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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

History of Indus Valley Civilization – A New Paradigm

History of Indus Valley Civilization – A New Paradigm
A Tribute to F. E. Pargiter
It is never too late – rather it’s timed to perfection – as a century had passed since an Indian Civil Service officer that served as a judge in Calcutta began writing this seminal work ‘Ancient Indian Historical Tradition’. I sometimes wonder if the famed throne of Vikramaditya had somehow winded its way to the erstwhile capital of British India and was mistakenly placed in one of the judges’ chambers. The contributions made by these judges to the field that they called Indology are significant and well known. One may criticize that some of the fallacies that we are living with are entirely due to the shallow observations made by these gentlemen in authority. Probably, there is a kernel of truth in that. But one must also concede to their interest and passion for the culture – so much at odds to their home. No doubt, if it is, it is due to the fact that they belonged to a society with its well entrenched prejudices and a system of scholarship that suited their world view. I have delved heavily in my earlier post on the intellectual environment of those times and the academic compulsions to toe the concept of Aryan Invasion coupled with its timelines.  Any repetition is unnecessary.
But a word about the relevance of ‘Historic Tradition’ may be apposite. While the Vedic compendia appealed to the early scholars due to their cultural parallels to the classical occident, the Historical and Epic texts – Purāna and Itihāsa texts – failed to qualify. Unfortunately, that is the only purposefully documented historical source available that could throw light on the early civilization of the region. Like any other historical document that falls in the hands of church, the puranic and epic tradition is not immune to omissions and exaggerations. But the compilers of these manuscripts have insisted that their purpose was to record historical fact – and they believed that it was so.  
Judge Pargitar also believed so. His treatises – three, I am able to lay my hands on – rather forcefully advocate the relevance of this tradition in understanding the events that constituted the prehistory of India, supported by immense research and pouring over a vast amount of – often contradicting – evidence and of course, his astute observation and judgment. He was aware of the puzzling data that failed to fit into the established historical pattern as understood by the intelligentsia then, but nevertheless recorded those for future academia to take knowledgeable call. But that had not stopped him from venturing into a short narration of ‘Ancient History from Tradition’ towards the end of his book, after an exhaustive survey of the tradition – its genealogies, synchronisms and events.
Knowledge, it is not a constant. Today, after hundred years of diametrically opposed views, expressed, argued and fought over, we know that there had been no large invasion of those so called Aryan hordes, and even if there was some folk migration and language transfer, it had taken place well before the sixth millennium BCE as an aftermath of a new subsistence mode called agriculture. Archaeology today is not the routine of a bunch of greedy grave robbers but a methodical process with expanding horizons assisted by a multitude of paleo-sciences and advances in analytical techniques. Probably now, the time has come to merge the framework of tradition, proposed by him, with the expanding archaeological data to draw some inferences that may throw some much needed light on the earliest and most expansive civilization.
I propose to do essentially that – I shall call it ‘The New Pargiter Paradigm’ – as a tribute to that genius.
Old Paradigm:

The puranic genealogies come in two separate baskets. The list of kings from Manu to Mahabharata war form the first set consisting of 95 generations. The other set is the list of kings of various dynasties with an average of 26 generations from Adhisima-krishna, a descendent of the heroes of the epic, to the ascension of Mahapadma Nanda – a historically verifiable date – in 410 BCE.
At an average of 18 years for each of these 26 generations, the reign of Adhisimakrishna falls in 900 BCE and therefore, the Mahabharata war sometime in 950 BCE. The archaeological context is nascent PGW culture in upper Ganga basin – small agrarian communities subsisting on wheat and barley with hardly any large urban habitations. If we add 30 generations of interregnum between Mahabharata and Ramayana, the epic scene shifts to 1400 BCE a period when there was absolutely no agrarian presence in Gangetic plains and equally dismal scenario to the west of Sutlej. Now, add another 65 generations to the beginning of kingship – 2600 BCE – and that will take us to the Mature Harappan stage, provided we are open to consider Indus Valley region as a possible seat for early Indian kingship. We may ignore the fact that the date doesn’t account for a period of three centuries of growth and development of an advanced urban civilization.
Conclusion is that this chronology doesn’t make any sense or that our historical tradition has no factual basis but a bunch of unconnected myths.
But, Pargiter had no choice. Any date before 9th Century BCE for Mahabharata will not account for an Aryan invasion independent of and after the Indus Valley Civilization. The earlier generations and events had to be either truncated or shifted to a location beyond the subcontinent. Nevertheless, he was aware of this anomaly and his arguments on the validity of tradition are numerous and are in support of this contradiction than his own chronological frame – which sounds like a weak justification. If he were to have access to recent research, he would have fixed a more realistic framework, I am sure.

The New Pargiter Paradigm

Essentially it is a chronological shift.
The puranic tradition is unequivocal about the date of Mahabharata war – a gap of 1050 years between the coronation of Nanda and the event – taking the epic period to 1500 BCE. The date is consistent with the radio-carbon dates of upper levels of Dwaraka before its submergence. That is an archaeological correspondence of immense significance. Tradition is clear about the submergence event to have taken place during the lifetime of the heroes of the epic.
But, how do we explain the gap of four centuries before the computed date for Adhisima-krishna?
There are plenty of clues:
1. The theatre of war had been Kurukshetra in the Upper Saraswati basin that is East Punjab and Haryana. The Ghaggar-Drishadvati Valley had been the seat of the largest concentration of Late-Harappan sites – 580 in number in circa 1500 BCE.
2. Immediately after this period the culture declined deteriorating into sporadic settlements with typical Ochre Color Pottery (OCP). Tradition echoes this development, claiming the end of an era and beginning of the Dark Age.
3. For a period of seven centuries until the arrival of Northern Black Polished Ware (NBP) sites in circa 700 BCE, we don’t find any significant urbanization in the subcontinent. Tradition again has explained this. Entire codification of puranas had taken place in the Naimisha forest, without any royal patronage. The post-brahmanaic literature, namely Aranyaka and early Upanishads treatises were rendered in a similar context.
4. Finally, the puranas are first recited in urban context during the reign of Adhisima-krishna whose contemporaries include Senajit of Magadh and Divakara of Ayodhya in middle-Gangetic basin – a shift of focus to the east. By 800 BCE, the wheels of Second Urbanization are truly set in motion. Another significant change in theme is the presence of Nāgas as the chief adversaries to the process of expansion.
5. It is no wonder the newly emerging kingdoms sought a natal connection with the traditional heroes to legitimize their claims and began naming the new settlements and lineages after the puranic and epic tradition. This shift is subtly but surely conveyed by the change in tense of the historical tradition. Bhavishya Purana section lists the kings after Adhisima-krishna in a manner of prediction of future generations instead of factual past.
Now that we have a fix on the date of Mahabharata, the chronology of Indian Prehistory would change radically to explain the most important phase of its past, namely the Harappan Civilization within the ambit of Ancient Indian Historical Tradition. This gives us an opportunity to verify and validate the synchronisms arrived at by Pargiter under this new paradigm and may simultaneously provide a perspective to the archaeological and epigraphical material from the period.

Instead of delving anymore on the rationale, I shall dive into the narration of names, events and contexts in a chronological order … or do I say, simply … tell history?
Let me start at the beginning …


6363 BCE
What was the substratum? We have evidence of Mesolithic cultures in Baluchistan, Sind, Saurashtra and the piedmont region abutting Vindhyas. Upper Paleolithic cultures continued across the peninsula, lower Himalayan piedmont and the hills of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. The first agrarian settlements began to appear south of Allahabad and the most crucial developments occurred in the Zhob Valley.
We have sufficient evidence today that the language family spoken in the region (IE) was already present. Whether it was an indigenous development or an arrival with the early agrarian communities of Levant, is a matter of debate.
4500 BCE
Agrarian settlements dotted entire length of Indus-Saraswati Basin. There was evidence of copper mining in Rajasthan.  Based on the current linguistic repertoire, the primary language families in the agrarian areas are Indo European and Mundic. Presence of Dravidian Group or a Proto Dravidian language is to be established.  Emmer and Barley was the staple in the flood plains. Millet farming continued in Saurashtra and Narmada Valley. There was a discontinuity in rice cultivation in Vindhya belt. There was Lapis Lazuli, Obsidian and of course cotton – probably wild still. Material included mud bricks and wheel thrown pottery.  Urbanization was nascent – large settlements in Mehrgarh, Balakot, Amri, Kot Diji and the early levels of Harappa.  
Into this backdrop let us introduce the names and events …
Our astrology points to 3120 BCE as the beginning of Kali Yuga – the present age. But our analysis of puranic genealogies takes the early kingship – Manu – to the same period. It cannot be a coincidence. The date is remembered by the traditional historians and was attributed to the latest age of their reckoning. The date also is significant as it establishes the first evidence of contact between the subcontinent and the West Asia.
3120 BCE – The Flood

Note: Similarity between Nahusha and Biblical Noah whose progeny populates the known world may be noticed. The stratigraphic date of flood at Suruppak in Mesopotamia also falls around 3100 BCE.
The king and priests from a foreign land are repatriated to the land of their future. The kings were called Ikshvākus with their capital at AyodhyaHarappa. Issiwakkum = Governor (Old Akkadian). Then who are the overlords? Rigveda mentions a parallel set of kings called Asuras. They are the worshippers of the supreme God – Varuna. A priest of Varuna called Vasishta, from Susa (Elamite Susa), the Golden Palace of Varuna, is reborn in a vessel and becomes the house priest of Iksvakus, governors of the land; while his twin, Agastya becomes the priest of the seaboard region.
Elamite becomes the administrative language of the region, while the indigenous population with their matriarchal legacy and a IE tongue, continue to rule from their stronghold near the confluence of three rivers – Sindhu, Sarayu and Saraswati (Kot Diji) – called Pratishtana. True to their matrilineal heritage, they claim descent from Ilā a daughter of the first king.
The administrative language – Vāc – is predominantly Elamite strongly influenced by IE in upper basin and Mundic in Gujarat and coast. Two distinct indigenous subject populations arise in this milieu – Purus, the city dwellers and Yadus, the nomadic shepherds.
The third complex is the port-island colonizers (Divi) with their predominantly foreign population (AsuraDāsaPani) imposing their coercive economy over the native hunter-gatherer tribes (Sabaras, Gandharvas, Dāsas), who spoke the native Mundic languages. The language of these colonizers becomes the spring of later Dravidian tongues.
Puranic accounts and the RigVeda hymns support the coercive regime of the Asura overlords and their Pani merchants and an increasing resentment amongst the native peoples.
2900 – 2600 BCE – The Struggle and Exile

 We have many legends and stories associated with the kings that figure above. First let me attempt decoding the ‘Legend of Dhundumāra’. Kuvalayāsva, an Ishvaku receives the Sword of Varuna and kills Dhundhu – the story narrates the suppression of indigenous Pauravas of Pratishtāna (Kot Diji) by the Governors of Ayodhya as mandated by their Asura overlords. It is the phase of consolidation of Asura Empire over entire valley. Vajrānga is remembered as the last benevolent Asura. After the fall of Pratishtana a new city is built across the river with new Governing elite. The city was called Kāsi after Kasa or Varuna-Asuri (Mohenjo Daro) – The Seat of the Lord of the World.
Local resentment against the descendents of Vajrānga leads to a rebellion. Native tribes – still in their Paleolithic milieu are inducted and a native army is created – it is called Deva-Sena or simply Devas and their general defeats Tāraka. But retaliation is quick. The Asuras establish three defensive outposts – Tripuras – in the three sub-regions. Ishvakus are exiled. Resistance moves to Kāsi. Divodāsa rallies his forces with the exiled king of Ayodhya, Purukutsa (Note the Paurava connection in his name). A new syncretic Godhead is created out of existing local cults (Vasus – Vāsava; Murukan – Warlord) – Indra arrives.
Sambaras lose, but temporarily.
Note: The name Sambara figures very prominently at different points of time. It is not a proper name, but a designation of Asura-Sabara complex which evolves later into the Habira-Abhira-Ophir-Hebrew complex of words.
2600 – 2400 BCE - The Empire

Resistence of Kāsi doesn’t continue for long. The Ishvāku kings remain in captivity at least until Harischandra. An unsuccessful attempt by Trisanku to gain ground in the lower riparian region is scuttled. Meanwhile a new naval power of Haiheyas with Tālajhanghas (High Masts - river galleys with thousand oars – probably a little exaggerated) under the leadership of Arjuna Kārtavirya overruns the capital, Kāsi.
The priests of the empire become the focus of resistance. A young prince of Kanyākubja on Drishadvati (Kalibangan), Viswamitra joins forces with the Bhārgavas – priests of the Asuras. Together the clan of Bhārgavas successfully pushes Haiheyas back with the help of underwater missile (torpedoes) called Horse-heads designed by Aurva. Bhārgava Rāma is the chieftain that guides the Ishvakus against native resistance of Haiheyas and Sambaras. It is interesting to note his other name – Parasu Rāma, the wielder of battle axe – in view of the fact that Parasu is the ancient name of Iran.
The final blow is dealt by Sagara who extends the Ishvaku Empire from the headwaters to sea.  
2500 – 2200 BCE – Crisis & New Foci

Post Sagara period is called Treta Yuga. The empire of Ishvakus is at its height, stretching from mouths of Sindhu and Saraswaati to the Himalayan Piedmont. The lords of Kāsi (Mohenjo Daro), Videha (Ganheriwala), Kekeyas (Banwali) and Yādavas of Saurashtra / Malwa come under uniform administration. The civilization is at its mature stage. Trade with West Asia and control of seasonal cattle movement between Peninsular India and the empire continued with Yādava feudatories. Yādavas begin adopting some of the legacy of Asuras. In Mesopotamia, Sumerian Kingdom collapses and the new masters, Akkadians take over with new cultural inputs from Mediterranean seaboard. Earlier coercive regime of Asuras is replaced by negotiated trade. Quality of life of common citizens improves significantly.
The period is marked by one of the greatest riparian crises. Satudri (Sutlej), the principal tributary of Saraswati shifts its course westwards causing widespread floods of Indus, inundating Kāsi (Mohenjo Daro), while the lower flood plains of Saraswati suffer from weakened annual flood, shrinking the cultivable land. 65,000 subjects of Sagara are repatriated towards the upper basin. Kanyākubja (Kalibangan) becomes the focus of this large immigrant population. Sagara’s imperial administration embarks on a large irrigation / drainage project – revival of the river by diverting the waters of Sutlej to the shrinking stream of Saraswati. The project takes four generations to complete and during the reign of Bhagiratha the old course is revived.  
Viswamitras of Kanyakubja support the building of a new city on the western branch of Yamuna-Drishadvati with a new leadership – a dispossessed prince of Druhyu lineage called Dushyant. The new settlement raises a new priesthood with a large element of indigenous beliefs, – human sacrifice, fire altars and large scale slaughter of cattle – Bharadhvajas and Angirases.
Conflict with the priestly establishment of Vasishtas who carry the Bhārgava legacy is inevitable.
2200 – 2000 BCE – Rise of Bharatas and End of an Era

The last phase of Treta Yuga is marked by the rise of Bharatas with a shift of geographical focus away from Ayodhya. The vanguard of this movement is Viswamitra, who is also the progenitor of the Bharata lineage. Even the Ishvakus reject the Bhārgava priests and a hundred of Vasishta clan is slaughtered on the banks of Sarayu near Ayodhya.   
The Yādavas in lower Sindh and Gujarat become independent. They start assuming Asura designations – Sakuni, Madhu, Andhaka etc. – a legacy of the past. There is an overall devolution of Ishvaku authority. A new capital is built by Madhu in eastern Gujarat called Mathura.
With the access to trade route blocked the civilization of upper basin declines. The city of Kāsi (Mohenjo Daro) comes to an end and a skeletal settlement survives for a few generations.   
The last king of the Ishvaku lineage, Rāma is dispossessed by a Bharata claimant to the throne. During exile he joins forces with indigenous tribes and reclaims the trade links to the Gulf of Cutch by taking control of trading post, Lanka (Dholavira) under the administration of a Palestine (Paulastya) ruler from Akkad/Canaan, Rāvana. Period of Rāma is remembered as the most glorious phase, Rāmarājya, and is sprinkled with instances of two kinds – revival of settlements that fell into bad times (Stories of Ahalya, Tātaka etc.) and extension of civilized way of life to those beyond its pale (Vānaras). This revival is only temporary and the era ends with his reign.
Remnants of the civilization survive in Drishadvati Valley (Bharatas) and Saurashtra/Kutch region (Yādavas) to continue the legacy.  

2000 – 1500 BCE – The Last Straw

 The Late Harappan phase coincides with the Age of Devolution in the tradition – Dvāpara Yuga. The genealogies do not say much except a proliferation of smaller kingdoms and decentralized power. Efforts to consolidate the empire begin towards the end of the age with Bhishma a general of the Kurus and a young prince called Pāndu. But almost immediately, conflict ensues from within.
The descendents of the general, Pāndu, join forces with a neighboring chiefdom, Pānchalas and challenge the authority of the main Kuru line. The war that ensues is immortalized in the memory, finally ending in the extinction of imperial authority. Aswaddhāma, a Bharadwaja and Nāga incarnate, is credited with the final extermination of Kuru lineage.   
The Yādavas come under a new indigenous influence spearheaded by a folk Godhead – Krishna. The imperial Yādavas that carried Asura heritage come to an end with Kamsa. Dwaraka, the new capital of Andhakas becomes the focus of southern group. With the end of Dwaraka and the mercantile nature of the Yādavas, the tribe starts spreading towards the river valleys to the east. Iron and new rice cultivation technology aids its rapid progress evidenced by the spread of Black and Red (BRW) cultures. Legends of Balarāma (Sankarshana) are indicative of Yamuna changing its course eastward and incorporation of Nāgas who probably had their origins in the Megalithic cultures of Deccan and Central India with their control on Iron Ore producing regions.  
1400 – 900 BCE – Survival

The civilization comes to an end with its remnants surviving in small hamlets of subsistence farming and herding, surrounded by the forest – Naimisha – in the Painted Gray Ware (PGW) context. But this is one of the most intellectually fertile phases of history. The ritual Brahmanism gives way to speculative Aranyakas (Treatises from Forests) and the philosophy of Upanishads. The memories from bardic traditions are codified and consolidated. But due to the lack of royal patronage, the tradition died, to be revived centuries later with the rise of kingship.
Spread of iron plough, transplanting of rice in river valleys, millet cultivation in dry lands and improvements in breeding and herding practices increases surplus. Rise of new urban centers, kingship and demand for iron and other raw material result in conflict with Nāgas. This is evidenced by Sarpayāga in the opening chapter of Mahabharata conducted by Janamejaya, a descendent of the epic heroes.
Rise of kingship revives the historic tradition and the tone of puranas becomes futuristic with Bhavishya Purana. The claims of emerging kingdoms result in the glorification of puranic lineages and epic tradition evolves. With the true Iron Age, India enters the early historic phase.


The Yuga calendar – Puranas divide the past into ‘yugas’ – progressively deteriorating phases. They closed ‘the time’ sometime after the Mahabharata war until they rebooted the calendar during the reign of Adhisimakrishna. Each of the Yugas end after the career of a certain Rāma – Parasu Rāma’s annihilation of Tālajhaghas marks the end of Krita Yuga; Rāma Dāsarathi’s victory over Rāvana and his passing away marks the end of Treta Yuga; and Balarāma diverting the course of Yamuna and the submerging of Dwāraka ends Dvāpara. Unfortunately, instead of kick-starting a new cycle they continued linearly and called the future – Kaliyuga, the last phase of the earlier age. But the Kali Yuga as they knew was inexplicably long. Already, more than five centuries (1500 to circa 900 BCE) have past after the earlier age – Dvāpara. Therefore, it becomes inevitable for them to invent abnormally long reigns for the kings of the past to expand the past yugas to match or exceed the length of Kali Yuga.   
Secondly, the name Rāma – this seems to be a designation rather than being a proper name. The etymology given in Rāmāyana for the name is of doubtable logic. The letters ‘Ra’ from Vaishnavite tradition, Aum Namō Nāyanāyah and ‘Ma’ from Shaivaite Aum Namah Sivāyah – both these mantras are of a later origin. Ra is easy to deduce with its regal connotations. Ma has always been a metronymic suffix as in Uma, Sarama, Ruma, Halima, Salma etc. This gives us reason to speculate on feminine sanction to leadership. In case of Ailas – Bharatas, it is understandable. But the Ishvakus and Bhrigus have a strong patrilineal descent system. Deciphering of Harappan script may help us with some clues.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the period between 2800 BCE to 2000 BCE, that is, from Divodasa to Rama coincides with advanced stage of Harappan civilization. The ‘tradition’ throws up a significant number of proper names and designations of royal and priestly lineages of this period. These may help in understanding the phonetic values assigned to symbols. 
Finally, the chronology is not sacrosanct. It is based on an approximate value of 18 year per generation. We may need some external evidence to fix the dates more accurately. There is a probable synchronism between Sumerian Enmerker and Sagara – looks very plausible on the surface and the date of mid third millennium for Gilgamesh legend matches closely with our date for Sagara – 2472 BCE. If the dates of Enmerker are pushed closer to 3000 BCE, then the entire chronology of Puranas needs to be pushed back by 500 years. A single correspondence with unverified external dates may not be adequate to force it. But, if evidence is strong, then it must be done.
The presentation above in the form of a concise history is only aimed at stating the relevance of Indian Traditional Histories in understanding Proto-historic archaeology of the subcontinent. The dates are based on the assumptions and synchronisms arrived at by Pargiter. I have restrained my temptation to make changes here and there in order to stick to the table as given by him. What we see here is that broadly various phases of historic tradition tend to fit into the archaeological data available. Certainly a reason to celebrate the efforts of F E Pargiter, who gave this framework exactly hundred years ago!



  1. There is thought, that the great flood was 2807 BC.
    Does this work for you?

  2. One of the best articles on this subject I have ever read. Beautiful. I was looking for an article like this to understand whether out puranas etc. are as old as we claim (from the beginning of the universe) and also if our Gods (Rama, Krishna) are historical or mythical figures. This article clarifies all that. Thank you!