Why Perpetuate Myths? A Fresh Look at Ancient
Prof. B. B. Lal,
Director General (Retd.),
Archaeological Survey of India
Lecture given at
Bhopal on 8 November 2002 under the auspices of the
National Council of Educational Research and Training
(NCERT), New Delhi.
For a pretty long time the following four myths have been
obscuring our vision of India’s past
Myth 1: ‘There
was an Aryan invasion of India’
Myth 2: ‘The Harappans were a Dravidian-speaking
Myth 3: ‘The Rigvedic Sarasvati was the Helmand
of Afghanistan,’ and
Myth 4: ‘The Harappan culture became extinct’
And here is how these myths came into being.
In the nineteenth century a German scholar, F. Max Muller,
dated the Vedas, on a very ad hoc basis, to 1200 BC. Granting
that the Sutra literature may have existed in the
sixth-fifth centuries BC, he assigned a duration of two
hundred years to each of the preceding literary periods,
namely those of the Aranyakas, Brahmanas
and Vedas and thus arrived at the figure of 1200
BC for the last-named texts. However, when his own colleagues,
like Goldstucker, Whitney and Wilson, challenged him, he
stated that his dating was ‘merely hypothetical’
and confessed: ‘Whether the Vedic hymns were
composed in 1000 or 1500 or 2000 or 3000 BC, no power on
earth will ever determine.’ However, the
saddest part of the story is that his blind followers, both
in India and abroad, even today swear by 1200 BC and do
not dare cross this Laksmana rekha.
Be that as it may. The first quarter of the twentieth century
witnessed the discovery of an altogether unknown civilization
on the Indian subcontinent, datable to the third millennium
BC. Called variously the Harappan, Indus or Indus-Sarasvati
Civilization, it is characterised, amongst other things,
by systematic town-planning, an underground drainage, excellently
engraved seals, a monumental script, a refined system of
weights and measures and some beautiful statuary. However,
recent excavations have thrown new light on various
other aspects of this civilization, which call for a fresh
look at many issues connected with it.
Radiocarbon dates indicate that its roots go back to the
5th millennium BC, while its peak period lay between 2600
and 2000 BC, after which began its decline.
With the discovery of the Harappan Civilization there also
started a debate about its authors. Because of Max Muller’s
fatwa that the Vedas were not earlier than 1200 BC, it was
argued that this civilization could not be associated with
the Vedic people. Since the only other major language spoken
on the subcontinent was the Dravidian it was but natural
at that point of time to assume that the Dravidian-speakers
were its authors.
In 1946 Sir Mortimer Wheeler carried out further excavations
at Harappa and discovered a fortification wall around one
of the mounds. However, his interpretation of it was nothing
more than a mere flight of imagination. Since the Rigveda
refers to Indra as puramdara (destroyer of forts),
he jumped at the idea that there was an 'Aryan invasion’
which destroyed the Harappan Civilization, and the latter
became ‘extinct'. To give a prop
to his thesis, he referred to certain skeletal remains found
at Mohenjo-daro, which, he held, provided evidence of a
‘massacre’ by the invaders.
If these skeletons are at all to be associated with a massacre
by invaders, one expects that these would have come from
the latest level. But the hard fact is that these
came from various levels, some from the middle and
some from the late, and some were found in deposits which
accumulated after the site had been abandoned.
Thus, there is no case for a massacre; and Professor George
F. Dales of the University of California, Berkeley, has
rightly dubbed it as a ‘mythical massacre’.
Further, if there at all was an invasion, one expects at
the site the weapons of warfare as also some remains of
the material culture of the invaders. But there was no such
evidence. On the other hand, there is a clear case
of cultural continuity, not only at Mohenjo-daro
but also at other Harappa Culture sites.
Commenting on this issue, Lord Colin Renfrew (UK) avers:
‘If one checks the dozen references in the Rigveda
to the Seven Rivers, there is nothing in any of
them that to me implies invasion. … Despite Wheeler’s
comments, it is difficult to see what is particularly non-Aryan
about the Indus Valley Civilization.
After a thorough analysis
of the skeletal data, Professor Hemphill (of USA) holds:
‘As for the question of biological continuity within
the Indus Valley, two discontinuities appear to exist. The
first occurs between 6000 and 4500 BC. The second occurs
at some point after 800 BC but before 200 BC.’ It
is, thus, abundantly clear that no new people entered
the Indus Valley between 4500 BC and 800 BC. So, where
is any case for an ‘Aryan invasion’ around 1500-1200
Now to the second myth, viz.
the ‘Harappan = Dravidian’ equation. It has
been made out that the Aryan invaders drove away the ‘Dravidian-speaking’
Harappans to South India but a small section somehow managed
to stay on in Baluchistan, speaking the Brahui language.
However, many scholars do not agree that Brahui belongs
to the Dravidian group. Some even hold that the Brahui-speaking
people migrated to that region from elsewhere during the
medieval times. Further, if the so-called Dravidian-speaking
Harappans were pushed down to South India, one expects some
Harappan sites over there. But the hard fact is that in
none of the four Dravidian-speaking States of South India,
viz. Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala do
we have even a single site of the Harappan Culture!!
On the other hand, what we do have in South India about
that time is a neolithic culture. Do then the proponents
of the ‘Harappan = Dravidian’ equation expect
us to believe that the urban Harappans, on being sent away
to South India, shed away overnight their urban characteristics
and took to a Stone Age way of living?
Again, it has been observed
all over the world that even if the original inhabitants
are pushed out of an area, some of the rivers, mountains
and towns in that area continue to bear the original names.
Thus, for example, even after the Europeans overran
North America and gave their own names to the towns, such
as New York, New Jersey, etc., many of the names of the
towns and rivers given by the earlier inhabitants, viz.
the Red Indians, may still be noted: for example, Chicago
and Massachusetts as those of towns and Missouri and Mississippi
as of rivers. But in the entire region once occupied
by the Harappans there is not even a single name of river,
mountain or town which can claim a Dravidian origin. Why?
The obvious answer is that the Harappans were not a Dravidian-speaking
Let us deal with the third
myth, viz. that the Helmand of Afghanistan was the Rigvedic
Sarasvati. This is totally wrong. According to RV
10.75.5, it lay between the Yamuna and Sutlej
(imam me Gange Yamune Sarasvati Sutudri stotam sachata
Parusnya…). RV 3.23.4 states that the
Drishadvati and Apaya were
its tributaries (Drishadvatyam manusa Apayam
Sarasvatyam revadagne didihi…). Further, RV
7.95.2 clearly mentions that the Sarasvati flowed
all the way from the mountains to the sea (ekachetat
Sarasvati nadinam suchir yati giribhya a samudrat…).
In Afghanistan there are no rivers by the name of
Yamuna and Sutlej, nor are there Drishadvati and Apaya.
Further, there is no sea in Afghanistan. So how can the
Rigvedic Sarasvati be placed there? All this evidence —
positive in the case of India and negative in the case of
Afghanistan — clinches the issue: the present-day
Sarasvati-Ghaggar combine, though now dry at places, does
represent the Rigvedic Sarasvati (see Figs.
1 and 2); the Helmand of Afghanistan does
Earlier we had established that the Harappans were not a
Dravidian-speaking people. Were then they the Sanskrit-speaking
Vedic people? Against such an equation the following four
objections have been raised. First, the Vedic Aryans were
‘nomads’, whereas the Harappan Civilization
had a major urban component. Secondly, the Vedas refer to
the horse, whereas the Harappan Civilization is thought
to be unfamiliar with it. Thirdly, the Vedic carts had spoked
wheels, whereas the Harappan vehicles are supposed to be
bereft of such wheels. And finally, since according to the
dating of Max Muller the Vedas cannot be earlier than 1200
BC and the Harappan Civilization belonged to the third millennium
BC, how can the two be equated?
Fig. 1. The Saraswati basin in the 3rd
Unlike nomads, the Vedic people
lived a settled life and even constructed forts. In RV
10.101.8 the devotee’s prayer is: ‘[O
gods] make strong forts as of metal, safe from assailants
4.30.20 refers to ‘a hundred fortresses of
stone’. Sometimes these had a hundred
arms (RV 7.15.14: purbhava satabhujih).
The Vedic people carried on trade, not merely on land but
also across the sea. RV 9.33.6 states: ‘From
every side, O Soma, for our profit, pour thou forth
four seas filled with a thousand-fold riches (rayah
samudranchaturo asmabhyam soma visvatah. Apavasva sahasrinah)’.
Further, the ships used in sea-trade were not petty ones
but could be as large as having a hundred oars
(sataritra, RV 1.116.5).
Fig. 2. Landsat imagery of Sindh region,
showing the possible course of the Saraswati beyond
Marot through the Nara into the Rann of Kachchha.
The Rann is conspicuous because of the high reflectance
(white tone) of its encrustation.
Even on the political and administrative
fronts, the Vedic people were highly organised. Not only
did they have sabhas and samitis
which dealt with legislative and perhaps judiciary matters,
but they also had a well-established hierarchy amongst the
rulers, viz. samrat, rajan and rajaka. Thus, in
RV 6.27.8 Abhyavarti Chayamana is stated to be
a Samrat. (Soverign), while RV 8.21.8
states that, dwelling beside the Sarasvati river, Chitra
alone is the Rajan (king) while the rest are mere
Rajakas (kinglings or petty chieftains).
That these gradations were absolutely real is duly confirmed
by the Satapatha Brahmana (V.1.1.12-13), which
says: ‘By offering the Rajasuya he becomes
Raja and by the Vajapeya he becomes Samrat,
and the office of the Rajan is lower and
that of the Samraj, the higher (raja
vai rajasuyenestva bhavati, samrat vajapeyena l avaram hi
rajyam param samrajyam).
In his report on Mohenjo-daro, Mackay states: ‘Perhaps
the most interesting of the model animals is one that
I personally take to represent the horse.’
Wheeler also confirmed the view of Mackay. A lot more evidence
has come to light since then. Lothal has
yielded not only a terracotta figure of the horse
(Fig. 3) but some faunal remains as well. On the faunal remains from Surkotada,
the renowned international authority on horse-bones, Sandor
Bokonyi, Hungary, states: ‘The occurrence of true
horse (Equus Caballus L.) was evidenced by the
enamel pattern of the upper and lower cheek and teeth and
by the size and form of the incisors and phalanges (toe
bones).’ In addition, there are quite a few other
Harappan sites, such as Kalibangan and Rupnagar, which have
yielded the faunal remains of the horse.
Fig. 3. Lothal: Terracotta horse. Mature
The spoked wheel
It is absolutely wrong to say that the Harappans did not
use the spoked wheel. While it would be too much to expect
the remains of wooden wheels from the excavations, because
of the hot and humid climate of our country which destroys
all organic material in the course of time — the Harappan
Civilization is nearly 5,000 years old, the terracotta models,
recovered from many Harappan sites, clearly establish that
the Harappans were fully familiar with the spoked wheel.
On the specimens found at Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi (Fig.4),
the spokes of the wheel are shown by painted lines radiating
from the central hub to the periphery, whereas in the case
of specimens from Banawali these are executed in low relief
(Fig.5) — a technique which continued even into the
Fig. 4. Rakhigarhi: Terracotta wheel.
The painted lines radiating from the central hub
and reaching the circumference clearly represent
the spokes of the wheel. Mature Harappan.
Fig. 5. Banawali: Terracotta wheels showing
the spokes in low relief. The specimen on the left
is worn out but the spokes may still be seen. The
specimen on the right, though broken, shows the
spokes very clearly. Mature Harappan.
Now to the chronological horizon of the Vedas.
The Harappan settlement at Kalibangan in Rajasthan was abandoned,
while it was still in a mature stage, because of the drying
up of the adjacent Sarasvati river. This evidence has been
thoroughly worked out by Italian and Indian hydrologists,
and Raikes, the leader, aptly captions his paper: ‘Kalibangan:
Death from Natural Causes.’ According to the radiocarbon
dates, this abandonment took place around 2000-1900 BC.
Eminent geologists, V. M. K. Puri and B. C. Verma, have
demonstrated how the Sarasvati originated from the Himalayan
glaciers and how subsequently its channel got blocked because
of tectonic movements in the Himalayas, as a result of which
the original channel dried up and its water got diverted
to the Yamuna.
Putting together the entire archaeological, radiocarbon-dating,
hydrological, geological and literary evidence, the following
conclusion becomes inescapable, viz. that since
during the Rigvedic times the Sarasvati was a mighty flowing
river and according to the archaeological-radiocarbon-dating-cum-hydrological
evidence this river dried up around 2000 BC, the Rigveda
has got to be earlier than 2000 BC. How much earlier,
it would, of course, be anybody’s guess.
As is absolutely clear from RV 10.75.5-6, the entire
area right from the Ganga on the east to the Indus on the
west was occupied by the Rigvedic Aryans. Further, since
the Rigveda must be dated to a period prior to 2000 BC,
a question may straightaway be posed: Which archaeological
culture covered the entire region from the Ganga on the
east to the Indus on the west during the period prior
to 2000 BC? Please think coolly and dispassionately. If
you do that, you cannot escape the inevitable conclusion:
It was none other than the Harappan Civilization itself
(Fig. 6). However, in spite of such strong evidence in support
of a Vedic = Harappan equation, it would be prudent, as
I have all along advocated, to put this equation on hold
until the Harappan script is satisfactorily deciphered.
It is needless to add that all the tall claims made so far
in this respect are not tenable at all. Sorry!
There is also no truth in the fourth myth, viz.
that the Harappa Culture became ‘extinct’.
What had really happened was that the curve of the Harappa
Culture, which began to shoot up around 2600 BC and reached
its peak, in the centuries that followed, began its downward
journey around 2000 BC. Several factors seem to have contributed
to it. Over-exploitation and consequent wearing out of the
landscape must have led to a fall in agricultural production.
Added to it was probably a change in the climate towards
aridity. And no less significant was a marked fall in trade,
both internal as well as external. As a result of all this,
there was no longer the affluence that used to characterise
this civilization. The cities began to disappear and there
was a reversion to a rural scenario. Thus, there was no
doubt a set-back in the standards of living but no
extinction of the culture itself. In my recent
book, The Sarasvati Flows On, I have dealt extensively
with this aspect of continuity, giving comparable photographs
of the Harappan objects and the present ones. In a nutshell,
let it be stated here that whichever walk of life you talk
about, you will find in it the reflection of the Harappa
Culture: be it agriculture, cooking habits, personal make-up,
ornaments, objects of toiletry, games played by children
or adults, transport by road or river, folk tales, religious
practices and so on. Here we give just a few examples. The
excavation at Kalibangan has brought to light an agricultural
field dating back to circa 2800 BC. It is characterised
by a criss-cross pattern of the furrows (Fig. 7). Exactly
the same pattern of ploughing the fields is followed even
today in northern Rajasthan (Fig. 8), Haryana and western
Uttar Pradesh. Today mustard is grown in the widely-distanced
furrows and chickpea in the narrower ones (Fig. 9) and it
is most likely that these very crops were grown in a similar
manner during the Harappan times; we do have evidence of
both these items from the Harappan levels. Kalibangan has
also yielded a linga-cum-yoni
(Fig. 10) of the same type as is worshipped now (Fig .11).
This very site, along with Banawali, Rakhigarhi
and Lothal, has brought to light ‘fire‑altars’,
indicating rituals associated with fire. In the illustration
given here (Fig. 12) there were originally seven fire-altars,
some of which have been disturbed by a subsequent drain. There
is a north‑south wall at the back, indicating that the
performer of the ritual had to face the east. In the front
may be seen the lower half of a jar in which were found ash
and charcoal, signifying that fire was kept ready for the
ritual. Close to these fire‑altars, on the left (not
seen in the picture), there were a well and a bathing pavement,
suggesting that a ceremonial bath constituted a part of the
ritual. (It needs to be clarified that these fire-altars have
nothing to do with those of the Parsis.)
Fig. 12. Kalibangan: A row
of seven “fire-altars” discovered on a platform.
(These were, however, disturbed by a subsequent drain.)
It would appear
to be a mere tale if it was stated that yogic
asanas, which are now becoming fashionable even
with the elites, were being already practised by the Harappans
Fig. 13. Terracotta figurines
in Yogic asanas: 1-4, from Harappa; 5-6, from Mohenjo-daro.
A married Hindu woman usually applies sindura
(vermilion) to the manga (the line of partition
of the hair on the head; Fig.14). Though
most surprising, yet it is a fact that Harappan ladies did
the same, as evidenced by many female terracotta figurines
(Figs.15 and 16). In these terracottas, the ornaments are
painted yellow to indicate that these were made of gold,
the hair is black, while a red colour has been applied in
the manga, indicating the use of vermilion. Even
the Hindu way of greeting with a namaste (Fig.17)
is rooted in the Harappan Culture, as shown by certain other
terracotta figures (Fig.18).
Fig. 14. Bihar Chief Minister
Shrimati Rabri Devi and her husband Shri Laloo Prasad
Yadav, in the State capital, Patna. Mark the vermilion
in the manga of the lady, which is an indicator of
her marital status.
Figs. 15 & 16. Nausharo
(Pakistan): Terracotta female figures, painted. The
yellow colour on ornaments suggests that these
were made of gold; the hair is black, while the red
on the medial partition-line of the hair indicates
the use of vermilion. 2800-2600 BC.
Fig. 17. Former
President of India, Shri K. R. Narayanan (extreme
left), being greeted with namaste by the Prime Minister,
Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee (extreme right), Shri L.
K. Advani (middle) and others on the eve of the President's
departure on a foreign tour.
Fig. 18. Harappa: A terracotta
figure greeting with namaste. Mature Harappan.
From the foregoing it must
have become abundantly clear that all the four theories,
viz. that there was an ‘Aryan Invasion of India’,
that the ‘Harappans were a Dravidian-speaking People’,
that the ‘Rigvedic Sarasvati is the Helmand of Afghanistan’
and that there was an ‘Extinction of the Harappa Culture’,
are nothing more than mere myths which, once created, have
subconsciously been perpetuated. Since these have coloured
our vision of India’s past, the sooner these are cast
away the better would it be. How long must we continue
to bury our heads, ostrich-like, into the sand of ignorance?
In retrospect. One is set wondering as to
why and how this great civilization of the Indian
subcontinent — called variously the Harappan,
Indus or Indus‑Sarasvati Civilization and whose roots
go as deep as the fifth millennium BC — still
lives on, not as a fugitive but as a vital organ
of our socio‑cultural fabric. The Indian psyche has
indeed been pondering over this great cultural phenomenon
of ‘livingness’, and the quest has very aptly
been echoed by a great Indian poet and thinker, Allama Iqbal,
in these words:
sab mit gaye jahan se
Ab tak magar hai baqi namo‑nisan hamara
Kuchh bat hai ki hasti mitati nahin hamari
Sadiyon raha hai dusman daur‑i‑zaman hamara
The poet says that whereas the ancient civilizations
of Greece, Egypt and Rome have all disappeared from this world,
the basic elements of our civilization still continue. Although
world events have been inimical to us for centuries, there
is ‘something’ in our civilization which has withstood
What is that ‘something’, some
inherent strength? Doubtless it lies in the liberal
character of the Indian civilization, which allows for cross-fertilisation
with other cultures, without losing its own identity.
One may well recall the words of the greatest man of our times,
Mahatma Gandhi: Let me keep my doors and windows wide open
so that fresh air may enter from all directions. Nevertheless,
he was firmly seated in his room (the soul). The soul
of India lives on!!