Guest Post: Michel Danino on the antiquity of Indus-Saraswati Civilization

[This post is in response to this news item – “Archaeologists confirm Indian civilization is 2000 years older than previously believed”. It is adapted from Michel’s response on IndiaArchaeology eGroup – JK]

Early farming village in Mehrgarh, c. 7000 BC, with houses built with mud bricks.
Early farming village in Mehrgarh, c. 7000 BC

Seing that several blogs and mass mailers are repeating this piece of “news”, I would like to emphasize that the article sensationalizes things without understanding the issue. The Indus-Sarasvati civilization (accepting that the word “civilization” connotes urbanism) emerges around 2600 BC, and those dates have not been challenged.
It has long been established — for at least 20 years — that its antecedents at Mehrgarh (Baluchistan) go back to the 8th millennium BCE, in the context of a Neolithic rural society, that is with just stone tools, yet a fairly advanced agricultural economy. The new development (“new” meaning some seven years) is the comparable antiquity of the earliest stages at Bhirrana (Haryana) excavated by the late L.S. Rao. This is also a rural stage, which probably straddles the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic; the pottery type is the Hakra ware, which has emerged at a few other sites of the Sarasvati basin in Haryana (such as Farmana) and Cholistan (in Pakistan).
How such antecedents, whether in Baluchistan or in the Sarasvati region and probably with contributions from other regions, converged towards the Early Harappan stage (usually dated from 3800 BCE) is the very interesting question which should have been addressed instead. As too often, the media hype conceals the real issues.
In any case the dates for the Indus cities — Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Kalibangan or Dholavira — in their Mature urban stage will not change. They are firmly in the 3rd millennium BCE, as hundreds of carbon 14 and thermoluminescence have established.

Indus script designed with care

In his book, The Lost River, Michel Danino wrote the following about the Harappan civilization.

Altogether, the area covered by this civilization was about 800,000 km: roughly one-fourth of today’s India, or if we can make comparisons with contemporary civilizations, ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia put together. This vast expanse must have offered unique opportunities as well as posed peculiar challenges — opportunities in terms of a wider choice of sources for raw materials and a richer store of human skill and experience; challenges arising from a greater diversity of regional cultures which had to be integrated , or at least coordinated, and the sheer extent of communication networks required to keep it all together.

It turns out that the Harappans indeed took the challenge seriously and made sure that the script was uniform across this vast region.

“Writing is an important window to the intellectual creativity of a civilisation. Our analysis reveals that people who designed the Indus script were intellectually creative and considerable time and effort went into designing it. The manner in which the signs were modified shows that it was acceptable across all the sites of the civilisation and was not intended for a small group of people,” said Nisha Yadav from TIFR, the principal author of the study.
The Indus script is found on objects such as seals, copper tablets, ivory sticks, bronze implements and pottery from almost all sites of the civilisation. “The Indus civilisation was spread over an area of about a million square kilometres and yet, the sign list over the entire civilisation seems to be the same indicating that the signs, their meaning and their usage were agreed upon by people with large physical separation. A lot of thought, planning and utility issues must have been taken into consideration while designing these signs,” says the TIFR paper, published in the Korean journal, Scripta.
The paper also indicates that the script may have a connection with scripts from India or even China. The authors say that the signs of the Indus script seem to incorporate techniques in their design that were used in several ancient writing systems to make optimum use of a limited number of signs.[Indus script designed with care, say TIFR researchers (via IndiaArchaeology)]

Indian History Carnival – 50: Ghaggar-Hakra, Arthashastra, Shivaji, Karma

  1. There is a new paper by Peter Clift et. al which concludes that Yamuna stopped flowing to Ghaggar 50,000 years back and Beas and the Sutlej stopped their flow ten thousand years back. This has an impact on the dates for the presence of Vedic people in the region. Suvrat Kher writes
  2. I have stressed that this attempt to link a hypothesis of a mighty Sarasvati to the presence of Aryans is misguided and one that has caused harm to the public understanding of the topic and to what constitutes good science. Many geologists and archaeologists accepted the validity of a glacial Sarasvati without critically weighing the evidence. Taking their cue, in web forums and books, supporters of a glacial Sarasvati have popularized the hypothesis of a late river avulsion and often presented it as irrefutable evidence favoring the indigenous Aryan theory.
    I have commented on this earlier in Pragati and on my blog (here and here ) and suggested that evidence at that time did not support a late avulsion and further that this issue of the timing of Aryan presence in this region doesn’t really depend on glacial rivers flowing into the Ghaggar. Rivers can be mythologized and worshiped whether they are big or small. The Aryans could just as well have considered holy a Siwalik fed river and exaggerated its size in their hymns.

  3. Dorian Fuller has a post as well on this topic
  4. Throughout the Holocene, including the Harappan period this river was fed only by seasonal monsoon rain in the east. This rain-fed Ghaggar-Hakra was active until after 4.5 ka and was then covered by dunes before 1.4 ka. What this means is that the Ghaggar-Hakra, unlike any of the major Indus tributaries, was not fed by snow melt, which begins in Spring and may be unpredictable, but was entirely reliant on swelling its banks from the summer monsoon. This means it would have been an ideal river for winter crop agriculture, along the lines of the Nile flood regime which is keyed to the Blue Nile’s monsoon source, with sowing of wheat and barley in Oct.-Nov. as the monsoon flood began to recede to leave behind a rich floodplain. These could then be left to mature until harvests in March or April, without fear of early snowmelt floods ruining crops. It really should come as no surprise then that so many Harappan Bronze Age sites concentrated in this valley. Nevertheless as monsoons gradually weakened (already underway during the Harappan period) with the flood water source retreating eastwards, and the Thar desert expanding, the valley became gradually drier and eventually choked with desert sands. This, however happened in Iron Age or post-Iorn Age times, so thus there is no basis for correlating any catastrophic shift in the Ghaggar-Hakra with the end of the Harappan civilization– a notion which has often appealed to archaeologists.

  5. Jayarava presents a new theory about the origin of the Buddhist idea of karma.
  6. So my suggestion is that we see Buddhist (and Jain) karma as part of the culmination of a process of assimilation of Iranian and/or Zoroastrian ideas by the Kosala-Videha tribes in the Central Ganges Plain region, introduced by the Śākyas. The process probably started soon after 850 BCE when climate change affected the environment and set in process a series of migrations across Eurasia and the sub-continent. The emergence of Buddhism and Jainism marks a mature phase of this culture that was soon to be taken over and co-opted by the militaristic Magadhans and their eventual successors the Mauryans. In particular karma may well emerge from the application of the Zoroastrian ideas about morality and the afterlife, to a widespread belief in cyclic rebirth.

  7. Oliver Stuenkel, Professor of International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, Brazil has a review of The First Great Realist: Kautilya and his Arthashastra by Roger Boesche
  8. In sum, what is perhaps most fascinating is how many ideas Kautilya articulated that would appear in the West centuries later – while Kautilya wrote the Arthashastra briefly after Thucydides, he long preceded Machiavelli and Hobbes, which thought along similar lines. Rather than looking for “non-Western” international relations theories, then, it may be more adequate to question the supposedly “Western” origin of today’s existing theories and acknowledge the profound contributions thinkers such as Kautilya have made.
    Boesche’s book is ideal reading for a seminar on Indian Foreign Policy, providing a very accessible overview of the somewhat lengthy, yet highly rewarding Arthashastra.

  9. Karmasura has a translation of a letter written by Shivaji to Aurangzeb
  10. In strict justice the jaziya is not at all lawful. From the political point of view it can be allowable only if a beautiful woman wearing gold ornaments can pass from one province to another without fear or molestation. But in these days even the cities are being plundered, what shall I say of the open country? Apart from its injustice, this imposition of the jaziya is an innovation in India and inexpedient.
    If you imagine piety to consist in oppressing the people and terrorizing the Hindus, you ought first to levy the jaziya from Rana Raj Singh, who is the head of the Hindus. Then it will not be so very difficult to collect it from me, as I am at your service. But to oppress ants and flies is far from displaying valour and spirit.

For this episode, there were a large number of contributions and I had a tough time limiting it to five entries. The next carnival will be up on March 15th. Send your nominations by e-mail to @gmail.

Harappans go bananas

When we talk about the Arabian Sea trading network, it usually is implied to mean the time from which the Europeans started sailing through the region. But as Manmadhan Ullatil pointed out in Hubs of the medieval trade, this trading network existed much before this period. In fact the ports along the coast of India and Africa were part of the trading network of the Old World. By studying the Prehistoric movement of plants and animals, we are able to reconstruct the trading patterns and speculate about the traders.
In such a study, something interesting has turned up. Researchers looking into the domestication of banana found that it may have been initially done in New Guinea; wild bananas are found in South Asian rainforests. By looking at the banana phytoliths, it is now believed that bananas reached the Harappan region around 2000 BCE, before the decline of the civilization started and apparently were not used for eating. So what else could they have been used for?

Given the distribution of wild Musaceae in South Asia, and the climate at that time (Asouti & Fuller 2008, Madella & Fuller 2006), it is unlikely that these could derive from the ancient presence of wild Musa or Ensete. The possibility that a species was cultivated as a garden ornamental or as a source of fiber and raw materials (e.g., for paper) cannot be ruled out. Indeed, one of these nonculinary uses of Musa/Ensete might be a more plausible explanation for these phytoliths than an early dispersal of edible cultivated bananas from Island Southeast Asia by the third millennium B.C.[Banana Cultivation in South Asia and East Asia: A review of the evidence from archaeology and linguistics( via Carlos Aromayo)]

The paper says that it is possible that the Indus people used the fiber for making paper. Now if they made paper you would think that the next step would be to assume writing. But claiming that Indus people were literate would violate a lakshmana rekha.
So the next line in this paper says that since few folks think that Indus people were illiterate, this could not have happened. Thus apparently, Indus people got bananas, did not eat them, made paper and threw them away. They could have done anything, except writing on it.

Guest Post: Michel Danino on Andrew Lawler's article on Saraswati

Path of Saraswati/Ghaggar-Hakra from Wikipedia
(Carte de la sarasvati védique from Wikipedia)
(Science, Vol 332 had an article titled In Indus Times, the River Didn’t Run Through It by Andrew Lawler. In the article, three independent studies were cited to argue that Ghaggar-Hakra was a seasonal stream during the Mature Harappan phase (2500 – 1900 B.C.E) and not the mighty river mentioned in the Vedas. The studies also show that the river may have dried up around 10,000 years back. I asked Michel Danino, the author of The Lost River:On the Trail of the Saraswati, for his comments on these studies – Ed)
A few thoughts on the recent challenge posed by a few geological studies mentioned on this group (mainly Sanjeev Gupta et al.; H. Maemoku et al.). Some links to them (1,2, 3,4)
Those studies conclude that “the data suggests there was no big river here” (near Kalibangan in northern Rajasthan, on the bank of the Ghaggar) or that “the Ghaggar was not the mighty Saraswati during mature Harappan period because sand dunes on either side of the Ghaggar had been formed before that”. This is contrary to the view adopted by most archaeologists that the Ghaggar and its tributaries flowed during Harappan times, watering the hundreds of sites that have been found in this region. (Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Ghaggar was additionally identified with the Sarasvati river of the Rig-Veda.)
In reality, the issues are not so simple. First there is nothing really new in the claim that we don’t have a “mighty Sarasvati” during the Mature phase. In my recent book Lost River: On the Trail of the Sarasvati, I listed various evidences showing that the Ghaggar was dwindling during the Mature phase. In summary:

  1. The Pakistani archaeologist M Rafique Mughal’s observation of a break in the settlement pattern between the Early and Mature phases (around 2600 BCE) just west of the international border for some 100 kilometres. His conclusion was that the Ghaggar had stopped flowing into Cholistan before the Mature phase; this means it was much weakened by that time.
  2. In the same region, the German scientists M.A. Geyh and D. Ploethner detected a huge and shallow body of fresh groundwater. A tritium-based isotope study pointed to “a range of the actual water age from 12900 to 4700 years BP”, i.e. till about 2700 BCE, which matches Mughal’s conclusion.
  3. A 2008 U.S.-Pakistan study directed by Peter Clift tested the Ghaggar-Hakra’s floodplain in Pakistan’s Punjab and concluded, “Provisional age data now show that between 2000 and 3000 BCE, flow along a presently driedup course known as the Ghaggur-Hakkra River ceased, probably driven by the weakening monsoon and possibly also because of headwater capture into the adjacent Yamuna and Sutlej Rivers.” This is again consistent with the above.

What is new and challenging in the recent geological studies is a suggestion that the Ghaggar went dry many millennia earlier. Actually that statement is found in A. Lawler’s article in Science, not in S. Gupta et al.’s abstract — and we don’t have the full papers as far as I know. Maemoku et al.’s conclusion that “the Ghaggar was not the mighty Saraswati during mature Harappan period because sand dunes on either side of the Ghaggar had been formed before that” can be readily dismissed because the age of the sand dunes is irrelevant to the question of water flow at various later dates.
Apart from the above views of Mughal, Geyh and Ploethner, and Clift, there are several major objections to a completely dry Ghaggar during Mature times. For instance:

  1. There were undoubtedly numerous streams flowing down from the Shivaliks, and most recent climatic studies agree that the climate was wetter during the Mature phase, though on the way to aridity: all these streams (Sarsuti, Markanda, Dangri, Ghaggar, Patialewali, Wah and the three Naiwals being the chief ones) carried more water than they do at present. Moreover, nowadays, whatever water flows seasonally in those streams is largely diverted to irrigation through canals; in Harappan times, the diversion would have been much less. As a result, all this surplus water must have accumulated somewhere — where, if not in the Ghaggar? In fact, during last year’s abundant summer monsoon, the Ghaggar was full to the brim well into India’s Punjab, and we have records to show that it flowed all the way to Anupgarh decades earlier. Because of higher precipitation and lesser diversion, its flow in Harappan times could have been larger as well as for longer periods of the year.
  2. Why are sites such as Banawali or Kalibangan built on the edge of well-defined paleochannels if those channels had no flowing water?
  3. In particular, there are two crucial messages from Kalibangan’s urban layout: 1) the absence of large reservoirs (such as those at Dholavira) and a relatively small number of wells, both of which together point to a perennial source of water nearby; 2) the recessed entrance to the upper town precisely facing the Ghaggar below. The architectural message is unmistakable: the Kalibangan citizens had access to a flowing Ghaggar, both for water supply and for communication.
  4. An earlier study by JK Tripathi et al.concluded that “The Palaeo-Ghaggar must have been a mighty river”. Though I regard that study as substandard (I explained why in my book), I mention is to show that experts can and do disagree.
  5. Another case of disagreement can be found among the recently mentioned abstracts, see p. 23 of the pdf file: P. Clift et al., “Evolving Holocene Drainage Geometries and Environmental Conditions in the Indus River Basin”. I quote from the abstract:
  6. “This trend became more intense after 4.5 ka [i.e. 2500 BCE ] when the last evidence for an active river was found in the region close to the archeological sites. … We suggest that in the Early-Mid Holocene the area of heaviest Harappan Settlement was one of significant fluvial confluence. The Sutlej and an independent Beas River flowed much closer to the Thar Desert than they do now. Moreover, we propose that the Yamuna, which now flows east into the Ganges, must have contributed to the sediment flux in the recent geological past, although the precise age of capture is, so far, not yet well determined. The end of the Mature Harappan Phase of settlement around 1900 BCE appears to shortly postdate the end of major river flow in the region, as the Sutlej migrated north, capturing the Beas. This change in the course of the Sutlej, together with the probable loss of the Yamuna resulted in the much smaller Ghaggar-Hakra being unable by itself to maintain significant flow into the desert, especially in the context of a weakening summer monsoon. The effect of this reorganization may have been as catastrophic to agriculture as the proposed abrupt weakening of the summer monsoon rains.”

    This scenario is the same as that proposed by numerous experts earlier. It implies a flowing Ghaggar, partly fed by waters from the Sutlej and the Yamuna. Why hasn’t Lawler mentioned this alternative view in his Science article? And why do Sanjeev Gupta et al. fail to notice recent contributions from the Sutlej into the Ghaggar system, which are well attested by an Islamic chronicle of the 15th century and by the 1908 Imperial Gazetteer (which mentions the Sutlej finally leaving the Ghaggar in 1796)? I think the answer lies in the treacherous nature of the sediments in the Ghaggar region, which are notoriously difficult to interpret (even earlier, there were major disagreements among experts, e.g. Raikes and Courty).

These new geological efforts are welcome but I think we need to give them a few years to expand their scope and stabilize their findings. We also need to hear detailed discussions from geologists who have worked on the Sarasvati problem for a long time, such as KS Valdiya, VMK Puri, BC Verma etc.
Finally, nothing less than a multidisciplinary approach will provide a convincing answer to the question of water sources for the hundreds of Harappan sites in Haryana, Indian Punjab and northern Rajasthan: not just geology, but climatology, isotope studies of palaeo-waters, and of course archaeology (especially more refined studies of the evolution of settlement patterns). We are still far from such a multidisciplinary convergence.

The Lost River: Harappans and Vedic People

Michel Danino’s The Lost River (Penguin, March 2010) has been reviewed by V. Rajamani in the well-known scientific journal Current Science (25 December 2010, vol. 99, no. 12, pp. 1842–43)

Part three of the book deals with the important question ‘If Ganges civilization was built upon Harappan legacy, and if so, how much of a legacy?’ By comparing the similarities in architecture, town planning, weights and scales, technology and crafts, the Brahmi script and the religious symbols of Harappan and Gangetic civilizations, the author concluded that: (i) Indianness started with Harappans, (ii) Harappans were Rig Vedic people and (iii) the present Ganges civilization is a new avatar of the Indus– Sarasvati civilization. The discussion to counter the various arguments of several earlier workers to negate the existence of the Sarasvati River in the geographic domain of present-day Ghaggar and its mightiness makes interesting reading for those who believe in the complexities of nature.[Current Science, Dec, 2010]

According to Danino’s book, the Rig Vedic people lived during the Harappan period, but that does not mean that all Harappans were Vedic people. This is what I wrote in my review in the Aug 2010 issue of Pragati.

In the absence of any new Aryan material culture and with genetic studies discrediting an Aryan invasion/migration, Mr Danino argues that there can only be one conclusion: Vedic culture was present in the region in the third millennium BCE. Many Indian archaeologists also argue that Vedic people lived along the banks of Sarasvati while it flowed from the mountain to the sea during the Mature Harappan period. Mr Danino, however, refrains from concluding that the Harappans were Vedic people because such a conclusion can only be made after the Indus script has been deciphered.[The mysterious Sarasvati]

In Pragati: Book Review – The Lost River by Michel Danino

The Lost RiverIn 2003, the Union Minister for Tourism and Culture, Jagmohan sanctioned Rs. 8 crore to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to search for the river Sarasvati. Though it was an inter-disciplinary archaeological program involving the Indian Institute of Technology and the Birbal Sahni Institution, designed to settle different schools of thought regarding the existence of the river, the venture was seen as “an attempt by RSS inspired historians to liken the Harappan civilisation with the Vedic era.” The project was shelved by the UPA Government.
In February 2009, the “International Conference on the Sindhu-Sarasvati Valley Civilization: A Reappraisal” was held in Los Angeles, CA, “to discuss, reconsider and reconstruct a shared identity of the Sindhu (Indus) and Sarasvati cultures, using archaeological and other scientific evidence as well as Vedic literature.” The title of the conference, specifically the use of the word Sarasvati, caused consternation among few Western scholars prompting Prof Ashok Aklujkar, Professor Emeritus at University of British Columbia to write a scathing rebuttal.
To understand why Sarasvati is a controversial topic in the 21st century we need to look at evidence from a number of sources: from tradition, archaeology, literature, geology, and climatology. We need to understand the path of Sarasvati, its life span, and traditions that arose within its banks that survive to this day. Finally, we also need to look at how Sarasvati challenges the Aryan invasion/migration theory.
In this 368 page book, Michel Danino narrates Sarasvati’s tale, assembling it from the reports of Western explorers, Indian scholars, Archaeological Survey publications, and Vedic texts. Danino who was born in France and has been living in India since the age of 21, has published papers like The Horse and the Aryan Debate (2006), Genetics and the Aryan Debate (2005), A Dravido-Harappan Connection? The Issue of Methodology (2007) and also the book The Invasion that Never Was (2000) on the Aryan Invasion Theory.
Continue reading “In Pragati: Book Review – The Lost River by Michel Danino”

Dr. Allchin and Sarasvati Research

In the 31st Indian History Carnival, we featured a post by Nicole Bovin on Dr. Raymond Allchin, the South Asian archaeologist who passed away on June 4th. The European Association for South Asian Archaeology and Art too had a brief note about his work.

Raymond Allchin was born in Harrow in 1923 and educated at Westminster, but his lifetime commitment to South Asia came when he was posted there during the War in 1944. Quickly switching interests from architecture to archaeology, Raymond was appointed a Lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1954 before moving to Cambridge in 1959. Following a career of fieldwork and research across India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, he retired from Cambridge University with the title of Emeritus Reader in South Asian Archaeology in 1989. Now freed from University burdens, Raymond committed the next twenty years to developing the research profile of The Ancient India and Iran Trust.[In memoriam Raymond Allchin]

Dr. Allchin was an expert on the Indus Valley civilization. “Cultural convergence” — that is the name he proposed for the process by which various regional cultures like Amri-Nal, Kot-Diji, and Sothi-Siswal converged for the Mature Harappan phase. Dr. Allchin also connected Harappan motifs with Vedic themes. For example, looking at a seal from Chanhu-daro he connected it with the Vedic theme of union of heaven and earth. When Dholavira was discovered in J.P.Joshi in 1966 he thought it was one of the most exciting discoveries of the past half a century. On the fire altars found at Kalibangan, he noted that fire rituals formed a part of the religious life at a civic, domestic and popular level.
One of the questions that still remain unanswered about the Indus civilization is this: How was it administered.? We don’t know who controlled the urban centers or how such a vast territory — bigger than ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt — was controlled. Even though he acknowledged that there was no trace of royalty like in other ancient societies, Raymond Allchin thought that there was a forgotten Indian leader who unified the Indus heartland and controlled trade with Mesopotamia.
He had accepted the Ghaggar-Hakra as Sarasvati. This was not unusual for Sarasvati was not such a controversial topic then. Ever since the French scholar Vivien de Saint-Martin identified the Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda and other small tributaries as part of the Rig Vedic Sarasvati, scholars like Max Müller, Sir Monier Monier-Williams, A. A. Macdonnel, A.B. Keith, Louis Renou, Thomas Burrow A. L. Basham along with Indian scholars like M. L. Bhargawa, B.C.Law, H.C. Raychaudhuri, A.D. Pusalker and D.C. Sirkar had all agreed on this point.
In the entry he wrote for Encyclopaedia Britannica he mentioned that hundreds of Indus sites were found on the banks of the ancient Sarasvati river which flowed east of the Indus. He also wrote how moved he was standing on a mound in Kalibangan looking at the flood plain of Sarasvati. Dr. Allchin also believed that there was a reduction of sites between 2000 – 1700 BCE after a major part of the river’s water supply was lost.
But doesn’t this mean that the Vedic people, who composed the Rig Veda, while Sarasvati was a majestic river co-existed with the Harappans? Dr. Allchin was not ready to make that leap. In the same book where he mentioned that Sarasvati lost a major part of the water supply between 2000 – 1700 BCE, he contradicted himself and wrote that Sarasvati was a major river between 1500 and 1000 BCE. By this trick, Sarasvati remains a mighty river when the Aryans came in 1500 BCE.
This is not surprising too. Only few scholars like B.B.Lal, S.P. Gupta, V.N. Mishra and Dilip Chakrabarti have argued that the Vedic people lived along the banks of Sarasvati while it flowed from the mountain to the sea during the Mature Harappan period.

  1. Michel Danino, Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin Books India, 2010)