Skip to content
Skip to navigation menu


The History of Genealogy, The Genealogy of History: Family and the Narrative Construction of the Significant Past in Early South Asia


Pre-modern South Asia has consistently but erroneously been presented as a land without ‘history’. The Genealogy and History project will explore how, in South Asia, ‘family history’ or ‘genealogical narrative’, has been an enduring resource for the formation and transformation of understandings of the past. Our key research question is: What is the role of genealogical narrative in early South Asia?

The project, the first comparative study of this kind, will suggest that genealogical narrative, developed across various texts and genres, both reflected and enabled the development of new social, political and religious concepts and institutions in early South Asia.

Family history has been used – and is still used - as something of a speculative laboratory in which all sorts of idea of how one might, could or should live (and much else besides) have been debated. This has mainly been achieved by showing the consequences of a given course of action for a given family (by and large, of kings or Brahmins – a significant religious elite in South Asia).

Understanding of how and in what ways people use narrative to construct forms of religious and social identity is one of the most important ways in which arts and humanities research can contribute to a global society seeking to regulate itself in a context of multiple, and often conflicting, understandings of the past. How do ideas of the past take shape? What influences choices with regard to what is remembered collectively and what is not?

This project will take up these issues and will explore both the forms and functions of family histories in Sanskrit literary and inscriptional sources. By doing so, the project will not only shed light on the cultural history of early South Asia, but will also explore the ways in which human social groups originate, maintain and transform their understandings of the significant past more generally.

The sources in which the family history looms largest and earliest are the Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and Ramayana and the Puranas (all of which are foundational Hindu texts). These compendious narratives try to do nothing less than present the totality of knowledge significant for human beings. They do this by taking up, and intertwining, in compelling narrative detail, the family histories of a range of royal and priestly lineages. There is also a vast range of material in Sanskrit inscriptions left by successive, and competing, ruling dynasties in South Asia. This is rather more local in its focus but is full of reference to characters that appear in the epics and Puranas. Very little comparative work has been undertaken which makes use of both literary and inscriptional sources, and none of it has focussed on the way in which the past was constructed and used in first millennium South Asia.

In the first stage of our research, we will survey this broad range of materials and bring together significant genealogical narratives for comparative analysis. In the second stage, we will explore the ways in which these narratives are structured and presented and the sorts of things we can, on this basis, infer about the people who originated and transmitted these stories. In the final stage of research, and on the basis of our analysis of the structure and intended audience of our sources, we will consider the role of family history in the establishment of understandings of the past that acted as a foundation for a range of, sometimes conflicting, social formations and religious and political ideologies in early South Asia.

In this way, we will come to a rigorous and in depth understanding of the role of the family history in the social and cultural life of first millennium South Asians. We will also have made a significant contribution to the broader understanding of the functional capacities of the narrative construction of the significant past in social groups more generally.

Further information on this research project can be obtained from Dr. James Hegarty and Dr. Simon Brodbeck

Aims of Project

  • To produce a new monograph on the role of the family history in the shaping of early South Asian understandings of the past as they are reflected in early South Asian literary and inscriptional sources.
  • To organise a workshop that brings together the most influential contemporary scholars of South Asian literature and epigraphy and asks them to address new questions with regard to how the past is conceptualised and regulated in South Asia, ancient, medieval and modern.
  • To produce a special edition of the Religions of South Asia Journal that disseminates the findings of this workshop.
  • To present a series of public lectures on family history in Sanskrit literature which presents project findings in a compelling and user-friendly manner.
  • By means of the above, to influence research and teaching culture in the U.K. such that the originality and significance of the project findings are both acknowledged and extended and developed in subsequent research.
  • To help preserve a range of linguistic competencies (in Sanskrit and Sanskrit-related languages) such that access to one of the great global literatures is sustained and developed in the U.K. Higher Education sector.
  • To establish an interdisciplinary orientation to early South Asian primary source materials both scribal and epigraphic.


Arts & Humanities Research Council 

Project Value



3 Years