Thursday, September 25, 2008

Interview Ravindra Bisht: Rigveda & Harappans

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

Peepul ke neeche:

Reconstructing the past

A conversation with Ravindra Bisht.

Strangely, one rarely meets a historian and a field archaeologist, who is also well versed in Sanskrit. Ravindra 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 Punjab government. Quite early in his career (1968-71) he was involved in excavating at Sanghol that led to the discovery of a site which extended from the late mature Harappan period to the modern. When the new state of Haryana was created, he was transferred to the new state and he was involved with the important excavations at Banawali, Haryana. Later he joined the Archeological 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 theory of Aryan invasion of India and infact see Rigvedic Aryans as belonging to late-mature Harappan period. Since his school days Bisht was fascinated by Sanskrit, though none 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 one the one hand and that of the vast Vedic literature with no archaeological evidence to locate its chronology and evolution.

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

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

Tell us briefly about Harappan civilisation.

The history of this region starts from excavations in Mehargarh, Baluchistan which have given us a continuous chronology of the last 8000 years. The Harappan sites which today number more than a thousand  extend from Baluchistan, Afghanistan to Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan and Rajasthan, Kutch, Saurashtra, Punjab, Haryana and Eastern UP in India. This is a vast area which covers more than twice the size of ancient civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia and Babylon. Based on the level of development this culture can be classified as Early Harappan (3500-2700 BC), Mature Harappan (2700-1900 BC) and late Harappan (1900-1500 BC). Mature Harappan is the most advanced and one can see town planning, elegant architecture, seals. We also see a lot of pottery and this pottery can also be found in Central Asia, Mesopotamia, Iran, Oman, 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 like villages indicating a retrogression.

The great mystery in Indian history is on the one hand Harappan civilisation with no philosophy and literature, leaving aside seals with a few characters, which are yet to be deciphered 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 BC) arrived at by translators like Max MĒ–ller and some historians. What is your view?

Max Muller was not a historian and gave an ad hoc dating of 1200 BC for Rig Veda, 1000 BC for Brahmanas, 800-600 BC for Upanishads etc 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 late mature Harappan period 2500-2700 BC. 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 flows from Himachal into Rajasthan and then disappears 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 might have led to change in course and finally the river getting lost in Rajasthan. Tectonic movements also seem to have shifted the Yamuna further to the east. This could have happened around 2000 BC. Many Harappan sites have been found of later periods in the dried up Saraswati valley. To call rig Vedic Aryans as pastoral cowherds 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 sail ships, there are descriptions of fortified cities with three different parts the citadel, Middletown and lower town, (also found in Dholavira). There are hints of city life with its virtues and vices in rig Veda. The latter have been found in Harappan sites. There are many linguistic and conceptual connections between rig Veda and Ahura Mazda of Zarathushtra of Persia.

Harappan civilisation with its uniformity in weights and common architectural and town planning features indicates an empire of some sorts. Where are as rig Veda still talks of sabhas and samity and an elected Raja. How do you reconcile the two?

Harappa would have been an empire for a very short period of time. May be 150-200 years. In fact all empires in India have not lasted more than that. Look at 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 wide spread in India. So it is not necessary to be in a single political empire for certain common features to exist. As for rig Vedic political system, sabha was a house of elders where as samity was house of commons which 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. In fact there is not a single instance of a Raja removed by the sabha or samity. Thus rig Veda remembers a lot of things from the past and retains some of the forms where as the actual state of affairs had moved on.

There is no single mode of disposal of bodies 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 ten, hundres, thousand, lakh, crore and so on taking over. The architecture described in rig Veda is that of six pillars and then 100 and thousand pillars similarly 100 doors and thousand doors etc. So is the fort with seven gates.

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

Rig Veda was composed after the horse came to India more over there were different types of wild asses in India. Rhino elephant were there and they have also been described in vedic literature and picturised in seals. Similalry ther are questions raised on rath-chariot. But we have found terra cotta figures with spoked wheel in Banawali, Haryana.

Saraswati seems to have flown roughly from 3000 BC to 800 BC. It was an important river and hence revered in rig Veda. Aridity set in the area with probably tectonic shifts around 2000 BC and finally it vanished. In fact in Yajurveda and Atharvaveda, Saraswati is not mentioned as a river. She has already been deified as a goddess.

What led to the down fall and disappearance of Harappans? Was it 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 Aryan invasion theory is pretty much discredited today. There are basically two periods which are significant archeologically: the Neolithic culture of Mehrgarh that is 8th millennium BC and the chalcolithic (copper age) period in the fifth millennium BC. If some people migrated in small numbers during this period it is a possibility but that is pre-Harappan.

Cutlures of Gandhar and Pira which represent alien influences are from a later period but they were highly localised and did not influence any one. There are many commonalities in the area of central Asia, Iran and India before the Iron Age. Soma is common so are most gods except Indra.

Dr Bisht, you have given us a fascinating view of ancient India and that too one contrarian 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. And similarly the charges from the other side that all those who stick to theories of Max Muller and William Jones of an imported Vedic culture through invading Aryans are Eurocentrics and ‘Macaulay’s children’. This precludes any dispassionate discussion.