Horse sense on Harappa: An excerpt from Tony Joseph’s book “Early Indians”

08 January 2019

In his recent book, Early Indians, the journalist Tony Joseph traces India’s genetic past, starting from 65,000 years ago, when modern humans first made their way into the Indian subcontinent. Joseph examines recent path-breaking developments in the analysis of DNA evidence from the Harappan civilisation to discuss the question concerning the possible migration of Indo-European language speakers from Central Asia into north-west India, popularly known as the Aryan migration theory. Those who dispute the theory often argue that the discovery of horse bones at a Harappan site coupled with the repeated mention of horses in the Rig Veda, the oldest text of Hinduism, indicate that India’s Harappan population was indigenous and had composed the Vedas. In the following excerpt, Joseph details the divergent arguments on the issue to demonstrate that there is a “serious disconnect between the role the horse plays in the Rig Veda and the role it plays—or rather, does not play—in Harappan archaeological record and imagery.”

The problem of the horse is this: the horse is rarely to be found in the Harappan civilisation, neither as skeletal remains nor as images on seals and artefacts, while it is very prominent and ubiquitous in the Rig Veda. So much so that two of the main gods, the Asvins, are horsemen. Two other deities, Ushas and Agni, are described as riding horse-drawn chariots. In a hymn, the river Sarasvati is described as “created vast for victory like a chariot.” In fact, the presence of the horse in the Rig Veda is so prominent that no other animal comes close. There are five hymns about the horse in the Rig Veda, but only one about the bull, one about the goat and one about a bird. One of the hymns about the horse—Mandala 1; hymn 162—refers to the horse sacrifice as follows:

They who observing that the Horse is ready call out and say, the smell is good; remove it; And, craving meat, await the distribution, – may their approving help promote labour. The trial-fork of the flesh-cooking cauldron, the vessels out of which the broth is sprinkled,
The warming-pots, the covers of the dishes, hooks, carving boards, – all these attend the Charger.
The starting-place, his place of rest and rolling, the ropes wherewith the Chargers feet were fastened,
The water that he drank, the food he tasted, – among the Gods, too, may all these attend thee.
Let not the fire, smoke-chanted, make thee crackle, nor glowing cauldron smell and break to pieces.
Offered, beloved, approved, and consecrated, – such Charger do the Gods accept with favour.

For those who do not accept the idea of “Aryan” migrations and insist that the “Aryans” were indigenous, it is axiomatic that the Harappan civilisation was “Vedic”—or a creation of the “Aryans” who composed the Vedas. They make three arguments for why the lack of horses or chariots in the Harappan cities should not stand in the way of a Vedic identity for the civilisation. One, horse bones are rare even in post-Harappan times, even though nobody doubts that horses were present then. Second, as the archaeologist BB Lal, the leading proponent of the Harappans-as-Vedic-Aryans proposition, puts it: “A wooden chariot, or anything wooden, is very difficult to find in the hot and humid climate of this country. I have not come across anything wooden, except a piece of grain . . . in Kalibangan.” Point three is that there has indeed been one internationally verified finding of horse bones—at the Harappan site of Surkotada in Gujarat—dating back to between 2100 BCE and 1700 BCE. These bones were indeed examined by the archaeozoologist professor Sandor Bokonyi, who had this to say, “The occurrence of true horse (Equus caballus) was evidenced by the enamel pattern of the upper and lower cheek and teeth and by the size and form of the incisors and phalanges (toe bones). Since no wild horses lived in India in post-Pleistocene times”—after 9700 BCE—“the domestic nature of the Surkotada horse is undoubtful.”

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    Tony Joseph is a journalist.

    Keywords: archaeology Indus valley civilisation Harappan civilisation Aryan migration theory genetics Vedas Rig Veda migration steppes