You may not have heard of Shu-ilishu but he is a man of great significance. He reaches out to us from almost 4,300 years ago, through a small Akkadian cylinder seal now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris. On the seal, you will find an image of him talking to two men. The inscription describes Shu-ilishu as the interpreter of the Meluhhan language. ‘Meluha’ was, in all probability, the term used by ancient Mesopotamians for the Indus Valley region, and the presence of an official ‘interpreter’ there indicates just how important the steady flow of goods from the Indian subcontinent was.
Precious and vibrant lapis lazuli stones, carnelian beads, wood and even dogs would go across via old trade routes and ports like Lothal (in modern-day Gujarat) to Akkad, capital of the Akkadian Empire (3rd millennium BCE) and now in modern-day Iraq. There are also references to a settlement of Meluhhans in the city of Guabba in Sumer, in Mesopotamia.
The story of Shu-ilishu and how this trade network that connected India and West Asia continued for thousands of years, are just some of the gems we came across as we wound our way through our series on Indian History. Driven by curiosity and an endeavour to fill the large gaps in our understanding of India’s history, we started by asking some basic questions: When did ‘civilisation’ as we know it start in the Indian subcontinent? What was happening in the far corners of India as the great cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation thrived? Why did all Bronze Age Civilisations collapse around the same time in the world? What are the links and parallels between the history of India and the world? How did wealth, ambition and faith drive the rise and fall of empires on this subcontinent? And what has decades of research into these questions thrown up?
The questions were tantalising and the list was long but, thankfully, as we crisscrossed through the subcontinent, going back more than 10,000 years, we found a treasure trove of old accounts, reports from far-flung archaeological excavations, cutting-edge scientific analyses, and reams of historic research, all of which helped fill in the gaps. They also helped bust old myths and offered fresh perspectives while also opening up some new, fascinating chapters in the subcontinent’s history.
Now, as we pause after the first leg of our journey of the first 10,000 years – from the ‘dawn of civilisation’ at Mehrgarh at the foot of the Bolan Pass, to the waves of Shaka, Pahlava and Kushana invasions that swept through North India around the turn of the Common Era – it is important to look at the past and see whether it tells us something about how we have been shaped. What are the common threads, if any, in the narrative of India’s early history? How did the formative epochs shape us? And, finally, what accounts for the continued biases that we encounter so often while talking about Indian history?
Geography – A Tight Embrace
Around 120 million years ago, a mass of land that had once been attached to Africa broke off to make a long and arduous journey north. Sailing over an unstable earth and sliding across violent volcanoes, it first split up and then moved upwards, to collide with the Asian landmass. The collision threw up a wall of mountains, the highest in the world, swallowed up parts of the sea and created the Indian subcontinent.
The history of the Indian subcontinent stretches far back in time, and while the earliest settlements of modern-day humans either in India or the world seem to have been recent occurrences in comparison (the first agricultural societies emerged between 10,000 and 8,000 BCE), ‘India’ had already made history, and the collision had set the stage for things to come – by shaping its geography.
The first of the great common threads in Indian history is the role of its geography. It has been said that history without geography is like a photo without a frame. In India’s case, geography not only provided the frame, it also shaped its identity.
The layers of the high Himalayas in the North and the seas on three sides in the South ensured that the subcontinent had a natural casing difficult to penetrate yet not impossible to navigate. If the lofty Himalayas acted as a barrier, they also allowed a constant trickle of people and ideas through its passes, whether the Bolan Pass in Balochistan or the Khyber Pass along the Hindu Kush mountains further North. On the other end, the lower reaches of the Himalayas bordering Myanmar in the East acted as a cultural corridor between the North-Eastern states and South-East Asia, for millennia. They were also responsible for the great rivers, fed by the perennial snows of the Himalayas that formed the watershed in which civilisation could take root.
In the South, the sea on three sides offered its own veil of protection, but channels were also opened for boats to go across. Close ties were thus forged among the people on the east coast with South-East Asia and Sri Lanka, and in the West with Africa and the Arab world. These linkages, which went far back to the time of Shu-ilishu, had a far-reaching impact on the Indian Ocean World. As Marine Archaeologist V Selvakumar from the Tamil University, Thanjavur, told us, “We shouldn’t look at history keeping in mind present-day boundaries. That restricts our minds. We should look at the entire region of Asia. In fact, we should see it from Japan to Africa. It was all one land.”
The very name ‘India’ comes from the ‘Sindhu’, the name by which the Indus River was known in early history. The land beyond it was said to be magical. Great rivers like the Indus and the Ganga flowing down the Himalayas created some of the most fertile alluvial plains in the world. These provided the lifeblood for great cities to emerge. The Indus Valley city of Mohenjodaro rose at the centre of the land between the Indus and the once-flowing Ghaggar-Hakra. Harappa was on the banks of the Indus’s tributary, the Ravi.
The settlements of the Early Vedic period hugged the Sapta Sindhu too, while the cities of the later Vedic period like Kaushambi and Varanasi hugged the Yamuna and Ganga, as did great capitals like Thanjavur and Madurai in the South, which rose on the banks of the Kaveri and the Vaigai.
The land the rivers fed was so rich that multiple crops could be sown each year along this vast stretch and the rivers ensured easy transportation through it. This, over time, led to the rise of trading cities that morphed into great centres of culture and learning, from Mohenjodaro in 2500 BCE to Varanasi in 800 BCE. There were more people coming to these cities than going out. In fact, Varanasi, the great city of death, had its roots as a small trading hub at the confluence of two rivers, 3,000 years ago. It still sees millions converge there today.
If the land shaped the people, violent ecological changes that created fractures in it also destroyed entire cities. For instance, around 2000 BCE, massive tectonic movements in the Yamuna divide in the Himalayas caused the Sutlej and Yamuna rivers to change their course. They were both originally feeders of the Saraswati (Ghaggar-Hakra) but the Yamuna turned east towards the Ganga and the Sutlej west to join the Indus. Bereft of its two perennial sources, major Harappan cities like Kalibangan, Ganweriwala and Tarkhanewala Dhera on the Saraswati were abandoned.
Interestingly, all Bronze Age civilisations faced similar disasters. They seem to have collapsed around the same time. Scientists attribute this to global climatic changes and the appearance of a ‘Little Ice Age’.
Geography also shaped the landscape. Both by creating the setting for the all-defining Indian monsoon, which still determines agriculture and the cycle of life across much of the subcontinent; and, second, by creating ‘sub zones’ based on smaller, localised climatic zones where the rains fell or didn’t.
Historian A L Basham, in his book The Wonder That Was India (1954), gives a philosophical twist to India’s tryst with its annual monsoon. He writes, “Her (India’s) total dependence on the Monsoons has helped to form the character of her people… Many other ancient civilisations such as those of the Greeks, Romans and Chinese had to contend with hard winters, which encouraged sturdiness and resource. India, on the other hand, was blessed with bounteous Nature… (which provided plenty) but in her terrible anger could not be appeased by any human effort. Hence it has been suggested,” he concludes that “the Indian character has tended to fatalism and quietism, accepting fortune and misfortune alike without complaint.”
Regionalism – Understanding the Tapestry
While the States Reorganisation Act of 1956 began the delineation of state boundaries along linguistic lines to give a more defined identity to the many different linguistic groups in India – the four major ones being Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burmese, and much smaller, minor ones like Tai-Kadai (in parts of the North- East) – it has done only part of the job in addressing the diversity of India.
Drive through any state in India and you will find nuanced differences. Mithila in northern Bihar is different from Bhagalpur to the south. Marathwada in Maharashtra is different from the state’s Konkan region. In each case, while the language may be the same, the dialects differ as do cultural nuances and cuisine.
Interestingly, much of these differences can be traced back more than 2,000 years.
Recent archaeological excavations have helped fill gaps and create a more diverse map of ‘cultural history’ across the Indian subcontinent. While we know that the Harappans managed to build the largest civilisation in the Bronze Age world, what we don’t give much emphasis to is how diverse its people may have been. You can get a glimpse of this if you look at its two ends – present-day Afghanistan and Gujarat.
The Harappans, we also know, had close interactions with a cross-section of other Neolithic and Chalcolithic cultures that prospered alongside – from Kashmir to Maharashtra. Archaeological evidence shows that these contemporary cultures had their own unique ways and over time they acted as a refuge for the people moving out of collapsing Harappan cities.
Dr Gautam Sengupta, former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, believes that through the subcontinent’s history, another trend that has been constant is the ability of multiple regional/ethnic groups to thrive and retain their identity through millennia.
Sengupta believes that different factors helped in achieving this and he traces many of these groups to the period of the Janapadas (ancient regional republics) around 800-600 BCE. He points out, “The Janapadas, for example Panchala, Vanga, Anga and Kalinga, were essentially ethnic groups with specific geographical spaces that survived even when large empires were formed. For instance, the first kingdom to rise in the Gangetic plains, Magadha, swallowed up its neighbouring Janapadas but this in no way annihilated their regional identities.”
Even today, there are clear cultural differences between people living in Budaun, Farrukhabad and the adjoining districts of Uttar Pradesh (ancient Panchala), Bengal (Vanga), South Bihar (Anga) and Odisha (Kalinga). Sengupta believes, “These regional identities survived because by and large it was the immediate geography that gave the people a kind of identity and set many things – the way we live, the way we eat. In other words, our immediate living environment has the most far-reaching influence in anyone’s life. (What’s more) At different points of time, the smaller, local and regional entities, polity, ethnic groups and identities have articulated their position.”
This diversity has not been in the realm of the physical space alone; it has also translated into the realm of ideas and beliefs, and created openness in the way we see each other and seek truth, Sengupta points out. In 600 BCE you could have walked to any town centre in the Gangetic plain and found a fiery discussion underway on philosophy and life. There were so many ways in which people looked at things that it was accepted that ‘vadavidya’ or the art of debate, was the means to find truth.
There is another unique feature to this diversity – the ability of these ethnic groups to come together. As Sengupta points out, “In the anti-colonial movement, we discovered that even though there are these (multiple) smaller identities – be it Bengali, Tamil or Bihari – we have a larger identity as Indian and beyond that as humans.”
Looking at the vast stretch of history, Sengupta sums it up well when he says, “(Through history) We have always managed to carry successfully these multiple identities. Only in volatile moments, during the time of political provocations, mean-minded political interventions, then and then only, we lose touch with the multiple facets of our identity.”
This rings true even today, as it has through any period of the subcontinent’s history.
Dr Arvind Jamkhedkar, Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), gives a different dimension to the early history of the Indian subcontinent. While pointing out how India is one of the few regions where there is cultural continuance from its ancient past (Egypt, Mesopotamia and Greece can’t claim the same continuity), he points out how the ‘openness’ of spirit has been another marker of India’s being.
He explains, “Our religious traditions didn’t wipe out ethnic identities. For example, Buddhism is perhaps the most widespread religion after Christianity and Islam, but look at how each country it has gone to has its own Buddhism with its own different regional and national tone. Japanese Buddhism is very different from Tibetan Buddhism or Buddhism as followed in Sri Lanka.” In each region, the faith merged with the people as is evident in the way Hinduism also adapted to local customs and adopted folk deities and added them to the ever-increasing pantheon of its gods.
Biases, Myths & Reality
How you see history, it is said, depends on where you are seeing it from, and what the main ideological or intellectual viewpoints of the period are.
In the 19th and early-20th centuries, when the world and we ourselves were ‘discovering’ Indian history, as a discipline, European scholars who took the lead each looked at Indian history through the lens they chose. Some carved up Indian history on the basis of faith, conveniently assigning a period to a specific religion or belief system. So Ancient India was Hindu; Medieval was Muslim and the British era signified the Modern. Others looked at it along the lines of ‘race’, in keeping with a growing obsession around the subject in Europe at the time. The theory being pushed here was how advanced ‘Aryans’ from somewhere in the Russian Steppes brought a language – Sanskrit – and technological advancements, from horse-driven chariots to weapons, and ‘stormed’ into India, defeating the indigenous Harappans (Dravidians), taking over their land and pushing them south.
Decades of research and excavation later, many of these ideas have been debunked. Transitions and lasting cultural influences are always more gradual.
A Sanskrit scholar himself, Jamkhedkar believes that these ideas persisted because scholars “couldn’t fathom how Early Vedic texts could go beyond 1200 BCE”. Jamkhedkar explains that the basis of dating the Vedas by scholars like German philologist and Orientalist Max Muller was based on comparative studies in philology and religion between the Vedas and the Zoroastrian text, the Avesta, and a broad backdating from the known dates of the Buddha, Mahavira and the Upanishads, which were seen as broadly being contemporary to each other. Hence it was concluded that the early Vedas were at least 1,200 years old.
Jamkhedkar believes a problem arose when people took that as the ‘final’ date, rather than as ‘at least’. Talking about the comparison between the Rig Veda and the Avesta, which are related in terms of language, themes and constructs, Jamkhedkar says, “One difference between the Rig Veda and the Avesta is the fact that the Rig Veda is a compendium of 1,028 hymns authored by so many that this makes it difficult to date when they were first composed.” The Avesta, on the other hand, has a single author. Moreover, while the Rig Veda is divided into Mandalas, the sequence isn’t necessarily chronological. Jamkhedkar iterates that we shouldn’t confuse the redaction of the verses with when they were first coined.
If the dates are confusing, there is yet another dimension that adds to the general misinterpretation of this period. Those who look at this ‘Aryan’ spread in India during the Vedic period still choose to ignore what the earliest scholarship had clearly pointed out. Max Muller who studied Sanskrit closely and also translated the Upanishads, for instance, had said, “Aryan in scientific language is entirely inapplicable to race. It means language and nothing but language”. This has since been reiterated by leading historians.
On the basis of research now, it is also being understood that there were no full-stops or clean breaks between the end of the Harappans and the Vedic age – the 1,200-odd years in between are being filled in and the transition seem like a gradual one. Also, through the pattern of settlements and the spread of the ‘Aryan’ culture, you can make out how the Sanskrit language and the Vedic way of life were gradually adopted.
Quite like how English, a language from Britain, which is more than 7,500 km away, has been adopted by people in different parts of India today, Sanskrit too was adopted and adapted by a diverse set. These people, over time, left their own stamp on the language. Like now, then too this process of ‘Aryanisation’ didn’t take away the regional and ethnic identity of the people who adopted it.
Another great obsession colonial historians had, as historian Romila Thapar points out in her book, Early India – From The Origins To AD 1300 (2003), is with the north and large, centralised empires. She explains, “In the Age of Empires, as in the 19th century CE (in Europe), large kingdoms of the North attracted the attention of historians. Periods when these kingdoms existed were described as ‘Golden Ages’ and periods which saw the growth of smaller, more localised kingdoms were seen as ‘Dark Ages’.”
As a result, the highlights in history were moments when an ambitious ruler carved out a kingdom and then built a centralised ‘empire’. Bimbisara, Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka, the Imperial Guptas… the list goes on. While each played an important role in shaping history, a focus on just them limits our understanding of history.
But this tendency has persisted and has had many ramifications. At the most basic level, it has meant that this is the way history is taught. By focusing on large ‘Empires’ we have lost a sense of the regional and local histories with equally important legacies.
For example, while we know of Magadha and the great Mauryans, Chandragupta and Ashoka, we know little about Kharavela from Kalinga or even the Chera king Senkuttuvan, whose brother Ilango Adikal wrote the Sangam-era epic Silappadikaram. During the course of our series, we traced many small kingdoms through the coins they left behind. Many of these, like the Maharathis in Maharashtra and the Kunindas in Himachal, have mostly been forgotten, yet they represent an important phase in the rise of regional identities. The first mention of ‘Bharatavarsha’, for instance, comes from the Hathigumpha inscription of Kharavela, the King of Kalinga (2nd century BCE- 1st century BCE). In Odisha, he is still seen as a regional icon.
Interestingly, one of the main sources of royal histories and genealogies for early historians was old Vedic texts, the Puranas and the epics – the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Compendiums in their own right, this large body of literature provides important insight into the rise and spread of clans, tribes, Janapadas, kingdoms and empires. The Puranas and the Epics also in a sense acted as a binder, ensuring a kind of legitimacy to all who were included in their pages. And many were, much later. There is an interesting story that exemplifies this.
In the Balakanda of Valmiki’s Ramayana, there is this story on the old rivalry between Sage Vashishtha and Vishwamitra. It seems the powerful King Vishwamitra had heard that Rishi Vashishtha owned a wish-fulfilling cow ‘Nandini’ or ‘Kamadhenu’. Hoping to use the cow for the benefit of his kingdom, King Vishwamitra went with his army to capture the holy cow from the sage’s ashram. As the king’s men dragged the cow away, she pleaded with Rishi Vashishtha to save her. A sad and teary-eyed Rishi Vashishtha then ordered the cow to ‘Create an army that will overcome the army of the enemy’
As per the Ramayana, this is what happened – ‘…with her bellow, she created Pahlavas (Parthians) in hundreds. As King (Vishwamitra) looked on they destroyed his army. On seeing Vishwamitra unleash his weapons on the Pahlavas, she created a mixed and terrible force of Shakas (Scythians) and Yavanas (Indo-Greeks). She also created ‘Kambojas’ who were like the Sun in their complexion’.
The Pahlavas were Parthians from Persia who came into India around the 1st century BCE, the Shakas were the Wu-Sun, a tribe that was pushed south from current-day Kazakhstan around the same time, and the Yavanas were the Greeks and Indo-Greeks who followed Alexander and ruled the parts of present-day Punjab (Pakistan) and Afghanistan.
They were all embraced, in the itihasa of India.
The Need to Search & Research
Almost every story in our series on Indian history ended with the lament that we only have part of the picture. We need more research, excavations and cross-disciplinary studies, in almost every chapter of Indian history. As the veteran archaeologist and former DG, ASI, Dr B B Lal told me at the start of our journey of discovery, “We know so little about the era that it is like looking at the tail of an animal you have never seen and trying to imagine what the animal is like.” He was talking about the period between the end of the Harappan civilisation and the start of the second urbanization, around 800 BCE. Lal, now over 90 years old, has excavated almost every major site from this period. And the fact that he himself says this, is telling!
Sadly most of these ‘gaps’ are sensitive because over time they have become hotbeds of debate, with sharply divided agenda-driven opinions. In the midst of this, actual research has been hurt. As Romila Thapar stresses, we need detailed horizontal excavations across the great cities of the subcontinent to uncover their stories. We know Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. But how far back does it go and how did life evolve here?
India and the World
There are two stories that helped create a lasting image of India in Western minds – the first is a story by the Greek historian Arrian (2nd century CE), which claims that Alexander bumped into a group of holy men when he crossed into India, and they predicted his early death.
The second is from even earlier – a 4th century BCE account by the Greek historian Herodotus, who recounted a bizarre tale of gold-digging ants that threw up gold dust in the area around the Indus. Both these accounts from the Graeco-Roman period helped create the lasting perception of India as a land of godmen and great wealth. The latter facet also acted as a magnet for invaders. At regular intervals, from antiquity, we had armies marching in hoping to get their hands on the famed wealth of India. Alexander was followed by Indo-Greeks, Scythians, Parthians and the Kushanas. Most of them stayed back and became part of the Indian milieu.
Given the size and scope of the Indian subcontinent and the sheer width and depth of her history, there is also a preoccupation with looking within. A tendency to see India as an isolated island, tapping to her own tune, through history. This is not true. Indian history has to be seen in the context of the world’s. And there are many parallels.
For instance, few people realise that three great thinkers who shape world thought even today – the Buddha, Confucius in China and the Greek Aristotle – all lived between the 6th BCE – 4th BCE. Whilst heated philosophical debates were occurring in town squares in India, there were also a hundred ideas on philosophy blooming in China. What made man delve so deep into questions of life, death and faith in this period? Do ideas really have wings?
While we have only scattered records of the interaction between ancient India and the world, archaeologists and historians are gradually piecing together the story of these links. Traditionally it was believed that it was contact with the Roman world around the 1st century BCE that really got trade going. This is untrue.
In fact, while credit is often given to the Greek sailor Hippalos for discovering the use the monsoon winds to sail across the Arabian Sea to the west coast of India, he probably only discovered what the early traders from the Persian Gulf, and later the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, already knew of and used, to make their way to the west coast of India, with ease.
The man who led one of the most exciting excavations in the port site of Pattanam in Kerala, historian Dr P J Cherian, believes “The mid-ocean monsoon winds acted as a traffic road – from South Arabia to the Malabar coast, because it straightaway brought these vessels to the coast. The entire west coast was involved in commerce.”
Sadly, there has been little work done to dig deeper. Cherian blames this on how we have traditionally viewed history. “Because of the Eurocentric perception and the kind of worldview that the world as a whole internalised, this type of activity (trade links and their history) was never recorded and thought to be serious. That is why it is believed that it all (trade) started from Rome or from the Mediterranean. That is not true.”
In the East, along the coastline of Odisha, archaeologists are also finding evidence of ancient links. Fragments of the famous Rouletted Ware pottery found across South-East Asia – from Indonesia and Thailand to Burma and Ceylon – were also found in these Odisha ports and this indicates a wide network of trade between Kalinga and South-East Asia and Ceylon. Archaeologist Dr Kishor Basa, who has done extensive research on these old trade connections, believes that the region of Kalinga played a crucial role in the larger Bay of Bengal trade world. It was a conduit for ideas, people and material, for centuries, even before the rise of Rome.
Old trade routes within India also played a vital role in creating the idea of India. Chandragupta Maurya would have frequently travelled along the Uttarapatha connecting Taxila to Patliputra. The Buddha would have taken a boat ride down the Ganga in Varanasi. All these had already emerged as important trade routes by then. Over time, these also became routes for ideas, cultures, attacks, faith, wealth and learning.
Dr Gautam Sengupta sums up his take on India’s past well when he points out that we have to remember the quintessential values exemplified by India’s past. He lists them as diversity, plurality and an openness of mind. He says, “If there is one important lesson in history it is its (India’s) immense power to mould, accommodate, absorb and reshape different opinions, experiences and processes.”
Sengupta stresses that it is important to remember this lesson from Indian history, “Else we face the risk of looking back and going downhill towards a petty, fragmented and mean kind of approach to the past.” And that would be sad indeed.
This article is part of our ‘The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material – archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.
This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.
Find all the stories from this series here.
Rising from the chaos of the post-Kushana period, the Guptas built a glorious empire that covered almost two-thirds of the Indian subcontinent. Here’s a glimpse into how these Emperors steered the course of history.
There’s a story that a king from India was one of the Three Wise Men who travelled with gifts to where Jesus had just been born. The trail that made this possible reveals astonishing links between an ancient Indian city, an Apostle of Christ and the Hindu epics
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