Romila Thapar

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Romila Thapar
Born (1931-11-30) 30 November 1931 (age 82)
Lucknow, British India
Nationality Indian
Alma mater Panjab University
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London
Occupation Historian
Known for Authoring books about Indian history

Romila Thapar (born 30 November 1931) is an Indian historian whose principal area of study is ancient India.


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. Later she worked as Professor of Ancient Indian History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where she is Professor Emerita.

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.[1] Her recent work on Somnath examines the evolution of the historiographies about the legendary Gujarat temple.[2]

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.[3]

Recognition and honour

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.[4]

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)[5] and recently (in 2009) from the University of Hyderabad.[6] She was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009.[7]

In 2004 the US Library of Congress appointed her as the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South.[6]

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".[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]

In 2002, the Indian coalition government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) changed the school textbooks for social sciences and history.[11] 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."[12][13] 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.[12][14] In turn, the historians were accused of offending the sensibilities of some religious and caste groups by their formulations of history.[15]

Thapar's appointment to the Library of Congress's Kluge Chair in 2003 was opposed in an online petition[16] bearing more than 2,000 signatures. Journalist Praful Bidwai criticised the petition as a "vicious attack" by communalists who are "not even minimally acquainted" with her work.[17] A number of academics sent a protest letter[18][19] 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".[20]

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.[21]


  • A History of India: Volume 1, 1966; Penguin, ISBN 0-14-013835-8
  • Aśoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, 1961 (revision 1998); Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-564445-X
  • Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations, 1978
  • Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History, 2003; Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-566487-6
  • Cultural Transaction and Early India: Tradition and Patronage1994 Art patronage
  • Dissent in the Early Indian Tradition 1979 Indian Renaissance Institute
  • Early India: From Origins to AD 1300, 2002; Penguin, ISBN 0-520-23899-0
  • Exile and the Kingdom: Some Thoughts on the Rāmāyana 1978 Original from the University of California
  • From Lineage to State: Social Formations of the Mid-First Millennium B.C. in the Ganges Valley, 1985; Oxford University Press (OUP)
  • History and Beyond 2000 OUP
  • Interpreting Early India, 1993 (2nd edition 1999); Oxford University Press 1999, ISBN 0-19-563342-3
  • India: Another Millennium? 2000, Viking
  • India: Historical Beginnings and the Concept of the Aryan 2006 National Book Trust
  • Śakuntala: Texts, Readings, Histories, 2002; Anthem, ISBN 1-84331-026-0
  • Somanatha: The Many Voices of History, 2005; Verso, ISBN 1-84467-020-1
  • The Past and Prejudice (Patel Memorial Lectures), 1971
  • The Past As Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History, 2014; Aleph, ISBN 9-38-306401-3
  • The Mauryas Revisited 1987 K.P. Bagchi & Co.
Edited anthologies
  • Situating Indian History: For Sarvepalli Gopal
  • Indian Tales, 1991; Puffin, ISBN 0-14-034811-5
  • India: Another Millennium?
  • Communalism and the Writing of Indian History , Romila Thapar, Harbans mukhia, Bipan Chandra, 1969 People's Publishing House
Select papers, articles and chapters
  • "India before and after the Mauryan Empire", in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Archaeology, 1980.
  • "Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity", Modern Asian Studies 1989 23(2): 209–231.
  • "Somanatha and Mahmud", Frontline, Volume 16 – Issue 8, 10–23 April 1999


  1. ^ "Cultural Pasts: Essays in Early Indian History By Romila Thapar - History - Archaeology-Ancient-India". 2003-02-03. Retrieved 2014-08-18. 
  2. ^ Perspectives of a history – a review of Somanatha: The Many Voices of a History
  3. ^ E. Sreedharan (2004). A Textbook of Historiography, 500 B.C. to A.D. 2000. Orient Longman. pp. 479–480. ISBN 81-250-2657-6. 
  4. ^ Penguin publicity page
  5. ^ Honoris Causa
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter T". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 21 June 2011. 
  8. ^ "Romila rejects Padma award"Times of India article dated 27 January 2005
  9. ^ Historians Brown and Thapar Will Share $1 Million Kluge Prize
  10. ^ "The Rediff Interview/ Romila Thapar". Rediff. 4 February 1999. 
  11. ^ "Hating Romila Thapar". 2003. Retrieved 3 September 2014. 
  12. ^ a b Mukherji, Mridula and Mukherji, Aditya, ed. (2002). Communalisation of Education: The history textbook controversy. New Delhi: Delhi Historians' Group. 
  13. ^ Thapar, Romila (9 December 2001). "Propaganda as history won't sell". Hindustan Times. 
  14. ^ "Communalisation of Education: Fighting history’s textbook war". Indian Express. 28 January 2002. Retrieved 7 April 2009. 
  15. ^ Chaudhry, D.R. (28 April 2002). "Critiques galore!". The Tribune. Retrieved 7 April 2009. 
  16. ^ "Romila Thapar's appointment to Library of Congress opposed"- Rediff article dated 25 April 2003
  17. ^ Bidwai, Praful (13 May 2003). "McCarthyism's Indian rebirth". Rediff. Retrieved 4 April 2007. 
  18. ^ Gatade, Subhash (June 2003). "Hating Romila Thapar". Himal South Asian. Archived from the original on 9 December 2006. Retrieved 4 April 2007. 
  19. ^ (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. 
  20. ^ "And Now in USA… ATTACK ON ROMILA THAPAR". Periodical. People's Democracy. Retrieved 11 July 2013. 
  21. ^ Thapar, Romila (28 February 2006). "Creationism By Any Other Name...". Outlook. Retrieved 4 April 2007. 

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