About a Chariot in Prehistory: The Rediscovery of India

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Recent archaeological studies shed some light on 1,500 years after the collapse of the Harappan civilisation

ABOUT 15 YEARS AGO, a farmer from the village of Sinauli, in western Uttar Pradesh, roughly a two-hour drive from Delhi, was levelling his field when he began to come across bones and potsherds. As the number of items increased, the find made it to a news report and when a team from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) arrived, they noted with anxiety the contamination done to potentially important remains. Villagers, for instance, had taken whatever caught their fancy; a piece of a skull had been cleaned with water and damaged. The archaeologists went about collecting all of it. Pottery pieces indicated that they were once elliptical vases, lotas, bowls of varying depths and lids. There was also a copper antenna sword. Just how archaeologically significant the site was began to unfurl when formal excavations commenced in 2005. They found 116 graves, a large number of them intact, with the head facing the north. There were double and triple burials together. Bodies had been laid along with copper objects and gold ornaments.

In 2018, Sinauli returned to the news again. Another round of excavations had begun and from out of the earth, near coffins, unexpectedly came two chariots. A paper in the Indian Journal of Archaeology describes the chariot: ‘Its wheels are solid and studded with triangular pieces of copper. The light frame of the carriage has a curved chassis made of rounded wood... A long shaft was fixed to the chassis. Joint has been covered with thin copper plate… The long shaft must have been attached to a transverse yoke. The upper end of the front side of the carriage helped the driver in remaining stable while the chariot was being driven. It appears that this chariot carried two persons.’ Another round of excavations is now on at the site. Sinauli is the first evidence of a chariot in India, but even more important is the date of when it was supposed to have been present. In the mainstream imagination, the Harappan, a Bronze Age civilisation, is associated with planned cities, writing and trade with far-off places like Mesopotamia. But that actually denotes its Mature Phase, which is dated from 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE. The lead up to it is known as the Early Phase and what followed after its collapse is the Late Phase.

The Sinauli site is dated to the Late Harappan. There is vast archeological evidence of the Mature Phase. But its aftermath in India, from about 1900 BCE to the second urbanisation of India around the 6th century BCE, is something of a one-and-half-millennia long hazy zone. This is mainly because there are neither any major remains like the great cities of its yore, nor is there writing available to tell its story. Archaeology is, however, now beginning to throw some light into this period. The jigsaw puzzle is a long way from being solved but a chariot adds one more piece to it.

The recently published book, Which Of Us Are Aryans (Aleph; 224 pages; Rs 499), has a series of essays on questions around the Aryans and their relationship to Indian history. It has been lately a subject of considerable political attention because of a right-wing movement to establish that the Aryans migrated out of India, instead of coming here. The essays in the book are by scholars in varied fields, like historian Romila Thapar, linguist Michael Witzel and geneticist Razib Khan. Jaya Menon, an archaeologist who heads the department of history at Shiv Nadar University, focuses on the aftermath of the Harappan era. Allusion to this period, at least beyond academia, is through the prism of the Aryans. Menon’s essay, however, focuses not so much on the Aryan question as the archaeological tale of the time. It is noteworthy because no matter who and what the direction of the Aryans were, what is irrefutable is that millions of people stayed in India at the time and their story can be told de-hyphenated.

A striking element in the picture she draws, through extensive collation of research in the area, is that of reversal. After the collapse of the Mature Phase, the region seems to resemble what it had been before 700 years. Irrigation goes from rain-fed to river-fed to rain- fed again; crop processing from being done within households to centralised to within households again. Some of the ceramics of the Early Phase begin to dominate in the Late Phase again. And even the use of animals. In the Early Phase, sheep and goats dominated, then it was cattle during the Mature Phase, and when it collapsed, the Late Harappan saw a return of the sheep and goat. Menon quotes a paper that has an explanation for why cattle—which ties to carts which ties to long distance transport—became less important. She writes, ‘Rita P Wright suggests that animals were less necessary for traction, and for long distance exchange networks. This implies more local, subsistence level communities in the later period.’ And, on another page, Menon sums up the overall phenomenon of the reversal with these words: ‘It is as if the Mature Harappan period overrode local ways of life for a brief period’.

“The find of chariots is rather exciting because it’s not a vehicle of the Harappans, they were more familiar with the bullock cart which is a slower vehicle. A chariot also opens up the possibilities of perhaps the horse,” says Jaya Menon, archaeologist

Except that the period is 700 years. Imagine if Indian civilisation collapsed today and life reverted to as it was in 1319 AD; a diet, for example, that has no onions, tomatoes, green chillies or potatoes; trade limited by bullock carts, wars fought with swords and so on. How can a society reverse back seven centuries? In a phone interview, Menon suggests that it might sound extraordinary only because of our experience of civilisation today and the past doesn’t need to adhere to that. Human progress, instead of a straight line, is more of a series of ups and downs. “We know that historically, there are very often reversals. Let me give you an example. You have Mauryans in the region of Bihar [Magadh then, from the 4th to the 2nd century BCE]. But after the Mauryan empire, that area completely collapses, and the entire focus—political, art, architecture, urbanism—shifts to the region around Mathura. Depending on many reasons—political, environmental, religious—there is not necessarily a progression from simple to more complex systems. In the Harappan case, there were probably a number of these small traditions—people living in small communities with local networks. And then there is what is called as a great tradition which overrides all of these and sort of unifies everything, which is how we understand the [Mature] Harappan. And then that great tradition collapses for various reasons. The little traditions continue to survive and are resuscitated in a sense. I don’t want to label that great tradition and say this is the political state. But many people have actually seen it in terms of a state, as the great tradition overriding the little traditions, which may be chiefships or tribal societies or whatever.”

Archaeological evidence points to the disappearance of cities in India after the collapse. There is a near simultaneous increase in the density of small settlements that spread mainly eastwards from what used to be cities. Adam Green, a post-doctoral research fellow in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, specialises in the comparative study of early states. One of his papers looked at the post-collapse settlement distributions in northwestern India by developing a database of all the archaeological surveys done in the region and analysing them. His paper notes, ‘As people left Indus cities, they appear to have populated particular areas, establishing new smallscale settlements and re-occupying mounds that had been abandoned in earlier periods. This apparent shift both resulted from and contributed to a process of de-urbanization, wherein smaller and more dispersed settlements replaced larger population aggregations.’

To a question of how he would envisage the change in the lives of people, he says over email, ‘In some ways, it would be much easier to answer this question two or three years from now. We are only at the very beginning of understanding what de-urbanisation was in a theoretical sense. In the Indus, people appear to have, over time, given up cities, which is rare in the global archaeological record, so the process deserves careful study. A range of technologies, like writing, were lost, but others were kept and transformed. One thing that our paper added is that this ‘shift to the east’ was not so simple, and that certain areas were favored for settlement. People favored living in some areas that had been more thinly occupied during the Mature Harappan, but they also continued to live in some areas that had been major population centers when Indus cities were at their height. To be frank, the process was complex, and much more research is needed to understand it.’

“In the Indus, people appear to have, over time, given up cities, which is rare in the global archaeological record. A range of technologies, like writing, were lost, but others were kept,” says Adam Green, post-doctoral fellow, University of Cambridge

ONE WAY TO IMAGINE the 1,500 years after the Harappan collapse would be a subcontinent peppered with only villages and also agro-pastoralists, people who switched between agriculture and moving around with livestock. Menon’s essay talks about an archaeological survey done in the Cholistan region bordering the Thar desert that compared the settlements between the Mature Harappan and its aftermath. One of its finds was an increase in campsites. Menon says, “Campsites are generally understood as [indicating] nomadic population, people who are not constructing permanent structures and houses. Usually these are understood as pastoralists or nomadic crafters.” Initially after the collapse, the increase in settlement density was in the region between the Indus and the Yamuna, that includes Haryana, Indian Punjab, western Uttar Pradesh. Menon says, “Even if you look at Mughal records, there is a lot of pastoralism in this area. Definitely as far back as the post-Harappan period, there would have been some people moving with animals.” How much people moved, whether it was seasonal or around the year, is still an open question. “It’s difficult archaeologically to figure that out,” she says.

Menon envisages the period between the two urbanisations being of small villages, smaller networks among them, as against the large networks that led to trade with Mesopotamia and other distant places found in the Harappan. “Those have all gone at this time. It is all local networks, a lot of mud-brick construction and perhaps some new crops coming in,” she says.

Diet also changed with the shrinking of the settlements. Rice and millets, which were dependent on summer rainfall, couldn’t support large urban centres and Harappans primarily relied on wheat and barley. After the collapse, there are indications of rice cultivation. “It is in the Later period that we are finding more evidence of rice. I think dietary changes would have been there, particularly with the onset of rice cultivation.”

The Late Harappan then melds into the Iron Age of India, dated from around 1500 BCE, which leads to the second urbanisation, a thousand years later. But this happens in a different region around eastern UP and Bihar. One urbanisation didn’t lead to the other; the second was a separate journey in India, marked by the advent of kingdoms and writing. Since the Harappan writing is found mostly in seals, it probably came about as an imperative of trade. But how can writing, once discovered, be lost? Menon says, “The only way to look at it is that the logic for writing in the Harappan case seems to have been no longer there. What is writing normally used for? If you take the Mesopotamian case, writing basically came into being for recording transactions related to the temple and palace—think of it as a bureaucratic mechanism. In Shang China, it was largely for ritual purposes. In Egypt, it is for recording and also for the state to put out proclamations and edicts. Even if you look at the Indian case, after Harappa, the next writing we find is on the Ashokan pillars, again something which are proclamations, right? In the aftermath of the Harappan, there is no more need to have a recording system, that’s the best way to understand it. And you see it also as the absence of the state and more regional village-based smaller societies, that didn’t need to communicate through writing. Even in the present, we can actually look at many societies, particularly in some of the tribal areas, where they never actually needed to write.”

Excavation in Sinauli, Baghpat district, sheds new light on the period precisely because of the scant archeological material in the post-Mature Harappan. It being a burial site is particularly helpful. “Burials are very interesting, because we can get some DNA, which can give us added information. But also, it’s very interesting to see the kind of burials that we are getting. It gives us an idea for the diversity of practices. The find of chariots is rather exciting because it’s not a vehicle of the Harappans, they were more familiar with the bullock cart which is a slower vehicle. A chariot is a faster vehicle and it opens up the possibilities of then perhaps the horse,” says Menon.

The horse is tied to the Indo-Aryan debate because the Rig Veda is replete with its allusions. For the Harappans to be ones who wrote the Rig Veda, as the right-wing seeks to affirm, horse bones need to be found and that has not happened except in a one debatable case. For any final conclusions, either the Harappan writing must be deciphered or there needs to be some extraordinary archaeological find. But till such time, instead of being held captive by the Aryan question, knowing what can be known for certain in those 1,500 years might be a better way to appreciate our prehistory.