Mahabharata Date based on Archaeology

Ganesha writing Mahabharata (Rajasthan, 17th century) (via Wikipedia)
Ganesha writing Mahabharata (Rajasthan, 17th century) (via Wikipedia)

The dating of Mahabharata is a contentious topic. There are some who believe such exercises in general are waste of time and one should focus on the message of the epic. There are others who believe it to be a fictional narrative and hence not worth dating. Among those interested in finding a date, there are many camps; some depend on puranic genealogies, others look at astronomical data,  others use Aryan Invasion/Migration etc. as their base and finally some who look at archaeological data. Sometimes each of these groups are fixated by their technique and ignore the others. But whatever be the technique — textual analysis or astronomical analysis — it has to reconcile with what archaeology has found on the ground.
Among the dates proposed for Mahabharata, there are a few major ones. To keep this in context, remember that the Mature Harappan Period was from 2500 – 1900 BCE.

  1. 1000 BCE – This is the date that fits into the Aryan Invasion/Migration narrative. But that date has support from other sources as well.
  2. 1924 BCE – Based on Puranic genealogy
  3. 2449 BCE – Based on a statement by Varahamihira in 505 CE
  4. 3067 BCE – Based on astronomical data
  5. 3137 BCE – Mentioned by Aryabhata and the Aihole inscription.

As the dates are pushed back into the Early Harappan period, it also has to reconcile with the material goods present during that period. It also has to explain various other references that are present in the text. For example, the text mentions Yavanas and the White Huns who obviously did not exist in the 3rd millennium BCE. We also have to look at the type and size of the houses from that period and the food and animals that were present.
Archaeology of Mahabharata
The places mentioned in Mahabharata still bear the same name; there is no other Hastinapura or Kurukshetra or Ahichchhatra. In the 1950s, archaeologists excavated various sites related to the Mahabharata and from that data we have an understanding of that period. These excavations were initially done when Nehru was setting the country down the path of poverty and C14 dating was not available. After his grandson had run the country to ground, C14 dating was applied and the dates did not vary much.
Archaeology of Hastinapura revealed five distinct layers of occupation with  dates ranging from pre-1200 BCE to the 11th and 15th centuries CE.

  • Period I (2000 – 1500 BCE). This was the oldest settlement layer found in Hastinapura. People of this period used something known as Ochre Colored Pottery. The tools they used included harpoons, antennae swords, and spear heads. Some anthropomorphic figures were also found.
  • Period II (~1100 – 900 BCE): We don’t know why the Period I settlement was abandoned, but the next settlers who came half a millennia later used pottery known as Painted Grey Ware. No huge palaces were discovered, but houses which had up to thirteen rooms and an open courtyard were found. There was also the transition to iron age with small nails, tongs, axes, arrowheads, spearheads and daggers. People spent their time cattle-breeding and farming eating rice, wheat and barley. They had domesticated various animals including the horse. Eventually, this settlement came to end due to floods from Ganga.
  • Period III (~ 6th century BCE):  Hastinapura was occupied once again, this time by people who used an advanced pottery type called Northern Black Polished Ware. This was the time of Buddha, Mahavira and the Mahajanapadas. The towns were properly planned with excellent drainage systems and wells. Due to the flourishing trade, there were lots of coins and weights. But this settlement too had a disastrous end with a great fire.
  • Period IV (2nd century BCE to third century CE) Like before, a new settlement started and from the coins of that period (imitation coins of the Kushans, from Mathura, and Yahudeyas), the occupation date can be said to be between second century BCE to third century CE). There is no evidence on how this settlement came to an end. The next layer starts during the Islamic period and is not relevant to the dating of Mahabharata.

With this data, not based on astronomy or linguistics, but on what was present in the region, an archaeologist can attempt to date the Mahabharata. If any of the events in Mahabharata really happened, then a post-Buddha date can be ignored because historical records from that period are available. This leaves two dates: either the events happened in the 2000 – 1500 BCE period which was immediately after the Mature Harappan period or it happened after 1100 BCE. There is a problem with the earlier date because Mathura, Indraprastha, Kurukshetra, Kampilya and various other places mentioned in the epic did not exist at that time. Dwaraka had settlements from the Harappan period, but then none of the sites associated with Krishna such as Mathura had anyone living there. This is the problem that people who push for an earlier date fail to address.
That leaves only the 1100 – 900 BCE date open and during that period Painted Grey Ware was  found in most of the sites associated with the epic suggesting habitation. There is another pieces of evidence as well. Puranic texts mention that when Hastinapura was destroyed by floods, people moved to Kaushambi. Archaeology revealed not only the floods, but also the settlement of Kausambi at a later date than the settlement of Hastinapura. This happened around 800 BCE according to the data from Kaushambi,  and since the flood happened during the time of the fifth descendant of Parikshit, the war could have happened around 900 BCE.
This 900 BCE date is based on archaeology and other ways of analyzing the text and astronomical data reveal other dates. If archaeology suggests a date of 900 BCE, how do we reconcile the fact that astronomical data suggests an earlier date? There are some clues from a similar exercise conducted on the Odyssey but is that a good explanation.? Though we don’t have a convincing explanation for how the authors of Mahabharata came up with data from an earlier period, but we do have an explanation for how they knew about Yavanas and Huns. Originally the text had 8,800 verses and later it was expanded to 24,000 verses; now it has more than 100,000 verses. All this expansion happened over a long period of time extending up to the Gupta period in the 4th century CE and contemporary art, architecture, and weapons entered the epic.
There is one final point to consider. Archaeology based on Mahabharata was conducted during the post-Independence period. Maybe more excavations might reveal new surprises. For example, archaeology around Magadha revealed that the place was developed around the second millennium BCE and Painted Grey Ware was found there. Still we don’t have older dates from other sites to push back the date of the epic.

  1. The Mahabharata and the Sindhu-Sarasvati Tradition by Subhash Kak
  2. This is how an archaeologist looks at the historicity of the Mahabharata by B.B. Lal from Mahabharata: The End of an Era (Yuganta) Editor: Ajay Mitra Shastri

15 thoughts on “Mahabharata Date based on Archaeology

  1. Please tune in deeper into Ahichhatra . There is a fascinating history of continuity revealing itself there. Dr Bhuvan Vikrama of ASI is leading this research & his updates will give you more. We now have 56 continous mitra-kings & their coinage, from Ahichhatra, all the way from 800 BC to the defeat of the Panchalas by Samudra Gupta 3rd century AD. Huge amount of coins & tarracotta deities. Most deities are Devis – proto-Durga. The first mahabharata related statues/ iconography , are only from the Gupta period ( eg. Jayadrath & Yudhister battle scene, in National museum, Delhi) even though so many many devi terracotta statues & buddhist , jain iconography from the 2nd century BC to 3rd century AD can be found at Ahichhatra. The spread of mahabharata is clearly from the Gupta period.

  2. But the doubt remains of Saraswati river. Even the most conservative estimate of it’s disappearance is 1900 BC. Some say it’s downfall started around 3000 BC. The Mahabharata mentions Saraswati river as a river with intermittent flow who vanishes and reappears ( For eg- Mbh 3.80.118) clearly pointing that Mahabharata took place at the time when that river was about to disappear. How come then the Mahabharata take place in 1100 BC if the river itself had disappeared long back ?

    1. Arya Bhatta`s calculation is most reliable. however, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee based on arya Bhatta wrote , in his essay Is Krishna a Historical Figure, that Krishna was born in about 3800BC. There are some revisions based on modern astronomy, which correspond to both of the above with a few hundred years differences.

  3. This is consistent with the book “The Holy Science” by Swami Yukteswar, which was written about a century ago, and has an interesting method for astronomical dating.

  4. Hi JK, did not visit your blog for a long time. Good to see you are still doing it so well. Best wishes.
    The dating issue esp. this quote from your write up may not be convincing enough to a non-archeologist :
    “There is a problem with the earlier date because Mathura, Indraprastha, Kurukshetra, Kampilya and various other places mentioned in the epic did not exist at that time. Dwaraka had settlements from the Harappan period, but then none of the sites associated with Krishna such as Mathura had anyone living there. This is the problem that people who push for an earlier date fail to address.”
    I had been following up on the work of Nilesh Oak. And I admit I am a fan. But the logic behind his work if not the found support from people with background in mathematics and amateurs in astronomy.
    His dates are around 5560 BC. In fact he claims to provide the exact date using a lot of internal evidence from Mahabharat which I am not knowledgable about and so cannot yet support. But I am deeply influenced by his method.
    I am not too much a supporter of archeology but I hope and wish that does not stop you from seeing this effort.

    1. This is why I mentioned that some people just pick astronomical data and believe in some date. Archaeologists believe in some other date which is few millenia apart. Unless you reconcile all this data, it does not give a convincing argument on when each part of the epic was written by its authors.

  5. u forgot to share a archeological evidence he Mahabharata, as available now, comprises over 100,000 verses, but earlier it consisted of 24,000 verses and called the Bharata. Still earlier, it had only 8,000 verses, called the Jaya. Thus, what indeed is the original can’t be determined. So where the 100000 verses came from??

  6. please refer to Nicholas Kazanas (google his website), a Greek Indologist. He wrote an excellent report on dating of Mahabharata by analyzing the appearance or lack there of the ‘proper nouns’ like cities etc and arrived at a date around 3500 BCE .

  7. Hello JK,
    Agree entirely with the article. There must be archeological evidence for any dates and as archeological evidence exists from 1900 to 1700 BC or 1000-900 BC for the Ganges civilizations this must be the likely date when the Mahabharat was composed (note that I say composed here and not that the War itself took place). This also agrees well with the Vedic Age coinciding with Indus Valley Civilization upto 1500 followed by the Epic age thereafter and then by the Puranic age during the time of the Janapadas.
    But in that case how do we account for the astronomical dates of around 3000 BC? There is a lot of evidence for this also. One common sense answer is that the battle did take place later but earlier dates were appended as a sort of whimsical poetic flourish but this is not satisfactory. Another answer would be to question the astronomical data itself. This also is not acceptable.
    I believe the answer is that the core of the Mahabharat survived as a legend from the Vedic Age during the Ind0-Saraswati Civilization. The Vedas contain the famous references to the ’10 Kings War’ between the Bharats and their enemies in Mandala 7. Perhaps it was this battle itself which was remembered, or a later battle among the Bharatas after they emerged victorious, which is more likely. This battle took place in 3000 BC and was transmitted as a legend, which was elaborated by bards in the Gangetic civilization so that the references became those of the Ganges and their own cities, and only the core of the early battle survived in the dates and some other factors.
    Of course the real breakthrough would be if we could find archaeological evidence of large cities along the Ganges from around 3000 BC. Can we be sure that the ASI dug deep enough?? 🙂
    BTW, your RSS feed is not working.

    1. You people are simply depending upon speculative data about the epics’ reality. No one knows what happened to Harappans at the end and iron did not appear in Indian sub-continent before1100BC as is also written above in Hastinapur’s excavations (and elsewhere also). Now you note that we have ourselves made an important DISCOVERY. Late Harappans were pushed towards northeast hills by long droughts (is the main cause of end of Harappan era). They started using stone tools (what you call now Soanian) in the absence of long distance trade and copper. We visited Bara (Ropar) and also found in its excavation done by a supdt Archeologist of ASI there were numerous stone tools-no metal. The another site visited by us Dhermajra also showed Soanian type stone tools with late -Harappan pottery. Our excavation at one site in dist Bilaspur(HP) revealed thousands of typical stone tools with Harappan potsherds. Some sites dated to around 4000 years ago near Nangal yielded hundreds of stone tools with BRW & Harappan potsherds (articles published in BIPPA-2012, Current Science 2009, Antiquity 2011, Quaternary International 2010-all International peer review journals-you can read).All this shows that Harappans were almost finished, could not be Aryans originally. Aryans came from outside and overpowered them slowly-no war etc was needed by them. See, prehistory is drastically going to change and actually epics were written in early historic periods up to Gupta period. So Aryans were not indigenous as Harappans had lost everything to droughts including their so developed script. If they wre Aryans, coud not they carry their script also to later periods? All hypothetical stories are being spread to prove something wrong as RIGHT!!

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