Trading Hubs of the Old World – Part 2

(The Arabian Sea Network)

(Read Part 1)
In 1881, the Theosophist Henry Steel Olcott, said, “We Europeans..have a right to more than suspect that India 8,000 years ago sent out a colony of emigrants[6].” New evidence suggests that Olcott was right about the time, but wrong about Indians emigrating in the Old World.
During the third millennium BCE that trade relations between India and Mesopotamia prospered: Burial sites in Mesopotamia had shell-made lamps and cups produced from a conch shell found only in India; Early Dynastic Mesopotamians were consumers of the Harappan carnelian bead. Also the Gujaratis were exporting hardwood  and there are even unverified reports of spices from the Malabar coast reaching Mesopotamia. But now there is a debate over if a colony of Indians lived in Mesopotamia — in a Meluhhan village — at that time[7].
The interesting news is that these trade relations happened much earlier than was previously believed. The important question is: did Harappans have knowledge of the monsoon winds to travel to Mesopotamia?
Soon trade with Mesopotamia declined because Oman developed as a trading hub; the Harappans did not have to travel as far as Mesopotamia for trading. Oman imported both luxury goods and basic commodities: wood, carnelian, combs, shell, metal objects, seals, weights and possibly large volume storage jars. What was considered luxury – copper, cereals — became common goods with coastal communities playing a major part.
The bitumen coated reed boats of the third millennium BCE were replaced by the plank-built wooden boats by the second millennium BCE. Instead of a few major players, there were many minor players creating a distributed network.
While there is evidence for sea-faring Harappans traveling to the Persian Gulf, there is no archaeological evidence of Mesopotamians reaching India during that period. Since no large ports, warehouses have been found in Harappa, it is assumed that the trade involved small-scale ports belonging to local communities; the Lothal dock and warehouse is of late Harappan period.

The other interesting development is the trade with East Africa. The Arabians and their neighbors in Levant and Mesopotamia used wheat and one species – the bread wheat – came from the Indus and the other – emmer wheat – from Africa. The pearl millet which was domesticated in Mali and Mauritania around 2500 BCE was found in Gujarat  by 2000 – 1700 BCE. African crops like sorghum and Ragi started appearing in South India after this period, possibly via Gujarat. There was a Western transmission of crops too: moong dal (third mil BCE), urad dal (2500 BCE), pigeon pea (1400 BCE), sesame (2500 BCE), and cotton (5000 BCE) made their way to both Africa and Arabia.


By 2000 BCE, the the Harappan maritime activity shifted to Gujarat. Around that time the trade between Africa and India intensified. While crops moved from Africa to India, genetic studies have shown that the zebu cattle went from India via Arabia to Africa.  These Bos Indicus, who reached Africa, met some Bos taurines and before you knew, sparks were flying, setting the African Savannah on fire. There is also evidence of the migration of zebus from Indus to Near East via Iran in the late third millennium BCE. Some of this zebu movement involved travel by boats along the Arabian coast and points to a trade on a much larger scale. Thus the transportation of a giraffe in 1405 by Zheng He’s fleet from Africa to China does not look that far fetched.

The Omanis developed wooden boat technology and deep-sea fishing around the time the African crops reached India. If they had knowledge of monsoons, the Omanis could reach India directly, else they had to travel around the Makran coast and reach India via Iran. It is also possible that the Omanis got their wooden craft technology from Indians; after all they imported wood from India.

(Ramses II)

An interesting development happens in 1200 BCE. Among the dried fruits kept in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramses II was pepper and there was only one place in the world where pepper was produced. While this points to the first contact between the Malabar coast and Egypt and the origins of the spice trade, what is not known is how the pepper reached Egypt.
The Harappan trade meanwhile shifted from Oman to Bahrain — Mesopotamian textual sources start mentioning more of Dilmun than Magan — and so Dilumn became the transit point for goods to Mesopotamia from India, but this change in the transit point did not affect the goods. Many millennia later when When Ibn Battuta visited Calicut, the chief merchant was an Ibrahim from Bahrain with the title shah bandar (the port master or chief of harbor)[5].
This is the point we see the rise of an early capitalism with private Mesopotamian citizens funding seafaring merchants who operated in a complex exchange system. Business was risky, but Dilmun communities thrived on the profit.
Then slowly we see the merchants in Dilmun adopting Harappan administrative standards. Thus goods were sealed with the Harappan style stamp seals and not the cylindrical Mesopotamian ones. The Indus weight system was also used and it was known as the standard of Dilmun. Meanwhile certain seals found also in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, which were inspired by the Sumerian seals
By Iron age, there was a technological break through with the mastery over monsoons. The Arabians were already using monsoon winds to reach India. At the same time the Egyptians too started doing the same — with boats with sharp bows and triangular sails — skipping the middlemen in Arabia due to which South Indian ports gain prominence over Gujarati ones.
Since our minds are locked in to the “Aryan migration/trickle down” 1500 BCE time frame, we rarely look into the interactions before that period. A recent paper in Nature, on the origins of Indian population, showed that the rise of Ancestral North Indians and South Indians was connected to human. Between these two events, Indians had extensive trade contacts with the Old World and hence the door was not closed after the ANI and ASI established themselves. There was movement of people, animals and plants, both into India and out of India for many generations. It is worth investigating what impact this interaction had in the cultural transformation of the subcontinent.
A painful lesson India and Africa learned is that trade usually ends up in colonization. But looking at the trade network of this period, there is no such evidence, even in a place like Bahrain which was central to the global trade. Trade, free of colonization, would take place even during the medieval period till the Portuguese showed up in Calicut in 1498 looking for “Christians and spices.”


  1. Himanshu Prabha Ray, The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  2. Nicole Boivin and Dorian Fuller, Shell Middens, Ships and Seeds: Exploring Coastal Subsistence, Maritime Trade and the Dispersal of Domesticates in and Around the Ancient Arabian Peninsula, Journal of World Prehistory 22, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 180, 113.
  3. Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (Vintage, 2005).
  4. Jacques Connan, “A comparative geochemical study of bituminous boat remains from H3, As-Sabiyah (Kuwait), and RJ-2, Ra’s al-Jinz (Oman),”Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 16, no. 1 (2005): 21-66.
  5. Mehrda Shokoohy, Muslim Architecture of South India: The Sultanate of Ma’bar and the Traditions of Maritime Settlers on the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts, 1st ed. (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
  6. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  7. C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky,Archaeological Thought in America (Cambridge University Press, 1991).


  1. Most of this article is based of Reference [2].
  2. From Wikipedia: “In 1974, Egyptologists visiting his tomb noticed that the mummy’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. They decided to fly Ramesses II’s mummy to Paris for examination. Ramesses II was issued an Egyptian passport that listed his occupation
    as “King (deceased)”. The mummy was received at Le Bourget airport,
    just outside Paris, with the full military honours befitting a king”

Images: (via Wikipedia)

Trading Hubs of the Old World – Part 1

  1. Lime plaster fragments found in Dhuwelia (Eastern Jordan), around 4000 BCE had remains of a cotton fibre attached to it. The only place from where that particular sample of cotton could have come was Baluchistan[1].
  2. Some time after 2334 BCE, Sargon of Akkad boasted about ships to India lying in his harbor[1].
  3. After 2000 BCE, Indian cattle reached Africa and lived up to their name: the humped cattle. [2]
  4. On July 12, 1224 BCE, Ramses II, one of Egypt’s greatest Pharaohs died. When he was mummified, the priests put a couple of peppercorns from Kerala up his large bent nose[3].

In “Hubs of Medieval trade” (Pragati, June 2009), Ullatil Manmadhan wrote about the maritime trade networks in the Indian Ocean which between 1000 – 1500 CE transported goods, religion and culture from East Africa to Egypt to Arabia to India through ports like Calicut, Fustat and Ormuz. But many millennia before this — before the urban dynasties of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Harappa — there existed a maritime network which linked Africa to India via Arabia.


There are few issues when you go that far back in time: we don’t have historical records, remnants of trade artifacts, or representation of those activities in art.  While travelers like Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta left us narratives of their travel, we don’t have that luxury while dealing with this period.

In the absence of the written record, the story has to be constructed from genetic studies, studies of plant and animal dispersal, and by archaeology.  For example, much of the domesticated plants and animals in Arabia originated outside Arabia: cattle was introduced from the Near East and donkey from Egypt. Regarding plants it is possible that the date palm in Arabia probably came from the Indian Sugar Date Palm or from Iran around 5000 BCE.

The history of this trade network starts in 6200 BCE for a reason. In the time period between the rise of farming communities and the peak of Harappan civilization, 6200 BCE was a dry period. Following this dry period sea levels rose and water was released from various lakes into the Atlantic and Red Sea affecting the coastal sites. Thus if coastal communities existed before that period, the evidence is hard to find.

The evidence for coastal communities come from shell middens, which are shell mounds. Shell middens can reveal a lot of information about human activity including the food they ate. Some of these mounds were the place where the village would dump garbage and some times contained evidence of house hold goods. The Greeks called the beach dwellers Ichthyophagi — mainly to the stump the finalists of the National Spelling Bee — and after 6200 BCE, there is a rise shell midden sites around Arabia.

Once coastal communities were established, the next step was maritime trade. But sea faring was not an easy task: the sailor, besides having knowledge of the currents, also had to  be an expert in navigating past shoals and reefs. They also had to know when the wind blew north so that they would not waste time traveling south. 

Arabian people of this period knew about ocean traveling; the remnants of a boat was found near Kuwait and this boat which was made from reed bundles, tied with rope, and sealed with bitumen had barnacle impressions on it. This site, which could be dated to 5500 – 500 BCE, also had a painted disc showing a sailing boat[4]

The Egyptians used boats even earlier; there has been evidence of boats on the Nile dating to the 7th millennium BCE.  Egyptian trade started around 5000 BCE and maritime trade a millennium later. This was the time around which the Persian Gulf and Red Sea trade started as well.

India enters into this network around the fourth millennium BCE. Archaeologists in Dhuwelia, a seasonal hunting site  in Eastern Jordan found cotton thread embedded in lime-plaster. Cotton is not native to Arabia and that particular species could have come from only one place in the world: Baluchistan, where it has been cultivated since the fifth millennium[2]. But it is not clear if this prized good was transported via a land route or on a boat to the Persian Gulf. One thing is clear;to reach Dhuwelia one has to travel through the Euphrates valley[3]

(An Akkadian ruler, probably Sargon)

After the mid-fourth millennium BCE, the world changed. The urban civilizations of the Old World started rising – in Mesopotamia, in Egypt, in the Indian subcontinent. These civilizations maintained records which reveal more about the trade networks and the maritime activities. This is the time when places like Dilmun (Arabian Mainland or Bahrain), Meluhha (Indus), Punt (somewhere in Africa) came into existence in records.  With the rise of urban societies, the goods started traveling farther and trading networks developed. 

By this period, the Egyptians moved from reed to wooden boats and started using the sail. Like the 14th century Ming emperor who sent out huge fleets for prestige and power, the fourth millennium BCE Egyptians too started doing the same. Like Zheng He’s fleet, these ships too were spectacular and went around acquiring exotic goods. Wood was imported; there were break throughs in sail-rigging; the Egyptians were soon making sea voyages to Punt. 

By the time of Mature Harappan, there is evidence of direct trade between the participants. Around this time the Sargon of Akkad (2334 – 2279 BCE) boasted[1]

The ships from Meluhha
the ships from Magan
the ships from Dilmun
he made tie-up alongside
the quay of Akkad

Another Sargonic tablet mentions an Akkadian who was the holder of a Meluhha ship and a seal mentions a person who was a Meluhha interpreter. Indus seals — the ones we have been applying the Markov model on — too start appearing in Mesopotamia.>(To be continued)


  1. Coming in Part 2: trade with Mesopotamia and East Africa
  2. The primary source for this article is a recent paper: Shell Middens, Ships and Seeds: Exploring Coastal Subsistence, Maritime Trade and the Dispersal of Domesticates in and Around the Ancient Arabian Peninsula by Nicole Boivin and Dorian Fuller.
  3. Images from Wikipedia

The Harappan angulam

(Sudama and Lomas Rishi Caves at Barabar, Bihar, in 1870)

During the time of Emperor Asoka and his successor Dasaratha, seven caves were constructed in Barabar and Nagarjuni hills, about 47 km from Gaya; during the Mauryan times, these hills encircled the city of Rajagriha. In the thirteenth year of his reign Asoka donated two caves in Barabar hills to Ajivikas. He donated one more in the 20th year of his reign while the Third Buddhist Council was going on, and all these were documented carefully with inscriptions inside the cave. The caves in Nagarjuni hills were the work of Asoka’s successor – his grandson Dasaratha – and these caves, like the ones in Barabar hills were donated to the Ajivikas[5].
These caves had circular roofs and the surfaces were polished. When these caves were measured, it was found that they were not constructed to random dimensions, but to a well known measure from the Harappan period: the angulam[2].
The urbanized Harappan civilization with elaborate town planning had knowledge of geometry and standardized measures. Statistical analysis of various Harappan settlements has shown that the basic unit of measurement was 17.63 mm[3]. This is taken to be one angulam and 108 angulams one dhanus. Various dimensions in the Harappan site of Dholavira are  integral multiple of dhanus. Now at a different site — Kalibangan — a terracota scale was found and when the measure between the tick marks was analyzed, it was found to be 17.5 mm. This also matched the measurement found in ivory and metal scales and shell markings at other sites[1].
The angulam is approximately 1.763 cms in Harappa, 1.75 in Kalibangan, and 1.77 in Lothal. The Arthashashtra derives larger units from angulam: garhapatya dhanus is 108 angulams; 1 danda, 96 angulams.
In the Mauryan caves, it was found that the danda measured the cave perfectly. For example the Lomas Rishi cave was 6 dandas long and 3.5 dandas wide and the Sudaman cave, 10 dandas long and 3.5 dandas wide. There is some fine print here as the Arthashastra provides confusing descriptions for various measures: one hasta is either 24, 28, or 54 angulams and one danda is 96 or 192 angulams. Since 96 was used by later texts, that measure was chosen.
What makes this interesting is that while cutting caves through hard rock, the Mauryans did not randomly dig through; the caves were carefully planned and constructed with pre-determined dimensions. Two caves in  Nagarjuni hills had the same dimension, so did two caves in Barabar hills. This also reveals that the Harappan measures were used in the Gangetic plain, even after 2000 years.


  1. Analysis of terracotta scale of Harappan civilization from Kalibangan, Current Science, VOL. 95, NO. 5, 10 September 2008, R. Balasubramaniam, Jagat Pati Joshi
  2. New insights on metrology during the Mauryan period by R. Balasubramaniam in Current Science, VOL. 97, NO. 5, 10 September 2009
  3. Unravelling Dholavira’s Goemetry by Michel Danino
  4. New Insights into Harappan Town-Planning, Proportions and Units, with Special Reference to Dholavira, by Michel Danino, Man and Environment, vol. XXXIII, No. 1, 2008, pp. 66-79
  5. Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas by Romila Thapar

Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Markov Model of Indus Script

(From a Tantra t-shirt)

There is a school of thought which believes that the Harappan seals convey something linguistic; after all they had extensive trade contacts with literate Mesopotamia. Thus it is possible that these symbols — found on seals, pottery, terracota tablets — convey data regarding the origin of the consignment or owner. Then there is another school which believes that, yes, the seals had some meaning, but definitely not linguistic; maybe they were political or religious symbols.
As this battle continues — much like the one over the Aryan homeland — a new paper has been published, which analyzes the sequential dependencies between the symbols. In English we know that the the letter “s” is most likely to be followed by “e” or “o” or “u” than “x” or “z”. Similarly in the Harappan seals it was found that given a symbol, only a subset of the symbols could follow it. This order can happen only if there are some rules regarding the placement.

To find out if this model could predict the missing or illegible symbols in a damaged seal, a known data set was intentionally damaged. The model could predict the missing symbol with 74% accuracy. Also analysis of Harappan seals found in Mesopotamia and West Asia found that they were of a different encoding; maybe they represent different subject matter.

Our results appear to favor the hypothesis that the Indus script represents a linguistic writing system. Our Markov analysis of sign sequences, although restricted to pairwise statistics, makes it clear that the signs do not occur in a random manner within inscriptions but appear to follow certain rules: (i) some signs have a high probability of occurring at the beginning of inscriptions whereas others almost never occur at the beginning; and (ii) for any particular sign, there are signs that have a high probability of occurring after that sign and other signs that have negligible probability of occurring after the same sign. Furthermore, signs appear to fall into functional classes in terms of their position within an Indus text, where a particular sign can be replaced by another sign in its equivalence class. Such rich syntactic structure is hard to reconcile with a nonlinguistic system. Additionally, our finding that the script may have been versatile enough to represent different subject matter in West Asia argues against the claim that the script merely represents religious or political symbols [A Markov model of the Indus script]

Now it turns out that Soviets and Finns had done such studies in the 60s and reached the same conclusion: there is a positional order in Indus symbols. What’s unique about this new study is that it uses the Markov model for the first time.
This paper does not decipher the script, but is work which hopefully will lead to an acceptable decipherment. The word “acceptable” is used because there are many decipherments right now, but without scholarly consensus. But what the paper suggests is that the symbols, most likely, encode a linguistic system and not religious or political symbols.

This work, like the previous one , has got extensive media coverage, with even the Time, writing about it. But anything connected to the Indus is controversial and this paper is no different: first the authors were accused of being Tamil/Dravidian nationalists and once that was found to be incorrect, it was about the deteriorating editorial standards in various journals. In response Prof. Dilip K Chakrabarti wrote, “There is a conscious attempt in certain quarters to disassociate this civilisation from the later mainstream tradition of Indian/ Vedic culture.”

Historically, the beginning of this attempt can be traced to the period around India’s Independence when Mortimer Wheeler proposed that the impetus for this civilisation came from Mesopotamia. Earlier, when India was a jewel in the British crown, there was no compulsion to depict it as an offshoot of Mesopotamian or other contemporary civilisations. The early excavators had no problem hypothesising that this civilisation was deeply rooted in the Indian soil and that many of its features could be explained with reference to the later Indian civilisation. [From Indus to India]

Besides this political side show, there is a serious question: is this method sufficient to show that the Indus seals represent a linguistic system? Can such statistical studies prove or disprove that the symbols represent a language.?  The answer depends on whom you ask.
On the other hand, if you believe that the symbols are non-linguistic, there is another question: why would the Harappans send non-linguistic symbols on seals, created on hard to work materials, with a certain syntax to their trading partners to the West and North. What was the relevance and what non-linguistic information did it convey to someone in Mesopotamia?

A 4000 year old Leper's Tale

Dead men usually tell no tales; but a 4000 year old skeleton from Balathal, Rajasthan (40 km north east of Udaipur) has revealed some fascinating tales.
This skeleton, of a man who probably was 35+/-10 years and 5’10”, was found in a settlement which flourished from 3700 – 1820 BCE; the people there had pottery and copper and cultivated barley as well as wheat. He was buried between 2500 – 2000 BCE — much before the decline of the Harappan civilization — and was a leper. In fact, this skeleton is the oldest example of leprosy in the world.
But he was not Harappan: he belonged to the Ahar-Banas culture. In the Mewar region of Rajasthan, hunter-gatherers developed farming communities in the middle of the fifth millennium BCE, independent of the Harappan culture. By around 2500 BCE, they became prosperous and had fortified settlements, roads, and lanes. Also, the earliest burned brick (4000 BCE) was found in Gilund at this site[2].
By 2500 BCE, Ahars had trade relations with the Harappans to the north. They also had trade relations with their contemporaries in South and Central India and the skeleton confirms it. This skeleton was buried with vitrified ash from cow dung. So far the Southern Neolithic ash mounds found in South Deccan and North Dharwar were believed to be cattle settlements or the result of  cow dung disposal. Now we can speculate that they were the result of funeral activities of a shared tradition.
Besides this domestic connection, these people had international contacts as well. There are two strains of leprosy: an Asian one and an East African one. It is possible that the African one was transmitted to Asia around 40,000 BCE or vice versa at a much later date. The second one seems to have happened since lerosy depends on human contact and it must been transmitted over the trading network involving the Ahars, Harappans,people of Magan, Mesopotamians and Egyptians.
This skeleton fits well with  the Atharva Veda (Hymn 23, 24) making it the earliest historical reference to leprosy. The Ebers papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE has been interpreted to contain evidence of leprosy, but the earliest affected skeleton found in Egypt has been dated only to 400 – 250 BCE.
Another point is regarding the burial; after 2000 BCE, burial was uncommon except for some special cases like infants and spiritual people. Harappan skeletons were both cremated — there is evidence at Sanauli at least — and buried, but true burials are very few compared to expected numbers. Many archaeologists believe that cremation must have been widely practised by Harappans. Also, at Dholavira and other sites, dozens of graves turned out to be without any bones which implies symbolic burials.
It is believed that the burial at Balathal followed the Vedic tradition: lepers were buried alive in some parts of India. Also there is evidence that diseased bodies were sometimes not cremated.
Two other skeletons were also obtained from Balathal, but of a later date[3]. They were found in the padmasana or samadhi posture — a striking evidence of yoga practice and burial of people perhaps regards as spiritually advanced. Even now in India, spiritually advanced people are not cremated, but buried.

(One of the skeletons from Balathal in samadhi posture)


The excavations reveal a large number of bull figurines indicating the Ahar people worshipped the bull [6]. At Marmi, a site near Chittorgarh, these figures have been found in abundance indicating it could be a regional shrine of the bull cult of this rural population. Discovery of cow-like figurines in Ojiyana, the first site found on the slope of a hill, has baffled archaeologists. Cow-worship was not a known Ahar practice. “There are no humps and we can see small teats,” B.R.Meena, superintendent, ASI Jaipur circle, who undertook the excavation, says, “These are certainly cows.” Other archaeologists suspect them to be bull calves but insist if further studies prove these to be cows, one could infer that the cow was a revered animal and the Hindu practice of treating the cow as a holy animal can thus be of pre-Aryan antiquity. [Were they cow worshippers?]

Vedic burial, skeletons in samadhi posture, cow worship in a civilization contemporary with Harappa —- does this imply that the Ahar-Banas were Vedic people or Ahar culture was adopted by later Vedic culture or Ahars adopted it from an earlier Vedic culture?
The large number of bull figurines found at Ahar and Gilund could indicate a bull cult[6]. There is a debate over if the figurines represent bulls or cows, but these figurines were part of the second phase of the Ahar culture (2100 – 1800 BCE) or as late as 1600 BCE [7] and are the only clue to the religious beliefs of the Ahars[8].
Another clue is the time frame of these skeletons. While the leper was dated to 2000 BCE, the skeletons in samadhi were from700 BCE[9]. So while the leper burial was unusual, there is nothing unusual about burying a man in samadhi posture by the Early Historical Period.
While the bull figurines and the skeletons in samadhi were known earlier, this leper skeleton has added new information about this less known culture. Hopefully as more papers come out, we will get a clear picture on their religious beliefs, such as if this Vedic burial was an exception or a common practice.

  1. This post is based on [4]. Many thanks to Michel Danino for information and images of the samadhi skeletons and Harappan burials. Also thanks to Gwen Robbins, the primary author of [2, 4], for patiently answering many questions.


  1. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective by Gregory L. Possehl
  2. A panel on the The Cultural Diversity of Northwestern South Asia at the time of the Indus Civilization convened by Prof. Gregory Possehl (University of Pennsylvania) and Prof. Vasant Shinde: Deccan College
  3. Gwen Robbins, Veena Mushrif, V.N. Misra, R.K. Mohanty and V.S. Shinde, Human Skeletal Remains from Balathal: a Full Report and Inventory, Man and Environment, XXXII(2) 2007, pp. 1-25.
  4. Ancient Skeletal Evidence for Leprosy in India (2000 B.C.), Gwen Robbins et al.
  5. Piecing the Ahar Puzzle by Rohit Parihar
  6. Encyclopedia of Prehistory: South and Southwest Asia By Peter Neal Peregrine
  7. Tribal roots of Hinduism By Shiv Kumar Tiwari
  8. The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan by Bridget Allchin
  9. The skeletons have also been dated all way back to 1800 BCE

Godesses around the world

The earliest inhabitants of India worshipped a Mother Goddess and a horned fertility god. Godesses are also mentioned in the Rg Veda like Prthvi, Aditi, Usas, Rathri and Aranyani. While godesses are still worshipped in Indic religions, they have largely disappeared from the West after the arrival of the Abrahamic religions.
But this was not the case before; female worship was prevalent all around the world. Recently three such artifacts were found:  in Turkey, in Golan and in Scotland.
The one in Golan, dated to 500 CE, was of Aphrodite – the Greek goddess of love. (see pictures)

“Aphrodite was the goddess of love, but also the goddess of fertility and childbirth,” Segal says. “Pregnant woman hoping for a safe birth would sacrifice to her, as would young girls hoping for love. Mainly, flowers, rather than animals, would be sacrificed to Aphrodite. The figurines we found were made in a mold in rather large numbers. They would be offered to the goddess in a temple by supplicants, or kept above one’s bed,” Segal said. [Dig unearths ancient cult figurines of Aphrodite]

According to the person who led the dig, Christians outlawed the Aphrodite cult, but it still survived since women clung to it.
While the Aphrodite figurine is just 1500 years old, the one found in Turkey is ancient, dating to 16,000 years back.

Erek said that the figurine showed that the social status of women was very important 16,000 years ago. Erek noted that the oldest fired clay god or goddess figurines –unearthed in Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Near East– were made in 5,000 BC. He added that experts believed that the clay was used earliest in that period, however, the goddess figurine showed that this method was older than thought. [16,000 Year-Old Mother Goddess Figurine Unearthed]

Finally, a sandstone figurine, 5000 years old, was discovered in Scotland and it is supposed to Scotland’s earliest face.

The carving is flat with a round head on top of a lozenge-shaped body. The face has heavy brows, two dots for eyes and an oblong for a nose. It is thought other scratches on top of the skull could be hair. A pair of circles on the chest are being interpreted as representing breasts, and arms have been etched at either side. It is believed a regular pattern of crossed markings on the reverse could suggest the fabric of the woman’s clothing.[Scotland’s ‘earliest face’ found]

Indian History Carnival – 20

The Indian History Carnival, published on the 15th of every month, is a collection of posts related to Indian history and archaeology.

  1. Where do Nairs come from? Maddy does a literature survey and “To summarize, the Nayars have been considered a derivative of local people with invading Aryans, have been wandering Scythins who settled down, the Nagas and so on. No one theory holds forte, though from all the above, the Scythian link seems to be the near fetched one”
  2. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Paul Beckett wondered why Indians were not contributing to charity like Americans. He also used the derogatory term “Hindu rate of growth” to which Sarvesh Tiwari responds, “Here we shall share some random thoughts from the historical perspectives on Hindu outlook to economy and charity, and try showing how, there is continuity even today, although latent, of the same outlook prevailing among the more traditional Hindu shreShThins of our age.”
  3. The effort to set up a Sanskrit University in Karnataka is facing considerable opposition. Sandeep B says, “Sanskrit is what gives identity to the Indian civilisation as we know it. From Valmiki to Kalidas, every major Sanskrit literary work spoke of this identity in its own way.”
  4. History and Mythology, a blog about Amar Chitra Katha, has a post about Chandragupta II: “He is almost certainly the King Chandra eulogized in the Sanskrit inscription on iron pillar in the Quwat al-Islam mosque in New Delhi’s Qutub Minar campus, which dates back to 4th century.”
  5. “Located near the city of Jogjakarta on the island of Java, it’s a stunning remnant of the days when the Dharmic religions were politically ascendant in the islands. It was commissioned and built between 800 and 900 CE by the local monarchs so that devotees need not travel all the way to India for spiritual pilgrimage.” Usha Alexander writes about the Borobudur stupa.
  6. “In 1193 CE, Nalanda was put to a brutal and decisive end by Bakhtiyar Khilji, a Turkish Muslim invader on his way to conquer Bengal. He looted and burned the monastery, and beheaded or burned alive perhaps thousands of monks,” writes Namit Arora on his post on Nalanda.
  7. Feanor has translated Afanasii Nikitin’s fifteenth century memoirs of his travel to India. Nikitin was a merchant from the Mongol areas of Russia. He had heard that horses were in demand in India and spent few years in Deccan.
  8. Hari, based on Vaasanthi’s Cut-outs, Caste and Cine Stars, looks at the life of MG Ramachandran (1917-1987), “one of the most important figures of Tamil politics, who, with help from other prominent leaders of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), including the crafty script writer Karunanidhi, seamlessly moved between cinema and politics as if the two were one.”

f you find any posts related to Indian history published in the past one month, please send it to jk AT varnam DOT org. Please send me links which are similar to the ones posted, in terms of content.The next carnival will be up on Sep 15th.
See Also: Previous Carnivals

King Agathocles's Coins

(Balarama depicted on a 1st century BCE Maues coin. via wikipedia)

Between 190 and 180 BCE, towards the end of the Mauryan empire, there lived a king named Agathocles near Ai-Khanoum, in the Kunduz area of Afghanistan. There are no cities, monuments or accounts about him and he would have remained unknown if not for one thing – coins.

Some time in the 70s, archaeologists found two types of coins issued by him. One set was Greek silver coins depicting Zeus and Dionysos. He also issued bronze and silver coins, square or rectangular in shape, which portryated Indian gods like Vishnu, Shiva, Vasudeva, Buddha and Balarama. On these coins were written, in Brahmi or Kharoshthi, that the money belonged to Rajane Agathuklayasa.

“These square coins, dating back to 180- BC, with Krishna on one side and Balram on the other, were unearthed recently in Al Khanoun in Afghanistan and are the earliest proof that Krishna was venerated as a god, and that the worship had spread beyond the Mathura region,” says T K V Rajan, archaeologist and founder-director, Indian Science Monitor, who is holding a five-day exhibition, In search of Lord Krishna,’ in the city from Saturday. [New finds take archaeologists closer to Krishna-Chennai-Cities-The Times of India]

The images show Vasudeva carrying a chakra and sankha on one side and Balarama carrying a gada (club) and hala (plough) and are some of the earliest coins depicting Krishna and Balarama. But these are not recent discoveries as mentioned in Times of India; a paper on it (Narain, A.K. “Two Hindu Divinities on the Coins of Agathocles from Ai-Khanum”, Journal of Numismatic Society of India) was published in 1973.


  1. Alexander the Great and Bactria By Frank Lee Holt
  2. Iconography of Balarama By N.P. Joshi

Bible's Buried Secrets (2/2)

Read Part 1
3. Monotheism did not happen instantly. (contd.)
Still the Israelites practiced polytheism,worshiping not just Yahweh, but also the fertility goddess Asherah and the Canaanite God Baal, though they were not supposed to. Whenever a major calamity fell on the Israelites, like the Assyrian invasion in 722 B.C.E and the Babylonian invasion followed by the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E it was blamed on polytheism.
Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.
It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.
4. Archaeology disproves other events as well
Following the Exodus, as per the Bible, Joshua takes the Israelites into Canaan through a military conquest. Archaeology has found evidence of destruction in various settlements which seem to agree with the Bible. But on dating the sites, it was found to happen much before Exodus and among the 31 sites listed by the Bible, just a few showed signs of war.
Similarly there is no evidence of the First Temple as well which made Ahmed Qurei, the Palestinian Authority official leading all peace talks with Israel to provocatively say that it was a Jewish invention. The problem is that the First temple lies below the third holiest site in Islam which makes archaeology impossible. The Bible has a detailed description of the temple and in fact there is a temple which matches this description at Ain Dara, in modern-day Syria.
Sometimes there is a kernel of truth in myths. But as we go back in time it becomes difficult to find even this kernel. The documentary says that, “Genesis is, for the most part, a compilation of myths, creation stories, things like that, and to find a historical core there is very difficult.”

5. Archaeology vs Scripture

While the documentary suggests that the concept of one God was evolved during the Babylonian exile, in fact for a brief period in Egypt, the Pharaoh Akhenaten had this concept of One God and he ruled before the time frame suggested for the Exodus? Is it possible that the small number of people who fled Egypt carried with them the seeds of this story? This possibility was not raised in the documentary.
While archaeology disproved many Biblical narratives, there are a few places where the text agrees, like in the case of the House of David. There was scepticism about King David, but on a victory stele dedicated by the king of Damascus, the words, “I slew mighty kings who harnessed thousands of chariots and thousands of horsemen. I killed the king of the House of David.” were found which makes David, the earliest Biblical figure to be confirmed by archaeology. He lived around 1000 B.C.E, as a petty warlord of a small chiefdom with few settlements.
Archaeology also shuts up the sceptics who claim that the entire Bible was an invention. A silver scroll with a Priestly Benediction earlier then the Dead Sea Scrolls by 400 years have been found. And those scrolls contain the word – Yahweh.
While this program enraged certain believers – for using government funding to prove there was no God – there is consensus, with some quibbles, that this program was a fairly accurate summary of a century of Biblical Studies.
Was the Bible, a book of faith, meant to be investigated like this as a historical document? According to William Dever, Professor Emeritus of the University of Arizona

We want to make the Bible history. Many people think it has to be history or nothing. But there is no word for history in the Hebrew Bible. In other words, what did the biblical writers think they were doing? Writing objective history? No. That’s a modern discipline. They were telling stories. They wanted you to know what these purported events mean.

And Carol Meyers, an archaeologist and professor of religion at Duke University

Too often in modern western thinking we see things in terms of black and white, history or fiction, with nothing in between. But there are
other ways of understanding how people have recorded events of their past. There’s something called mnemohistory, or memory history, that I find particularly useful in thinking about biblical materials. It’s not like the history that individuals may have of their own families, which tends to survive only a generation or two. Rather, it’s a kind of collective cultural memory.

Postscript: The website for this program is a treasure trove of information. The entire documentary as well as the transcript is available online. Besides this there are interviews with the scholars who talk about the writers of the Bible, foundation of Judaism, Archeology of the Hebrew Bible, Moses and the Exodus, The Palace of David and the Origins of the Written Bible. There is also an interactive timeline and a whole bunch of video extras.
Update (Dec 9): DIY Scholar has a list of online resources which will enhance the understanding of this period.

Bible's Buried Secrets (1/2)

(An 11th century Bible)

There is no evidence for Exodus as suggested by the Bible. That is one of the conclusions of the two hour NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets, which aired on PBS on Nov 18th. This conclusion is not revolutionary; it has been suggested before, most recently by Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist.
The Exodus, the most repeated story in the Hebrew Bible immortalized by Charlton Heston, suggests that about six hundred thousand men and their families escaped Egypt and reached the promised land. A century of archaeological work has found no such evidence but has found that during the time of the Exodus, dated between the Merneptah Stele (1275 B.C.E) and the Zayit Stone (1208 B.C.E), the promised land, Canaan, had just 25 settlements with 3000 – 5000 inhabitants.
Does this mean that the story of Exodus is pure mythology.? The documentary says it is possible that a few people escaped from Egypt, but they were not Israelites, but Canaanite slaves whose story survived as poetry and was transcribed after 1000 B.C.E.
This deconstruction of the Exodus was not the primary goal of the documentary, but just a causality while finding the origins of the Israelites and their concept of one God in a polytheistic world. In this journey which combines Bible and archaeology, many such articles of faith were demolished much to the angst of certain believers who called for withdrawing government funding for PBS.

Many Biblical scholars commented that there was nothing new in the program and it just summarized a century of scholarship, but for the lay person who is interested in the confluence of history, archaeology and religion, there was much to learn.
1. Who were the Israelites?

The Israelites were not migrants from outside, but natives of Canaan. The original state of Canaan had a social collapse, not by Joshua’s invasion, but following a conflict between the elite and the commoners. Around this time there was the collapse of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian empire as well. The Israelites rise after this and they are made up of Canaan commoners, the few escaped slaves from Egypt, and dispersed people and there is a rapid rise in population from five thousand to 45 thousand in 200 years by 1000 B.C.E.
Looking for a new identity, radically different from the oppressive ancient Canaan society, these new Canaanites adopted stories of Moses, Abraham and Joshua to symbolize freedom, deliverance and conquest. To distinguish themselves from their polytheistic past, they came up with a monotheistic God, adopted from a desert people called Shashu.
2. The Bible was written by humans.

Noah’s flood, in one page lasts 40 days and 40 nights and 150 days in another. Sometimes Abraham calls God, Yahweh, elsewhere Elohim. All these suggest that there were multiple authors for the Bible which challenges the view that Moses wrote the first five books.
Mahabharata by tradition acknowledges this type of revision.

The epic itself claims to have been originally just 8,800 verses composed by Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa and called the Jaya. Later, it became 24,000 verses, called the Bharata, when it was recited by Vaishampayana. Finally, it was recited as the 100,000-versed epic (the Mahabharata) by Ugrashravas, the son of Lomaharshana. Thus, the tradition acknowledges that the Mahabharata grew in stages. [The Date Of The Mahabharata War]

In Biblical Studies, the Documentary Hypothesis states that the Bible was edited by scribes over a period of time. Based on language, the oldest one was found to be the book of Exodus, similar to how mandalas 2-7 are considered the oldest in Rig Veda and 1 and 10 the youngest.
3. Monotheism did not happen instantly.
While the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Babylonians and far away Indians worshipped many gods Israelites discovered the concept of one God. Where did they come up with this idea which survives to this day?
The answer lies in the journey of a small number of Caananite slaves from Egypt. They passed through a place called Midian (Jordan & Saudi Arabia), where a group of people known as the Shasu lived. According to the Egyptian texts, the Shasu lived in a place which was pronounced Yahu, which is similar to Yahweh, the patron god of Israel.

It is in Midian, according to the Bible that Moses first meets Yahweh in the form of a burning bush. When the Egyptian Caananites met the native Caananites, they told this story and since it was a powerful metaphor for freedom, it was adopted into the canon. The slaves attributed their freedom to the Midian God.

(to be continued..)