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Moving to INI

varnam has moved to a new home at INI. From today all posts will be made at the new location and so please subscribe to the new feed.

This site — — has existed since the Pre-Cambrian era of Indian blogging. During those initial days, the urge was to write about everything; now this blog focuses on Indian history. The next logical step in evolution is to join a group of folks with similar interests and INI seems to be the perfect place.

Hope to see you at

Posted in Blogs, DesiPundit.

The Slaying of Afzal Khan

When Francois Gautier’s Foundation Against Continuing Terrorism put together an exhibition titled Aurangzeb as he was according to Mughal records, the folks at Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam, Manitha Neethi Paasarai, and someone called the Prince of Arcot did not like it a bit and with violence managed to end the exhibition. Now there has been violence between two communities (possibly Taoists and Manicheans) over a poster depicting Afzal Khan being killed by Shivaji.

So this would be a good time to examine an old post by Kedar in which he explained the strategic brilliance of Shivaji.
Fifth point, choosing the point of escalation. When Afzal khan entered Maharashtra, first he roamed around on Deccan plateau. He destroyed temples in an attempt to incite Shivaji. Shivaji did not escalate the matters. Khan committed atrocities. Shivaji chose not to respond. Khan attacked and conquered several forts. Shivaji kept quiet. Khan attacked Pune. Shivaji just sucked up that insult. If there is a man who has killed your brother in the past (Khan had killed Shivaji’s brother Shambhu raje) and who comes back and one by one destroys the things you love and revere, won’t you respond in revenge? You will right? That’s why you are not Shivaji.[How Shivaji Tackled Afzal Khan « The Eastern Horizon]

Posted in History: India.

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A 4000 year old Leper’s Tale

Dead men usually tell no tales; but a 4000 year old skeleton from Balathal, Rajasthan (40 km north east of Udaipur) has revealed some fascinating tales.

This skeleton, of a man who probably was 35+/-10 years and 5′10″, was found in a settlement which flourished from 3700 – 1820 BCE; the people there had pottery and copper and cultivated barley as well as wheat. He was buried between 2500 – 2000 BCE — much before the decline of the Harappan civilization — and was a leper. In fact, this skeleton is the oldest example of leprosy in the world.

But he was not Harappan: he belonged to the Ahar-Banas culture. In the Mewar region of Rajasthan, hunter-gatherers developed farming communities in the middle of the fifth millennium BCE, independent of the Harappan culture. By around 2500 BCE, they became prosperous and had fortified settlements, roads, and lanes. Also, the earliest burned brick (4000 BCE) was found in Gilund at this site[2].

By 2500 BCE, Ahars had trade relations with the Harappans to the north. They also had trade relations with their contemporaries in South and Central India and the skeleton confirms it. This skeleton was buried with vitrified ash from cow dung. So far the Southern Neolithic ash mounds found in South Deccan and North Dharwar were believed to be cattle settlements or the result of  cow dung disposal. Now we can speculate that they were the result of funeral activities of a shared tradition.

Besides this domestic connection, these people had international contacts as well. There are two strains of leprosy: an Asian one and an East African one. It is possible that the African one was transmitted to Asia around 40,000 BCE or vice versa at a much later date. The second one seems to have happened since lerosy depends on human contact and it must been transmitted over the trading network involving the Ahars, Harappans,people of Magan, Mesopotamians and Egyptians.

This skeleton fits well with  the Atharva Veda (Hymn 23, 24) making it the earliest historical reference to leprosy. The Ebers papyrus, dated to 1550 BCE has been interpreted to contain evidence of leprosy, but the earliest affected skeleton found in Egypt has been dated only to 400 – 250 BCE.

Another point is regarding the burial; after 2000 BCE, burial was uncommon except for some special cases like infants and spiritual people. Harappan skeletons were both cremated — there is evidence at Sanauli at least — and buried, but true burials are very few compared to expected numbers. Many archaeologists believe that cremation must have been widely practised by Harappans. Also, at Dholavira and other sites, dozens of graves turned out to be without any bones which implies symbolic burials.

It is believed that the burial at Balathal followed the Vedic tradition: lepers were buried alive in some parts of India. Also there is evidence that diseased bodies were sometimes not cremated.

Two other skeletons were also obtained from Balathal, but of a later date[3]. They were found in the padmasana or samadhi posture — a striking evidence of yoga practice and burial of people perhaps regards as spiritually advanced. Even now in India, spiritually advanced people are not cremated, but buried.

(One of the skeletons from Balathal in samadhi posture)
The excavations reveal a large number of bull figurines indicating the Ahar people worshipped the bull [6]. At Marmi, a site near Chittorgarh, these figures have been found in abundance indicating it could be a regional shrine of the bull cult of this rural population. Discovery of cow-like figurines in Ojiyana, the first site found on the slope of a hill, has baffled archaeologists. Cow-worship was not a known Ahar practice. “There are no humps and we can see small teats,” B.R.Meena, superintendent, ASI Jaipur circle, who undertook the excavation, says, “These are certainly cows.” Other archaeologists suspect them to be bull calves but insist if further studies prove these to be cows, one could infer that the cow was a revered animal and the Hindu practice of treating the cow as a holy animal can thus be of pre-Aryan antiquity. [Were they cow worshippers?]
Vedic burial, skeletons in samadhi posture, cow worship in a civilization contemporary with Harappa —- does this imply that the Ahar-Banas were Vedic people or Ahar culture was adopted by later Vedic culture or Ahars adopted it from an earlier Vedic culture?

The large number of bull figurines found at Ahar and Gilund could indicate a bull cult[6]. There is a debate over if the figurines represent bulls or cows, but these figurines were part of the second phase of the Ahar culture (2100 – 1800 BCE) or as late as 1600 BCE [7] and are the only clue to the religious beliefs of the Ahars[8].

Another clue is the time frame of these skeletons. While the leper was dated to 2000 BCE, the skeletons in samadhi were from700 BCE[9]. So while the leper burial was unusual, there is nothing unusual about burying a man in samadhi posture by the Early Historical Period.

While the bull figurines and the skeletons in samadhi were known earlier, this leper skeleton has added new information about this less known culture. Hopefully as more papers come out, we will get a clear picture on their religious beliefs, such as if this Vedic burial was an exception or a common practice.

  1. This post is based on [4]. Many thanks to Michel Danino for information and images of the samadhi skeletons and Harappan burials. Also thanks to Gwen Robbins, the primary author of [2, 4], for patiently answering many questions.
  1. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective by Gregory L. Possehl
  2. A panel on the The Cultural Diversity of Northwestern South Asia at the time of the Indus Civilization convened by Prof. Gregory Possehl (University of Pennsylvania) and Prof. Vasant Shinde: Deccan College
  3. Gwen Robbins, Veena Mushrif, V.N. Misra, R.K. Mohanty and V.S. Shinde, Human Skeletal Remains from Balathal: a Full Report and Inventory, Man and Environment, XXXII 2007, pp. 1-25.
  4. Ancient Skeletal Evidence for Leprosy in India (2000 B.C.), Gwen Robbins et al.
  5. Piecing the Ahar Puzzle by Rohit Parihar
  6. Encyclopedia of Prehistory: South and Southwest Asia By Peter Neal Peregrine
  7. Tribal roots of Hinduism By Shiv Kumar Tiwari
  8. The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan by Bridget Allchin
  9. The skeletons have also been dated all way back to 1800 BCE

Posted in DesiPundit, History: Before 1 CE, History: India.

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Who caused the Climate change?

It is fashionable to remark that while early humans lived in harmony with nature, the modern man abuses it. Many believe that it is massive use of fossil fuels in the post-Industrialization era that triggered global climate change. But a new model says that climate change was triggered by the burning of forests for agriculture. Though the population was smaller, farming techniques were not optimized resulting in more land use per person for food production.

He said that early populations likely used a land-clearing method that involved burning forests, then planting crop seed among the dead stumps in the enriched soil. They would use a large plot until the yield began to decline, and then would burn off another area of forest for planting. They would continue this form of rotation farming, ever expanding the cleared areas as their populations grew. They possibly cleared five or more times more land than they actually farmed at any given time. It was only as populations grew much larger, and less land was available for farming or for laying fallow, that societies adopted more intensive farming techniques and slowly gained more food yield from less land[Agricultural Methods Of Early Civilizations May Have Altered Global Climate]

But if you put the blame entirely on the early farmer, that would be wrong. New studies show that even the hunter-gatherer managed to affect their environment, through the use of fire, translocation of animals and altering the marine ecosystem.

Rick has also found layers of sea otter bones thousands of years old in California’s Channel Islands. The layers above just had sea urchin remains. He thinks people killed the otters because they ate too many shellfish. Since otters also prey on sea urchins, the urchin population exploded. All those urchins ate up the kelp forests, creating what Rick calls an “urchin barren.” [For Early Man, It Wasn't Easier Being Green : NPR]

But the key to remember is that, the ancient man had no choice and most of the damage was unintentional. Also there was no one to tell them the Inconvenient Truth.

“The take-home point to some extent is that humans do things to make their life easier,” Hames says. “It was really hard to make a living back then, so you know, you took advantage of the knowledge and skills you had in order to make the environment useful to you.” [For Early Man, It Wasn't Easier Being Green : NPR]

(Photograph by author)

Posted in History: Before 1 CE.

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Paradesi Synagogue, Kochi, India

In 1524, the Moors attacked the Jews of Kerala and burned their houses and synagogues. Due to this incident, the Jews left the place where they had originally settled — Anjuvannam — and moved to Cochin. The Rajah of Cochin gave them a site for a town right next to his palace and temple. The Jew town was created in 1567 and the synagogue in 1568. Even now the palace (now a museum) and the temple exist, right next to the synagogue in Jew town.

These photographs were taken during a recent visit. It is forbidden to take photographs inside the synagogue, and so the two inside images are from the post cards they sell in the gift shop. They also sell a facsimile of the copper plates by which the Rajah granted them land and one photograph is from my copy of those plates.

Posted in DesiPundit, History: India, Photos.

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