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Our Voice in Our History

(An edited version of this article was published in the Aug 2008 issue of Pragati)

Photobucket“The Indus Valley civilization dwarfed Egypt and Mesopotamia in area and population, surpassed them in many areas of engineering and was aggressive in globalization 5000 years back.” These are words from Andrew Lawler’s lead article in the June 2008 issue of Science magazine which had Indus Civilization as the cover story

Previously archaeologists believed that Indus people got their ideas from Mesopotamia and was a civilization without deep roots, but as per new evidence, Indus evolved from the Neolithic site of Mehrgarh in Baluchistan. Archaeology has also found evidence of occupation in Harappa dating to 3700 B.C.E and in Farmana in India to 3500 B.C.E.

Writing about the religious beliefs of the Indus people, Lawler mentions that the proto-Shiva seal has fuelled speculation that the religious tradition of Indus helped lay the basis for Hinduism. While there are questions to be answered on their language, religion and form of government, decades of archaeology has changed the image of Indus from a xenophobic and egalitarian society to one which was vibrant and complex.

Though the article was fairly balanced covering excavations in Harappa, Baluchistan, and Kot Diji in Pakistan and Farmana, Dholavira, Rakhigarhi and Kalibangan in India, it had the usual western hatchet job, blaming Indian archaeologists for using Hindu texts as a guide. This is a no-no, we are told, because (a) it is inflammatory to the Pakistanis and (b) India has a large Muslim population.

The article has other issues too. Drought, as a reason for the demise of Indus, is scoffed at while many other reasons, including “change in a society that they say emphasized water-related rituals” is offered as an alternative. The western scholars quoted in the article themselves admit their theories are pure speculation, but the drying up of Ghaggar-Hakra around 1900 B.C.E is ignored, since it would involve a reference to the Rig Veda.

As Western scholars condescendingly set the rules of the games — a very different one from that practised in their own research centers — we need to evaluate what can be done. Whining about unfairness can be cathartic, but it does not solve the problem.

Different Standards and Inept Government

Few years back, Stanford University offered a course on the Historical Jesus which was an enquiry based on the scriptures. Biblical Archaeology is quite popular in Israel which has the same percentage of Muslim population as India. These techniques are considered communal in India.

After two centuries of searching and not finding anything spectacular, Biblical Archaeology in the past half century has morphed into the archaeology of the Biblical period. Archaeologists now say the Exodus did not happen, not by speculation, but after conducting extensive archaeology in Egypt. We too should not indulge in speculative archaeology, but first Indian archaeologists and scholars need to be unapologetic about knowing the scriptures and using them for clues.

Sadly this attitude cannot be taken by people who work for government funded institutions like the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and Universities. The Saraswati Heritage Project was canned by the government since it was seen as an attempt to push the antiquity of Indian civilization. (If these people were around in 1921, they would have halted archaeology at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa which pushed the antiquity of Indian civilization by many millennia)

Recently the Government of India cut funding for a major Sanskrit program in schools because – it is getting tad repetitive – India has a large Muslim population and there was a fear that it would instil religious and cultural pride among students. In such an atmosphere, it would be naive to expect the government to lead the battle in understanding our history. Instead of wasting time writing letters to ministers, we might be better off digging in our own backyard for Painted Grey Ware.

The second problem is mentioned in the Lawler’s article itself. Indian archaeologists have done excellent work, like R. S. Bisht in Dholavira and Vasant Shinde in Farmana, but they are slow to publish and collaborate. Bisht’s work has revealed “monumental and aesthetic architecture, a large stadium and an efficient water-management system”, but has largely been unpublished. The lack of data from people who had first access to the location helps in sustaining myths about the civilization.

Solutions

There is an urgent need to create institutions where scholarship is free of bureaucracy and political interference. One such institution — the Indus Heritage Center — funded by the Global Heritage Fund is coming up in Vadodara. Besides starting a Smithsonian class center in India, the center also plans to popularize the findings of Deccan College, the Department of Archaeology of Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and the Archaeological Survey of India.

There have been xenophobic comments regarding this institution due to the involvement of western professors, even though the professors don’t believe in the Aryan Invasion theory. The fear is that they will be applying western frameworks on our history resulting in misinterpretation.

But instead of complaining about west, it is time we adopted some of their techniques for popularizing history. Building a Smithsonian style museum is an insuperable problem for the cash strapped ASI which can barely manage the monuments under its care. The Indus Heritage Center model where private donors in association with various colleges build research centers in which native interpretation of history can happen should be considered. Right now there are few sincere individuals who are involved in correcting Western biases; their efforts are exemplary but not sufficient to make an impact.

PhotobucketPast many decades of research have found no archaeological evidence for the Aryan Invasion theory. It has been discredited through genetic research as well. The demise of Indus valley is understood to be due to hydrological changes. Still, pick up a book like Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions, which is used as text book in graduate courses, and you will find that colonial politics is still alive and any divarication is branded as nationalism.

One Indus Heritage Center cannot change such entrenched ideas. To give the megaphone to differing voices, more Indus Heritage Centers which are financially secure are required. This dovetails into the larger debate about the need to free higher education and research from government control and facilitate an atmosphere where private capital can provide funding. With such freedom, scholars would be able to delve into research as they see fit, instead of surrendering to artificial political fears.

Five thousand years back our ancestor living in the Indus Valley sailed across the vast Arabian sea in reed boats with cotton sails and made the best of the Bronze age globalized world. It would be a shame, if we did not show even a fraction of their ingenuity in making our voice heard in a debate about our history.

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Posted in Essays, History: General, Published.