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.

The Queen and Vedic Sacrifice

In one of the Naneghat caves — located in the Western ghats — there are some life size sculptures of few people whose major features have been destroyed. But from the inscriptions we know these members of the Satavahana dynasty (200 B.C.E – 220 C.E): the king Simuta Satavahana, queen Nayanika/Naganika, prince Bhayala, maharathi Tranakayira, prince Haku-Sri, and prince Satavahana[1]

In the same cave there is another inscription which is in three parts: invocation to Brahmin deities, biographical details of an a queen, list of Vedic sacrifices and the donations given. The queen is mentioned as a daughter, as a wife, and as a mother; she was well acquainted with initiation ceremonies, vows and sacrifices. She also performed or was responsible for twenty sacrifices including the Rajasuya and Asvamedha[2].

Women performing Vedic sacrifices? But didn’t we just learn from UCLA 9A course that according to the Manusmriti women were not allowed to listen to the Vedas? If you go by the UCLA chronology, the Manusmriti was compiled during the Satavahana period. So what is the explanation?

Since the original inscriptions are partially destroyed, it is hard to figure out the exact details, but they have not been damaged so bad that we cannot reconstruct what might have happened. According to one interpretation, the queen must have performed those sacrifices in the company of her husband. This agrees with what we see in the Athirathram ceremony even now. But then according to another epigrapher, she performed all the sacrifices as a wife, except the last three which she performed through a priest. In fact she herself gave the sacrificial free of cows. The explanation then was, even though women could not perform Vedic  sacrifices, it was not applicable to women who ruled as regents or ruled without their husband[2].

Now there is no mention of the name of the queen who performed these sacrifices. So how can we assume that it was Naganika and not some one from a local family? One clue is that these sacrifices were expensive affairs. There may not have been many families who could afford it. Among the sculptures on the wall, Naganika is the only woman; she is also the only Satavahana queen to be featured on coins. This indicates that she was unlike any other queen of that dynasty and the majority opinion is that the queen who performed the Vedic sacrifice is Naganika[2].

Now independent of the identity of the person who did the sacrifice, it is obvious that a woman performed the sacrifice and inscribed it for posterity. Was this an isolated incident? Maybe. But it is important that to know that the inscription was carefully written with details of the sacrifice and the donations paid. The queen also made sure that it was written not in Sanskrit, but in Prakrit, so that common people would know about it[2].

So what about the rules in Manusmriti? Here is a better explanation.


  1. Upinder Singh, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, 1st ed. (Prentice Hall, 2009). 
  2. Kirit K. Shah, The Problem of Identity: Women in Early Indian Inscriptions(Oxford University Press, USA, 2002).
  3. Thanks to Michel Danino for this comment.

Battle of Rasil

Prophet Muhammed died in 632 C.E. Just twelve years later, a Hindu king was defeated by Muslim armies, thus changing the history of the Indian subcontinent. The name of this Hindu king — Chach of Alor — is not often heard. So let us go to modern day Baluchistan, where currently the  natives are fighting “colonial exploitation, denial and violation of human rights.”

During the time of Muhammed’s death, the regions of Makran and Sindh belonged to India culturally and politically; Muslims knew the area as the frontier of al-Hind. Though the tendency is to consider Indus as the Western border of India, people from Pliny the Elder  (23 – 79 C.E) to  Nicolo de Conti (1385 – 1469) thought that it was Gedrosia or Makran.

At this time Harsha (590 – 647 C.E.) was the ruler of Northern India; the Gupta empire had come to end following the invasion of the White Huns. While Harsha ruled over the Gangetic plain, Punjab, Gujarat, Bengal and Orissa, the other side of the modern border was ruled by the Hindu Rai dynasty with the capital in Alor (modern day Sukkur).

Founded by Rai Dewaji in 485 C.E, just a decade after Rome fell to the Visigoths, the Rai kingdom extended  all way from Kashmir to Makran and from the mountains of Kurdan to Karachi. Within this empire some parts of Makran was controlled by Persians and Indians alternatively. 

Makran was barren then, as it is now. According to Caliph Uthman, “water is scanty, dates are bad, robbers are bold; a small army would be lost there, a large army would starve”; two emperors, Alexander and Cyrus, would agree. Though mostly barren, there were few fertile areas like the Kij Valley and Buleda which had date palms and orchards. The region was important strategically since one of the major trade routes from India to Persia ran through this region; the other route was through Kabul valley.

The Chinese traveler Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) visited the region during the time of the Rai dynasty. Makran at that time had a large Buddhist population; there were towns like Armabil which were ruled by Buddhists who were originally agents of the Rais.  Xuanzang saw 80 Buddhist convents with 5000 monks, several hundred Deva temples and one temple of ‘Maheswara Deva’ which was richly adorned. 

Sindh too was part of al-Hind. This was a time when the Buddhist influence was strong, but was in the decline due to rise of Hinduism and the influence of the Gupta empire. By this time, according to  Xuanzang , Buddhism in Sindh was in decline and Takshashila was in ruins. There was a Brahmin migration to Sindh and many cities were founded by them. Buddhists and Brahmins blended in a unique way without any dispute which the Arab invaders could exploit.

The Rai dynasty which ruled for 137 years ended with the death of Rai Sahasi II in 622 C.E. It is following the death of Rai Sahasi that events get interesting. When the King was about to die, the Queen Suhandi conspired with the Brahmin minister Chach and imprisoned all the rivals to  the throne. Chach became the viceroy and this started the Brahmin dynasty. The first thing that Chach did when he came to power was to put guards on the road of Makran.

Meanwhile in Arabia,  following the death of Muhammed, the Rashidun Caliphate, comprising the first four caliphs in Islam’s history was formed. Abu Bakr became the first  Khalifa Rasul Allah (Successor of the Messenger of God) and in 634 C.E. he was succeed by Caliph Umar. It was during Umar’s time that the Arabs entered Makran resulting in the Battle of Rasil.

Chach of Alor, the king of Sindh concentrated huge armies from Sindh and Balochistan to halt the advance of Muslims. Suhail was reinforced by Usman ibn Abi Al Aas from Persepolis, and Hakam ibn Amr from Busra, the combined forces defeated Chach of Alor at a pitch Battle of Rasil, who retreated to the eastern bank of River Indus. Further east from Indus River laid Sindh, which was domain of Rai kingdom. Umar, after knowing that sindh was a poor and relatively barran land, disapproved Suhail’s proposal to cross Indus River.For the time being, Umar declared the Indus River, a natural barrier, to be the eastern most frontier of his domain. This campaign came to an end in mid 644. [Battle of Rasil]

The defeated Chach was pushed back to the Indus river. When the Caliph was asked for permission to go furthur to Sindh, he refused permission. He asked the soldiers to sell the elephants they had captured and take the money. The next caliph, Uthman, also  denied permission to conquer Sindh, which eventually happened during the caliphate of Muawiya. 

Chach of Alor had a natural death in 671 C.E.

References & Notes:

  1. Andre Wink, Al Hind: The Making of the Indo Islamic World, Vol. 1, Early Medieval India and the Expansion of Islam, 7th-11th Centuries, 2nd ed. (Brill Academic Publishers, 1990).
  2. Gobind Khushalani, Chachnamah Retold : An Account Of The Arab Conquest Of Sindh (Bibliophile South Asia, 2006).
  3. Wikipedia entries for Battle of Rasil, and Umar
  4. The year Chach took office is in dispute. According to one source it is 643 C.E. while according to one translation of Chachnama, it was 622 C.E.
  5. Image via Wikipedia

Secrets of M458

Various Y chromosome haplogroups correlate with continental boundaries, except for one – R1a. The R1a is spread over a huge area from South Asia to Central East Europe to South Siberia. It also covers a large number of language groups like Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Finno-Ugric, Dravidian and Turkic. This combination means only one thing: the R1a can give us clues about the Indo-European homeland. But the R1a is not helpful in finding the Indo-European homeland because we still don’t know where it originated. Some say it originated in North India; others, Eastern Europe near Ukraine[2].
Since R1a is spread over a vast region, it often associated with one version of AMT: the Kurgan hypothesis. According to the theory which argues for the homeland in the Caucasus, Indo-Europeans mounted their horses and imposed their culture in Old Europe. These violent people changed history in the fifth and fourth millennium BCE and eventually arrived in India[1].
This theory had its own share of criticism. For example, just because the horse was domesticated in steppes does not mean that they fought on horsebacks; there is no linguistic evidence for it. Also when linguists compared the flora, fauna and technology of Kurgan culture with the reconstructions in PIE, there were discrepancies. Does the reconstructed word for horse mean a domesticated horse or a wild one? We don’t know[1].
Now a new R1a marker named the M458 has been found which has been helpful, not in finding the origins of the Indo-European homeland, but where it could not have come from. The M458 originated between 10, 000 to 7000 years back in Eastern Europe and is related to a number of Central and East European farming cultures. This marker, which is from the Kurgan area, does not extend eastward beyond the Ural Mountains and southward beyond Turkey[2].
Since the origin and spread of this marker coincides with the transformation of foragers to farmers, could those Neolithic farmers have spread from Eastern Europe to India like in the Anatolian hypothesis? An alternative to the Kurgan hypothesis, the Anatolian hypothesis states that Indo-Europeans were not aggressive people, but sedentery agriculturalists who spread along with the spread of farming techniques. Here the date is not the fourth of fifth millennium BCE, but the seventh[1].
The new paper says that there is no trace of the M458 marker, which peaks among Finno-Ugric and Slavic speakers, in India. This means that male genes did not flow from East Europe to India since 7000 – 5000 years back or that Indo-Europeans did not come from the following locations in Europe or these[2].


  1. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  2. Peter A Underhill et al., “Separating the post-Glacial coancestry of European and Asian Y chromosomes within haplogroup R1a,” Eur J Hum Genet (November 4, 2009),

Deforestation in India: 73,000 years back

(Image from Journey of Man)

A new study reveals that the volcanic eruption of Mt. Toba in Sumatra, 74,000 years back, deforested Central India.

The volcano ejected an estimated 800 cubic kilometers of ash into the atmosphere, leaving a crater (now the world’s largest volcanic lake) that is 100 kilometers long and 35 kilometers wide. Ash from the event has been found in India, the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea.
The bright ash reflected sunlight off the landscape, and volcanic sulfur aerosols impeded solar radiation for six years, initiating an “Instant Ice Age” that — according to evidence in ice cores taken in Greenland — lasted about 1,800 years. [Supervolcano Eruption In Sumatra Deforested India 73,000 Years Ago]

Temperature dropped by 16 degrees; there was an Ice Age; there was population reduction among the earliest arrivals in India from Africa. The deforestation in turn caused a behavior change in human beings.
But did it exterminate Indians or the entire humanity? According to a paper published two years back, we know that few people of Jwalapuram in Andhra Pradesh survived. Stone blades and other tools  as well red ochre used in cave paintings were found both above and below the ash layer indicating that whoever lived at that time survived and there was technological continuity. Following Mt. Toba the Indian subcontinent was repopulated again by new migrants from the North-West as well as from the North East.
See Also: Environmental Impact of the 73 ka Toba Super-eruption in South Asia

The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia – Part 2

(Ziggurat at Ur)

Read Part 1
Even though direct trade declined, a large number of foreigners stayed back, adopted local customs, and played an important role in Sumerian economy. These foreigners stayed in a village — a Meluhhan village — from 2062 B.C.E; we have documents from this period. This village was located in an area called Lagash in southwestern Mesopotamia which had cities like Girsu, Nina, and a port city and area called Guabba which had the temple of Nin-mar[5]. The Meluhhan village in Guabba and was associated with this temple.
Guabba was probably a harbor town under the jurisdiction of the Girsu/Lagas but by the time of Ur III, it was not near the sea,  but could only be reached by inland waterways.A large number of granaries existed in Guabba where the temple was located. The granaries had to deliver barley and the Meluhhan village granary was one of them[10][11].
Thanks to the meticulous record keeping by the Sumerians we get a good picture of what these Meluhhans did. In 2062 B.C.E, a scribe of the builders received barley from the Meluhhan village. In 2057 B.C.E, there is account of grain delivery, the details of which is mentioned against a tablet of one Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha; the inventory of barley deposits in 2047 B.C.E mentions the quantity from the Meluhhan village. By 2046 B.C.E, there is a debt note:Ur-Lama, son of Meluhha has to recompense some wool. In 2045 B.C.E, the list of grain rations mentions the son of Meluhha, who was the serf of the Nanse temple from the delta[10][11].
During the Akkadian times, the Meluhhans were considered as foreigners, but by Ur III period they became part of society – paying tax and distributing grain — like other Sumerian villages. Compared to other towns and villages, the amount of grain delivered by the Meluhhan village was quite high. Between 1981-1973 BC, Ur was ruled by Amar-Sin and between 1972-1964 BC by his brother Shu-Sin. During the sixth year of the former and eighth year of the latter, barley was delivered only by the Meluhhan granary. Maybe the Meluhhan granaries were bigger or there was a third millennium jaziya[11].
Besides the granary, few people of Guabba — 4272 women and 1800 children — worked in the weaving sector. The Indus region was famous for cotton since 4000 B.C.E: one of the earliest evidence for exports from the subcontinent is Baluchistan cotton which was found in Jordan. So probably the residents of Guabba were skilled weavers from the Indus region[11].
Besides weavers, the village also had shepherds; the Ur III texts also mention a Meluhhan goat. The temple of Ninmar had two gardens out of which one was Meluhhan. This was probably a garden planted with fruit trees from Meluhha and provided fruits for the goddess. Also by the Ur III period, the Meluhhans had adopted Sumerian names. It seems the overseer of the Nanshe temple was a Meluhhan and there was a Meluhhan worker in the temple. Thus instead of following their religious traditions, the Meluhhans adopted the Sumerian ones[11].
Even though we have a better idea of the Meluhhans in Mesopotamia, these texts don’t help us in identifying Meluhha; We don’t know how far it was from Ur. Also no where in the texts the Meluhhans are mentioned in being in touch with their homeland. There is a mention of a Meluhhan skipper, but he was involved in domestic trade.
The Language Turner

(Cuneiform letter to King of Lagash)

Few years back, Gregory L. Possehl, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, was reading Leo Oppenheim’s Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization, when he discovered a reference to a personal seal of a Meluhhan translator — Shu-ilishu — who lived in Mesopotamia. Possehl tracked down a photograph of the seal as well as got a fresh impression from the original seal (pic). The seal was dated from Late Akkadian (2200 – 2113 B.C.E) to Ur III (2113–2004 B.C.E)[3].
Think about this: Around 4000 years back, there was a man in Mesopotamia who could speak Meluhhan as well as Sumerian or Akkadian. He could read those Indus tablets. This is not surprising since the Meluhhan merchants would have handled the imports from Meluhha and exported Mesopotamian goods to their homeland. Since the translator worked with Meluhhans and Mesopotamians, he would need to speak multiple languages.
This suggests that there is probably a bi-lingual tablet somewhere in the region where Shu-ilishu lived. If such a tablet is found, it could be the Rosetta stone which would solve a 134 year old mystery forever. We will know if the Indus people were literate or illiterate, spoke some variant of Indo-Aryan or proto-Dravidian or Klingon. This find could end the dispute over the indentity of the Harappans.
While no bi-lingual seal has been found so far, various Indus seals have been found in Mesopotamia. G.R. Hunter, who in 1934 concluded that Brahmi was derived from Indus script, observed that square Indus seals could be in Indus language while the circular ones, though in Indus script, could be encoding a non-Indus language. He has a reason for suggesting this: there is one particular circular Mesopotamian seal which has five Indus signs in a sequence not seen before; a square seal found in Kish was similar to the Indus ones[10].
That has not helped in decipherment. The number of Indus seals found in Mesopotamia are not too many. About thirty seals have been found of which only ten can be dated with certanity. With trade relations lasting centuries this is a disappointing count. So our hope of finding a bi-lingual tablet depends on finding a Sumerian cuneiform tablet.
Another clue could come from the translations of Ur III texts. Mesopotamians were prolific writers: We know what Sargon of Akkad wrote; we can read the seal of Queen Puabi; there are numerous texts which describe in detail how much tax was paid, debt was kept and who broke whose tooth. Due to this meticulous record keeping we can reconstruct the history of people from the Indian subcontinent in Mesopotamia during the period when Khufu was building the Great Pyramid of Giza.
The news about the Meluhhan village came in a paper published in 1977 based on ten Ur III texts from Lagash/Girsu[10]. Last year there was another update based on the translations of 44 texts which has 48 references to Meluhha. The text which connects the Meluhhan village with Guabba is located in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and was first published in 1912; no one noticed the connection till recently. Hopefully with revived interest in this topic, scholars will keep an eye for such clues which will help us solve this puzzle.

  1. The place Ur is important in the Abrahamic religions since it is  the birth place of Abraham. According to tradition Abraham lived from 1812 B.C.E to 1637 B.C.E. Since there is evidence for the granary delivering grain between 1981-1973 B.C.E and also between 1972-1964 B.C.E, it is possible that Meluhhans were around during Abraham’s time as well. That is if Abraham is a real historical character. According to Bible’s Buried Secrets — a historical analysis of the Hebrew Bible — the Babylonians exiled the Caananites in 586 B.C.E. It was while living in Babylon, near Ur, that a scribe, named “P” created the Abraham story to enforce the concept of the covenant.
  2. Many thanks to Hari and Ranjith P for their help in this research.
  3. Images from Wikipedia.


  1. Iraq’s ancient past at University of Pennysylvania
  2. The Middle Asian Interaction Sphere by Gregory L. Possehl
  3. Shu-ilishu’s Cylinder Seal by Gregory L. Possehl
  4. Dionisius A. Agius, Classic ships of Islam(BRILL, 2008).
  5. Charles Keith Maisels, The emergence of civilization (Taylor & Francis, 1990).
  6. Hammurabi (King of Babylonia.), (University of Chicago Press, 1904).
  7. Asko Parpola, The Horse and the Language of the Indus Civilization,in The Aryan Debate edited by Thomas R. Trautmann (Oxford University Press, USA), 234-236.
  8. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  9. Michael Roaf, The Cultural Atlas of Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East (Facts on File, 1990).
  10. Simo Parpola, Asko Parpola, and Robert H. Brunswig, “The Meluḫḫa Village: Evidence of Acculturation of Harappan Traders in Late Third Millennium Mesopotamia?,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20, no. 2 (May 1977): 129-165.
  11. P.S Vermaak, “Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia,” Journal for Semitics 17, no. 2 (2008): 553 – 570.

The Indus Colony in Mesopotamia – Part 1

(Mesopotamia in 2300 B.C.E)

After World War 1, the British Museum and the Penn Museum decided to excavate in Iraq. Since Iraq was under the British mandate, the sites were easily accessible; the only issue was to find the best place to dig. The approval had to come from Britain’s colonial office headed by one Winston Churchill and  Assistant Secretary and Advisor on Arab Affairs, T.E.Lawrence. For the excavation, they picked  Charles Leonard Woolley as the director; Lawrence had worked with Woolley during an excavation in Carchemish, Syria before he ran through Arabia like an Energizer bunny who had drowned a few Red Bulls. One of Woolley’s assistants during the third season of excavations was Max Mallowan, who met his future wife in Mesopotamia –  Agatha Christie[1].
The expedition started work in 1922 and one of their major discoveries was the Royal Cemetery of Ur which belonged to the First Dynasty. Sir Leonard Woolley excavated more than a thousand graves dating between 2600 – 2400 B.C.E out of which seventeen were royal tombs and in one he  found a forty year old, five foot tall woman who was given an elaborate burial. We know this woman as Queen Puabi from one of the three cylinder seals found on her body. She was accompanied in her death by handmaidens and warriors, who were put to death, not by poisoning, but by driving a pike into their heads.
An interesting item from Queen Puabi’s tomb was a cloak of beads, made from carnelian beads (pic), which comes from the Indus region[2]. Thus a queen who lived in Southern Iraq, 4500 years back, was able to obtain beads from the Indus Valley region through the trading hubs of the ancient world.
But there are questions:

  • Who bought these beads to Ur?
  • What do we know about these traders? Were they Harappans or middle men from Bahrain/Qatar/Iran?
  • Can these traders help us in deciphering the Indus script?

Off to Mesopotamia
To put the Indus influence in Mesopotamia in context, we first need to understand the difference between Sumer, Akkad, Ur, Puabi, Sargon, Gudea, and Guabba. A good starting point is 2900 B.C.E when there were many city-states ruled by individual kings who were wealthy enough to import luxury goods and powerful  enough to give offers to their employees which they could not refuse (remember the pike).
Then at some point, the region became divided into Sumer and Akkad, which were not political entities, but collections of city-states speaking two different languages. Out of these two, Sumerian is unrelated to any other language while Akkadian is the ancestor of languages like Assyrian and is related to Hebrew and Arabic. The Akkadians and Sumerians remained in close contact, borrowing words from each other. The Akkadians also adopted the Sumerian script: Sometimes with short inscriptions it is hard to tell if the language is Akkadian or Sumerian. In 2270 B.C.E Sargon combined the region to create the Akkadian Empire[9].
Sargon’s birth story is an interesting one, especially to Indians. His mother, a priestess, conceived him in secret with an unknown father. She then set him adrift in a basket sealed with bitumen in the Euphrates. The river then took him to Akki the gardener who bought him up as his own son. Sounds familiar?

(Copper head from Sargonic Period)

We don’t know how Sargon looked like, but we have a life size copper head of what is most likely his grand son, created using the Lost-Wax method. But it is in Sargon’s time that we hear about Meluhhans, identified as people from the Indus region, for the first time. He boasted about ships from Dilmun, Magan and Meluhha docking in the quay of Akkad[4]. There is also a tablet dating to 2200 B.C.E which mentions an Akkadian who was the holder of Meluhhan ships: large boats that were transporting precious metals and gem stones[10].
There is also a text dating to this period which mentions that Lu-Sunzida, a man of Meluhha, paid 10 shekels of silver to Urur, son of Amar-luku as a payment for a broken tooth. This law seems to be an earlier version of the code of Hammurabi (1792 – 1750 B.C.E), which states that “if one knocks out the tooth of a freeman, he shall pay one-third mana of silver[6].”
When the name Lu-Sunzida is translated into Sumerian it means ‘man of just buffalo-cow’ which is meaningless; the Sumerians don’t have any cultural context for using the buffalo. But the people of India definitely had: the water buffalo is an important concept in Rg Veda (1.164: 41-42)

41 Forming the water-floods, the buffalo hath lowed, one-footed or two-footed or four-footed, she, Who hath become eight-footed or hath got nine feet, the thousand-syllabled in the sublimest heaven. 42 From her descend in streams the seas of water; thereby the world’s four regions have their being, Thence flows the imperishable flood and thence the universe hath life.[HYMN CLXIV. Vi]

This link between Lu-Sunzida and the earliest layers of Rg Veda was noted by Asko Parpola, who suggested that the name could have been a direct translation from Indus to Sumerian[10]. Does this mean that the Vedic people were contemporaries of the Akkadians violating the lakshmana rekha of 1500 B.C.E?
Not so fast. Listen to the explanation for this which is similar to the one which works around the problem of the discovery of real horse bones in Surkotada. According to this explanation, two Indo-Aryan groups — the Dasas and Panis — arrived around 2100 B.C.E from the steppes via Central Asia bringing horses with them. If the Indo-Aryans arrived earlier does this mean that the date of Rg Veda can be pushed to an earlier date than 1200 B.C.E? The theory says, the folks who came in 2100 B.C.E were not the composers of the Veda; they came in a second wave, a couple of centuries later[7][8]. So according to Parpola, the name Lu-Sunzida  could refer to the culture of those early arrivals — the Dasas, Vratyas, Mlecchas — who occupied the Indus region before the composers of Vedas. Thus Meluhha could be an adaptation of the Sanskrit word Mleccha[10].
Following the decline of the Akkadian dynasty founded by Sargon, city states like Lagash in the south gained independence and in 2144 B.C.E, Gudea became the town-king or governor. Direct sea trade, which had been active during Sargon’s time, 150 years back, between Meluhha and Mesopotamia was happening at this time too: Meluhhans came from their country to supply wood and raw materials for the construction of the main temple of Gudea’s capital as well as red stones and luxury goods.
Following the Akkadian period (2300 – 2150 B.C.E), there was a Sumerian renaissance resulting in the Third Dynasty of Ur, usually mentioned as Ur III Empire.  It was during the Ur III period that one of the most famous landmarks in Iraq — the Ziggurat of Ur — was built. The Sumerian King Ur-Nammu who built the ziggurat, which stood in the temple complex of the moon god Nanna, appointed his daughter as the high priestess. This was a practice started by Sargon and it continued till the 6th century B.C.E.
Various city states like Gudea’s Lagash ended with the emergence of Ur III state, but these political changes did not affect trade, which continued as usual with one difference.The direct trade by Meluhhans on Meluhhan ships reduced — there is a decline in Indus artifacts in Mesopotamia —-  instead goods were bought by the middlemen in Dilmun. One reason is that by the time of Ur III the de-urbanization of Harappa was happening. While trade from Harappa declined, trade from ports in Gujarat boomed via the middlemen bringing in various kinds of Meluhhan wood, some of which were used to make special thrones with ivory inlays.
In Part 2, we will look at what these Meluhhans did following the decline of direct trade.

  1. This post is based mostly on two papers, [10] Simo Parpola, Asko Parpola, and Robert H. Brunswig, “The Meluḫḫa Village: Evidence of Acculturation of Harappan Traders in Late Third Millennium Mesopotamia?,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 20, no. 2 (May 1977): 129-165 and [11] P.S Vermaak, “Guabba, the Meluhhan village in Mesopotamia,” Journal for Semitics 17, no. 2 (2008): 553 – 570.
  2. References will be published at the end of Part 2
  3. Images from Wikipedia

The Indus Script – Analysis

(A letter in cuneiform sent to King of Lagash)

Read Part 1, Part 2.
There are two points the Dravidian camp and the Indo-Aryan camp agree on: the signs are mostly written from right to left and they are logo-syllabic. Bryan Wells was able to decipher the script as Dravidian and even read words from it. Subhash Kak has not deciphered the script, but has shown that it bears similarities to Brahmi script and the language could be an Indo-Aryan one like Prakrit. If we had lengthy sentences in Indus script, we could validate both these claims with confidence.
When it comes to the decipherments, the literature is overwhelmingly in favor of Dravidian, proto-Dravidian or early Kannada-Tamil.  This comes not just from Indian scholars, but also Soviet and Finnish groups which have worked on this problem.Compared to this the Indo-Aryan angle has very little support; most books don’t even mention this possibility.
But is the Dravidian case rock solid? Assume for a moment that Dravidian or proto-Dravidian was spoken by the Harappans, when they lived in the urban settings. Now if Indo-Aryans forced these people — people who lived in well planned cities —  to move to South India, what happened to their urbaneness.? There is not a single Harappan site in any of the South Indian states dating to that period or for that matter any later period. Thus if Dravidians did indeed move from Indus valley to South India, they would have moved from an advanced Bronze Age culture backwards to a Neolithic culture[2][5].  This parallels another explanation where the urban residents of BMAC became pastoral cattle breeders by the time they reached Indus Valley.
Continue reading “The Indus Script – Analysis”

The Indus Script – Decipherments

(Asokan inscription in Brahmi)

Read Part 1
When say “deciphering the Indus script” there are two aspects to it. The first is the structural analysis which looks at the signs which are used the most, the relationship between the signs etc and the second is assigning various sounds to the symbols to attempt a reading.
In 1968, the Russian linguist Yuri  Knorozov who assisted in the Battle of Berlin and later decoded the Mayan script found internal structures in the Indus seals using software analysis. Based on that he read the text as proto-Dravidian. One of the signs in the Indus script is that of a man carrying a stick. This for Knorozov  represented the posture of Yama or Bhairava hence he thought it was one of the predecessors of one of such gods. He also read the script and one such reading is ‘[day of the [god] -guardian honored leader, lightning of the cloud worthy hero’. The criticism of Knorozov is that while his analysis was useful, the reading was pure guess work[1].
But how did Dravidians, who currently live in the four Southern states, end up in the Indus Valley? According to one version, Proto-Dravidian speakers moved into the Indus Valley from Iran some time between 6500 and 3000 B.C.E. These people, who derived Proto-Dravidian from Proto-Elamite-Dravidian, developed the Indus culture over a period of 2000 – 4000 years[1]. When the Indo-Aryans arrived, sometime after the collapse of the Indus Valley, Dravidian was the dominant language.
Continue reading “The Indus Script – Decipherments”