Sunday, October 16, 2005

Revisioning Indian history

I refer to G. Feuerstein, S. Kak, and D. Frawley, "In Search of the Cradle of Civilization", Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Publications, 2001. This book attempts a paradigm shift in the study of Indian history. The conventional departments of history in India, dominated by Marxist academics such as Romila Thapar, K.N. Panikkar, Sarvapalli Gopal and Gyanendra Pandey, would therefore be uncomfortable with its approach. The book makes for an interesting read although I am skeptical at the level of speculation not always grounded on rigorous historical research. For this posting, I rely on those sections based on solid archeological evidence alone.

Historians have traditionally dated the inception of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa to 2,700 BC. However, the earliest layers of both cities are inaccessible to archeologists due to the water table impeding further excavation. It is therefore presumed that the bottom layers of the urbanized Indus Valley civilization date to 3,000 BC or before.

However, excavation by American archeologists in Mehrgarh in Baluchistan in the 1990s, reveal that the beginnings of Indic civilization had its origins considerably earlier i.e. in 6,500 BC. Like Jericho in Palestine that has been continuously inhabited since 9,000 BC and the village of Catal Huyuk in Turkey that dates back to the 7th millennium BC, Mehrgarh represents one of the oldest settlements in history. It marks the beginnings of the agricultural revolution in the Indian subcontinent and is a direct precursor to the Indus valley civilization.

Mehrgarh epitomized the beginnings of urban life in ancient India. It had an area of two square kilometers and an estimated population of 20,000 people in 6,000 BC. Archeologists have discovered several burial grounds within Mehrgarh, rectangular houses consisting of between four to six rooms made out of mud bricks and painted red ware pottery with complex animal decorations. The town had many buildings with work rooms.

Excavations reveal that Mehrgarh traded with the early world. It imported jade and turquoise from central Asia, lapis lazuli from what is now northern Afghanistan, and other items from South India. Skeletal remains indicate that the population was multi-racial. The Mehrgarh farmers cultivated cotton as early as the fifth millennium BC. The stylized female figurines appear to be the prototype of the later Indus valley sculptures. The use of brass in conjunction with crude stone implements (i.e. the chalcolithic era) in Mehrgarh has been dated to 5,000 BC. One can surmise that cattle were first domesticated in Mehrgarh. Going by the animal motifs painted on the rough ceramic ware excavated there, it appears that cattle played a significant economic role much as in rural India today.

The Mehrgarh culture evolved into the successor Indus valley civilization. Mohenjo Daro, Harappa, Kalibangan, Amri and affiliate cities represented an urban and maritime civilization in 2500 BC that traded extensively with the Near East. The associated Indus valley port cities of Lothal in India and Sutkagen Dor in Pakistan reveal brisk mercantile activity with lands across the sea that included Bahrain, Mesopotamia and South India. Indian archeologists had discovered a now submerged port city off the shore of Gujarat in the 1990s that also belonged to the Indus valley civilization. Much of the iconography of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa reminds one of contemporary Hindu motifs. The changes in weather patterns and the growing desertification of the previously lush Indus region in 1900 BC undermined the conditions for a rich agricultural surplus. The drying up of river systems, as evidenced by satellite imagery, forced civilization to shift to the eastern Punjab/Haryana and later to the Gangetic valley.

It is evident that the commencement of Indian history preceded Mohenjo Daro and Harappa. The earlier settlement in Mehrgarh marks the start of Indic civilization. This era in the historical time-line of India needs to be explored further in a rigorous manner. While the Indian Council of Historical Research may not be equal to the task, independent historians such as Meenakshi Jain and B.B. Lal need to take up the challenge. Failure to do so would mean that American universities remain the only meaningful centers of Indian history studies!


Anonymous said...

The Harappan civilization helped define contemporary Hinduism. The baked clay seals excavated indicate this. The images of a person (a yogi?) meditating in the forest, of seven women (the sapta matrika?) venerating a peepul tree and the recurrent symbolism of the horned bull (nandi?) are examples. The linga, the figurines of the mother goddess and the priest-king excavated also support this theory. There appeared to be an emphasis on the public tank like Hindu temples today despite each house having a separate washing facility. It is not clear whether this emphasis on the ritual of the public bath served a religious purpose. Is there similar evidence in Mehrgarh?

froginthewell said...

Nice post. Though what I have read has been from Michael Danino in the D. Frawley camp, and it did not seem to me to be speculation-based.

Failure to do so would mean that American universities remain the only meaningful centers of Indian history studies!

I don't see it as obvious that American Universities are any meaningful as centers of Indian history studies.

I still perceive a difference in the way people handle Greek and Roman histories vis-a-vis their handling of histories of other cultures.

As for the religious bath thing, I remember hearing some justification as to why it should have been religious but have forgotten.

sanjay said...

Some recent discoveries have major, still unexplored, implications for Indian history:

1. 9500 yr old site discovered at Gulf Of Cambay

2. Genetics: All non African people descendend from ancestors in India/ S.E. Asia – Oxford DNA study

3. Discoveries in 2002 pushed the date of Taxila by 600+ yrs. Sir John Marshall had dated Taxila back to 518 BC. The new find indicates the existence of cities in the Taxila valley between 1200 BC and 1100 BC. (Source: Mahmood Zaman, DAWN, Karachi, Lahore, June 2, 2002). Interesting that this becomes the second ancient site (Mohenjodaro being the first) where a complex drainage system has been found. Even more intriguing is the discovery of a Mauryan-era drainage network. The clear possibility exists of an Indus Valley-Taxila-Mauryan empire lineage.

In my view, besides the usual "mainstream vs revisionist" positions on India history, there is a third - more authentically & legitimately Indian - position that one can hold. Ironically, this position is one that is being increasingly supported by recent scholarship - that history is little more than literaure or poetry i.e. it is irrelevant.

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Anonymous said...

Great post, Jaffna. As supplemental reading material, you can also refer David Frawley's Gods Sages and Kings. Exclusively using Rig Vedic hymns, Frawley traces various aspects of ancient Indian life. I'll post a review on my blog once I'm done reading it.


Rohit De said...

The last time Meenakshi Jain wrote a textbook (NCERT) it was ripe with inaccuracies, errors and possibly copyvios.

Lets look at the review of her latest work , leave out the safrron- leftist issue and stick to decent academic standards i.e. good footnoting.

Meenakshi Jain has said

"On page 194, the author says that Aurangazeb died at Aurangabad. (He died at Ahmadnagar). On page 132 the author says that Rana Sanga died in the Battle of Khanua. (In fact, he was not killed in battle at all; he fled from the battlefield)"

2. Errors of omission. Important facts left out of the narrative, conveying thereby an incomplete understanding of the particular topic. Twenty-three of the errors listed in the Index in Medieval India come under this category.

Examples: In the description of Shivaji's administration (page 190-91) the author does not mention Shivaji's levy of chauth (one-fourth of revenue) and sardeshmukhi (an additional one tenth), which he exacted from areas not under his control with the threat of sacking those regions that did not pay up. In levying these exactions and in the punishment for non-payment, he did not differentiate between Hindus and Muslims. Or, the author's total omission of Akbar's views and actions on social matters, like his prohibition of slave trade, disapproval of sati and prohibition of involuntary sati. Or, when the author lists the appalling record of the number of Bahmani kings murdered, deposed, and blinded, she fails to mention that other ruling dynasties of that period had blood on their hands too. For example, the practice amongst the Rajputs and the Vijaynagar ruling classes of killing hundreds of wives, concubines and slave girls of a ruler when he died. The logic of exclusion suggests that the author would like to associate violence and cruelty with Muslims rather than with the conventions and practices that were common to all medieval ruling classes.

Even bad grammar!

Anonymous said...

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doubtinggaurav said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
doubtinggaurav said...


I think Rana Sanga did not die in Battle of Khanua, but some time later.

Marathas did tax territories outside their control, for which they were not popular (still they were much better than sultans).
Regarding Rajput I think they did have a practice of "Johar" (Sati), but I think it started with Islamic invasion.

I agree with you that a broader understanding of our history is required, however I am afraid that this will not be forthcoming soon,
History has long been a battle ground of ideologies.

One of the important reason for thrust behind AIT(Aryan invasion theory) was that it could be used to justify European colonialism (one group of outsiders (European)supplanting another group of outsiders (Aryan)).
later on AIT and Aryans were used as Strawmen as justification for dravidian movement (i.e Aryans vs Dravids),
evangelism and communism, the idea being of oppressor vs oppressed.
Now even though AIT has been discredited (and sought to be replaced by Aryan Migration Theory, which in my opinion is ad hocism at best), use of Aryan bogey continues to be used to justify communist and other causes.
In retrospect, I don't think AIT had much of leg to stand on,
it was solely based on colonization POV.
Passages from RigVeda taken out of context and with incorrect translation were used to justify AIT.
If not for ulterior motives, this theory should have been discounted long ago.
The result of this brinkmanship is that history is one of the most boring subjects today.
In order to follow so called scientific method , the text is made most uninteresting, even to those who may be interested in it.
I speak this from personal experience.
For my life I can not understand why would a 12 year kid be interested in reading 150 page long description of architectue and agriculture in Harappa.

I would prefer "Amar Chitra Katha" any day for these scientific books


sanjay said...

Recently, several intellectuals have made the point that an obsession with history (more specifically, an historical narrative) is primarily a Western phenomenon. For the european, a historical grand narrative that stood unbroken & unchallenged was a marker of the current power equation (winner take all including the writing of history), an alpha-male type display. Any challenge to it was to be fiercely resisted because it represented an actual or potential erosion of power.

Others have noted with irony the sight of Indians clawing & fighting about historical narratives & have concluded that it demonstrates the extent to which both the indian Left & the Right remain mentally colonized to this day.

Note the recent furore over the movie Mangal Pandey (which went all the way to L.S.) & the potential of conflicting historical narratives to lead to actual street conflict.

There is yet a third group of intellectuals who are re-examining the reaction of europeans upon their first encounter with Indian history. European scholars were aghast "Indians have no history, nor a concrete sense of history", they sniffed. Without history, you're "pre-historic' & "backward", they claimed.

This judgement made some of our babus very ashamed & they worked up significant amounts of sweat as they went about the task of trying to prove the white folks wrong. Very few indians, including gandhiji btw, reflected deeply about why Indians were ahistorical & chose NOT to write grand historical narratives.

To understand gandhi's support for ahistoricity, lets consider an historically attested event such as the holocaust. There are two historical narratives one could construct around this event:

1. The holocaust must never happen to the JEWISH people again
2. The holocaust must never happen to ANY people again

Method #1 leads to a narrative which freezes Jews as perpetual victims; nazis/ germans as perpetual evil doers. Even in 2042, kids will be taught what the germans did to the jews 100 yrs ago. Once community becomes evil forever vs. the other.

Method #2 recognizes that good & evil resides within each of us, it is not "us vs them", no one is perpetually good, nor perpetually evil. There is no point in perpetually demonizing one single community at the expense of another. Therefore, it leads to a historical paradigm where real names of people & communities are erased. Yet, there is also the imperative of recognizing that evil did happen & that we do need to learn from history. So, you mythologize the names - the good guys become the pandavas; the bad guys become the kauravas. You erase the historical tracks, yet you preserve the learning from history.

#2 leads to the ahistorical paradigm which our ancestors must have thought was correct for India.

In my view, if Secular-Right India is seeking a position on Indian history, then it is more authentically Indian, more principled, more defensible, more sensible, more evolved to choose the ahistorical position than to get mired in Left vs Right debates. There are far more important things to do.


Gaurang said...

This is with reference to the above post by Sanjay.

Sanjay, I think that sometimes #1 is also important.

History, apart from lessons, also provides the very very important sense of "meaning" and "identity". The meaning and identity part of history does not come out if you dont have more particulars about the event (like a narrative, timing details, who-who, etc).

For example, lets imagine a situation similar to the movie "Memento" -- lets say he keeps forgetting what happenned in his past, but still he manages to keep lessons he learns by writing it onto pieces of papers in his pocket. Now, at any given time, he will have all the lessons he learnt in his life, but he wont know what to do now, and why. He wont know who he is, and what is his meaning and purpose.

Knowing lessons means he will know the rules of the game, but he will have no clue as regards to the game's objective.


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