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Blast from the past

History sites offer easy access to our nation’s rich cultural heritage

Velany Fernamdes | August 14, 2003 10:56 IST

Which Indian sepoy initiated the revolt of 1857? If you don't know the answer, then it's probably been a while since you opened a history textbook.

Here's your chance to rediscover history. Sites like harappa.com, kamat.com, and itihaas.com bring the past to your desktop. With audio-visual features and interactivity, they add new life to the study of our past.

Drawings and sculptures of ancient Indian brassieres, ornate ancient beds and pre-historic hunting practices, present a vivid picture of life in ancient India. The Alexander Times gives a news report of Alexander's invasion, while the Harappa Digest documents the prevalent fashion and architecture.

Photographs capture the essence of the Khajuraho temples, the mystery of religious cults and the lives of the Indian tribals.

These sites also explore the lesser-known aspects of Indian history. The history of beggary explains that for some Indians, begging is a chosen vocation.  The history of transportation, studies luxury vehicles like the palanquin, mythological vehicles like Lord Ganesh's mouse and public vehicles like boats. India's street culture is captured through snapshots of cockfights, destitute musicians and stray children.

Vikas Kamat of kamat.com, explains, "We have taken the approach that history is not necessarily that of kings, dynasties, and leaders, but also of common people."

Slides, lithographs, engravings, and postcards tell the story of labourers during the British rule. Working mothers would put their babies to sleep by trickling water on their foreheads. Indians pushed handcars to enable the British to travel. Able-bodied coolies in Calcutta travelled every year from India to Sri Lanka during pre-independence days. Witness the journey from oppression to freedom, as poems, speeches and pictures revive the saga of India's freedom struggle

If you have a sound card installed on your machine along with an audio player, you can relive the very moment of India's independence listening to Nehru's Awake to Freedom speech. You can also hear Jinnah's speech as Pakistan celebrated a similar occasion.

Innovative features like 'Ask Gandhi' at kamat.com provide readers "an insight into the mind of Gandhi through questions and answers". 'Bharat-ek-quiz' on vandemataram.com tests your knowledge of Indian history through quizzes and puzzles.

This sharing of audio-visual history is the raison d'ętre of many of these sites. Omar Khan, the founder of harappa.com, says, "I created this site primarily to share information and my collections of old photographs and movies with a wider audience."

The product manager of itihaas.com (name withheld on request) reveals that its original purpose was to bring history to "the community of Indians residing abroad". By allowing readers to write articles, the site approaches history through the experience of a layperson. 'History of Indians in the US' or 'Why the financial year begins on April 1are readers' contributions.

Individual documentaries serve to unearth different perspectives. For example, the mutiny of 1857 is considered the first Indian war of independence. 'Roots', however, claims that the first war took place in Goa.

In an itihaas.com article, Dinesh Agarwal, professor of materials at the Pennsylvania State University argues that, as opposed to what our textbooks teach us, the Aryans did not invade India. Another article sets out to prove, that Alexander is not 'great' but 'ordinary'. History sites thus provide a space for 'discussing' and not just 'reading' history.

Not everyone, however, is enthusiastic about this unconventional mode of examining history. Avkaash Jadhav, professor of history at St Xavier's College, Mumbai, says, "The authenticity of the material published is questionable. They do not cite the sources of reference material."

Agarwal does not agree: "I have given proper references in my articles, and articles written by others usually carry references. But this is true in the case of written history books also. Did you ever find any references cited in your high school history class textbooks?"

The history taught in schools has been accused of being dominated in turn by the imperialist, the leftist and the saffron version of the past. With contributions from non-partisan academicians, Indian history can now be viewed through an apolitical lens. In Agarwal's view "the Internet is unbiased, uncensored, and cannot be influenced by the political agenda of a few".

Jadhav disagrees, "All history is influenced by some perspective or the other. Even the person who is running the site has a certain perspective… this will influence his way of narrating history."

Kamat says that a popular site could misrepresent a fact or an event, but he believes that "ultimately, the democratic nature of the Web is bound to provide a balancing and opposing point of view".

Whatever position a history site adopts, what matters most is that it has opened up the study of history. As the itihaas.com product manager points out, an easy and interactive reference on Indian history is always at hand.



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