Who really were the Aryans?

In posthumously published Aryans, Charles Allen explores in meticulous detail the contentious history and politicisation of the Aryan identity.

Published : May 16, 2024 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

The Kotas of the Nilgiris pray for rain. 

The Kotas of the Nilgiris pray for rain.  | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

Aryans: The Search for a People, a Place and a Myth is the last book that Charles Allen, who passed away in 2020 at the age of 80, wrote. This was his 27th book, and he died without completing it. In a moving introduction, Allen’s friend David Loyn, who edited the manuscript, shares the story of the making of the book, reflecting upon contemporary political developments in India that worried Allen in his last years and made him undertake this project. Loyn speaks of the “sorrow at the way professional historical research has been hijacked in modern India by some in the politico-religious Hindutva movement who are politically ascendant and who have been looking for a founding narrative for a newly emerging power on the world stage”.

In India’s political climate today, it is only to be expected that a book on the Aryans will have a politically charged reception. Allen aligns himself with professional historians and archaeologists whose works are based upon facts and inferences drawn from linguistics, archaeology, religious literature, and genetics. He produces a factually plentiful narrative in 11 chapters that are each, in effect, little monographs, which leave the reader asking for more.

Aryans: The Search for a People, a Place and a Myth
By Charles Allen
Hachette India
Pages: xii + 388
Price: Rs.799

Consider, for instance, Chapter III, where Allen gives an account of the Scythians from the 8th to the 5th centuries BCE, based in some parts on Herodotus. “What have they got to do,” writes Allen, “with the Aryans and the origins of the Indo-European language family two thousand years earlier? Why Herodotus?” Allen writes that these Scythians were “descendants of those members of the Indo-European-speaking family that stayed behind.... They are, so to speak, a curtain-raiser to the main show.” One flips through the pages in vain for the main show! Each chapter is, in this sense, a telescoped account of a bigger story.

Diverse geographies

Allen is not a theorist or a methodologically scrupulous historian. He is a chronicler, piecing together carefully picked evidence to tell an interesting story, as most readers of his 2012 book, Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor, can tell. His interests have ranged from Indian maharajas and British soldiers to Francis Younghusband and Rudyard Kipling, his geographies are as diverse as Tibet, the Coromandel, and the South China Sea. Allen’s storytelling skills are on rich display in the present work too.

Cover of Aryans: The Search for a People, a Place and a Myth

Cover of Aryans: The Search for a People, a Place and a Myth | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The first part of the book, drawing mostly upon works of literature and philology, describes the making of the discourse on the Aryan race between the latter half of the 18th century and the earlier half of the 20th. Here we read succinctly of a number of diverse figures, including Heinrich Schliemann; Joseph-Arthur, Comte de Gobineau; Friedrich Schlegel; A.-H. Anquetil-Duperron; Max Müller; and Adolf Hitler, who shaped the Aryan discourse. Allen takes his readers through the outliers of the checkered history of such ideas as the swastika symbol, the Indo-European language family, and the Aryan race. We get snippets of a wide range of eccentric and sober things that were written about the Aryans. We learn, for instance, of Guido von List, who held that “the Aryans were Gottmenschen (god-men) sired by a race of divine space travellers”, and of Otto Schrader, who argued on the basis of linguistic evidence that “the earliest speakers of Proto-Indo-European must have lived in a country where salmon, or a salmon-like fish, was abundant”.

In the second part, which has four chapters, Allen continues examining the literary evidence but turns increasingly to the history of Aryan archaeology. Allen’s attempt here is to endorse a dominant view current today that the Aryans inhabited the Kurgan horizon in the Pontic-Caspian Steppes, especially in Ukraine and southern Russia, so named after burial mounds known locally as the kurgan. He reflects upon possible migrations from the Maykop settlements north-east of the Black Sea to the region occupied by the Yamnaya burial sites to the north, from where they are thought to have moved in different directions.

Fire, maths and the wheel

Allen introduces the kurgan on the very first page of this part and elaborates it in a chapter entitled “the Kurgan Hypothesis”. The pastoralists of the steppes, he says, came to be equipped with three elements, the ridden horse, the four-wheeled wagon drawn by an ox, and the two-wheeled chariot drawn by a horse, which “go a long way towards explaining the explosive expansion of the pastoralist tribes that began some 4,500 years ago on the Eurasian steppe”. This reminds one of another such checklist that Madampu Kunjukuttan produced in his Malayalam novel Aryavartham, in which the Aryans, originally inhabiting the valley of the Mt Kailasa, were equipped with three things: fire, mathematics, and the wheel.

Now, Allen writes that the oldest known representation yet of a four-wheeled vehicle comes from Bronocice in Poland from 3400 BCE, and that the earliest evidence yet of horse breeding is from Botai, Kazakhstan, going back to the 4th millennium BCE. The remains of the horse found from Gohar Tappeh is dated 3400 BCE, nearly as old as the Botai horse. The linguistic evidence occurring as words of common origin for flora and fauna in Proto-Indo-European is also not specific to the Kurgan horizon of the Pontic-Caspian Steppes but can be noticed in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and northern Iran. Here is a body of evidence from diverse contexts that are pieced together with no justifiable reason or method to trace the origins of a human group that might have never existed.

Indo-European expansions: the Kurgan Hypothesis. Steppe cultures: 1. (black) Anatolian languages 2. (black) Afanasievo 3. (black) Yamnaya culture expansion. (black) Western Corded Ware 4B-C. (blue & dark blue) Bell Beaker, adopted by Indo-European speakers 5A-B. (red) Eastern Corded Ware 5C. (red) Sintashta (proto-Indo-Iranian) 6. (magenta) Andronovo 7A. (purple) Indo-Aryans (Mittani) 7B. (purple) Indo-Aryans (India) . (dark yellow) proto-Balto-Slavic 8. (grey) Greek 9. (yellow) Iranian

Indo-European expansions: the Kurgan Hypothesis. Steppe cultures: 1. (black) Anatolian languages 2. (black) Afanasievo 3. (black) Yamnaya culture expansion. (black) Western Corded Ware 4B-C. (blue & dark blue) Bell Beaker, adopted by Indo-European speakers 5A-B. (red) Eastern Corded Ware 5C. (red) Sintashta (proto-Indo-Iranian) 6. (magenta) Andronovo 7A. (purple) Indo-Aryans (Mittani) 7B. (purple) Indo-Aryans (India) . (dark yellow) proto-Balto-Slavic 8. (grey) Greek 9. (yellow) Iranian | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

Genetics leads the story into other directions. One study, based on genetic samples from our times, posits in the light of the overwhelming DNA frequency noticed today that the haplogroup R1a, often showcased as present in the speakers of Proto-Indo-European, possibly originated 25,000 years ago in Iran. Contrarily, another study based on skeletal samples holds that R1a was completely absent in Iran before 2000 BCE. This latter study is a note of caution against reading current genetic evidence back into the past. All the same, it falls into the same trap. It draws the conclusion that the Steppe ancestry in the 1,789 present-day DNA samples collected from South Asian individuals goes back to the late Bronze Age.

The practice of associating language groups with the genes they carry is as ridiculous as it is hazardous. One study reports that the R1a1-M17 occurs in 19.35 per cent of the Kotas of the Nilgiris and 23.53 per cent of Mukkuvars but is completely absent among two Brahmin groups thought to have migrated to southern India from the north, the Iyengars and the Vadamas. The data are extremely limited. It should guard us from drawing hasty conclusions. Even so, the existing information urges us to be deeply sceptical of the language-genetics linkages. It is not a little surprising, then, that researchers continue to encourage this line of thinking even when they declare that “the presence and overall frequency of haplogroup R1a does not distinguish Indo-Iranian, Finno-Ugric, Dravidian or Turkic speakers from each other”. Old habits die hard, perhaps?

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The geneticist’s interest in the Pontic-Caspian Steppes has to do with the fact that the R1a occurs with an amazing 100 per cent frequency in the samples obtained there. Applying this method to other spheres of human history, one would be tempted to argue that Christianity originated in Timor-Leste, where 99.6 per cent of the population is Christian, a figure that the Levant could never reach!

Like a seasoned YouTuber

Returning to Allen, it must be said that the fixation for the Pontic-Caspian Steppes is only that: a mere fixation. The story is more complex than what the migration-from-the-Kurgan-Horizon thesis posits. Allen is certainly aware of the limitations of the thesis. “The ‘Kurgan Hypothesis’,” he writes, “continues to underpin the Indo-European origins debate to this day, but it is not the last word on the subject. It remains a weakness that it does not prove archaeological and cultural links between the Bronze Age culture of the Pontic-Caspian steppe and Hittite Anatolia, Vedic India and Avestan Iran.”

In the third part of the book with four chapters, Allen turns to Iran and South Asia. The discussion in Chapter VII takes the reader, like a seasoned YouTuber, on a quick tour of sites such as Mohenjo-Daro, Kalibangan, Kausambi, and Daimabad. By the end of the chapter, we reach Patan in Nepal where a terracotta chariot dated between 1600-300 BCE was found. The chapter ends with an anticlimax. “Patan’s association with chariots,” Allen writes, “is not entirely gone. In my youth, I had the pleasure of watching the annual festival Rato Machindranath Jatra, when a giant 60-foot-high four-wheeled chariot is dragged through the streets of Patan in honour of Machindranath, the god of rain.”

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In the two following chapters, there is an attempt to trace on the basis of the Vendidad the route that the Indo-Iranian migration is likely to have taken, in the course of which the great split between the Iranian Ariyas and the Indian Aryas occurred. The last chapter of the third part and the solitary chapter that constitutes the fourth part are the poorest sections of the book. Here, Allen is more political and polemical as he discusses what it means today in India to speak of the Aryans.

In these chapters, Allen gives snippets of a range of unsystematically gathered views, which generally take strong positions than make reasoned assessments. He lends the same weightage to professional and unprofessional literature on the Aryan question even as he weighs in favour of the former. A bewildering assortment of figures from Raja Rammohun Roy to Narendra Modi appears here. We meet with geneticists, historians, philologists, archaeologists, botanists, Indologists, leaders of the national movement, Hindutva’s ideologues and its autodidact knowledge-producers, art dealers, manuscript collectors, politicians, ochre-robed saints, theosophists, and more, making the reader wonder why so much is crammed into these pages when there is so little to say.

Charles Allen’s Aryans is best described as an engaging book written for the non-professionals by a non-professional. One must admit that the book is a page-turner. It has enough material to ignite the layperson’s thoughts, but the trained scholar is not likely to receive it as an erudite piece of scholarship.

Manu V. Devadevan is Associate Professor of History at the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.

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