Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dump your old beliefs; here is new hypothesis

The Vedic People: Their History and Geography by Rajesh Kochhar. Orient Longman Limited, New Delhi. Pages 259. Rs 425.

UNTIL about 100 years ago it was conveniently believed that India was originally inhabited by Asuras or pagans, as some would like to put it, and it was later invaded by the civilised Aryans. But the chance discovery of Harappa in 1826, and the subsequent researches conducted by Alexander Cunningham in the 1830s and R.D. Banerji and Sir John Marshall in the 1920s, turned the accepted theories of India's historic past upside down.

As these scholars excavated the sites, they soon realised that these finds predated the Rigveda and, what is more, they showed that the people who lived there were far more advanced than the Rigvedic Aryans. By 1946, 37 Harappan sites had been found, and now the number is about 2,500.

The awesome expanse of the greater Indus valley civilisation spreads over an area of more than a million square kilometres, with its westernmost site in Sutkagen Dor on the Iran-Baluchistan border, and the easternmost site in Alamgirpur on the banks of the Yamuna's tributary, the Hindan, 45 km north-east of Delhi.

More than the extent of this ancient civilisation, it is its urban character and sophisticated townplanning that has surprised researchers. These cities were so carefully laid out that they remind you of modern cities like Chandigarh. Incidentally, one Harappan site was discovered in 1969 while digging up the foundation of the city centre is Sector 17, Chandigarh!

But more than 150 years after the excavation of Harappa, scholars have still not been able to solve the mystery that shrouds it: who were the Indus valley people? Were they the original inhabitants of India, or were they too invading migrants like the Aryans? Another thing that confounds historians and archaeologists is the sudden demise of this thriving civilisation. Were the invading Aryans responsible for it? And who were the Aryans, and when did they invade India, if indeed the did? Which came first, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata?

Since the date of the Aryan invasion of India (2000 BC) neatly coincides with the demise of the Indus valley civilisation, it was assumed by scholars like R.D. Banerji and Wheeler that the Aryans actually destroyed the Indus people in the "battle of the kings". Wheeler was quite clear about his verdict: "On circumstantial evidence, Indra stands accused."

The latest scholar to join the debate is Prof Rajesh Kochhar, Director, National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, New Delhi. In his book "The Vedic People — Their History and Geography", he argues that far more significant than the speculation on the origin of the Harappan cities was the speculation about their death. He refutes Wheeler and the rest strongly by declaring: "Even if Indra stands accused, he cannot be prosecuted in a Harappan court."

To prove his point, Kochhar goes about his business in a scientific fashion, basing his hypothesis on archaeological remains, Vedic and Zenda Avestan texts, linguistic comparison of the Sanskrit, Prakrit and Persian languages, geomorphology, astronomy and satellite imagery. He demolishes the argument that the Indus valley civilisation was an incidental extension of the developments of west Asia, by pointing at the discovery of Mehrgarh, about 250 km north-west of Mohenjodaro in the Kachi plain between the Indus and Baluchistan hills. Archaeological evidence there shows that the twin cities grew independent of any central or western Asian influence.

The other point he makes is that the Aryans were certainly not the original inhabitants of India, and that the Rigveda was composed in south Afghanistan. The main clue to the geography of the Rigveda is provided the river Saraswati on whose banks many hymns were composed. We must, Kochhar cautions, distinguish between the celebrated Saraswati of northern India and the river mentioned in the Rigveda, because the Harappan and the Rigvedic Aryans couldn't possibly have inhabited the heavily forested Gangetic plain. To clear the forests they would have needed tools made of iron, and since iron was unknown to them, this was beyond the capacities of both the Harappans and the early Rigvedic Aryans. Large-scale settlement on the east of the Yamuna-Ganga doab had to wait until after 900 BC, when iron came to be used in India.

Now, if we take it that the Rigveda is a pre-Iron Age document, then the Vedic people could not possibly have been familiar with the territory east of the Ganga. "This territory contains three rivers," says Kochhar, "whose names figure in the Rigveda: the Ganga itself, the Gomati and the Sarayu. The Ganga is an inconspicuous river in the Rigveda. Its name appears in a very late hymn. It has been accepted for a long time on contextual grounds alone that the Rigvedic Gomati is not the Gomati of east Uttar Pradesh but the present-day Gomal, a tributary of the Indus in Baluchistan. If the present-day Gomati is not the Rigvedic river, most probably it was not known to the Rigvedic people at all. This makes it even less likely that a river further east would have been known. The present-day Sarayu (Sarju) of the Ganga plain cannot therefore be the Rigvedic Sarayu. Where then was the Rigvedic Sarayu?"

Could the insignificant Ghaggar, then, be the mythical Saraswati? Basing his observations on satellite imagery of the region, Kochhar tells us that the Ghaggar is important not only from the Vedic point of view but also from that of the Harappans. The Ghaggar was the lifeline of the Harappans, because out of a sample of about 1,400 Harappan sites, more than 75 per cent are situated on the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra channel.

Hence, to learn more about India's pre-historic age we must study "the hydrological history of the River Ghaggar. Even if it turns out that the Ghaggar was a powerful river in 2000 BC, it would not automatically prove that the old
Ghaggar was the Rigvedic Sarasvati, because every mighty river need not be Sarasvati. But if it turns out (as is likely) that the Ghaggar has been more or less in its present state for say 10,000 years or more, then the Ghaggar would automatically be ruled out as a candidate for identification with the Rigvedic Sarasvati."

Let us now direct our attention to the Aryans. Since they are silent about their origins and their society, we are forced to look for evidence elsewhere, and Kochhar directs us to the Parsi text Zenda Avesta. Even a casual reader will be struck by the linguistic similarity of Sanskrit and Avestan texts. It has been suggested for a long time that both the Aryans and the Avestans (Parsis) were of the original Euro-Aryan descent. Here one might argue that is it not possible that the Aryans and the Avestan peoples were originally from India and migrated westwards later? This is quite impossible because India does not figure in the Avestan and Pahlavi literature; it is safe to conclude that "India could not have been the original home of the Avestan people. Secondly, the Avestan people do not exhibit any cultural layer preceding the Aryan. This shows that as in the case of the Indo-Aryans, the Aryan-ness of the ancient Iranians is intrinsic and not acquired."

The argument could go on and on, and we might still not come to a satisfactory conclusion because though we have rich Vedic literature, we have nothing material to prove the existence of the original inhabitants of India, especially of the Aryans. One scholar, Prof S.R. Rao, has been claiming for some time that he has deciphered the Indus valley script. He also, it appears, has excavated an underwater site in Gujarat, which is purported to be the ancient city of Dwarka. Unfortunately, Prof Rao has so far not been able to convince serious historians and archaeologists of the veracity of his discoveries.

Rajesh Kochhar's book is a welcome addition to the ever-growing literature on the subject. He does not propose any bold new hypothesis, but does succeed in giving credence to the theory that the Aryans came to India from Central Asia. What sets his book apart from the others is the author's command on the language, and the sheer felicity and brevity with which he writes, making his point sharply, concisely, and clearly. Research papers should be written like this. But he should have included some photographs of the archaeological sites, especially that of Mehrgarh.

Coming to the debate itself, Rajesh Kochhar has been bold enough to admit at the end that in "scientific interpretation, there is no last word." Top

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