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Of Rajaram's 'Horses', 'decipherment', and civilisational issues

Print edition : Nov 11, 2000 T+T-
Deciphering t he Indus ScriptCorpus of Indus Seals and InscriptionsFrontlineASKO PARPOLA

India has a truly glorious past. It is sad that India's heritage should be exploited by some individuals - usually people with few, if any, academic credentials - who for political or personal motives are ready even to falsify evidence. In order to vindi cate their ideology and promote their own ends, these persons appeal to the feelings of the 'common man' who, with full reason, is proud of his or her country's grand heritage. They suggest that this grandeur is denigrated by their opponents, particularl y by foreign scholars. There is no need, however, to twist the facts in order to establish the greatness of India's past. Of all people, Indologists, including foreign Indologists, are among the first to acknowledge and admire the great achievements of I ndian civilisation.

Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer have shown that N.S. Rajaram has no scruples in falsifying evidence to suit his claims. Thus far Rajaram has got away with this dishonesty because the scholarly community has not considered his work worthy of serious consi deration: it has been taken more or less for granted that any sensible person can see through this trash and recognise it as such. However, the escalation of this nonsensical propaganda now demands that the issue be addressed. Frontline has clearl y exposed the untenability of Rajaram's arguments. Having been invited to comment on Rajaram's 'Horse II,' I would like to point out just a few facts.

On the cover of Frontline, Seal M-18 from Mohenjo-daro has been depicted four times larger than its natural size. The Harappans were unable to see the fine details from which Rajaram presumes to distinguish the head of a horse. The psychologist He rmann Rorschach developed a projective technique to assess personality characteristics in which the individual is presented with ambiguous charts of ink blots, which he then interprets; different persons see different things in them, as they see in the v arying patterns of clouds. In like manner, Rajaram is looking for horses, and therefore sees them in patterns where they do not actually exist. In this case, his interpretation of certain details as a horse may seem to have some plausibility when an enla rged photograph taken from a particular direction with particular lighting is viewed, but the illusion disappears and the pattern intended by the seal carver is clearly distinguished when we take a look at the impression made with the seal. Rajaram's 'ho rse' is part of a composite Indus sign, the last one of a three-sign inscription forming one line. The sign consists of two elements. The upper, roof-like element occurs in several other composite signs, while the lower element has so far been found in t his seal alone.

The 'horse argument' is an important criterion in determining the linguistic affinity of the founders of the Indus Civilisation, as pointed out in my book Deciphering the Indus Script (Cambridge University Press, 1994), and by Witzel and Farmer in their Frontline article. In the Rigveda, the horse is an animal of great cultural and religious significance, being mentioned hundreds of times. Yet so far not a single representation of the horse has been found on the thousands of seals or the n umerous terracotta figurines of the Indus Civilisation, although many other animals, real and imaginary, were depicted by the Harappans. Further, Richard H. Meadow, one the world's best experts on ancient animal bones, assures us that not a single horse bone has been securely identified from the Indus Valley or elsewhere in South Asia before the end of the third millennium BCE, when the Indus Civilisation collapsed. By contrast, horse bones are found, and the horse is depicted, just a few centuries late r in the Indus Valley, in Gujarat and in Maharashtra, suggesting that by that time speakers of Aryan (or Indo-Iranian) languages had already entered South Asia, bringing with them this animal that was venerated by all early Indo-European-speaking peoples .

On the basis of new archaeological evidence from Afghanistan and Pakistan, I am inclined to think that the infiltration of small numbers of Aryan speakers to the Indus Valley and beyond started as early as the last urban phase of the Indus Civilisation, from about the 21st century BCE onwards. (These Aryans were not yet those of the Rigveda, who arrived a couple of centuries later.) The early Aryan-speaking immigrants came through Central Asia from the Eurasiatic steppes, the native habitat of the horse and the region where it appears to have first been domesticated. As demonstrated by H. H. Hock in his paper "Out of India? The linguistic evidence," published in J. Bronkhorst and M. M. Deshpande (eds.), Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia, Cambrid ge, Mass., 1999, it is impossible to derive the Aryan or Indo-European languages from South Asia by valid linguistic methods. In other words, it is untenable scientifically to postulate a South Asian origin for these languages.

In my book, I have presented numerous facts suggesting that the Harappans mainly spoke a Dravidian language. The Harappans are estimated to have totalled at least one million people, while the primarily pastoralist Aryan-speaking immigrants could have nu mbered only a small fraction of this. Eventually, however, the language of the minority prevailed over the majority. There are numerous parallels to such a development. Almost the whole continent of South America now speaks Spanish or Portuguese, while t he Native American ('Indian') languages spoken there before the arrival of the European conquerors are about to vanish. This linguistic change has taken place in 500 years, and was initiated by just 300 well-armed adventurers. In 400 years, the British m anaged to establish their language and culture very widely in South Asia. To conflate the identity of the Vedic and Harappan cultures and to deny the external origin of Sanskrit and other Indo-Aryan languages is as absurd as to claim, as Dayananda Sarasv ati did, that the railway trains and aeroplanes that were introduced in South Asia by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries had already been invented by the Vedic Aryans.

It is sad that in South Asia, as elsewhere in the world, linguistic and religious controversies are the cause of so much injustice and suffering. We should remember that from the very beginning, Aryan and non-Aryan languages and associated cultures, reli gions and peoples have intermingled and have become inextricably mixed. Every element of the population has contributed to the creation of Indian civilisation, and every one of them deserves credit for it.