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Harappa and Vedic Civilisation

Lazy historians prefer `hard facts'. But bricks and bones, howsoever abundant, can never reconstruct Herodotus's History or Aristotle's Politics. Thanks to our many well-wishers, the Vedas, Epics and Puranas are now Greek. But so was Aristotle; onceupon a time.

BY 1969, Ms. Thapar was convinced that there could not possibly have been an Aryan invasion in the sense that most laymen and historians understand the term. The Aryan problem, she said, in her Presidential address to the Ancient Indian History Section, XXXI Indian History Congress at Varanasi, "was perhaps the biggest red herring dragged across the path of the historians of India". But there was a lifeboat at hand. The subcontinent may have always been the homeland of the numerous communities settled there (archaeological evidence points to a variety of different "footprints" or "signatures" north of the Vindhyas — as Puranic history, unlike the notion of a culturally homogeneous bunch of Aryan invaders, naturally leads us to expect). But this did not mean that it was the homeland of the language and culture that eventually gained the upper hand.

But this is a mere quibble. Ms. Thapar has known for 40 years of the existence of a carefully researched, intricately interwoven tabulation of successive generations of a dozen indigenous dynasties (admittedly patchy in places) reaching back 120 generations before Alexander the Great; painstakingly extracted from the ancient texts by an ICS officer well versed in Sanskrit, after 30 years of backbreaking research. The steel frame of this book (Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, OUP-Oxford, 1922), the "family tree" and accompanying map, have never once been seriously challenged. On the contrary, having had the "foresight" to steer clear of the Punjab during the heyday of the Indus valley civilisation, they easily passed the test posed by the sudden and unexpected discovery of Harappa.

Thanks to this superb bit of research we now have a calendar for the pre-Buddhist period. The king lists do for "Aryan" history what radio-carbon dates and successive layers of soil do for Harappa. They do not allow us to precisely date any event, but we do get to know the important events in this or that location, in their chronological sequence. Not only that, Puranic history allows us to take up the story at both the northern and southern extremities of the Harappan spillover (as shown in the map which accompanied the first part of this article).

Sadly, the book got buried deep under the deluge of Harappan debris that began almost before its ink was dry. It has acquired the status of a lost classic, which nobody has read or has the time for, though inexpensive reprints are still available with Motilal Banarsidass. A recap would therefore be useful.

The homeland of the "Aryans" lay to the east of the Saraswati, stretching in an arc from Gujarat in the southwest to Bihar in the east. The widely dispersed people settled in small pockets in this vast stretch of territory probably had different origins, and spoke different languages or dialects, but they had by a very early date come under a common cultural umbrella; a huge nation or community had come into being. The people drew on a common stock of folklore. Their rulers claimed descent from a common ancestor.

Civilisation developed "on its own" in the Gangetic plains, independently of the Harappans. By the beginning of historical time, the ancient empire of the Ikshvakus of Ayodhya had been eclipsed by Pururavas Aila of Pratishthan. The latter's great-grandson Yayati pushed west as far as the Saraswati (circa 2000 BC?), thus bringing the "Aryans" in touch with the superior social, political and cultural heritage of the Harappans. (This, presumably, is why the Saraswati, the lifeline of the "Indus" valley civilisation, found a permanent place in "Aryan" tradition as the goddess of learning.) In the south-western extremity of the "Aryan" homeland, in Gujarat — particularly in and around Bharuch, at the mouth of the Narmada (and perhaps further south as well) — the fusion had probably begun hundreds of years earlier.

Fifteen generations later, the Yadavs of the mid-west attained great power under Shashabindu, even as the Ikshvakus underwent a resurgence under Mandhatr. Shashabindu gave his daughter in marriage to Mandhatr to cement their alliance. Some of the smaller fry, pincered into the Punjab (circa 1800 BC?), went on to establish the "Aryan" kingdom of Gandhar, which eventually became a vibrant node for interaction between Persia, the Indian subcontinent and Greece.

Herodotus tells us that an Indian province, lying far to the east, "at the frontier of the known world", was by far the richest in the Persian Empire. It was this fabulous reputation that brought Alexander to these parts after the Greeks finally overthrew the formidable Persian Empire.

But we have run ahead of our story. Fifteen generations after Shashabindu, according to the 1922 book, one branch of the Yadavs (the Haihayas) ran amuck from the Gulf of Cambay in the southwest to Kashi in the east, for five or six generations in a row — with the aid by Shakas, Yavanas, Kambojas, Paradas and Pahlavas from the northwest. These are the first invaders in the recorded history of the subcontinent. The rowdies were eventually subdued by King Sagar of Ayodhya, and the vanquished invaders assimilated into the local community as Kshatriyas.

At about this time two giants of Puranic history began their journey south. Sage Parashuram (a Bhargav or Bhrgu, probably of Harappan descent, like Chyavana and Shukracharya) wended his way down the Konkan coast. And Sage Agastya, accompanied by his wife Lopamudra (a daughter of the Yadav founder of the kingdom of Vidarbha; her sister married Sagar of Ayodhya), stepped south over the Vindhyas. Though we do not have literature from the south to shed light on this distant period in our history, it seems to me that Parashuram and Agastya must both have set out to "travel to distant lands" — rather than to establish settlements in virgin territory or vanish into oblivion.

Sixty generations after Yayati (by which time there had been a complete fusion of the "Aryans" with the "Dravidian" Harappans) we find Vishwamitra leading the Bharatas into the Indus valley, from the east — to gather spoils, rather than "search for pasture". It is to this late period that the Rg Veda relates. Small wonder that though the "Aryans" themselves had never known any other land, they had "always" known the horse. Small wonder that the Rg Veda (whose history commences at exactly the same point as the history pieced together from the Epics and Puranas) speaks of "ancient, medieval and modern history". Small wonder that Agastya and Lopamudra (about whom there is a delightful hymn in the Rg Veda) had by then already become a part of a legendary past.

The Mahabharat war was fought around 1000 BC, 95 generations after Yayati. With practically all the ruling dynasties getting wiped out, in the war or soon after, the devastation far exceeded the havoc wrought by the Haihayas and their confederates; and its effects lingered very much longer.

Foreigners (and Painted Grey Ware) now moved in to fill the vacuum, settling down this time to found their own kingdoms. Though a number of "Aryan" kingdoms or enclaves survived in the Punjab right down to the time of Alexander's invasion, the pillars of Vedic civilisation (in the north; fortunately the south was spared this fate) were shaken to their foundations by the loss of powerful patrons — and its frontiers receded dramatically. Kashi, the capital of this degenerated Vedic orthodoxy, was its westernmost outpost!

It was this catastrophic war (which Ms. Thapar in her own sweet way refers to as a "skirmish among neighbouring tribes") that brought on the Kaliyug. A whole world had collapsed. Time came to a stop.

One reason why Puranic history lacks respectability is said to be the want of archaeological corroboration. But one must take this with a pinch of salt. First, there is and probably always will be relatively little "hard" evidence for the territory to the east of the great desert — the only reason Harappan settlements survived was that they remained buried under the sand all these years. Second, Puranic history is consistent with the archaeological evidence that does exist; it has suffered no hiccups so far. Indeed Ms. Thapar discovered in 1975 (Puratattva) that it was even consistent with the bizarre Puranic story of the Haihaya raids. Third there is the internal consistency. It is hard to see how (and why) anyone could have cooked up such a complex tale — or explain away the sameness of the history told by so many different Puranas from so many different parts of the country. In any case, no matter how much "hard evidence" we gather, we will never be able to fully understand it unless we have a grid to plug it into.

History, by definition, begins only with the availability of literature. As such, even leaving aside the ethics of the thing, I sometimes wonder how historians manage to keep their jobs after trashing their primary source material. But what is the use of going on? What can a student possibly teach a teacher who seriously believes that their "search for pastures" could have led the "Aryans" to stray so many thousands of miles away from their European home?

One last thing. Given the sheer volume of the Vedas and Puranas and Epics, and their kaleidoscopic content, the very thought of plunging into them leaves even the most determined researcher atremble. One is reminded of the fate of Arjun at the sight of the assembled armies at Kurukshetra : my limbs droop, my mouth is quite dried up, a tremor comes over my body and my hair stands on end. The bow slips from my hand, and my skin burns intensely. I am unable to stand up, and my mind whirls around.

But there is a great deal at stake. If all goes well, we can push back the recorded history of both India and the world by more than a thousand years.


The first part of this article appeared in The Sunday Magazine dated June 30.


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