Why this blog?
The degree of a civilisation can be measured in terms of the collective curiosity of its members, without which there would not be worthwhile ventures or cultural progress befitting the human race. Curiosity about ones roots is universal. People are eager to find more about their ancestors: answers to what they did, where they came from, why did they migrate, what was their creed, how had they met each other, where were they buried or cremated, and a whole lot of related questions. Thanks to church records of birth, weddings and deaths, such curiosity can be assuaged with relative ease in the West. It is very difficult, if not well nigh impossible, in India. By the usual means at our disposal, the past of an individual can be unearthed for two or three generations at best—good enough for matrimonial purpose in an average Hindu household these days. As you try to break the time and intention barriers, the information becomes less reliable and too scanty for all practical purposes, for history is not really about individuals. It is a glimpse into specific societies and cultures over a period.
One can go far back in time for a collective entity. When there is need to go back even further, one must use very many leads, clues and special tools to unearth information and interpret them in context to get the history of a people. One has to dig under successive layers of habitation, establish time-related benchmarks like organic remains and potsherds at each layer that can be assigned reliable dates, read ancient scripts—often of long-dead languages, study the climates of the past and the changing course of rivers, screen records left by other (often inimical) cultures. Looking for history beyond the confines of direct written records–that is what archaeology does. This blog is specifically for Indians who are curious in the caste-surname-religion-mythology matrix without knowing how futile it is.
History, Culture, Civilisation and Language
The syllabus of history is usually ill-designed, ill-taught and ill-understood at school level. Adults who feel the urge to learn a little more about the roots of their families, were schoolchildren once and hated to mug details of several battles of Panipat and Sher Shah Suri’s administrative reforms. The intention of this blog post is to outline the epochal civilisations that had shaped the cultures in the subcontinent and to remove some of the ubiquitous wool that keeps our historical perspective off-focus most of the time. That means beginning with the basics.
History, by definition, begins with written records, either its own or that of an outside culture. Any event before written evidence is prehistory. Parts of the early Indian history was derived from Akkadian (trade records of Sargon’s reign about 4,300 years ago) and Greek (Herodotus’ Indica, 484 to 425 BC; Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, mid first century BC) sources. History is also written anew sometimes on incontrovertible archaeological evidence despite what written records say. Prehistory must rely on archaeology. This write-up uses a mixture of both with a reasonable pinch of salt. Archaeology is not necessarily dug up evidence alone. Precise dating, reconstruction of migratory patterns and wars, botanical data, deciphering strange scripts, tracing the change of course of rivers and just about any interpretation of past evidence constitute this science. History is the verified version of the past.
It should be stated at the outset that culture is a subset of civilisation. Culture, as shown here, is very old, at least as old as the anthropoid apes — tailless monkeys who can stand erect (such as chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans or their extinct cousins) to laymen — who lived in groups. They had unanimous leaders for each group, concept of division of labour, defined lines of command and loyalty to the group and its leader. They also used simple tools — sticks and projectiles — to reduce manual labour or do the otherwise undoable. The only thing that separated them from the Homo sapiens was the opposability of the thumb: its ability to touch all other fingers. This apparently slight physiological difference gave the latter the ability to manipulate and manufacture tools of greater effectiveness; that led to development of the brain size and capability. The facility of abstract thinking was a natural consequence of that. Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, also Homo sapiens both, had coexisted with modern man for a while, but ultimately lost out to, or were absorbed within, the Homo sapiens sapiens — us.
Domestication of several fauna and flora and endeavour to surpass and control nature were human traits from the beginning. Thus wolves became tame dogs at some time during the last ice-age, ass-like quadrupeds of Central Asian steppes became horses, modern cattle were bred from other wild ungulate species, seed producing grasses were developed into edible grains (wheat, barley, rice etc). Systematic agriculture led to understanding of seasons and the needs to irrigate (hence hydraulic engineering) and fertilise (soil chemistry). The cultures who survived as hunter-gatherers or pastoral cultures (scratch-sow-reap-abandon type of semi-nomadic societies) slowly settled in villages. Division of labour was further refined. As the number of mouths to feed grew, so did the size of villages and the acreage under cultivation, both obtained by plundering nature.
Artistic quests began long before civilisation; remember the superb paintings of charging bisons and other prey in the Altamira caves. So, perhaps, did religion — out of fear of the natural forces and phenomena, unexplainable otherwise — and deification of heroes, myths and legends based on kernels of facts and events that were worth telling at the end of the day by the hearth-side to ones grandchildren. Techniques of making stone tools were also part of culture, as were plant and animal domestication. The history of crop domestication is far older than any civilisation. Archaeology has unearthed 11,000 year old domesticated wheat grains at Jericho on the bank of Jordan. Mehrgarh at Bolan shows evidence of domesticated grains at least 9,000 years old. The Yangtse valley of China is credited with taming of rice of comparable vintage. There may be many sites, at least as old, scattered over the globe, awaiting archaeologists’ spades. Grain domestication, it seems, had been invented time and again by different cultures in different parts of the world.
But how and when did civilisations emerge? Where was its cradle?
When a village produced more food and artefacts than it could consume, it started looking for trading opportunities outside its domain for products not within their competence. One rich in pottery could exchange the surplus metal of another. It was this cross-border commerce that created inter-related clusters of villages, the notion of proprietary and territorial rights, lust for power and systems of government. Individual’s muscle power gave way to political power and economic clout. The king became the controller of territories, economic activities and religions. What happened to be isolated cultures finally became a civilisation. Civilisation is thus an aggregate of several cultures stewed in the same cauldron till it emerges with unique identity. It is always difficult to define but most people would recognise a civilisation as distinct from its constituent cultures.
None of them emerged during the lengthy stone-age; it is possible that civilisation needed a certain degree of technological attainment, for we see most of them rearing their head during the chalcolithic period, when stone- and copper-ages coexisted. Three of the four oldest civilisations of the world arose, independent of each other, in different riverine parts of Asia; the Levantine fourth was also riverine. A later section shows them in approximate chronological order.
Civilisation has a lot to do with the language(s) it speaks and far less with the colour of the skin or the religion of its populace. The English had withdrawn from the subcontinent in 1947 but hold considerable cultural sway till date through the spread of their language. The darkest of dark and the yellowest of yellow (and all shades in between) have taken up the language of a geographically insignificant island for innate advantages; such is the power of a strong language that can do without military prowess. It is the lingua franca of international trade, global diplomacy and higher education. Latin had a similar distinction in Europe of yore and Sanskrit in pre-Islamic subcontinent. Arabic on the other hand, the only language of Islam, never enjoyed as much prestige and spread.
Racial, religious and linguistic identities had never been easy to read. On the basis of the early Indo-European (IE) languages, linguists had reconstructed—working backwards—what purportedly was the earliest form of IE, christened proto-Indo-European (PIE). Many early scholars had thought that PIE was spoken by the original Aryan race, blue-eyed fair-haired Nordic people from central Asia. Perhaps it was and they were. It is equally possible that there never was a PIE language outside the reconstruction of modern scholars. The region where it is thought to have come from also housed Mongolians and nomads of other anthropological types. Man migrates at a fair speed across vast terrains, inter-marry and spread their tongues and cultural traits. After several such migrations, it is impossible to say, with any certainty, which was which. Linguists today no longer try to associate language with race. But Hitler—no linguist, nor anthropologist himself—believed in the PIE racial supremacy. DNA results now show that he himself had some Semitic blood.
Early Civilisations of the Old World
The Mesopotamian civilisation began at Ur (Ubaid period, about 5000 BC, and soon expanded to the entire Tigris-Euphrates valley, initially as isolated city states. We know that theirs was a trilingual society: Sumerian (as spoken in Ur), a long-lost agglutinative tongue like several others; Semitic (as spoken in Akkad and Babylon), related to Hebrew and Arabic; and a third, now lost in the mists of antiquity, leaving quite a few fingerprints on contemporary proper nouns extant only in cuneiform tablets. The area was seasonally fertile but lacked indigenous ores and forest cover. Adobe bricks (sun-dried, for lack of tinder) and imported timber were their main building blocks. Copper too had to be imported all the way from Oman or India.
But they were early, earlier apparently than Egypt, in terms of inventing writing: the cuneiform script scratched on clay tablets with sharp styli. The Old Testament tales of creation — Adam and Eve, the great flood and Noah’s ark —had begun in their realm and migrated elsewhere afterwards. They had their own system of counting time, dividing it up into hours, days, weeks (with names) and months (also with names), signs of the Zodiac, astrology and much more. Other civilisations, notably Iran and later the Greeks and Romans—all IE speakers, had improved upon such ancient models.
They were prolific keepers of records and also had a fair body of literature (remember the tales of Gilgamesh). The names of most of their early cities had survived in the Old Testament. Abraham, the founder of monotheistic Judaism, was a son of Ur.
Egypt was the boon of the Nile and grew along its fertile flood-plains. It was theocratic (the king being the chief priest and a godhead himself) from the beginning of its history, pathologically obsessed with death and afterlife, much given to building temples and funerary monuments for important people (and their pets too). They too had to import good timber and most minerals but had their own hoard of stones to build with. They had territorial designs on the land along the Nile, on Nubia, well into present-day Sudanese territory. Their system of writing, almost as early as that in Sumer, was designed around pictography—a principle far different from that followed in Mesopotamia—usually called hieroglyphic. Of the few things that they lacked, the potters’ wheel, till rather late in the day, deserves special mention. Egypt too finds liberal mentions in the bible—too liberal, perhaps—though its literature and lore were not generally borrowed by later cultures.
The seeds of what we now call the Indus civilisation were sown, perhaps, in Mehrgarh, near the Bolan Pass, far away from the Bible’s orbit. The name is believed to be of Brahui origin — patently Dravidian, though far north of its present concentration in the southerly peninsula. [It has recently been argued, a bit too late in the day, that Indus should have been called the Sārasvata civilisation after the greatest contemporary river, the ambitame (the motherliest) nadītame (the riverliest) devitame (the most goddesslike) Sarasvati: Ŗgveda 2.41.16) of the region. Sārasvatī was changing course and drying up even while the late Vedas were being written.] They soon spread over a large part of the subcontinent.
Their contribution to art paled before that of Mesopotamia and Egypt, and their literature, even if it did exist, was never found. But they had scripts (syllabic, like Brāhmī, judging from the total number of symbols and, perhaps, its forerunner) as seen on a large number of seals: trade labels, is the usual guess, but no bilingual inscription has ever been unearthed. They were splendid architects and engineers with a flair for symmetry (fearful, so early in the day, like the tyger — burning bright in Blake’s vision), as seen in their standardised bricks, weights and measures, and town planning. They were one of the first major civilisation to carry their trade overseas, not just across the border, as early as the twenty third century BCE, that is 4,200 years ago (Sargon‘s reign). Its territorial boundary was vast, from south of Bolan Pass in the north to Lothal (Gujarat) in the south, the west-east span lying between the Arabian Sea and Central India. Neither Sumer nor Egypt ever had grown that much.
It is assumed that Indus was a conglomeration of many city states but with a shared culture. It is often also assumed that their vast sphere of influence was monolingual and, tentatively, that it also spoke an agglutinative tongue — perhaps one of the Dravidian family. [One common argument in favour of Dravidian is that modern variants survive in South India and amidst the Brahui tribes of Pakistan, Afghanistan and adjoining Iran, far in the north, where it came reportedly from Central Asia. The language, it is argued, had migrated out of its traditional hub in North India north and south.]
But we cannot be sure of any of these conjectures till their script is decoded, if ever.
The fourth emerged in the fertile Yangtse valley in China, far into the east, where it developed for millennia in relative isolation but had made the most important contributions to the process of civilisation: the decimal system (as in the abacus; the credit given in India to Āryabhata is neither universally accepted, nor accurate), the magnetic compass, gun-powder and explosive devices, paper, printing, promissory notes as currency … the list goes on and on. They had taken art to a sublime level. Their logograms are clumsy but did not stop their users from reaching dizzy heights. The early developments in China are, however, not germane to this discussion for their influence on the subcontinent was far too little then.
The Aryan Migration
Who were they?
It would be prudent to point out at the outset of this section that neither the Sumerians nor the Egyptians were great travellers. The Indus people, in contrast, were decidedly more adventurous, as seen from their far off trade contacts—over land and across the Arabian Sea — but did not show obvious signs of territorial ambition. Perhaps all three arose too early to feel adventurous and were too civilised later to lay claim on distant lands. There are biblical and archaeological evidence of bloody wars and power struggles in Mesopotamia and Egypt (hiatus 1 and 2), always involving upstart groups from outside, unheard of people blazing a bloody trail on horseback. But that was in a later era.
The early IE-speakers of Central Asia, largely Caucasoid, were not particularly civilised. They were divided into many tribes, never having felt the need to get united, despite their tongues being akin. In fact, the region they roamed in would not support large groups. They were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers with rudiments of agriculture, without the plough (from linguistic evidence), irrigation, fertilisers or seed-preparation techniques. They had domesticated and reared horses in their original habitat, the steppes. Some tribes had also developed light and fast chariots, potentially far more effective in warfare than contemporary Egyptian donkey carts, but we do not know — do not have any evidence — whether horse chariots with ultra-light wheels were put to test on battlegrounds during the early waves of migration. The point is that these people were used to moving around a lot, as soon as the soil of one agricultural settlement was exhausted, in search of virgin land and greener pastures, with their cattle, sheep and horses. In the process, they had met other peoples who also inhabited the same general area and had picked up a few of their words and transmitted much more of their language in exchange. Following some long-forgotten natural calamity (or a series of such) IE tribes started moving out of their established habitat between the early fourth and the third millennium BC, and did not stop till well into the first. They moved westward and southward in several waves and, so far as archaeological evidence goes, without any thought of conquest. The south-bound tribes forked out, one reaching the area between Syr Darya and Amu Darya) to what later became Iran, and the other across the Khyber Pass to the subcontinent. It took each prong of the fork several centuries to make its presence felt.
The Indian prong settled in Punjab sometime around 1500 and began writing the Ŗgveda hymns around 1200 BCE. [In the course of their passage to India, the IE language had picked up quite a few Dravidian words (such as ushtra for camel, an animal they had never seen before). Such is the nature of all languages; they borrow liberally foreign words for things and concepts alien to them.] But there is no evidence of conquest or bloodbath, no Indra [also known as Purandara, one who destroyed cities (puras), perhaps a deified hero of some other war] destroying citadels, no warfare between devas or mānavas with dānavas. Archaeology so far has not found any signs. They certainly did not have to wrestle the territory from Indus people. The original occupants had already abandoned most of their northerly city-states by the middle second millennium BCE; we do not know why. Some Ŗgvedic hymns talk of already abandoned ruins populated by ghosts, and dry river beds which the ruins overlooked. It is speculated, with increasing confidence, that the calamity which drove the Indus lot out was an El Nino driven change of climate that had dried out the rivers or made them alter course. [One hymn in the Ŗgveda mentions an abandoned citadel called Hariyupiya, strongly reminiscent of the syllables of Harappa. It is tempting, on the basis of it, to jump to far-reaching conclusions, but that would not alter the fact that Aryans came long after the Indus city-dwellers had left. The Ŗgveda called the stragglers Dasa or Dasyu, not in the present day meanings of the words but derogatory nevertheless; they were described as dark of skin (asikni) and flat of nose (anāsa). Were they Indus stragglers or other aboriginal usurpers (Austro-Asiatic?) of the vacated region shall never be known.
Raiders of the Past
There was no Aryan conquest of India or Iran. The hordes were just migrating out of the hostile parts of Central Asian in search of better settlements. Over a long period of time, they reached other parts of Central Asia, Iran and India, West Asia, Asia Minor, the Mediterranean region — Crete, Peloponnesian Greece, and several places of Europe. Did they really raid and conquer? There is hardly any evidence of that in their early waves. Conquest was far from their thoughts. But, unbeknownst and hidden from direct perception, a far-reaching conquest — linguistic — was happening wherever the IE people had set their feet.
Many early languages soon vanished from the scene, leaving few faint traces mostly in place-names. But all the known murder, mayhem and bloodbath in the Old World, credited to these refuge-seekers, did happen but much later and after several removes, among new generations that had come up from the seeds of their loins, and other generations who spoke IE tongues but were not necessarily of IE extraction.
Where did the Indus people go? Neither the Vedas nor the earliest surviving Dravidian literature (Sangam) gives us any clue. No folklore, not even a fairy-tale, has been passed down to us. It is now thought that they had moved further south to peninsular India where they intermingled with the previous inhabitants and flourished once again at a much later date. When they resurfaced, they show signs of linguistic contamination, with certain IE words accepted into its fold. Some isolated groups may have had moved north to adjoining areas in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and survive to date as the Brahui tribe, fairer of skin, showing Caucasoid features, but continuing to speak in a Dravidian dialect to this date.
The Alternative (Indian Urheimat) Theory
A new generation of historians, mostly Indians, have started propagating another theory: that the PIE language had originated on Indian soil in the hoary past, in the fifth millennium BC or earlier. Thence it had migrated to Central Asia (where they tamed the horse) and back again to India, Iran, West Asia, Asia Minor, as stated earlier. What we think of as the first migratory wave out of Central Asia was actually the second, as per their theory. The basis of this theory is elusive so far. Even the Arabs have recently claimed to have unearthed evidence that their desert tribes had domesticated horses first. The Chinese too have joined the same bandwagon. Some people point out the skeletal remains of an ass found in an Indus ruin and claims it to be a diminutive species of horse, akin to a pony perhaps, proof that Indian Aśvinīkumāras had reared the species. Obscure puranic references and linguistic arguments have also been proffered in support of this theory. In its present state, the alternative theory also claims that the highly civilised Indus people were the original PIE speakers, that the unread scripts represent the PIE tongue, and also that the agglutinative Dravidian languages were derived from PIE. Nothing can be said, one way or the other, in the absence of concrete evidence.
We await the messiah who would finally decode the Indus seals.