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Past unlimited: the canal of Zabita Khan

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This paper shows how deep time superseded various other forms of historical imaginations in India. In doing so, it critiques the conceptions of deep history, of the ways it overwrites other histories. It traces this process through the history of the canal of Zabita Khan. In the early 19th century, the British began one of their most ambitious irrigation projects in India. As British engineers started to dig the Doab canal, they realised that there existed an medieval system of canal networks. In the course of the excavations, ancient canals appeared indistinguishable from old riverbeds and geomythical rivers and the lines between the monument and the terrain or the ‘natural’ and the ‘historical’ become imperceptible. Rivers moved, legends moved with them; dead riverbeds became canals, canals became natural channels of water and mythical rivers were traced in the landscape. In the process, the landscape, the legends, and the monuments became part of this colonial antiquarianism in which the history of a medieval canal was recounted as one of deep history.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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