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The Wonder That Was India: A Survey of the History and Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent before the coming of the Muslims

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Indian civilization is among the oldest in the world, and what is unique in that respect is that the culture of the peoples still remains largely unchanged, with a strong thread of continuity through the ages.

The Wonder That was India takes a look at the country's history from the time of the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilization. It explores the possible causes for the decline of the Harappan civilization and settlements. The book talks about the possibility of the Harappans having moved towards the south and settled in the peninsular region.

The author also discusses the Aryan invasion theory, supporting it with various research papers and findings of that time. The evolution of Hindu religion is also talked about in this book--from the Harappan times, to the coming of the Aryans and the mutual influence that Hinduism and its off shoots Jainism and Buddhism had on each other.

This book is comprehensive in its coverage of Indian history. It looks at every aspect of Indian society and culture. The Wonder That was India covers everything from religion, governance, social evolution, literary traditions, philosophy languages, and science.

The author explores the significant role the Hindu religion played on the lives of the people. All the literary compositions of ancient times had religious associations. He also puts forward the theory that the European gypsies are of Indian origin.

The Wonder That Was India also gives an insight into modern Indian society and culture, how it became a confluence of different influences from many a quarter throughout the many stages of its history.

578 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1954

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About the author

A.L. Basham

12 books65 followers
Professor Arthur Llewellyn Basham (24 May 1914 – 27 January 1986) was a noted historian and indologist and author of a number of books.Possibly his most popular book is The Wonder That was India (Sidgwick & Jackson, London, 1954) - published seven years after the 1947 Independence of India. Revised editions of the book were released in 1963 and then 1967. Rupa & Co, New Delhi brought out a paperback edition in 1981. Macmillan Publishers Ltd., London, brought out a paperback edition in 1985. By 2001, the paperback version was in its 37th edition. Amazon.com staff review/book description reads "most widely used introduction to Indian civilization. Although first published in 1954, it has remained a classic interpretation."
Basham also wrote "History and Doctrines of the Ajivikas", based on his PhD work done under L. D. Barnett. He also wrote "The Origins and Development of Classical Hinduism" jointly with Kenneth G. Zysk. A book about Basham, written by Sachindra Kumar Maity (published 1997, Abhinav Publications, ISBN 81-7017-326-4) is entitled Professor A.L. Basham, My Guruji and Problems and Perspectives of Ancient Indian History and Culture. the book includes 80 of Basham's letters addressed to the author. Thomas R. Trautmann a professor for history and anthropology at the University of Michigan, dedicated his book "Aryans and British India" (1997, University of California Press) 'In memory of A. L. Basham, British Sanskritist historian of India, guru, friend'.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 114 reviews
Profile Image for Kushal Srivastava.
146 reviews24 followers
October 2, 2011
Women in ancient India roamed the streets with naked breasts. Take that, modern world!

One cannot refrain from considering any work on Indian culture and history under the scanner of famed "Orientalism" as told to us by Edward Said, if the work is from an Western author. AL Basham though seems doesn't quite fill the bill of an orientalist. This is a work of very high quality and very deep research for which the author learned nearly all the ancient Indian languages and all of its ancient literature. The work is polymathic in it's outlook and covers nearly all known aspects of the Indian civilization from its geography, its literature, governance, religion, philosophy to science and even coinage.

Indian culture and its civilization are amongst the oldest in the world and perhaps one of few which are still intact in pretty much the same form as when they were created. This continuity is surprising and in the book Basham has tried to find out the reasons behind it.

We are given a quick tour of the Harappa culture and possible reasons for its decline (attack? Natural decline?) according to the author Harappans may have settled down in the South India and could have been the Dasas referred to in literature, the Brahmi script is also probably a derivative of the Harappan script but nothing can be claimed with certainty.

The Indian society as it stands today is certainly the amalgamation of Aryans who probably came from somewhere near the modern day Iran and the natives. It is this culture of the Aryans which has been transferred almost undiluted through centuries. Slowly the Aryans dominated the entire sub continent and every inch of India soon had their footprints.

There is a lot of information on the Indian religions though not necessarily structured. We come to know that the Aryan religion was in the beginning a sacrificial cult which was later transformed into a devotional cult or the modern day hinduism. All the religions in India have been influenced by each other upto the coming of Muslims. The coming of Buddhism and Jainism brought the non violence and vegetarian aspect into the Indian religions. Almost all of the Indian literature has been religious and even if some were secular like Mahabharata or Ramayana they have been transformed into religious works by later writers. Basham is clearly not much impressed by the ideas expressed in literature of the period, according to him, the literature is mostly either religious or gnomic. What has impressed him is the amazingly and almost supernatural grasp of the language ancient Indian poets have shown.

Where else in the world would you find a beauty like this

Dadado dudda-dud-dadi
Dadado duda-di-da-doh
Dud-dadam dadade dudde
Dad'-adada-dado 'da-dah

Translation: The giver of gifts, the giver of grief to his foes, the bestower of purity, whose arm destroys the giver of grief, the destroyer of demons, bestower of bounty on generous and miser alike, raised his weapon against the foe.

This work is essential for anyone who is interested in knowing the Indian history. It is a brilliant reference material, even if some sections feel dated.

Appendices at the end give information on Indian science and maths but is hardly of the same detail as religion or governance. But the importance of mathematics is highlighted in the fact that author calls the unknown mathematician who gave the world the zero as the second most important son of India after Buddha.

Oh and according to Basham, the gypsies are of Indian origin, so next time you see Brad Pitt in Snatch remember he is just Rajnikant in disguise.
Profile Image for Dmitri.
184 reviews129 followers
October 23, 2022
This is a clearly written introduction to ancient India before the Muslim conquest of the 13th century. Arthur Llewellyn Basham's father was a British journalist who served in the Indian Army during WWI. His son became a scholar of Indian history and religion, teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies, and mentoring R. S. Sharma and Romila Thapar. Published in 1954, Basham avoided much of the esoteric density of contemporary European indologists such as Zimmer and Kramrisch.

As others have noted, this is essentially an undergraduate level textbook. Basham's literary inclination allows it at times to transcend the usual tedium implied. The reader is first taken through a quick chronology of the Indus Valley civilization, Aryan/Vedic period, advent of Buddhism, Greek invasion, Mauryan and Gupta empires, and the Chalukya and Chola dynasties. The larger remainder of the book is arranged thematically into the political, social, religious, technological and artistic spheres.

I appreciated the fast paced historical narrative but wanted more detail in this section, which comprises less than a fifth of the 500 page text. The topical chapters are by contrast a bit drawn out, but they can be digested separately according to your personal interests. It is a typical dilemma in history surveys whether to integrate this material by time period or to extract it by subject matter. The latter approach errs on the side of brevity which works well with the book's introductory nature.

Unfortunately the book suffers from dubious racial theories that were prevalent in the mid 20th century. Aryan invasion or migration theories are still debated on the merits of linguistic or DNA evidence, but Basham's analysis of skin color, lip, nose and head morphology at times smacks of phrenology, or worse. Basham was a student of Sanskrit, so his observations from the Vedas and Brahmanas do not come second hand. Nevertheless they are seen through the lens of conquest and colony.

Inevitably this is a dated work since so much has been discovered in the past 65 years. The generalized approach of the book doesn't exacerbate this fault however. For a more specialized and updated focus, Thapar's "Early India" and Sharma's "Ancient Past" may be both good options. The relatively small selection of recent English books on ancient Indian history is peculiar. There are many other academic monographs available but good material for the general reader is hard to come by.
Profile Image for Arun Divakar.
796 reviews375 followers
October 20, 2016
While getting down from a train recently, a small post-it on the wall of the coach caught my attention. It was a quote from Stephen Covey – There are three constants in life…change, choice and principles. I do not know about principles but change and choice are always prevalent when you pause to think about life and also about history. If you were to take only a sample of Indian history (prior to the arrival of the Mughals) and examine it, the sheer number of dynasties and empires that passed through the Indian stage are mindboggling. No single person or enterprise escaped the stamp of change and as cliché would have it, time continued its inexorable march. A. L Basham’s work is a consolidation of the data and writings available at the time of its first publication on how rich a history India had prior to the arrival of the Muslim invaders. The timeline we are talking about is from the rise of the Indus valley civilization to the first arrival of the Mughals.

Reading the book was like a trip down memory lane. This feeling was not because I am fully well versed with Indian history but more because this is written in a style that reminded me of high school history classes. I harboured no special liking for this subject in school and to this day I have no idea how I managed to clear that paper. The dry and factual descriptions in the book brought me back to those soporific afternoon classes…sigh !

But I digress and so getting back – change is the most common factor in this book. The first big chapter in the book is a brief history on the dynasties that rose and fell across the length and breadth of the subcontinent in the eras gone by. In hindsight it all seems so fickle and tiny. The power plays, the decades of warfare, blood and glory, the opulence of the royal households are all now recorded for posterity only on files hosted on some database with the Government of India. There are still standing testimonies scattered across the vastness of this landscape with a personal favourite of mine being Hampi in Karnataka. The grandeur of the constructions and the sheer scale of it all made me marvel at the effort that would have gone in to create such a place. Then again a stroll to the magnificent Vijaya Vittala temple or gazing at the Narasimhamoorthy statue tells you how that glorious kingdom was ravaged by the invaders following the Battle of Talikota in 1565. This gets a mention of two lines in the book but having walked those streets, the past glory was still fresh on my mind. The most famous early empire of India of Ashoka has been all but forgotten now even though his is a very popular name in India. Thereby you get a rough picture of the scale of changes that the landscape has been witness to.

Don’t let this review make you believe that this is a depressing work about the seemingly momentary nature of history. On the contrary the writing style is purely dispassionate and dry. Basham is a competent chronicler who relies heavily on the available literature of his time as the base for his work. The chapters are broadly divided into art, politics, religion and theology, culture and social structure. Summed together they give an in depth understanding of the Indian subcontinent when the Mughals arrived on the scene. A lot of criticism is levelled against Basham for the glaring omissions and errors in the book but having being first published in 1954, this would have been pretty much obvious.

Recommended for its breadth and scope (and also for the unintentional nostalgia !).
Profile Image for Tom.
192 reviews121 followers
June 16, 2013
A fine survey of Indian culture up to 15th century or so. It's rare that a semi-academic book 50 years old holds up at all, but this one seems quite useful. It gives the broad outlines of Indian history, politics, society, daily life, religions, arts, and literature in a mere 500 pages. The author knew perhaps a half dozen early Indian languages, and translates from them all, comfortably discuss numismatics and prosody, astronomy and sculpture. Very impressive.

I'm sure scholars of classical India could note hundreds of advances in the field since this book's publication. One could also criticize some of the author's assumptions (i.e., that Indian culture "went into decline" with the growing political dominance of Islamic groups in the 16th century, or that history is generalizable at all), but these would be cheap shots. For a 20th century British historian, Basham is remarkably anti-imperialist, avoiding the dominant "they need overlords" narrative of many of his English colleagues, and taking pains to point out the great achievements coming from all aspects of Indian society.

In short, this book is recommended to anyone who is generally curious about early and medieval Indian history, a relatively brief introduction for the intelligent non-expert.
Profile Image for Maitrey.
149 reviews20 followers
January 21, 2013
Focuses mainly on Indian pre-islamic cultural and religious history (Basham's specialty I think is Buddhism). No good for a correct balanced view now as the book is outdated, but has nice snippets.

Recommended if you like Buddhism, the Vedas and Sanskrit. I personally liked it as you can be reasonably certain Basham is not bigoted. One drawback I see is Basham's over reliance on only written records which handicaps him in this period, quite a bit of the book reads like an English translation of the Arthashastra (he's not ready to speculate even when he himself repeatedly states that the Arthashastra maybe unreliable for actual "history on the ground").
1 review2 followers
September 14, 2007
I've wanted to buy this book for the better part of 3 years and I finally got my hands on it. Haven't finished it yet, but from what I've read it thoroughly deserves its reputation as a classic, holding up well after 53 years.

In my experience with histories of India, you generally have two extremes: Ones written by Indian authors that so aggressively seek to discount earlier volumes' Western slant it comes across as "one-upsmanship", and the volumes written by Western authors that seek to apologize for earlier transgressions. A.L. Basham achieves a happy medium. Some of his language can be excused as indicative of the time in which he wrote the book, 7 years after the Partition, but otherwise he does a great job of covering Indian history up to the High Middle Ages with thoroughness and equanimity. His writing is also very engaging.

As the foreward in this new edition points out, the book stops "before the coming of the Muslims" because Basham didn't have any background in Persian, not as any sort of "statement" about that part of Indian history.
Profile Image for Sumir Sharma.
Author 18 books2 followers
July 25, 2018
Basham's book is recommended for students and aspirants who prepare for Civil Services in India. It is presumed that those who work on that line, they might have read this book.

Secondly, he was the guide for PhD of Romila Thapar another renowned historian of Ancient India.

The book definitely gives a fresh look to Ancient India. Generally, you find very few books nicely written on the period of Ancient India. Some of the other books contain too many references to the facts and figures written in Sanskrit that it is not useful for every one. Secondly, the chapter making is different from other books. The contents fulfil the need of the students about whom it is referred above. On the whole, it is one of the popular books till this day.

On the other hand, the author had failed to suspend his racial bias while writing about Ancient India. Some of the commentators and reviewers have already raised some issues. A historian is not expected to be judgemental which interpreting. Alas, Basham made many judgemental remarks. While discussing Yogasutra, he sarcastically commented on the existence of Sushma Nadi. Similarly, while talking about Soma, one can guess that what can be a remark of a Western scholar. Therefore, while calling it one of the best books on ancient India for the students, I have given only three stars. It is best because one can find reference to answers to numerous Multiple Choice questions which appears in the examination in a single book. One can prepare a good note on Ancient literature on Buddhism from the contents provided in this book. That is the importance and value of the book. One can gather many references to numerous terms related to the society and those terms are not fully understood at present. However, this book is not a good source on the political history of India. For that, one needs to take help of other books.

One should not wonder if some of the reviewers and especially the Indian reviewers criticise it. From Kapil, to Gautam, to Patanjali, to Panini, to Aryabhata, to Sankaracharya to later times the people like Satyendra Bose, J Bose, Meghanath Jha, C. V. Raman, or for that purpose, Narain, a twenty nine year old young man whom the Western World knew as Vivekananda, the disciple of Ramakrishna on whom even Max Muller wrote a biography, to the present day intellectually awake Indians who fully understand the Western Philosophy, Basham made some amusing judgemental remarks. If someone gives him one star, I will not be surprised. But, I will like to respect the intellectual mind of any race, as it the heritage and culture of Indians like Varamahir who was ready to respect Romanav chart to correct the Solar chart, Basham definitely deserve the respect.
Profile Image for Matt.
616 reviews
March 26, 2018
Even though Indian civilization has interacted with other civilizations over the millennia, there is still a mystery and allure about its history, culture, and religions that still fascinates. The Wonder That Was India by A.L. Basham is a classic interpretation of Indian culture that for over 60 years has been an introduction to the unique culture that covered a subcontinent up until the arrival of the Muslims.

Basham ordered the book by discipline first with history—both pre-recorded and recorded—followed by government, society, everyday life, religion, the arts, and finally language and literature. This allowed for a generally reader friendly book as Basham covered the history of the subcontinent and then used that background to show the societal and cultural developments. Throughout the book are numerous illustrations, drawings, and maps that showed the richness of the civilization. However, being over 60 years old some of the information is out of date and that is not all of the imperfections that future readers should know about. Basham’s writing style is somewhat dry in places and reading becomes as slog. And the illustrations while being spread throughout the book are not easy to find when referenced in the text.

However, even with this downside The Wonder That Was India is still a great introduction into Indian history. A.L. Basham’s enthusiasm is very evident as well as his expertise on the subject. I definitely recommend this book for dedicated history readers, but issue a word of warning to general readers.
Profile Image for Aditya Joshi.
9 reviews7 followers
August 14, 2016
As a young kid, AL Basham was always fascinated by the stories of a mysterious land far away - stories told by his father who lived near Shimla as a british journalist. His deep interest in the history and religions of Indian subcontinent made him work for a PhD under another prominent historian of that time, L.D. Barnett. He went further to hold professorships at various institutes, finally coming to "Oriental Studies at the Asiatic Society of Calcutta".

I believe no one ever summarized Indian history in a depth surpassing the level Basham has gone in "The Wonder that was India". From the early civilizations in the west to invasion of Aryans and early ages of "Hindu" society, you will experience what we are told in the school days was just a half baked story, hiding the details that may change your view created by the present political activities.

In the book, AL Basham has explained the passage of kings, formation and re-formation of religions, making of the norms of society and gives a perfect picture of what India was like when the Mughals first saw it. “If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree.", quoted Michael Crichton.
August 26, 2019
First of all in this day and age, I don't see any value to this book because this book has been completely based on the premise the Aryan Invasion Theory and the Aryan-Dravidian Myth which have been completely falsified and debunked.

Through out this book you will find certain repetitive themes as follows:

1. Any possible achievement or positive development in India or Hinduism would be put off saying..."they say this happened but It is highly unlikely it could have happened"

2. Any major breakthrough or discoveries would be put off by saying..."It is highly unlike that the Aryans could have done it by themselves then surely they must have taken inspiration from the Greeks or Roman or Arabic or Persians"

3. Wherever possible Hinduism is frowned upon as the most orthodox, backward and downtrodden & how influences of Islam and Christianity were necessary for its revival into its present day form.

4. It becomes hilarious at one point where Basham tries to suggest how Muslim and British invasions did more good to India and Indians than harm.

5. Any school of thought or idea of the Hindus or Brahmans or Aryans will be termed as pessimistic asceticism and weird mysticism.

The only positives about the book is that basham has done a decent job in compiling the entire history in 500 odd pages.

There is typical british condescending and cold tone to the book and when I read book I can hear the master AL Basham saying to me, "O Come here! Let me introduce you to my sweet little India, Well there are some good things about her! But in the end she is not capable of doing anything on her own and see how I have improved her life considerably"

It is preposterous when I see how such people have been the given the titles of "notable historian and Indologist". This is what happens when the authority to write the history is given to those very forces which have plundered and looted you for centuries or their mouthpieces.

I have grown up listening to the old adage "History is always written by the winners", India always comes out as an anomaly.

1 review
October 31, 2020
Being aware of how ancient our history is, this book can't be put in bulk category, though it's thick. As a UPSC aspirant I came across many books on ancient history of India, all were good and some of them are even known as the Bible of Indian history but this particular book by A.L.Bhasm will lead you to nowhere but satisfaction.
The book is written in aftermath of Independence and partition and is free of exaggeration and additional glorification, it's subtlety makes it to stand out among all other books and is full of Facts which at a point can bore you but at the end you will be nothing but fascinated. The writing style is simple which makes it readable even to the beginners and while reading you while find many words whose spelling have changed with the span of time for example the word "connection" is written as "connexion" and the word "chola" is written as "cola" and many such which will slowly build up your interest in find more such.
On a whole , it will provide you enough information to appreciate our past and at the same time it will leave you perplexed as whether you should criticise the writer as British bias or not because the way he glorifies their contribution to the discovery of Indian civilization and the way he justifies exclusion of Indians from British administration is starkiingly different from what you might have studied In books of Indian writers.
26 reviews1 follower
May 7, 2016
A great work on the history of ancient India. The author begins the book praising the Indian civilization in the introduction chapter and I was afraid that the rest of the book would be an uncritical glorification of India's past. But what followed was an honest description of actual facts to understand Indian civilization. Some of the theories described in the book have been falsified or are updated now, but that would not be a negative mark, as the author at the time of publication of this book had made exhaustive use of existing sources to describe ancient India. And I believe he has done it wonderfully. Being a foreign author, his knowledge in Indian languages is remarkable. The in depth knowledge of various Indian books (Arthashastra, Vedas, Upanishads, Smritis, Sutras, Jatakas etc) is visible throughout the book. The excerpts from various literary works like Meghdoot, Abijnanashakuntalam, Silappadikaram etc given in the book, even though brief, are beautiful and helpful in understanding these literary works.
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,521 reviews93 followers
August 29, 2017
Imagine that Will Durant had penned a loving history of just the Indian subcontinent, and you'll have something very close to The Wonder That Was India. Like Durant, the author covers politics, society, economics, religion, arts, and literature. He writes as a straightforward admirer of Indian culture, with a graceful pen.
January 30, 2020
THE WONDER THAT WAS INDIA: A survey of the history and culture of the Indian sub-continent before the coming of the Muslims, by Arthur Llewellyn Basham.
First published in 1954 by Pan Macmillian, London.
Indian history has always been a subtle riddle, Basham takes the reader through the ancient land, unraveling them piece by piece. The book is a journey of the land and its people, from the dawn of the Indus Valley civilization, through the numerous invasions from the west to the India that we know today. This book tries to best the misconceptions about the history of the wonder that is India.

The Indus valley civilization is the initial focus of the book, the author moves about the fascinating settlement, giving detailed theories about the lives of the commoners of the time. The book also sheds light upon theories about the enigma, that is, where did this genius work of urban plan disappear? The book also theorizes the “Aryan invasion” about the time of the disappearance of the civilization. The book, even though is a little behind the times, is accurate about the invasions but is off about the timeline of the invasions. Similarly, multiple scenarios brought up in the book are somewhat accurate about the incidents but are incorrect about the timeline. The book seems to have taken a form that is similar to books written at the time by communist-oriented historians.

The book also shows a great deal of detail about the art and cultural development of the culture and people of the sub-continent during the pivotal ages for the nation. The people of the land were greatly influenced by the invaders of the time. For instance, when the Mughal entered the country, the people who adapted to the newer culture, tradition, and language were the people who did well in society and were considered to be posh. Similarly, people who got acquainted with the English language during the “British Raj” were favored in society. This impact is still seen in the modern-day. The regional art throughout the country, whether it was handicrafts, pottery, metalwork, cloth work, paintings, etc were majorly influenced by the invasions from the west. The book narrates these evolutions and influences in such a way that it can be seen in the society of today as well. The book moves in constant comparison of how society today has been shaped by the numerous invasions, cultural development, the introduction of various religions in the country.

The book often refers to religions developed in the country as “cults”.For instance,
“If for a time Buddhism became to all intents and purposes a separate religion, denying the Vedas, the ordinary layman might not see it in that light. For him Buddhism was one of many cults and faiths, by no means mutually exclusive, all of which led to salvation, and all of which were respectable and worthy of honor.” Even though the author goes about praising the religion about how it preaches peace, he addresses the religion as a “cult”. The book, being written by a person of British origin, obviously will have biased opinions about the culture of India.
Even though there are instances where the author disregards the culture and mocks the traditions and beliefs of the people, the book does have illustrations like, “The Divine is a diamond of innumerable facets; two very large and bright facets are Visnu and Siva, while the others represent all the gods that were ever worshipped. Some facets seem larger, brighter, and better polished than others but in fact, the devotee, whatever his sect, worships the whole diamond, which is in reality perfect.”.

The book is out-of-date, it does not agree with the recently researched timeline and hence spins Indian History into a web. But in spite of this, the book does a marvelous job in spelling out how India became what it is today, how the art and tradition evolved in the land, how invaders influenced the people and their ways of life, how the architecture developed and changed through the course of time. The book is very well written but is not suitable for someone looking for facts as this book does not agree with recent research about the timeline.
For anyone wishing to learn about the recent research about the same, Author Nilesh Oak has done justice to the timeline and also gives insight about the same episodes but through the eyes of a native.
A humble attempt at reviewing a renowned piece of literature.
Profile Image for Vitesh Shah.
71 reviews1 follower
September 4, 2022
The book is quite detailed. It feels as if I am reading a thesis of some history researcher. This means it is a dense read. The book has looked at a large timeframe of history and tries to explain a lot of things, while giving references for further reading. In terms of details, this book is amazing.
However, in terms of ease of reading no! You need patience to read through it.
In some cases, the book is outdated, especially with respect to the links between Indus valley civilization and how it might be connected to later times. The book seems to support Aryan migraton theory, which is hotly debated currently. But, okay the book is older, so I guess that is expected.
I really liked how it goes into details of Mauryan empire and how the author seems to have studied Arthashastra quite in detail.
One thing I found a bit irritating, was comparing a lot of things with the Greek civilization and somehow implicitly showing the things have come from Greek. At some point, the book goes into a bit too much detail on religions, which for me was a bit of a boring part.
However, the book is a good read for someone who wants a serious and thorough read on indian history.
Profile Image for Mayank Bendarkar.
1 review1 follower
January 27, 2019
I have no words to do justice to the extraordinary scholarly effort that has gone into the writing of this book, except that it has in many ways reshaped my view of what was, is, and will be 'Indian'.

Remember, this book was written around 6-7 years after India's independence, and may utilizes theories that were prevalent at that time (eg. Aryan invasion theory), but that does not make this book any less valuable today.

I quote from the Epilogue one sentence that will stay with me, "...Already after seven years of independence, the extremes of national self-denigration and fanatical cultural chauvinism are disappearing. We believe that Hindu civilization is in the act of performing its most spectacular feat of synthesis. In the past it has received, adapted and digested elements of many different cultures - Indo-European, Mesopotamian, Iranian, Greek, Roman, Scythian, Turkish, Persian, and Arab. With each new influence, it has somewhat changed. Now it is well on the way to assimilating the culture of the West... "
24 reviews
November 20, 2022
There are many history books that go through chronologically or tell a particular story about a land or a person.

Well, this one was definitely different! I had heard or known a lot of good reviews about this book - particularly from BookTube and bought it finally last year. And, over the past 14 months, been chipping at it bit by bit and finally managed to complete it today.

The book is organised not by any sequence of events but rather chapters are based on themes - political life, social life, religion, literature or languages of the history of India. (This original book contains only up until Muslim invasions & there’s a separate book following that period by another author).

A L Basham wrote this book in 1950s, with few revisions later and yet the research done is so thorough that it actually holds true till today. Of course, he completely seems to be taking the Aryan Invasion theory for granted (Well, it’s controversial! More so, in today’s circumstances)

My favourite parts were in Religion, family and social life and languages. He quotes from a lot of historical, literary and archeological sources - which given the utter lack of enough in number from a historian’s perspective regarding Indian History is an achievement in itself.

I was amazed by so many new (at least to me) perspectives about our own past - I ended up sharing all of those TILs with similarly curious in my circle.

All in all, a very good book to keep handy - esp. for a History aficionado.
3 reviews4 followers
June 14, 2020
A fantastic book on ancient Indian history. The book showcases the rich culture and history of then India (Aryavarta which includes current India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar etc.) History of Ashoka the great gets special attention. Under his reign Buddhism was spread to South Asia and South East Asia. India is a at least 5000 year old civilisation where mantras from Vedas (the oldest book on religion) is still recited in Hindu marriages. This book can make an India proud of their rich heritage. This is a book much before Muslims or British came to India. Our school history is full of glorifying Mughals who destroyed, forcefully converted and looted our ancient civilization. I wish I would have read this book before.
52 reviews25 followers
December 27, 2016
'The Wonder That Was India' is a book of history intended for the audience of Western countries. Because of this we find numerous references to legends, myths and kings of western world, so that the intended audience can correlate with the corresponding piece of Indian history. There may be references to few unknown events or figures for an Indian reader not well-versed in Western history. This book builds on the theories of Indologists from the starting of colonization of Indian subcontinent. As India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Srilanka share common history, the contents of this book can be read for all these countries without losing context. The author of this book, A. L. Basham, has covered Indian history from the pre-historic times to coming of Muslims in Gangetic Plains which took place roughly around twelfth to thirteenth century.

The author of this book solidly believes in Aryan Invasion Theory. Although a prevalent theory in 1965, when this book was first published, there have been few developments in this area, already a touchy issue for Indians. Recent research papers have shown that genetic patterns are mostly similar for all Indians. Few others have argued that language alone cannot be used to prove conclusively that there was Aryan Invasion. If there was an invasion it must have left a bloody trail of destruction, which is nowhere to be found. Presently, scholar continue to be divided in this area. Whereas another history book, 'India : History' by John Keay presents both views and lets reader decide, this book can be noted in its steadfast belief in Aryan Invasion Theory.

Read full review of 'The Wonder That Was India' at -
1 review
March 17, 2015
There are claims that need citations
e.g. girls were less important than sons, the citation about "Rajputs killing infant girls" is after vedic times. Women had rights to choose husbands but they were supposed to be submissive, this claim also needs citation, otherwise the claim is self-contradicting.
Varnas and caste are different things, caste by birth and introduction of "untouchable" caste and overall degeneration of Hindusm started around 13th Century around the same time of invasion of Moghuls. Before that Varna of someone was decided after finishing education and not by birth.

All in all many claims specially about women's secondary status are without citations, so can't buy the claims from this survey. This is contradicting other historians' study (with citations) that in Vedic times women were treated equally.

Profile Image for Ishaan.
39 reviews1 follower
September 19, 2017
If you want to have a detailed overview of the cultural history of ancient India, this is a great book.
I only found two drawbacks though:
1. The book talks less about the social life of that period. It might be because of lack of resources. Need to check that.
2. Since it was written long back, it covers some theories which are no longer consistent with modern findings. (like Aryan Invasion Theory).

If you are a history enthusiast, do read this book.
Profile Image for Swati Pande Pande.
Author 1 book4 followers
July 10, 2013
I have not read any other historical perspective on pre-Muslim era other than Basham's work. Though I am currently reading The Moghuls by Harbans Mukhia that is considered one of the masterpiece, I am yet to find anything close to Basham's work! Strongly recommended for people loving to read Indian History.
Profile Image for Riju Ganguly.
Author 12 books1,359 followers
May 8, 2012
One of the first Indological books that I had actually loved. I admit that the concept of single-author studying an entire era spanning over centuries (if not millennium) has become obsolete, but the book is WONDERFUL in its most literal sense.
Profile Image for Haresh Eranga.
63 reviews1 follower
November 1, 2022
අසිරිමත් ඉන්දියාව කියවන්නත් කලින් ඉන්දියාව මට ප්‍රේමනීය රටක්. සමහර විට දේශපාලනිකව සහ හැම විටම කලාත්මකව. ඉතිහාසෙට යද්දි ඔය දෙකේ වෙනස හොයන්නත් බෑ. කොහොම වුණත් ඉන්දියාව නිසා මම රසවිඳපු රසවිඳින දේවල් තියෙන්නෙ උපරිමයන්ගෙ. ඒක ඉන්දියානුවන්ගේ ආභාෂයෙන් ලංකාවෙ මට උරුම වෙලා තියෙන සංස්කෘතියෙ විචිත්‍රවත් ගතියෙ ඉඳන් මේ වෙද්දි ඉද්දියානුවන්ගෙ සංගීතය, නර්තනයන්, ක්‍රීඩාව, චිත්‍රපටි, ගණිතය සහ තව නොයෙක් දේ වගේම කෑම බීම දක්වාම දිව යන පැතිරුණු එකක්. හිතට සතුට සහ මොළයට දැනුම ගේන දේවල් බොහොමයක් ඉන්දියාවෙන් මට ලැබෙනව. ඉතිං ඉන්දියාවේ අසිරිය ගැන කියවීම තවත් ඒ ආදරය වැඩි කිරීමක්. ගොන් කතාවක් වුණත් ඉන්දියාව අසල රටක ජීවත් වීම සහ ඉන්දියාව විඳින්න තරමට රසයක් දියුණු කරගන්න පුළුවන් වීම ගැන ආඩම්බර වෙන්න පුළුවන්.

ඉන්දියානු ඉතිහාසය මුලදි විග්‍රහ කළේ බොහෝ දුරට යුරෝපීය ඉතිහාසඥයන් නිසා සමහර දේවල් වල ක්‍රෙඩිට් එක ඉන්දියාවට හරියට ලැබිලා නෑ කියන එක ඇත්තක්. (ලංකාව සම්බන්ධයෙනුත් එහෙම දේවල් තියෙනව) ගණිතය, තාරකා ශ්‍රාස්ත්‍රය වගේ දේවල් සම්බන්ධයෙන් ඉන්දියානුවන් දියුණු කරපු දැණුමත් ඒ වගේ. උසස් පෙලට අපට භෞතික විද්‍යාව උගන්වපු ගංඇති සර් තමයි මුලින්ම ශ්‍රීනාවාස් රාමනුජන් ගැන කියල දෙන්නෙ. ඒ ඔස්සෙ අමතර කියවීම් වගේම දෙව් පටෙල් රඟපාන The Man Who Knew Infinity චිත්‍රපටියත් පසුකාලෙක පෙරේතකමේ බලන්නෙ ඉන්දියාවට නැති වුණ දේ ගැන දැනගැනීමේ ආසාව නිසා වෙන්න ඇති. සමහර විට ඉන්දියානුවන්ම තමන්ගෙ දේවල් අතෑරලා ලෝකෙයේ වෙනස් වීම් ඉක්මනින් වැළඳගන්නවා වෙන්නත් පුළුවන්. ආචාර්ය බර්ට්‍රම් ලියනගේ කරන දේශනයකදි ඔහු කියන විධියට මරාති වගේ භාෂාවක් ත��මත් පවතින්නෙ භාවිතා කරන මිනිස්සු ප්‍රමාණය වැඩි හින්දා විතරයි. නමුත් භාෂාව විතරක් සැලකුවොත් ස්වභාෂා අමතක වෙන තරමටම ඉංග්‍රීසිය වේගයෙන් සාමාන්‍ය ඉන්දියානුවන් අතරට පිවිසෙමින් තියෙනවා.

පොතේ තියෙන සමහර කාරණා ගැන දැනුම මේ වෙද්දි යාවත්කාලීන වෙලා තියෙනවා කියලත් හිතෙනවා. මහාචාර්ය රාජ් සෝමදේව කියන විධියට ආර්ය කියන සංකල්පයම යුරෝපීය ඉතිහාසඥයන් ගොතපු ප්‍රවාදයක්. ඉන්දියානු විශිෂ්ථත්වයේ මූලයන් යුරෝපයට ගෙනයෑමේ උවමනාවෙන් ව්‍යවහරයෙන් පූර්ව වර්ෂ 2000-1500 විතර කාලයෙදි මධ්‍යම යුරෝපීය ජන කණ්ඩායම් විසින් පැරණි ඉන්දු නිම්න ශිෂ්ඨාචාරයන් පෙරලගෙන වයඹ දිග ඉන්දියාවෙන් උතුරු ඉන්දියාවට ඇතුල් වීම ආර්ය සංක්‍රමණය විධියට පුරාවිද්‍යාත්මකව ඉදිරිපත් කල බවත්, ඒ දිහා විවෘතව බැලිය යුතු බවත් තමයි ඔහු කියන්නේ.

කොහොමත් ඉතිහාසය කියන්නේ කරුණු හෝ අවස්ථා විධියට සලකනවට වඩා 'විශාල අදහසක්' (big picture) විධියට සැලකිය යුතු විෂයයක් කියලයි මට හිතෙන්නෙ. කරුණු සහ අවස්ථා විධියට සැලකුවොත් ඉතිහාසෙ අවස්ථා හේතුවෙන් වර්තමානය විනාස කරගන්නයි වෙන්නෙ. මොකද මිනිස්සු ඉතිහාසය අනාගතයට ආයෝජනය කරනවට වඩා ඉතිහාස නිසා මරාගන්න ආසයි.

ලංකාවෙ X කියන හිටපු ජනාධිපති හොරෙක් කියන්න සාධක තියෙනව වගේම ඔහු අග්‍රගනයේ නායකයෙක් කියන්නත් කරුණු තියෙනවා. අවුරුදු 20ක විතර ඉතිහාසය ගත්තත් හරියටම වුණ දේට වඩා වාර්තා වෙලා තියෙන කරුණු වෙනස්. ඉතින් අවුරුදු දහස් ගණනක ඉතිහාසය ගැන කතා කරල වැඩක් නෑ.

අසිරිමත් ඉන්දියාව ශ්‍රාස්ත්‍රීය ලේඛණයකට වඩා සරල බසින් ලියවුණු එකක්. ඉතිහාසය කියවන්න කැමති උදවිය නැතුව වෙන කෙනෙක්ට වුණත් කැමති හිතෙන තොරතුරු ඇතුලත්. කියවන්න ලේසි නොවුණෙ සමහර කරුණු ගැන ඉන්ටර්නෙට් එකේ හොයමින් ඒවයෙ පින්තූර බලමින් අතුරු කියවීමකුත් කරමින් කියවන්න වුණ නිසා. එහෙම නොවී කියවල වැඩකුත් නෑ. ආසන්නව 13වන සියවසේ ඉඳන් ක්‍රමයෙන් ඉන්දියාව මුස්ලිම් ආක්‍රමණවලට ලක් වෙනව. ඒ දක්වා ඉන්දියානු භූමියේ සිදු වුණ විවිධාකාර වෙනස්කම් මාතෘකා ගණනාවක් ඔස්සෙ කතා කරනවා පොතේ.
April 2, 2020
Recently finished reading the book ‘The wonder that was India’ by AL Basham, a noted British historian and Indologist.

The first edition came out in 1954 and its relevance even today makes it a timeless classic. A magnum opus on Indian civilization, it tracks our journey from pre-historic times upto the medieval period. Considering RS Sharma and Romila Thapar are both Basham’s students whom I have read before, the book was surprisingly very different in its style and content.

Firstly, the book is very heavily researched, the extent of which I have never seen before. If you get to read actual extracts of ‘Meghdoot’ and ‘AbhijanShanktulam’ of Kalidas, verses from Tamil ‘Silappatikaram’, ‘Vedas’ and epics ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ as well as Buddhist ‘Tripatakas’ in a single book, you are in for a treat. Sometimes even Pali, Prakrit, Sanskrit and Tamil passages are quoted ‘ad-verbatim’ alongwith English translations.

Secondly, the book ventures deep into the state:political life and thought, societal structure, everyday life, language and literature, philosophy and the arts of ancient India.

Thirdly, religion is comprehensively tracked. The distinction between Vedic rituals, Brahmanism, devotional Hinduism and later Hinduism is remarkably clear and detailed.

Lastly, no doubt that India was a fragmented polity for the most part except in ‘Mauryan’ and ‘Gupta’ times, still the cross-pollination of ideas, cultural traditions and customs lent a unique ‘unity’ to the Indian subcontinent, giving birth to the concept of ‘Indianness’.

In sum total, the book is compelling, engaging, enthralling and fresh. The ancient civilization of India differs from those of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece, in that its traditions have been preserved without a break down to the present day.
The Indian believes in assimilation and not confrontation, the middle path rather than ‘extremes’. The book will make you feel proud to be an Indian, without overt jinogoism or patronage.

A highly recommended read from my side.
Profile Image for Ankit Modi.
107 reviews41 followers
May 26, 2017
Arthur Basham has given a very well researched and detailed account of pre-Islamic India. The details about the daily life in the magnificent empires of Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka, Chandra Gupta, Samudra Gupta and Vikramaditya are fascinating. You get to know some lesser-known kingdoms in detail like the Cholas or the Vijayanagar empire. I wonder why our history books don't teach about them in as much detail as the Mughal or the British empire.

The historical accounts of religions especially Buddhism and Jainism were fascinating. The details about the caste system and its flexibility were intriguing- more so when you know the kind of rigid structure it has taken in recent centuries.

I especially liked the development of language in ancient India. How Sanskrit became what it is, major literary works of different eras, translations of poems which have survived for more than a thousand years. The parts about music, dance, paintings, and monuments are also well researched.

This book felt like taking a stroll inside a museum.

The only issue that I had (might be nitpicking in here) was that the book was factual to an extent that the narrative became monotonous after a while. If you can bear through those minor phases of boredom, then ancient India would seem no less than a wonder !
Profile Image for Pritam Chattopadhyay.
1,734 reviews145 followers
August 10, 2021

“At most periods of her history India, though a cultural unit, has been torn by internecine war. In statecraft her rulers were cunning and unscrupulous. Famine, flood and plague visited her from time to time, and killed millions of her people. Inequality of birth was given religious sanction, and the lot of the humble was generally hard. Yet our overall impression is that in no other part of the [Page 9] ancient world were the relations of man and man, and of man and the state, so fair and humane. In no other early civilization were slaves so few in number, and in no other ancient lawbook are their rights so well protected as in the Arthaśāstra (p. 152f). No other ancient lawgiver proclaimed such noble ideals of fair play in battle as did Manu (p. 126). In all her history of warfare Hindu India has few tales to tell of cities put to the sword or of the massacre of noncombatants. The ghastly sadism of the kings of Assyria, who flayed their captives alive, is completely without parallel in ancient India. There was sporadic cruelty and oppression no doubt, but, in comparison with conditions in other early cultures, it was mild. To us the most striking feature of ancient Indian civilization is its humanity.”

A classic this one!!
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