The Politics of the Harappan Studies
Dilip K Chakrabarti

There are four major political and ideological issues behind the Harappan studies. The first began soon after the discovery of the Harappan civilization in 1924 and related to its supposed language. S K Chatterjee proposed that it was Dravidian and the idea gained so much acceptance among the people of Tamil Nadu and the protagonists of the Dravidian movement that it is currently considered almost a sacrilege by them to dispute this notion. The idea has not yet lost its grip, at least in Tamil Nadu. In a paper titled “Dravidian proof of the Indus script via the Rig Veda : a case study” presented at the Roja Muthiah Research Library, Chennai, I. Mahadevan argues that the Indus language is correctly identified as an early form of Dravidian. As reported in the Hindu of November 15,2014,

After the collapse of the Indus civilisation… a section of the Indus Valley population had migrated to south India and the “the Indus Dravidian influenced the South Dravidian languages”. The earliest traces of such migratory influence are found in the ‘Old Tamil’.
The results also show that “the descendants of the Indus civilisation adopted the Indo-Aryan speech and that there was a long gap of time between the Indus civilisation and the early Vedic culture,” said Mr. Mahadevan. The ‘Vedic Age’ succeeded the Indus civilisation and the Rig Veda “itself is a product of the composite culture”, said the scholar, who began studying the Indus script way back in 1968.

The idea that it spoke a form of the Indo-Aryan developed somewhat later and is now widely accepted among those who believe that this civilization lies at the fountainhead of India’s Sanskritic tradition. Much scholarly endeavour was spent in the early years to argue that the Indus civilization was pre- and non-Vedic. Although this was what John Marshall(1931) argued in the Mohenjodaro report, his colleagues in the Survey including R P Chanda were not happy about it and suggested in fact a Rigvedic strain in it. The issue was not , however, in any way political during that period. A Rigvedic affinity of the Indus civilization was argued by B N Dutta who at one point was a part of the international communist movement. The argument was stronger in P V Kane’s Presidential lecture to the Indian History Congress, which was published in 1953. However, the belief in the pre-and-non-Vedic character of the Indus civilization did not die . It was, in fact, reinforced by Mortimer Wheeler’s interpretation of the archaeological stratigraphy of his Harappa excavations in 1946, on the basis of which he argued that the city fell prey to some invaders whom he identified with the so-called Aryans and their supposedly fort-destroying activities mentioned in the Rigveda. Wheeler’s interpretation found wide acceptance among Independent India’s archaeologists. There were some Indian archaeologists who differed from Wheeler’s opinion, and among them K N Sastri should be mentioned. I cannot comment why Wheeler’s opinion found such a ready acceptance among Indians who were in fact prepared to argue that the sun of civilization for India always rose in the West. This simple fact throws a lot of light on the absence of nationalism which has generally characterised Indian archaeological studies since Independence. Again, it would be wrong to think that the idea of an incoming foreign group destroying the Indus civilization has ceased to be influential even today. In a series of emails Dr Varun Singh, basically a medical scholar, has drawn attention to the implications of an article by Robbins Schug (2012)

“A new study claiming to look at the incidence of traumatic injury in the people of Harappa, claims to have found high incidence of trauma, more than any other city in antiquity (Robbins Schug et al 2012). This high incidenceof trauma was based on a finding of trauma markers in 4% of the skeletal remains studied or in 15.5% of crania. They chose to study remains obtained during field sessions from 1929 to 1948. Those from 1967-68 and 1986-89 field sessions were excluded as were the findings of Dr Nancy Lovell from the analysis. Claiming to examine if Harappa indeed was a ‘peaceful realm’
and a rare example of a state without social differentiation or structural violence, their findings, they felt, suggested otherwise. Violence was considered the most likely cause for the traumatic injuries. In the final summing up, they bemoan the dispelling of the Aryan Invasion myth and claim that the downplaying of violence at Harappa, by experts like Kennedy, might
have been a factor in the rejection of the myth.”
Schug’s paper which Varun Singh cites is : “A peaceful realm ? Trauma and social differentiation at Harappa ?” published in “International Journal of Palaeopathology” 2 (2012): 136-147 with two Indian co-authors, Veena Mushrif-Tripathy of the Deccan College and Anekram Sankhayan of the Anthropological Survey of India. Needless to say, this is basically Schug’s work which Tripathy and Sankhayan may be said to have facilitated.

The second issue relates to its origin. While John Marshall in his Mohenjodaro report was convinced that the civilization was deeply rooted in the Indian soil, there has been a consistent attempt since then to explain its origin in terms of a direct or indirect diffusion from Mesopotamia. In different forms the idea still persists among a section of Indologists and archaeologists. When the Italian Indologist Verardi thinks of the possibility of the existence of a Ziggurat in the stupa mound of Mohenjodaro, he implies this or when the American and other Western archaeologists like G.Possehl think of its origin primarily in terms of Bronze Age interaction with central Asia, they aim primarily to perpetuate this idea. This idea has also different shades of meaning. For instance, when there are attempts to date the Civilization somewhat later than the classic efflorescence of Mesopotamian civilization, it is this attitude which is echoed. Many Indian and foreign books on the history of India seem to accept this premise without demur. Recently however, this has found an interesting expression in Mukhtar Ahmed’s book  Pakistan – an Archaeological History (2014). Dr Ahmed, although not a professional academic, took enough interest in south Asian archaeology to write a long book on it. According to him, even a cursory look at the archaeological data will show that the territory now called Pakistan always fought shy of what is now called India and leaned more towards central Asia in terms of culture and genetics. If I remember correctly, this idea found expression in the writings of A H Dani who originally belonged to Chhattisgarh and was educated in Banaras Hindu University. However, towards the end of his career, Dani was more or less silent on this issue, and to their credit none of our Pakistani colleagues have denied the traditional links between the area of Sindh or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Ganga-Yamuna plain and other inner areas of the sub-continent. The fact, however, remains that the supposed central Asiatic affinity of the Harappan civilization figures in the writings of many Indian archaeologists either directly, as it does in some writings of Shireen Ratnagar whom Mukhtar Ahmed cites approvingly or indirectly in the writings of those Indians or non-Indians who find the evidence of central Asian contacts in the Indian archaeological scene at the drop of a hat, so to speak. Equally interestingly, there has been a long resistance on the part of many sub-continental and other archaeologists to the gradually growing belief among a section of Indian archaeologists that the Harappan sites in the east are not comparatively later than those in the west. In fact, the beginning of the Indus civilization can be as early as its development in the West. The situation has not yet become very clear but already there are distinct signs in this regard.

Also associated with this development is the increasing evidence that the Aravalli belt in Rajasthan was a separate and possibly independent centre of the growth of agriculture and metallurgy in the sub-continent, and the possible contribution of this belt to the Harappan civilizational development cannot in any way be ignored. The developments further east cannot also be ignored. The early rice farming in the central Ganga plain must have led to significant cultural impetus to the Harappan development, as the finding of cultivated rice in several early Harappan contexts of Haryana indicate. The Harappan civilization cannot be the product of a single arrow-line development from the beginning of agriculture in Baluchistan and there are already indications of significant inputs from various areas in the east. An interesting recent development is the evidence of tin-smelting dating back to the early Harappan and mature Harappan period at the site of Khanak in the tin-bearing belt of Tusham in Haryana. The fact that the considerable tin-bearing deposits of Tusam in Haryana could play a major role in the problem of tin in the Harappan civilization was at some point pointed out by the present author . Also on learning from Dr Bikash Pawar of Rohtak that the site of Khanak near Tusam showed signs of ash and early and mature Harappan relics, the present author requested Professor R N Singh of Banaras to excavate this site and assess if it was smelting locally available tin. As Professor Singh informs him, the hypothesis has been vindicated by the occurrence of tin-smelting remains at the site.

The third issue is about its position vis-à-vis the Vedic literature. If one considers it as pre-and-non-Vedic, the assumption is that the growth of Hinduism was an intrusive religious development in India brought in by the incoming Aryans at the end of this Civilization. When both Indians and foreigners express a kind of shock , as historians like Upinder Singh do, at the very mention of Hindu elements in the Harappan religion, they implicitly give credence to this notion. John Kay is a British historian who was sponsored to write a book on the early history of Indian archaeology by the Archaeological Survey of India and National Cultural Fund. Many internet authors cite approvingly his view on Harappan religion :

"The religion of Harappans is unknown. No site has certainly been identified as a temple and most suppositions about sacrificial fires, cult objects and deities rest on doubtful retrospective references from Hindu practices of many centuries later. Such inferences may be as futile as, say, looking to Islamic astronomy for an explanation of the orientation of the pyramids. In short, these theories are all fanciful and do not bear scrutiny. “

The basic conclusion is that Harappan religion was non-Hindu.

The fourth issue is expressed by those who doubt that the Indus Civilization was the fountainhead of the continuing Indian tradition. This they do by harping on the theme that the Harappan civilization denoted an ‘imported element’ among the regional cultures of the period, especially among the regional cultures of Gujarat. The recurrent attempts of the Deccan College Directors like M K Dhavalikar and Vasant Shinde and the M S University of Baroda archaeologists like V H Sonawane and Ajith Prasad to think of the Harappan manifestation as something imported or extraneous to their regional cultural scenes are nothing but attempts on the part of this group of Indians to view the Harappan element away from the mainstream Indian tradition.
Nobody will deny the prevalence of regional elements in the Indus civilization, although I am not quite sure if there is any other feature except pottery which will isolate the regional styles of this civilization. The tradition was set up by G Possehl who first coined the term ‘Sorath Harappan’, a term which has since then repeatedly used by his compatriots from Pune and Vadodara who do not hesitate these days even to use terms such as Anarta Culture to denote the Harappan culture confined to the Mehsana and other related sections of northern Gujarat. I feel the same sense of revulsion when some enthusiasts of the Archaeological Survey and elsewhere declare a separate ‘Bara culture’ in the vast zone of Panjab and Haryana. This scholarly tendency is somewhat like denying the existence of Hinduism as an overarching religion on the ground that it is divided into the groups of Saivite, Vaishnavite, etc. Not merely foreign scholars but also Indian historical luminaries like Romila Thapar have been somewhat tireless in emphasizing this. Judging by the way things are going, there will no doubt be Indian scholars who will argue that there was no overarching civilization called the Indus civilization.

On the whole, the politics of the Harappan studies offers a fairly confusing scene. All that I would say is that the Aryan issue is not the only element of contention in this scenario. Even the so-called Aryan issue is not beyond asking some preliminary questions. Whereas the Vedic literature is a corpus of Indian texts what is there to relate it to anything significant outside the borders of the sub-continent ? Why linguistics should be important in working out hypothetical cultural configurations ? Does linguistics have any independent way of dating any point of linguistic evolution and divergence ? I am aware that some archaeologists believe in ‘linguistic archaeology’, but irrespective of where it is practiced – Pune where a seminar on linguistic archaeology recently took place, or Cambridge where in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, it has been a seminar theme on multiple occasions – is there an iota of material proof in this regard ? Can one imagine what the cultural conflict scenario will be in a country of innumerable languages as in India where every language group will claim a slice of the archaeological past ? I have long held the belief that the Aryan idea is a wholly racist concept and should not be an academic issue at all. The corpus of Vedic texts is a corpus of Indian texts, and considering the geographical spread and chronological span of these texts, it is only natural that this should reflect the state of the Indus civilization in its various phases. Many years ago, the late Swami Sankarananda and one my teachers, S R Das, used to say that there would be no problem if the late Vedic stage could be identified with the mature form of the Indus civilization. I do not know enough of the later Vedas to support or negate this assertion, but there cannot be any doubt, despite the persistence of various old ideas in the Indus scene, that the Indus civilization was in fact the fountainhead of the mainstream Indian tradition which, we are forced to admit, is essentially the Hindu tradition. The detailed proof may still take some years in emerging but what has already emerged is enough to make a positive claim in this regard.
The basic politics of the Harappan studies is to de-link this civilizational tradition from the main tree trunk of the present Indian culture. Whatever form it may take, this is an anti-national attitude, and it is interesting that a good many Indians have not hesitated to adopt this attitude


A Noted archaeologist and professor emeritus at Cambridge University, Dilip K. Chakrabarti started his career as a lecturer of Archaeology at Calcutta University from 1965-77. He was a reader of Archaeology at Delhi University from 1977-90. He moved to a teaching post in South Asian archaeology at Cambridge University in 1990.