Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization and its Bearing on the Aryan Question

The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization and its Bearing on the Aryan Question

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.

Advance of Archaeology
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 India’s 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 Egypt’s pyramids do. As one of those general books I mentioned puts it, “The birth, life and death of the Indus civilization remain three enigmas. 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. 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 civilization.
Note the concentration along the dry bed of the Sarasvati.

Physical Data
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 anyone’s 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 border.

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 river’s 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.

The Cities

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 today’s 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 West Asia.

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 craftsman’s modest house. A number of big buildings, such as that around Mohenjo-daro’s “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).

Map of one area of Mohenjo-daro (“HR area”),
as an example of complex town-planning 4,500 years ago.

Arts and Crafts

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, from Lothal).

Trade, Shipping, Agriculture & Technology
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 don’t 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.

Government and Social Evolution
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 Mesopotamia’s 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 Aryan Problem
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 population. We are very far from the bloody invasion and cultural war envisaged by Max Müller and other nineteenth-century scholars.

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 book :

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 Possehl’s recent book which I mentioned earlier :

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.

In 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 Rig-Veda.

(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. Jha’s 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 value.

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 Nadu’s 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 today’s 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 moment.