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Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Rewinding the Traditional Clock – Part II

Rewinding the Traditional Clock – Part II
Geography of Jambudwipa Series

The Puranic king lists are by no means infallible. Even if we take the eighteen majors, there are enough inconsistencies to discard their evidence as flawed. However, Pargitar analyzed their contents thoroughly and pushed the dependability of king-lists to a date as early as 2200 BCE. Archeology places 2200 BCE at the zenith of Harappan civilization. If the Puranic content holds good up to that point, knowing that there existed a continuity of civilized life from the beginning of 4th century BCE in the core area of Indus-Ghaggar region, it is not unreasonable to assume 3100 BCE as the beginning of kingship in the region.

As stated earlier, before I attempt to understand the political geography of the region, I would like to continue with the process of identifying the markers on the chronological thread…

Circa 4500 BCE


Paleo-climatologists claim that in the mid fifth millennium BCE, a sudden cold and arid period came about and had lasted for a few centuries. Its effect was felt in the entire Near East, where isolated Neolithic human communities thrived. But, by around 4400 BCE, the flood plains of major rivers became the foci of nascent urban civilizations – the Nile, Euphrates & Indus. 

To understand this we need to take off our Indiana Jones’ sun hats and put the thinking caps of anthropologists. 

Let us look at the nascent subsistence processes – I mean – the basic sources of food for the communities that had learned to manipulate the environment. 

Cultivator – Upper Terraces
Herdsman – Plains
Fisherman – Rivers, Islands and Coast

Primitive cultivation occurred on high terraces fed by runoffs and mountain springs. While the herdsman roamed free in the plains and of course the fisherman lived near the rivers. Incidentally, Gāyatri hymn clearly differentiates three geographical loci – Bhur, Bhuvar, Svar

During the dry, cold and arid phase, which the climatologists call ‘Atlanticum’, the water table dropped and the mountain springs dried up. Probably, it had driven some of them closer to the perennial water sources. Exchange of ideas and material might have caused the rise of settled complex societies in river valleys. Plough, pack animals, manure, dykes and canals, boat, wheel … we can list many such innovations which appeared, in this area, around this period. 

As a logical extension organized socio-political processes, as we understand today, also must have had their beginning in these times. Other important contributor to the awareness of geography to grow was the process of surplus redistribution. Rivers and pack animals reduced distances expanding the habitat; and providing names and identities to the surrounding landscape is but natural. Probably it was the first time the conceptualization of Jambudwipa had occurred. 

Assuming that we are on the right track, we need to get the picture of the principal people/peoples who inhabited these river valleys; and try to identify that part of the traditional lore that matches those peoples. Any references to the others who lived beyond the pale of this core community may give us clues to the communities that preexisted. 

Was this process as smooth as I have shown? 

What were the adversities? 

ṚgVeda doesn’t initially label Asuras as some demonic foreigners but treats them as real native lords. And, the descriptions of Vritra, Hiranya Kasyapa, Bali, Taraka and his sons; and Sambara show them as kings of the cities which existed near major rivers. The people we are concerned with are those who had overcome these antithetical forces when they settled in the land of three principal rivers – Sindhu, Saraswati and Sarayu. 

Let me build a scenario – fraught with the danger of rubbing two juxtaposed ideologies on the wrong sides. In a way what I attempt is a middle ground that they do not want to approach. It is a risk, I am willing to take as I have no professional/academic boss to tell me … “You either fall in line or perish”. 

Let us assume that the availability of cattle and manure helped the cultivator to graduate from hoe based shift agriculture to settled farming in the flood plains. As a natural corollary he became the master of the surplus. He called himself the plough-wielder – after the local root for plough ‘Ar’. There are many cognates to this word in ‘agrARIAN’ terms – Area, Arable etc. The Dravidian ‘Ar’ (ploughshare), Araka (plough), Arisé (Rice). 

What is the earliest word in the world lexicon that implied ‘nobility’? Ārya!

He became the master of the … 

    Manor – Griha – Grihapati – Gahapati
    Land – Viś – Viś-pati – Vaiśya

While the land was communally held and immovable, cattle became an easily exchangeable commodity, or even a token of value. 

Social stratification is an essential ingredient for political power or to the rise of nobility. And, this nobleman had conceded equal status only to those who gave him protection – from the natural elements and the greedy neighbor – priest and warrior. New entrants were freely recruited into this community, and their skills determined their status. Those with the lowest bargaining power became the servants. 

A familiar scenario...

Its remnants survived into pre-Buddhist era in the tribal republics muddling the timelines. But, if we agree that a complex statecraft had existed during the Harappan context, the above scenario might have preceded it. Therefore, I propose to look for geographical clues associated with that social milieu – Agrarian ṚgVedic – for the period preceding the emergence of kingship and a unified urban civilization. 

Circa 6500 BCE

There are multiple foci for the early Neolithic cultures that emerged in this region. Mehrgarh probably is the earliest as far as the archaeological evidence goes. If you look at the map of early farming cultures, most of them are concentrated in the hilly regions of Quetta Valley and the hills off Makran coast in Baluchistan. Few exceptions are Amri on lower Indus and Rehman Dheri on upper Indus. The early farming communities are generally to the west of the core civilization area. 

These were the people who carried the technology – that of domestication of plant and animal – and probably the language or languages that shaped the latter language families. Prof. Colin Renfrew asserts that Indo-European languages emerged in Levant and spread to the sub-continent along with the spread of Neolithic technology. It is a fair assumption, but – with due respect – if the Neolithic levels of Mehrgarh predate the sites like Catal Huyuk, Naveli Cori and Jericho; the opposite direction is equally possible. 

Assuming that the Neolithic peoples had arrived at the Meru from the west, Anabasis’ assertion that Dionysius arrived in 6363 BCE was probably based on the native memories of that event. 

In my earlier post, I have speculated on the location of Mt. Meru in the Hindukush range based on some mythical beliefs retained in the tradition and equated Vasus with early farming people. (Probably the reason for it to became fashionable by the Mahabharata times for the two leading lineages – Bharatas through Bhishma, and Yadavas – to claim their descent from these mythical Vasus.) See… Finding Mount Meru

There are other super-human beings that existed at the periphery of human habitat. Other than the two principal players, Devas and Asuras, there is a multitude of mythical beings – Yakshas, Gandharvas, Nagas etc. whose cultural attributes place them in upper Paleolithic milieu. Though the canvas of geographical references is wide and amorphous, there may be some specific clues for us to speculate upon.

The task, I must take up in my next post …

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