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The Aryan conundrum

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At 96, archaeologist B B Lal continues to uncover facts about the Vedic people and other ancient civilisations, writes Rekha Sarin

It is 6.30 pm. In keeping with his evening schedule, Braj Basi Lal, better known as B B Lal, is on his computer, writing his 21st book, The Rise of Civilisation in the Ganga Valley. At 96, his energy remains indefatigable. In an animated conversation over a cup of tea he reveals fascinating nuggets of information derived from excavations during his distinguished career of over 70 years in archaeology. From an initiate in the days of pre-Partition India, Lal rose to be director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) from 1968-72. With a piquant sense of humour, Lal describes how he “gatecrashed into the ASI”. Incidentally, at 23 he was turned away for being two years younger than the prescribed age. However, the bar was lowered for him upon the intervention of British archaeologist Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler, under whom Lal had trained at Taxila and Harappa. Ever since, it has been an unceasing journey of research and pioneering discoveries. In fact, the Government recognised his contribution to tracing India’s historical roots with the Padma Bhushan in 2000.

Apart from books including Rama, His Historicity, Mandir and Setu; The Sarasvati Flows On; and The Rigvedic People: Invaders, Immigrants or Indigenous?, Lal has written seminal papers that include dissertations on his earliest excavation, Sisupalgarh in Odisha, a 7th century BCE fortified township. His excavations at Hastinapur, Ayodhya, Nandigrama and Chitrakoot helped identify the historicity of the Mahabharata and Ramayana. During his tenure at the helm of the ASI, Lal carried out excavations at Delhi’s Purana Quila. Based on the findings of painted grey-ware pottery (PGW) at this site, that dates between the 6th and 12th century BCE, Lal established that it was the location of the Pandava kingdom of Indraprastha, somewhere around 900 BCE, the period of the war as indicated in the epic.

On the transnational front, in 1960 Lal was part of the team sent by India on a UNESCO mission for excavations on the Nile. He was also involved in the preservation of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. His theories have been discussed in international forums. Yet, in the epilogue of his autobiography Piecing Together: Memoirs of an Archaeologist, he writes with humility: “The moving finger types, and moves on and on. I am only a typist, the dictation-giver is Someone Else….”

With daily meditation, reading and writing, Lal maintains a disciplined lifestyle. He stays in Delhi with his eldest son and family; his younger sons are settled in the US. His late wife Kusum partnered him for 75 years and unfailingly accompanied him to excavation sites. Lal’s passion for archaeology has endowed him with incredible mental agility. He smoothly recites from the Vedas and Puranas to validate his observations. “Use it, or lose it” seems to be his mantra, as his faculties remain ever engaged unceasingly, like the moving finger that never stops.


How did you develop an interest in such a niche subject as archaeology?

Frankly, I just strayed into archaeology. I wanted to pursue mathematics for my master’s degree. But while graduating I fell seriously ill owing to overwork as I was giving tuitions to supplement my scholarship, which was not enough to meet the expenses. If I did not take the examination, I would have had to repeat my BA without the grant. So I took the dive. Mathematics needed more application; predictably, I scraped through. I did well in English and I don’t know how but I got the highest marks in Sanskrit. That brought me a scholarship. In need of money, I took up Sanskrit. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. One of the subjects offered for the final year was epigraphy: the study and interpretation of ancient inscriptions. As you may know, epigraphy takes you closer to archaeology.

Tell us about your first memorable experience as a student of archaeology.

In those days, the Archaeological Survey was not in a very good shape and Wheeler, who was later knighted, was appointed director-general. He wanted to infuse new blood into the organisation. I was selected by my vice chancellor to be sent for training to an excavation site in Taxila, Punjab, now in Pakistan. Looking at my biodata, Mortimer said: “You are a student of Sanskrit. You know nothing about archaeology. Have you come here to recite the Vedas?”

However, I joined the trenches as an under-trainee and learnt ‘layerology’, as we students nicknamed the technique of studying the layers of soil deposits during excavations. One evening, I saw Mortimer drawing a section of one of the trenches. Though technically superb, I felt his drawing did not do justice to the interpretative part of the layers. When I tried to reason, he dismissed me. Next morning, when I was on the field, he came rushing to my trench and said, “My dear boy, you were correct, I was wrong!” At another site, I had another encounter with him about structures and demonstrated to him stone by stone why he was incorrect.

Several years later, in 1971, when I was invited to deliver the Gandhi Memorial Lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Wheeler introduced me, making a special mention of this incident. That is one of my most treasured memories.

Officially, it is believed that the Vedic Period existed around 1200 BCE. However, you have theorised that it dated earlier, somewhere during the 3rd millennia BCE. How did you arrive at this conclusion?

In school, we learn that the Aryans were foreigners and the period given to the Aryan invasion is about 1200 by Max Mueller, the German scholar. I wanted to know the truth, and by chance the archaeological evidence came in handy. It is like this: In the Rigveda—the oldest surviving record of the Aryans—the river Sarasvati is mentioned about 70 times. She originated in the Himalayas, breaking through the Shivaliks at Adhbadri, passing through Haryana, Rajasthan, and Sindh in Pakistan before emptying out in the Rann of Kutch.

Coming to the Indus Valley, this was first identified at Harappa, then Mohenjo-daro and several other sites around there, but with Partition, not a single site came to our side of the border. Archaeologists started explorations and we excavated a site called Kalibangan in Rajasthan. A team of hydrologists did boring and found that this is where the Sarasvati dried up around 2000 BCE, possibly owing to tectonic movement in the Himalayas that created a wall blocking the flow of the river. What does it mean? Clearly, the Vedas are earlier because during that period the river was alive.

Then again, in the 10th mandal, all the Rigvedic rivers are mentioned in strict geographical order, ‘O Ganga, Yamuna, Sarasvati, Sutudri (Sutlej)’, and so on, till they reach Sindh, starting from the upper reaches of Ganga-Yamuna down to the Indus where the Rigvedic people were living. This compels us to give a joint name, the Indus-Sarasvati Civilisation. That means the Vedas and the Harappan civilisation are two facets of the same coin. Now, as we know, the Harappan civilisation originated about 6-7 millennium BCE and if this civilisation is indigenous, the Aryans are also indigenous. But of course, we must give marks to Max Mueller for the fact that he brought the Vedas to the knowledge of the Western world.

So you are saying that the Aryans were not invaders but indigenous?

Yes, the inhabitants of the Harappan civilisation were the Rigvedic people themselves. Rather, during the 2nd millennium BCE, some of the Vedic people travelled westwards. There is a 6th century Sanskrit text called Baudhayan Srautasutra that mentions the movement of the Aryan people through Gandhara, Persia, Ararat to Turkey. At Bogahkuei in Turkey, inscribed tablets have been found dated 1380 BCE. The peace treaty between the Mittanis and Hittites mentions four Vedic gods: Indra,Varun, Mitra and Nasatya. This clearly proves the Aryan presence and their importance, so much so that they were witness to the treaty. Quite a few people are accepting this change, and this has been discussed in several seminars and not been challenged.

What are the processes involved in dating a site?

In a habitation, people burn wood for fire. The charcoal produced in the process can be used for dating. It has a certain amount of Carbon-14 (C-14) that goes on decreasing as time passes. Scientists have found out a system by which they can date a piece of charcoal. The deposit in which charcoal occurs gives you a good date line, though it may not be absolutely correct. You can give or take a hundred years to that. Then, you have pottery, tools, jewellery and coins, which are support sources to dating a site.

You mention that there is a definite kernel of existential truth in our great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. How did you arrive at the historicity, for instance, of the Mahabharata?

Originally, there were 8,800 verses in the Mahabharata and it was called Jaya. Later, it stretched to 24,000 verses and was called Bharata, and today it has 100,000 verses. Post-Buddha, which is 6th century CE, literature is clear and dated. Evidence shows that Krishna is prior to Buddha, somewhere around 1000 BCE, so you can imagine how much the Mahabharata has got inflated, but that does not mean it is not true.

The important thing is that all the sites mentioned in the epic, such as Hastinapur by the banks of the Ganges near Meerut and Kurukshetra in Haryana, continue to bear the same name. During excavations, the same grey pottery—bowls and dishes with black painted designs—dating between 1200 and 800 BCE, was found. Luckily, we got very good evidence in Hastinapur, where I put an excavation trench across the mound from the western to eastern end. Strangely, I did not find the river intact on the eastern side. This gave me many sleepless nights. Then, one early morning, I took my team to the trench again and explored. Sure enough, we found an erosion line with silt and sand deposit that had cut away the mound. Not completely satisfied, we did boring in the river and found at 15-m depth the same material—silt. This was an absolute affirmation that a flood destroyed Hastinapur and the capital was shifted to Kausambi. Here, literature also comes to my rescue. The Vayu Purana and Matsya Purana give a history of the rulers after the Mahabharata. Fifth in line was Nichakshu, during whose time, owing to flood, the capital was shifted to Kausambi [Lal quotes in Sanskrit from the Purana that mentions the flood]. In the lowest levels of Kausambi, we find the same painted grey ware. Archaeology gives evidence, while literature supports archaeology to establish some truth.

Do you think there is a continuum of culture through civilisations?

If you look at the Harappan sites, you will find terracotta figurines in three colours: yellow ornaments representing gold, hair in black and sindoor line in red. Many customs, like the use of the swastika, are still prevalent. We have terracotta figures in yogic asanas that are a craze today. In Kalibangan, we found the remains of an agricultural field dated 2700 BCE with intriguing crisscross furrow marks. There was a reason for this: mustard plants being tall were planted in a north-south direction, so they didn’t cast shadows for the lower plants that were grown in east-west directions. This planting method is carried out even today. Cities may have been washed out but customs and traditions have carried on.

What is your own formula for life?

Enjoy each moment. You and I are having tea. Let’s enjoy it!

Photo: Rekha Sarin
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
May 2018