Prayag Raj Sharma: History's Spokesman

Heritage Issue 96 Jul, 2010
Text by Kapil Bisht

Meeting Prayag Raj Sharma is a discovery in itself. I haven’t known anyone who has been to the camps of the rebellious Khampas before they were driven out of Nepal, climbed high and far across the Nepal hills to the edge of Tibet and conducted research during the same trip, visited some of the remotest regions at a time when they were off-limits to Westerners, joined renowned scholars in their studies of intriguing people and places, written numerous books, but still wonders if his life will make for an interesting magazine piece.

Keeping the past alive has been Prayag Raj Sharma’s life. His method, however, hasn’t been to glorify or to romanticize the past. Instead, like an astute renovator, he has continually scrubbed it with the sandpaper of rationality, plucking and discarding the moss of orthodoxy so that it retains and reflects its luster of wisdom. This is his story.

Professor Prayag Raj Sharma was born in Kathmandu in 1938. At the time, having recently migrated from their ancestral village in Tanahun District, his father did not own a house in the city. As a result, Sharma spent his childhood in different parts of Kathmandu, from Thamel to Bhurungkhel to Lainchaur. His schooling was from the Durbar High School where his father taught Sanskrit. “It wasn’t an easy decision for my father, a scholar of Sanskrit”, he says, “to send his son to a school modeled on the Western mode of education.” It is for this courageous decision that he considers his father his mentor.

After completing his schooling, Sharma enrolled in Tri Chandra College as an Arts student. The degree course included two years of extended schooling (now called ‘Plus-2’), and two years at the baccalaureate level. In those days there was no such thing as a ‘major’, but Sharma was beginning to lean towards certain subjects. “Sanskrit and history were my favorite”, he remembers. English was in the curriculum, too, and he developed an interest in it, and a warm, affectionate relationship with his teacher, Professor Yadu Nath Khanal, who also happened to be a relative. (Prof. Khanal soon became well known as a highly respected Nepalese scholar and diplomat.)

In 1957, Sharma was granted a scholarship under the Colombo Plan, and left Kathmandu to study in Allahabad, India. It was at Kausambi, an excavation site on the banks of the Jamuna River, that Sharma realized he wanted to be an archaeologist. In 1959, Sharma got his Master’s degree in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology from the Allahabad University and returned to Kathmandu. But he failed to find an administrative job and began teaching history at the Bhaktapur College instead.

In 1960, an announcement for a Government of India scholarship appeared in the Gorkhapatra (the Nepali language daily) seeking PhD degree students in archaeology. After securing the scholarship, Sharma joined the Deccan College in Puna, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, where he enrolled in the Department of Archaeology. His admission into the prestigious college was largely due to one man, Dr Hasmukh D. Sankalia who, “at my request”, says Sharma, “ordered the administration to enroll me in the college”. Initially, Dr Sankalia tutored Sharma on pre-historic archaeology, and wanted him to explore the Churiya foothills in Nepal’s Terai. But later, seeing the limited scope of pre-historic archaeology in Nepal, he turned Sharma more towards historical archaeology.

Dr Sankalia and his works were a great influence on Sharma. In 1963, Sharma wrote his dissertation entitled The Archaeology of Nepal under Dr. Sankalia’s supervision. It was based on a study of temples, sculptures, inscriptions and iconography of the Kathmandu Valley, which in those days was known to many simply as ‘Nepal’. Sharma’s dissertation, which remains his only major (unpublished) archaeological work, was modeled on his mentor’s own 1941 The Archaeology of Gujarat.

Between 1963 and 1965, Sharma was part of two historical archaeological excavations in Nepal. The first, in 1964, explored ‘Grey Ware’ sites from Bhairahawa to Tribenighat in Nepal’s central Terai. (‘Grey Ware’ denotes an archaeological time period – 11th to 7th century BC.) During this exploration Sharma worked alongside Dr S.B. Deo, a Colombo Plan teacher of archaeology in Nepal. His second and perhaps more important excavation was also with Dr Deo, at Hadigaon on the east side of Kathmandu city in 1965, when the team unearthed artifacts dating back to the Licchavi and Malla periods (4th-9th and 13th-18th centuries AD, respectively).

Strangely, involvement in these historical excavations did not bring recognition for Sharma and, Nepalese archaeology, along with one of the country’s most promising archaeologist, was left to languish in oblivion.

In 1965 Sharma was awarded his PhD degree from Deccan College. In May, he was appointed lecturer in Ancient History and Archaeology at the Tribhuvan University (TU). He taught the subject for seven years. When, under the New Education System Plan of 1972, 12 institutes were formed under TU, Sharma was appointed Dean of the new Institute of Nepal and Asian Studies (INAS). He served as Dean until 1976, the year that INAS was renamed the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS). Sharma then became its first director, a post he held until 1978.

In 1979 Sharma travelled to the Columbia University in New York as a visiting scholar. After a year he returned to Nepal and rejoined CNAS, where he worked as a professor until his retirement in 2002. Altogether he served 37 years at Tribhuvan University.

“I became an anthropologist through association”, he says. One such association was formed around 1965 between Sharma, who was studying French at the Biswa Bhasa Vidhyalaya in the Durbar High School, and Marc Gaborieau, his teacher. Gaborieau was in Nepal under the auspices of the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He taught Sharma much more than French, however. In 1966 and 1967, Gaborieau took Sharma on extensive research travels to Tanahun (Sharma’s ancestral home) and to Jumla, Dailekh and Surkhet Districts in western Nepal. Sharma first learnt about anthropology and its techniques while accompanying Gaborieau during his study of the folk songs of Kumaon and research on the Curétās, the hill Muslims who specialize in bangle-making. His travels to Nepal’s far west Karnali and India’s Kumaon proved useful in comparing the art and architecture of the two neighboring regions. He wrote about it in his book Preliminary Study of the Art and Architecture of the Karnali Basin (Paris, 1972).

As Dean of INAS, Sharma was keen on identifying regions with potential for research in Nepal. So, in 1973 he gladly joined a team of Western scholars, including the renowned Tibetologist Prof. A.W. ‘Sandy’ Macdonald, to the isolated (and closed to Westerners) region of Mustang. Sharma was drawn to Mustang “more by curiosity than with an intent of any scientific study”, but once again the approach of another scholar (Macdonald) made a difference. Witnessing Macdonald’s inquiries about the monasteries of the area and his way of conversing with the monks helped Sharma appreciate Mustang’s rich heritage.

A decade later, Sharma returned as a member of another research team to study the cultural heritage of Mustang. He and other members of the 1983 team conducted extensive studies from which he wrote Blo (Mustang) ko Sanskritik Sampada (Cultural Heritage of Mustang), co-authored by Jagman Gurung. Blo (pronounced ‘Lo’) is the name of the region in the local dialect, and ‘Mustang’ was, Sharma learnt from a local, a corruption of ‘Lo Manthang’.    

In his writings, Sharma is not the traditional historian who merely presents facts; instead, he is an interpreter and tracer of links between the past and the present. One example of this can be found in his book Kul, Bhumi ra Rajya (Lineage, Land and State; Kathmandu, 1977). This book, subtitled Social Study of Early Medieval Nepal Valley, traces the origins of the Newar social structure to the land ownership system prevalent during the Early Medieval Period in the Kathmandu Valley. In it, he explores the role of land in the emergence of caste, clan, and especially one social organization, the Newar guthi.

His style of combining history with anthropology has resulted in works that are provocative, timeless and insightful. He is both an extoller of history, as well as its uncompromising critic. He is keen to exalt and quick to denounce historical trends in relation to the service or disservice they do to the present. David Gellner, Lecturer in the Anthropology of South Asia at Oxford University, has described Sharma as “Nepal’s finest historical anthropologist or anthropological historian of his generation.”

Even as people were searching for (especially ethnic) differences in the country’s past to manipulate the present, Sharma was trying to fight for history’s and, in a way, Nepal’s cause. He turned to history to prove that: The Hindu-tribal synthesis is a fact of Nepal’s historicity [Sharma points out]. The historical process that ensued in the wake of contact between these groups in the Himalaya of Nepal... has seen a lot of mutual give and take ... Relaxed rules of inter-caste marriage, widow re-marriage and easy divorce for women even among high-caste Hindus are some examples of this... Such a caste-tribe relationship seen in the instance of Nepal may postulate an even stronger case to view tribes and castes as a kind of continuum rather than a dichotomy. The fact that this excerpt is from an article first published in 1978 is an example of his wonderful far-sightedness.

Sometimes, he fights for history’s place in the present. As he points out: There is bound to be an element of history behind all concepts of specific nation-states and the formation of identity based on them. Such a historical process cannot ever be ignored or completely set aside from the consideration of nation-building. Respect for such a historical legacy is needed for the health and integrity of a nation-state.

At other times, he acknowledges, and even welcomes, change: The question to ask now is not whether it is right or not to modernize oneself, it is only that at what pace and by adopting what surest mechanism should it be done... So we must place our highest value in change.

It is this balance, the constant quest for rationality, and the permeating concern of national well-being that give his corpus a timeless quality.

His latest book, a collection of essays entitled The State and Society in Nepal: Historical Foundations and Contemporary Trends (Kathmandu, 2004), documents his study of history as seen by an anthropologist and expressed by a true humanist. Two essays in the collection, ‘Caste, social mobility and Sanskritisation’ and ‘Nepal: Hindu-tribal interface’ originally published in 1977 and 1978 respectively, have been described by David Gellner as “early and seminal articles in the anthropology of Nepal [that] still deserve to be considered as compulsory reading for anyone who wishes to understand contemporary Nepal. No doubt they provided the original inspiration for András Höfer’s book on the Muluki Ain.”

In Prayag Raj Sharma humility has a face, and history a voice. His study of history is not only about yesterday, but it is about today, and the making of a better tomorrow.

Kapil Bisht is a freelance writer who can be contacted by email at Besides several interviews, Bisht relied in part on (and recommends) P.R. Sharma’s books (noted above), and his paper on Dr. H.D. Sankalia and Archaeology of Nepal: A Link (published by the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune, 2009). David Gellner’s description of Professor Sharma as “Nepal’s finest historical anthropologist” is from the Preface to Sharma’s book, The State and Society in Nepal.