The Indus and the Saraswati


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The Indus and the Saraswati

Ram Sharan Sharma

Theories that state that the Indus culture was Saraswati-based and Rg Vedic seek to prove that the Aryans were of Indian origin and that all those who came to India in historical times were foreigners. Do archaeological and literary evidence support this claim? The doyen among the historians of ancient India speaks:

Some archaeologists consider India to be the original which they place in the Sarasvati basin. According to S. P. Gupta, formerly of the National Museum, New Delhi, "the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation represents one very important aspect of the developed Vedic civilisation." He adds that the Harappan culture was "the gift of both the rivers and perhaps more of the latter (Sarasvati)." He thinks in terms of Indus versus Sarasvati and India versus Pakistan. In his view, the existence of more than 700 Harappan sites on the Sarasvati and its tributaries, in contrast to not even 100 Harappan sites on the Indus and its tributaries, underlines the importance of the Sarasvati. V. N. Misra of the Deccan College, Pune, also supports the view that the Indus culture was Sarasvati-based. But we cannot gloss over the other aspects of the comparison between the Indus and the Sarasvati.

To begin with, the Sarasvati is identified with the Ghaggar or the Hakra. The river is called the Ghaggar in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, and the Hakra beyond the Indian border in Pakistan. It must be dearly understood that the Hakra-Ghaggar is a tributary of the Indus. Further, none of the major Harappan sites, including Harappa, Mohenjo-daro and Dholavira, is located on the Hakra or the Ghaggar; only Kalibangan is dose to the Ghaggar. Banawali in Hissar district is not as important as Kalibangan, and Kunal in the same district cannot be taken as a Harappan site because of its own distinct characteristics. No Harappan settlements appear in Ambala and Sirsa districts where the Ghaggar is important. This is the finding of R. C. Thakran of Delhi University who has surveyed the Harappan sites in Haryana. According to him, the dry bed of the Ghaggar has 55 pre-Harappan or early Harappan sites, 117 mature Harappan sites and 581 late Harappan sites. A similar survey made in the Hakra area in the Cholistan desert (Bahawalpur) in Pakistan by the Pakistani archaeologist M. R. Mughal shows 40 early Harappan, 174 mature Harappan and 50 late Harappan sites. Thakran's survey shows that a good many people from decaying towns in the southwest migrated towards the northeast and settled in the Ghaggar area in the late Harappan phase.

We notice a sharp contrast between the upper and lower basins of the dried-up Sarasvati. While settlements dramatically fall in number in Cholistan in the Hakra area in the post-urban period, 581 post-urban settlements appear in the Ghaggar area. But far more urban sites appear on the Pakistani segment of the Sarasvati than on the Indian segment. However, we need adequate data to draw any firm conclusion from such surveys. Although Mughal gives the size and culture content of some sites, I have not been able to get such data from Thakran; S. P. Gupta also does not help us. We have to know the size of each site as well as the extent and nature of the Harappan culture found in it. For example, according to Mughal, 50 late Harappan sites in Bahawalpur or Cholistan Show Cemetery H-related materials, but these contents symbolise the coming of a new people because of a new type of pottery and burnt bones found in the graves. In this sense these sites in the dry bed of the Hakra may contain Aryan elements also. Until 1981, nearly 750 Painted Grey Ware (PGW) culture sites were found in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, and about 450 Northern Black Polished Ware (NBPW) culture sites in the mid-Ganga plains. But most of these sites, including the Harappan ones, are labelled on the basis of potsheids found in them. Because of this, key sites like Harappa and Mohenjo-daro may be equal to hundreds of Harappan sites. Therefore, on the basis of the present data, the Sarasvati sites cannot be considered more important than the Sindhu sites.

The Hakra of the Ghaggar basin is only one of several areas which show the earliest elements of the Harappan culture. Kot Diji (KD) and 72 Kot Diji Phase sites, located in the central Indus Valley region, are far more important. The KD Phase clearly was critical in the development of the Harappan phase, or Indus Valley civilisation. Several sites in Baluchistan also reveal some elements of the Harappan culture. Hence the Sarasvati can neither be called a major contributor to the Harappan culture nor equated with the Indus in this respect. However, if in future the Sarasvati sites reveal Harappan cultural contents that surpass those of the well-known Harappan sites outside the Hakra and the Ghaggar zone, the Sarasvati will certainly get far more credit. Religious fundamentalists want to establish the superiority of the Sarasvati over the Indus. In the Harappan context, they think that after Partition the Indus belongs to Muslims and only the Sarasvati remains with Hindus. The Sarasvati receives much attention in the Rg Veda and several suktas are devoted to it; so they want to use it for their purpose. But it seems that there are several Sarasvatis, and the earliest Sarasvati cannot be identified with the Hakra and the Ghaggar. In the Rg Veda the Sarasvati is called the best of the rivers (naditama). It seems to have been a great river with perennial water. The Hakra and the Ghaggar cannot match it. The earliest Sarasvati seems to be identical with the Helmand in Afghanistan which is called Harkhwati in the Avesta. In the Avesta H is the same as the Sanskrit S. As the Vedic people expanded they took this name to Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, and also to Garhwal, Prayag and Rajgir. A river of this name also appears in both West Bengal and Gujarat. Similarly the Rg Vedic Sarayu, identical with the Avestan Harirud in Afghanistan, became the Ramayanic Sarayu in Ayodhya. The Sarayu occurs in the fourth, fifth and tenth mandalas of the Rg Veda, and two Aryan chiefs had settled on its bank. As the Aryan settlers moved eastward from the bank of the Harirud they carried the river's name along with them. This also happened with those who had settled on the bank of the Rg Vedic Gomati or the present Gomal in Baluchistan. Now a river near Lucknow bears this name. According to the Ramayana, Rajagrha or Girivraja was the best city in the land of the Kekayas in western Panjab. Obviously this name was transferred later to Magadha.


Was the Harappan Culture Rg Vedic?

Some archaeologists think that the Harappan culture was created by the Rg Vedic people. In 1978, this was convincingly refuted by the noted archaeologist B. B. Lal in terms of the time-frame, geography and the cultural contents of the Rg Veda and Harappa. But in 1997, he appears as a convert to the view he had controverted. He does not accept the chronological gap between Harappa and "the Vedic texts", points to the presence of the horse in Harappa, and dismisses the theory of the "glaring disparity between the cultures represented by the Harappan remains and the Vedic texts.

The Vedic texts, according to the general consensus of the Vedicists, belong to circa 1500 B.C.-500 B.C. The Rg Veda may be placed in the late or post-urban phase of Harappa; it cannot be linked to the mature Harappa. La produces the fundamentalist argument that the Aitareya Brahmana refers to the shifting of the vernal equinox from Mrigasiras to Rohini, which occurred around 3500 B.C., and thus he places the Rg Veda in the fourth millennium B.C.

But modern astronomers who have studied the original texts state that "the equinoxes are not explicitly mentioned in the Brahmanas." It should be noted that the nakshatras do not move but the point of the equinox moves. But the movement of the point of the equinox or the visuvan when day and night are of the same duration is mentioned neither in the Vedas and the Brahmanas nor in the Vedanga Jyotisa. Hence there is no ground to place the Rg Veda in the fourth millennium B.C. More important, in view of its geography and dose similarity with the Zend Avesta, the RgVeda cannot be dated in isolation. The mention of the exact names of the Vedic deities in the Mitanni inscription of 14th century B.C. shows that the period of the Rg Veda cannot be much earlier than the 15th century B.C. A good many archaeological traces of the horse from the Rg Vedic area belong to circa 1500 B.C.

Pleading for the Vedic identity of the Harappan culture, Lal states: "Just as there were cities, towns and villages in the Harappan ensemble - as there are even today in any society - there were both rural and urban settlements in the Vedic times." But linguists and archaeologists who have worked on this subject reject this view. Linguistically, the Indo-Iranians reveal no cities, fortifications, palaces, temples, writing, irrigation, specialised crafts or trade. This finding applies to both Proto-Indians and Proto-Iranians. However, Lal quotes the Rg Veda verse X. 101.8 with Griffith's translation in which the gods are asked "to make iron forts, secure from all assailants." Although he rightly questions the meaning of ayes pur as iron fort, he asserts that pur means a fortified town.The Vedic people had their purs, for there is the story that to fight the Asuras effectively the Devas set up the counter-purs and also counter-kingship. But those who have adequately examined the references to pur in the Vedic texts, particularly in the Rg Veda, do not consider it a fortified town. Wilhelm Rau, a German Vedicist, and George Erdosy, a Canadian archaeologist, who have studied the Vedic pur in depth, do not identify the Vedic settlements with the Harappan.

According to Rau, "Not a word is said in our texts of the characteristic features of the Indus cities, of brick walls, brick houses, brick-paved streets laid out on an orthogonal pattern, of granaries or public baths." He holds that towns are mentioned at the very end of the Vedic period. Erdosy elaborates the idea put forward by Macdoneel and Keith, and questions the very existence of pur in the sense of fort on contextual grounds. Thus he considers "renewed insistence on equating the Rg vedic and Harappan civilisations" to be "eccentric assertions".

In our opinion the myths and metaphors relating to the pur suggest that it was either a dwelling unit or a cluster of such units which appeared in the post urban Harappan phase. Particularly the early Vedic stone purs may indicate the recently discovered rock shelters in which the pastoral people lived in the hilly tracts of the North-West Frontier.

Lal finds "ample evidence... of sea trade", and speaks of '"tremendous wealth" obtained from it. In support he quotes a verse from the Ninth Book of the Rg Veda together with its translation by the 19th century British Sanskritist Griffith. The verse reads: "rayah samu dranscaturo asmabhyam soma visvatah, a pavasva sahasrinah". The translation reads: "From every side, O Soma, for our profit, pour thou forth four seas filled full of riches thousandfold." We may add that the Ninth Book in which this verse occurs was solely devoted to Soma, and added to the main text later. Further, Griffith's translation of asmabhyam as 'for our profit' creates an impression of profit arising out of trade; such a confusion is not created by Karl Friendrich Geldner, whose German translation of the Rg Veda (1951) is considered the most authoritative translation of the century. We should also note that the four seas are termed imaginary by Griffith.

In this context the commentary of Sayana makes more sense. According to it, the sacrifice prays to Soma for the possession of the whole world bounded by the four seas. In any case there is no reference whatsoever to tremendous wealth derived from sea-trade.

This does not mean that the early Vedic people were unfamiliar with the sea. The Russian archaeologist V. I. Sarianidi and the Indian historian R N. Nandi suggest that people migrated to the Indus Valley along the Persian Gulf and the Makran coast. Nandi has looked into most references to the sea in the Rg Veda. On the basis of the references from Books I and X he speaks of "peddling of goods" and "petty trading" in the context of land trade but we cannot infer sea trade from these references.

The early Vedic people were primarily pastoral though their agriculture was not negligible. Although rich in vocabulary, apart from words denoting buying and selling, the Rg Veda has no term for commerce as a specific activity. Its early portions have no term for leasing and hiring, and for lending and borrowing. The term rna appears in the early portions, but it indicates the mutual obligation to pay one another. The RgVeda does not know of slaves, wage-earners or hired labourers engaged in production. And yet all these features can be expected if its culture were urban. Fired bricks are a striking feature of the Harappans, and no Bronze Age civilisation can boast of them on such a large scale. But this important construction material is unknown to the Rg Veda. In the great British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler's view, there is no granary in the pre-classical world comparable in terms of specialist design and monumental dignity to the examples from the two Indus cities. But because of the absence of urbanism, the Vedic people did not need granaries, and consequently the Rg Veda has no term for granary.

Since the Harappan script has not been decoded, we may leave it out for the present. But the animals portrayed on the inscribed objects certainly deserve attention. According to the analysis of I. Mahadevan, as many as 1,164 objects depict unicorn as a field animal. But in the Harappan context it is taken to be a fabulous animal resembling, perhaps, an ox. Nevertheless, in our view the unicorn should be considered a fabulous rhinoceros because of its one horn. The Harappan unicorn shows one long horn and a short hump close to it - which is exactly the case with a rhinoceros. However, in addition to what is called unicorn the rhinoceros is clearly portrayed on 40 inscribed objects. Thus this animal is associated with as many as 1,204 inscribed objects, including seals. Wheeler notes that this animal is most frequently represented in the Harappan seals. In the seals and sealings of Lothal, unicorns form the overwhelming majority of animal symbols. But this most favourite animal of the Harappans is not known to the Rg Veda. The term ganda or khadga is used for the rhinoceros in Sanskrit, and the term ekasrnga for both the unicorn and the rhinoceros, but none of these terms occurs in the Rg Veda.

On the other hand, the horse, the hallmark of the earlyVedic people, is a trait of neither the early nor the mature Harappan culture. Lal refers to horse traces in the Harappan sites of Mohenjo-daro, Lothal, Surkotada and Kalibangan, and S. P. Gupta adds Harappa, Malvan and Rani Ghundai to this list, but what about the date, number and authenticity of these traces! Rau, an older champion of the Aryan Harappa, places the skeletal remains of the horse in Lothal and Mohenjo-daro in their late levels. He adds that the presence of the animal in Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Lothal and Ropar is restricted to the later phase of the Harappan culture. Malvan is not even a Harappan site, and its Period I, in which horse bones appear first, is "essentially a post-Harappan, Chalcolithic occupation." The horse reported from Rani Ghundai in Baluchistan is attributed to the third millennium B.C., but has been found to be a semi-ass or an onager on examination.

More important, considering a good many excavations in the large Harappan area, horse traces are too few. That is why Lal "would like to have more and more examples." At any rate the life of the Harappans was not horse-centred, as was the case with the early Vedic people, particularly their chiefs. Further, the RgVeda is full of war. The early Vedic assemblies, including the gana, sabha, samiti, vidatha and parisad, performed military functions also. The importance of warfare in the life of the Vedic people is brought out in a well-researched monograph by Sarva Daman Singh. He points out that although the Harappans were fully familiar with the wheeled vehicle, there is "no proof of the battle-chariot before the advent of the Aryans". The absence of the war chariot is consistent with the military weakness of the Harappans, which has been underlined by several archaeologists. According to Wheeler, the military element does not loom large amongst the extant Harappan remains.

We may not look for Vedic bows and quivers in the Harappan remains, but even other weapons are very poorly represented. On the other hand, according to the Swedish archaeologist Asko Parpola, the Indo-Aryan archaeological complex of circa 1900-1700 B.C. in south Turkmenistan and north Afghanistan shows an "abundance of weapons." This "suggests that the ruling elite...was actively engaged in warfare." Certain tools and implements could be common to all Neolithic and Bronze Age Societies, but that does not establish specific similarity. However, unlike the Harappan culture, bronze did not play a vital role in the Aryan culture. Because of this, terms for tin and bronze are absent in the Rg Veda. The Aryans were basically pastoral people who adopted the skills and crafts of the sedentary people on their arrival in India. This explains the presence in the Rg Veda of agricultural terms which do not occur in other ancient Indo-European languages. This text used vrika, sira and langala for plough, andphala for ploughshare. Only vrika occurs in other Indo-European languages. Lastly, the RgVedic society is male dominated, while Harappa shows the dominance of the mother cult in religion. That Harappa was not 'Aryan' is also the view of Jim Shaffer.

It is argued that the Aryans went from India to western Asia. But where is the evidence for the presence of the Aryans in India around 2300 B.C. when the earliest specimens of their language appear in Mesopotamia! If the Aryans used the Harappan script, why did they not take it to western Asia! When Buddhists went to Central Asia they carried the Brahmi script, and under the Kushans Prakrit inscriptions appear in Brahmi and Kharosthi in Bactria. Buddhist manuscripts appear in Turfan and Khotan. Since the Aryans did not have their writing, examples of their language appear in cuneiform script and the Hittite hieroglyphs. The Proto-Elamite script became extinct in about 2800 B.C., and the Harappan in about 1900 B.C. Hence, because of the time factor they could not use any of these. Although the Proto Indo-Aryans and the Proto Indo-Iranians lived in north and south Central Asia from circa 2500 B.C. onwards, because of the absence of writing even in the second millennium B.C. we do not get any specimen of their language. It is a misfortune for the champions of the theory of the Indian origin of the Aryans that there is no inscriptional evidence of Aryan presence in India. But in discussing this problem we cannot ignore such evidence from western Asia. We cannot study the Rg Veda in complete isolation from the general cultural development of the ancient world. All told, the attempt to impose a Vedic identity on the Harappan culture resembles similar attempts to exploit archaeology for political purposes in Spain, Portugal, Germany, Russia, China, Japan and several other countries.


The Indus culture and the Ganga culture

While attempts are made to identify the Vedic culture with the Harappan culture, the importance of the Vedic culture and its archaeological counterparts is ignored by emphasising the impact of the Harappan tradition on the Ganga culture. Some Indian archaeologists notice Harappan influence in the mid-Ganga Chalcolithic and later cultures, though archaeologists elsewhere in the world proceed with caution. Stray elements of the Harappan culture such as beads may have reached the Ganga plains, but neither the basic traits of the PGW/later Vedic culture in the upper Ganga plains nor those of the NBPW/early Pall texts culture in the mid-Ganga plains had Harappan ancestry. General modes of subsistence such as agriculture, cattle keeping and elementary crafts may share common features in a good part of the subcontinent in the first millennium B.C. But what about such diagnostic Harappan traits as town life, fired bricks and script in the PGW phase! Even when the script appeared in the mid-NBPW phase it was entirely different from the Harappan. The Harappans wrote from right to left while Brahmi was written from left to right. The effective use of iron inaugurated a new socio-economic structure in the mid-Ganga plains in the fifth century B.C. But iron was not derived from the Indus culture, and so is the case with coinage, which also played a vital role in the new structure.

The PGW made a complete break with the Harappan tradition of pottery. The Harappans practised open kiln firing while the PGW potters practised closed kiln firing. The latter manufactured dishes and bowls in contrast to the dish-on-stand, goblets, storage jars and so on, of the Harappans. Although older local connections may be expected, the pottery experts do not trace the PGW from any Chalcolithic pottery. Similarly, the NBPW held nothing in common with the Harappan ceramic tradition. So far weights and measures used in NBPW times are not known to us with certainty. Accidental similarities between the Harappan weights and weights of coins in the Kautilyan Arthasastra are rightly attributed to the availability of the same type of seeds in different parts of the country. According to Wheeler, the Harappan foot seems to vary between 13.0 and 13.2 inches while the Harappan cubit ranges from 20.3 to 20.6 inches. Such measures are not known in the NBPW phase. Pre-industrial weights and measures varied from area to area. Inscriptions show that land measures differ from region to region according to the length of the hand of the local ruler in early medieval times. If the Aryans came from outside, it is said, why did not they bring tin to make bronze! We may refer to the famous bronze dagger of the 12th century B.C. from Fort Munro in the Sulaiman range west of the Indus, which came from the north west or the direction of the "Aryan invasions". A shaft-hole bronze axe found at Chanhudaro in a late Harappan layer may have come from the same direction. Similar is the case of a fine copper axe-adze which has its analogies at three places in northern Iran and at two places in northern Caucasia. Despite these examples, bronze did not play any pivotal role in the life of theAryans who were basically a pastora people. It is because of this that terms for tin and bronze do not occur in the Rg Veda.

When bronze appeared in the Ganga plains tin did not come from Afghanistan, but most probably from the south Bihar plateau and its rich deposits in Bastar in Madhya Pradesh. But how the people of the Ganga plains learned to mix tin with copper and manufacture bronze needs to be investigated. In kin-based societies, technology may have been diffused through kin migrations, but the situation may have been different in class- and caste based societies. The mature Harappan culture could not be basically kin-based. However, artisans looking for subsistence and rehabilitation may have spread technology after the desertions of the Harappan settlements around 2000 B.C., the Chalcolithic settlements in central and western India around 1000 B.C., and the urban settlements in a major part of the country in A.D. 300-600. Such desertions explode the myth of cultural continuity in some areas, but they also open the possibility for diffusion in other areas. The American archaeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer attributes the disappearance of Harappan writing either to the break down of long-distance trade or to the dominance of the Vedic ritual-ridden priests. The first explanation is too simplistic. Long-range trade shrank substantially for nearly three centuries after circa A.D. 600 in India, but writing continued as usual. How the Vedic priests extinguished the Indus writing is a mystery; some archaeologists argue that Harappan society was dominated by the priests. The only possible explanation is the influx of numerous pre-literate pastoralists who did not need writing. However, their arrival eventually led to the spread of horse, spoked wheel, cremation, fire cult and, above ah, the Indo-Aryan language in the mid-Ganga plains. Perhaps the proto Dravidian dialects were spoken in pre NBPW pockets as can be inferred from their random survival in Purnea and. Nepal. In several ancient societies the victorious were culturally conquered by the vanquished, but the Aryan immigrants seem to have been strong and numerous enough to open a new chapter in the history of the Indian culture. Wheeler's theory of the Aryan destruction of the Indus culture cannot be proved archaeologically. But his view that the Indus civilisation utterly failed to transmit its physical civilisation from its primary homeland will hold good until more evidence is available.

The view that the Indus culture was non-Vedic may not be acceptable to the Hindu fundamentalists, The implications of the fundamentalist position are well known in India and even abroad. By arguing for the Indian origin of the Aryans they want to prove that all those such as Muslims who came to India in historical times are foreigners. However, some Western archaeologists exaggerate the continuity of the cultural tradition in India. Formerly Western historians and sociologists generally stressed the changelessness of India, and archaeologists attributed important changes mainly to external factors. Now some archaeologists overemphasise India's insularity, which implies its inability to attract new peoples and technology. Some of them rightly reject the view that the Harappan civilisation wasRg Vedic. But several of them see in the advent of the Vedic culture a continuity of the Harappan or the Chalcolithic tradition rather than a breakthrough/transformation. The commitment to cultural continuity may be seen as a reaction to overemphasis on pleas for radical changes in modern socio-economic structure. All this reminds us of the eternal or sanatana 1 dharma propagated in present-day India.

(Ram Sharan Sharma is among the most eminent historian of ancient India. He is a former Chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, New Delhi.)


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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .