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Chariots and ancient DNA are fine, but history of India has to be about rationality

Mandira Bhattacharya | Updated on: 6 July 2018, 17:36 IST
(Arya Sharma / Catch News)

It is almost a hundred years since the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilisation by RD Banerji and others like MS Vats, D Ram Sahni and John Marshall, the then Director of Archaeology. But since then with continuing discoveries of newer sites, the inferences about the nature of the civilisation has changed over time.

People continue to speculate about its origin, its spread, its uniqueness. Who were these people that built such complex urban centres? Did they speak a language that is similar to any group of the present day languages? Does the script have a following among the present day scripts? These continue to be much debated questions.

The early assumption of the Indus sites being discontinuous with some being pre-Harappan and other being part of it, was changed to an understanding of a continuous civilisation which may be divided into Early, Mature and Late Harappan periods. This was arrived because of the linkages found in the different sites in different periods and thus the 'Swayambhu' (the one who is created by oneself) character of the civilisation as was stated by early historians was settled.

The Indus urban centres, after a full mature phase, show multiple symptoms of decay. The municipal system was falling apart. The drains were covering the roads. The planning had deteriorated into an asystematic affair. Trade too declined. The evidence from Sumer was no longer available. 

In the last phase of the Indus civilisation, archaeologists have discovered new elements in the many artefacts excavated, and called this post-urban phase the Jhukar culture or the Cemetery H culture, which is distinct from the earlier phases of Indus civilisation. 

It was a time of decay of the urban centres. The Indus people probably dispersed beyond. This dispersal took two lines of advance, one passing to the north of the Rajasthan desert and the other to the south. In the south, there were suggestions of several distinct waves of new settlements (The Birth of Indian Civilization, BC Bridget and Raymond Allchin, 1968). 

The imaginative idea that the Vedic people lived or created the Indus valley civilisation is difficult to establish, given that all historical evidence indicates that the Vedic people were mostly pastoralists. They did not know agriculture; even most of the terms in the Vedas used for cultivation are non-Sanskritic in origin, and are words of Dravidian and Munda origin. 

The landscape of the Rig Vedic world was very different from the urban centres of the Indus Valley. Though both the early Vedic and the Indus Valley Civilisations were Bronze-centric, they cannot be said to be linked to each other based on this mere fact.


The most recurrent question that is raised is on the issue of language and script. Did the language and the script of Indus Valley have any link with the Vedic people or the language spoken by them? Scholars of linguistics, of ancient languages, archaeo-linguistics, and of course archaeologists continued hair-splitting discussions on its antiquity and legacy. 

Some over-enthusiastic nationalists such as Tilak (The Arctic Home in the Vedas, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, 1903, Pune) tried to identify it as belonging to the Vedic Aryans and asserted that the Aryans had migrated to India.

But the discovery of the Harappan sites by Marshall led him to the most plausible origin and linking it with the Dravidian speaking Brahuis living in and around West Pakistan. A Dravidian origin of the script has been the most agreed upon formula by scholars like Asko Parpola, Iravatham Mahadevan and many others. But to arrive at a conclusive inference, we still await the discovery of a Rosetta stone with the Indus script.

The Vedas came from the Shruti (what is heard) and Smriti (memory) tradition, an oral tradition strictly preserved within a group of people -- the Brahmanas. The early Vedic people did not practice writing, which is a necessary condition for a civilisation to be called urban.

Writing, as such, appeared much later in India with the Buddhist king Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE. The Vedas were put in writing even much later in the 15th century.

Origin of the Aryans

Where did the Aryans live or where did they come from is a question that has been much debated. The moment a similarity was established between the European and the Vedic languages, history took many interesting turns.

Gordon Childe in 1926 published his book, The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins, which was used by the Nazis to argue about purity of race and justifying the holocaust on the basis of it and making it difficult for Childe to even mention it.

This did not dissuade the scholarly world. The hypotheses that all the Indo-European languages were spoken in a restricted area, somewhere in the Eurasian Steppes or somewhere in Caucasus has not yet been resolved with any amount of certainty.

Not much archaeological evidence in favour of the Rig Vedic people is available. The excavation at Hastinapur in 1950-52 by BB Lal had established the stratigraphy with Ochre Coloured Pottery (OCP) at the bottom followed by the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) and finally the Northern Black Polished Ware.

This established the fact that each layer indicated a settlement of a different group of Indo-Aryan people coming to this region at different points of time with different levels of technological expertise. The last has been connected with the advent of iron in the sub-continent. The date of the use of iron has been fixed to the 1000 BCE.

The migration of the Indo-Europeans to the Indian sub-continent was not a single event. They came in batches over a period of time. Archaeological evidence of the OCP and the copper horde associated cultures -- the PGW people in the fertile plains of the Doab, Gandhara grave cultures from modern day Swat, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the north, along with the Cemetery H culture from Harappa, were probably the settlements of the early Indo-European immigrants.

Diseased Nationalism

Since 1822, hordes of copper implements have been discovered from the Ganga-Yamuna valley. Most of these were chance discoveries. In the early 1950s, several sites in the Ganga-Yamuna valley yielded copper objects of similar nature.

They were discovered along with pottery, now called OCP (Allchins, The Birth of Indian Civilization, 1968, page 200). Many of these hordes contained the Anthropomorphic figure and the Antennae Sword. But the latest discovery of the three 'chariots' along with a copper horde by the ASI at Sinauli village of Baghpat district in Uttar Pradesh has not been reported earlier. The date according to the excavators (2000-1800 BCE) coincides with the dispersal theory.

This find at Rakhigarhi seems to have ignited the sort of 'Diseased nationalism' as famously pointed out by Grahame Clark while condemning the use of archaeology in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy (Archaeology and Society, 1939) among a certain section of the political class today. Rewriting history is central to a nationalist project.

Eric Hobsbawm rightly pointed out that “History is to Nationalism, what poppy is to an opium addict!” The conclusion drawn by some and promoted by others that this find establishes that ‘Aryans’ were inhabitants of the urban Indus civilisation, is seriously far-fetched.

The DNA report of the skeletons discovered at this site needs to be carefully examined to arrive at any conclusive inference. A find such as this does not alone change the archaeological map created by years of toil and sacrifice. Rakhigarhi is a huge site, it has been only partially excavated. The reports have to be scientifically validated to shift dramatically from the existing theories.

But till then, we who rely on rationality and scientific evidence, shall stand by the historically established theory of Bronze Age horse-tamers, with chariots arriving in the subcontinent continuously for a period, probably from Iran; probably with links to the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex located in present-day northern Afghanistan, eastern Turkmenistan, southern Uzbekistan and western Tajikistan, centred on the upper Amu Darya — but surely in the decaying years of the Harappan civilization.

The author retired as Professor of History from North Bengal University, specialising in Ancient Indian History and Archaeology.

First published: 6 July 2018, 17:36 IST