We in India often take pride in Indian civilization, in its
ancientness and great cultural traditions that go back to
the dawn of ages. This is a legitimate feeling, if you consider
that Americans or Australians, for instance, often take even
greater pride in their countries though they are about two
centuries old ; of course, their pride has to be mostly in
their material achievements, since they have had little to
show by way of culture, especially nowadays. India, by contrast,
always laid stress on a deep culture before anything else,
and yet, contrary to a common misconception, she never neglected
material life either, except in recent centuries.
I would like to offer tonight some glimpses of the earliest
civilization on the Indian subcontinent, and to show that
its high practicality, and what we may call in our modern
language its technological accomplishments, deserve
our admiration, as does the cultural backdrop that made these
accomplishments possible. I will also take a brief look at
its relationship with later Indian civilization, and that
will lead us to what is commonly known as the Aryan
problem. In doing so, we will be guided by an objective
scientific spirit, taking into account the most recent findings
from archaeology and other fields.
But first, let me note a strange fact. If you open
any good book on the great civilizations of the ancient world,
aimed not at scholars but at a wider readership, you will
almost invariably find that Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt
are given pride of place ; then come, in mixed order, ancient
China, Greece, Central and South America, and the Indus Valley
civilization, also called the Harappan civilization. Everyone
agrees that this early civilization of the Indian subcontinent
was one of the largest in extent, that it made great advances
in crafts and technology, in trade and agriculture, and that
its social organization appears to have been one of the most
efficient, methodical and trouble-free ever ; still, in the
end, it will rarely be given more than a few pages where dozens
will be devoted to Mesopotamia or Egypt, and today, more than
seventy years after its discovery, its existence and accomplishments
remain largely unknown to the general public outside the subcontinent
and inside, too.
In fact, almost everything about the Harappan civilization
appears mysterious at first sight : Who were its inhabitants
? What language did they speak ? What beliefs and culture
did they have ? What type of government was able to hold it
together ? What caused its decline ? Why were its great cities
abandoned ? Did great natural calamities take place, or should
we blame wars or invoke some invasions ? And also : What connection
is there between this ancient civilization and those that
followed on Indian soil, in the plains of the Ganga, for example
? Is there a complete break between the two, as some Western
scholars assert, or can what we call Indian civilization be
traced all the way back to the Indus valley ?
Archaeologists, historians and experts from other fields
have been largely unable to agree on these fundamental questions.
One reason for this is the persisting lack of unanimity on
the various decipherments proposed for the Indus script, found
on thousands of seals and pottery pieces excavated from Harappan
towns and cities. So their inhabitants remain dumb to us,
their thoughts and culture unfathomable we are left
to admire their material skills, while scholars indulge in
educated guesses on the significance of the statues
unearthed, the figures engraved on the seals, the modes of
burial, of government, and virtually every aspect of Harappan
life. Another reason is the very small number of sites excavated,
one to two per cent of all sites identified as Harappan ;
this means we have barely scratched the surface, and many
major findings are awaiting us a few metres underground. To
give just two examples, the site of Ganweriwala, in the Cholistan
region of Pakistan, is estimated to cover eighty hectares,
while that of Lakhmirwala, in Indias Punjab, is thought
by the Indian archaeologist J.P. Joshi to exceed 225 hectares
but neither has been excavated. A third reason has
been the nineteenth-century hypothesis of an Aryan invasion
into India, which insisted on placing the origins of Indian
civilization somewhere in Central Asia, and therefore left
the discovery in the 1920s of the Indus Valley civilization
wrapped in a cloud of confusion.
As a result, till a few years ago, the Harappan world was
mostly presented as anonymous and rather disembodied, with
little to excite our imagination in the way Egypts pyramids
do. As one of those general books I mentioned puts it, The
birth, life and death of the Indus civilization remain three
Not very encouraging. But the scene is fast changing : a lot
of path-breaking excavations have taken place in recent years,
for example at Mehrgarh and Harappa, both now in Pakistan,
and in India at Dholavira and Rakhigarhri. Also, in the last
three years or so, a number of excellent new studies have
appeared on the Indus Valley civilization, written by Indian,
American and British archaeologists.Scholars
from other disciplines
have joined them sometimes also challenged them
some old misconceptions are giving way, and a clearer picture
is slowly emerging. In a few years from now, we can expect
this civilization to take its rightful place as one of the
greatest of the ancient world, with most of its enigmas
dispelled. Today, let us just try to take stock.
Some of the main sites of the Harappan
Note the concentration along the dry bed of the Sarasvati.
The most physical data about the Harappan civilization are
clear enough : As of last year, it was said to comprise more
than 1,500 settlements, most of them small villages or towns,
with only a few large cities. Some of the villages
covered more than twenty hectares ; the cities, in comparison,
often extended over some eighty hectares Mohenjo-daro
up to 250 hectares, about the size of the entire I.I.T. campus
where we are gathered tonight. However, new sites are added
every week or month, and the U.S. archaeologist Gregory L.
Possehl, in a just published monumental study,
gives a detailed list of 2,600 Harappan sites ! What the final
figure will be is anyones guess.
The total area encompassed was huge : over one million square
kilometres more than ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia
put together, or, if you prefer, eight times the size of Tamil
Nadu. The southern limit was between the Tapti and the Godavari
rivers, while the northern limit was some 1,400 kilometres
away in Kashmir (at Manda) though one site, Shortughai,
is found still farther up, in Afghanistan ; as of now, the
easternmost settlement stands at Alamgirpur in Western Uttar
Pradesh, and the western limits were the Arabian sea and the
whole Makran coast, almost all the way to the present Pakistan-Iran
If this civilization was named after the Indus, it is because
the first major settlements, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, were
found along that river and its tributary, the Ravi. However,
in recent decades, exploration on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan
border has brought to light hundreds of sites along the dry
bed of a huge river in the Ghaggar-Hakra valley.
This lost river is now widely recognized to have been the
legendary Sarasvati praised in the Rig-Veda (which also mentioned
the Indus, or Sindhu, and all other major rivers
of Punjab). The course of the Sarasvati, south of and broadly
parallel to that of the Indus, has been studied and plotted
in some detail not only by geological exploration, but also
by satellite photography and recently by radioisotope dating
of the water still found under the rivers dry bed in
the Rajasthan desert.
Since the sites found along the Sarasvati far outnumber those
in the Indus basin, some scholars have made the point that
the Harappan civilization would be better named the Indus-Sarasvati
civilization. For instance, the giant sites of Ganweriwala
and Lakhmirwala which I mentioned earlier are located on the
course of the Sarasvati, as are the better known settlements
of Kalibangan and Banawali. Of course, the name Indus-Sarasvati
civilization still leaves out a number of sites in Gujarat,
such as Lothal, but it stresses the importance of the Sarasvati
river as the major lifeline of this civilization, the Indus
coming a close second.
Whatever its name, when we speak of this civilization, we
usually mean its mature phase (also called integration
era), during which the great cities such as Mohenjo-daro,
Harappa, Ganweriwala, Rakhigahri, Dholavira and others flourished.
That phase is now usually dated 2600-1900 BC. But it was of
course not born in a day : it was preceded by a long phase
called early Harappan or regionalization
era, during which villages kept developing and started
interacting, and also many technologies (pottery, metallurgy,
farming etc.) were perfected ; that early phase is now dated
by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, a U.S. archaeologist who has worked
on many Indus sites, 5000-2600 BC. It was itself the result
of a long evolution between 7000 and 5000 BC, which saw the
emergence of the first village farming communities and pastoral
camps (as in many other regions of the world) : Mehrgarh,
at the foot of the Bolan Pass in the Kachi plain of Baluchistan,
is the best known example ; according to its excavator, the
French archaeologist Jean-François Jarrige, The
site covers an area of about 500 acres [200 hectares] with
only pre-Harappan remains and shows evidence of
continuous occupation for more than three millennia prior
to the Harappan civilization.
The end of the mature phase is usually dated 1900 BC, when
most of the cities were gradually abandoned ; their remarkable
civic organization broke down, forcing people to go back to
the villages. The most probable cause was a series of natural
catastrophes earthquakes, drastic changes in river
courses, consequent depletion of the Sarasvati, floods, but
also a long drought over the whole region (including West
Asia), all of which ravaged agriculture, and perhaps also
excessive deforestation to supply wood to kilns and furnaces.
Another likely factor is a sharp reduction in external trade,
especially with Mesopotamia. But, while earlier generations
of scholars spoke of a total break in Indian civilization
as a result of this decline, archaeologists now agree that
another phase, called post-Harappan, post-urban or also localization
era, and dated about 1900-1300 BC, followed, and went
on to provide a smooth transition to the first historical
states in the Ganga region.
What impressed the first discoverers of Harappan cities most
was their sophistication, which displayed town-planning of
a level that would be found only 2000 years later in Europe.
Geometrically designed, the towns had fortifications (for
protection against both intruders and floods), several distinct
quarters, assembly halls, and manufacturing units of various
types ; some bigger cities had furnaces for the production
of copper tools, weapons or ornaments ; public baths (probably
often part of temples), private baths for most inhabitants,
sewerage through underground drains built with precisely laid
bricks, and an efficient water management with numerous reservoirs
and wells show that the ordinary inhabitant was well taken
care of. Mohenjo-daro, for instance, is thought to have had
over 700 wells, some of them fifteen metres deep, built with
special trapezoid bricks (to prevent collapse by the pressure
of the surrounding soil), and maintained for several centuries.
Quite a few of those wells were found in private houses. Dholavira
had separate drains to collect rain water and six or seven
dams built across nearby rivers. The fact that even
smaller towns and villages had impressive drainage systems,
remarks Kenoyer, indicates that removing polluted water
and sewage was an important part of the daily concerns of
the Indus people.
I am sure that many of our villages in todays rural
India would be quite happy with such an infrastructure
maybe the candidates at present roaming our dusty roads in
search of votes should study Harappan public amenities !
Drains from individual houses
empty into a covered collective drain in Mohenjo-daro.
The well-known Indian archaeologist, B. B. Lal, writes in
a recent comprehensive study of this civilization :
Well-regulated streets [were] oriented almost invariably
along with the cardinal directions, thus forming a grid-iron
pattern. [At Kalibangan] even the widths of these streets
were in a set ratio, i.e. if the narrowest lane was one
unit in width, the other streets were twice, thrice and
so on. [...] Such a town-planning was unknown in contemporary
The houses were almost always built with mud bricks (sometimes
fired in kilns), which followed a standard ratio of 4 :2 :1,
though the actual sizes varied : bricks for houses, for instance,
might be 28 x 14 x 7 cm, while for fortification walls they
could be 36 x 18 x 9 cm or even bigger. Walls were on average
seventy centimetres thick (which I suppose would be nearly
three times the thickness of your hostel walls), and many
houses were at least two storeys high. A few houses, perhaps
those of rulers or wealthy traders, were particularly large,
with up to seven rooms, but they might be found right next
to a craftsmans modest house. A number of big buildings,
such as that around Mohenjo-daros Great Bath,
seem to have served a community purpose, sometimes perhaps
that of temples. Dholavira, in Kutch, even boasts a huge maidan.
It also has massive fortification walls, some of them as thick
as eleven metres, built in the earliest stage of the city
; apart from standardized bricks, stones were also used there
on a large scale, undressed as well as dressed (note that
stones were perfectly dressed with just copper tools : iron
was not yet known).
of one area of Mohenjo-daro (HR area),
as an example of complex town-planning 4,500 years ago.
The Harappans were expert craftsmen. They made beads of carnelian,
agate, amethyst, turquoise, lapis lazuli, etc. ; they manufactured
bangles out of shells, glazed faience and terracotta ; they
carved ivory and worked shells into ornaments, bowls and ladles
; they cast copper (which they mined themselves in Baluchistan
and Rajasthan) and bronze for weapons, all types of tools,
domestic objects and statues (such as the famous dancing
girl) ; they also worked silver and gold with great
skill, specially for ornaments. Of course, they baked pottery
in large quantity to the delight of archaeologists,
since the different shapes, styles, and painted motifs are
among the best guides in the evolution of any civilization
(let us remember that most objects made of cloth, wood, reed,
palm leaves etc., usually vanish without a trace, especially
in hot climates). We also know that the Harappans excelled
at stone-carving, complex weaving and carpet-making, inlaid
woodwork and decorative architecture. And, of course, they
engraved with remarkable artistry their famous seals, mostly
in steatite (or soapstone) ; those seals, over 3,000 of which
have been found, seem to have served various purposes : some
commercial, to identify consignments to be shipped, and some
ritual or spiritual, to invoke deities.
Dancing, painting, sculpture, and music (there is evidence
of drums and of stringed instruments) were all part of their
culture. Possibly drama and puppet shows too, judging from
a number of masks. Statues are not abundant, but refined,
whether in stone, bronze or terracotta. An ancestor of the
game of chess has been unearthed at Lothal. Children too were
not forgotten, judging from the exquisite care with which
toys were fashioned.
A probable ancestor of the game of chess (in terracotta,
In addition to a considerable internal trade in metals,
stones and all kinds of goods, the Harappans had a flourishing
overseas trade with Oman, Bahrain, and Sumer ; exchanges with
the Sumerians went on for at least seven centuries, and merchant
colonies were established in Bahrain and the Euphrates-Tigris
valley. Of course, none of this would have been possible without
high skills in ship-making and sailing, and several representations
of ships have been found on seals, while many massive stone
anchors have come up at Lothal and other sites of Saurashtra.
For navigation, compasses carved out of conch shells appear
to have been used to measure angles between stars. A voyage
from Lothal to Mesopotamia to sell the prized Harappan carnelian
beads, which the kings and queens of Ur were so fond of, meant
at least 2,500 kilometres of seafaring ; of course there would
have been halts along the shore on the way, but still, 4,500
years ago this must have ranked among the best sailing abilities.
The other, perhaps the chief mainstay of Harappan prosperity
was agriculture. It was practised on a wide scale, with hundreds
of rural settlements and extensive networks of canals for
irrigation ; wheat, barley, rice, a number of vegetables,
and cotton were some of the common crops. Mehrgarh, for instance,
shows a veritable agricultural economy solidly established
as early as 6000 BC.
Kalibangan even yielded a field ploughed with two perpendicular
networks of furrows, in which higher crops (such as mustard)
were grown in the spaced-out north-south furrows, thus casting
shorter shadows, while shorter crops (such as gram) filled
the contiguous east-west furrows. As B. B. Lal has shown,
this is a technique still used today in the same region.
Any society capable of town-planning, shipping, refined arts
and crafts, writing, sustained trading, necessarily has to
master a good deal of technology. This was also the case here.
Craftsmen often used standardized tools and techniques, especially
for the more complex productions. A highly standardized system
of stone weights, unique in the ancient world, was found not
only throughout the Harappan settlements, but also two thousand
years later in the first kingdoms of the Ganga plains. (The
weights were mostly cubes, but sometimes also truncated spheres.)
The first seven weights in the system followed a geometrical
progression, with ratios of 1 : 2 : 4 : 8 : 16 (by which time
the weight had reached 13.7g) : 32 : 64, after which the increments
switched to a decimal system and went 160, 200, 320, 640,
1600, 3200, 6400, 8000 and 12,800. The largest weight found
in Mohenjo-daro is 10,865 grams. Now, if you divide its corresponding
ratio of 12,800 by the ratio 16, you get 800 ; multiply this
figure by the weight of 13.7 g found for the 16th ratio, and
you get a theoretical weight of 10,960g a difference
of only 95g with the actual weight, or less than 0.9% ! I
dont think the weights used today in our markets reach
such precision, not to speak of those traders who get their
weights tailor-made !
In fact, the Harappans very much seem to be the inventors
of the first decimal system for measurement. Their town-planning,
which makes much use of geometry, partly relied on this decimal
system. Let me quote from S. R. Rao, an Indian archaeologist
famous for his excavations at Lothal and his undersea discoveries
at Dwaraka and Poompuhar ; he comments here on an ivory scale
found at Lothal, engraved with nearly thirty divisions regularly
spaced every 1.704 mm :
It is the smallest division ever recorded on a scale
of the Bronze Age. The width of the wall of the Lothal dock
is 1.78 m [i.e. 1,000 such divisions ... and] the length
of the east-west wall of the dock is twenty times its width.
Obviously the Harappan engineers followed the decimal division
of measurement for all practical purposes...
I should point out that apart from the continuance of the
Indus weight system or agricultural methods into the historic
period, archaeologists have often highlighted how traditional
craftsmen today in Sindh, Punjab, Rajasthan or Gujarat still
use techniques in bead-making or shell-working, for
instance very similar to those evolved in Harappan
times more than 4,500 years ago. Even some buildings techniques
are still in use, as B. B. Lal has pointed out.
But however impressive those technological achievements may
be (and there are many others), we should remember that they
were not separate activities, but always blended with the
cultural life of the Harappan world. As Kenoyer remarks,
Symbols of Indus religion and culture were incorporated into
pottery, ornaments and everyday tools in a way that helped
to unite people within the urban centers and link them with
distant rural communities.
What we have seen so far, and very briefly, is only
the most visible features of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization.
The internal and external mechanics of such a society are
infinitely complex, and will no doubt keep archaeologists
racking their brains for some more time. For example, while
a few of them see the Harappan political organization as an
empire, with Mohenjo-daro as the seat of the emperor and a
number of governors in the regional capitals,
others are in favour of regional states, in view of the difficulty
posed by a single central authority over such vast distances
without our modern communications. Those regional states would
have had identities of their own (as evidenced from regional
variations in arts and crafts), but they would all have been
united by a common culture, and also by a common language
(regardless of possible regional dialects). B. B. Lal, for
instance, brings a parallel between the Harappan society and
the Sixteen States or Mahajanapadas of later Buddhist times.
This hypothesis is strengthened by the lack of any glorification
or even representation of rulers on the seals ; even the few
sculptures of human figures found at Mohenjo-daro cannot be
said to represent rulers with any great certainty.
Whatever the truth may be, a few clear points stand out and
meet with general agreement :
First, a remarkable civic organization, which allowed
streets in big cities to be free from any encroachment for
centuries together (can our present Indian cities claim
the same for just a few weeks ?). And let us remember that
Mohenjo-daro is thought to have sheltered at least 50,000
inhabitants almost a megalopolis for those times.
Secondly, a complete absence of any evidence of armies or
warfare or slaughter or man-made destruction in any settlement
and at any point of time, even as regards the early phase.
Not a single seal depicts a battle or a captive or a victor.
True, there were fortifications and weapons (the latter rather
few), but those were probably to guard against local tribes
or marauders rather than against people from other cities
and villages. Fortifications were also often protections against
floods, and weapons must have been used mostly for hunting.
So far as the archaeological record shows, major disruptions
in the cities life were caused by natural calamities.
In no other ancient civilization is warfare so absent, and
over such a long period of time ; by contrast, other civilizations
of the time consistently recorded and glorified war feats.
And our own modern civilization, I need not remind
you, is the bloodiest ever : a few days ago, a United Nations
report lamented the existence of more than 500 million small
arms in circulation that means one gun or semi-automatic
weapon for every ten of us....
Thirdly, archaeologists now agree that the origins of the
Indus-Sarasvati civilization are to be found on the subcontinent
itself. It no doubt had extensive cultural and commercial
contacts with other civilizations, but its identity was distinct.
In the words of Jim G. Shaffer, a U.S. archaeologist who has
worked on many Indus sites :
It is time to view the archaeological data for what
it is, and not what one thinks it is. Recent studies are
just beginning to indicate the real importance of Harappan
studies, showing that in South Asia, a unique experiment
in the development of urban, literate culture, was under
way. Such a culture was highly attuned to local conditions
and not a mirror of Mesopotamias urban experiment....
The Indus-Sarasvati civilization thus represented a long
indigenous evolution, spanning almost 6,000 years, and with
no visible break or disruption from outside. By any standard,
this is a unique achievement in human history.
But let us not forget that no society can survive long without
a culture to cement its members together and make their lives
meaningful. The very fact that the Indus-Valley civilization
was able to hold together for three millennia (if we include
its early phase), over an immense stretch of land, and with
all the signs of social harmony and stability, shows that
it must have had a deep and strong culture as its foundation.
Let us now try to catch a glimpse of it.
The relationship of the Indus-Saraswati civilization
with the later Indian civilization remains a subject of debate.
Most of you probably learned at school that the Harappan towns
were destroyed by semi-barbarian Aryans rushing down from
Central Asia on their horse chariots, and that the survivors
among their inhabitants, assumed to have been Dravidians,
were driven to South India by the invaders. Passages from
the Rig-Veda were twisted and sometimes mistranslated to show
a record of such a physical and cultural clash. In many respects,
this is still the official theory, although, since
the 1960s, when the U.S. archaeologist G. F. Dales demolished
all supposed evidence of such attacks and slaughter, the theory
has limited itself to saying that the supposed Aryans, or
Indo-Aryans or Indo-Europeans, to use the present terminology,
entered North India after the collapse of the Harappan civilization.
But you may be surprised to learn that most archaeologists
now reject this invasion or migration theory, as they cannot
find the slightest trace of it on the ground, and it is unthinkable
that the supposed Aryans could have conquered most of India
and imposed on it their Vedic culture without leaving any
physical evidence of any sort. Even respected archaeologists
of the old school of thought, such as Raymond and Bridget
Allchin, now admit that the arrival of Indo-Aryans in Northwest
India is scarcely attested in the archaeological record,
presumably because their material culture and life-style were
already virtually indistinguishable from those of the existing
We are very far from the bloody invasion and cultural war
envisaged by Max Müller and other nineteenth-century
But even this tempered view is no longer acceptable to the
new school, whose foundation can be said to have
been laid in 1984 by Jim Shaffer. He wrote :
Current archaeological data do not support the existence
of an Indo-Aryan or European invasion into South Asia any
time in the pre- or protohistoric periods. Instead, it is
possible to document archaeologically a series of cultural
changes reflecting indigenous cultural developments from
prehistoric to historic periods.
Kenoyer, whom I quoted earlier, concludes in his recent beautiful
Many scholars have tried to correct this absurd theory
[of an Aryan invasion], by pointing out misinterpreted basic
facts, inappropriate models and an uncritical reading of
Vedic texts. However, until recently, these scientific and
well-reasoned arguments were unsuccessful in rooting out
the misinterpretations entrenched in the popular literature.
[...] But there is no archaeological or biological evidence
for invasions or mass migrations into the Indus Valley between
the end of the Harappan Phase, about 1900 BC and the beginning
of the Early Historic period around 600 BC.
I could quote similar opinions from many respected Indian
archaeologists such as B. B. Lal, S. R. Rao, S. P. Gupta,
Dilip K. Chakrabarty, K. M. Srivastava, M. K. Dhavalikar,
R. S. Bisht and others. The point is that the theory of an
Aryan invasion or even migration into India finds no evidence
on the ground and has no scientific basis whatsoever.
The biological evidence Kenoyer refers to relies on the detailed
examination of skeletons found in Harappan settlements. Kenneth
A. R. Kennedy, a U.S. expert who has extensively studied such
skeletal remains, observes :
Biological anthropologists remain unable to lend support
to any of the theories concerning an Aryan biological or
demographic entity [...]. What the biological data demonstrate
is that no exotic races are apparent from laboratory studies
of human remains excavated from any archaeological sites
[...]. All prehistoric human remains recovered thus far
from the Indian subcontinent are phenotypically identifiable
as ancient South Asians. [...] In short, there is no evidence
of demographic disruptions in the north-western sector of
the subcontinent during and immediately after the decline
of the Harappan culture.
I hope you understand the implication : No invasion or migration
caused or followed the collapse of the urban phase of the
Indus-Sarasvati civilization around 1900 BC. What is still
taught in our textbooks about so-called Aryans is no more
than imagination. The Harappans were just Northwestern Indians
of the time and continued to live there even after the end
of the urban phase (with some of them migrating towards the
Ganga plains in search of greener pastures). In fact, archaeologists
and anthropologists now reject the old notion of race altogether.
To quote from Possehls recent book which I mentioned
Race as it was used in the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries has been totally discredited as a useful concept
in human biology. [...] There is no reason to believe today
that there ever was an Aryan race that spoke Indo-European
languages and was possessed with a coherent and well-defined
set of Aryan or Indo-European cultural features.
simple terms, this means that, for science, there is no such
thing as an Aryan race, or a Dravidian race for that matter.
Nor is there for Indian tradition, in which the word Arya
never meant a race, but a quality of true nobility, culture
and refinement. And so, if no Aryan people invaded or entered
into India, it stands to reason that the Vedic culture was
also native to the subcontinent, and not an import. In fact,
quite a few scholars and archaeologists today see a number
of clear Vedic traits in the Harappan culture. To cite a few
: the presence of fire-altars, an essential element of Vedic
rituals ; the symbol of a bull engraved on hundreds of seals,
a Vedic symbol par excellence ; the cult of a mother-goddess,
of a Shiva-like deity, the depiction of yogic postures, and
of yogis or sages (judging from his deeply contemplative appearance,
the so-called priest-king was more likely a yogi
or a rishi than a priest). The famous Unicorn and the three-headed
creature, both depicted on many Indus seals, are mentioned
in the Mahabharata as aspects of Krishna, as N. Jha, an Indian
epigraphist, has shown. Indeed, quite a few symbols used in
later Indian culture, such as the trishul or the swastika,
the pipal tree or the endless-knot design, are found in the
Indus-Saraswati cities. Even its town-planning with three
main distinct areas is consistent with Rig-Vedic descriptions,
as the Indian archaeologist R. S. Bisht has argued.
So are trade and shipping, also extensively mentioned in the
(Clockwise from top left :)
A terracotta figurine from Harappa, in a yoga posture;
seals depicting a Shiva-like deity, a unicorn, and a bull.
Moreover, let us remember the hundreds of settlements along
the Sarasvati, a river praised in the Rig-Veda, which confirms
again the identification between Harappans and Vedic people.
The decipherment of the Indus script would of course be the
ultimate test. I will just mention here that while attempts
to read some proto-Dravidian language into it have failed
and are now abandoned, there has been progress among those
who see the language thus written to be related to Sanskrit.
N. Jhas decipherment, proposed recently, appears to
be the most promising, simple and consistent, and once a major
study of it is published shortly,
we can expect a lively debate among scholars to decide its
I am not touching here on a number of related issues, such
as the linguistic problem posed by a deep similarity between
Sanskrit and most European languages, since the verdict of
archaeological evidence is, to my mind, quite sufficient.
Let me recommend to those interested a brilliant study by
a young Belgian scholar and expert on India, Koenraad Elst,
just published in India under the title Update on the Aryan
Invasion Debate. In it, he discusses most of those issues
threadbare and shows in particular that this linguistic affinity
can very well be explained without any sort of Aryan invasion.
One more remark before I conclude : Archaeological evidence
in no way contradicts Indian tradition, rather it broadly
agrees with it (except for its chronology). Whether from North
or South India, tradition never mentioned anything remotely
resembling an Aryan invasion into India. Sanskrit scriptures
make it clear that they regard the Vedic homeland to be the
Saptasindhu, which is precisely the core of the Harappan territory.
As for the Sangam tradition, it is equally silent about any
northern origin of the Tamil people ; its only reference is
to a now submerged island to the south of India, Kumari Kandam,
and initial findings at Poompuhar show that, without our having
to accept this legend literally, we may indeed find a few
submerged cities along Tamil Nadus coast ; only more
systematic explorations, especially at Poompuhar and Kanyakumari,
where fishermen have long reported submerged structures, can
throw more light on this tradition.
Not only Indian tradition, but a number of Indians with a
far better understanding of Vedic texts than that of Western
scholars, for example Swami Vivekananda, Swami Dayananda Saraswati,
Sri Aurobindo, B. R. Ambedkar and many others, have vigorously
dismissed the Aryan invasion as a groundless conjecture intended
to divide Indians for colonial motives. They have correctly
argued that the Indian people have no memory or record of
any such outside origin, and archaeology is now increasingly
confirming their insights.
I will end where I began. Would it be chauvinistic
(to use a word our modern Indian intellectuals are so fond
of) to attribute the greatness of the Indus-Sarasvati civilization
to the Indian genius ? I do not think so. Apart from its striking
cultural continuity with subsequent developments of Indian
civilization, which makes up a total thread of 9,000 years,
it exhibits traits typical of the Indian temperament : a bold
enterprising spirit, a remarkable adaptability to changing
conditions, a cultural and spiritual content in the smallest
everyday activities, and, most importantly, a capacity for
a broader view, without which this huge area could not have
had such a cultural homogeneity free from major conflicts.
Even its remarkable civic sense, so lacking in todays
India, is yet part of the Indian character ; I have observed
that Indians are quite capable of it, but contrary to well-disciplined
Western peoples (the British or the Germans, for instance),
Indians will accept collective discipline only once their
hearts have been conquered ; mere authority and rules cannot
get it out of them.
All said and done, the people of the Indian subcontinent
can justifiably claim this ancient civilization as a central
and inspiring part of their heritage. But they should not
forget to learn from it the great lesson of the cycles of
birth, life, decay, and rebirth of Indian civilization, a
lesson we need to keep in our minds especially at the present
Whitehouse & John Wilkins, LAube des Civilisations
(Dawn of Civilization, Paris : Bordas, 1987),
See in the Bibliography titles under Allchin, Gupta, Kenoyer,
Lal, Mughal, Possehl, Radhakrishnan and Rao.
See in the Bibliography titles under Elst, Feuerstein, Frawley,
Jha and Rajaram.
See Bibliography under Possehl, 1999.
See Bibliography under Mughal.
See detailed study in S. M. Rao and K. M. Kulkarni, Isotope
hydrology studies on water resources in Western Rajasthan,
Current Science, 10 January 1997.
Jean-François Jarrige, Excavations at Mehrgarh
in Harappan Civilization, ed. Gregory L. Possehl (New Delhi
: Oxford & IBH, 1993), p. 79 ff.
Kenoyer, 1998, p. 61.
Lal, 1997, p. 95.
Jean-François Jarrige, De lEuphrate à
lIndus, Dossiers Histoire et Archéologie
(Dijon : December 1987), p. 84.
Rao, 1991, p. 17.
Kenoyer, 1998, p. 162.
Jim G. Shaffer, Harappan Culture : A Reconsideration,
in Harappan Civilization, ed. Gregory L. Possehl (New Delhi
: Oxford & IBH, 1993), p. 49.
Allchin, 1997, p. 222.
Jim G. Shaffer, The Indo-Aryan Invasions : Cultural
Myth and Archaeological Reality, in J. R. Lukaks
People of South Asia (New York : Plenum, 1984), p. 88 (emphasis
Kenoyer, 1998, p. 174 (emphasis mine).
Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, Have Aryans been identified in
the prehistoric skeletal record from South Asia ? in
The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia, ed. George Erdosy (Berlin
& New York : Walter de Gruyter, 1995), p. 60 & 54
Possehl, 1999, p. 42.
R. S. Bisht : Dholavira Excavations : 1990-94
in Facets of Indian Civilization Essays in Honour of
Prof. B. B. Lal, ed. J. P. Joshi (New Delhi : Aryan Books
International, 1997), vol. I, p. 111-112.
Their book has since been published. See Bibliography under
Jha & Rajaram.