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.”

This statement makes two important points. One, there have been no wild horses in India since Pleistocene—which lasted from 2.58 million years ago to 11,700 years ago. Therefore, the horse found at Surkotada has to be a domesticated one, not a wild one. But the corollary to these two statements is that if there were no wild horses in India in the last 11,700 years, then the horse was clearly not domesticated in India, since horse domestication happened no earlier than 3500 BCE. Therefore, the Surkotada horse is either imported or belongs to a breed that was imported, even by Bokonyi’s own statement.

Moreover, Bokonyi’s verification of the horse bones has itself been strongly challenged by equally respected archaeozoologists such as Richard Meadow. Even if you assume that Bokonyi was right and Meadow was wrong, it still leaves a large gap between the kind of presence the horse wields in the Rig Veda and the near complete absence of horse and horse-related imagery in the Harappan culture, especially in the thousands of seals and sealings that portray everything from mythical unicorns to bulls, buffaloes, peacocks, elephants, tigers and rhinoceroses. The hot, humid climate of the country should not stop us from finding steatite seals of horses if they existed.

Theoretically, even the physical presence of a horse or two in the Harappan civilisation should not be surprising since there is historical record of the Harappans exporting Indian animals such as the elephant, water buffalo and the peacock to Mesopotamia, and importing a horse in return from there or elsewhere should raise no eyebrows. But that would not change the overall picture of the 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 archaeologist MK Dhavalikar had this to say on the Rig Veda being clearly post-Harappan when he discussed the issue of the horses and the Vedas:

If you are reading some novel, how will you date it? If there is mention of a mobile there, you will say it was written in the 20th century or later . . . So like that there are two markers in the Rigveda. One is the occurrence of horse. That is very important. Because that is the most favourite animal of the Aryans. It played a role in their religious beliefs also . . . Secondly, the Rigveda also talks about ‘ayas,’ which clearly means copper, because when iron was discovered later, they had to coin a new word, ‘krsna ayas’ or black copper. Now on pure archaeological evidence, domestic horse starts appearing from 1900 BCE. That is Late Harappan period, which is 1900 to 1500 BCE. So this is one fixed point – about 1900 or 1800. Iron was here in north India by 1400 to 1500 BCE. So you can safely put Rigveda to be somewhere between 2000 BCE and 1400 BCE.

Tony Joseph is a journalist.

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