

I watched the Story of India series. It is fascinating. I learned so much more about Indian history. It has been directed brilliantly and the story cannot be told better. The one thing I found missing was information about Adi Sankara. Was that forgotten?

Michael Wood

Thank you for your message!

We didn't forget Adi Sankara but left the topic out in the end because it would also have to include the Dvaita-Advaita philosophy, Bhakti movements, Kabir, Nanak and Sri Chaitanya-all of which would have been great (and very relevant to the story) but simply impossible to fit in, in the time we had. Maybe if we make a programme in the future on the spiritual history of India we will cover it!


Robert Early, Kittanning, PA

(Maybe you explained this and I missed it?) Please explain why Buddhism essentially died out in India.

Michael Wood

Hi Robert: According to most historians, the decline of Buddhism in India had several causes and took place over a long period of time.  First, Buddhism was a monastic discipline which depended in important ways on monasteries: when they were destroyed in the Middle Ages then the faith declined-except where the monasteries survived, namely in Tibet, Nepal, Ladakh Leh, Bhutan, etc.-and also in Bengal. In terms of wider influence in the populace at large many scholars think it was essentially a philosophy which people practiced in addition to their existing Hindu religious rites, and which eventually became a part of Hinduism.  Between the 300s and 500s CE the Guptas were great supporters of both Buddhism and Hindu cults (like Rama) but foreign invasions from the 5th century onwards, e.g. of the Hun tribes in Northwest India were a devastating blow to Buddhism, as they are believed to have burnt down hundreds of monasteries and killed thousands of monks. Later invasions by Afghans and Turks were also destructive. In the mainland of India Buddhism slowly became absorbed into the fabric of Hinduism and in a few centuries the Buddha even came to be recognised by some Hindus as a Hindu Avatara of Vishnu. But don’t forget that Buddhism still survives in the Himalayan regions of India- and also in Bangladesh.

The concept of United India

Seshan, San Jose, California, USA

Firstly, I want to thank Michael Wood for making this awesome story on the Indian sub-continent. No one could have done it better. I do have a comment about the last episode in the series. The concept of united or unified India was proposed and implemented by Chandragupta Maurya through the vision of his teacher Chanakya as "Bharat" well before the "unified Indian" rebellion against the British rule. The last episode narration seem to portray that British rule led to the formation of 'unified India' concept, which is putting a positive spin on the British rule in India.

Michael Wood

Thanks very much Seshan for your kind comments which are much appreciated!  In episode one you may remember we looked at Chandragupta’s empire and described it as the ‘first forerunner’ of modern India.  So on one level I agree: but none of the great northern dynasties, whether the Mauryans, the Guptas or the Moghuls, ruled in the south beyond the Deccan. Ashoka mentions the Pandyas and Cholas, but he didn’t rule them: so perhaps it is true to say that though the Mauryas claimed to be emperors of ’India’ it was the Brits who actually realised the idea of a unitary state embracing the whole peninsula?

Regarding references in Story of India

Sanjay, Detroit

Excellent program. Congrats!

  1. Isn’t the Bosale Chattrapati in Tanjore descendents of Shivaji (he has captured Tanjore at the tail end of his rule)?
  2. Is Gandhar really the 'Kandahar' of today? There are references even in Mahabharata - Gandhari (Kaurav's mother) was from Ghandhar - Afghanistan of today...?
Michael Wood

Hi Sanjay: The Prince of Tanjore is indeed the last Maratha heir  but you have to distinguish between Gandhara in the North West Frontier and Qandahar in Afghanistan: check out my answer to my first lot of questions on Programme One. Gandhara is the region centering on Peshawar.

Significance of colored powders

Donald Steele, New York, NY

Is the paint and the various colored powders that some of the people wore of religious significance? Do some of the markings denote the caste of the person? At some of the ceremonies we saw on the show, colored powders were used? What is the significance of that in those rites? All in all I thought the show was enthralling.

Michael Wood

Thanks for your mail! And thanks for your kind remarks: I’m really glad you enjoyed the shows.

The multi-coloured powder thrown on each other during the festival of Holi (in commemoration of Lord Krishna) is called gulal.  (Looking back on the filming I remember Holi in Mathura as one of the most memorable days- and certainly it gave us some of the most memorable pictures!!)

In the past it used to be made of powdered dried flowers or paste made from grinding flowers which gave it a distinct scent. However in modern times it is made artificially and is generally odourless.

It doesn't have any other religious significance these days (at least so I’m told) but is just part of the licensed anarchy of Holi when everyone is allowed to have a ball, ribaldry and teasing go on, and when sex roles are reversed, etc.

Another powder often used in most Hindu rituals is the red coloured powder called vermillion. In many parts of India, women wear this powder on their head/forehead, often as a sign of marriage. It is supposed to be an auspicious omen, and is probably a very ancient custom in India: as it seems certain that it was already a customary mark thousands of years ago in the Indus civilisation.

Among the other marks seen on the forehead (especially in South India) is the yellow one made from sandalwood paste. There are two distinct ways of marking. While it doesn't indicate a caste, it indicates the religious sect the person follows.  Vertical lines indicate the person is a Vaishnav or worshipper of Vishnu (or Lord Krishna or Lord Rama). Horizontal lines on the forehead indicate the person is Shaiva, or worshipper of Shiva: in this case the white ash from the fire of worship   is probably another very ancient custom, which worshippers in South India explain as a kind of memento mori, or remembrance of death, that is, alluding to the ashes of the cremation ground-Shiva of course is the great creator and destroyer in Hindu tradition.