Stories from Inscriptions: Profound Real-life Tales from Hindu Cultural History

Stories from Inscriptions

One of the interesting stories mentioned in Sandeep Balakrishna’s Stories From Inscriptions: Profound Real-life Tales from Hindu Cultural History comes from a village called Hebbale near Hassan in Karnataka. The story is about the contribution Hebbale made to our sacred tradition of pilgrimages.

This contribution was unique because it was done when Turkish invaders enforced jizya. According to a contemporary of Jehangir, the purpose of imposing jizya on kafirs is their humiliation. The humiliation was amplified by putting a pilgrim tax, and the one enforced on pilgrims going to Kashi and Prayag was the highest. According to a copper inscription from 1279 CE, king Vira Narasimha offered the land revenues of 645 varahas from Hebbale to pilgrims to Varanasi. Among those, 402 varahas were jizya to the Turkish tax collector. The remaining was for the maintenance of Sri Visweshwara temple. 

What makes this story interesting is this: Vira Narasimha was an adherent of the Jaina philosophy. So why would a Jaina Hoysala king pay jizya on behalf of Hindu pilgrims from Karnataka visiting Varanasi? 

Sandeep’s book is a collection of 15 such stories based on inscriptions. These stories were previously unknown except to scholars. This book is meant for the general audience and is written in the style of popular narrative history. The purpose is to introduce incidents from our past as narrated by kings, businessmen, bards, and warriors in their own words. These stories come from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu and span a timeline from the 9th century CE up to the 17th century CE.

The stories are organized by various themes mentioned at the beginning of each story. For example, one story is about a wealthy merchant Hatia, who purchased three marketplaces. The revenue from these marketplaces was provided as a permanent endowment to three deities at a temple complex. This story reveals political, social, and economic conditions during that time. History was boring in school because we were taught random dates, wars, and the number of trees planted by various kings. The book goes beyond that and gives us context into the country’s state at that time.

This book does three things. First, it shows how Bharat was unified as a civilization state. Second, it refutes many narratives about how uncultured and backward we were till the invaders and colonizers civilized us. Finally, it reveals many aspects of our culture we were unaware of.

Civilization State

Why did Vira Narasimha fund pilgrimages to Kashi and Prayag.? The answer is simple: Vira Narasimha understood Bharat as a civilization nation. Pilgrimages united the nation, and visit to a holy place was a religious duty. Even before modern transportation systems arrived, people traveled long distances for this purpose. Vira Narasimha’s grant covered payments to the staff of the Sri Visveshwara Temple, its maintenance, and various sevas. Apart from the Kashi pilgrims hailing from Narasimha’s dominions, his grant money was primarily used by strangers in a city he would never meet. It was his dharma, and he performed it.

It was not just Kashi and Prayag that were pilgrimage destinations. Inscriptions in Gujarat at the Bhillamāladeva temple mention visitors from Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Thanjavur, Tiruchirapalli, Ceylon, Orissa, Vengi, Jodhpur, Alwar, Bharatpur, Gujarat, and Malava. Diffusion of culture occurred due to business relations as well. For example, when there was a dispute between Karnataka-desa and Maratha-desa, it was resolved by a businessman from Kerala. Due to this, a temple was built in the Hoysala style architecture by the descendants of a Malayali businessman.

This book is a gem because it bluntly refutes narratives like “Indians had no sense of history.” Instead, evidence from these inscriptions reveals “an extraordinarily intricate system of administration and governance, a robust military machinery, a Dharma-based jurisprudence, a well-oiled and stable social order and a sprawling economic system bursting with material abundance. Moreover, there was a high degree of administrative sophistication where priority was placed on the human element.”

These fundamental values that united the country are seen in all these inscriptions. We see a world in which truth, dharma, compassion, sacrifice, loyalty, and heroism are admired. We see “donating cows is extolled, temple-building is revered, learning and scholarship are prized and patronized, reverence and respect for women are held paramount, people who die while protecting the honor of women are commemorated with tombstones, valor and death in battle are celebrated, delivering justice based on Dharmic precedents are hailed, composing, singing, and discoursing on our sacred literature are venerated, works of public welfare are supported and praised, and even the most minor act of piety is explicitly recognized and eulogized.”

This richness was not limited to culture. I learned a lot about the maturity of village administration. Our villages provided civilizational sustenance and cultural preservation while the country was being invaded and looted. Village administrations were autonomous entities responsible for managing all aspects of the village. They could administer justice; they had well-defined courts of justice in which the central ruling authority rarely interfered. In return, they deposited annual revenues to the king and prevented anarchy. Annual elections prevented monopolies and concentration of power. Every transaction was written down to the last detail and publicly ratified through voice and in writing.

INdia that is Bharat
India that is Bharat

In his book, India, that is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, J Sai Deepak defines the word ‘Coloniality’. This is the process by which the colonizer advances the goal through complete domination of the culture and worldview of the colonized society. This is what the British did to us. Even after they left, Communist party members masquerading as historians used the same ideas, rules, and tools to “civilize” us. This is how we get narratives like Buddhism and Jainism were rebellions against ‘Brahminical hegemony’ or India was not a nation until the British showed up. To understand our past, we must replace the colonial lens with an indigenous lens. This book is a perfect example of that.

These inscriptions enhance our understanding of the vibrancy of our culture and traditions. Despite enormous challenges posed by invaders and colonizers, we survived the invasion of our lands, relentless pressure to abandon our religion, enslavement, and brutal violence. The historical writings gathered in this collection provide abundant evidence of the philosophical roots that built and sustained our civilization and the values that this philosophy birthed and were upheld by our people.

The Vedic Homeland

Scheme of Indo-European language dispersal from c. 4000 to 1000 BCE according to the widely held Kurgan hypothesis By Joshua Jonathan (via Wikipedia)

In The Wonder That Was India, A L Basham presented a dramatic picture of the decline of the Harappan civilization. According to him, from 3000 BCE, invaders were present in the region. After conquering the outlying villages, they moved on Mohenjo-daro. The people of Mohenjo-Daro fled but were cut down by the invaders; the discovered skeletons 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 learned 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. Their war-god Indra destroyed the forts and citadels at Harappa.

According to the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), Basham’s invaders were Indo-European speakers on a global invasion tour from Central Asia. Before the invaders split up into Vedic Aryans and Iranians, they had developed a joint culture in Central Asia, hence the similarity in Rig Veda and Avesta. Once they left Central Asia, the Indians and Iranians parted ways. The above map shows the scheme of Indo-European language dispersal.

In a previous article, based on Shrikant G. Talageri’s excellent book, The Rig Veda and The Avesta: The Final Evidence, we saw that the common culture was not developed in Central Asia. We also saw that during the Middle and Late periods of Rigveda, the proto-Iranians were settled in western parts of Punjab and Afghanistan. They continuously interacted with the Vedic Aryans, and the joint Indo-Iranian culture developed.

Rig Veda and Avesta – Chronology of development

This begs the question. Where did the Vedic Aryans live before they met the Iranians or people of the Anu/Anava tribe? Did they come from Central Asia, or did they come from the Eastern parts of India? Again for this article, I will be once again using Shrikant G. Talageri ‘s The Rig Veda and The Avesta: The Final Evidence.


Two important concepts will help understand the details. The first is related to the chronological ordering of the mandalas of Rig Veda. The second is the geography around the rivers of Punjab.

The Rig Veda Samhita consists of 10 mandalas, numbered 1 to 10. This does not mean that mandala 1 was the first and 10 the last. The chronological ordering of the books is as follows:
– Early Books: 6, 3, 7
– Middle Books: 4,2
– Late Books: 5,1, 8-10
Order of Vedic Books

Coming to the region’s geography, this is the map to remember. This shows some important rivers like Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati, and Indus.

These are rivers mentioned in Rig Veda. Displaying great familiarity with the Indian North-West, the nadistuti sukta lists nineteen rivers from the Ganga to the Kurram sequentially from East to West. According to the Vedic tradition, Sarasvati flowed between the Yamuna and Sutlej, a location mentioned in other texts.

Shri. Talageri divides this area into three regions.

  1. Region East of Saraswati (Haryana and West UP)
  2. Region West of Indus (Afghanistan, South Central Asia, North West Pakistan)
  3. Region between Indus and Saraswati (North Pakistan, Punjab)

Strong evidence against the Aryan Invasion Theory comes from the above two basic concepts augmented with the names of rivers, lakes, places, mountains, and animals. There is also a big clue in nadistuti sukta. See the direction in which the rivers are named. That has great significance for what we are about to discover.

Evidence from Rivers

The Rig Veda and The Avesta: The Final Evidence

According to AIT, the joint Indo-Iranian culture is pre-Rigvedic. This culture was developed in Central Asia before the Indians and Iranians took different exits on the Aryan Invasion freeway. But in another article, we saw that the joint culture was not pre-Rigvedic, but Late Rigvedic. Now, if the Vedic culture did not develop in Central Asia, where did it originate?

From both Rigveda and Avesta, we know the regions they are familiar with. The Avesta knows the land from Afghanistan and south Central Asia to Punjab. The Rig Veda knows the area from Western Uttar Pradesh to eastern and southern Afghanistan. So, if you draw a Venn diagram, the place familiar to both the Vedic people and Iranians is the land from Punjab to Afghanistan.

Now it gets interesting. Geographical data in the Early and Middle books of Rigveda show that the Vedic Aryans lived in the interior of India, to the East of Sarasvati. The Early Books (Books 6, 3, 7) of Rig Veda don’t show familiarity with the Western region. The earliest book, Book 6, does not reference the Central or Western rivers but mentions Ganga. The next book, Book 3, refers to the two easternmost rivers of the five rivers of Punjab.

The last book in the Early Books, Book 7, refers to the third from the east of the five rivers of Punjab. This is in reference to the pivotal Battle of Ten Kings. The non-Vedic enemies are people living to the West of the fourth river (Asikni).

Two exciting pieces come out of this analysis. First, these Early Books do not use the words sapta sindhu. Second, the enemies of the Vedic people are mentioned as those who live West of the fourth river in Punjab. The Vedic attitude towards northwest and western areas is suspicion and hostility. These lands are treated as mleccha or barbarian lands; their social and religious practices are strongly disapproved. These are not considered areas that fit a visit by orthodox Brahmins. This is also reflected in later texts: In Ramayana, the good queen Kausalya is from the east and the bad queen Kaikeyi is from the northwest; in Mahabharata, Kunti is from the east, while Gandhari is from the northwest.

We see familiarity with the Western landscape as we move from the Early Books to the newer ones. The Middle Books (4, 2) show familiarity with the Western region. This is the first time three Western rivers appear (Book 4). Also, the word sapta-sindhu shows up for the first time. Finally, when it comes to the Late Books, they too refer to sapta-sindhu.

The Eastern region, the land East of Sarasvati, was known to the Vedic Aryans of the Early, Middle, and Late Books. At the same time, the Western region is unknown to the Early books, but newly familiar to the Middle Books. Three Western rivers appear in the first book among the Middle Books (Book 4), and the same rivers are known in the first book of the Late Books.

Other evidence from nature

Besides the evidence from the rivers, there is evidence from nature that rules out Afghanistan or Central Asia as the Vedic homeland. The Vedic rishis lived in a land of monsoon storms and mountains. They worshiped Indra as the most important god. The monsoon land stops after Punjab; hence, it could not have been composed in Afghanistan. The animals mentioned in Rig Veda are spotted deer, buffalo, bison, peacock, and elephant. It’s not like elephants were stampeding in Kabul during that time like in the opening scene of Lion King.

Trees provide some fascinating evidence. There is mention of khadira, and simsapa, which are used in the manufacture of the body of a chariot, kimsuka and salmali used in the manufacture of wheels, and aratu used in the manufacture of the axle. If you compare this with the Egyptians, the raw material for the chariots came from the Caucuses. We don’t say that the Egyptians came from the Caucuses because they used imported wood. If Vedic Aryans came from the Caucuses, they too would have used the same wood that should be known to them. Instead, they used Indian trees. If they rode their chariots into India as per Basham, would they have used Indian trees?

Rice and wheat are popular cereals in India, depending on which part of India you are from. Rig Vedic Aryans do not show any familiarity with wheat. At the same time, they are familiar with three preparations of rice. If the invasion route was through a wheat-producing area, why doesn’t the Rigveda mention that? This shows that the Vedic tradition took root before wheat consumption started in North India. In a later period, in contrast to the use of rice, wheat is treated with disdain. Among Brahmins, during death, when they are required to abstain from food, rice is forbidden, but not wheat.

A change in our mental model

The Lost River by Michel Danino

Before reading this book, my mental model was different. In Michel Danino’s The Lost River, it was clear that Sarasvati was the most important river for the Vedic Aryans. In forty-five hymns, the rishis praised Sarasvati; for them, she was ‘great among the great, the most impetuous of rivers,’ ‘limitless, unbroken, swift-moving, and ‘surpasses in majesty and might all other waters.’ Once Saraswati dried up after 1900 BCE, people migrated to different regions, including the Ganges Valley.

Now with this internal evidence from Rig Veda, it is clear that the story is different. Vedic Aryans during the period of Early and Middle Books did not live in Central Asia or Afghanistan but in the interior of India. Specifically to the East of Saraswati. Also, they were familiar with Ganga. From there, they progressively moved Westward. This is why the nadistuti sukta lists rivers from East to West.

Also, the Early and Middle Books of Rigveda represent a period older than the period of joint development of the Indo-Iranian culture. Moreover, this joint development happened in a region between Punjab and Afghanistan and not Central Asia.

Demolishing the Aryan Invasion Theory in 1912

(Saraswati river via Wikipedia)

The Aryan Invasion Theory and its first cousin twice removed, the Aryan Migration Theory, are dominant theories that explain the peopling of India. Many folks wishfully think this theory has been debunked. Still, sadly that’s what’s being taught in universities and repeated in books. The Indian National Congress has more MPs in the Lok Sabha than the people fighting against AIT.

While browsing some papers, I came across this paper by Srinivas Iyengar from Madras University, published in 1912, which attacks the Aryan Invasion Theory. Mr. Iyengar lived during a time when some of these theories were constructed and he decided to tackle them. This article will look at Mr. Iyengar’s arguments and how he calls out selection bias.

He says

Emotion plays a large part in the manufacture of history, and any theory that soothes the vanity of a people is straightway elevated to the rank of a fact ; so today a scientific examination of the bases of the theory of a superior Aryan race is resented more in India than anywhere else in the world

Comparative study of languages started with the observation that the languages of India and Europe were related. Hence, there had to be a parent language from which all the European and Indian languages descended. This imaginary language was called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). At some point, India was considered to be the PIE homeland, but later it was moved to various places in Europe. Either way, we are considered to be a slice of that pie.

Mr. Iyengar mentions two points made by the invasionistas and refutes them.

The first invasion point is based on a significant body part – the nose. Foundational research on this was done 20 years before Mr. Iyengar wrote this paper. According to the British dude (the name does not matter) who did this research, the Aryans had a long head, a straight, finely cut nose, a symmetrically narrow face, a well-developed forehead, and a high facial angle. The purest form of the nose was in Punjab, where the Aryans first showed up. As you went down South, the nasal purity went down. (Rajnikanth’s nose was inferior compared to Manmohan Singh’s). This happened because when Aryans arrived, the previous occupants with their inferior noses retreated to the South.

The British dude who did this nasal science defined 2378 castes as 43 races based on their nasal index. Also, Indo-European, Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Tibeto-Burman linguistic groups were identified as different races with Indo-European speakers or Aryans at the top of the tree. Based on this mythology, the skeletons found in Mohenjo-Daro were classified as various races, primarily non-Aryan.

Mr. Iyengar asks: Wasn’t there many more invasions? Didn’t the Mughals, Persians, Greeks, and Huns all show up in India at some point after the supposed AIT event? What nasal standards did they bring? When the British genius measured people’s noses in the 1890s, around 4000 years had elapsed since the imaginary invasion.

This outdated theory was still taught at UCLA as recently as 2010.

The next piece of evidence for the invasion came from the Rig Vedic mantras. The composers called themselves Aryans and referred to another tribe they fought as Dasayus or Dasa.

In the scriptures, the battles were local and not invasions. The Aryans do not speak of displacing local tribes who were their predecessors. The Aryans have no memory of a distant homeland (“I miss the rhubarb pie of the Baltic”), nor do they have any memory of their trip (“Remember when Barack took the wrong turn at Qaemshahr and fell into the Caspian Sea”)

They remember living a settled life in the Punjab valley in towns and villages, tending to their cattle. The Dasayus were another tribe living similarly. The problem was that they both had two distinct ways of life.

The Aryans were fire worshipers, and the Dasayus were not. The Dasayus did not worship Indra or offer oblations to Agni. The Aryans loved soma and raided Dasayu territory to get it to provide as oblations to their gods. They had high respect for soma and considered Dasayu oblations to their gods as worthless. When the Aryans offered their sacrifices, they chanted verses from their scriptures, which the Dasayus did not. All of these led to violent disagreements.

How did the Aryans get these traditions which are different from the Dasayus? Were they bought by the invading Aryans along with their language? Considering this, Mr. Iyengar writes that no Indo-Germanic history seems to have reached India. The Indo-Germanic god, Dyaus, is not acknowledged as a god in the Vedic pantheon. Mitra is familiar to Vedas and Avesta but is not an important god. Indra is a minor god in Avesta. The prominence of the Vedic gods is purely an Indian development. A striking fact is that so few Aryan gods came to India. Even if some tribe came from outside, it was thoroughly Indianized like Curry Pizza.

Finally, Mr. Iyengar writes that the so-called Aryan conquest definitely was not the substitution of the white man for the dark-skinned one.

When all is said, there may still remain in the minds of some the feeling of doubt how a cult or a speech can travel by itself. The fire cult and the speech of the Aryas must have come to India in the wake of a peaceful overflow of people from the uplands of Central Asia into the plains of India, or been the result of a peace-intercourse between the Indian people and foreigners. But theories cannot be built on metaphors, and there is absolutely no evidence at present to guide to a solution of the problem

Mr. Iyengar did not write about this, but here is some interesting trade information. Long distance trade between the Indus-Saraswati people and rest of the world is not intriguing at all as there has been plenty of evidence for commodities from India appearing in far away places, even further back in in time. In Dhuwelia, a seasonal hunting site in Eastern Jordan, archaeologists found cotton thread embedded in lime-plaster dating to the fourth millennium BCE. Cotton is not native to Arabia. That particular species could have come from only one place in the world: Baluchistan, where it has been cultivated since the fifth millennium.

Queen Puabi, who lived in Iraq during the Mature Harappan period (2600 – 1900 BCE)  had Harappan carnelian beads in her tomb. Following her, Sargon of Akkad (2334 – 2279 BCE) boasted about ships from Meluhha, primarily identified with this Indus region), docked in the bay. This suggests that ships from the Indus region journeyed all the way to Iraq about 5000 years back. If Indus-Saraswati people journeyed around the world before the Aryan Invasion, in what language did they speak to Queen Puabi?  

To suggest that people can move only in one direction is plainly ignoring the trading culture of the Indus people. The existences of an Indus trading colony in Mesopotamia and the ancient trading hubs is nothing to sniff at.


  • Iyengar, P. T. Srinivas. “THE MYTH OF THE ARYAN INVASION OF INDIA.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, vol. 60, no. 3113, 1912, pp. 841–846. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Sept. 2021.

Also read:

Out of India, to Australia

Australia was populated by modern humans around 47,000 years ago. Then, 4000 years back, the dingo reached Australia suggesting another movement of people which bought changes in language and tools. There were studies which showed that the Aboriginal Australians descended from populations in India and Sri Lanka in the time frame (1300 – 13,000 years back), but were these the people who took the dingo to Australia?
Two pieces of evidence suggested that it was so

  1. There is definitely an Indian component in Aboriginal Australian genes
  2. Analysis of the Y chromosome lineage found that the common ancestor lived around 5000 years back, to the time of Indus-Saraswati civilization.

A new study reveals that the divergence time between Australians and Indians occurred not 5000 years back, but around 54,000 years back.

Image source: Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes by Bergstrom et al.

To understand this, one has to look at the journey of man from Africa. The path of the initial migrants was from Africa via the Middle East through India to rest of the world including Europe and Australia. A great visualization for this movement can be seen at the Bradshaw Foundation.
via the Bradshaw Foundation

The paper concludes

Here, we sequence 13 Aboriginal Australian Y chromosomes to re-investigate their divergence times from Y chromosomes in other continents, including a comparison of Aboriginal Australian and South Asian haplogroup C chromosomes. We find divergence times dating back to 50 kya, thus excluding the Y chromosome as providing evidence for recent gene flow from India into Australia [Deep Roots for Aboriginal Australian Y Chromosomes]


Sree Padmanabhaswamy and Subhas Chandra Bose

In 1941, a British official in Chennai received an anonymous letter which claimed that Subhas Chandra Bose had returned to India and was living in the premises of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The letter was forwarded to the dewan Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer who immediately put a close watch around the area.

The letter, received by British officials in Calcutta and passed on to Murphy, said “Bose is in the near vicinity of Sree Anantha Padmanabha of Travancore and still further in the Rameswaram side..It then continued ‘he (Bose) has gone to find out the truth of Lord Sree Krishna’s teaching.'”
According to a docket in the Kerala State Archives, on seeing the letter, the then British Resident for the Madras State, Lieutenant Colonel G P Murphy, forwarded a copy of it to Dewan of Travancore Sir C P Ramaswamy Iyer requesting to “closely watch” the area around the grand temple.
The request was immediately complied with but no clue whatsoever of the possible visit of the Netaji, as Bose is endearingly called by his followers and admirers, was found around the temple complex.[British wanted Padmanabha temple watched for Subhas Bose]

PS: The Economic Times article claims that “The Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple was built in the 18th century by King Marthanda Varma of the Travancore royal lineage”. They are off by more than a millenia.

Brain Surgery in Bronze Age

Trepanation is a surgical technique in which a hole is drilled into the human skull to treat intracranial diseases. It was quite popular during the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe. Count Philip of Nassau had 27 successive trepanations done in the 17th century. In England, it was a common form of treatment among miners who suffered cranial trauma.
Trepanation has a much older history; it was done during the Bronze Age in Peru and Jericho as well. During those times, it was done to repair skull fracture resulting blows, to remove splinters and blood clots. It was also done on dead people, to obtain skull bones to create necklaces.

At Ikiztepe, a small settlement near the Black Sea occupied from 3200 to 1700 B.C., archaeologist Önder Bilgi of Istanbul University has uncovered five skulls with clean, rectangular incisions that are evidence for trepanation, or basic cranial surgery. The procedure may have been performed to treat hemorrhages, brain cancer, head trauma, or mental illness. Last August Bilgi also unearthed a pair of razor-sharp volcanic glass blades that he believes were used to make the careful cuts.
There is ample evidence that Bronze Age sawbones knew what they doing. Last summer, biological anthropologist Handan üstündag of Anadolu University in Turkey excavated the 4,000-year-old trepanned skull of a man at Kultepe Höyük in central Turkey. üstündag says the surgeon cut a neat 1- by 2-inch incision, and  there are clear signs of recovery in the regrowth of bone tissue at the edges. Judging from the frequency of healed bone in such skulls, anthropologist Yilmaz Erdal of Hacettepe University in Turkey recently proposed that about half of all Bronze Age trepanation patients- and 60 percent of those in Turkey- survived the procedure.[Bronze Age Brain Surgeons]

Trepanation was practiced in Harappa (Lothal, Kalibangan) and the megalithic site of Maski too.

Trepanation is known from the Bronze Age Harappan (ca. 4300 BP) people of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Sarkar (1972) attributed a squarish hole on the right temporal skull of a child of 9-10 years skull found at Lothal, a Harappan site. Roy Chowdhury (1973) also believed that evidence of trepanation was present in Harappan skull No. H 796/B and H 802/B, from Cemetery R37 and possibly in a Kalibangan skull (another Harappan site) in Western India. A megalithic skull (M30) from Maski (Karnataka) in South India also showed evidence of trepanation (Sarkar, 1972): it has two circular holes of 22 mm and 15 mm respectively on the either side of the sagittal suture of the vertex.[Evidence of Surgery in Ancient India:Trepanation at Burzahom (Kashmir) over 4000 years ago]

While the skull of the child found in Lothal is considered the earliest evidence of this type of surgery, a ~4300 year old skull found in Burzahom (10 km north-east of Srinagar)  in Kashmir Valley is definite proof of trepanation. In this particular case, the victim had suffered a blow from a strong wooden stick. She survived the blow as well as the trepanation process.
(Thanks Michel Danino, for the links)

  1. The Chicago medical recorder, Volume 35 By Chicago Medical Society
  2. God-apes and fossil men: paleoanthropology of South Asia By Kenneth A. R. Kennedy
  3. First evidence of brain surgery in Bronze Age Harappa, Current Science, Vol 100, No 11, 10 June 2011

The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 3/3

Kashgar by Robert Shaw
(Another sketch by Robert Shaw in 1868)
(Read Part 1, Part 2)
The Kashgar Drama
The first man to reach Kashgar was Robert Shaw. Stocked with gifts and firearms, he went to meet Yakub Beg. Beg smiled and received him and exchanged pleasantries in Persian. Shaw explained that he was not part of British Government and just wanted to sell Indian tea in the empire. Beg was impressed with the gifts and dismissed Shaw saying they would talk details three days later.
That night Shaw probably dreamt of his tea business taking off. What could go wrong? The king had no relations with the Chinese or the Russians. The only hope  for Beg was to ally with the British and what better way to grow that relation than to allow a British trader to operate in Kashgar. But soon Shaw’s movements were restricted and he was confined to his quarters.He could have visitors and from them he knew what was going on. But Shaw realized that the third day meeting with Beg was not going to happen.
When Mirza arrived a month after Shaw, he was taken to see the lieutenant or jemadar of Yakub Beg, mainly to see what gifts he had bought. Mirza was pleasantly surprised that jemadar was none other than Nubbi Buksh,  the Sikh gunner. Originally from Sialkot, Buksh left Punjab — and according to some sources based on Mirza’s suggestion — towards Central Asia. Through Ladakh, he reached Kokand and served the Khan for a decade where he came into contact with the young Yakub Beg. When Yakub Beg took over Kashgar, Nubbi Buksh joined him.
Though Mirza was quite happy to see Nubbi Buksh, Buksh behaved with indifference and hostility. First he refused to recognize Mirza. Later when he did recognize him, he was suspicious of Mirza’s cover story as a trader. Buksh then opened Mirza’s luggage and took whatever he fancied. He also put Mirza in a house and entrusted some Afghans to keep an eye on him.
The next day he was taken to meet Yakub Beg. Beg, who was seated on a carpet with three chiefs received him graciously. After asking him a few questions, Beg asked him to have breakfast with other chiefs.In later meetings  Beg asked him about Hindustan, Badakshan and Afghanistan. Mirza made observations on Beg’s army, noted that the route towards Russia was well fortified, and even gathered information on the nearest Russian fort.
Also by then George Hayward arrived and traded house arrest in Yarkand for a house arrest in Kashgar.For three months, Shaw or Hayward never heard from Beg and court officials never gave an explanation for the silence. Beg’s chiefs asked Mirza if he knew the Englishmen and Mirza replied he did not. But soon MIrza realized that he too was under house arrest.
Desperate, Mirza decided to  establish a contact with the Englishmen. He sent a note to Shaw mentioning he had come from India and wanted a watch. He said his watch was broken and needed one to perform astronomical observations. Shaw, who also was under house arrest knew that Hayward had arrived, but was surprised by the letter he received from Mirza. He did not know who in India sent him. Maybe there was no Mirza and it was Yakub Beg’s idea to trap him. To be safe, Shaw replied that he had no watch to spare. Though he refused to entertain this unknown Mirza, Shaw exchanged notes with Hayward.
Beg on his part was worried about the Russians who were right near his border. The Russians, for whom the Crimea war had not gone well, were worried that if provoked Beg would take British help and escalate the situation.  At the same time Russia did not want to formally recognize Yakub Beg; they did not want to offend the Chinese. Just before Mirza, Shaw and Hayward arrived in Kashgar, Beg had sent his nephew as an emissary to Russia to understand their position.
While Beg was waiting for news from Russia, the three captives spent their time not knowing what would happen to them. They probably would have thought about the German explorer Adolf Schlagintweit who visited Kashgar in 1857 with his brother Hermann and Rudolph. While the brothers returned, Adolph stayed back to explore which turned out to be a bad idea; Wali Khan who had taken over Kashgar caught him and had him executed. Wali Khan himself was later arrested and poisoned by Yakub Beg.
Months passed. When Beg realized that Russians would not recognize him he then decided to throw his dice in the Great Game by siding with the British. On April 5th, he summoned Robert Shaw, called him his brother, praised the Queen, and asked for his help with the British. Shaw for his part again mentioned that he was a private citizen and not with the Government, but such minor details did not matter. Beg wanted to send an envoy to India and Shaw agreed to help him with that. By then it was clear that he would be set free, but he did not know what would happen to Mirza  or Hayward. He heard a rumor that Hayward was to be held hostage; he also got a note from Hayward about this.
Shaw told Beg’s officials that it would not look good, if he sent an envoy to India while he held another Englishman a hostage. Shaw just wanted Hayward to be freed and Beg agreed. Shaw left on April 9th and Hayward on the 13th.  When he came to know that both Englishmen had left Mirza thought that he would perish in this Beg eats Khan world. Mirza appealed to Beg directly skipping Nubbi Buksh and Yakub Beg let him go with appropriate gifts.

On June 7, 1869, Mirza left Kashgar and reached Yarkand where he met three hundred people on their way to Mecca. From Yarkand he went over the Karakorum and reached  Leh in August and from there to the GTS HQ in Dehra Dun.

Mirza’s return was a triumph; another bead in the rosary of his life. Using his wits, he had overcome great difficulties, cheated death a few times, and was able to conceal his identity and accomplish the task he had been sent to do. He surveyed 2179 miles among which 1042 miles – from Kabul to Kashgar — which was not surveyed before. He confirmed the path from Kabul to Yarkand which was verified to be accurate. His work put Kashgar and Yarkand in the right locations in the map for the first time and corrected those made by Jesuits and other travelers.
While Shaw, Hayward, and Nubbi Buksh reached Kashgar from Ladakh, Mirza started his trip from Afghanistan.  This was intentional so that Mirza could collect intelligence on the Afghan army and its battles outside Kabul. Mirza was praised for his professional skill and endurance by the RGS and though the work was done clandestinely, the results were published in the journals of the Royal Geographical Society.
Both Shaw and Hayward,  thought to be dead, were received as heroes. They supplied the British with political and commercial intelligence about Kashgar and Yarkand. Since Shaw and Hayward had traveled back and forth from Kashgar, they thought that the Russians could invade Kashgar and then India through Ladakh dragging machinery through 18,000 feet. But the War Office disagreed with this observation, but agreed that the path was vulnerable.
The End
George Hayward, the inveritable travel bunny made new plans; he wanted to explore the Pamirs. The Government tried to dissuade him, but Hayward was quite stubborn. The experiences of the past — because they were experiences of the past — did not guide him. He left in the summer of 1870 with few servants from Srinagar and reached Yasin in the Hindu Kush where he met the chief Mir Wali whom he knew from an earlier visit. But this time he had an argument with the chief and the furniture in his life got rearranged; he was killed by a single stroke of the sword. His body was found three months later by an Indian Sepoy.
In 1872 Montgomerie sent Mirza on another expedition to Bokhara. After passing Herat, he reached Maimana, but on the road from Maimana to Bokhara he was murdered by his guide.
Yakub Beg died in 1877 and various reasons — poisoning, suicide, stroke — have been mentioned as probable causes. After his death Kashgaria was conquered by the Chinese.
The Viceroy — Lord Mayo — thought the better way to deal with Kashgar was to make it an ally or a buffer state and he sent a diplomatic mission to Kashgar. Robert Shaw was only happy to join but never was able to make a market for tea in Central Asia. He died at the age of 39 in 1879 in Burma where he had been appointed a British resident.
Postscript: Kamla Bhatt has an interview with Jules Stewart, the author of Spying For The Raj: The Pundits And The Mapping of the Himalayas

  1. Royal Geographical Society (Great Britain), Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and monthly record of geography (Edward Stanford, 1871).
  2. Robert Johnson, Spying for empire (Greenhill Books, 2006).
  3. Derek J. Waller, The Pundits (University Press of Kentucky, 2004).
  4. Richard Bernstein, Ultimate Journey: Retracing the Path of an Ancient Buddhist Monk Who Crossed Asia in Search of Enlightenment (Vintage, 2002).
  5. Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (Kodansha International, 1992).
  6. Sir Thomas Edward Gordon, The roof of the world (Edmonston and Douglas, 1876).
  7. Mishi Saran, Chasing the Monk’s Shadow (Penguin Global, 2005).
  8. All images from Wikipedia

The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 2/3

Path to Yarkand
(Approach to Yarkand. A sketch by Robert Shaw)
(Read Part 1)
In December 1868, Mirza left Badakshan towards Kashgar. The winter travel was not easy on him or his porters or the animals. Some days both the men and animals suffered from shortness of breath which made them slow and insensible. Once they walked for 9 miles and found that fresh snow had erased previous tracks leaving them stranded. That night they had to sleep in the snow.
Many centuries earlier the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang had a similar experience with his retinue and dozen people died in the cold. In his travelogue, the monk wrote about the steep and dangerous roads, the cold and biting wind, as well as the fierce dragons that molest travelers. The precaution, he suggested, was not to wear red garments or carry loud-sounding calabashes.
If the snow storm did not get Mirza, robbers could have. Near Kulm-Tashkurgan, they were attacked by bandits who wounded two members of Mirza’s group and stole some of their goods. He also could have been discovered as a spy. In Fayzabad one of his men ho did not want to travel in the intense cold denounced him as an infidel and spy. Mirza had to shut him up with a bribe.
In Kulm-Tashkurgan a man who looked European joined Mirza. Thinking that he was a European Mirza almost told him the truth, but then the man spoke  perfect Persian and Mirza kept quiet. Once when a Kirgiz man saw him use the compass and was suspicious Mirza escaped by suggesting that he was just trying to point it to Mecca.
Mirza soon reached the point where the Amu Darya split into two branches. One John Wood from the British Navy had come this far in 1838. Since Wood had explored the northern route, Mirza took the uncharted southern route.  Crossing the Pamirs he reached the Tashkurgan fort.
From this point everyone would treat the stranger as a suspect. It started with the Governor of  Tashkurgan fort who wanted to inspect Mirza’s goods to verify his credentials.  Mirza was able to get past that by offering some gifts, but still the Governor would not let him travel alone; he was to travel under the Governor’s escort to the nearby Kashgar.
In January, he resumed his march to Kashgar. He reached there in February and probably was relieved to see shops selling bread, hot tea and sour milk. It was much better than eating frozen meat in inhospitable locales. Even the landscape was refreshing with orchards of fruit trees and mulberry groves.
The city which was built between the two branches of the Kazul river was fortified with watch towers at regular intervals and had  houses made of sun burned bricks and flat roofs. It had quite a few mosques too. The residents resembled a Benneton Ad: among the 16,000 families were Turks, Tajiks, Afghans, Kashmiris and Hindustanis. Though it was banned, the people ate opium, sang and danced. The women were required to wear a black or white burqa and show only their eyes.
Yakub Beg
Yakub BegKashgar then was ruled by Yakub Beg. Beg had started as a servant of the Khan of Khokhan — some accounts call him a dancing boy — and rose to be the Governor of Ak-Musjid. As Governor, he allowed the Russians to settle there without the knowledge of the Khan and probably by taking a bribe. He then fled to Bokara in Uzbekistan and lay low for three years till he gained favor with the new Khan.  The new Khan sent him to help in driving the Chinese out of Kashgar and other oases which he did. By then the Khan had developed his own problems with the Russians. Since there was no one to chaperon Beg, he went rogue and declared independence.

Though he was a man of simple manners, Beg was suspicious of everyone; he had spies around in his country.  Always armed, he was afraid of being murdered. He was generous and divided his spoils among his followers and also  fed a large number of people after daily prayers. He was a strict Muslim; He prayed five time a day also mandated that everyone do so. He also kept away from wine, women and opium.

The region was divided among his friends and relatives and no accounts were kept. So long as Beg got his share, he did not bother them. Quite a few people went for the Hajj hoping that they would be less bothered by the officials due to their title. Some went for the Hajj and absconded.
The Englishmen

Around the time Mirza reached Kashgar, unknown to him two other Englishmen had reached there with different motives.
Robert Shaw was a tea planter who lived in the Himalayan foot hills. He had moved to India at the age of 20 after ill health prevented him from joining the Army. From traders who had been to Kashgar, he knew that Indian tea could have a market there since the Chinese were kicked out. British officials were prohibited from traveling beyond the borders, but since Shaw was a private citizen, he decided to look for new markets in Kashgar.

Shaw left Leh on September 20, 1868 with a caravan. But following him was another Englishman, an ex-army officer named George Hayward whose goal was to explore the passes between Ladakh and Kashgar as well as the source of Amu Darya for the Royal Geographical Society. Hayward knew about the travel ban, but did not care and disguised himself as a Pathan and left.

As Shaw was traveling, he got news of Hayward. Shaw had invested much into his business trip and did not want another Englishman jeopardizing it. So he sent a note to Hayward asking him to turn back. But Hayward was not a man to turn back. Finally they met over a camp fire and Hayward decided to give Shaw a two-week start to Kashgar. They did not part as friends and they did not part as enemies.

Shaw reached Yarkand and soon was joined by Hayward; the smart Hayward told the border guards at Yarkand that he was part of Shaw’s caravan. But in Yarkand, they ignored each other, but kept an eye on each other as well. Keeping an eye on both of them were the authorities at Yarkand, who were waiting for instructions from Kashgar. When Shaw finally left Yarkand and reached Kashgar on Jan 4th 1869, he was the first Englishman to do so; he reached before Mirza.

Now that all the actors had arrived, it was time for the Kashgar drama to start
(To be continued)

The Indian Spy in Kashgar – Part 1/3

Around the 1860s, when Thomas Montgomerie of the Royal Engineers noticed that Indians traveled freely from Ladakh to Yarkand in Chinese Turkestan (modern Xinjiang), he came up with the idea of sending some of them with concealed surveying equipment. He hired and trained Indians in the art of surveying and sent them outside the borders to gather topographical data clandestinely. Publicly called “pundits” or “native explorers”, they were designated as spies in secret files.
During Montgomerie’s time, this region was part of the Great Game — the strategic rivalry  between the British and the Russians for supremacy in Central Asia — and one episode involved an Indian spy, a British tea merchant, an Uzbek dancing boy turned King and a British explorer-adventurer.  The spy, the merchant and the explorer reached Kashgar in Western China through different routes with different motives, but ended up as captives of a paranoid and wily king. Their fate would depend on how Russia would play in the Great Game.
It was a time when everyone suspected everyone else. It was the time of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim.

The Great Game

In 1800, there was a big geographical  buffer between Russia and India, but over the next sixty years that buffer almost vanished. Following the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828), Russia became a dominant player in the region and after the two Sikh wars much of the Afghan territory came under the British. The Russians soon moved against the Khanates at Khiva and Bokhara and by 1853 they were near Kokhand (Uzbekistan).
As the buffer narrowed, the British were worried that the Russians would invade India. This was not a misplaced worry since Napoleon and Czar  Alexander discussed  a plan for land invasion of India when they met in 1807. But then in the immortal words of ABBA, “My my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender.” Following Napoleon’s death, the Russians never followed on with the plan, but the British feared that even if the Russians did not invade, they could create trouble in the neighborhood.
Hence there was an urgent need to map the routes outside the Indian border, especially those passes through which the Russians could arrive. British knew where Yarkand and Kashgar were, but nothing more than that. These places, which saw heavy traffic during the zenith of the Silk Road, were now like Radiator Springs. The mountains on one side and the Taklamakan desert on the other side now isolated this place that the British had almost no political, commercial or military intelligence; a Great Blank in the Great Game.
To rectify this situation, the British could not send their spies to this region; it would provoke the Russians. Also it was not safe. If an Englishman was harmed, the British could not retaliate. That is when Montgomerie, who had spent a decade surveying Kashmir, came up with his brilliant plan  to send Indian travelers trained as surveyors. Even if the travelers were caught, the British had deniability.
It was hard to get a good spy. Montgomerie had once sent a trained Pathan to Chitral. What Montgomerie did not know was there was blood feud in the family and the Pathan was killed. In 1865 one Pundit  Munphool went to Badakshan (northeastern Afghanistan and southeastern Tajikistan)  and returned alive to submit a report. But he was not a  trained surveyor and without precise information, maps could not be made.

Challenging the Secular Censorship

While the current tendency is to portray anyone who questions the Western/Marxist portrayal of Hinduism as a bigot, the picture is much complex, writes Jakob De Roover

A climate of implicit censorship has long dominated this field. Not quite as spectacular as the rise of ‘Hindu’ censorship, this is not the stuff of juicy journalism. But this kind of censoring is as harmful: it also moulds people’s minds in particular ways; it constrains their speech; it compels them to show compliance to certain dogmas in their writings; and, for the unlucky few, it may even end their careers. The difficulty is to identify the modus operandi of this form of censorship. Much like racism, it is only in certain blatant cases that one can say with certainty that it has occurred. Nonetheless, we have to try and circumscribe this obstacle standing in the way of a much-needed rejuvenation of the study of India. [How Free Are We?]

Arun Shourie’s Eminent Historians documents such activities of censorship which was quite common and some of them were quite explicit. A prime example is a state circular from the Communist ruled state of West Bengal which censors the atrocities committed by Muslim invaders.
Jakob then documents the role played by Hindu-Americans in tackling this biased scholarship.

There is a cold war going on between the ‘Hindu-Americans’ (and a few academic sympathisers) and the mainstream scholars of Hinduism. Academics no longer fear being called ‘commies’, ‘reds’ or even ‘heathens’, but now ‘Hindutva’ has taken the place of such labels in the study of India. If one makes positive noises about the contributions of Indian culture to humanity, one runs the risk of being associated with ‘Hindu nationalism’ or with the NRI professionals who aggressively challenge the doyens of Hinduism studies. [How Free Are We?]

In fact in one of his recent lectures at UCLA on British India, the instructor (1,2,3,4) briefly mentions about the folks in Silicon Valley who hold some crazy ideas; as always the lunatic fringe is chosen to make generalizations. So more power to those  who challenge shoddy scholarship.