Tim Dyson, Professor of Population Studies in the Department of International Development at LSE, tells us about his new book, A Population History of India: From the First Modern People to the Present Day.

A Population History of India: From the First Modern People to the Present Day. The book’s cover shows part of ‘The village of Raniya in Haryana’ (late Mughal, 1815-19).

Six years ago, I sat at my desk with a period of sabbatical leave stretching before me. There were several topics which I might have researched, but the idea of writing a population history of India suddenly came to me. It was a ridiculous thought! No one had been crazy enough to really embark on such an enterprise before. And I knew almost nothing about most of India’s history. Therefore, I couldn’t write an abstract of what any book might contain, and send it to a publisher for a contract—because the structure and contents of any book were unknown. Moreover, in the bizarre environment in which academics increasingly work, there are subtle pressures to churn stuff out—almost on a factory-line basis. Among other things, this discourages research on subjects about which very little is known, and which may take much time to discover. Still, I’m fairly gnarled and grizzled, so I thought stuff all of that!

I decided to start my research on the book with the entry of the first modern people—i.e. homo sapiens—which seems to have happened very roughly 70,000 years ago. The book then addresses the periods of the Indus valley civilization, the settlement of the Ganges basin, and the eras of the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughal Empire, and British colonial rule (when data on the population suddenly become very much more available). There is then, of course, considerable treatment of population trends and policies in India since 1947.

It transpires that much of what has been written about the general early history of India involves a lot of speculation. Relatedly, very little is known about the population, and what is thought to be known is fragmentary. Therefore, especially in its treatment of periods before about 1800, the book weaves together evidence and analysis from disparate and often unconventional sources—many of them external (e.g. ancient Greek, Arab, Chinese, French, English). Just why the recording of relevant history by indigenous sources is so very deficient is one of the many questions raised in the book. Another issue is whether, during the past two millennia, India shared the broad synchronicity of population trends which seems to have been experienced at either end of the Eurasian landmass (i.e. in Europe and China). I hazard that any similarity of trend for India was probably fairly muted—not least, because of the barrier that is the Himalayas, and the Indian subcontinent’s almost unparalleled diversity.

I like to think that ‘all of human life’ is somewhere in the book’s pages—e.g. abortion, agriculture, battles, births, breastfeeding, burials, children, cities, contraception, crops, death, diseases, education, empires, epidemics, famines, foods, genetics, geography, industry, infanticide, invasions, irrigation, land, languages, marriage, men, migration, nutrition, plague, politics, pottery, poverty, religion, riches, sex, slavery, textiles, timber, towns, trade, villages, warfare, water, and women (to name just a few topics). The cast of characters too is also incredibly long—ranging all the way from Chandragupta Maurya to Narendra Modi. The book will no doubt tread on some toes, and get some things wrong. But, hopefully, it will shed light on issues which deserve much greater scrutiny. There is no doubt that historians have sometimes been carried away by the stated splendours of the past—and, on occasion, this has led them to overly grandiose assessments of the likely size and characteristics of the population.

Anyhow, the book’s ten chapters done, I still needed a publisher! I consider myself fortunate to have found OUP. They have done a terrific job of production. The book’s cover shows part of ‘The village of Raniya in Haryana’ (late Mughal, 1815-19). It is a redolent scene. I find it touching that, two hundred years on, we know the identities of the two people in the foreground. The young woman, seated and spinning, is Amiban, bibi to William Frazer of the East India Company. The child by her side is Shaman, their young daughter. They both look out at us across two centuries.

A Population History of India: From the First Modern People to the Present Day (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018)


Tim Dyson is Professor of Population Studies in the Department of International Development at LSE. He has worked a lot on the demography of India. 

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.