Questionable agendas and assertions

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

Some assertions made at a gallery on the Harappan civilisation, inaugurated recently at the National Museum in Delhi, generate a debate among scholars.

EVERY form of political allegiance exerts its own influence on scholarship - occasionally for the better, often for the worse. Since "cultural nationalism" as a political doctrine is premised upon primordial notions of belonging to a territory defined on ly in modern times, it often has to perform curious contortions of historical interpretation to justify its presuppositions about the past. But historical evidence has its own autonomy which resists the meddlesome attitudes of the contemporary academic h uckster. The excesses of N.S. Rajaram, David Frawley and others of that stripe in seeking an Aryan-Vedic provenance for the Harappan civilisation have, fortunately, failed to sway anybody but the most gullible. But a measure of subtlety often achieves th e results that the Rajaram variety of crudity seeks in vain.

For historians and the lay public alike, the recent inauguration of a gallery on Harappan civilisation at the National Museum in Delhi was an occasion for celebration. The various depictions of the Harappan period in history, as also the relics and artef acts recovered from the excavations at these sites, have so far been scattered in diverse sources and locations. The National Museum exhibition brings these together under one roof, providing any visitor with an easily accessible survey of the material c ulture of the Harappan period.

After the initial celebrations, though, an element of sobriety intervened. Harappan interpretations have remained a domain of some ambiguity, in large part because of the paucity of textual sources and a scholarly inability to decipher definitively the a vailable seals and notations. Authentic efforts at interpretation have often had to fight off the baneful effects of politically motivated readings that purport to see clear evidence of cultural contiguity between the Harappan and Vedic civilisations. It did not take long for the first celebratory flush to abate and for scholars to focus their attention on certain questionable assertions made in the National Museum gallery.

The debate now beginning in the scholarly community revolves around three themes that the gallery at the National Museum projects. Perhaps the most vulnerable aspect of the gallery is its rather suspicious reading of the orientation of the Harappan scrip t, which goes against all accepted canons. A second aspect which is likely to prove contentious is the insistence that the river Saraswati was perhaps as important as the Indus in providing the material nourishment necessary for a civilisation to flouris h. And finally, the new exhibit makes a rather transparent effort to extrapolate the rituals and religious beliefs from a distinct civilisational epoch backwards into the Harappan culture.

The shift in scholarly attitudes is typified by Shereen Ratnagar, an experienced field archaeologist who has consistently opposed the excesses of the Hindutva school. In an article published in early-October, she did an effective job of demolishing many of the new doctrines that Hindutva-oriented archaeologists have been seeking to foist on interpretations of the past. She ended though, with a laudatory reference to the National Museum for having avoided these pitfalls in assembling its Harappan gallery .

When contacted by Frontline later, Ratnagar was less categorical. While the gallery was visually very good and chronologically accurate, she was not entirely convinced that it adequately reflected the many complexities of interpreting the Harappan age.

Jaya Menon, lecturer in archaeology at M.S. University, Baroda, thinks the gallery is unexceptionable in its overall impact, though specific details could occasion some disquiet. One of her principal reservations is over the assertion made in the opening textual panel in the gallery - which introduces the viewer to the civilisation - that the Harappan script was written from left to right. This, she says, is contrary to all known exercises in interpreting the script. The archaeologist B.B. Lal had shown as far back as the 1960s that the script was written from right to left, with a left-right orientation in a few cases, as for example when the scribe ran out of space and had to accommodate a few more characters. All subsequent scholarship has concurred with this view.

Polychrome pots, 3000 B.C; Nal (Pakistan).

The curators of the Harappa gallery are unconvincing when they seek to explain this departure from accepted norms of interpretation. R.S. Bisht, Director in the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), accepts responsibility for the authorship of the introd uctory panel, but insists that his account was in conformity with the established canons. However, since he did not read the panel before it was mounted at the National Museum, he believes that a typographical error could have crept in at a later stage. If so, he affirms, the necessary corrections would soon be made.

D.P. Sharma, Keeper in the National Museum, collaborated with Bisht in putting up the Harappan gallery, though he remains unconvinced by the plea that a typographical error could have crept into the introductory panel. Indeed, Sharma feels aggrieved that several sections of a book he had written on Harappan seals to coincide with the opening of the gallery were excised because they were contrary to the new ideological slant that is being given to that period of history. Among the portions deleted is one which quite unambiguously upholds the existing interpretation that the Harappan script was written, with rare exceptions, from right to left.

Curiously, the chairman of the advisory council for National Museum publications is B.B. Lal himself. During his frequent absences, the overall authority over publications is exercised by S.P. Gupta, who distinguished himself all through the 1990s as an active propagandist for the cause of the Ram temple at Ayodhya. Gupta's involvement raises the suspicion that conscious political design, rather than innocent typographical error, may underlie the new interpretation being placed on the Harappan script. I n fact, as Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer have shown in Frontline (October 13, 2000, page 12), the supposed left to right orientation of the script is a transparent attempt to "force fit" the Harappan characters into "Sanskrit moulds," thereby re inforcing the case for viewing the Vedic and Harappan civilisations as closely akin if not identical.

The emphasis on the river Saraswati perhaps originates in the same ideological agenda. It is known now that a number of Harappan sites existed on the banks of the Ghaggar river system, which rises in the Shivalik ranges and flows through Haryana and Raja sthan before entering Pakistan, where it is known as the Hakra. The Ghaggar has long since run dry and is now little more than a rainwater drain for the Shivaliks.

One of the minor rivulets of the Ghaggar system is known to this day as the Sarsuti, providing ideologically inspired archaeologists with the basis to read a Vedic provenance for Harappan sites discovered on its banks. Scholars have pointed out that the modest dimensions of the Ghaggar hardly match the majestic accounts of the Saraswati given in the Rigveda. Ratnagar, in turn, thinks it perfectly logical that many more ancient sites should survive on the banks of a defunct river like the Ghaggar than be side a swift flowing river like the Indus. The number of sites discovered in the Ghaggar region, in other words, does not testify to its primacy over the Indus or even equal importance.

Rajesh Kocchar, Director of the National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, Delhi, believes that even if all geological and ecological shifts over history are accounted for, it is difficult to identify the Ghaggar with the Vedic Sa raswati. Suraj Bhan, former Professor of Archaeology at Kurukshetra University, also discounts the new orthodoxy about the fundamental importance of the Saraswati. There is little evidence, he says, to overturn the accepted interpretation that the epicen tre of the Harappan civilisation lay in the central Indus valley. There was undoubtedly an eastward expansion of these cultures into the Ghaggar region, but the upper course of what is now called the Saraswati "was occupied only in the late Harappan time s as the evidence goes."

Further controversy has been occasioned by a showcase in the Harappan gallery purporting to display the artefacts of "religion and rituals." Suraj Bhan has argued that these represent a number of objects of indeterminate cultural provenance that cannot i n a scientific sense be identified with later religious practices. But that has not prevented the curators of the gallery from designating one of the recovered stone objects as a "Siva-linga" and labelling various human figurines as "Yoga" practitioners. Similarly, Suraj Bhan points out, the gallery describes the remnants of certain clay ovens and pits that have been unearthed as "fire altars". The obvious intent, he thinks, is to establish a cultural affinity with the Vedic practice of fire worship.

Carnelian necklace and pot, depicting horned deity Pasupati; 2800 B.C.

The eminent historian R.S. Sharma has shown with the aid of a wealth of textual references that the structure and form of the fire pits unearthed in the Harappan sites do not conform to the sacrificial altars of the Vedas. The term "fire altar," he says, is only used as a descriptive convenience. But this does not mean that the historian can accept that cultural practices in the Harappan civilisation were akin to those described in the Vedic texts. Such an inference would strain credibility and go again st all the evidence marshalled by archaeology.

Bisht is not inclined to concede this point. Ritualism, he argues, became highly elaborated in the later Vedic period, though the rudiments of these practices could have been present in the Harappan culture. Neither is he willing to acknowledge that no c lear identity can be drawn between the Vedic Saraswati and the Ghaggar river system.

Evidently, these rather self-assured claims are unlikely to survive the minute scrutiny of the community of historians and archaeologists, which is only now beginning. The gaffe made in the interpretation of the Harappan script may be only the beginning of the travails that the National Museum exhibit will be undergoing in the months to come.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment