Biographies Romila Thapar

2008 Kluge Prize Winner

The preeminent historian of early India, Romila Thapar opened the study of its rich, ancient civilization to habits of inquiry and conceptual frameworks arising out of the modern social sciences. She formulated new questions about the social development of nearly 2,000 years of Indian history and challenged existing historical paradigms from both the colonial era and the more recent nationalist period.

Making innovative use of familiar archeological and literary sources and mining new data, Thapar rewrote the history of this continental nation of more than 1 billion people. Her iconoclastic approach is not without controversy, but the research that she and like-minded colleagues advanced has profoundly changed the way India’s past is understood both at home and across the world.

At the beginning of her career, Thapar challenged the conventional historiography. In her “History of India” (1966), she broke from the predominant view of an unchanging India characterized by a past and static Golden Age. This work accelerated the adoption of the social sciences in Indian universities and quickly became a teaching text in Indian schools. Her research portrays complex interplay among political, economic, social, religious, and other factors and reflects her commitment to a holistic approach to her scholarship. Faced with the absence of reliable dating, she finds new information in ancient texts–Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Jain–and in Old Tamil traditions and folklore, and integrates it all with findings from archaeology, numismatics, linguistics, and inscriptions.

Thapar’s work has reached beyond the academy and into primary and high school textbooks, and her perspective on Indian history has placed her in the midst of contentious debates. Thapar’s textbooks on Indian history were criticized by religions organizations who felt their religious teachers had not been properly glorified. Newspaper articles and editorials protested Thapar and her fellow writers for excavating historical evidence that ancient Aryans had, on occasion, eaten beef, even though this ran counter to Hindu tradition. She was criticized for questioning orthodox opinion and encouraging young minds to do likewise. Thapar championed a history grounded in evidence drawn from multiple sources and languages from all levels of society. She consistently sought to counter simplifications and support an appreciation for a pluralistic view India.

An emeritus professor of Ancient Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who has held visiting posts and received honorary degrees from universities on three continents, Thapar has made an enduring contribution to India and the world through her role in pioneering innovative methodologies for historical research and transforming our knowledge of Indian history.

Why Awarded

The preeminent historian of early India, Thapar formulated new questions about the social development of nearly 2,000 years of Indian history and challenged existing historical paradigms of both the colonial era and from the more recent nationalist period. Her research has profoundly changed the way India’s past is understood both at home and across the world. Thapar has written or coauthored 15 substantial books, and her work has reached beyond the academy and into school textbooks. Her perspective on Indian history has also placed her in the midst of contentious debates. Thapar has persistently championed a history grounded in evidence drawn from multiple sources in multiple languages from all levels of society across time. She has consistently sought to counter simplifications not supported by the evidence and foster appreciation for a pluralistic view of India. Thapar has made an enduring contribution to India and transformed our knowledge of Indian history.

Citation

“She has used a wide variety of ancient sources and of languages, and introduced modern social science perspectives to help us better understand the richness and diversity of traditional Indian culture.”
—Librarian of Congress James H. Billington

Press

Romila Thapar

The Historian Who Rewrote India’s Past

Kluge Prize Recipient 2008

Quick Facts

Born:
1931, Lucknow, India

Field: 
History

Positions:

  • Reader, Kurukshetra University
  • Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
  • Emeritus Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University

Ceremony Links

Awarded:
December 10, 2008

Watch:
Acceptance Speech | Full Text

Announcement:
Historians Brown, Thapar Named Recipients of Kluge Prize (Dec. 3, 2008)

Selected Publications

More

Selected Works at the Library of Congress

Videos from the Library of Congress