Dating the civilisation

Dating the Civilization

‘Pride of India’ is a book on the history of Indian Science. In a history book, it is important to get the dates right. The starting point for the dating of the Indus Valley civilization is the excavation in the 1920s, of the Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa sites in the Gangetic plains. The archaeological find was rich:

  • Multi level housing
  • Broad, well laid-out streets
  • A comprehensive drainage system
  • Public utilities like bathhouses
  • The Indus seals

Archaeologists, through carbon dated the recoveries to 3500 BCE. This Harappan civilization seemed to have ended abruptly, which warranted an explanation. It was proposed that, in the absence of evidence of natural calamities – flood, earthquake, volcanic eruption – to account for the vanishing of the civilization, there must have been a human factor in the shape of an invasion by an alien force. It was proposed that a Central Asian warring tribe had entered the country through the present day Afghanistan, occupied the Gangetic plains and drove south the Harappan inhabitants. The corollaries of this ‘Aryan invasion’ theory are:

  • India was not a single civilization. It is in fact two – the original Harappan which became Dravidian with its southward migration and the invading Aryan which occupied the Gangetic plains.
  • The Indian civilization is transplanted and is not native to this land. Its roots are in Central Asia. The present residents of this land are as much colonizers as the residents of the present America and Australia.
  • This premise could be supported by philological, archaeological and literary evidences:
  • Linguistic studies conducted by R.D. Gray and Q.D. Atkinson of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, show that the oldest Indo-European language, which is over 10,000 years old, bears close affinity to the Rig-vedic-Sanskrit. It was conceivable that Sanskrit was born from a European language brought in by the invading army of Central Asia.
  • Horses are an important part of the Vedic rituals (as in Ashvamedha, the horse sacrifice performed by emperors). The Harappan sites had no horse skeletons whereas Arabia is the land of horses. It is conceivable that the Vedas are a product of Arabians who settled in the Indus valley.
  • There is the Vedic lore of Indra, the king of the Devas, destroying Shatapuras, hundred cities which possibly refers to the Harappan cities being destroyed by the superior Aryan invaders.

The theory sunk well with the mental models of that era. The western scholars did not have to reckon with the discomfiture of a literature, which predated the Old Testament (500 BCE) and a civilization that pre-dated the Greek (1100 BCE) substantially.

However, the theory did not find universal acceptance. There have been several infirmities.

  1. Aryans away from the river

All ancient civilizations were founded on river banks, such as:

  • The Egyptian on the banks of Nile (7000 BCE),
  • The Mesopotamian (the present day Iraq) on the banks of Tigris and Euphrates (4500 BCE),
  • The North American Mayan civilization in the Mackenzie River valley (2000 BCE) or,
  • The Greek on the banks of Arta and Acherons (1100 BCE).

How could the Harappan Civilisation owe its origin to the central Asian region, which had no perennial river?

  1. Harappan sites away from the river

Over 40% of the Harappan sites (175 out of 435) were far away from the banks of the Indus River. Why would an agrarian population build cities so far away from the riverbank?

  1. Skeletal Remains

The Aryan Invasion theory = the invasion and destruction of the Harappan cities. An examination of the skeletal remains of these locations with current and better equipment has completely ruled out the possibility of invasion/wars.

  • A large number of skeletons found in a place would be indicative of a battle/an invasion and the loss of a lot of lives. But, Prof. G.F. Dales of the Berkeley University has shown that the human skeletons at Mohenjo-Daro come from different mud layers, which got repeatedly deposited due to repeated floods in the river and were not the result of a single event.
  • Prof. Kennedy of Cornell University, who is a renowned anthropologist and who has recently closely studied the skeletons, which are attributed to ‘invasion’ and ‘massacre’, has convincingly shown that none of these skeletons bears any sign of injury from any kind of weapon, which may have resulted in the death of the slain or injured.
  • As many as 325 skeletons found in the excavations have been examined by anthropologists. They concluded that the skeletons do not belong to any of the postulated racial types such as Mongoloid, Nordics and Mediterranean. To quote a source, “The cephalic index shows that the skeletons found in Mohenjo-Daro (Sindh) are like those of modern residents of Sindh and those in Lothal (Gujarat) are like those of modern residents of Gujarat.”

Notwithstanding an apparent agreement on the Aryan Invasion theory, these lacunae lead to research and studies continuously re-examining this premise.

Sir Auriel Stein (1862 -1943)

A geologist Sir Auriel Stein, who had surveyed the ancient Saraswati’s course, concluded that there was a Saraswati river, which had dried up with the shift in the course of Sutlej, its main tributary. Somehow, this ground level survey which showed an alternative cause for the apparent vanishing of the Harappan civilization did not acquire currency.

What the geological survey could not achieve, an aerial survey did. A 1990 picture taken by the American satellite Landsat, showed a 1000 miles dried up tract of the ‘mythological’ river Saraswati, from Himalayas to South Rajasthan towards Somnath, ending on the Saurashtrian coast.

This NASA image completely changed the terms of reference of enquiry for all scholars. A reconstruct could be formulated without stretching one’s imagination:

  1. Saraswati originates from the Himalayas;
  2. Saraswati flows as a copious river;
  3. Saraswati dries up;
  4. The inhabitants on the banks of the river migrate.
  1. Saraswati originates from the Himalayas
  • In 1998, The Central Ground Water Commission dug 24 wells in the dry bed identified by ISRO; all but one yielded potable water.
  • In 1998, post Pokhran atomic test, The Bhabha Atomic research Centre (BARC) drew sub-soil water from a depth of 70 meters to confirm that the aquifers have not been affected by radioactive material. The analysis showed the water samples to be Himalayan glacial water of 8000: 14000 years vintage!

The discovery of Saraswati also helped resolve a century-old puzzle. In 1869 archaeologist Alex Rogue found Himalayan alluvial deposits in the Gulf of Cambay. Neither Sabarmati nor Narmada, which flow into Cambay, has their origin in the Himalayas.

  1. Saraswati flows as a copious river

i. Current Evidence

The color images from the Indian remote sensing satellite launched by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) as a follow up study (to the NASA discovery) gathered in 1996 also clearly showed marks of palaeochannel as wide as 3 km to 12 km in the same stretch.

ii. Historic Evidence

In 1844, Major F. Makenson conducted a survey to connect Sindh with Delhi. He found a riverbed, which could conveniently accommodate an 8-lane highway from Sindh to Delhi.

Two of the three questions on the Aryan Invasion theory (mentioned earlier) were found to be valid:

  • The civilization was found on the bank of the river Saraswati.
  • These cities found far away from the Indus River were, in fact, on the banks of Saraswati.

iii. Puranic Corroboration

Not only did the events of the recent past acquire meaning, a number of mythological episodes also fitted into the jigsaw:

  • Chandra, the moon god, is married to the 27 principal stars. But, Chandra is partial to the beautiful Rohini and therefore earns the wrath of his father-in-law, Daksha Prajaparhi, who curses him to wane. Chandra redeems himself from the curse by bathing in the Saraswati.

Traditions are like pickles – made long ago, but currently in use.

  • For centuries, devout Hindus have been going on pilgrimage to Prayag (near Allahabad in present day Uttar Pradesh) to bathe in the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the ‘mythical’ Saraswati. The practice of dipping into the confluence and the name ‘Triveni-sangamam’ (confluence of three streams) has endured despite the drying up of one of the three rivers.
  • Surnames in this country are based on location (Madgaonkar, Belgumwala); occupation (Palkiwala, Vaidya); education (Mukhopadhyaya, Bandhopadhyaya or their anglicized versions Mukherjee and Bannerjee); the part of Vedas followed (Shukla). An ascetic, as the Sanskrit word Sanyasin means someone who has renounced everything and is not attached to anything. If he has renounced everything, then what does he belong to, what belongs to him? He belongs to the culture with no reference to sub-sect of any kind. Our scriptures prescribe 10 names as appropriate for ascetics. Chiefs amongst this list of ten, which are in vogue even today, are Bharati, Saraswati and Theerta. At some point in time were the words Bharati and Saraswati being used as synonyms? This tradition of surnames of ascetics is another reservoir where Saraswati has been preserved.

Having seen the evidence for the river actually flowing, let us see whether there are reasons and evidences to support the next two events;

  1. Saraswati dries up

The drying up of the Saraswati River probably occurred in stages.

  • Saraswati possibly originated in the non-glacial part of the Himalayas. It was fed by Sutlej and Yamuna. A tectonic uplift diverted the course of Yamuna and Sutlej denying Saraswati the flow of water.
  • There was a period of global aridity between 2000 BCE and 1800 BCE which completed the drying up of the river.

Puranic Corroboration

  • Geologists tell us that post a tectonic upheaval, Sutlej not only changed course to become a tributary of the Sindhu, but also braided into several channels. There is a legend associated to Sage Vasishta who on the death of his son, attempted suicide by jumping into the Saraswati River and the river, to save the sage, split into a hundred rivulets, thus acquiring the name ‘Sutudri’ the one that split into hundred.
  • Rishi Kavasa-Ailusa, a great scholar and a man of great penance, was excommunicated by the other Rishis, because he was a Dasi-putra (the son of a servant woman). In retaliation, the angry Ailusa walked away with Saraswati. This is the final word in our Puranas on the drying up of Saraswati.
  1. The inhabitants on the banks of the river migrate

The drying up of Saraswati caused the Harappans to move south-westwards. There is enough and more archaeological evidence to vouchsafe the relocation of the civilization through migration.

  • Saraswati ceased to be a seagoing river around 3000 BCE, explaining why the 3rd millennium settlements on the banks of the Saraswati river end in the Bahawalpur region of the Punjab and do not reach the sea.
  • In 1940 Sir Auriel Stein, looking for the Central Asian silk route, stumbled on late Harappan sites on the dry bed of a river in Gujarat/Rajasthan. This shows that the Harappans had, at some stage, taken for granted the complete drying up of the river, ruled out its resurgence and built cities on the riverbed.
  • There are Harappan sites all the way to Cambay.

There are episodes from the Mahabharata which appear to take off from this migration:

  • There is the story of the king Yayati expelling his sons, and their migrating westward.
  • Did Lord Krishna move from Mathura (near the present Delhi) with the entire Yadava clan to Dvaraka (the present Western Gujarat) merely to avoid a conflict with the powerful Jarasanda or was it the compulsion of the drying Saraswati also?

The Revised Postulate

The Indus Valley Civilization did not come to an end by an alien invasion, but it re-located itself. The drying up of the river was the natural cause for the decline and the demise of the Harappan civilization. The ‘abrupt end to the civilization’ theory has come to an end and the invaders from Central Asia, invented to fill this gap, no longer have a role to play. In one stroke, scores of books on Indian history have become, to put it mildly, obsolete and to put it plainly, wrong, as to the pre-historic period of Indian history.

Therefore 3500 BCE, the date of the Harappan finds, marks not the beginning of the ‘Aryan Civilization’ but the point of maturity of the Harappan Civilization.