Reconstructing the Past – A 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.

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 civilisation.

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 in 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 tendencies 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 16 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 archaeologically: the Neolithic culture of Mehrgarh that is eighth 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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