Thursday 25 September 2008

Interview Ravindra Bisht: Rigveda & Harappans

(This interview appeared in the Ghadar Jari Hai, Vol II, No 3, July-September 2008. See

Peepul Ke NeecheReconstructing the PastA conversation with Ravindra Singh Bisht
Strangely, one rarely meets a historian and a field archaeologist who is also well versed in Sanskrit. Ravindra Singh Bisht is one of them. We met him at the Red Fort, in the Institute of Archaeology, run by the Archaeological Survey of India. He grew up in the hills of Kumaon and studied ancient Indian history at Nainital and Lucknow and trained as an archaeologist in the very same institute at the Red Fort. He then joined the Department of Archaeology and Museums of the Punjab government. Quite early in his career (1968-71) he was involved in excavations at Sanghol that led to the discovery of a site that extended from the late mature Harappan period to the modern. In 1971 he joined the new state of Haryana where he was involved with the important excavations at Banawali. Later he joined the Archaeological
Survey of India and led the team that excavated at Dholavira, Kutch. He has written a large number of research papers on his findings. He is also one of the prominent archaeologists who dismiss the theory of the Aryan invasion of India and in fact sees Rigvedic Aryans as belonging to the late-mature Harappan period. From his school days Bisht was fascinated by Sanskrit, though no one in his family had any knowledge of it. Today any conversation with him is sprinkled with generous quotations from the vast Sanskrit literature. Shivanand spoke to him about the mystery of Harappan culture, a sophisticated civilisation with no known literature on the one hand, and that of the vast Vedic literature with no archaeological evidence to locate its chronology and evolution.

Dr Bisht, welcome to Peepul ke
Neeche. We are conversing in
the midst of this awe-inspiring
structure of the Red Fort and
I hope we will discuss many
mysteries of ancient Indian history.

Thank you. I am pleased to participate
in this discussion. As for
Red Fort, I am an alumnus of this
very School of Archaeology where I
learnt the elements of my trade in
the sixties.

Tell us briefly about Harappan

The history of this region starts
from excavations in Mehrgarh,
Baluchistan which have given us
a continuous chronology of events
of the last 9500 years. The Harappan
sites which today number more
than a thousand lie in a large area:
starting from the Makran coast of
Baluchistan, in the West, Haryana
in the East, Manda (Akhnoor)
in J&K to the North to Lothal in
Gujarat in the South. This area
encompasses Sindh, both Punjabs,
North Rajasthan, Haryana, Kutch,
Saurashtra. Thus it extends into
upper Ganga-Yamuna doab, the
Tapti valley and the upper Godavari
valley as well. The Harappans
crossed the Hindu Kush and established
trading posts at Shor Taghai
in north Afghanistan as well. This
is a vast area, which covers more
than twice the size of the ancient
civilisations of Egypt or Mesopotamia.
Based on its level of development,
this culture can be classified
as Early Harappan (3200-2500
BCE), Mature Harappan (2500-
1900 BCE) and late Harappan
(1900-1500 BCE). Mature Harappan
is the most advanced and one
can see town planning, elegant architecture
and seals. We also see
a number of Harappan items in
Central Asia, Mesopotamia, Iran,
Oman, the Gulf and Afghanistan,
indicating that mature Harappan
culture had extensive contacts
and trade with surrounding areas.
Clearly they had overland and maritime
trade. In the late Harappan
culture you see the absence of cities
and more village like settlements,
indicating a retrogression.

The great mystery in Indian
history is the existence on the
one hand of Harappan civilisation
with no philosophy and decipherable
literature, leaving
aside seals with a few characters,
which are yet to be read,
and on the other hand this vast
Vedic literature which does not
seem to have any archaeology
associated with it, if you accept
the dating (1200 BCE) of the Rig
Veda, arrived at by scholars
like Max Muller and some historians.
What is your view?

Max Muller was not an archaeologist
and gave an ad hoc dating of
1200 BCE-600 BCE for Vedic literature
based on some linguistic considerations.
However that seemed
to have stuck as a dogma even
though he himself tried to disown it!
My own estimation is that Rig Veda
belongs to mature Harappan period
2500-1900 BCE. The geography described
in Rig Veda does belong to
the Saraswati-Indus valley. There
are strong reasons to believe that the
lost Saraswati is the Ghaggar-Hakra
system, which presently flows from
Himachal into Rajasthan and then
disappears in the sands of Cholistan
in Pakistan without joining the Arabian
Sea. Satellite imagery has confirmed
that this river system used
to merge with the Arabian Sea. Tectonic
movements resulting in earthquakes
and the onset of a long phase
of aridity sometime after 2000 BCE
in addition to some anthropogenic
factors might have led to change in
hydrography and finally the river
getting lost in Rajasthan. This could
have happened sometime after 2000
BCE. Many Harappan sites of the
later periods have been found in the
dried up Saraswati valley. To call Rig
Vedic Aryans as pastoral herdsmen
is a total misinterpretation. In fact
there are many verses in Rig Veda
describing agriculture and trade including
maritime trade. There are
detailed descriptions of three masted
sailing ships; there are descriptions
of fortified cities with three
different parts which can be called
the citadel, middle town and lower
town, (also found in Dholavira).
There are hints of city life with its
virtues and vices in the text. There
are many linguistic and conceptual
connections between Rig Veda and
Ahura Mazda of Zarathushtra of
Persia, the former however having
chronological priority.

Harappan civilisation, with its
uniformity in weights and common
architectural and town
planning features, indicates the
existence of an ancient empire
of some sorts. Whereas Rig Veda
still talks of sabhas and samitis
and an elected Raja. How do
you reconcile the two?

It appears to me that Harappa
would have been a socio-economic
empire at best held together by a
strong social ethos, economic order
and community pride. Even if we
think of a political entity, we know
that in Indian history no empire
could survive for more than 150-
200 years. Thus even if it came under
one ruler, it would have been
for a very short period of time. In
fact all empires in India have not
lasted more than that. Look at the
Mauryas, Guptas, Mughals etc.
That is, centrifugal tendancies
take over after some time. But we
still see so many features of culture
and arts and economy which
are geographically widespread in
India. So it is not necessary to be
in a single political empire for certain
common features to exist. As
for the Rig Vedic political system,
the sabha was perhaps a house of
elders, whereas the samiti had artisans,
farmers and the elite, that is
different classes and professions, in
it. Thus stratification had already
come into being. It would be romantic
to call it republican and democratic.
At best it was an oligarchy
assisted by a set of diverse group of
professionals in a samiti. However,
Rig Veda remembers a lot of things
from the past and retains some of
the forms whereas the actual state
of affairs had moved on.
There is no single mode of disposal
of the dead in Rig Veda and
that corresponds to what we see
in Harappan culture as well. The
weights system of dividing everything
into sixteen parts is common
to both. But after that the decimals
take over so we have dasha (ten),
shata (hundred), sahasra (thousand),
ayuta (lakh), niyuta (crore)
and so on taking over.
In the Rig Veda we find various
types of settlements as well as individual
structures, both hinting at
the existence of a kind of a plurality
of types of settlements as well
as a hierarchical order as we expect
in an urban system to exist. In architecture
there is mention of constructions
having six pillars, hundred
or thousand pillars, similarly
hundred doors and thousand doors
etc. So is the fort with seven gates,
three divisions and three defences.

One of the problems discussed
in the literature is the “Horse” not
being Indian and an import from
the steppes, whereas Vedic literature
mentions the horse.

Significantly there are references
in Rig Veda to the fact that Indra
fought successful wars even without
the horse, anashvan or anarvan, and
broke many forts asunder. Is it not
pointing to a stage when there were
no horses in the early Rig Vedic life?
Moreover, the Harappans like the
Mesopotamians of the third millennium
BCE, had harnessed onagers
(wild asses) into chariots. Rig Veda
was composed after the horse came
to India. Moreover there were different
types of wild asses in India.
Rhinos and elephants, were there
and they have also been described
in Vedic literature and picturised
in seals. Similarly there are questions
raised about rath-chariot. But
we have found terracotta toy wheels
bearing spokes painted in black or
white pigment or by way of embossing.
Thus both Harappans and early
Aryans had spoked wheels.

The Saraswati seems to have
flowed strongly, roughly from 8000
BCE to 3000 BCE, when a large
part of Asia was experiencing a very
strong monsoonal regime. Around
3000 BCE, the monsoon stabilised to
the phenomenon we see at present
and therefore the Saraswati was
still flowing. It was only after 2000
BCE that it might have come under
progressive desiccation-a phenomenon
noticed by the people of the later
Vedic period. It was an important
river and hence revered in Rig Veda.
Hence in Yajurveda and Atharvaveda
and the later compositions, Saraswati
had already been deified as a
goddess, while its riverine aspect is
only rarely indicated.

What led to the downfall and
disappearance of Harappans?
Was it an Aryan invasion as
mentioned in history texts?

Aridity seems to have led to retrogression
and later migration of
Harappans. There is no evidence
of any invasion. In fact, the Aryan
invasion theory is pretty untenable
today. There are basically two periods
which are significant archeologically:
the Neolithic culture of Mehrgarh
that is 8th millennium BCE,
and the chalcolithic (copper age)
period in the fifth millennium BCE,
when a new socio-economic order
emerged in the North-Western part
of the subcontinent. Continuity in
change may be seen all throughout
the Harappan and post-Harappan
periods. Only a few people trickled
in from Central Asia in the second
millennium BCE. They remained
localised in the Gandhara region or
the Kachi plain and some valleys
in Baluchistan. They then disappeared
without bringing about any
social, economic, religious or cultural
change in India.

It is possible that some people
migrated in small numbers over a
long period, but then by and large
they remained marginal all through.
Cultures of Gandhar and Pirak
which represent alien influences
are therefore from a later period but
they were highly localised and did
not influence any course of Indian
history. There are many commonalities
in the area of Central Asia,
Iran and India before the Iron Age.
Why not look for Aryans during the
Copper-Bronze Age!

Dr Bisht, you have given us a
fascinating view of ancient India
and that too one contrary
to what most of us learnt in
schools. It has been a pleasure
talking to you.

It is my pleasure. One could
talk endlessly about reconstructing
ancient India. Unfortunately the
atmosphere in India has been vitiated
by charges that anyone who
disputes the Aryan invasion theory
is a communalist, right reactionary
or a chauvinist. And similarly the
charges from the other side that all
those who stick to theories of Max
Muller, of an imported Vedic culture
through invading Aryans, are
Eurocentrics and ‘Macaulay’s children’.
This precludes any dispassionate
discussion. I do not think
that there would be dispassionate
reconsideration at least in my life
time! 

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