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Rigveda: Chronology and geography


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When and where was Rigveda composed? How is it related to thee vast Harappan archaeological tradition. These are quintessential questions on ancient Indian history which do not have direct answers. I examine a large body of evidence to arrive at plausible answers.

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Rigveda: Chronology and geography

  1. 1. Colloquium delivered at Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre, Kolkata, 28 August 2014 The Rigveda: Chronology and geography Rajesh Kochhar Mathematics Department, Panjab University Chandigarh 160014
  2. 2. The source for this talk is Kochhar, Rajesh: The Vedic People: Their History and Geography ( Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan).  First published in 2000, the book has been reprinted a number of times. No new evidence or major insight has appeared in the last 15 years to warrant any revision.
  3. 3.  When and where was the Rigveda composed?  How are the Vedic people related to the vast Harappan archaeological tradition? These are quintessential questions on ancient Indian history.
  4. 4. There are however no direct answers to these questions. At our current level of knowledge, archaeological findings and textual references constitute two distinct streams which do not intersect. One must therefore collect pieces of information from a wide variety of sources
  5. 5. and try to reconcile them, with a view to obtaining plausible answers.  Inherent uncertainties in the evidence must reflect themselves in the conclusions based on them.
  6. 6. WW NATURAL HISTORY GEOMORPHOLOGY ARCHAEOLOGY RGVEDA HISTORY OF AVESTA LINGUISTICS ASTRONOMY TECHNOLOGY We dance round in a ring and suppose But the secret sits in the middle and knows Robert Frost
  7. 7. I would particularly like to draw attention to evidence from outside the Indian subcontinent, because it has not received the attention it deserves. The plan of the talk is as follows.
  8. 8. Plan  Indian archaeology up to 2000 BC  Rigveda/Avesta  Proto- Indo-European speakers  Central Asian archaeology  Afghanistan and India after 2000 BC  Suggestions for obtaining direct evidence
  9. 9. Indian archaeology Urban or Mature Harappan phase in Indian archaeology is well known. It lasted from 2600 BC to 1900 BC and included cities such as Harappa and Mohenjodaro. It should however be kept in mind that this period represents the peak of a tradition which goes back to Neolithic times.
  10. 10. Mehrgarh in Baluchistan presents clear evidence of transition in 7000 BC from hunting to animal husbandry and from food gathering to domestication of wheat and barley. Remarkably, various mounds at Mehrgarh itself show continuous occupancy from 7000 BC till 2000 BC.
  11. 11. Archaeological timeline 7000 BC-2000 BC  Baluchistan phase 7000 BC- 4500 BC -  Early Harappan 3500 BC-2600 BC  Mature Harappan 2600 BC-1900 BC  Later phases have new arrivals
  12. 12. From 7000 BC till 1900 BC, there is no sign whatsoever of arrival of new people.  New arrivals manifest themselves in archaeological cultures only after this date.
  13. 13. Archaeology by itself cannot say who these people were. For this, we must turn to linguistics and ancient sacred literature. For later reference it may be noted that These later arrivals are presumed to be Indic-speakers.
  14. 14. The Rigveda The Rigveda (Rv) is the world’s oldest literary document. It mentions wheeled vehicle and copper (ayas). Both these technologies, which did not originate in India, are dated 4000 BC. Rv cannot be older than this date. As we shall see, it should be much younger (<2000 BC).
  15. 15. Rv does not mention iron. It is certain that before the other Samhitas came into existence, Rv Samhita had already assumed practically the same form in which we find it today.  When we say that text A is older than text B, this does not mean that the whole of A is older than whole of B. Rather, A was closed earlier than B, so that the youngest portions of A are older than the youngest portions of B.
  16. 16. A relatively younger text may contain matter that is very old (even if it has been re-cast). Vedic texts such as Brahmanas and Shrautasutras must contain material (pertaining to ritual etc.) which is contemporaneous with the Rgveda.
  17. 17. Rv and the Zoroastrian sacred text Avesta are so closely related that one cannot be studied without the help of the other. Rv in fact is closer to Avesta than to the other Vedas. At some remote time, the Indo-Iranians must have been one.
  18. 18. The Vedic people were not merely familiar with horse, they were obsessed with it. A cult was built around horse. Indic and Iranian have the same word for horse: ashva/aspa
  19. 19. Indo-Iranian group includes other languages also, apart from Indic and Iranian. Dardi and Kafiri are related to the Indic, but are believed to have separated from it at an early date. On the other hand, Pashto, Baluchi and Kurdish are related to the Iranian. Note that the Kurds who are in the news for reasons of war belong to this group.
  20. 20. Indo-European family of languages Indo-Iranian group is part of a larger family of languages known as the Indo-European. Other groups in it are Latin, Greek, Germanic, Celtic, Albanian, etc.
  21. 21. It is postulated that some time in remote past (in the Bronze Age), there existed a hypothetical community of proto-Indo-European people (PIE) bound together by geography, common culture and a common language ( with various dialects). Where was this homeland located?
  22. 22. There are Indo-European loanwords in Finno-Ugric ( e.g. Hungarian sor (beer)= Skt sura.). Since the Finno- Ugric have always been associated with North European forest lands, PIE must be placed immediately to their south, in the European steppes bordering Caspian Sea and Black Sea.
  23. 23.  Earliest evidence for domestication of horse comes from this very region, from Sredni Stog culture which flourished during 4000-3500 BC in today’s Ukraine. A solitary example of loan in the reverse direction is on record ( Skt/ Avestan maksh = Mordavian meks (bee)).
  24. 24. This word is not to be found in European languages. This suggests that the loan to Indo-Iranian took place when European branches had already left. Archaeology suggests that Indo-Iranian migrations began in 2100 BC. Clues to the earliest migrations come from history of technology.
  25. 25. Terms associated with wheel and axle and metal are common im many IE languages (Skt chakra= Greek kyklos; Skt ayas=Latin aeos). This suggests that these technological developments had already taken place when PIE were still in their joint homeland. These technologies are believed to have been introduced in about 4000 BC (as already noted). The earliest IE migrations must be after this date.
  26. 26. It is believed that starting about 2000 BC, very large parts of the world were affected by prolonged drought which caused widespread migrations. Presumably it was quest for water which compelled Indo-Iranians to move southwards where,
  27. 27. thanks to rivers fed by the snow-clad Pamirs and Hindukush water shortage would not be so acute. (In India, in the post-urban Harappan phase also, there were migrations from the lower Ghaggar to the upper, but they took place about 1700 BC. )
  28. 28. A positive fall-out of Russian occupation of Central Asia was thorough archaeological excavations in the area including northern Afghanistan. Unfortunately, south Afghanistan and Iran which are more relevant from an Indian point of view remain largely unexplored archaeologically.
  29. 29. Archaeology of South Turkmenistan runs parallel to India’s, with Namazga V corresponding to urban centres of Harappa and Mohenjodaro. In 2100 BC Namazga V was ruined. Atop its ruins came up a small impoverished village ( Namazga VI), which shows clear signs of decline in material culture as well as new burial practices and new symbols.
  30. 30. Remarkably, one pedestal from Namazga VI was decorated by a svastika, an absolutely new motif in local symbolism. It was never found again in the entire rich collection of Southern Turkmenistan pottery.
  31. 31. About the same time as Namazga VI, a new cultural complex came up spread over the Murgab river delta ( Margiana) and the plain around the middle reaches of Amu Darya (Bactria). The calibrated radio-carbon dates from Murgab-Amu cultures cover a period 2100 BC-1700 BC.
  32. 32. Two sites from this area are noteworthy in that they seem to provide evidence that can be related to the Rigveda. Togolok 21 in the Murghab Delta in South Turkmenistan shows evidence of use of Ephedra, which has been identified with the Soma/ Haoma plant of the Rigvedic/Avestan people.
  33. 33. Togolok 21
  34. 34. In Togolok 21, Ephedra however appears in association with poppy and cannabis, while Soma/Haoma was a pure plant extract.
  35. 35. Dashli 3 in the Amu plain in North Afghanistan shows a circular building (inside a square enclosure) which fits the Rigvedic description of a Dasa fort. Unlike Togolok 21, there is no sign of Ephedra. This is consistent with the fact that Dasa are described as anti- Soma. Since Iranian is also familiar with Dasa, they cannot be the Harappan people. Vaksh-Bishkent cultures in this region are also believed to be connected with the Indo- Iranians.
  36. 36. Dashli 3 (square structure)
  37. 37. While looking for archaeological evidence connected with Rv, it is important to keep in mind that the Rv people were neither a homogeneous group nor an exclusive group. Nor can they claim to be a microcosm of Indo- Iranian cultures.
  38. 38. In other words, a Rv statement may apply to a section of the Rv people or to all of them. It may apply to a fraction or all of the Indo-Iranian people. In addition, there might have been practices prevalent among the Rv or related people which failed to make to the book.
  39. 39. Archaeological cultures, believed to be associated with Indo-Iranians, share a number of features.  Cult of fire  Burial of burnt bones and ashes or of the body in a flexed position  Poor quality pottery, whether handmade or wheel made  Extensive use of handmade pottery.
  40. 40. It is noteworthy that the two earthen vessels, ukha and mahavira, used in the Vedic ritual were explicitly required to be handmade.
  41. 41. Soma/ Haoma The natural history of the Soma plant helps us localize the Rigvedic/ Avestan people to whom the Soma/ Haoma cult is common. Soma is a leaf-less plant whose twigs were crushed to yield the juice, also called Soma, which was filtered by passing it through a strainer made of sheep’s wool.
  42. 42. Soma juice was drunk immediately. There was no time for fermentation.  The Vedic agnishtoma and the Zoroastrian Haoma ceremony are strikingly similar, both of which must therefore have originated in the common Indo-Iranian period.
  43. 43. In Rv (8.80) a maiden, Apala, plucks Soma twigs by the wayside and chews them. This means at the time the Rigvedic people lived in the Soma-land. Rigveda makes it clear that Soma grew in mountains, a popular location being Mount Mujavat.
  44. 44. In Baudhayana Shrautasutra (6.14), the Adhvaryu asks the seller if the Soma came from Mujavat, which obviously was still a source of supply.
  45. 45. In the Yajurveda (Maitrayani Samhita 1.160), the sacrificial offerings are hung from a tree with the words, ‘This is your portion, O Rudra! With this food, pass by beyond Mujavat’. By now, Mujavat is the civilization outpost beyond which lies the unknown. We thus see successive movement of Indo-Aryans away from the Soma habitat.
  46. 46. Each and every statement on Soma/ Haoma in the Vedic corpus and Avestan literature can be explained in a self-consistent manner by identifying Soma plant with those species of Ephedra which grows at high altitudes and have high alkaloidal content.
  47. 47. Northwestern plain of India could not have been the home of the Rigvedic people, because there is no suitable candidate for Soma here.
  48. 48. Sarasvati Sarasvati is the most celebrated river in Rv. It rises in the mountains, cuts its ridges, raises foam, and goes to the samudra ( literally, gathering of waters). It has many tributaries (inluding Drishadvati and Apaya) which are called its daughters. There are other rivers in the region which are called Sarasvati’s sisters. Sarasvati is described as naditama, the best of all rivers.
  49. 49. Two western tributaries of Indus that are named in Rv can be easily identified : Kubha (Kabul) and Suvastu (Swat). Rv also mentions Gomati. From the context it is clear that Gomal in Baluchistan is meant and not the Lucknow Gomati. This illustrates the later re-use of old names.
  50. 50. The youngest portion of Rv, the tenth mandala , contains a river hymn in praise of Indus. All the superlatives earlier applied to Sarasvati are now transferred to Indus. Sarasvati is mentioned here in passing . Quite obviously this cannot be the Sarasvati of the old mandalas.
  51. 51. Later Vedic texts ( Panchavimsha Brahmana, Jaiminiya Upanishsa) as well as Mahabharata mention a river Sarasvati which vanishes in the desert at a place called Vinashana. Presumably, this river is the same as the Sarasvati of the tenth mandala. It has been identified with Ghaggar.
  52. 52. Ghaggar The puny Ghaggar system is located between the two mighty snow-fed river systems of North India, Indus in the west and Yamuna-Ganga in the east. Many rivulets arise in the rain-fed Shivaliks and merge to form Ghaggar.
  53. 53. Interestingly, one of the Ghaggarettes is named Sarsuti, an apabhransh of Sarasvati. Why should the name Sarasvati be transferred from the main river Ghaggar and given to a tributary? Also, why and how did such an un-poetical name as Ghaggar come into being?
  54. 54. Finally, the name Sarasvati was given to an invisible river that joins Yamuna and Ganga. These transferences suggest that use of name Sarasvati was expedient rather than sacred.
  55. 55. The Ghaggar of today does not reach the sea; it gets lost in the sands on its way down. It has been known for 150 years that things were different at some stage in the past. Satluj flowed eastwards and Yamuna westwards to join Ghaggar and together flow to the sea.
  56. 56. It is noteworthy that satellite imagery merely confirms this. It does not tell us any thing new. More particularly, the epoch when Ghaggar underwent geo-morphological transformation remains undetermined.
  57. 57. The fundamental question is this. Sarasvati of the old mandala is a mighty river, while Sarasvati of the late tenth mandala loses its way in the desert. Are there two rivers or just one? In 1891, Max Muller assumed that there was only one river which underwent drastic change during the Rigvedic time itself.
  58. 58. He was conscious of the speculative nature of his suggestion. He wrote: ‘ It may not be possible to determine by geological evidence the time of the changes which modified the southern area of the Punjab and caused the Sarasvati to disappear in the desert’. Geology may not have been able to come to the help of Indologists in 1890s, but it surely can now.
  59. 59. An alternative hypothesis was proposed by Alfred Hillebrandt that Sarasvati of the old mandalas was a river in south Afghanistan. He suggested Arghandab as the candidate, whose old name is Haraivati, cognate with Sarasvati.
  60. 60.  I have adduced a number of reasons why the old Ghaggar cannot be the naditama Sarasvati. Two important ones are these:  The old Ghaggar does not match the attributes of Rv Sarasvati:  Even if Satluj and Yamuna flowed into Ghaggar in Rigvedic times, the upper Ghaggar will still be the same as now. By no stretch of imagination can it be called naditama which cuts ridges of mountains, raises foam, etc.
  61. 61.  Furthermore, there is unambiguous evidence from Rv itself that in its time, Satluj was already apart of the Indus system. Rv (3.33) describes the arrival of Vishvamitra and his entourage at the confluence of Satluj and Beas where the Rishi appeals to the two rivers to let them pass.
  62. 62. I have slightly modified Hillebrandt’s thesis and suggested Helmand as the old Rv Sarasvati. In the same spirit, the Rv Sarayu cannot be the present-day Sarayu; it must be identified with Hari-rud, whose older name is Horayu ( cognate with Sarayu).
  63. 63. Rv mentions Sapta Sindhavah, the district of seven rivers. It is known to the Avesta as Hapta Hindu. These rivers, it has been suggested, be indentified with other rivers in the region including Farah- rud.
  64. 64. There is a striking commonality of geographic names in Rv and Avesta. The most natural explanation for the phenomenon is this. Names to Afghan rivers were given by the Indo-Iranians
  65. 65. The Iranian branch which came to dominate the area later, decided to selectively retain the names. When the Rv people moved eastwards, they carried these names along and selectively reused them. The names that were not reused lost their geographical identity and became literary terms.
  66. 66. This would explain the curious fact that inspite of Rigveda’s uninterrupted sanctity and the continuous Aryan presence in India, a large number of Rv names of rivers, lakes and mountain are unrecognizable.
  67. 67. If the rigorous study of ancient Indian history is to advance, it must be provided with direct evidence rather than circumstantial. It may not be advisable to embark on archaeological exploration of South Afghanistan at the present state of affairs, but a rigorous, open-ended, investigation into the hydrological history of the Ghaggar system would be very valuable indeed.
  68. 68. Such a study is required by archaeology also. There are a number of late Harappan sites on lower Ghaggar which were abandoned 1700 BC and people moved upstream.
  69. 69. Note that lower Ghaggar sites are older than the upper ones.  What was the water supply before 1700 BC and what happened then? How old are the oldest archaeological sites on Ghaggar and its tributaries, esp. Sarsuti?
  70. 70.  To sum up so far, I have argued that Indo-Iranian speakers were stationed in their original home in European steppes till 2100 BC when they started moving southwards. We have their presumed presence in the oases and deltas north of Hindukush.
  71. 71. Next, Indo-Iranians arrive in South Afghanistan, They get introduced to Soma/Haoma and subsets among them take to the composition of Rv and Avesta. Note that Indic-speakers were not a monolith. Among them are non-Rv people, Rv-related people and Rv-people themselves.
  72. 72. When do Indic speakers appear in the subcontinent? Swat III culture in the Swat valley supplants an early Harappan phase and is assigned to Rv-related people. ( A calibrated radiocarbon date from here is 1744 BC.) Recall that this area hosts Dardi/ Kafiri speakers.
  73. 73. We have similar new arrivals in the Gomal valley (Baluchistan). The Swat and Gomal arrivals are Indo-Iranian people all right, but do not belong to the subset of Rv-people.
  74. 74. Ramayana and Mahabharata B. B. Lal carried out excavations in Mahabharata- named and Ramayana-named sites. He found that (i) The former lie to the west of the latter ( Meerut Hastinapur vis-a-vis Ayodhya).  (ii) Significantly, Mahabharata-named sites are older (PGW) than the Ramayana-named ones ( NBP, Northern BlackWare).
  75. 75. On the face of it, this finding runs counter to the Puranic accounts which consistently maintain that Rama came 30 generations before Krishna. The hypothesis of migration of names offers a simple resolution of the paradox.>
  76. 76. The Mahabharata-related people ( who are connected with Rv-composers) were the first ones to move eastwards beyond Ghaggar. They settled there , giving old names to their settlements. The Ramayana-related people came in later. They had to move further east where they also re-used old names from their settlements.
  77. 77. Northern Black Polished Ware Culture Painted Grey Ware Culture R v People Late Harappan (Jhukar) Phase Late Harappan (Cemetery H ) Phase Late Harappan (Rangpur ) Phase Non- Rv Indic Speakers Rv –related Indic Speakers Non- Rv Indic Speakers Mature Harappan Phase Early Harappan Phase Baluchistan Phase 100 BC 700 BC 400 BC 850 BC 900 BC 1700 BC 2000 BC 2500 BC 3500 BC 4500 BC 7000 BC 1300 BC 2000 BC
  78. 78. Thank you