How to approach History?

GS Paper I is one of my favourite papers and I think I’m fairly strong in it. In this post, I will not focus on ‘what’ to read in history but on a bigger and a more prominent question of ‘how’ to study for History – the approach.

After going through several previous year question papers and analysing them I came to the conclusion that the following aspects in History are very very important –

  • Socio-economic conditions
  • Women

Socio-economic conditions during the various periods of history are more important than the rulers/leaders of those periods. For example, in 2013 there was a question on ‘The Great Economic Depression’. Its an economic crisis whose implications were felt in the social spheres as well. So whether it is ancient India, medieval India, modern India, post independence or world history, never neglect the socio-economic conditions of the people. For example, what led to the 1991 Balance of Payments crisis and the reforms which India adopted to address the crisis is a very important question and a potential CSE Mains question.

You might be wondering why I did mention ancient India and medieval India before as they both are not included in the Mains syllabus. But studying the socio-economic conditions in the ancient and medieval India is a must and should. The questions would be linked to culture part. For example, the 2013 CSE question  “Though not very useful from the point of  view of a connected political history of South India, the Sangam literature portrays the social and economic conditions of its time with remarkable vividness. Comment”. It may be impossible to go through all the literary sources contents to answer questions like these. Instead this question can be read as “Mention the socio-economic conditions in the Sangam age giving suitable examples from Sangam literature”. In other words the answer for this question would be jotting down all the socio-economic conditions of the people in the Sangam age and try to see if you can provide some examples from Sangam literature. For example,

  • Chastity is valued a lot – Ex: Kannaki is the goddess of chastity in Silappadikaram.
  • Jainism was prevalent – Ex: Sivagasindamani by Tiruthokadevar, a Jain

The next part is women. In the socio-economic conditions, the position of women is very important. Some great scholar once said, “the position of women in the society is a barometer to measure its greatness”. This is also extremely important from History point of view. Some example questions are –

  • Contributions of women to ancient and medieval literature – keep a list of women scholars
  • Women participation in various movements of modern India
  • Women participation in revolutionary terrorism
  • Women during post independence
  • Women participation in communism, French revolution, American revolution (world history) etc.

Coming to culture, I think I have decoded why he is asking the questions the way he does. I think the focus is shifting towards asking questions in “reverse” direction. He is not going to ask about Vrindavan architecture or Manipuri dance, but instead ask about “Flute playing Krishna”, whose significance can be found across various architectures (Ex: Vrindavan temples, Chennakesava temple @Somanathapura of Hoysalas, dances like Manipuri etc.). I have extended this same idea during my preparation and constructed the following rule:

Whenever, a term (can be a feature too) is repeating at several places, learn about that term in its entirety.

For example, when I’m reading about the architecture of Pallavas – I’ve read about the Pancharathas which are in the chariot form. Then when I’m reading about Vijayanagaras architecture, I’ve read about the Vittala Swamy temple, which is in the chariot form. Then there is also the Airavateshwara temple of the Cholas which is in the chariot form. So I identified and prepared an answer for the Chariot temples of India. I have written an article on this earlier here. My similar exercises gave rise to these topics – Raavan lifting Kailash, Use of white marble architecture, Sun temples of India etc.

I feel that this exercise is extremely important, because it really helped me in the final exam. There is so little time in the exam, that one must do as much thinking as possible back at home and come to the exam with pre-semi-cooked answers, so that one can write answers without much thinking. For example, the question on Takshasila University, its alumni and why Nalanda went on to become the biggest university – I had thought about this before itself. As a result it took me not more than 4 mins for me to write this answer in the exam.

Some such topics that I had self-prepared on:

  • Raavan lifting Kailash
  • White Marble Architecture
  • Chariot temples of India
  • Ancient educational institutions in India (besides Nalanda and Takshasila)
  • Brick Monasteries of Eastern India
  • Importance of Arthanareshwara in Indian culture
  • Importance of Yakshas and Yakshinis
  • Importance of Dasavatara
  • Importance of “Tribhanga posture”
  • Krishna on Kaliya
  • Anantashayana temple
  • Radha Krishna/Raas leela
  • The rulers who performed Ashvamedha Yaga
  • Martial art dance forms of India
  • Dances which are based on imitation of animals
  • Harvest festivals of India
  • Sanskrit dramas
  • Biographies of ancient and medieval India
  • Kavyas
  • Diplomacy in Ancient India
  • Architecture of Stepped tanks – there are many types like Solangis, Vijayanagara etc.
  • Why Buddhism died while Jainism didn’t?
  • Rock cut architecture in India.
  • Influence of Indian culture to other Asian countries during ancient period – Spread of Buddhism, Shaivism etc.

The above mentioned list is not exhaustive and I strongly recommend the aspirants to explore many more on their own and prepare for them. It is also important that the student herself does this exercise because that in itself is a strong learning experience. It was because of this exercise, that I was able to remember these things better.

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7 thoughts on “How to approach History?

  1. Congratulations! Could you tell me your source/references for culture portion? Market is flooded with so much but I would like to stick to 1/2 and depend on internet for anything that may be needed. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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