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Amazing Truths about Our India | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 16 September 2022, by M R Narayan Swamy

BOOK REVIEW

The Temple of Treasures: And other Incredible Tales of Indian Monuments
by Storytrails

Hachette India
Paperback ‏ : ‎ 272 pages
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9391028179
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9391028176

Captain John Smith of the East India Company had already shot 99 tigers and was hunting for his 100th kill near Aurangabad in Maharashtra when he spotted a series of caves hidden behind a waterfall. He had to light a makeshift torch to beat the pitch darkness. The caves smelled. Smith was amazed to see brilliant paintings and carvings of Lord Buddha – and much more. Little did the Englishman know that he had stumbled across the 2,000-year-old Ajanta Caves!

Another Englishman, Major General James Taylor of the Bengal Cavalry, was patrolling some hilly jungles near Bhopal when he chanced to see the ruins of a 2,000-year-old moment. Lost for the past 500 years, this turned out to be the great Sanchi Stupa. The magnitude of Taylor’s discovery, however, dawned only 100 years later — when it was found to be a very important and revered Buddhist shrine.

British archaeologists were amazed to see strange inscriptions engraved on a huge pillar at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi. They also found the same script on rocks and pillars scattered across India. It puzzled them. James Princep of the East India Company was a metallurgist but also dabbled in astronomy, architecture, metrology, meteorology, history, drawing and linguistics! He studied ancient coins too. Painstakingly, he deciphered the mysterious writing as Brahmi script – one of the oldest readable scripts of South and Central Asia. Eventually, it became clear that the inscriptions on the pillars and rocks were all from Emperor Ashoka.

Amazing secrets, right? All this and much more comes in a slim volume put together by Storytrails, an award-winning organization that showcases India through her little known but remarkable stories and is made up of experienced writers, researchers and storytellers with a passion for history.

The Cholas were a south Indian dynasty who ruled over a large territory for nearly 1,500 years, from the 2nd century BCE. At their peak in the 11th century, they directly governed southern India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka and collected tributes from vassal states in parts of eastern India, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Cambodia – an area spanning one million square km! This was because the Cholas were the only dynasty to build a blue water navy in India. Their predecessors, the Pallavas, also had a long-range navy but the Cholas were more powerful, with a whopping one million sailors!

Was Vasco da Gama a mere explorer who discovered a sea route to India? He was a hot-headed criminal! When he landed in 1498 at Kappadu in Kerala, he tried to bully a powerful dynasty which ruled the vast area. When the king was outraged by Vasco’s demand for a monopoly rights to trade, the Portuguese abducted some locals and escaped. On his second voyage, Vasco reached Kozhikode, attacked and looted unarmed merchant vessels, cut off the ears and noses of the captured crew and escaped again, only to become super rich with all the spices he carted away. He returned to India for a third time but died of malaria in Kochi.

Joseph Francois Dupleix, who became the Governor General of India, in 1742 learnt the hard way that the wheels of karma never spare anyone. His aim was to defeat the British and make India a French colony. With the help of a French naval commander, Comte de La Bourdonnais, he attacked Madras from the sea, forcing the British to surrender. But then serious differences erupted between Dupleix and La Bourdonnais. Dupleix accused him of corruption, leading to his jailing. By the time La Bourgonnais was acquitted, he had lost all his wealth, health and dignity. As for Dupleix, he lost a lot of money in India and died in relative poverty in 1763.

Osman Ali Khan, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, was so wealthy that he financed battleships and two Spitfire squadrons for the British during the World Wars. But he had a bizarre relationship with money. He stored his humongous collection of emeralds in brown paper packets! An enormous South African diamond his father bought was first casually placed in an old sock and forgotten and later was used as a paperweight! Today the Nizam’s collection of jewels lies in the vaults of the Reserve Bank of India in Mumbai. Another huge assortment of treasures is held at the Nizam’s Museum in Hyderabad.

It is on the walls of the 14th century Siri Fort in Delhi where the city’s ruler, Sultan Ala-ud-din Khilji, a ruthless tyrant and a religious fanatic, displayed the heads of 8,000 men he had beheaded. To seize power, he assassinated his own uncle and hoisted his severed head on a spear in full public sight. Within a year, he killed, blinded or arrested everyone loyal to the slain uncle. Although he raided Hindu temples tempted by their wealth, he was not a pious Muslim either. He frequently skipped Friday prayers and often ignored the Islamic scholars. Naturally, neither Muslims nor Hindu liked him.

Like in other Indian cities, British names were taken away from landmarks in Mumbai after independence. But the Elphinstone Circle was renamed as Horniman Circle, in memory of Englishman Benjamin Horniman, a journalist. This was for the strong support he extended to India’s independence movement. It was Horniman who first exposed in the Bombay Chronicle the horrors of the Jallaianwala Bagh massacre. Deported by the British, he continued to unravel the harsh realities of colonial rule in the British media. Back in India, he continued his journalistic crusade. He joined Mahatma Gandhi in his protest against the Rowlatt Act of 1919. A lover of India, Horniman died in 1948.

Indians who love to learn more about their country should read this book.

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