A critical approach to theories on ancient India
History writing in India has become a sensitive initiative, carrying ideological leanings and authors’ personal views rather than integrating new findings into an ever-growing perspective. In fact, available archaeological evidence places Indian civilization as a manifestation different from how it is familiar in the rest of the world. Indian history so far available is squeezed into a western-centric framework through artificial and alien terminology: barbarism, feudalism, Aryanisation and class war.
It is in this background that Rabindranath Tagore affirmed that the present brand of Indian history is a nightmarish account of India. On reading it and looking at the archaeological material, one feels that historians are rather commanded by the comforts of conforming. The book under review analytically brings out recent trends in historical research and puts forth perspectives through a collection of seven articles by the author and eight reviews of books published on related subjects.
It begins with an introduction that there is no sense of national pride in the intellectual horizon of the Indian historians, who blindly follow the colonial version of Indian history. They projected Ancient India as virtual utopia, starting with the Vedic Age where the people were cattle-herders looking for good pastures, without familiarity with agriculture and grains like rice. Besides Vedic references on ploughmen and agriculture, many archaeological sites including Jhusi near Allahabad have yielded proof of rice cultivation in the region during the Neolithic phase, possibly as far as back as 9000 BCE., much earlier than the dates fixed by these historians for the Vedic period.
In the next phase, the author projects Indus Valley civilisation as the origin of many cultures of India. Archaeological sites have yielded many artefacts that evidence a cultural continuity with later Indian civilization. The discovery of ornaments, gaming materials, use of conch for libations as well as trumpeting, the ritual use of water for purification, important mode of worship such as the mother goddess and linga indicate the long connection between these cultures. In all respects the author tries to show that Indus civilisation is so characteristically Indian and all later cultures owe something to it. In fact, many of them reflect that there was no significant break or hiatus.
On the notion of Aryanisation of India on the basis of introduction of iron, the use of horses, and knowledge of spoked wheels, ample material is provided by him to shatter the theory. The beginning of the use of iron was previously dated to 1000-1200 BCE and attributed to the contribution and eastward migration of the imaginary Aryans. Now, recent archaeological excavations push back the use of iron to 1800 BCE (type site Malharin, U.P.). This fact corroborates the early use of iron in India and attests that India was indeed an independent centre for the development of the working of iron. According to Rakesh Tiwari, the present Director General, ASI, it overlaps the late Harappan stage, bridging the bronze-iron ages.
Among the faunal remains of the Mature Indus civilisation levels of Harappa, Lothal, Surkotada and Kalibangan horse bones have been identified by a number of scholars and attested by the Zoological Survey of India. Equally revealing discovery is the presence of spoked wheels in the mature Indus civilisation levels in Rakhigardi and Banawali (Haryana). The Aryan myth was introduced to demonstrate that the present cultural assemblage of India is not an inherent product of Indian soil, but brought by Indo-Aryans. Such scholars/historians are unaware of the socio-political implication of the premise as it divided the population into two major groups Aryans and Dravidians. On another issue raised by J.M. Kenoyer and Kimbly Heuston over the human occupation of the Yamuna-Ganga river valley by Aryans only during 2000BCE, he points out the earliest level of Alamgirpur as datable to the middle of third millennium BCE and hence rules out settlement by new communities.
Focussing on India’s cultural unity, the author takes up the distribution of Northern Black Polished Pottery (NBP), a distinctive Ganga plain pottery of 800 BCE, as an important chronological marker and calibrates the date of Korkkai and Alankulam in Tamil Nadu around 500 BCE almost contemporary with that in Ganga plain. He corroborates this date with the sherds with Tamil - Brahmi unearthed in Porunthal near Palani and accepts the early date for Tamil-Brahmi. In fact, this can be considered as the turning point in accepting early date for Tamil-Brahmi script.
One clear unity that India possessed throughout history has been geographical and with the help of pottery, he traces various ancient Indian dense routes giving material expression to the inter-connection between different areas and the growth of a shared culture.
Reviewing Dr. Upender Singh’s book Rethinking Early Medieval India — A Reader, he refutes the theory of ancient Indian governance as a feudal set-up on the grounds of increased number of land grant inscriptions to the privileged select few. Numerically such inscriptions constitute only a very small percentage and other archaeological evidence of material remains of life on agriculture, settlements, technology, art and trade of the period bring out a different scenario.
Evaluating the present trend in the functioning of various institutions under the Union Department of Culture, the CAG’s report is analysed critically; and, on the functioning of the ASI, the author laments the non-publication of many archaeological excavation reports and points out that Indian archaeology lacks scientific support for academic interpretations. Nevertheless, the author is silent on the fact that ASI was headed by non-technical bureaucrats for more than a decade.
One central focus throughout the volume is the role of Indian archaeologists hankering after so-called international recognition and accepting their lesser role without demur and unfailing in their praise of the work done by their Euro-American colleagues. Their devotion to the western world’s recognition paves the way for an unholy conglomeration of various interest groups to exploit Indian archaeological materials for misinterpretations. On the same grounds the Pattinam excavation in Kerala was hijacked by the western world while Indian archaeologists were mere spectators. He concludes that the Government of India should resort to remedial measures.
Besides its critical approach, the volume provides updated archaeological material on climate in Indus valley, on the trail of Sarasvati, the lost river, urbanisation in the Ancient Indus Valley, decline of Buddhism in India, the status of State religion in Ancient India, all of which would be useful for research scholars in Archaeology and History. In fine it is a welcome addition.