‘Journey of a Civilization: Indus to Vaigai’ review: The route from Harappa to Keezhadi

Journey of a Civilization: Indus to Vaigai grapples with a little-understood period in Indian history — the centuries that followed the decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation. And it comes up with a wealth of new insights that are fascinating in themselves, but in addition, also answer a question that has vexed historians for long: what happened to the culture and language of the Indus Valley Civilisation after it started disintegrating around 1900 BCE?

The author of this remarkable book that is weighty both in the literal and figurative sense is R. Balakrishnan, who has published many research papers on this subject before, even while he was working as a highly-regarded senior IAS officer in Odisha. That this has been a long-term labour of love is evident from the way the book has been written, with impressive attention to detail and a profusion of charts, tables, illustrations and maps that make it easier for one to follow the story. Balakrishnan, a postgraduate in Tamil Literature, had worked closely with the late, well-known epigraphist and author Iravatham Mahadevan, and was Honorary Consultant to the Indus Research Centre in Chennai after Mahadevan stepped down from that position in 2011.

Population genetics

What makes the book very timely is that in the last couple of years, a relatively new discipline called population genetics has been answering critical questions about Indian population formation, including who the Indus Valley people were, where they moved and whom they mixed with after their civilisation went down. For example, we know from recent genetic research that people of the Indus Valley were a mixed population of First Indians (the earliest direct ancestors of modern humans in the subcontinent who arrived here around 65,000 years ago as part of the original Out of Africa migrations that populated the whole world), and a population related to the earliest agriculturists of Iran.

We also know that when their civilisation began declining, they moved east, towards North India, and south, towards South India. Again, we know from genetic research that in the following centuries, between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE, there were large-scale migrations from the central Asian Steppe, areas today known as Kazakhstan that brought Indo-Aryan language speakers to India who called themselves Arya. Over centuries, these highly mobile pastoralist groups with mastery over horse came to dominate the northern parts of India, enough to cause a language shift from the pre-Arya languages of the Indus Valley people to the Indo-Aryan languages of the new migrants.

Remnants of a civilisation

This sequence of events leaves one with a simple question, a question that Balakrishnan zeroes in on: if the Indus Valley civilisation people spread all over the subcontinent around 1900 BCE, but their language and, to some extent, culture, was overlain by those of the new migrants from the Central Asian Steppe in northern India, shouldn’t it be possible to trace the remnants and continuities of the Indus Valley Civilisation in the rest of the subcontinent, especially southern and eastern India? In search of answers to this question, Balakrishnan travels all across the country, looking for clues in as wide a range of areas as pottery culture, place names, ancient literature and local customs. And what he finds are facts that leap out at you, grab you by the collar and force you to see things from a new perspective.

This review can only give a very small glimpse of these gems, and the one that most captured this writer’s attention was the argument that the early Sangam literature, which goes back many centuries before the Common Era, contains carried-forward memories of northwestern India. In other words, once upon a time, ‘Tamilakam’ or Tamil land could have had a very different geography than what it has now, thus suggesting a migration of language, culture and people — or as the title of the book says, Journey of a Civilisation — from northwestern India to southern India.

The camel story

To give one of the numerous examples, Sangam literature has many descriptions of camels and one of these works (Akananuru 245) describes a ‘tough-legged camel’ in a vast stony expanse, desperate from hunger, eating white bones scattered on the ground. Writes Balakrishnan, “In this poem, the bone-eating camel is noted to be a draught animal, a beast of burden used by the merchants to carry their mercantile. The camel being used as a draught animal is a scene unfamiliar to peninsular India. Such deserts have never been part of the known Tamil linguistic and political boundaries of the Sangam Age... It can then be reasonably postulated that this description could only have come to the Sangam texts through a long distance memory which probably belonged to a remote past involving the prehistory of the ancestors of Sangam Tamils in the desert areas of western India, particularly in Gujarat.” In another Sangam text, the poet compares drift wood on the sea shore to a sleeping camel — not a natural comparison for any poet in south India to make, as opposed to, say, a poet in coastal Gujarat.

Clues in the wind

Sangam Literature is conscious of its geographical settings (‘tinai’) to a far greater extent than other literatures and, in fact, different ‘tinai’ demand different kinds of poetry. Using this distinctive attention to climatic and geographic detail, Balakrishnan studied the mentions of ‘winds’ — northwind, southwind, eastwind, etc. — in the literature and came to an interesting observation. The number of times the literature mentions ‘chill wind’ from the north and ‘hot wind’ from the west dwarf the mentions of the ‘southern breeze’ and the ‘Monsoon wind’ from the east. But these descriptions and weightages of different winds do not fit the current landscape of Tamilakam, while they do fit the Gujarat landscape — as is evident from the mentions of the average windspeeds and direction at Ahmedabad and Chennai that the book carries!

So Balakrishnan makes the case that as the earliest urban, secular literature of the subcontinent, the Sangam texts reflect the ethos and material culture of the Indus Valley Civilisation far better than any other literature in India, including the Vedic corpus. He also shows that while there is noticeable continuity in the pottery culture from northwestern India to southern India and eastern India, there is a perceptible discontinuity in northern India, probably due to the arrival of later migrants from central Asia. One of the unique aspects of the book is its use of onomastics — or the study of the history and origin of proper names. Onomastics helps Balakrishnan show how the place names that are common in Tamilakam (and southern India in general), find strong echoes in northwestern India even today and how often these also match names mentioned in the Sangam literature.

Journey of a Civilization is an essential, necessary read for anyone interested in India’s history, especially its cultural history. It is also a must for anyone who wants to grasp the significance of the discoveries being made at the Keezhadi archaeological site on the banks of the Vaigai in Tamil Nadu. By going into areas that other researchers have not explored deeply enough — subcontinental pottery culture, onomastics and also the link between the Sangam literature and the archaeologically-understood culture of the Indus Valley — Balakrishnan has brought new light to a period of Indian history that is critical to our understanding of how we came to be, as India. The book makes intensive use of data to establish connections and patterns and still offers a stimulating and fascinating journey to both the general reader and the academic reader.

Tony Joseph is the author of the book Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 8:35:19 AM |

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