In Pragati: An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India

Between 4500 BCE and 2500 BCE, in the steppes north of Black and Caspian seas, in what is Southern Ukraine and Russia, there lived a group of people who spoke a language, called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). This language was the ancestor of later languages such as English, Sanskrit, Latin, Old Saxon, and Lithuanian among others. Once they domesticated the horse and acquired the wheel, PIE speakers traveled long distances with their tents and supplies, spreading the Indo-European language around the world. One of PIE’s descendants, Proto-Indo-Iranian developed between 2500 BCE and 2000 BCE implying that Vedic, which descended from Indo-Iranian, could only have a date later than 2000 BCE. Following this period, Indo-European speakers either conquered or migrated into the Harappan region and imposed Vedic culture, Sanskrit language and caste system transforming Northwest India.

So far archaeologists have not found any intrusive material culture dating to this period. If Indo-European speakers arrived in large numbers and culturally and linguistically transformed the region, such evidence is absent on the ground. A late migration also fails to explain how Vedic people knew about the mighty Saraswati whose flow had reduced by then. Still many historians are wedded to an invasion/migration model derived from linguistics, an area of research done predominantly outside India.

Earlier migration of farmers

Now a 2012 paper by Peter Bellwood, Professor of Archaeology at the School of Archaeology andAnthropology of the Australian National University suggests that Indo-European speakers may have been present in Northwest India much earlier, maybe even two millennia earlier. This theory is based on new archaeological discoveries in the Gangetic basin working alongside another Indo-European dispersal theory. According to the West Anatolian model, that has been in existence for a while, Indo-European originated in Anatolia and not near the steppes near the Black Sea. The spread of the language happened due to population growth and  the gradual spread of farming techniques and not due to carts, horses and wheels. Based on paleoethnobotanical dates, a date of 7000 BCE has been proposed for the spread of farming into Europe from Anatolia.

Around 6300 BCE, the catastrophic drowning of agricultural lowlands near the Black Sea may have triggered the migration of the farmers to other regions around the world. From Anatolia, the language spread through Armenia, Northern Iran, and Southern Turkmenistan and entered Pakistan by 4000 BCE. This implies that regions like Mehrgarh, the Neolithic antecedent which lead to the Harappan culture, could have been Indo-European speaking. According to Bellwood, the urban Harappan civilisation had a large number of Indo-European speakers alongside the speakers of other languages which may have included Dravidian. Thus the composers of Rig Veda were not the first Indo-European speakers in the region; their ancestors were present in the region at least two millennia before the current consensus.

Another piece of data, on which this earlier date is based, comes from extensive archaeology conducted in Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Just between Saraswati and Yamuna, around 350 sites were discovered and pottery in some of those sites date as far back 3700 BCE. Usually the Gangetic plains enters Indian history following the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation, but new evidence indicates movement of farming techniques from Middle East to the Gangetic basin and from Gangetic basin to the Indus region. A version of rice, legumes, millets and humped cattle were domesticated in India, but there was an external flow of wheat, barley, sheep and goats from the Middle East. Also between 3500 and 2000 BCE there is an increase in settlements from the middle gangetic plains towards lower gangetic plains indicating population movement.

The suggestion that Indo-European speakers lived in the Harappan cities is not one of those theories, which does not have much academic support. In a 2010 paper, Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who has been excavating at Harappa for three decades wrote that even though the Indus script has not been deciphered, he thinks more than one language was spoken in the settlements. The language families that co-existed include Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Indo-Aryan. Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a 2013 paper writes that Indo-European speakers may have reached Mehrgarh much earlier than 4000 BCE. The model that these studies present is not of a civilisation dominated by one language as imagined by Dravidian politicians and textbook historians, but an Indus-Saraswati region which was cosmopolitan.

New possibilities

All these have serious implications to Indian history.

First, the theory suggests the possibility of the development of Vedic in the Indus region. There are many versions of the theory that describes the origins and spread of the Indo-European language family. Most historians have been using the short chronology tied to the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilisation and subsequent arrival of large Indo-European speaking population. Bellwood and Heggarty revive the longer chronology in which Indo-European speakers arrived early, much early than the Early Phase of the Harappan civilisation. As some farming techniques spread from the Indus region to the Gangetic plains, proto-Vedic too must have spread. This version allows for the possibility that Indo-Iranian branch and its children crystallized locally on the banks of Indus and not in the steppes of Central Asia. It also explains why the authors of the most ancient Indian text, the Rig Veda, had great awareness of the geography of Northwest India.

Second, many historians have argued that after the collapse of the Indus cities, a new civilisation emerged in the Ganges Valley and there was no continuity of material culture; according to them most of the second millennium BCE was a long dark age. In his book, The Lost River, Michel Danino contradicts this by listing many such continuities from the Harappan period to the present. These include symbols like the swastika, the patterns used in kolams, motifs like the pipal tree and seals like the pashupati seal which display a figure seated in yogic posture. Other elements like fire altars used by Vedic brahmins even now made John Marshall to comment in 1931 that the Indus religion was so characteristically Indian as hardly to be distinguished from still living Hinduism.  The new evidence of agricultural relationship between people who lived around the sapta-sindhu region and the Gangetic region confirms that the Ganges Valley urbanism was related to its Harappan antecedents.

Third, this theory discards the ‘elite dominance’ version of the migration theory. As per the short chronology, the Indo-European speaking people with their horses and chariots arrived in the Harappan region and influenced the residents to change their language or imposed their language. Even though the Indo-Europeans were few in number, people switched the language due to some utility of attaching themselves with the elites. The long chronology supports demic diffusion, a gradual spread which comes without the invasion and massive migration components. It is now clear that the decline of the Harappan civilisation was not caused by the invading or migrating Bronze-Age riders from the Eurasian steppes, but rather due to vagaries of nature: tectonic movements blocked the course of lower Indus river which must have caused floods that submerged Mohenjo-daro while either tectonic movements or weakened monsoons affected Saraswati and forced the residents to migrate east and south. (See: What caused the decline of Harappa?)

Finally, after two centuries of Indo-European studies there is no consensus on the homeland, on the path of dispersal or the time frame of Proto-Indo-European.  A debate which is going on this year is if Basque, the ancestral language spoken by people living in the region spanning northeasternSpain and southwestern France, is an Indo-European language or not. According to Paul Heggarty, linguistic data does not convincingly support the claim that Proto-Indo-European speakers domesticated the horse. Even if they were domesticated, there is less evidence of the saddle or the stirrup that are required for riding, and hence a Mongolian style invasion from the steppes could be an anachronism.  Further, the words that were reconstructed for wheeled vehicles refer to just movement and time and it is one interpretation that refers them as carts. Also, even now there is no agreed sequence of Indo-European branching, which could mean that there was no such straightforward branching, but rather a diffusion of people in waves. Hence the chronology of Indian history based purely on linguistics should be taken with a pinch of salt.

(This article was published in Pragati. Many thanks to Carlos Aramayo for providing the research papers)


  1. Peter Bellwood. “How and Why Did Agriculture Spread.” In Biodiversity in Agriculture: Domestication, Evolution, and Sustainability. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  2. Heggarty, Paul. “Europe and Western Asia: Indo-European Linguistic History.” In The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2013.
  3. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
  4. Jonathan Mark Kenoyer. “Indus Civilization.” In Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Academic Press, 2007.
  5. Danino, Michel. Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati. Penguin Books India, 2010.
  6. Danino, Michel. Indian Culture and India’s Future. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 2011.
  7. Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Reprint. Princeton University Press, 2010.

In Pragati How old is Proto-Dravidian?

Dates for the branching of different language groups. PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)
Dates for the branching of different language groups. PD: Proto-Dravidian (via Pagel)

(This article appeared was published in Pragati in Julu 2013. This is an expanded version of an earlier post)
According to linguists, there is a relation between the Sanskrit word satam, Latin centum, Old Saxonhunderod and Lithuanian simtas; these words derived from a common word in an ancestral language named Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The word in this theoretical ancestral language was deduced by listing the daughter terms and applying some linguistic sound change rules to figure out if the daughter terms were cognates of the mother term. Using this technique, a substantial vocabulary has been constructed for PIE, which is assumed to have been spoken between 4000 – 3500 BCE to 2500 BCE.
In India, about 75 percent of the population speaks a language that belongs to the Indo-European family (Hindi, Bengali, Marathi among others and 22 percent speak languages belonging to the Dravidian language family (Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam). While Indo-European languages are spoken mostly in North India, Dravidian languages are spoken in South India. This fact, along with some interpretations that the Indus-Saraswati script is Dravidian, has led to a theory that the Indo-European speakers came from outside India and pushed the Dravidian autochthons to the South of the peninsula. This is a contentious issue even now, popping up in elections speeches by Dravidian politicians who like to split people as ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
In the midst of this Aryan controversy, as it is popularly known, comes a new paper which claims that there existed a super linguistic ancestor, older than Proto-Indo-European, around 15,000 years back. The authors identified a class of words whose sound meaning lasted long enough to retain traces of their ancestry between language families separated by millennia. While half of the words in various languages are replaced by a new word roughly every two to four millennia, the authors argue that there are some ultra-conserved words that live as old as ten to twenty millennia. These words, which include adjectives, pronouns and special adverbs (Thou, Not, To Give, Mother Fire), are spread over such diverse language families as Indo-European and Dravidian.
Another interesting piece of information from the paper is regarding the date when Pro-Dravidian split from the ancestral language and when Proto-Dravidian speakers moved to the subcontinent. One of the first language families to split from this Eurasiatic ancestor was Proto-Dravidian, which was around 14,000 years back, much earlier than Proto-Indo-European. These Proto-Dravidian speakers expanded from Central Asia to South Asia and reached a region at the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan from where they were displaced by Indo-European speakers much later. Though the model does not specify when the Dravidian languages evolved from Proto-Dravidian, it is clear that the evolution happened in the subcontinent. There are some who believe that Dravidian speakers lived in the Indus-Saraswati area until the invading Indo-European speakers displaced them and this model augments that theory.
So far there has been no consensus on the origins of Dravidian and only speculation on the time and place of the distinctive origins of its speakers. Some scholars have put their origins around 4000 BCE in Northeastern Iran from where they moved to India. However there have not been any traces of Dravidian languages outside India, which makes the external origins of Dravidian, a challenge to explain. Regarding Proto-Dravidian itself, a date of 3000 BCE was previously suggested which others claimed was in the realm of ‘guesswork’. But the new paper not only suggests a much older time frame for Proto-Dravidian, but also a Central Asian origin which disagrees many previous theories. For example, one theory argues that there was no Dravidian influence in the early Rig Veda; Dravidian lone words appear only in subsequent stages suggesting that Dravidian speakers arrived around the same time as the Indo-European speakers in North-West India.
With the new discovery, does this paper change the chronology of events and change the narrative of Indian history? It is too early to get into the impact of an earlier date for Proto-Dravidian as other linguists have panned the paper; it seems the paper has a “garbage in, garbage out” problem. The semantic looseness with which the reconstructions have been made of Indo-European words has been extreme and does not agree with the consensus. For example, taking one of the reconstructed words, one linguist was able to show that the word had the meaning “with the teeth, biting together” in Greek and “reach, strike” in Sanskrit. The problem was not just with the semantic interpretation; the Sanskrit word that was reconstructed did not match with the word in the Indo-European database. Since there are doubts on some reconstructions, the relationships among such words in different family trees are questionable.
But the bigger problem is this. After five to nine millennia, most words change so much in their meaning that it is hard to figure out other words, which originated from the same ancestor. Sometimes you don’t have to go that far either as words change quite a lot within a couple of millennia. Thus a sentence in one language family would be incomprehensible to a member of another language family even if they derived from the same ancestor as seen from the difference in meaning in Sanskrit and ancient Greek of the same word. Due to all this, critics have mentioned that the paper is of poor academic quality, displayed poor knowledge of linguistic geography and linguistic history. Thus even though this paper claimed a sensational finding, the origins of Proto-Dravidian and Dravidian continues to remain in the realm of guesswork.

  1. Pagel, Mark, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade. “Ultraconserved Words Point to Deep Language Ancestry Across Eurasia.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 6, 2013). doi:10.1073/pnas.1218726110.
  2. Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. 1st ed. Prentice Hall, 2009.
  3. Bryant, Edwin. The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate. Oxford University Press, USA, 2004.
  4. Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Reprint. Princeton University Press, 2010.
  5. Ultraconserved words? Really?? by Sally Thomason at Language Log
  6. Do ‘Ultraconserved Words’ Reveal Linguistic Macro-Families?” GeoCurrents.

In Pragati: What caused the decline of Harappa?

(via Wikipedia)
(This was originally published in Pragati)
In The Wonder That Was India, A L Basham presented a dramatic picture of the decline of the Harappan civilisation. According to him, from 3000 BCE, invaders were present in the region. After conquering the outlying villages, they made their move on Mohenjo-daro. The people of Mohenjo-daro fled, but were cut down by the invaders; the skeletons that were discovered proved this invasion. Basham concluded that the Indus cities fell to barbarians “who triumphed not only through greater military prowess, but also because they were equipped with better weapons, and had learnt to make full use of the swift and terror-striking beats of the steppes.” Sir R Mortimer Wheeler claimed these horse riding invaders were none other than Aryans and their war-god Indra destroyed the forts and citadels at Harappa. But Basham was not that certain of the identity of the charioteers; he stated that they could be non-Aryans as well.
Basham wrote his book in early 1950s and a lot has changed after that. The decline of the Harappan civilisation is no longer attributed to “invading Aryans”, though that theory is still kept alive by political parties in South India. Even the non-Aryan invasion theory has been refuted as there is no trace in the archaeological record for such a disruptive event or the arrival of a new culture from Central Asia. The skeletons, which were touted as evidence for the invasion, were found to belong to different cultural phases thus nullifying the theory of a major battle. Due to all this, historians like Upinder Singh categorically state that the Harappan civilisation was not destroyed by an Indo-Aryan invasion. Instead of blaming the decline of the civilisation to invading or migrating population, the end is now attributed to environmental changes and whims and fancies of rivers.
From the late 1950s, historians believed that Mohenjo-daro was destroyed due to tectonic shifts in the region. According to one version, tectonic movements blocked the course of lower Indus river which must have caused floods that submerged the city. An opposing and the currently favoured theory suggests that instead of submerging in water, the city was starved of water. This happened because Indus shifted away from Mohenjo-daro, thus disrupting the crop cycle as well as the river-based communication network.
While Sindh, where Mohenjo-daro and Harappa are located, has just 9 percent of the 1140 Mature Harappan sites, the Ghaggar-Hakra basin has 32 percent of them; Archaeologists like S P Gupta and J M Kenoyer identify Ghaggar-Hakra with Sarasvati river. Around 1900 BCE, Kalibangan, located on the left bank of Ghaggar, was abandoned. Between the Mature and Late Harappan period, the number of sites along the river reduced considerably implying that the some hydrological change stopped the river from flowing.
One theory suggests that declining monsoons impacted water availability in Ghaggar-Hakra and that in turn caused the societal changes. Around 4000 years back, a dramatic climate change happened across North Africa, the Middle East, the Tibetan Plateau, southern Europe and North America. In India, during that period, there was an abrupt shift in monsoons, which lasted two centuries. In general, if you observe the patterns of recent years, monsoons have strong years and weak years, but they rarely deviate far away from the mean due to the dynamic feedback systems. It is a self-regulating system, but there have been occasions when the anomaly has lasted for few decades.
But what happened 4,000 years back was truly unusual; it was an anomaly larger than anything the subcontinent had faced since in the last 10,000 years. A paper published recently by Berkelhammer was able to narrow down the exact time frame during which this shift happened and it coincides with the decline of the Harappan civilization. This new study does not depend on indirect proxies (like pollen data), but uses a direct terrestrial climate proxy from the Mawmluh Cave in Cherrapunji and hence was able to show an unprecedented age constraint.
According to the paper, the most dramatic change occurred between 4071 (+/- 18) years and 3888 (+/- 22 years) Before Present (BP) for a period of 183 years. First there was a small rise between 4315 and 4303 years and a more precipitous one between 4071 and 4049 years BP. Once this change — which was earlier onset of monsoons or earlier withdrawal — happened, the monsoons stayed in this state for around 180 years before returning to normal values. Earlier monsoon withdrawal suggests that monsoon, which is tied to ocean-atmosphere dynamics and influences from the land surface, was weakened. For the Ghaggar-Hakra, which was fed by the monsoons, the impact was quite serious as it affected the habitability along its course. The study is quite interesting because it provides precise numbers for the duration and onset time for this climactic event. The previous studies did not have proper age constraints and some of them depended on factors (pollen, sedimentation rates) which could be influenced by external natural and man-made causes
Thus when one study claims that Ghaggar was a monsoon fed river and hence was easily susceptible to the vagaries of declining rainfall, there is another which shows that Sarasvati was a glacier-fed river and climate is not the only cause for changes. A paper in Current Science by K S Valdiya published in January of this year, titled The river Sarasvati was a Himalayan-born river, provides numerous counter arguments. First, the Sarasvati flowed through Western Rajasthan, which is one of the dustiest places on earth. 3500 years of dust storms have altered the landscape so much that the landforms created by the river would not be visible today. Second, the river ran through a region which saw tectonic upheavals and that would have altered the course of the river, like what happened to Indus. Third, the dimensions of paleochannels in the upper reaches of the river show that it was created by a large long-lived system. The paper strongly states that it was not a weakened monsoon, but the deflection of rivers by powerful tectonic activities which caused the decline of the Harappan civilisation along the Ghaggar river. Around 3,750 years Before Present, the Tamasa river joined Yamuna and a millennia later the Sutlej joined Beas. Due to this, the discharge of water in the Ghaggar was reduced and forced the Harappans to migrate elsewhere.
This is a contentious issue among academics; arguments and counter-arguments arrive sooner than you can digest them. While one controversy is over if tectonics or monsoon was responsible for the drying up of the river, there is another one over the climatic conditions during the Mature Harappan period. Some papers claim that Mature Harappan period occurred in a wetter phase and there are several others which show that Harappan urbanism rose in an arid phase. Paleoclimatology is a complicated field and more studies will give clarity to this controversy. But there is one certainty: the decline of the Harappan civilisation was not caused by invading Aryans or non-Aryans.

  1. Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. 1st ed. Prentice Hall, 2009.
  2. Basham, AL The Wonder That Was India;: A Survey of the Culture of the Indian Sub-continent Before the Coming of the Muslims. 21st ed. Evergreen, 1977.
  3. Danino, Michel. Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati. Penguin Books India, 2010.
  4. Berkelhammer, M, A Sinha, L Stott, H Cheng, F S R Pausata, and K Yoshimura (2012), An abrupt shift in the Indian monsoon 4000 years ago, in Climates, Landscapes, and Civilizations, Geophys. Monogr. Ser., vol. 198, edited by L. Giosan et al., 75–87, AGU, Washington, D. C., doi:10.1029/2012GM001207.
  5. Valdiya, KS “The River Saraswati Was a Himalayan-born River.” CURRENT SCIENCE 104, no. 1 (2013): 42–54.
  6. Giosan, Liviu, Peter D Clift, Mark G Macklin, Dorian Q Fuller, Stefan Constantinescu, Julie A Durcan, Thomas Stevens, et al. “Fluvial Landscapes of the Harappan Civilization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 29, 2012). doi:10.1073/pnas.1112743109.

In Pragati: The missing prophets of 1857

The ruins of Sikandar Bagh palace showing the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground, Lucknow, India, 1858
The ruins of Sikandar Bagh palace showing the skeletal remains of rebels in the foreground, Lucknow, India, 1858

From the late eighteenth century to mid-nineteenth century, as the world changed through conquest, colonialism and capitalism, a set of people rose around the world, reacting against such changes. Ironically, global historians – historians who look beyond regional and local causes – call these men prophets in an ode to Abrahamic religions. During this period of encounters and social changes, these charismatic leaders revitalised traditional ways and reorganised societies to challenge foreign institutions and ideas. Garnering support of broad swaths of society, they promised to restore lost harmony, bring in a new moral order, and a bright future. While global historians were able to find leaders for such movements in China, Middle East, United States, Mexico and Europe, they missed the leaders of the First War of Independence in India and fell back on the same old narratives.
As we look at examples from around the world, we get to see some of the qualities and methods of these leaders who influenced fields as diverse as economics, politics and religion. Due to encounters with the Western world, new ideas circulated in the Islamic world and alarmed by the lax religious practices and attempts by rulers in Saudi Arabia and sub-Saharan Africa to model their administration along European lines, leaders arose to return Islam back to its pure form. In Saudi Arabia, this led to the rise of Wahhabism under the leadership of Ibn abd al-Wahhab (1703 – 1792) whose work still influences the modern world. In West Africa, Usman dan Fodio (1754 – 1817) too attacked unbelievers and false religions and his movement led to Islam becoming a majority religion in the Nigerian region.
 Tecumseh portrait

During this period, leaders also provided political leadership and created larger states from tribal clans. As Africa became overpopulated and there was competition for cattle-grazing and farming lands, small family clans found themselves overwhelmed. This traditional structure which had existed for centuries could no longer cope with the changes brought by long distance trade. It was the right moment for a cruel and powerful leader like Shaka (1787 – 1828) to rise up, wipe out other clans and unite the winners into a large monarchy, which in turn led to the creation of the Zulu kingdom. In the United States of America, Native Americans had to compete for land with the European colonisers who forcefully took over their land. As a reaction, groups under leaders like Tenskwatwa (1775 – 1836) and Tecumseh (1768 – 1813) exhorted their followers to renounce European goods and shun the missionaries. They tried to forge unity among native Americans, but were eventually betrayed by the British and left to perish.
In China, after a humiliating defeat in the Opium War that forced the country to open other ports to foreign merchants, there rose a fear of western power. During that period, as the rulers became inefficient, masses of people joined what is known as the Taiping Rebellion, motivated by a Christian leader named Hong Xiuquan (1813 – 1864). Like the Islamic leaders in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, his goal was to return China to an era before it was corrupted by human conventions. Their war was not against the Europeans, but against the Chinese leaders who they thought were the main obstacle in obtaining God’s kingdom on earth. Hong came up with a radical new system which basically countered all the established Chinese traditions, but in the end it was defeated.
Analysis of these prophetic movements across the world show that whenever there is a structural change – in religion or rebellions – it is triggered by a leader. These revolutions were not accidents, but the result of planned action by certain individuals who inspired the masses through messages, symbols and charisma. In the pantheon of prophets we see leaders like Jacinto Pat and Cecilio Chi who led the Mayans in 1847 by blending Christian rituals with Mayan beliefs, Charles Fourier who had a utopian socialist vision and Karl Marx who inspired many nations and their leaders with this theory of proletarian revolt. While many such movements were defeated, the ideas they created lived longer.
 Tantya Tope,  after his capture in 1859
Wikipedia says this picture is Tantya Tope, after his capture in 1859, but this is a fake(See note 2)

When global historians evaluate the “Rebellion of 1857” in this context, it is mentioned as an uprising which was sparked by the greased cartridge controversy. Compared to the other global revolutions, this one was not triggered by any prophet, but was a spontaneous uprising or mutiny and it was after the uprising happened that leaders came up. But if one asks questions like how thousands of Indian soldiers marched successfully to Delhi without a supply line, it is evident that something is missing from the known narrative.
New, as well as ignored evidence now tell us that the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 was a carefully planned operation. Leaders like Baija Bai Shinde, Nana Saheb and his Diwan Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda were involved in the planning using red lotus flowers and chappatis to count the number of soldiers and ensure the commitment of the villages along the army path. Letters translated for the first time in Parag Tope’s “Operation Red Lotus” reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.
Global historians alone cannot be blamed for this lapse because Indian historians themselves have not accepted this view. Then, misrepresentation of the war of 1857 is not new. Depending on the bias of historians, it had many interpretations. According to the official version by Surendra Nath Sen, it was a spontaneous uprising. Marxist historians marginalised the leadership and saw it as a peasant revolt. Another Indian historian wondered how it could be a war at a time when India was not a nation. Now we know that the leaders of the war of 1857 used symbols (red lotus) and messages (Azamgarh proclamation) similar to the prophets of China and USA, and promised a new moral order where people would have political, religious and economic freedom.
Thus, the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 doesn’t have to be relegated to a secondary status in the global prophetic narrative as it satisfies the criteria met by the others.

  1. This was adapted from an assignment I did for “A History of the World since 1300”  by Princeton University. It was first published at Pragati
  2. Personal communication with Parag Tope


  1. Tignor, Robert, Jeremy Adelman, Stephen Aron, Stephen Kotkin, Suzanne Marchand, Gyan Prakash, and Michael Tsin. Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present (Third Edition).W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.
  2. Tope, Parag. Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Rupa & Co., 2010.

In Pragati: Holy War by Nigel Cliff

"Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal," by John Henry Amshewitz (via Wikipedia)
"Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal," by John Henry Amshewitz (via Wikipedia)

(This book review was published in the September 2012 issue of Pragati)
Urumi, a Malayalam historical film released last year was set in 1502 CE, the year Vasco da Gama made his second voyage to India. The turning point in that movie is when Gama captures Miri- a ship filled with pilgrims returning from Mecca- off the coast of Kerala and barbarically murders 300 Muslims including women and children over five days. The rest of the movie is about how one of the boys, whose father was killed in that attack, gets his revenge during Gama’s third and final voyage. Though the movie was a work of fiction, filled with historical inaccuracies, it brought to attention an important point: Gama had an agenda much bigger than finding a new trading route.
Nigel Cliff’s book expands on that less mentioned detail. He argues that Gama was serving the apocalyptic agenda of King Manuel who wanted to find the Eastern Christians, destroy the power of Islam, and lead Portugal in conquering Jerusalem. This was essential for the Second Coming and the Last Judgement that was to follow. The voyage to Kerala was just one step in this plan.
15th century values

To understand the primary motivation behind Gama’s dangerous voyage circumnavigating Africa and across the Indian Ocean, we have to understand the state of the world in the 15th century. Portugal was ruled by a religious fanatic whose wedding gift to his wife was the expulsion of the Jews settled in Portugal. Since the year 1500 was approaching, he thought the apocalypse was around the corner and he had to conquer Jerusalem. Since Portugal neither had the wealth nor the power for such a task, the plan was to acquire wealth by entering the lucrative spice trade and gain power by forming an alliance with the Eastern Christians. Once the Islamic power was weakened- by eliminating them from the spice trade- the troops could march to Jerusalem and capture the Holy Land.
The Portuguese knew that India was a rich place from where all the spices came. They also knew that it was the home of Prester John, a supposedly Christian king who had unlimited precious metals and a vast army at his disposal. Once the alliance was formed with the Eastern Christians and their rich and powerful king, the march to Jerusalem would be the next logical step.
To put context into this obsession with capturing Jerusalem, Cliff starts off by examining the relation between Islam and Christianity. As a reaction to the violent expansion of Islam from the 8th century till the 10th, the Pope authorised the Crusades to recapture Jerusalem, which went on for centuries. The Crusades had to be halted following the Mongol invasion and the Black Death that followed, but the feelings behind them never really died out. Those feeling were revived following the fall of Constantinople, Christendom’s glorious city, and something had to be done urgently. For that Vasco da Gama set off to find a new route to India bearing the Crusader’s Cross- the one used by the Knights Templar- as his flag.
Disrupting the spice trade was not the first trick the Portuguese tried. After building a naval fleet, they conducted raiding missions down the coast of Africa, planting crosses wherever they landed. When that failed to yield sufficient revenues, they ventured into slave trade. Since this was a war against the Infidels and the unbelievers, it got the stamp of approval from the Pope who issues various Papal bulls and went so far as to divide the world between Portugal and Spain so that peace is maintained between the colonisers.
Apocalypse Now
King Manuel (via Wikipedia)
King Manuel (via Wikipedia)

After a terrifying voyage, Vasco da Gama’s fleet reached Calicut where he found a large number of Muslim traders. He also observed that the ruler belonged to some other religion. By his worldview- in which he had never encountered Hindus- Gama assumed that naturally the Zamorin had to be Christian. But the Zamorin was unimpressed by Gama and the gifts he bought. Gama kept away from the Muslims to be safe, but eventually was disappointed on two counts. First he assumed that the Eastern Christians would be delighted to see their Western counterparts and the united front would expel the Muslims. Second, he thought that Indians would hand over the spices in exchange for the trinkets they had bought but compared to the richness of Calicut, Gama looked like a beggar. Gama in turn blamed his failure on the Muslims, displayed some basic brutality, and returned back to Portugal where he was received as a hero.
Though Gama did not bring back spices or find Prester John, his voyage sent shock waves across Europe. Manuel wanted to ride on this wave of success and sent another mission under Pedro Cabral with a strong warning for the Muslim traders. Cabral wanted the Zamorin to expel all the Muslims traders or face the wrath of the empire. When their demands were not met, the Portuguese went on a rampage. The destroyed the Arab ships in the port and fired shots at the Zamorin’s palace causing him to flee. A later mission under Joao da Nova escalated the religious war and went back without much progress. Manuel needed a strong willed captain who would force the Indians into submission and for that Vasco da Gama was pressed into service once again and it resulted in the Miri incident.
This time the action was not to be restricted to the Malabar coast. Once force was used to subdue the Indians, the fleet would split into two. One part of the fleet would enforce a blockade of the Arab shipping to the Red Sea area and cripple Egypt’s economy. After Egypt was weakened, the Portuguese would sail up the Red Sea and meet land troops who would have marched across Egypt; together they would conquer Jerusalem. But this plan did not work quite as expected.
Gama once again asked his old nemesis, the Zamorin, to expel the Muslims and yet again the Zamorin refused to comply to the Portuguese pirates. An irate Gama went around hanging Muslims and firing cannons towards the coast. The dead people were mutilated and sent on boats off to the shore as a part of the shock and awe strategy. The Portuguese strength came from their naval superiority and since they did not have sufficient strength to fight the Zamorin’s troops, they left. This voyage was considered a great success compared to the others.
The next captain Francisco Alameda, dispensed with the niceties completely and precipitated such a crisis which resulted in major naval battle in the Arabian Sea. After attacking various African countries and butchering people there, Alameda reached Calicut. Remembering the Passion of Christ and motivated by a rousing speech by a priest, the Portuguese attacked Calicut leaving around 3600 dead. Meanwhile another Portuguese fleet cut off the Egyptian supply chain. Based in Muscat, they terrorised all around and took control over the Western destination ports of the Arab ships. The Egyptians, whose business was seriously affected, sent a fleet to the Indian Ocean which defeated the Portuguese, the first naval defeat for them in the Ocean.
The Colonisers
But the Egyptians were no match for the Portuguese; they scored and easy victory over them as well over the Zamorin and finally a fortress was built in Calicut. It looked as if Jerusalem was within grasp.In fact Manuel sent a fleet towards the Suez, but they came back without attacking Jerusalem. Once Goa became a lucrative market for the Portuguese, they were more interested in settling down and plundering the region by enforcing a pass system. Matters like forced conversions and setting up the Inquisition became more important than capturing Jerusalem.
Though the Malabar coast has been part of a global maritime network since the Roman empire, there was an explosion of trade since 1000 CE due to improved navigational aids, better ship building, better map making and new legal arrangements. Places like Quilon (Kollam), Melaka, Quanzhou, Futsat and Aden became the nerve centers of this network where people and goods moved with ease. According to Manmadhan Ullattil who wrote about the Hubs of the medieval trade (Pragati, June 2009), the arrival of the Portuguese changed the rules of the game as they used force to control trade and establish monopolies.
John Keay in “India: A History” has few lines about the Portuguese and Vasco da Gama; he mentions that when Portugal declared a Viceroy for India, it betrayed the true nature of their ambition. “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present” (Third Edition) (Vol. 2) by Robert Tignor et. al which is used to teach world history at Princeton University, describes the Portuguese brutality in the Malabar coast. But both these books fail to make a connection between the Portuguese voyages to India and the Crusades. Cliff makes a valuable contribution by putting the piety and plunder of the spice trader into a global context.

In Pragati: Another nail in the Aryan coffin

(This article appeared in March 2012 edition of Pragati)
The Aryan theory has gone through many revisions: Historians and archaeologists like A L Basham and Mortimer Wheeler advocated an invasion theory where invaders triumphed over the natives due their military prowess and superior weapons. These invaders originated in Central Asia: one branch migrated to Europe and the other to Iran, eventually reaching India. By the time of historian Romila Thapar, the invasion theory morphed into a migration theory. According to Ms Thapar there is no evidence of large scale invasion, but migrations by Indo-Aryan speakers who bought their language and culture to India.
Though the theory changed, two factors remained constant: the existence of two separate groups (Dravidians and Aryans) and their identification as natives and foreigners. The scholarly consensus is that the Indo-Aryan speakers arrived in North-East India following the decline of the Harappan civilisation. These horse riding migrants introduced Vedic religion and Sanskrit language and culturally transformed a region bigger than ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt combined, non-violently.
Now a new paper published in the American Journal of Human Genetics states that current Indian population is derived from two ancestral populations—the Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI)—both of which are older than 3500 Years Before Present (YBP). Though this seems to confirm the Aryan-Dravidian divide and the migration which happened after 1900 BCE, the paper actually does the opposite; it refutes the large scale migration version of the Aryan theory.
Researchers led by Mait Metspalu of Evolutionary Biology Group of Estonia studied 600,000 Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) markers among 30 ethnic groups in India. The human genomes consists of chromosomes, represented by the double helix and specific locations on the chromosome can be identified using markers with the common ones being micro-satellite markers and SNP markers. Among the two, SNP markers are popular for gene fine mapping. The study takes data from existing genetic studies and combines it with new data from North Indian and South Indian population to trace the external influences from Europe.
One of the ancestral components—the ANI—is common not just in South Asia, but also in West Asia and Caucasus while the ASI is limited to South Asia. While this may seem to clearly demarcate the natives and the foreign migrants, it does not. Except for some Astroasiatic tribes and two small Dravidian tribes in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, all other South Indians have more than 40% of the ANI component. This means that everyone except these few groups are not purely native.
The important question then is this: When did the ANI mix with the ASI?. If that period is between 1900 BCE and 1500 BCE, then it would confirm the many versions of Aryan theory in existence right now. When these researchers modeled the data, they could not find any evidence of a dramatic Central Asian migration for this period. So they went back and till about 12500 Years Before Present (YBP) they could not find any evidence. Thus the mixing of the ANI and ASI did not happen 140 generations before as was believed, but probably more than 500 generations back (Each generation is 25 years). The paper explicitly mentions Max Muller’s theory and says that it is hard to find evidence for such a migration following the collapse of the Harappan civilization.
Few years back, researchers working on this project suggested that the ANI emerged 40,000 years back and mixed with the ASI at a later date. So as it stands now, the mixing between the two groups happened some time between 40,000 YBP and 12,500 YBP. So if there is a European component in Indian genes, that event happened much earlier than the decline of the Harappan civilisation and not because of the hypothetical Aryan migration around 1500 BCE.
Going back 12,500 years we have to wonder what event was responsible for this shared ancestry between the ANI and Europeans? Did it happen during the Out of Africa migration phase? Humans reached India first before moving to Europe in which case the European gene pool would be derived from the much diverse South Asian pool. Or was there any other incident much later which was responsible for this?
Coming back to the period following the decline of the Harappan civilisation there are more questions for scholarly head scratching. Even though the ANI-ASI mixture may happened quite earlier, there must have been constant migration of people in both directions which was not large enough to leave a genetic footprint. If you accept that premise, how did this minor trickle of people change the region culturally. If these are the people who bought horses to India, why don’t we see a proliferation of horse bones following this period?
The current models don’t have a convincing explanation for many such questions.

In Pragati: Book Review – Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road

(This review appeared in Oct 2011 edition of Pragati)

In the 19th century, Britain went on a world wide bloodthirsty rampage: they were involved in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), Anglo-Indian war of 1857, Second Opium War (1856 – 1860) and the Anglo-Sudan War (1870s) and a photographer named Felice Beato was present to capture all of them on film. Like Ibn Batuta who roamed around Dar al-Islam documenting the customs and traditions of various countries, Beato visited the countries occupied by the British and captured the war, landscapes and local life using the newly invented medium.
Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road by Anne Lacoste and Fred Ritchin features a selection of photographs he took in India, China, Burma, Korea and Japan covering significant events in the history of those countries. For people back in Britain, Beato’s photographs gave an early realistic depiction of the cultures they had conquered. His photographs about India during the Anglo-Indian war are important now not just because of their historical significance, but also because they reveal a lot about the colonial attitudes of that period.
Felice Beato was an Italian who had settled in Constantinople as an apprentice to Scottish photographer James Robertson. In 1858, he left Constantinople for Calcutta and spent the next two years photographing the final phases of the Anglo-Indian war of 1857. Beato did not introduce photography to India; British officials were already using for more than a decade and there were photographic societies in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.
By the time Beato reached Calcutta, the war of 1857, which was planned by leaders like Nana Saheb, Tatya Tope, and Baija Bai Shinde, had shocked the English and they had retaliated using extreme brutality. Citing the murder of women and children at Cawnpore (Kanpur) by Indian soldiers, they discarded their usual pretence to civilized behavior and embarked on a death march to clear the villages which supported the army. At the start of 1858, Delhi and Kanpur were in English hands; Awadh was cut off from Central India and Lucknow’s fate was uncertain. Kalpi was the headquarters of the freedom fighters and Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai were still holding out.
Beato went to Cawnpore, Delhi and Lucknow and documented the damage caused by the war. Photographers of that period had severe technological limitations: the equipment was heavy and the photographer also had to carry glass plates and chemicals. Since lengthy exposures were required and the negatives had to be developed within minutes, the photographer could not be in the middle of the battle; he could capture the scene before the battle or after it was done.

(via Wikipedia)

He reached Lucknow a few weeks after the city was captured by British forces under Sir Colin Campbell and one of the gruesome photographs he took in Sikandar Bagh shows a partially destroyed building with skeletons scattered all around with a few locals passively watching them. The skeletons were of the 1,800 Sepoys bayoneted by the British troops and left to the dogs and vultures in November 1857. There is controversy regarding this photograph: Sir Colin Campbell probably not wanting to suggest that the corpses were left to rot in the open wrote that Beato dug up the bones and laid them out for dramatic effect, but a reporter from The Times who visited Sikandar Bagh around the same period remembered many skeletons still lying around. Even if it was staged, there was nothing unusual about it. His contemporaries who were covering other wars too did it for dramatic effect.
Another photograph from the same period shows the hanging of two sepoys: In the picture two people are hanging by their necks watched by a group of turbaned soldiers. The caption claims that the soldiers were from the 31st Native Infantry who were being hanged in Lucknow. Even that is not without controversy. First, the 31st Native Infantry did not participate in the war and second, they were based in Sagar. So it is possible that there is a mistake in documentation or that they simply were villagers hanged by the English as part of their campaign of brutality.
Beato, the lucid strategist, was on the side of the British and showed no compassion for the conquered or the dead. He was quite different from the British soldier named Clive Branson who served in India in 1942. Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchil’s Secret War mentions Branson who roamed around the countryside visiting villages and socializing with the locals since his unit was not doing anything important. As he traveled, he felt ashamed of his country and the fact that he was one among them. Beato never felt that way. He earned his living by selling photographs like the hangings to soldiers and onlookers as souvenirs as well as by taking flattering portraits of Army officers. He ingratiated himself with British officials and his enthusiastic documentation of their triumphs got him a into prominent locations like Lucknow as soon as it was retaken. He also was an ‘embedded’ war photographer in the Second Opium War and captured the war in all its horror. Each catastrophe thus cemented his reputation.
Another area in which he specialized was architecture. Thus when he went around India, he took pictures of the Taj, Benares, the Golden Temple and various palaces. He also specialized in taking panoramic shots. Currently you can use the stitching feature of photoshop software to generate panoramas from a series of photographs, but during Beato’s time you had to take a series of overlapping photos carefully, develop the negatives quickly to maintain the uniform tone and join the pictures manually. His panoramas in India include those of Delhi, Lucknow, Qutub Minar and the entrance to the Juma Masjid which were around five to seven feet in length.
Beato was not caught up in political correctness and photographed British brutality for commercial benefits. He took photos of drawings of beheadings in Japan and photographs of dead bodies in China; in China one of the military surgeons noted Beato walking with excitement among the dead, photographing them before they were removed. Due to Beato’s photographs, the blurry words of historians become indelible images.
In their commentary on the photographs, the authors write that the hanging photograph brings up questions like “How did the British officers decide to hang the Indian soldiers? Did they hold any trial? What were the responses of the men to their impending execution?”. They don’t offer answers, but the answers can be found in Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus which presents a dramatically different version of the war of 1857 based on never before translated letters and eye witness accounts. He argues that the official policy of Britain to suppress the insurrection was to target thousands of civilians including women and children and this policy was one of the reasons why India lost the war. Sepoys of mutinous regiments who could not give a good account of themselves were hanged. From Beato’s images we know that even some from non-mutinous regiments may also have been hanged.
Two important photographs taken by Beato are not there in the book. One shows the Lal Bagh, the place in which General James Neill was shot and the other, the Residency where Sir Henry Lawrence was killed. These photographs don’t depict cadavers or skeletons, but form an important point in the narrative of the war of 1857 where two war criminals met justice. As you flip through the book, you see the conquered locals of India, China and Korea among demolished buildings and their conquerors in flamboyant settings. This contrast explains the story of the East better than many thousand words.

In Pragati: Secrets of the cellars

(Flickr: jynxzero)

The 8th century CE was a period of Hindu resurgence in Kerala. Adi Sankara, who wrote about Advaita with literary force and philosophic depth lived during this period. The Tamil poets—Saiva nayanars and Vaishnava azhvars—created large volumes of influential devotional literature and triggered a popular mass movement. Economically these were prosperous times due to extensive external trade. Devotion coupled with wealth resulted in a spurt of temple construction; rulers and lay people considered the construction and protection of temples as an essential social responsibility and donated generously.
Though the original shrine may have been built in the 6th century, it is during this period that we hear about Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple for the first time in Thiruvaimozhi of Nammazhvar. In ten verses Nammazhwar describes Thiruvananthapuram, one of the 108 sacred sites for Vaishnavites, as one which has “lots of trees, lots of fragrant flowers, and most beautiful gardens” and called it Ananthapura implying it was enclosed by walls. He also describes the idol of Vishnu as reclining on the venomous Adisesha, exactly the same way see him today.
Over the next millennia, Sri Padmanabhaswamy would see prosperity, war, and invasions—both domestic and foreign. Initially he was part of a small kingdom, but that small kingdom, under the leadership of a visionary king would grow to become one of the three major kingdoms of Kerala, encompassing not just South Kerala, but parts of Tamil Nadu as well. Eventually the kingdom would belong to him. He would also accumulate staggering amounts of wealth over centuries; a humbled Dutch captain and a powerful British Resident would among the many who would go before him with their offerings. The story of how this wealth came to be and how it was safely guarded by the priests and the royal family for all these years is inseparable from the history of Kerala.
Source of wealth

In Cleopatra, a life, Stacy Schiff recounts how Egyptian temples stood at the center of religious and commercial life with the temple priest also moonlighting as a reed merchant. Such a system did not exist in Kerala. Its temples were never known for odious extravagance or opulence. Many other ancient kingdoms accumulated wealth by invading and plundering their neighbours, but according to historians, Sri Padmanabhaswamy’s cellars do not contain war booty. Then how did the temple accumulate so much wealth?
After the mention of the temple in the 8th-9th century by Nammazhwar, there is not much information for another three centuries. Around the 12th century, Venad, a small Kollam-based kingdom became an independent entity and Sri Kotha Keralavarma (1125 – 1155 CE) started the reconstruction of the temple which would go on for another six centuries. During this period, we hear about donations to the temple for the first time: silver by a nobleman in 1183 CE and ten golden lamps by Parantaka Pandya. Veera Keralavarma, ruler of Venad (1344 – 1350 CE), donated vast amounts of land and about 3000 pieces of gold to the temple in response to him being responsible for the death of a few Brahmins.
The current wealth has been retrieved from some of the six cellars around the sanctum sanctorum. These cellars existed around 550 years ago and there is mention of ornaments being retrieved from the cellars to decorate the painting of the king of Venad during that period. In 1686 CE, the temple was gutted by fire and there was no worship for three decades but the priceless valuables remained safe in the cellar. Just two years before the fire, Umayamma Rani, who would later flee due to an attack by a Mughal invader, donated various ornaments and silk to the temple. It is mentioned that such donations were moved to the cellar for safe keeping. When various kings ascended the throne, they too donated gold and other precious stones to Sri Padmanabhaswamy.
In the 17th century, the pettiness of the kings of small territories came quite handy to the Dutch who devoured Kochi, Kollam and various other kingdoms. Interfering in the internal affairs and exploiting the difference of opinion among the kings was the Dutch policy and by this they could eventually control the whole of Kerala and the lucrative spice trade. During this period, Travancore was whipsawed by a poor economy and constant conflict between temple administrators and noblemen.
This was a feud which had started at least a century earlier. Rules for managing the temples of Kerala were set as early as the 9th century when various noblemen met in Paravur. In 12th century, the committee which managed Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple used to frequently get together to make decisions, but the relationship between the king and the temple administrators was not always cordial. In the 17th century, during the time of Adityavarma (1672 – 1677 CE), a group of eight noblemen under the direct supervision of the king was responsible for the temple management. The temple administrators divided the temple property into eight and gave them to Nair chieftains for revenue collection. Soon a feud started with with the king’s men on one side and the rest of the administrators on the other side leading to a brief closure of the temple.
All this leads to the resolute and brilliant Marthandavarma, the founder of the kingdom of Travancore as well the person responsible for the the current state of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. During this period of strife, Marthandavarma annexed the smaller kingdoms around Venad to create Travancore. He defeated the Dutch in the Battle of Kolachel in 1741, sixteen years before the Battle of Plassey. For India of that period, this was a distinction of some weight. The Dutch agreed to support the king in his fight against other European powers and the commander of the Dutch forces, Eustachius De Lannoy, became the commander-in-chief of the Travancore armed forces. De Lannoy too made donations to the temple and it is possible that the Dutch coins and the Belgium cut-glasses came from him.
Marthandavarma also embarked on a construction spree at the temple. The repairs and the construction of the buildings around it started in 1731 and was completed two years later. The current temple structure and the sanctum sanctorum were built during his period. Some of the underground cellars were strengthened with the aim of keeping the temple wealth safe from fire. In 1733, the idol of Sri Padmanabhaswamy was reconstructed using saligram silas (Ammonite fossils) bought from Gandaki River in Nepal. The construction of the temple tower which had started in 1566 CE, reached five stories high during this period and would be completed during the time of his successor. He also made arrangements for the main festival to be conducted twice a year.
This visionary king in a unique historical and spiritual move surrendered all his riches and the kingdom he built to the family deity on January 3, 1750 CE; he and his successors would rule the kingdom with the official designation of Padmanabhadasa or devotee of the deity. That arrangement continues till today.
Donations would continue to flow even during the British reign with the Resident offering generously to the temple. In 1932, when Chitra Thirunal ascended the throne, one of his first acts was to open these cellars and estimate the wealth; it was calculated to be around one crore rupees. If the temple had so much wealth, how did it survive looting by the insiders and the invaders? Appropriation of temple wealth was considered as one of the five great sins prescribed by the Dharmasastras and it may have prevented the looting of the temple by the administrators.
Though Mahmud of Ghazni, the Mughals and Tipu Sultan did not reach South Kerala, various Islamic invaders did attack Venad. In the 14th century, there is mention of Muslim invasion into the region and how it was spoiled by Iravi Ravivarma. Another successor, Adityavarma, who was responsible for constructing the Krishna temple and protective shelters for cows in 1374 CE too repelled such attacks. In 1690, a person referred to as “Mughal Sardar” attacked the southern border of Venad causing the regent Umayamma Rani to flee. Kottayam Kerala Varma who had come on pilgrimage from Malabar defeated this adventurer.
On record
Since it does not contain war booty, did all the wealth, found in the underground cellars come via offerings by various devotees, kings, queens, and traders? Besides the temple inscriptions and royal decrees, the most detailed records of the assets come from what is known as the ‘Mathilakam records’ which are about 100,000 palm leaves stored in thousands of bundles, in the Kerala Archives. Some of these records were published, but a vast majority of them remain unwrapped; an effort was launched in 2009 to publish the rest, but the plan was abandoned in 2011 as the government does not employ anyone who can read the ancient script.
This is disappointing, since the royals kept meticulous records and if we could read them we would know the source of the Roman and Napoleonic era gold coins, Venetian ducats and drachmas as well as the solid gold idols of Sri Krishna and Vishnu. It could also help solve another mystery: In 1766, the Zamorin’s entourage fled from Malabar to Travancore, presumably after emptying the Calicut treasury, to escape the pillage of Haider Ali. The Zamorin took his own life than surrender. It is possible that some of that wealth reached Travancore treasury. If the records don’t mention this, an inventory of the items would reveal if there is any truth to this.
The discovery of the the wealth has caused various experts to advance theories on its origins including some indulging in imagination. Usually absence of facts causes myth to be created, but in this case speculation and hoary propaganda is unwarranted since the source of the wealth is well documented. If the government cannot find a specialist to translate the royal records, it should have them carefully digitised and published online, so that the job can be crowdsourced.
(The author wishes to thank Manmadhan Ullatil (for pointing out the Calicut link), Lakshmi Srinivas, Nikhil Narayanan, R N Iyengar and @NR_Tatvamasi for sharing information. This article was published in Aug 2011 issue of Pragati)

  • A Sreedhara Menon, ;A survey of Kerala history(Sahitya Pravarthaka Co-operative Society [Sales Dept.]; National Book Stall, 1967).

In Pragati: Book Review – Churchill's Secret War by Madhusree Mukherjee

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill (Image via ChrisM70)

Three days after Germany invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Winston Churchill inspired Britain with the words, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” These words—Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat—is the title of a book by John Lukacs which analyses Churchill’s motivational speeches during World War II as American and Russian forces battled the Axis in Europe and the Pacific. The titles of other books—The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, Churchill: A Study in Greatness—reveal the exalted position Britain’s war-time prime pinister occupies in world history, specifically Western history.
While reading Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat it was unclear what was more funny—Mr Lukacs’ repetition of the title words every few pages or his admiration of Churchill’s speeches extolling the virtues of freedom ignoring the enslaved people of the colonies. For such historians Churchill proved his mettle by leading the country through the war and coming out victorious. Like how many American historians do not see the irony in Thomas Jefferson asserting all men are equal while owning slaves, members of Churchill fan club do not see anything wrong in pronouncing him as the upholder of freedom and democracy despite his unapologetic imperialist stance and inhuman behavior towards the colonies.
In Madhusree Mukherjee’s book, Churchill is neither a lion nor a man of great moral rectitude. He was a man who could have prevented three million Indians from starving to death, but did not. Clouded by racist views of Indians, he even stopped other countries from helping the starving population, antagonised the US president with his stand on India and argued that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to British India. Despite all these, when the first words of Paul Johnson’s biography states that Churchill was most valuable man to the whole of humanity in the 20th century, one has to wonder about the lack of perspective behind that testimonial.
The famine
Between 1941 and 1942, three events occurred which turned out to be disastrous for the people of Bengal. First, fearing the Japanese invasion of India, the War Cabinet ordered a scorched earth policy in areas which would have to be surrendered. Rice was removed or destroyed. Money was advanced to businessmen to buy and hoard. Along with this, boats, much needed by farmers, fishermen and potters for their livelihood were destroyed.
Continue reading “In Pragati: Book Review – Churchill's Secret War by Madhusree Mukherjee”

In Pragati: Book Review – Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope

In late 1856, some strange practices began to surface in parts of north India. Red lotus flowers were circulated in garrisons which housed the Native Infantry. The subedar would line up the troops and then hand a flower to the first soldier, who would hold it and pass it down the line. The last one would leave the station with the flower. Elsewhere, a runner took a bundle of chapatis to a village and handed it to the chief or sentry, with instructions to send the chapatis on to the next village under English rule. In the midst of these lotus and chapati incidents, the soldiers’ slogan would change from “everything will become red” to “everything has become red.” Other unusual events included the announcement of an important yagya in Mathura (which never took place), and the habit begun by many women of offering their rolling pins to the river Ganga.
These signs were noticed by the British—Benjamin Disraeli even raised the question of the travelling chapatis in Parliament—but were dismissed as Indian superstitions.
These abnormal occurrences, ignored by almost every historical narrative on the 1857 uprising, assume significance when seen in the light of an important question: How did the Indian troops travel over a million miles, in the early months of the war, without a supply line? In a regular war, there were three camp followers for each soldier, but once the soldiers mutinied in 1857, who fed them? Case in point: How did the 17th Native Infantry march 140km from Azamgarh to Faizabad in just five days?
The answer may seem straightforward: The villagers fed the soldiers. However, there was an intricate strategy underlying the initiative. To feed thousands of soldiers, each village (comprising of a few hundred people) needed an approximate count. The count was provided by the lotus flowers, while the chapatis and the rolling pins were the means used to confirm the commitment of the villagers. The Mathura yagya was a ruse to facilitate the travel of priests who doubled as spies.
Thus, the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 was initiated by leaders who planned the war, conducted internal and external reconnaissance, and recruited soldiers—with the help of civilians.
Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus—through the analysis of instances such as the use of red lotuses and chapatis—fills the gaps and corrects the myths about the events of 1857. Relying on eyewitness accounts written in Marathi and letters in Urdu and Bundeli, Mr Tope, a fourth-generation descendent of Tatya Tope, sheds new light on the momentous event. Add to it his analysis of troop movements, supply lines, and logistics—and the tale of the 1857 Anglo-Indian War comes to life in hitherto untold, dramatic fashion.
The triad of freedoms
The leaders who spearheaded the 1857 operation included Nana Saheb, his Diwan, Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda. In 1858, Sitaram Baba, a priest in Nana Saheb’s court was arrested by the British. Baba confessed that the conspiracy had been initiated by Baija Bai Shinde two decades earlier, and that the real planning had started three years before. He also revealed information about the runners who had gone to each regiment, and the connection between the lotuses and chapatis. Letters, translated for the first time in this book, reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.
“It is important to note that the rising was neither planned nor stimulated by any patriotic move”, wrote Gregory Fremont-Barnes in Indian Mutiny 1857-58 (2007). What Fremont-Barnes and many other Indian historians often fail to mention is that the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future. After the uprising’s initial success, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a proclamation, read by his grandson in Azamgarh. The proclamation promised a triad of invaluable freedoms: Political, personal and economic.
The crony-capitalist state run by the British East India Company had destroyed the free market system in India. Heavy taxation was the norm, while prices were enforced with the threat of punishment. Manufacturing capabilities were crippled, and the agricultural sector lost the ability to shield the country from the threat of famines. Due to India’s asymmetrical role in the global network, even as the country’s share in the world’s GDP fell from 25 percent to 12, Britain’s share doubled.
On the social front, William Bentinck’s educational policy, based on Macaulay’s Minute, destroyed the private education system that had previously created a society more literate than that of Britain. In a letter to his father, Macaulay claimed that if the new education policy was implemented, there would not be a single idolater left in Bengal.
Even the legal framework was skewed—Indians wanted freedom from missionaries who were working with the Government, and laws which favoured Christians.
By promising the triad of freedoms, the leaders were not advocating a novel or revolutionary idea. They were reverting to the foundations of the Indian polity, which not only guaranteed political, social and economic freedom, but kept them separate as well. In other words, the ruler did not act as a trader, but created an environment suitable for trade.
Fractional Freedom
Mr Tope argues that although the initial uprising was brilliantly planned and co-ordinated, the war was lost due to two reasons. Firstly, the British used their women and children as human shields, which resulted in gory incidents such as the Siege of Cawnpore. Secondly, they resorted to the use of extreme brutality—leaving aside their usual pretences to civilised behaviour—citing the case of Cawnpore (Kanpur).
Recognising the supply lines for the soldiers, British officials attacked those villages through which the chapatis were passed. A law was passed to allow the hanging of even those whose guilt was doubtful. British troops under Havelock and Neill did a death march, killing women, children, infants and the elderly. Sepoys were ritually stripped of their caste by having pork and beef stuffed down their throats before execution.
In books such as The Great Indian Mutiny (1964) by Richard Collier, or The Last Mughal (2008) by William Dalrymple, the British officials’ use of violence is regarded as a reaction to the carnage that took place in Kanpur. However, Mr Tope points out that the government’s brutality was unleashed even before that. British historians recorded that “guilty” villages were “cleared” so that India could be saved from anarchy.
In 1857, the strategy of violent repression was used by the British to secure time to redeploy troops from other countries to India. It was during this time that Tatya’s tenacity became evident. After establishing a command centre in Kalpi, he set up factories for producing ammunition, guns and cannons.
Despite the prospect of imminent defeat, Tatya worked to raise an army, and inspire civilians. When the British took over Delhi, the battle ground was moved to central India. When Rani Laxmibai, who grew up with Tatya, was held under siege, he created a diversion to help the Rani escape. Following the Jhansi massacre, the Indian chieftains who supported Tatya backed down, but he came up with a new strategy—to raise rebellions in regions where the spirit of freedom was strong.
The battles are explained with numerous maps, painstakingly plotted with English and Indian troop movements—a useful tool to interpret the events, and grasp the thinking behind the strategy. The maps, coupled with the detailed narrative and critical analysis, provide a valuable resource to better appreciate the holistic nature of the 1857 uprising.
Upon realising that the 1857 war had ignited the desire for total freedom, Queen Victoria dissolved the East India Company and transferred all powers to the Crown. In her proclamation, she did not give India political or economic freedom, but made an important concession: The English would no longer interfere with the native religions. Even Fremont-Barnes’ apologia acknowledges that successive viceroys took greater heed of India’s religious sensitivities. It was an important victory, writes Mr Tope, for it prevented large scale British settlement in India, and stemmed the destruction of Indian traditions.
The fight continues
Nevertheless, the signature elements of the 1857 uprising—secret messages, planning, and mass murders—were repeated again. In 1932, freedom fighters were warned of danger by Hindu women, who blew on conch shells when they spotted a policeman—the sound was relayed for miles by a network of women.
Madhusree Mukerjee records instances of a different nature in her Churchill’s Secret War (2010). During World War II, when the Japanese army reached Indian borders, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, wondered if it was necessary to revive ruthless punishments of 1857 to prevent a possible uprising. Winston Churchill’s policies, argues Ms Mukerjee, resulted in a famine in which three million Indians perished. Mr Tope describes the events of February 19, 1946, when 78 ships, going from Karachi to Chittagong, changed their name from HMIS (His Majesty’s Indian Ships) to INNS (Indian National Naval Ships) in a co-ordinated move.
Coming back to 1857: Why is it that Baija Bai Shinde’s 20-year conspiracy, Nana Saheb’s planning or Tatya’s Tope’s contribution do not feature prominently in our history books? This probably has to do with the historiography of the event. In the official version written a century later by Surendra Nath Sen, the 1857 War was seen as a spontaneous uprising by “conspirators”. Historian R C Majumdar questioned if it could even be called a “war” since India was not a nation, while Marxist historians connected the revolt to peasant uprisings in Bengal.
This reluctance to deviate from the colonial narrative 150 years after the war and 60 years after obtaining political freedom is a telling sign about the state of historical study in India.
India’s proclamation of independence six decades ago has to be contrasted with the triad of freedoms promised in the Azamgarh proclamation. To the leaders of the newly independent polity, Indian traditions of the past did not guide the future. Their socialist mindset led to state control over education and restricted economic freedom, with the state itself becoming a trader—all of which had disastrous consequences.
Looking back, we know what our leaders tried to build and failed, but as well, what they knocked down.
(This version appeared in the February 2011 edition of Pragati)