The Khambat Story

In 1293 CE, Marco Polo visited a port town called ‘Cambaet’ or Khambat in Gujarat and wrote

In 1468, three decades before Vasco da Gama reached Malabar, a Russian horse-dealer named Afanasy Nikitin too reached there and was impressed with the riches. The Economic Times has an article on this city, which is no longer by the sea.

The prosperity of Khambat also had a significant impact on history. Take for instance the period around 1535 when Bahadur Shah, the Sultan of Gujarat refused to bow to Mughal imperial authority. The Mughals, newcomers to India, were eager to extent their reign across the country after having defeated the Lodi king at Panipat. Faced with an attack by the Mughal emperor Humayun, the Gujarat Sultan was confident of beating the enemy back, his confidence in his military being based on two elements.
However, the Mughal army pressed on, its ranks inflated by men seeking a share of Khambat’s wealth. The port town’s wealth became its own undoing and it burnt for three days in the wake of the Mughal attack. It also gave the Mughals their first view of the sea and of the opportunities it offered.
A generation later, Humayun’s son Akbar set his sights on Gujarat. He was motivated by the twin needs of attaining a sea outlet for his land-locked empire and for subduing the robber/baron nobles who were looting the wealth of the state. If men were drawn to India via Khambat, so were ideas. For Akbar, his first glimpse of the sea at Khambat also brought him into contact with merchants from Portugal, Turkey, Syria and Persia. Akbar wanted to be on friendly terms with the Portuguese who controlled the sea traffic to Mecca by their domination of the Arabian Sea. Over time, interaction with the Portuguese increased to an extent when Christian priests coming as part of a diplomatic mission from Portugal were given permission to preach and even convert people. Later, in 1612, the British adventurer William Hawkins would leave India from Khambat, after four years of dodging Mughal court intrigue and Portuguese hostility, while in Jahangir’s court.[Khambat: Once there was a sea]

New Paper: Entropy, the Indus Script, and Language: A Reply to R. Sproat

Recently Rajesh Rao et al applied statistical tests to Indus scripts and concluded that the script has the same entropy as a linguistic system; this contradicted the “illiterate Harappan theory” which has been in circulation since 2004. Previously too scholars disagreed with the “illiterate Harappan theory” and have published point-by-point rebuttals, but this new statistical analysis added fuel to the fire. This research, which got extensive coverage, was called “useless”, “trivial” and proponents of the illiterate theory lamented about the reviewing practices of science journals.
Now Rajesh Rao et al. takes on their critics with a new paper to be published in Computational Linguistics (H/T Rajesh P N Rao). They make  it clear that without a full decipherment, the linguistic hypothesis or non-linguistic hypothesis cannot be proved. What they claim is  increasing evidence for the linguistic hypothesis.

If the Indus script does encode language, what might the content of the inscriptions be? A majority of the Indus texts are found on stamp seals (Figure 1(a)), which were typically used in Bronze Age cultures for regulating trade. Seals were pressed onto clay used to seal packages of goods. Indeed, a number of such clay tags have been found at various sites in the Indus civilization, bearing seal impressions on one side and impressions of woven cloth, reed matting or other packing material on the other. These archaeological observations suggest that the short Indus texts on seals (Figure 1(a)), like their other Bronze age counterparts, probably represent the contents, the origin or destination, the type or amount of goods being traded, name and title of the owner, or some combination of the above. Similar linguistic explanations can be found for the inscriptions on other media.
If, on the other hand, as Sproat and colleagues propose, the script merely represents religious or political symbols, one is hard pressed to explain: (1) how and why were sequences of such symbols, with syntactic rules entropically similar to linguistic scripts (Figure 1(b)), used in trade in a manner strikingly similar to other literate Bronze age cultures? and (2) why did the Indus people use these symbols in consistent sequences in their native region and alter their ordering when in a foreign land (Figure 1(c))? As pointed out by other authors [ Mahadevan2009, Parpola2008, Vidale2007], such incongruities are more the norm than the exception if one accepts the nonlinguistic thesis espoused by Sproat and colleagues. The principle of Occam’s razor then suggests that we reject the nonlinguistic hypothesis in favor of the simpler linguistic one.[Entropy, the Indus Script, and Language: A Reply to R. Sproat]

Dead Sea Scrolls and Proton Beams

Given a particle accelerator and the Dead Sea Scrolls, what would you do? If you are from Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare in Italy, you would send proton beams of 1.3 MeV into one square centimeter pieces of the scroll to find out if they were created elsewhere and bought to Qumran.

At the LANDIS laboratory (one of the INFN laboratories in Catania), non-destructive analyses were performed to obtain results on the origin of the scrolls. To produce a scroll, which was the writing material used at the time, a great quantity of water is needed. By analysing water samples taken in the area where the scrolls were found, the presence of certain chemical elements was established, and the ratio of their concentrations was determined.

According to this analysis, the ratio of chlorine to bromine in the scroll is consistent with the ratio in local water sources. In other words, this finding supports the hypothesis that the scroll was created in the area in which it was found. The next step in the research will be to analyse the ink used to write the scrolls.[Protons for studying the Dead Sea Scrolls]

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

A new award — Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction — will be awarded on June 19th at the Borders Book Festival. Sarah Dunant, one of the finalists, explains why Historical fiction is the genre of the moment.

Toni Morrison’s astonishing imagination enriched our understanding of slavery. Sarah Waters’s gay adventures rewrote the sexual history of the Victorians, while my own trilogy on the Italian Renaissance told through the experiences of women could not have been conceived, let alone written, even 20 years ago, such was the lack of documentary evidence.

But there is more to this new flowering than good stories. Historical fiction, like history itself, always tells us as much about the time it is written as the period it is writing about. And right now there are huge questions to be asked about the renewed power of religion. It informs global politics, dominates international security, influences social and scientific policies in countries as big as America and spawns a new intellectual war between believers and those out to ignite a new secular revolution.

Suddenly, history has a great deal to offer us when it comes to penetrating “otherness”. And when understanding how belief can be so powerful that it changes attitudes towards death, suicide, even murder, history is a potent tool. It was only a few centuries ago that Europe was consumed by religious wars, and faith both oppressed and brought comfort and meaning in times of brutal poverty and inequality. How far did the threat of Hell or the promises of pleasures in Heaven dictate behaviour then? How and when did the adrenalin of fervour turn to violence? And how did the word of God become the rights of men rather than women or children, imposing a straitjacket on human sexuality bound to end in hypocrisy and abuse? Having spent the past ten years deep within Renaissance Italy, it sometimes feels to me as if I have been learning as much about the present as the past.[Historical fiction is the genre of the moment]

The sign board at Dholavira

While various techniques are being applied to decipher the Indus script, there is an even more fundamental debate on if the Indus people were literate or not. The average length of a seal is five symbols; the longest single-sided inscription has seventeen signs.

One probable use of Indus seals was in economic activity; the seals found in Lothal had impressions of a coarse cloth on their reverse and sometimes several seals were used to mark the goods. Thus the seals meant something to the sender and receiver though we are not quite sure what. But did those seals have meaning only to the trading community? The sign board at Dholavira says no.

This signboard — accidently discovered and painstakingly excavated — is large. The board is 3m long and each of the ten signs is “35 cm to 37 cm tall and 25 cm to 27 cm broad.” The width of the board to the specific length was intentional: it fit the northern gate of the citadel. The signs were made of baked gypsum so that it could be seen from the distance.

Since this board was placed in a public place, big enough to be seen by people in the middle and lower town, it is sure that it had some meaning. According to R. S. Bisht, who discovered the board in 1991, “The inscription could stand for the name of the city, the king or the ruling family,”

He also adds

Bisht opined that the Harappans were a literate people. The commanding height at which the 10-sign board had been erected showed that it was meant to be read by all people.

Besides, seals with Indus signs were found everywhere in the city – in the citadel, middle town, lower town, annexe, and so on. It meant a large majority of the people knew how to read and write. The Indus script had been found on pottery as well. Even children wrote on potsherds.

Bisht said: “The argument that literacy was confined to a few people is not correct. You find inscriptions on pottery, bangles and even copper tools. This is not graffiti, which is child’s play. The finest things were available even to the lowest sections of society. The same seals, beads and pottery were found everywhere in the castle, bailey, the middle town and the lower town of the settlement at Dholavira, as if the entire population had wealth. [Inscriptions on stone and wood]

See Also: Stone inscription with Indus signs

In Pragati: Better than Hoogly Slush

In the winter of 1846 – 47, Henry David Thoreau looked out of his small self-built house in Walden and saw a hundred Irishmen with their American bosses cutting ice slabs from the pond. On a good day, he noted, a thousand tonnes were carted away. These ice slabs went not just to New Orleans and Charleston, but also to Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. Thoreau was amused: here he was sitting in America reading the Bhagavad Gita and the water from his well was being taken to the land of the Ganges.[The Forgotten American Ice Trade]

The June 2010 issue of Pragati carries an expanded version of this post.

Searching for the Historical Jesus (2)

For the faithful, the Bible is the word of God; for the historian it is not since there are major discrepancies among gospels. For example, the genealogy of Jesus differs among the gospels of Mathew and Luke. Also in Mark, the followers don’t recognize him as the Messiah until much later while in John, it is right from the beginning. There is no agreement even on which day he actually died. Mark says one thing and John says something else.  
Can we know for sure if the gospels contain the sayings of Jesus? We can’t be sure since the gospels disagree there too. In John for example, Jesus asserts his divinity, which he never does in the synoptic gospels. But then isn’t it possible that the anonymous authors of the gospels re-contextualized the messages and edited them to suit their needs? Isn’t it sufficient that Jesus’s theology of the Kingdom of God, was something prevalent in that period? 
If the Gospel writers changed words — the historian would argue —  would they differ radically in important events like the trial of Jesus by Pilate or the words he uttered during crucifixion or the post-death events? In Mark he asks the Father why he was forsaken while in Luke he asks his killers be forgiven.
The believer would then say that even though there are some differences, they all agree on where Jesus lived, preached and how he died. The historian would posit that there is no eyewitness account of Jesus outside the gospels. The first Jewish reference appears in Josephus, six decades later; the first Roman reference almost nine decades later in Pliny.
How do you resolve this dispute? You can get some answers by organizing a debate between a non-believer and a believer. And that’s what happened at the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in April of this year where  Dr. Craig Evans and Dr. Bart Ehrman debated on questions like ” are the gospels historically reliable?” and “Do the gospels contain eyewitness tradition?”. You can see the entire debate here and read few accounts here and here.
OT: Recently Glenn Beck displayed his unfathomable knowledge of the Dead Sea Scrolls. While many experts pointed out that he was an idiot, one blogger came to Beck’s defense.

Searching for the Historical Jesus

To find if there was a historical Jesus, scholars who study the gospels apply a number of techniques to sift through theology and miracles to find if there is a kernel of truth. Thomas Sheehan’s Historical Jesus is an excellent introduction to the methodology.
Since searching for this Historical Jesus a popular topic, a large number of books are still published each month. Adam Gopnik at New Yorker has a wonderful article which summarizes the current state of affairs in this field.

Malcolm X was the very model of a modern apocalyptic prophet-politician, unambiguously preaching violence and a doctrine of millennial revenge, all fuelled by a set of cult beliefs—a hovering U.F.O., a strange racial myth. But Malcolm was also a community builder, a moral reformer (genuinely distraught over the sexual sins of his leader), who refused to carry weapons, and who ended, within the constraints of his faith, as some kind of universalist. When he was martyred, he was called a prophet of hate; within three decades of his death—about the time that separates the Gospels from Jesus—he could be the cover subject of a liberal humanist magazine like this one. One can even see how martyrdom and “beatification” draws out more personal detail, almost perfectly on schedule: Alex Haley, Malcolm’s Paul, is long on doctrine and short on details; thirty years on, Spike Lee, his Mark, has a full role for a wife and children, and a universalist message that manages to blend Malcolm into Mandela. [WHAT DID JESUS DO?]

One of the points Gopnik makes is that the four canonical gospels were written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 C.E. If you go to the church in Niranam, a small village in Southern Kerala, there is a board which tells you that the church was found by St. Thomas in 52 C.E. If Thomas came to Kerala at that time, he would not have known about the four canonical gospels. Even if he had known about Mark or the source Q, he would have known a different Yeshua. For example, in Mark there is no virgin birth or resurrection; those came in later gospels.

The Gandharans in Thermopylae and Plataea

In August or September of 480 BCE, the 38 year old Xerxes, the Zoroastrian king of the Achaemenid Empire, set off to wage a war against the Greeks.There were two famous battles, The Battle of Thermopylae — immortalized by movies like 300 and novels like Gates of Fire — and The Battle of Plataea where the Greeks took revenge. Less known is the fact that people from the Indian subcontinent participated in both the battles.

Cyrus (576 – 530 BCE) expanded the Achaemenid Empire from Egypt to the Indus. The region called Paropamisadae (Hindu-Kush, Kabul, Bagram) was under Achaemenid control since the time of Darius I (522 – 486 BCE). The Persians called this region India. Darius built a palace in Susa in Elam and according to a text he got sisoo-timber and ivory from Gandhara. Also the ivory came from India. 

The 20th satrapy was India and it paid the largest tribute — 360 talents of gold dust — even more than Babylon. The primary source regarding Indians of this era is Herodotus; according to Herodotus, the Indians spoke many languages and some of them were nomads. Also some Indians were cannibals, had black semen and had gold-digging ants. So the “first” historian’s statements have to be taken with a pinch of sodium chloride. This 20th satrapy was located at the junction of a road network connecting Central Asia, West Asia and Kashmir. While invaders, art, and languages came into India via this route, Indian soldiers also went West as mercenaries.

In 490 BCE, Darius I tried to subdue Greece in the Battle of Marathon, but was routed. Following Darius’ death in 486 BCE, his son Xerxes decided to take revenge. The line of defence was the pass of Thermopylae. Sparta sent only a token elite force under the leadership of one of its two kings – Leonidas. Their allies too stayed back, citing various reasons. It was like the scene in India when Alexander arrived around 200 years later.

According to Herodotus, 1,700,000 Persian troops and 1200 warships arrived for the war against the Greek Coalition of the Willing. The Indians wore clothes made of cotton and carried reed bows and arrows of reed with iron heads. They were under the command of Pharnazathres who was the son of Artabates. There were Indian cavalrymen as well as those who rode horses and chariots pulled by horses and asses. 

Following the famous Spartan defeat at Thermopylae, there were naval battles at Artemisium and Salamis which was followed by the decisive Battle of Plataea. In this battle, the Spartans were not alone: Athens, Corinth, and Megara joined the alliance of states. Herodotus mentions that around 110,000 Persian troops from various countries were deployed near the Asopus River. There is a brief mention of where the Indians stood relative to the other troops and nothing more.

In this battle fought near Thebes, the Persian infantry was defeated and expelled from the Greece. The leading Persian commander Mardonius was killed. We mostly read the Western interpretation of these wars. For these historians, the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans were killed, represents patriotism while the Battle of Plataea shows how a defeated force can come together and rout a superpower. Unfortunately we don’t have any Indian accounts of these battles.


  1. Paul Cartledge, Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (Vintage, 2007). 
  2. Robert B. Strassler,The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories Reprint. (Anchor, 2009). 

Stone inscription with Indus signs

(Indus Signs from a earlier find in Dholavira)

An inscription on stone, with three big Indus signs and possibly a fourth, has been found on the Harappan site of Dholavira in Gujarat.
The discovery is significant because this is the first time that the Indus script has been found engraved on a natural stone in the Indus Valley. The Indus script has so far been found on seals made of steatite, terracotta tablets, ceramics and so on. Dholavira also enjoys the distinction of yielding a spectacularly large Indus script with 10 big signs on wood. This inscription was three-metre long. [Stone inscription with Indus signs found in Gujarat]

Dholavira, located on the island of Khadir in the Rann of Kutch, is among the top five Harappan cities in terms of size. Previously an inscription with ten large size signs of Indus script was found here. This sign board was hung on a wooden plank in front of a large stadium.
It is usually mentioned that if the Indus script indeed did represent something, it must have been for the elite. The sign board at Dholavira refuted that claim. It has also been mentioned quite often that the Harappans never wrote anything on stone. This discovery refutes that claim too.
This new find — the stone with three or four inscriptions — is not really a new find. It was discovered in 1999 and was even mentioned in the 2007 ASI report. Finally in 2010, someone decided to take a look which makes you wonder how many such Indus script pieces must be lying in the basement of various Government institutions.