Prof. Irfan Habib’s “Secularism”

Njannenna Bharatheeyan by K K Muhammed
Njannenna Bharatheeyan by K K Muhammed

Few decades back, at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Prof. Irfan Habib  summoned his former student and now faculty member K K Muhammed to his office.  Muhammed had discovered Ibādat Khāna in Fatepur Sikri. Built by Akbar in 1575 CE, the  Ibādat Khāna was the place where various religious scholars held discussions. A major discovery, this was reported in various newspapers, something which Prof. Habib was not too happy about. The conversation went as follows:

Irfan Habib: “This is not Ibādat Khāna”

Muhammed: “No? This is not Ibādat Khāna?”

IH: “What you gave in Times of India is not Ibādat Khāna”

M: “How can you say that? Are you an archaeologist?”

IH: “I may not be as good an archaeologist like you”

M: “Sorry, you are not an archaeologist.” Irfan Habib was speechless.

Habib pushed a paper to Muhammed and said, “write what you discovered is not Ibādat Khāna”. Muhammed refused and walked away.

After working both at AMU and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in various designations, K K Muhammed has now written an autobiography in Malayalam titled, ഞാനെന്ന ഭാരതീയൻ (Me, the Indian), which has details of his encounters with Prof. Habib and his cabal. As part of his education,  Mr. Muhammed learned how a historian becomes secular.

When Muhammed reached AMU as a student, he was initially excited to have someone as famous as Prof. Habib as his teacher. Muhammed recollects, “As a teacher, he did not make any impact on me.” His other classmates too had similar opinion. This news reached Habib’s ears. Muhammed ran for the Student’s Union as a Congressman. This too did not go well with the Marxists and they decided to contain him. This would cause various encounters between the Irfan Habib group and Muhammed and they are detailed in the first few chapters of the book.

Due to some Machiavellian maneuvers by the Marxists, Muhammed did not get admission as a researcher and hence opted for archaeology.  After completing his post-graduate diploma in Archaeology, he returned to AMU. He thanks Habib for blocking his path, because it led him to archaeology where he made a name for himself by discovering not just the  Ibādat Khāna, but also a Christian Church, Akbar had built for the missionaries.

The Marxist attack came in multiple ways. First, they tried to prove that the discovery was not Muhammed’s. That failed. The second attack claimed that if Muhammed had discovered this, then it could not be the Ibādat Khāna. Soon after that Habib became the Head of the Department and that’s when the direct confrontation mentioned earlier happened.

Muhammed was a Communist sympathizer, but what he encountered in the campus was a new form of it. The petty version. Muhammed writes that he could never get along with Irfan Habib.

Habib group could cause career damage. They controlled the purse strings: they could decide who got scholarships or who would be admitted as researchers.  If you were not part of his group, you were branded communal. Independent thinking was anathema. But if you joined his group, you became secular.

How a communalist turns
How a communalist turns “secular”

For this Muhammed cites the example of Prof. Ramachandra Gaur, with whom he worked. An enemy of Habib, Prof. Gaur was branded an RSS man. Once he became the Head of the Department, he changed his allegiance. Gaur also advised Muhammed that it was better to switch to Habib’s group for career advancement. Once Prof. Gaur joined the Habib group, he was considered “secular”. Muhammed says, he refused to follow Gaur’s example.

Another encounter he mentions, occurred in front of an interview panel consisting of among others, the Vice Chancellor and Habib. During the interview, the Vice Chancellor said he could not consider anyone for AMU, who did not respect Prof.Habib. Muhammed replied that respect has to be earned not demanded. He mentioned how a person who got less marks than him was admitted as a researcher. Another case was when someone with less marks and no Post-Graduate diploma was given the post of Asst. Archaeologist instead of him. Muhammed also had evidence against a false accusation that Irfan Habib had made. While Muhammed said all of this, Irfan Habib sat with his eyes down. Muhammed, writes, “His behavior towards me changed, but I was sure he would stab me at the first opportunity”

Muhammed writes that Prof. Habib preferred people who flattered him like Makkan Lal.  Prof. Habib tried to get Prof. Makkan Lal as the deputy director instead of Muhammed. When this was challenged by Muhammed in court, Makkan Lal became an ally of Irfan Habib. Muhammed writes, “Unholy alliances are short lived”. By the time of the World Archaeology Congress in Delhi, the Habib group and Makkan Lal group were openly fighting and in the  Babri Masjid dispute, Irfan Habib and Makkan Lal were on the opposite sides.

Muhammed was finally selected as the Deputy Superintending Archaeologist at the Archaeological Survey of India. According to Muhammed, Prof. Habib. met the Director General of ASI and asked him to reject Muhammed. The DG replied that it was a UPC selection and he did not have the power to reject it. Then Prof. Habib had one final request. Don’t post him in Agra. (What if he discovers something else). Muhammed was posted to Madras Circle. But he would visit AMU for lectures and then efforts were made to block them. The only place where they were successful in blocking him was at JNU (no big surprise there), but everywhere else Muhammed was able to speak freely.

In the foreward of the book, Prof M G S Narayanan, too writes about Prof. Habib. According to Prof. MGS, Prof. Habib  has poisoned, not just history, but culture and social life by his narrow groupism, nepotism and treachery. At the same time, he writes that Prof. Habib is a hard working person, but crafty. His group would threaten, cheat and would be part of various intrigues. Anyone who criticized this group would be branded a Hindutvavaadi and communalist. At the same time, Prof. MGS says, Prof. Habib is not an Muslim Fundamentalist. He is not sure, even if he is a believer. Prof. MGS attributes this group for making Babri Masjid a national issue.

According to Muhammed, it was during the Babri Masjid time that his mask of secularism came off. As the head of a government body (ICHR), he should not have taken sides in the dispute. People saw this as an effort to to increase his influence by taking sides with the Muslim side in the dispute. The one historian who had to courage to say that the head of ICHR should not take sides in the dispute was Prof. M G S Narayanan. Prof. MGS initially had a great opinion of Prof. Irfan Habib. He even disagreed with Muhammed on his opinion of Prof. Habib, Once Prof. MGS worked with Prof. Habib in ICHR, he realized that truth of Muhammed’s statements. Not being able to work with Irfan Habib, he left ICHR. Very soon Prof. MGS was branded with the Hindutva label.

These are just few select incidents from the first few chapters of the book. It is these petty people who get to define Indian history on  if a Ram temple existed or if Saraswati flowed in India or in Afghanistan (see The Lost River). This is the price for continuing the British practice for having an “official” history. We have become bystanders while our history has been hijacked by Marxists  like Prof. Irfan Habib.

Preserving Long Term Memories

Penelope questions Odysseus to prove his identity (by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1801)
Penelope questions Odysseus to prove his identity (by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, 1801)

Here are few incidents that baffle the mind.

In Odyssey, Odysseus reaches home a decade after the Trojan war to find his wife Penelope being harassed by unruly suitors. Disguised as a beggar, he figures out the suitors’ intention and decides to act. In Book 20, the seer Theoclymenus warned the suitors, “The sun from out the heavens is lost, And clouds of darkness rushing spread.” Plutarch and Heraclitus, thought this line was a reference to a solar eclipse.

Using other astronomical data points in the Odyssey, scholars computed the date of the eclipse, which was total over the Ionian islands, to be April 16, 1178, B.C.E. Another recent attempt, using off-the-shelf planetarium software, came to the same conclusion. The question became this: if the poets who composed Odyssey lived five centuries after the eclipse, how was the memory preserved?

The second mystery comes from Australia. 21 disparate aboriginal groups talk about a time when the Australian coastline was inundated with rising sea levels. For example, the Narrangga tribe remembers a time when they could catch kangaroo and opossum when the area they were living was dry land. Mapping the references in the story to the geography, it was clear that the water level before the flooding was way below the present values. The conclusion by scientists: these memories were of a flooding that happened 7000 years back.

There are many incidents from India, but the one from Rig Veda is apt for the third one. In forty-five hymns, the rishis praised Sarasvati; for them, she was ‘great among the great, the most impetuous of rivers’, ‘limitless, unbroken, swift-moving’ and ‘surpasses in majesty and might all other waters.’ The location of the river is clearly specified in the Nadistuti sukta. The Sarasvati no longer flows as a majestic river, but the memories of it are alive, 4000 years after it dried up.

Going back to the first incident, scholars investigating the Odyssey mystery – how the memory of a distant event was transmitted over centuries — were puzzled. This violated a commonly held theory that oral transmissions lose fidelity after 500 – 800 years. In the Odyssey case, evidence pointed otherwise. Then there was another complication. Greeks were not known to be astronomically inclined during that time period. Looking for alternative explanations, scholars came up with a hypothesis. It is possible that the Babylonians, who were astronomical enthusiasts observed another eclipse in 1124 B.C.E, computed the trajectory of the eclipse that happened in 1178 B.C.E. and transmitted that information back to the Greeks.

The Technique

Convoluted explanations are not always the most elegant ones. The tyranny of simpler explanations suggests that there were techniques obvious to residents of traditional societies with deep civilizational ethos which can explain the preservation of memories over long periods of time.

Memories are preserved when societies have the ability to retell stories across generations and remain unaffected by military, religious and cultural assaults. Indigenous traditions have foundational ways — through stories, art, ritual — to preserve knowledge. Textual studies won’t reveal the secrets; these have to be experienced.

Native Australians had intimate knowledge of the lands they inhabited and the sea that surrounded them. Their authority figures passed that knowledge to the next generation through songs, stories and by recording them on totems. The stories were memorable like the Panchatantra or Hitopadesa. One tribe remembers a giant kangaroo and how its actions caused the flood; another tribe remembers a man who chased his wives and caused the sea to drown them; a third remembers a man who called on the sea to drown a woman stealing wattle gum. At any point, three generations were aware of these unforgettable tales. Similarly, it is possible that the Greeks too preserved it using the same mechanism.

While stories are imprecise and can change based on the story teller, the Vedic tradition has ensured large-scale precise oral memorization of the text over thousands of years. Despite invasions, colonization and desecration, these traditions are alive with thousands of students still learning Sanskrit literature, grammar, logic, philosophy and other subjects. In Sanskrit schools students spends time with a guru up to ten hours a day for a minimum of seven years, memorizing the Vedas. The guru ensures that the student strictly follows the conventions of body movement and arm gestures and articulation. Finally, the student’s mastery of the complex topic is rigorously tested.

This memorization affects brain plasticity as well. A recent paper published a study on the brains of Vedic pandits who have done extensive scriptural studies. Researchers found that the Pandit brains had massive gray matter density and cortical thickness increase in language, memory and visual systems as well as regions associated with long term and short term memories. The gestures — arm, wrist and hand movements — too had significance in learning. Due to these techniques, the memories of the homeland of the rishis who composed the Rig Veda, which has been along the banks of Sarasvati has been preserved unchanged despite the efforts of Eminent Historians to prove otherwise.

The Perils

These techniques have their weakness. Look back 500 – 800 years and it is obvious why memories got erased in that span. Enlightened Europeans, in the name of the God, Gold, King, and Queen, successfully conducted genocide against native populations around the world. Before that monotheism spread violently, pulverizing societies, while advocating love and peace. Many societies were conquered and cleansed. The conquerors imposed their story over the conquered. In some cases, the conquerors adopted the story of the vanquished and modified them to suit their framework.

A simple strategy the colonialists and invaders followed was to rename places, persons or objects to unlink them from the past. During World War I, the British Army with Indian soldiers was advancing towards Salman Pak, outside Baghdad. This place was the resting place of one of Muhammad’s companions. The Ottomans used that effectively to incite enemy soldiers. They printed pamphlets calling on Indian Muslims to leave the British Army and join fellow Muslims in the Ottoman Army. Fearing the impact Salman Pak could have on the soldiers, the British started referring to the place by its Sassanid name, Ctesiphon. In a similar vein, but not for similar reasons, Sargamatha became Mt. Everest, Shivanolipatha Malai became Adam’s Peak and Ram Setu became Adam’s bridge. Chennai became Madras, Thiruvananthapuram got anglicised, along with many other places.

The British dealt with this cleverly in India. They established centralized institutions and used that to launch attacks on Indic ethos. Their pen-wielding mercenaries replaced unique memories with “official history”. 1947 came; the English left and the Indians who took over, who had no idea about the Indic ethos, continued the same tradition. You cannot talk about Saraswati without getting a sign off from an Eminent Historian. They would decide if there was a Ram Temple. The society became bystanders while people whose salaries depended on them not understanding India became authority figures.

It was not any better in other countries. While the native Australians remember an ancient flood and ancient Greeks, an eclipse, most of their memories have been erased. They live on the ruins of forgotten and superseded civilizations. The Australian genocide by the settlers have wiped most of the natives; the Greeks no longer follow the religion and culture of their ancestors.

Sites of Harappan Civilization along the path of Sarasvati
Sites of Harappan Civilization along the path of Sarasvati

Despite all the trauma that the decentralized memories survive. Each society chose the memories it wanted to preserve, cross-pollinated it with other concepts and came up with paradigms for preserving it. They never outsourced the validation and preservation of the memories to central institutions regardless of their merit. Despite destroying temples and converting people, the memories survived.

Compared to any other country, India is the only place where there is an unbroken continuity between the land, the people and their stories that have been narrated across generations. Despite the propaganda by the colonials and Eminent Historians, Indian society and families practice traditional pursuits and maintain a culture that represents the unbroken narrative of India. Over time Indian society continued to reject what was taught in classrooms because it had little correlation with the culture that they lived in. Thus when Irfan Habib says that Saraswati is an imaginary river, people instinctively feel that he is pulling a quick one. This skepticism prevented the centralized monolithic machinery from gaining wide acceptance in Indian society, thus shielding India’s ethos of decentralized history. But for our memories to be preserved and transmitted, we should not remain bystanders and let centralized history writers decide what needs to be preserved.

Briefly Noted: The Black Widow by Daniel Silva

The Black Widow by Daniel Silva
In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, SS colonel Hans Landa or the “Jew Hunter”, reaches the home of a French dairy farmer looking for a Jewish family. The next few minutes are a typical Tarantino scene, where you know the end is not going to be good. For leaving his family alone, the farmer betrays the Jewish family hiding in his basement.

From the Dreyfus Affair (recently retold in An Officer and a Spy) to World War II and beyond,  Jews were never safe in France. Even now France is seeing a rise in antisemitism and an increase in aliyah. Daniel Silva’s The Black Widow starts with a bomb explosion in the Marais district of Paris, known for its large Jewish population. When the French find out that ISIS (“ISIS gave purpose to lost souls and promised an afterlife of eternal copulation“) is responsible for the attack, they request the help of Gabriel Allon, who is going to be Israel’s next intelligence chief. The only data point they know is that a man known as Saladin is responsible for this attack. They neither know his real name nor his nationality. To find out the real identity of Saladin, they need someone who can infiltrate ISIS.

Among all the books of Daniel Silva, this is probably the best. While rest of them are thrillers, this one grips you because of two things. One, he deals with a real problem and how the world is reacting to that. While the book was written prior to the Paris attacks, it resembles real events that happened recently.He ridicules President Obama, who called ISIS, al-Qaeda’s jayvee team and also people who call ISIS as un-Islamic.

Here is a paragraph from Greame Wood’s article in The Atlantic

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.[What ISIS Really Wants]

Second, the book does not have much sub plots and hence the main plot grips you. Silva’s book ends with an attack on the American soil by ISIS sleeper cells and that is a real fear.

Briefly Noted: Jade Dragon Mountain: A Mystery by Elsa Hart

Jade Dragon Mountain: A Mystery (Li Du Novels) by Elsa Hart
Early in the 17th century, the English were trying to get a foothold in India as traders with the visit of Thomas Roe to Jehangir’s court. In China, at around the same time, the Ming dynasty was getting replaced by the Qing dynasty. The world was changing, not just in terms of a dynastic change, but also in terms of Western religious and economic imperialism. Jesuits and Dominicans were wandering around China looking for converts. The English East India company was also looking for a way to gain foothold in the country. (The Virginia Company was already setting the template for destroying native civilizations in the America)

In Elsa Hart’s work of historical fiction set in this period, a Jesuit priest is found murdered in the town of Dayan near Tibet. The magistrate of the town does not want this incident to upset the celebrations that have been planned for  Emperor Kangxi, who is visiting shortly. There are many suspects – the Dominicans, the trader from the Company, the library clerk, the first lady, the Tibetans and a wandering story teller — who have their own secrets. While the magistrate is happy to ignore the incident, his cousin Li Du is not. An imperial librarian and now an exile, he  happened to be in the magistrate’s house when the murder happened and will not rest till the mystery is solved.

The book is interesting in the way any historical fiction is. It gives an introduction to an interesting phase of Chinese history. It brings out the transition from Ming to Qing very well and also the way the Tibetans are treated. The details in the story gives a good feel for Chinese culture and social norms. The story follows the three act structure very well, but the intensity of the transitions is timid. There is no violence, or torture or gruesome deaths, thus making it different from most other historical fiction. In a book market where historical fiction focuses mostly on the Western world, this book is a welcome change.

Benefits of studying religious texts

For the faithful, this question does not arise. For them, it is a sattvika yagya, that has to be performed without desire for results. Gita Ch 17.11 says this elegantly.

Here the final sattvika refers to the yagya, not a sattvik person. It is karmani prayoga.

The students of such yagya do it because it has to be done. Even if the practice increases the medha shakti, they don’t talk about it, nor do they publish papers to convince others.

Now we know that learning Vedas has an effect on the neuroplasticity of the brain. Extensive memorization and verbal recital practice resulted in improvements in  language, memory, and visual systems. Practicing formalized oral knowledge systems, such as the Vedas, resulted in improvements in  long-term and short-term memory.

The book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World gives the following example of a student of Rabbinic Judaism. It is few paragraphs long, but worth reading.

To better understand how one masters the art of deep work, I suggest visiting the Knesses Yisroel Synagogue in Spring Valley, New York, at six a.m. on a weekday morning. If you do, you’ll likely find at least twenty cars in the parking lot. Inside, you’ll encounter a couple dozen members of the congregation working over texts—some might be reading silently, mouthing the words of an ancient language, while others are paired together debating. At one end of the room a rabbi will be leading a larger group in a discussion. This early morning gathering in Spring Valley represents just a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of orthodox Jews who will wake up early that morning, as they do every weekday morning, to practice a central tenet of their faith: to spend time every day studying the complex written traditions of Rabbinic Judaism.

I was introduced to this world by Adam Marlin, a member of the Knesses Yisroel congregation and one of the regulars at its morning study group. As Marlin explained to me, his goal with this practice is to decipher one Talmud page each day (though he sometimes fails to make it even this far), often working with a chevruta (study partner) to push his understanding closer to his cognitive limit.

What interests me about Marlin is not his knowledge of ancient texts, but instead the type of effort required to gain this knowledge. When I interviewed him, he emphasized the mental intensity of his morning ritual. “It’s an extreme and serious discipline, consisting mostly of the ‘deep work’ stuff [you write about],” he explained. “I run a growing business, but this is often the hardest brain strain I do.” This strain is not unique to Marlin but is instead ingrained in the practice—as his rabbi once explained to him: “You cannot consider yourself as fulfilling this daily obligation unless you have stretched to the reaches of your mental capacity.”

Unlike many orthodox Jews, Marlin came late to his faith, not starting his rigorous Talmud training until his twenties. This bit of trivia proves useful to our purposes because it allows Marlin a clear before-and-after comparison concerning the impact of these mental calisthenics—and the result surprised him. Though Marlin was exceptionally well educated when he began the practice—he holds three different Ivy League degrees—he soon met fellow adherents who had only ever attended small religious schools but could still “dance intellectual circles” around him. “A number of these people are highly successful [professionally],” he explained to me, “but it wasn’t some fancy school that pushed their intellect higher; it became clear it was instead their daily study that started as early as the fifth grade.”

After a while, Marlin began to notice positive changes in his own ability to think deeply. “I’ve recently been making more highly creative insights in my business life,” he told me. “I’m convinced it’s related to this daily mental practice. This consistent strain has built my mental muscle over years and years. This was not the goal when I started, but it is the effect.”

Pattanaik’s Vedic People

In Swarajya,  Devdutt Pattanaik writes

These Aryans entered the Indian subcontinent around 4,000 years ago, a period when the cities of the Indus-Saraswati valleys had already declined. These cities were first established as early as 8,000 years ago, as per current evidence, but after thriving for nearly 3,000 years, had collapsed following climactic change and poor agricultural patterns. The Aryans brought horses and PIE language with them, but not quite the Vedas.

In the Indus Valley and dry river beds of Saraswati, in the decaying brick cities, as they mingled with local people who had memories of the great Saraswati river that once flowed in this region. The Aryans refined old hymns, composed new hymns that eventually were compiled to form the Rig Veda, in a language we now know as Vedic, or pre-Panini, or pre-classical, Sanskrit. This language has nearly 300 words borrowed from the Munda language, considered as a pre-Vedic Indian language, indicating local influence. It is key to note that the hymns speak of no Eurasian homeland, But there is clear awareness of the river Saraswati. One can speculate that the hymns were composed in North West India, generations after the actual migration.

This version serves two purposes

  1. Complies with the time lines of PIE migration to India
  2. Makes vedas kind-of Indian origin, even if the Vedic people were not.

This is a tricky feat, but is it true?

Settlements of Ancient India (from a California 6th grade textbook by TCi)
Settlements of Ancient India (from a California 6th grade textbook by TCi)

The above picture is from a California 6th grade history textbook. It is not a reference book, but definitely the most controversial one. The book’s authors write, “India’s early townspeople lived along the Indus River and the ancient Saraswati River”.

This Saraswati is a major obstacle in PIE theory because it is clear that Vedic people were aware of Saraswati as a mighty river. They have also made it clear that they knew where the river was located.

इमं मे गङगे यमुने सरस्वति शुतुद्रि सतेमं सचता परुष्ण्या |
असिक्न्या मरुद्व्र्धे वितस्तयार्जीकीये शर्णुह्यासुषोमया ||
तर्ष्टामया परथमं यातवे सजूः ससर्त्वा रसयाश्वेत्या तया |
तवं सिन्धो कुभया गोमतीं करुमुम्मेहत्न्वा सरथं याभिरीयसे || (10.75.5-6)

They do not claim that it was the memory of the natives they were incorporating. They wrote as if they saw the river flowing majestically.

At the same time, the maximum number of sites of the Harappan civilization were along the banks of Saraswati as the picture above shows. The civilization started its decline when the rivers went haywire due to tectonics or weakened monsoons.  Thus if Vedic people were aware of Saraswati, then they would have been living in the region while the river was not a muddy, silty river.

In a 2010 paper, Professor Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, who has been excavating at Harappa for three decades wrote that even though the Indus script has not been deciphered, he thinks more than one language was spoken in the settlements. The language families that co-existed include Dravidian, Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan and Indo-Aryan. Paul Heggarty, a linguist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in a 2013 paper writes that Indo-European speakers may have reached Mehrgarh much earlier than 4000 BCE. The model that these studies present is not of a civilisation dominated by one language as imagined by Dravidian politicians and textbook historians, but an Indus-Saraswati region which was cosmopolitan.[In Pragati: An earlier date for Indo-Europeans in Northwest India]

But this is not acceptable because it violates the lakshman rekha of Aryan Migration dates. Few theories have been proposed to solve this. One of them, by Edward Thomas, suggests that the Saraswati did not flow in Punjab, but in Helmand in Afghanistan. There is a river called Harahvaiti, linguistically similar to Saraswati which the Aryans would have seen this river on their long march to India.  Another theory by Prof. Irfan Habib goes one step further: according to him the river never existed, except in the imagination of rishis. The whole point of all these theories being that Ghaggar-Hakra is not Saraswati (similar to it can be a Buddhist temple or a Jain temple or  a tea stall, but not a Ram temple). All these theories have been demolished in Michel Danino’s book, The Lost River.

Mr. Pattanaik also writes about an ancestral homeland and Aryan migration. But where is the homeland these days?

“The Indo-European homeland has been located and relocated everywhere from the North Pole to South Pole, to China. It has been placed in South India, Central India, North India, Tibet, Bactria, Iran, the Aral Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, Lithuania, the Caucasus, the Urals, the Volga Mountains, South Rusia, the steppes of Central Asia, Asia Minor, Anatolia, Scandinavia, Finland, Sweden, the Baltic, western Europe, northern Europe, central Europe and eastern Europe.”[In Pragati: Where is the Indo-European homeland these days?]

Now it is simpler: we just need to pick from three homeland theories. The first one — the Anatolian-Neolithic — proposes that Indo-European originated in Anatolia and spread through Europe along with the spread of farming. The second theory suggests that the homeland was not in Anatolia, but to the south of the Caucasus. The spread of the language did not happen with the spread of farming, but at a much later date. The third one suggests that the homeland was located between the Volga and Dnieper (The Pontic-Caspian) during 4500–3000 BCE.

One possibility is that the language did not spread through invasion or the current favourite — migration — or due to elite dominance, but due to demic diffusion. Peter Bellwood looked at the farming hypothesis and coupled it with new archaeological discoveries in the Gangetic plains, and proposed last year that Indo-European speakers arrived in North-West two millenia earlier than expected. This gave possibility to the development of Vedic language in the region and not in Central Asia. It also provided the ability for the language to spread slowly rather than suddenly.[In Pragati: Where is the Indo-European homeland these days?]

Did Aryans bring horses to India along with PIE?

But if the Indo-Aryans bought the horses shouldn’t we see an explosion of horse remains and depiction of horse in art after 1500 B.C.E? In fact horse remains are rare even after 1500 B.C.E. Also, it is around the Mauryan period – around 350 B.C.E — that the depictions of horse and lion gains popularity[2]. Thus the time period 2000 – 1500 B.C.E was not significant regarding the arrival of horse in India. So much for that.[The Aryan Debate: Horse]

It is not easy to speculate and come up with a simple theory. For every point, there is a strong counter-argument. Here is some more evidence

There is also evidence of tree worship in Harappan times as mentioned in Rig Veda and Atharva Veda. The core of the Vedic religion was sacrifice and fire altars have been found in several Indus sites. In Kalibangan seven rectangular fire altars have been found aligned north-south beside a well which parallels the six Vedic dishnya hearths.[Book Review: In Search of the Cradle of Civilization]

If we are speculating, why not come up with a Dravidian Invasion Theory (DIT)? We know that Dravidians were not part of the humans who migrated from Africa. The founder population of India included the Onge, living in the Andamans. Why don’t we propose that the Dravidians invaded their lands and drove them out of the mainland. Any takers?

The Dhow to Khor Fakkan

By <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Xavier_Romero-Frias" title="User:Xavier Romero-Frias">Xavier Romero-Frias</a> - <span class="int-own-work" lang="en">Own work</span>, <a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0" title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a>, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9567898
A deep-sea dhow (from Wikipedia By Xavier Romero-FriasOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1957, the first democratically elected Communist government took office in Kerala. By 1960, the people of Kerala were willing to do anything, including  voyages across the open ocean in dhows to get away from the state and find employment. A recent Malayalam movie, Pathemari (Dhow), is the story of one such man, Narayanan, who takes such a voyage from Kerala to Khor Fakkan in the United Arab Emirates. Unlike the African slave trade, these men willingly took a journey to an unknown land to become indentured servants. The movie is a realistic portrayal of the life of the early Gulf Malayalis and one of the best performances by Mammootty (who is also a board member of the Communist party-run Kairali TV)

Pathemari - Movie poster (via Wikipedia)
Pathemari – Movie poster (via Wikipedia)

Spices were transported from the East, both by camel caravans and dhows crossing the ocean. The dhows would take the goods to Basra, Jiddah, Muscat or Aqaba and from there camel caravans took them to Alexandria and Levant. These traders did not movie goods just to the West, they went as far as China and Indonesia. In the movie, a young Narayanan boards a dhow owned by a person called ‘Launch Velayudhan’, (based on a real-life person, who died few years back) who is in the business of transporting goods to the Middle East, as well as people who want to escape poverty.

The dhows reached their destination due to the clockwork predictability of the monsoon. From May to August, the summer monsoons blows out from the southwest and fades away by September. From November to March, the winter monsoons blew from the northeast bringing traders and religious fanatics to India. This switch of direction across a large body of water is unique.

But the Arab, Persian, and Indian dhows* could well manage this, with their huge lateen rigs lying as close as 55 to 60 degrees in the direction of the soft northeast headwind—sailing right into it, in other words.† This is almost as good as a modern yacht and a considerable technical achievement. The importance of it was that India’s southwestern Malabar coast could be reached from southern Arabia by sailing a straight-line course, even if it did involve the discomfort of what seamen call “sailing to weather.”

Despite the occasional ferocity of the southwest wind, the discovery of the monsoonal system, which so easily favored trip planning, nevertheless liberated navigators from sailing too often against the elements.1 So the Indian Ocean did not—at least to the same degree as other large bodies of water—have to wait until the age of steam to unite it. [Monsoon]

This, in fact, helped develop the trading hubs of the old world.

Indus-Saraswati Civilization: The weakened monsoon theory

What caused the end of the Indus-Saraswati civilization? There are many theories regarding this

In The Wonder That Was India, A L Basham presented a dramatic picture of the decline of the Harappan civilisation. According to him, from 3000 BCE, invaders were present in the region. After conquering the outlying villages, they made their move on Mohenjo-daro. The people of Mohenjo-daro fled, but were cut down by the invaders; the skeletons that were discovered proved this invasion. Basham concluded that the Indus cities fell to barbarians “who triumphed not only through greater military prowess, but also because they were equipped with better weapons, and had learnt to make full use of the swift and terror-striking beats of the steppes.” Sir R Mortimer Wheeler claimed these horse riding invaders were none other than Aryans and their war-god Indradestroyed the forts and citadels at Harappa. But Basham was not that certain of the identity of the charioteers; he stated that they could be non-Aryans as well.[In Pragati: What caused the decline of Harappa?]

Marxist historians now say that there was no Aryan Invasion, but there was migration.  One theory says that tectonic events altered the course of the rivers causing the decline of the civilization.  Another says, the decline was caused by weakening monsoons. But can climate change be the primary cause?

The weakening monsoon theory is not new.

Around 4000 years back, a dramatic climate change happened across North Africa, the Middle East, the Tibetan Plateau, southern Europe and North America. In India, during that period, there was an abrupt shift in monsoons, which lasted two centuries. In general, if you observe the patterns of recent years, monsoons have strong years and weak years, but they rarely deviate far away from the mean due to the dynamic feedback systems. It is a self-regulating system, but there have been occasions when the anomaly has lasted for few decades.

But what happened 4,000 years back was truly unusual; it was an anomaly larger than anything the subcontinent had faced since in the last 10,000 years. A paper published recently by Berkelhammer was able to narrow down the exact time frame during which this shift happened and it coincides with the decline of the Harappan civilization. This new study does not depend on indirect proxies (like pollen data), but uses a direct terrestrial climate proxy from the Mawmluh Cave in Cherrapunji and hence was able to show an unprecedented age constraint.[In Pragati: What caused the decline of Harappa?]

Here is another one

The Arabian Sea sediments and other geological studies show that the monsoon began to weaken about 5,000 years ago. The dry spell, lasting several hundred years, might have led people to abandon the Indus cities and move eastward into the Gangetic plain, which has been an area of higher rainfall than the northwestern part of the subcontinent.

“It’s not high temperatures, but lack of water that drove the people eastward and southward,” Gupta said [Indus cities dried up with monsoon]

Now animal bones from Bhirrana have provided clues regarding the decline of the Indus-Saraswati civilization. To appreciate this better, we have to know where Bhirrana is and its significance.

Bhirrana
Map from Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization

Look at where Kalibangan and Dholavira are. Kalibangan is on the left bank of Ghaggar and is located at the confluence of Saraswati and Drishadvati. Dholavira is at the Rann of Kutch, which is not really a place where you want to settle down. There was a reason the people of Indus-Saraswati civilization did so: during the Mature Harappan times, people of Dholavira had access to the sea. If you trace the path of the Saraswati Paleochannel, you will see the connection between the two places. Also, if you trace the paleochannel towards  north of Kalibangan, you will see Bhirrana.

 The Ghaggar (in India)-Hakra (in Pakistan) river, referred to as mythical Vedic river ‘Saraswati’ (Fig. 1A) originates in the Siwalik hills, ephemeral in the upper part with dry river bed running downstream through the Thar desert to Rann of Kachchh in Gujarat3. More than 500 sites of Harappan settlements have been discovered in this belt during the last hundred years. Of these several sites both in India viz. Kalibangan, Kunal, Bhirrana, Farmana, Girawad and Pakistan viz. Jalilpur, Mehrgarh in Baluchistan, Rehman Dheri in Gomal plains have revealed early Hakra levels of occupation preceding the main Harappan period.[Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization]

Here is the impressive fact about Bhirrana: it is currently the oldest settled site in the Indian subcontinent. It was settled from around 7000 BCE and is located close to the Saraswati river bed.  It was not an urban civilization at that point. Like the other Harappan sites, it started out as pastoral and later had major farming communities. Eventually, the people there developed the usual Harappan urban entities: mud-brick houses, sacrificial pits etc.

A recent paper analyzed the drinking water component inside animal bones of cattle, goat, deer and antelope from Bhirrana. This was compared against the monsoon levels in the Arabian Sea and carbonate levels in two inland lakes close to Bhirrana. While monsoons intensified from 7000 BCE to 5000 BCE, it declined from then.  This correlates with data available from other sites in Asia. When such an event happens, it affects rivers like the Saraswati and the sites along its banks. That did not cause the end of Bhirrana; it continued and thrived for while. The residents of Bhirrana changed their crops to adapt. From wheat and barley, they switched to drought-resistant millets and rice.

 Because these later crops generally have much lower yield, the organized large storage system of mature Harappan period was abandoned giving rise to smaller more individual household based crop processing and storage system and could act as catalyst for the de-urbanisation of the Harappan civilization rather than an abrupt collapse as suggested by many workers. Our study suggests possibility of a direct connect between climate, agriculture and subsistence pattern during the Harappan civilization. .[Oxygen isotope in archaeological bioapatites from India: Implications to climate change and decline of Bronze Age Harappan civilization]

What this means is that the end was not sudden. It was slow. Rain reduced. Rivers did not get the rains it once got. The boundless, impetuous and swift-moving Saraswati which once flowed till the sea, no longer did so. Maybe there were tectonic movements which caused the rivers to go haywire and forced people to move elsewhere.

Denisovans in India

We homo sapiens are the only surviving humans around. In fact, it has been that way for the last 10,000 years. We tend to forget that at some point, there were many types of humans (of genus Homo) on earth like the Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals), Homo soloensis,  Homo floresiensis, Homo erectus, and Homo denisova (Denisovans).  While the Neanderthals are the most famous among all of these, sapiens co-existed with the others and intermingled with them. We may even have caused their extinction

While all of us have some Neanderthal ancestry (1 – 4%), some of us (Australians, Indians) have more Denisovan ancestry (5%). This intermingling happened much after the Neanderthal mixture. This happened because all these three — sapiens, Neanderthals and Denisovans — were not different species, but of the same species. They produced offsprings together.

A new paper analyzed the amount of Denisovan ancestry and found that Indians have the largest admixture after the people in Australia. Among the Indians, the largest were among people in the Himalayan region and South and Central India. What is not known is this: Was there a single introgression of Denisovans into sapiens and it got diluted in various rates among the populations of the world or there were three different introgressions.

Looking at this paper, Sunil Deepak asks an interesting question.