Who were ancient India’s “first couple?” This unlikely question from a purveyor of India’s antiquity is one among the many explorations in historian-archaeologist Nayanjot Lahiri’s latest book, Time Pieces – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India. Lahiri is an authoritative voice in the study of proto-historic and early India. Time Pieces, though, is a departure from the pedantic and voluminous tomes on the subject, and written, as Lahiri says, “to be widely read with, I hope, enjoyment.” Lahiri attempts to open a window to ancient India via facets that are “important from the contemporary perspective: food and hygiene, art and identity, environment and emotions … linking small phenomena to the larger world of the Indian subcontinent.”
In the following extract, taken from the section dealing with love in the time of the ancients, Lahiri journeys through the first known Indian love graffiti, found in the caves of Chhattisgarh, to the erasure of the “golden age of sexual enjoyment” from the “mythic glories of ancient India so fancifully touted by right-wing Hindus.”
The Gathasaptasati (dated to between the first and the sixth centuries CE), apparently compiled and partly composed by Hala, a king of the Satavahana dynasty, is immersed in conjugal love. This is expressed in two voices, male and female. Mansplaining is common enough in ancient texts (if not a scourge within them), but in this anthology women also speak: “I remember the pleasure of harshly dragging his hairs entangled around my large toe, when he sat without speaking with me in the vicinity of my feet.” Unlike the urban milieu of the Kamasutra, the world depicted here is rural, with men travelling out and married women, forlorn as Mariana of the Moated Grange, yearning poetically for their absent mates. A woman whose husband is scheduled to go abroad the next day entreats the night to lengthen so that “tomorrow does not at all come into being.” This feeling was mutual: “the traveller, being bound by sorrow on finding the face of his wife pale at the time of farewell, did not like to go abroad.” Separation anxieties here, among those in the throes of familial love, are similar to those in Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 BCE), where Andromache confronts her husband Hector when fearing misfortune as he prepares to leave her in the war against the Greeks. He too is uncertain whether this will be their last time together but warns her not to give in to the enemy: “But may I be dead and the piled earth hide me under before I hear you crying and know by this that they drag you captive.” One reason why wives were described as looking pale at the time of farewell was possibly that they feared the worst for their travelling men.