While it is true that India has long fascinated historians from across the world [think back to Herodotus and his Histories and the tales about gold-digging ants and unicorns in India], it is also equally true that there is very little that has been written keeping the general reader in mind. You can’t expect everyone to dig deep into the archives and read from a century-old manuscript, can you?
Fear not, for we are here: we’ve compiled a list of the essential books you must read if you’re interested in the history of the Indian subcontinent, right from the prehistoric ages to modern times. All of them tell the story of a rich culture and heritage, and none can ignore them if they wish to learn more about this fascinating land:
The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300 (Romila Thapar): A one-stop compendium to get an overall sense of early Indian history, Romila Thapar’s book is an essential if you’re even remotely interested in history. It covers not just the various dynasties that ruled India, but also the political economy of the times, including the evolution of Indian civilization from an agrarian society to a more complex, urban-based one.
A History of South India: From Prehistoric Times to the Fall of Vijayanagar (K.A. Nilakanta Sastri): The southern dynasties and histories don’t feature prominently when we talk about the history of India, a massive error, as south India’s history is as fascinating, if not more, than the north’s. The Cholas were a massive naval force, while the Pallavas, whose fabulous architectural heritage can still be seen at Mahabalipuram, were also a great maritime empire whose influence stretched far into south-east Asia. Sastri’s book is a perfect companion to learn this, and much more about the South’s history, told in a perfectly accessible way.
Land of Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography (Sanjeev Sanyal): Sanyal is not a historian, but his eminently readable book takes the reader down an exploration of India’s history through its geography, including the mythical Saraswati river which has intrigued historians and scientists alike for centuries.
Emperors of the Peacock Throne: Saga of the Great Moghuls (Abraham Eraly): Eraly’s history of the Mughal emperors vividly brings alive the personalities, the culture and the splendour of the Mughal court in this gripping account of the dynasty that ruled India from the 15th to the 19th century.
The Discovery of India (Jawaharlal Nehru): Everyone’s read portions of Nehru’s fabulous book while in school, but we recommend reading the entire text, which is a paean to the complex cultural and historical heritage that is India. Written while he was in jail, it remains a must-read more than 80 years later.
White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India (William Darlymple): While White Mughals may have two lovers as its protagonists, it is also a detailed look into the socio-cultural and political life of colonial India. Revealing the lives of the ‘sahibs’ in great detail, this is an excellent primer to understanding how colonial life functioned in the 19th century.
India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (Ramachandra Guha): For modern history buffs, this is it. Guha covers India’s post-
Poems of Love and War (Selected and Translated by A.K. Ramanujan): We end with a non-history book — Ramanujan’s translations of early Sangam poetry may not be history, but the poems themselves reveal a fascinating story, a layered insight into how life was at the beginning of the millennium in south India. This is a must-read for anyone who’s interested in the founding works of Tamil literature.
Do you think we’ve missed any? Let us know.