The Week Magazine
July 26, 1998

Looking beyond Indus Valley
Civilisation: New archaeological evidence suggests that the history of civilisation dates to the Rig Vedic people who lived on the banks of the Saraswati long before the Indus Valley

You are on board a flight over Corbu-sier's Chandi-garh. You see a square-shaped city with perfectly parallel and perpendicular roads. The high-rise secretariat to the north gently blends into the lower government buildings which in turn merge with the single and double storey residential houses.

Leading to the vedic past: A storm water drain in the castle at Dholavira which existed 5,300 years ago in Rann of Kutchchh

The Shimla hills and the azure Sukhna lake are on the northern end, and there is greenery on all other sides. Now close your eyes and replace the high-rise secretariat with a fortified castle, and the other high government buildings with a fortified middle castle. There are only single storey houses on roads that are almost no different from those in Chandigarh.

In place of the mountains, the Sukhna lake and the green belt, imagine huge water reservoirs. And then, paint a mental picture of a solid fortification around this spectacular city. The second town is not a blueprint of a town planner's improvement of India's only wholly planned city. It is a real town that would have been bustling with activity some 5,300 years ago, about 250 km from modern-day Bhuj in the Rann of Kutchchh in Gujarat.

The archeologists call it the 'Dholavira excavation'. Archeologists and historians have hailed Dholavira as a Mohenjodaro on this side of the Indo-Pak border, and use it to show the expanse of the Indus Valley civilisation believed to have been destroyed by invading Aryans from Central Asia. But Ravindra Singh Bhist of the Archaeological Survey of India, who led the excavation, saw much more than just another big Harappan city. "It is a virtual reality of what the Rig Veda, the world's oldest literary record, describes," says Bhist, who is also a Sanskrit scholar.

He calls the three levels of the ancient Dholavira city parama, madhyama and avama, meaning highest, middle and lower towns, on the basis of the Vedic concepts, parameshthina, madhyamesthina and avameshtina. He is currently doing a 'compare and contrast study' of what is in the Rig Veda and what he excavated at Dholavira and Banawali. Less than a year ago another archaeologist, Amarendra Nath, exposed an ancient township under Rakhigarhi in the Hisar district of Haryana. Besides typically Harappan features, the experts also found circular and triangular fire pits or altars on the mud floor. "Whether it has Vedic relevance or not I don't know yet, but traditionally they're associated with the Rig Veda," he says. Archaeologist Madhav Acharya who excavated Kunal in Haryana is categorical that it is the Vedic people, and not light-skinned outsiders, who created the Indus Valley civilisation.

The dry Saraswati, which formed a part of the Indus river system, flowed barely 500 yards from the Kunal site. Interestingly, in the site there is a cut in the soil with a V-shaped embankment all the way from what was the river bank, to where the settlement ends. It was probably a moat with four gates built during the final phase of this habitation, and skirts the whole settlement. Of the 226 pottery pieces excavated in Kunal, 131 bear 44 of the 417 known Harappan letters. These finds, says Acharya, prove that the pre-Harappan culture was the mother of the matured Harappan culture.

That is, the people of the Rig Veda, which is replete with references to the Saraswati and Sapta Sindhu, were the people of the Harappan civilisation. Archaeologists like Jagat Pati Joshi, who excavated Surkotda in Gujarat, Bhagwanpura in Haryana and Dhadheri in Punjab, and S.P. Gupta, who has worked on practically all Indus sites in India, no longer prefer to call the Indus Valley civilisation as the Indus-Saraswati civilisation because there are more settlements of the Harappan kind along the Saraswati than along the Indus.

They are among the increasing tribe of archaeologists who have noticed that Harappan sites bear a similarity to what is described in the Vedas, and are suggesting that it is the Vedic people who created the Indus-Saraswati civilisation. These conclusions not only turn conventional wisdom on its head but make history textbooks sound almost silly. Prof B.B. Lal, former director-general of the ASI, agrees that it is time for a rethink. He refutes the theory of Mortimer Wheeler, who excavated Mohenjodaro and Harappa, that invading light-skinned Aryans from Central Asia destroyed the Indus civilisation. Lal disproves the disparity some historians have pointed out between the Harappan civilisation and the Vedic civilisation. The Rig Vedic society was not so utterly rural in contrast with the highly urbanised Harappan civilisation, he maintains.

The horse-of the Indo Aryans-was not missing from the Harappan excavations (the evidence comes from Lothal, Surkotda and Kalibangan) and the Vedic geography coincides with the very domain of the Harappan civilisation. Add to that a biological continuity within the Indus valley from 4500 BC to 800 BC, and "how can one envisage the entry of hordes of Vedic Aryans who are supposed to belong to an alien, non-Harappan biological group, around the middle of the second millennium BC?" Lal asks. Bhagwan Singh, an avid writer on the Indus Valley civilisation, sees the entire Harappan ecology in the Rig Veda. He chides those who have been "using both their brains and chair to save the Vedic Aryans from the Harappan authorship". "Now we have a continuous history of the Indian continent from 7000 BC. But isn't it ironical that we couldn't identify any of the archaeological cultures with literary cultures?" asks an archaeologist who does not want to be identified. He has no doubt that the Rig Vedic Aryans were the authors of the Harappan civilisation.

He points out that the 'outsider theory' gained currency because of a mind-set that the Aryans were primitive pastoral people who could not be identified with such a civilised lot. But now excavations have unsealed evidence of Rig Vedic people's presence in the Indus area, while not throwing up evidence of a material culture of the Aryans, if indeed they were a separate group. "Can a society continue to live without a material culture?" asks this archeologist. In his discourses in the late 50s, the paramacharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Math, Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, had said: "You will find no basis at all in the Vedas and the Sastras for the theory of two races, Aryans and Dravidians...." At a different time, place and context, Swami Vivekananda saw "not one word in our scriptures, not one, to prove that the Aryans ever came from anywhere outside India, and in ancient India was included Afghanistan". Of course, neither was an archaeologist or historian. But excavations conducted by archaeologists in India and Pakistan have thrown up about 1,400 sites, of which about 900 are on this side of the border.

This resulted in serious academic debate among historians and archaeologists on Mortimer Wheeler's Aryan invasion theory. Over the years, Wheeler's story of swashbuckling, horse-riding light-skinned people coming from Central Asia or Central Europe and razing to ground the highly urbanised Harappan civilisation, has become another bed-time story. Predictably, our history books have not updated the obsolete story. However, those who believe that the Aryans of the Rig Veda were the very people who gradually improved their towns and cities, trade, art and craft, writing and living over centuries, prefer to skirt the issue or at best drop hints. One group simply dubs the other RSS-BJP agents wanting to grant the Hindus (people of the Rig Veda) the distinction of creating the splendour that was the ancient civilisation on the subcontinent. And the other, mainly field archaeologists working for the ASI, show the typical government-employee's lack of guts, fearing political persecution among other things. The boldest among them mumble about the "foreign fixation of those who call themselves progressive".

Archaeologists like Bhist have begun to look deep into the Rig Veda when they are not digging the earth. "Like the Harappans, the Aryans show a penchant for standardisation-metres in which verses were to be written, the sequence in which the Gods were to be worshipped, definite prescriptions of what hymns should be recited by whom and when... There are references in the Rig Veda to cities and fortified settlements owned by Aryans. They were invoking their Gods for the protection of their settlements in the same manner in which they prayed for the destruction of the settlements of non-Aryans," he says. Rivers in the Rig Veda were naavya-navigable. French archaeologist Dr Jean-Francois Jarrige, who has worked on Indus sites in India and Pakistan over the last 30 years, does not point to the Rig Vedic people. But his excavations at Mehargarh, Naushera and Perak have brought out an uninterrupted archaeological sequence from 7000 BC to 600 BC when the recorded history of India begins. "The whole civilisation was a matter of internal dynamics... and the region includes India, the area that is now Pakistan, and Afghanistan," he says.

According to Acharya, the Saraswati was never a major river like the Ganga and Yamuna. Yet the Rig Veda praises the river as a Devi, as Mother. Why? Because it must have been the motherland of the Vedic people. And in the last 50 years, so many Harappan sites have been found along the ancient Saraswati-Ghaggar river (Hakra river to the Pakistanis). Also, no other culture has been found on the Saraswati. "When the first Indus site was found, they never tried to find an indigenous identity of its authors. And when it was first felt that they could be the Rig Vedic people, it was rejected because there was no evidence of the horse or the fire altars. But that does not mean subsequent evidence cannot lead to history being opened afresh," elaborates Acharya. He thinks that the Harappan civilisation is best called the Rig Vedic civilisation."

Students have been taught that the Indus civilisation evolved from outside, while saying Saraswati or Rig Vedic will make it clear that it is indigenous." Unfortunately, the authorship of the Harappan world seems to have become less of a historical riddle to be dispassionately worked on, and more an issue of petty politics. The skeletons of the Harappans are threatening to disturb the peace of people centuries removed: should the verdict go in favour of the Rig Vedic Aryans, it would be seen as a denial of credit to the non-Hindus of today, in secular India. Equally it will be seen as depriving the Pakistanis of a hand in that advanced civilisation. Forgetting all the time that many religions of the world had yet to evolve, and the concept of nations as we know today, simply did not exist in the Harappan era. Crazily, a possible verdict in favour of the Rig Vedic Aryans is also viewed as amounting to a shot in the arm for those who pulled down the Babri Masjid and swear by Hindutva!

INTERVIEW: Jean-Francois Jarrige
Harappan civilisation came from an internal dynamic

Jean-Francois Jarrige, member of the French Academy, has carried out extensive work over the last 30 years in the Indian sub-continent. His excavations centre around the Indus civilisation, and he is the excavator of the famous proto-historic site of Mehrgarh (Pakistan). Director of the National Museum of Asiatic Arts of Paris, Jarrige was recently in New Delhi. Excerpts from an interview:

QUESTION: How would you reinterpret the whole Indus Valley civilisation scenario in the light of your excavations in India and Pakistan?
ANSWER: The work we have been conducting on the western side of the Indus and all the work done by Indian archaeologists on the eastern side are giving us a much more comprehensive picture. The Indus Harappan civilisation is a synthesis of many elements. All these features and developments now shown by the Indian archaeologists on the eastern side were not known 30 years ago. Seeing the work at Dholavira, Kalibangan, and our work, we can say that there has been a lot of diversity before 2500 BC. There was an economical dynamic already by 3000 BC and many contacts between the east and west. So it seems that the Harappan civilisation developed from an internal dynamic and this internal dynamic is now to be understood within a much larger framework and comprising data from what is now India and Pakistan.

Question: What is that internal dynamic?
Now we know that by 3000 BC already the craft activities had developed to a level which was not expected before. In the time of Sir Mortimer Wheeler and other old archaeologists, it was felt that there was a gap between this early culture and the Indus culture. There is a change in the scale of the Indus civilisation which is enormous, but it takes its roots in the dynamic of the chalcholitic culture around 3000 BC. Some climatic change may have resulted in the exploitation of the alluvial flood planes like the Indus which led to an increase in agricultural production. It was definitely linked to a tradition which was there earlier. Some Indian archaeologists want to rename it the Saraswati civilisation, and those in Pakistan would prefer to call it Hakra civilisation. I like my Pakistani and Indian colleagues. I think the Hakra and the Saraswati are part of a large-scale process. We should avoid spotting a single place in order to say that it is more Indian than Pakistani because in 2500 BC there was no concept of nation.

Question: Who do you think were the authors of that civilisation?
First of all we have not been able to excavate the lower layer of Mohenjodaro, and many cities, so it is very difficult to know. But we know that by 2600 BC there is a dynamic change. Suddenly the same type of pottery spreading on a large area, and then we have the emergence of the Harappan civilisation. What were the exact reasons, why the whole thing started in 2500 BC we don't know exactly. But we are trying to understand in which context, which background these things occurred. It is very difficult to say such and such group. We know that many sites have been destroyed by floods and what is left today is only a small part.

Souvenirs from another era
Sites like Dholavira and Kunal threw up evidence of a nicely-evolved society

DHOLAVIRA: Excavations at Dholavira, in the Rann of Kutch-chh, unearthed a multi-divisional cityscape of the Harappans, remarkable for its planning. The city had a citadel with two fortified subdivisions, a fortified middle town with spacious houses, and a lower town with densely packed houses, within the general fortification.

Between the middle and lower towns were open grounds and for the first time on an Indus site, there was an outer fortification. Huge reservoirs all around complete with a dam indicated the water harvesting system the people living in the desert of the yore had designed for themselves: Dholavira was located on a sloping terrain between two storm-water channels. The town probably had the world's oldest and biggest stadium, as well as the first sign board: The archaeologists literally unearthed two stadiums, one of which was 284 metres by 48 metres, and discovered on the citadel's northern gate a ten-character inscription.

The stadium was probably the equivalent of the modern-day religious mela ground used for games as well as social functions. The site offered exquisite pottery, clay figurines and animals, beads of lapis lazuli, gold, silver and shell, besides the usual Harappan souvenirs: weights, seals of bulls and unicorns. But the high point of Dholavira is clearly its town planning, architecture, drainage and water management. Apart from reservoirs Dholavira exposed a well not different from the ones we see in some of our villages.

RAKHIGARHI: This site was earmarked for excavation in the 60s, but work began only in December 1997. The intervening years saw people lifting seals and other antiquities and selling them off to foreigners. The first season of excavation has covered very little ground: about 30 metres by 60 metres, small for a Harappan site that has the potential of being another Dholavira. One of the five mounds atop the Harappan site belongs to the wakf board and two are thickly populated. Yet the excavation yielded enormous archaeological evidence: a very good granary, similar to the one at Banawali, was found. One of the cells had real barley.

Lots of other grains were also found. An animal sacrificial pit lined with mud bricks and triangular and circular fire altars on the mud floor have also been excavated. Streets, lanes, and a covered drainage system of the Harappan type are also there. Archaeologists also found hearths containing evidence of shell burning for preparing lime (choona). They have yet to infer whether the residents of Rakhigarhi chewed betel leaves with choona, but lime paste has other uses, and they presume it was used to make paste beads, which have been found.

A circular potter's kiln, waste products of marine shells, conch, waste of semi precious stones, unfinished beads all suggest some kind of crafts specialisation of the people of Rakhigarhi, who also seem to have brought lapiz beads from Afghanistan and conch from Kutchchh. "They must have had extra regional contacts," infers archaeologist Amrendranath. A copper fishing hook and plenty of animal bones have been found. While the identification process is still on, bones of buffaloes, goats, neelgai, antelope, peacocks have been confirmed. Among the metal objects are gold beads, a gold head band, a white metal bangle, possibly of silver, and copper bangles. A cylindrical seal with five Harappan characters on one side and a symbol of an alligator on the other is an unusual find from this Harappan site.

Among the terra-cotta, animal figurines outnumber others: they include cattle stock, and seals of dogs with collars. They found a few human figures that were crude as also some balance, weights, utensils. One of the mounds has yielded extended burials, but without the associated finds like pots and pans. "What is bothering us is that below the burial levels, we have found regular habitational deposit. It shows that at a very late stage, the site was deserted and used as a burial ground." says Amrendranath. The five mounds by themselves make Rakhigarhi unique, though they are interconnected. "It seems some site had the grid iron, identical planning. And some like Banawali and Rakhigarhi had different kind of planning," he adds.

KUNAL: Excavations in Kunal on the banks of the ancient-now dry-Saraswati, in Haryana, exposed three phases of habitation of early Harappan culture. In the earliest phase man lived in pits, in the next the pits were lined with mud bricks, and finally the bricks were piled one on top of the other, and houses were square and rectangular in shape. Among the important things found were two silver crowns with a tiara each, an armlet, a necklace, some bangles, six disc-shaped gold beads weighing a total of 34 grams, and more than 12,000 beads of semi-precious stones like carnelian, agate, steatite, shell, and lapis lazuli. Pre-Harappan and Harappan are not two different cultures, but one continuing process of a single civilisation, excavations at Kunal have shown. Typically, the pre-Harappan phase is marked by the absence of seals and writing. The patterns on the pottery were geometrical, biochrom paintings in black and white. The dimension of bricks was 1x2x3, and there was no sign of the peepal leaf. There were no triangular terra-cotta cakes to be seen. In the Harappan culture there were seals and utensils with writing, pottery carried motifs of trees, plants, birds, animals and fish, and the dimension of the brick was 1x2x4. Peepal leaf was a standard motif, and triangular and other terra-cotta cakes were strewn on many Harappan sites. In Kunal, archaeologists found all these in one go! There were seals without scripts, but pottery with graffiti from which have clearly evolved many of their scripts. There were geometric patterns as well as natural motifs like peacocks, cranes, bull, and a variety of peepal leaves. Bricks of the pre-Harappan type were found in the second phase and the third phase has houses each of which has used both types of bricks. "Kunal demonstrates the technological development of a culture over a time period," says archaeologist Acharya.

Change that chapter
ONCE upon a time, there lived in Mohenjodaro and Harappa on the Indus Valley a highly organised and urbanised people. Their towns and cities were so well planned that we have not been able to replicate that in India today. Their residences were in blocks and their drainages were far superior to the dirty open nullahs you see in Amritsar or Delhi. They had private granaries, forts and fortifications, sprawling upper, middle and lower towns. They were great mariners, manufacturing goods and trading them far and near. They may not have had currency, but their seals, pottery, arts and crafts suggest that they had a sense of mathematical proportion, standardisation, precision and a writing system. Overnight, their towns were destroyed, and they were driven out, probably by a hoard of horse-riding, fair-skinned aliens. Then followed the Dark Ages, till the birth of Buddha in 600 BC. That is roughly what children learn about ancient Indian history. There is not a clue in the textbooks as to who built that fabulous civilisation, and where they came from. And why did the aliens destroy the towns instead of occupying them? The chapter on the Indus Valley civilisation, and much of ancient Indian history, has to be rewritten, say archaeologists who have been working on the Harappan sites.

The lesson being taught is based only on the excavation of Mohenjodaro and Harappa, the first Indus sites to come to light, in 1921-22. Excavations in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in the last 50 years have shown that the Indus Valley civilisation was not just the story of two towns, it touched Manda on the Beas in the north, Bhagattrao on the Tapti in Maharashtra, stretched to Alamgir on the Hindon in the east, and in the west to Satkangedor near eastern Iran! An area of 1.25 million square kilometres. The civilisation included metros like Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Ghaneriwala (in Pakistan), Dholavira and Rakhigarhi; towns like Lothal, Surkotda, Banawali and Kalibangan, and villages like Kunal. The excavations exposed not just a town or city, but an earlier settlement beneath it, and an even earlier one further down. According to archaeologist Ravindra Singh Bhist (pic: above), before the mature Harappan stage, many regional cultures-Amri, Kot dirji, Kalibangan, Dholavira and Lothal-had coalesced into the cultural umbrella of Harappa. They were strongly bound by common economic compulsions, system and cultural ethos. Could it have been an internal conflict-a civil war of sorts-that brought them to ruin? Bhist says: "Every raja wanted to be the emperor. And so the break-up. And now we have the continuous history of India, from 7000 BC to 600 BC to date. No dark ages." History books have to be revised not only in the context of the Harappan culture, but also other things, these archaeologists suggest. "If we followed history books, the whole civilisation would start and end with Harappa and Mohenjodaro," says Amarendranath. "Nobody teaches students about Kalibangan, which was exposed in the early 60s." He also laments the fact that there is no matching of literature and excavations.


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