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Bettany Hughes: Exploring India’s Treasures Bettany Hughes: Exploring India’s Treasures

In her new mini series, TV presenter and historian Bettany Hughes returns to India and learns how the gifts of nature shape human culture, as she tells Lyn Hughes…
09 July 2023

This is a different approach to your Treasures of the World series. How did it come about? 

We were asked to do this series by [commissioning editor] Shaminder Nahal at Channel 4, who is as passionate about India as I am; I’ve been travelling there for decades. She said India cannot be contained in a single hour so let’s have something a bit more narrative-based and regional. We’ve done North and South India in this series and the hope is we’ll do East and West next.

It’s got ‘Exploring’ in the title and the idea was to cover some of the household names, but try to do those in a different and unexpected way.

With the Taj Mahal, we started in its gardens, because if people think of the gardens they think of that formal stretch of green going up to the famous white building. But actually, it was conceived as a whole landscape involving the river as a replication of paradise. I found it very moving and emotional being in its overgrown secret back gardens, which are open to the public.

 

Bettany is passionate about India and has been travelling there for decades (Channel 4)

Then we wanted to bring in places like Hampi, which not many people know about and is incredible. It was the second biggest city in the world in its time. 

We also wanted to drill down to what connects us across space and time. How you can go to that back garden in the Taj Mahal and feel the grief of Shah Jahan. Or in Varanasi, where I went to look at the depth of antiquity of the rites but got caught up in a very personal experience.

It’s understanding on a very human level why we can still connect, even if we live in different places and different times. 

Bettany was shown places by local experts, curators, and archaeologists (Channel 4)

Varanasi must have been very difficult as you had recently lost your mother and we see your grief on-screen. 

Yes, it was full-on emotional. I’d never really thought about what that ritual is all about. It is specifically saying your ancestors are dissolving back into the cosmos, which sounds incredibly soulful and spiritual but scientifically, we now know that’s true. The atoms don’t evaporate, they just become something else. The crew are like family because we’ve travelled together for so long, and I could see them getting upset as well. It was an incredible honour to be able to grieve in that place. 

Although visiting before, many places in India still surprised Bettany (Channel 4)

India is a huge country with so many potential themes. What threads were you looking for?

Three things make this different from the other series. One is that, without exception, I’m being shown places by local experts, curators and archaeologists, and we spent a lot of time asking them: what’s important? What’s the thing you want to share?

For instance, Arjan in Hampi really wanted to show me the bazaar to see how incredibly hyper-connected, multinational and multicultural it was. So we were led by what people on the ground wanted to share.

Bettany was welcomed by the Toda women (Channel 4)

It was also thinking of themes. Running through both episodes is what we do with the gifts of nature and how that shapes human culture, whether it’s using alluvial river water for the mould for Chola bronzes, or how the earliest mosque in India came from Arab spice traders.

The first programme is about how our inner lives manifest in physical things, particularly different faiths so we touch on Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Sufiism, and the second is about the gifts of nature.

One of Bettany’s favourite places to see was Hampi (Channel 4)

You already knew India well but what surprised you? 

The Golden Temple in Amritsar did. Everywhere we went, we checked whether we had permission because the temple authorities said yes, you’re very welcome, but come as a soulful or inner journey – don’t come as a historian or a blogger. They’ve had influencers and Instagrammers using it like a backdrop.

So I didn’t do any pieces to camera. It was just being there and allowing myself time to feel and to think. I usually talk a lot so to be forced not to was amazing. I probably had 20 cups of lovely masala chai with different people that day. 

The other interesting thing for me was to do with the Romans, because that’s my specialism. They were in love with India and talked about it as an incredibly rich country and, for once, it’s not the Romans being imperialists and taking over a country. It was really lovely during the research to discover the counterpart of the Tamil Kings talking about the Romans coming and saying they’ve got great boats and really nice wine. 

And hearing as we were there that new digs were finding beautiful Roman coins and amphorae. That felt really special.

There’s a wider range of people in this series, not just archaeologists. For instance, you meet with a group of tribal women in the mountains.

It was replicating how I’ve been to India as a traveller and researcher, looking at the stories of women and goddesses. With the Toda women specifically, we asked if we could go to them, because it’s their land, and they were incredibly welcoming. They were pleased I was a woman leading the team because women are very strong in their culture, and delighted I’m a lifelong vegetarian as well. I’ve got curly hair that goes frizzy in tropical places and they were saying: “We have the same problem, and we use buffalo milk to curl our hair.” So we ended up exchanging cosmetic tips. That was the thing we were trying to do: being shown around India by our hosts, the people of India.

You finish in Kerala talking about the spice trade and the cultural influence of spices.

I learned a lot there. I didn’t know chillies were from South America, brought in by the Portuguese. And that because so many men from the early Arabic and Muslim communities were away the whole time on the boats, it became completely normal for the women to run not just their households, but the communities and towns as well. I think it helps being a historian, because I’m forcing myself the whole time to think about this beautiful layer cake of history. 

If you had to pick just one place from the series that our readers should visit, where would it be? 

I’d say Hampi. It’s not easy to get to so the journey is quite exciting as well. Once there, it’s so huge you could spend two weeks exploring and there would still be more to discover.

It tells us about interconnectivity; for instance it has a lovely courtyard palace with carvings of Ottoman Turks, Turkics from Mongolia and local tribes, which tells you about the incredible, cosmopolitan nature of this place, which is now an abandoned ghost town.

It’s so atmospheric and magical. There’s so much you can learn from it and still so much left to explore. 


Exploring India’s Treasures with Bettany Hughes is a two-part series airing from Sunday 9 July 2023. Both episodes will be available to watch on All4.

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