Book review: Inscriptions of Nature: Geology and the Naturalization of Antiquity, by Pratik Chakrabarti

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Jon Trevelyan (UK)

Maybe it’s a result of my social anthropology and geological background, but I found this difficult but fascinating book a great read. It’s about nineteenth century India. It is not about the modern geological science or social anthropology of the subcontinent, but rather, the geological imagination of India, as well as its landscapes and people, and its history.

That is, the book aims to show how human evolution, myths, aboriginality and colonial state formation, as well as its geology, landscape, people, past and destiny as it was understood in the nineteenth century, fundamentally defined beliefs about Indian antiquity in the 1800s.

As such, it is necessarily idiosyncratic. It starts by explaining that, in the nineteenth century, digging for sewage, transport and minerals revealed human remains. And archaeological excavation of ancient cities revealed prehistoric fossils, while excavations for irrigation canals uncovered buried cities. At the same time, geologists, ethnologists and missionaries were “digging” into ancient texts and genealogies, and studying indigenous populations, including their lives, physiology, myths, legends and pasts.

The author, Pratik Chakrabarti, then argues that all of this was interweaved in colonial India, such that, in both the real and the metaphorical digging of the earth, the deep history of nature, landscape and people became part of the study and imagination of Indian antiquity. In this way, the nineteenth century understanding of deep history – as an expression of political, economic and cultural power –colluded in the colonial appropriation of nature, commodities, history and myths, as the British, in particular, tried to understand and control India.

Inscriptions of Nature also tries to interpret the relationship between nature and history, arguing that the deep history of the earth became instrumental to historical imaginations of monuments, communities and territories in nineteenth century India. It also examines related themes of Hindu antiquarianism, sacred geographies and tribal aboriginality.

While this all sounds somewhat intellectually daunting, it shouldn’t (but the book is difficult to summarise in the number of words I usually allow myself). As I said, maybe it’s a result of my social anthropology and geological background, but I do recommend it. It really is worth trying, if only for the number of ideas that it throws at you and the way the author weaves them together into a fascinating tapestry that is Indian deep history.

Pratik Chakrabarti is a chair in the history of science and medicine and director of the Centre for the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology at the University of Manchester. He is also the author of Materials and Medicine: Trade, Conquest and Therapeutics in the Eighteenth Century and Bacteriology in British India: Laboratory Medicine and the Tropics.

Inscriptions of Nature, by Pratik Chakrabarti, John Hopkins University Press (2020), 304 pages (Hardback), ISBN-13: 9781421438740.

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