Hold Your Horses

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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The horse scenes in the film Mohenjo Daro reignite the political debate on the civilisational ancestry of Indians

IN THE RECENTLY released movie Mohenjo Daro, as soon as its main character, played by the actor Hrithik Roshan, enters the Indus Valley city for the first time from his faraway village, he sees two strange creatures being led on foot. He asks their owners what these things are and one of them answers, “ghoda”. A few scenes later, when four horses break loose of their chains and are about to trample the heroine, Roshan comes in between and leaps astride to bring them under control. Even before the film was released, when a snatch of this cheesy formulaic scene was shown in its trailers, there was a slew of commentaries, particularly online, about the silliness of showing horses in the Indus Valley. Ashutosh Gowariker, its director, had earlier maintained that he had consulted experts to research the period. His initial primary reference had been works by archaeologist John Mark Kenoyer. “I immediately got in touch with Kenoyer, Department of Anthropology, University of Wisconsin, to seek his assistance. He has worked at the Mohenjo Daro excavation site for the past 35 years. To my good fortune, he agreed to help me realise the true potential of the story on film,” Gowariker had told PTI.

The archaeologist is a respected authority on Indus Valley studies and, while a movie is allowed creative liberties, it seemed odd that such an elementary error as depicting horses would be made. I wrote to Kenoyer requesting an email interview. He was travelling and said he would not be able to do it, but added, ‘The movie does not promote the view that the Indus Civilization had horses. It shows clearly that they are from outside the region and were strange to the Indus people.’

There is, however, disagreement over that too in academic circles. One researcher I spoke to said that domesticated horses, essentially an animal of the American continent, came to Central Asia first around 3000 BCE, and while the Indus Valley people have been known to have travelled westwards to Oman, the Iranian Sea, Sumer and Mesopotamia, there is little evidence of them being in contact with Central Asians. Ergo, they couldn’t have even traded horses.

In academia, the prevailing view is that the Indus Valley people didn’t know the horse. However, another group comprising largely amateur researchers, who get accused of promoting Hindutva revisionist history, say that the horse was in fact known to Harappans intimately. Both look at the same piece of evidence and where the latter see a horse, the former see a wild ass.

Archaeologist Shereen Ratnagar, a former Jawaharlal Nehru Univeristy professor who specialises in the Indus Valley Civilisation and has authored a number of books on it, says the question of whether horses were there essentially pivots around whether horse bones have been found. “Once or twice people have said that horse bones have been found. I think there can be confusion because the horse comes from the same family as the wild ass— the khor or onager. Both come from the same genus Equus. The onager is found all the way even in Mesopotamia. I have a feeling sometimes people (early Indus Valley archaeologists who labelled bones) have left just their nomenclature of a bone open by saying ‘equus’. And those who read it later jump to the conclusion that it was ‘horse’. But horses weren’t the only equus, there are others,” she says.

MayankVahia of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, who despite being a scientist with an interest in high- energy astrophysics is helming a project by the institute to decipher the Indus Valley script, also thinks that the possibility is very remote that Harappans knew of horses. “The problem of horses in Harappa has always been very controversial. There have been claims, but these are isolated claims of one sequence here or one sequence there. And that also is not universally agreed upon,” he says. “You get truckloads of bones because these people used to eat meat. Among those, you don’t see horse bones.”

There is, though, a major exception to this rule. Among the many Indus Valley sites, there is one in a place called Surkotda, a small settlement of 3.5 acres. In 1970, an Archaeological Survey of India excavation found remains of a culture that extended from 2100 to 1700 BCE. Among the things reported found were also bones of horses, like molars and incisors. This finding went against the traditional belief. Most researchers, however, remained unconvinced. But then in the 1990s, Sándor Bökönyi, a Hungarian who was known as probably the best archaeological authority on horses in the world, studied the Surkotda specimens and confirmed that they were indeed horse bones. In a letter he wrote to the Archaeological Survey of India (cited in the book The Indo-Aryan Controversy: Evidence and Inference in Indian History), he said, ‘The occurrence of true horse (Equus caballus) was evidenced by the enamel pattern of the upper and lower cheek and teeth and by the size of and form of incisors and phalanges (toe bones). Since no wild horses lived in India in post-Pleistocene times, the domestic nature of the Surkotada horse is undoubtful. This is also supported by an inter-maxilla fragment whose incisor-tooth shows clear signs of crib-biting, a bad habit only existing among domestic horses which are not extensively used for war.’

His finding couldn’t be ignored. Ordinarily, whether horses existed or not shouldn’t have been a debate that would go beyond the world of academia and archaeologists—after all, this was just one animal. But the presence or absence of the horse has acquired a political dimension in recent times. Bökönyi’s confirmation came just as there was a rise in Hindutva in India, and for its proponents the horse existing in the Indus Valley could change the whole narrative over who were the original residents of India.

SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, there was an unusual public debate in the pages of Frontline and The Hindu that stretched for over two years. Two amateur historians, NS Rajaram, and Natwar Jha, had claimed to have deciphered the script of the Indus Valley and found it littered with references to the horse. Rajaram, an NRI whose background was in Mathematics, had also claimed that an Indus Valley seal clearly shows a horse. In a cover story in Frontline in 2000, Michael Witzel, an Indologist from Harvard, made a comprehensive rebuttal of the claims. The seal did not actually show a horse at all, he said, and the image being presented had been enhanced for it to look like one. He also said that the way they had deciphered the script was so ambiguous that any meaning could be ascribed to the signs. Counter rebuttals, and counters to those, followed.

There is a reason for the bitterness between the two sides. Rajaram, who is 73 years old now, can be termed as one of the early intellectuals of the contemporary Hindu right movement. Mainstream Indologists, primarily from universities abroad, had been ignoring them but when the BJP came to power and theories like that of Rajaram gained currency in the political establishment, a need was felt to refute them. The argument against Rajaram and his colleagues is that they want to put up an interpretation of a Hindu past in Indian pre-history where none exists. Rajaram’s premise is that Western academia has promoted a racist interpretation of Indian history. A widely prevalent view of ancient times says that the Indus Valley Civilisation existed first and it was only afterwards that Vedic people came, driving the region’s earlier inhabitants southwards and becoming overlords of the land. Rajaram claims that the Aryan Invasion Theory was put forth began by German scholars at a period in colonial history when they believed in Aryan superiority (the same foundation that later led to Hitler’s Aryan fetish). It found favour with the British and was later adopted by Indian Marxist historians who continued the colonial project, merely replacing race with caste and class.

Rajaram seeks to turn the chronology of India on its head, arguing that the Vedic people were first in India and many thousandsof years earlier than is thought. And that the Indus Valley people in fact spoke a version of Vedic Sanskrit. “My position and that of my colleagues is that the Harappan Civilisation represents the material remains of the civilisation and culture described in Vedic literature,” he says. “The geographical horizon is the same. Harappan sites are found in Punjab, Sind, Haryana, etcetera, which is the area of the Vedic Civilisation. How can you separate them? Harappans were a literate people, so how can you separate archaeology from literature?”

If the horse is absent, then it is a problem for this theory. The Vedas are rife with references to the horse, and if the Indus Valley came after these texts, then the civilisation should have abundant evidence of the animal. Rajaram says horse remains have been found in the sites and that Western scholars deliberately refuse to accept the proof to discredit the theory. On why Indus Valley seals don’t feature horses, he says, “Over a 2,000 year period, we have 3,000 seals. There is not a whole lot of information in that. We have found icons, images of horses. These people are making much of horses, but to the Harappans, they may not have been so important.”

Underlying the whole debate is the question of why it is important for Aryans to be Harappans in the new Hindutva world view. An Indus Valley researcher who prefers anonymity, citing the current political climate, says that the reason is tied to how we define a ‘foreigner’. When Christians and Muslims are charged with being outsiders by right-wing Hindu fundamentalists because they first came 500 or 1,000 years ago, it could also be argued that Indo-Europeans, who brought with them the Vedas and Sanskrit and whose philosophy went on to eventually define Hinduism, came in the second millennium BCE and thus by extension even Hindus cannot claim ownership of India for being the country’s ‘original’ inhabitants. “[Vedic people] worshipped horses. To them, they are the ultimate animals. Now you have a civilisation that doesn’t know horses, and so you have a serious problem. It cannot possibly be the Rig Vedic people. The Harappans should be the original owners of this land. Now Dravidians, who have been claiming the original Harappan legacy, will say all these Indo-Europeans should leave the country. To avoid that conflict, they want to prove that Harappans were Hindus. That gives them a locus standi to define everybody else as an ‘outsider’. They have to put up all the Hindu worshipping standards to the Harappan Civilisation. It is a big problem for them and they want to therefore impose the horse on Harappans,” he says.

Asko Parpola, professor emeritus of Indology and South Asian Studies, Institute for Asian and African Studies, University of Helsinki, is recognised as one of the foremost scholars of the Indus Valley Civilisation. Five years ago, he co-wrote a paper, ‘On the Asiatic Wild Asses and their Vernacular Names’, that dealt with the horse question. Parpola says the horse was utilised by Aryan (Indo-Iranian) speakers early on in Central Asia, and they also invented the horse-drawn chariot, but doesn’t think the Indus Valley Civilisation was familiar with the animal. Instead, what they knew was the wild ass. ‘South Asia is outside the habitat of wild horses—the only native equid of South Asia is the wild ass or onager, and even this rare animal has been restricted to the northwest, especially its salt deserts. The wild ass was known to the Indus Civilisation, where it is attested both osteologically (animal bones excavated at many Harappan sites) and pictorially (iconography of an Indus seal from Kanmer in Kutch, very close to the salt desert of the Rann of Kutch, and in signs of the Indus script), while the horse is absent from both these types of record,’ he says, in an email interview.

According to him, in South Asia the domestic horse is seen only after Harappan times, around 1700-1500 BCE, in Swat in Pakistan, and at Pirak near Bolan Pass in Pakistani Balochistan. On Bökönyi confirming horse bones, he says that it was shown as an ambiguous finding by an equally eminent archaeologist from Harvard, Richard Meadow, who wrote a paper on it.

However, there is one loose link towards the very end of the Indus Valley Civilisation with a region that had horses. ‘In the neighbouring Southern Central Asia (Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) the horse is known from c. 2000 BCE at the Bactria and Margiana Archaeological Complex (BMAC), which also had the horse-drawn chariot (with cheek-plates of the horse-gear similar to those of the Sintashta culture of southern Urals in Russia). The BMAC was in contact with the Indus Civilization in its late phase (c. 2000-1900), as evidenced by some BMAC seals found at Harappan sites, and the BMAC type of shaft-hole axe-adze (fundamentally different from the Harappan-type flat axes tied to the shaft) that was excavated from the late layers of Mohenjo-daro,’ he says.

Even if the Indus Valley people knew of horses, it would have to be just before the civilisation’s end. The movie MohenjoDaro does show the city being flooded away and Hrithik Roshan leading the people to a new region. So, perhaps it is unfair to accuse Gowariker of cooking up an imaginary animal.