The Missing Horses Of Harappan Seals Are Not Really Missing

by Aravindan Neelakandan - May 18, 2018 02:35 PM
The Missing Horses Of Harappan Seals Are Not Really Missing Harappans, Aryans, and horses
  • The horse plays an important role in Vedic culture, but the puzzling absence of the animal in the famous Harappan seals, can be understood if one goes beyond the conventional perception of the Vedic-Harappan identity.

The horse has always been at the centre of a bitterly debated controversy in Indology. Almost close to a century, text books declared axiomatically that Harappan civilisation was distinguished from the Vedic by the absence of the horse. Horse domestication was said to have been done by Indo-European (IE) speakers of the Steppes. This horse riding culture is called the Yamnaya culture, which was supposed to have brought the horses and the Indo-European language. This stand is reinforced by the perceived paucity of horse representation in the cultural motifs of Harappa. Prof.Laurie L Patton in her scholarly introduction to the compilation of essays on the so-called Indo-Aryan controversy reflects the general academic consensus outside India when she says that ‘if the horse is ever discovered contemporaneous with early Indus Valley culture, or pre-Vedic South Asian civilization, the migrationist theories would have to change dramatically'. ('The Indo-Aryan Controversy', Routledge, 2005)

However, the picture has not always been clear with respect to horse remains and representations in Harappan culture because a large number of Indian archaeologists have always pointed out the presence of horses in Harappan civilisation.

Yet Another Study

Today, scholars involved in a detailed study of ancient DNA, seem to favour the Steppe horse riders bringing Indo-European language into the South Asian region. However, the possibilities of IE expansion through non-Yamnaya are also strong. Particularly there is the case of Hittites. These people who make their appearance with bronze age urban centres show a fusion culture of two linguistic streams - the Indo-European Nesite and the non-Indo-European Hattic. Now the interesting part is that recent studies have found no significant Yamnaya genetic influence among the Hittites. But in the case of India, it is assumed that the supposed Yamanya genetic influx gets correlated with Indo-European language expansion.

Hittite-Mittani peace treaty that invokes Vedic Deities like Varuna is the oldest peace treaty in the history of humanity. 
Hittite-Mittani peace treaty that invokes Vedic Deities like Varuna is the oldest peace treaty in the history of humanity. 

The Hittite Puzzle:

There is also the case of Kassites who rose after the fall of Babylonian Empire, and were prominent between 1530 BCE and 1155 BCE. Dr Mario Liverani, Professor of Ancient Near East History at the University of Rome points out that the Hittite Indo-European terms linked to horse riding were more of eastern (Indo-Iranian) origin than Anatolian:

The ethno-linguistic innovation of the sixteenth century BC was rather brought about by the appearance of Indo-Iranian terms in the personal names from Mitanni and other states connected to it. Alongside these personal names, there was the appearance of a specific terminology linked to the breeding and training of horses for the two-wheeled horse-drawn chariot. These names had a clear Indo-Iranian etymology, very similar to Ancient Persian and Sanskrit, such as Shuwardata (given by the sky), Birtashshura (valiant hero) and Indaruta (supported by Indra). Moreover, new names of gods appeared, such as Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Nashatya (invoked in a treaty between Hatti and Hurri) and Shurya, the sun-god of the Kassites. Similarly, Indo-Iranian terms and phrases regarding the training of horses began to appear in treaties such as aika-wartanna (one turn), tera-wartanna (three turns), panza-wartanna (five turns) and so on. Even the etymology of the word used to indicate chariot warriors, maryannu, was of Indo-Iranian origins (from the Sanskrit marya, young warrior). This Indo-Iranian element was therefore very different from the Indo-European linguistic group found in Anatolia, since it was more recent and of eastern origins.
‘The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy’, Routledge, 2013

In a very important paper that has not received the attention it deserves, the eminent linguist Janos Harmatta (1917-2004), whose pioneering work in deciphering of Bactrian inscriptions solved many problems in ancient Iranian linguistics, narrows down the Indo-Iranian to what he calls ‘Proto-Indians'.

In the scanty linguistic material of the Kassites three important terms denoting deities occur: Surya-, Maruttas and Bugas corresponding to the Old Indian names of gods Surya, Marut and Bhaga. Surya and Marut are unknown in Old Iranian; this fact clearly points to the borrowing by the Kassites of these names from Proto-Indian. Thus, linguistic evidence speaks clearly for the assumption that the people of war-charioteers, which had induced the Kassites to invade Babylonia, belonged to the Proto-Indians. ... Proto-Indian linguistic influence was considerable on the vocabulary of horse-breeding, horse-training, social life and religion as shown by the following list of Proto-Indian terms borrowed by the Hurrians and other peoples of western Asia.
The Emergence of the Indo-Iranians: the Indo-Iranian languages’ in ‘History of Civilization of Central Asia’, Vo.I, Ed. by A.H.Dani & V.M.Masson, UNESCO, 1996, pp.357-378

So if we are to assume that the Steppe horse riders brought Indo-European culture into Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) in 1500 BCE as claimed, then we have to explain how the terms and deities which evolved from this branch of IE could spread to Hittites and Mittani - particularly those related to horses and war chariots. The absence of Yamnaya genetic influence in Hittites seen in this context, actually poses a serious question over the model of late Bronze age horse riders from Steppes bringing IE into India.

The Case For The Harappan Horse:

The Missing Horses Of Harappan Seals Are Not Really Missing
Surkatoda: excavated horse bones at Harappan levels. [ASI]

So were there domesticated horses in the Harappan society?

There has been a controversy going on between theoretically anchored historians and archaeologists here. The report of the archaeological survey of India when reporting about the faunal remains discovered at Surkotada, makes the following observations not just in terms of Harappan context, but also with relation to a chronologically longer and geographically vaster canvas:

At Surkatoda from all the three periods (IA, IB and IC ranging from 2315 BCE to 1700 BCE) quite a good number of bones of horse (Equus caballus Linn) and ass (Equus asinus Linn ... and Equus hamionus Linn) have been recovered. The parts recovered are very distinctive bones: first, second and third phalanges and a few vertebrae fragments. ... F.E.Zeuner reports that in Gujarat and elsewhere horse sacrifices were important part of religious rite from Neolithic age onward. ... The bones of horse (Equus caballus Linn) recovered from Surkatoda belong to the animal of medium height but strong build. Earlier evidence of horse was reported from a late level at Mohenjadaro. The finds from Harappa were earlier disputed but later on Bholanath reported (in the Proceedings of First all India Congress of Zoologists, 1959) the remains of horse (Equus caballus Linn) from the unworked collections from Harappa where he found the fragmentary mandible with teeth and limb bones belonging to true horse. He declared that it was the first report of true horse. He had also reported the presence of horse from the late period of Harappan culture at Rupar and Lothal. Subsequently after the discovery of the horse from Surkotada was declared, it has also been reported from Kalibangan. Dr. Alur reported the presence of horse from the Neolithic-Chalcolithic levels at Hallur (1600 BC). Alur and Sharma could identify some Equus caballus Linn. bones from the late-Harappan site of Malvan (Gujarat). At Surkotada the occurrence is almost evenly distributed throughout the period of occupation. ... The animal was mainly used for transportation and was possessed only by a few affluent ones as is the case even today in the area where till recently possession of a horse was considered a sign of status.
A K Sharma in JP Joshi, ‘Excavation at Surkotada and Exploration in Kutch’, ASI, 1990,  pp. 381-2
Sajjan Kumar, ‘Domestication of animals in Harappan culture: a socio-economic study’, 2012
Sajjan Kumar, ‘Domestication of animals in Harappan culture: a socio-economic study’, 2012

Interestingly, this identification of horses in Harappan archaeological context (A K Sharma, 1990) was contested by the invasionist-migrationist school of historians. So Prof Sandor Bokonyi, an internationally renowned archaeo-zoologist from Hungary was asked to examine the evidence. After examining the material, the archaeo-zoologist who was also then the Director of the Archaeological Institute, Hungary, wrote to the then Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India thus:

The occurrence of true horse (Equus caballus L.) 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, the domestic nature of the Surkotada horse is undoubtful.  

Yet the question remains why then the horse is not found in the Harappan seals. There have been equid terracotta figurines discovered from Harappan sites for a long time. These figurines were often initially considered as depicting the horses. Later as the horse-riding Aryans versus equid-ignorant non-Vedic Harappan binary became the major framework, the figurines were considered as being ambiguous. The scholars started saying that they might be actually members of other equid family (like Equus asinus or Equus hamionus). Dr Sajjan Kumar in his thesis gives a succinct picture of the situation, though he says that 'one would like to have much more evidence' to state that 'the horse was present in Harappan civilization and played a significant role in the Harappan economy':

The identification of a terracotta figurine from Mohenjodaro, as that of the horse is not without doubt. At the same time, it needs to be added that the Harappan levels at Nausharo have yielded doubtless terracotta figurines of horse. Also, the middle Harappan levels at Lothal have yielded a couple of terracotta figurines which have been identified as those of the horse. Lothal has yielded three terracotta models of horse, one of which resembles Mackay’s example. It has a long neck body and prick ears. The tail is damaged and the position of the legs suggests that the animal is running. Its mane is indicated by a slightly-raised band over the neck. A better specimen of the horse from Lothal comes from phase III. It has a short stumpy tail, long body and raised neck. In profile, it looks exactly like a horse. The third example consists of a disjointed head of a horse which must have been attached to the body. A transverse perforation behind the neck suggests that the head had to be manipulated with the string. The prick ears and snout are characteristic of the horse. This specimen is burnished and thus better treated than others.  A terracotta figure of horse found at Rangpur has a more indented line over the neck.
Domestication of animals in Harappan culture: a socio−economic study’, 2012
The Missing Horses Of Harappan Seals Are Not Really Missing
Equid figurines: Mohenjadaro and Lothal

Kenoyer, a Harappan archaeologist who is skeptical about Harppan horse claims, in his entry about Indus civilization in a recent archaeology handbook has this to say:

Although only small-scale excavations have been carried out at Rakhigarhi on the Ghaggar-Hakra-Saraswati River plain in Haryana, one of the largest known urban Indus sites in India, a diverse set of figurines that are very similar to those discovered in Harappa has been recovered. These include figurines identified as zebu, water buffalo, dog, lion, leopard, rabbit, and horse. (emphasis added)
Sharri Clark & Mark Kenoyer, ‘South Asia - Indus Civilization’ in ‘The Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines’ (Ed.Timothy Insoll), Oxford University Press, 2017, p.510

Along with horse bones another innovation associated with horse riding, the spoked wheels too was known to Harappans. Terracotta wheels with spokes painted on them have been obtained from the Harappan sites of Banawali, Rakhigarhi and Bhirrana. Similarly, models of light weight chariots too were known to Harappans. All these taken together definitely poke a lot of holes in the model of Yamanya people bringing in horses and IE language, particularly into India.

(Left) Uzbek Petroglyphs dating from second and third millennium BCE showing chariots - this innovation was said to have spread both agriculture and IE languages. (T.V.Gamkrelidze &amp; Ivanov, <i>Scientific American</i>, March, 1990) (Right) Both wheels with spokes and one-seater chariots were known to Harappan in the same second millennium BCE.&nbsp;
(Left) Uzbek Petroglyphs dating from second and third millennium BCE showing chariots - this innovation was said to have spread both agriculture and IE languages. (T.V.Gamkrelidze & Ivanov, Scientific American, March, 1990) (Right) Both wheels with spokes and one-seater chariots were known to Harappan in the same second millennium BCE. 

So actually the question boils down to not the representation of horses in Harappan art, but the very obvious absence of the animal in the famous Harappan seals. This question often gets inflated with ‘absence of domesticated horses’ in Harappan society, which is altogether different.

Coming to the question of the alleged absence of the horse in the seals, there are quite a few explanations. For example, eminent archaeologist Dr B B Lal who leans towards the identity of Vedic and Harappan civilisation asks, “But then the camel is also absent. So why should the horse be singled out on that count?” However, unlike the camel, the horse plays an important role in Vedic culture as we understand from the literature. Late archaeologist S P Gupta also took a similar line and pointed out that a whole lot of animals (camel, wolf, cat, deer, Nilgai, fowl, jackal) whose presence in Harappan milieu was attested by their bones were not depicted in Harappan seals.

Vedic Horse And The Harappan Unicorn

Michel Danino, a scholar of Indian culture and history, in his paper on the Harappan horse question quotes K D Sethna, who points out that the cow too was absent from depictions. Danino mentions in passing the conjecture put by eminent archeologist Dr S R Rao that the unicorn itself might be a composite animal in which horse was embedded. Actually what S R Rao proposed was a very plausible scenario in which ‘gradually the animal deities were absorbed in the Fire-God ... wherein the unicorn, itself a composite figure of horse and other animals, represented the Fire-God.’ ('Dawn and devolution of the Indus civilization', 1991) Gautama Vajra Vajracharya, a Nepali Sanskritist, in a 2010 paper titled 'Unicorns in Ancient India and Vedic Ritual', published in EJVS a journal edited by rabid pro-invasionist/migrationist Michael Witzel, drew attention to this aspect - that 'the neck of this (Harappan) unicorn is much more elongated than that of a bull and bears some similarity to that of a horse or an ass.'

In 1935, historian Charles Louis Fabri published a paper arguing for the continuity of Harappan civilisation to the later historical times through the study of imagery in the punch-marked coins with those in the Harappan seals. What 'immediately struck' him were 'certain animal representations' which were 'the humped Indian bull, the elephant, the tiger, the crocodile, and the hare'. He observed that the 'old tradition was kept alive up to proto-historic times' though the punch- marked coins even though they are separated from the Harappan seals by a very minimum period of thousand years. Interestingly, in his comparison of seals and punch-marked coins, Fabri did not compare horse representation in punched mark coins with Harappan seals. Instead he had drawn a parallel between bull and the unicorn.

The Missing Horses Of Harappan Seals Are Not Really Missing
C L Fabri, ‘The Punch-Marked Coins: A Survival of the Indus Civilization’, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, No. 2 (Apr., 1935), pp.307-318

A comparison of the representation of the horse in punch-marked coins and the unicorn however reveals a very remarkable similarity. What actually seems to connect the horse depiction in punch-marked coins and the Harappan unicorn seal is the remarkable similarity between the object shown before the unicorn (Harappan seal) and before the horse (punch-marked coins).

The ‘cult object’ before the Harappan unicorn and the object placed before the horse in the punch-marked coins indicate the composite nature of unicorn which includes the horse.
The ‘cult object’ before the Harappan unicorn and the object placed before the horse in the punch-marked coins indicate the composite nature of unicorn which includes the horse.
[coin photographs and illustrations : ‘Dinamalar’ R.Krishnamurthy, 1990]

Indologist Irvatham Mahadevan, who incidentally believes that Harappan culture was linguistically Dravidian and culturally Vedic, connects the so-called 'cult object' before the unicorn to the Soma ritual. In his interview to ‘’ he explains:

According to me, the cult object is made of three parts, an upper cylindrical vessel, a lower cylindrical vessel with holes like a colander for example, and the whole thing is stuck on a staff. ... Since we know that the unicorn seals were the most popular ones, and every unicorn has this cult object before it, whatever it represents must be part of the central religious ritual of the Harappan religion. ... I am familiar with the RgVeda, and as I was looking at the zig zag lines flowing across the filter showing the filtering ritual and the coming out of the drops, I was reminded of the two most powerful images in the soma chapter of the RgVeda, Pavamana and Indu. Pavamana literally means the flowing one, the soma, as it flows down, and Indu are the drops which collect at the bottom of the filter. So I found that this could hardly be a coincidence.

Soma Ritual Non-Vedic?

Iravatham Mahadevan contends that the Indo-Aryans learnt the Soma ritual from the Harappans as the Soma ritual is not present in the so-called ‘Indo-European’ cultures in the West. But as early as 1882, Charles Francis Keary had pointed out how Soma ‘corresponded to the mystic millet water (kykeon) of the Eleusinian celebrations' ('Outlines of Primitive Belief Among the Indo-European Races'). Renowned Indo-European scholar Calvert Watkins pointed out further parallels. According to him, “the ritual of Vedic and Indo-Iranian, by men for men, but symbolically by women; the ritual act of communion of the Eleusinian mysteries, by women for women; and a warrior ritual in archaic Greece, by women for men; all of these must go back to a single common Indo-European liturgical cultic practice” because “the number and the precision of the agreements between Indo-Iranian and Greek, and their articulation as a structure, a total social fact, are too striking for a fortuitous resemblance to be plausible.” ('Selected Writings: Culture and poetics', 1994, p.601)

All these jigsaw puzzles solve themselves if one goes beyond the artificial binary classification and perceptions of the Vedic-Harappan identity. The Asvamedha, the Vedic horse sacrifice, is itself a three-day Soma sacrifice.

Sri Aurobindonian Solution:

Perhaps, one such solution may come if one uses Sri Aurobindo’s approach to the problem. In fact, Michel Danino, in his paper, 'The Horse and the Aryan Debate' points to Sri Aurobindonian approach and quotes a passage from 'The Secret of the Vedas':

Creating a framework based on Sri Aurobindo’s approach to Vedic literature can solve many self-inflicted puzzles and paradoxes of colonial Indology.&nbsp;
Creating a framework based on Sri Aurobindo’s approach to Vedic literature can solve many self-inflicted puzzles and paradoxes of colonial Indology. 
The cow and horse, go and ashva, are constantly associated. Usha, the Dawn, is described as gomati ashvavati; Dawn gives to the sacrificer horses and cows. As applied to the physical dawn gomati means accompanied by or bringing the rays of light and is an image of the dawn of illumination in the human mind. Therefore ashvavati also cannot refer merely to the physical steed; it must have a psychological significance as well. A study of the Vedic horse led me to the conclusion that go and ashva represent the two companion ideas of Light and Energy, Consciousness and Force...

Perhaps, this also gives us a reason why both cow and horse, both sacred and ritually important in Vedic culture, were not depicted separately in the Harappan seals. Perhaps they were combined in the unicorn. Throughout Hindu iconography, such combined animals representing the divine have intentional gender ambiguities. Hence, it is highly plausible that the Harappan unicorn may be the combination of horse as well as androgynous bull-cow with the cow being subsumed by the bull. Earlier we saw that Dr S R Rao had identified the unicorn with fire-deity. Incidentally, the fire-deity is also called “the bull who is also a cow” (RV. 10.5.7). Such iconography is subsuming of one gender by the other in gender-ambiguous divines is also common in Indian iconography. For example, Shiva while shown in the male form also has androgynous dimension shown in the form of differentiated earrings. Purusha-mirugam, which is a combination of a male seer and an animal is said in Hindu legends to yield milk.

The composite depiction of divine with the combination of horse and cow in a Vedic context is seen in a mandapam (pillared hall) of Adi Varaha Swamy temple in Sri Mushnam, Tamil Nadu, which was either built or renovated by Nayakkar chieftain Achyuta Nayyakar in the 16th century. The mandapam with 16 pillars representing the 16 hymns of Purusha Sukta of Rig Veda is called Purusha Sukta Mandapam. Here, Vishnu is shown in the form of a cow and a horse with a male Vishnu emanating from the top portion of this composite animal. Brahma the creator deity is shown drinking from the udder of this divine form.

Vishnu emanating from cow-horse composite animal (16th century CE); Unicorn - Horse-(androgynous) Bull composite? [2500 BCE]: Continuity and evolution in Hindu iconography?
Vishnu emanating from cow-horse composite animal (16th century CE); Unicorn - Horse-(androgynous) Bull composite? [2500 BCE]: Continuity and evolution in Hindu iconography?

To summarize:

  • The recent study on horse domestication despite pointing out that there was an independent earlier domestication of horses, still sticks on to the conventional invasionist/migrationist model for IE expansion and the introduction of the horse (by Yamnaya herders) in India. However the paper points out that Hittites were introduced the IE language without genetic influence of Yamnaya.
  • Many renowned Indologists have pointed out that the Hittites have what is called proto-Indian influence.
  • Horse remains have been discovered in many Harappan sites. Harappans also knew about wheel with spokes and chariots.
  • The unicorn depicted in Harappan seals may be a composite animal which incorporates in it the horse. This is further emphasized by the remarkable similarity between the way horses are depicted in later punch-marked coins and unicorns in Harappans seals.
  • There is a continuity of the composite nature of unicorn of Harappa extending to even 16th century. Perhaps the spiritual symbolism of Vedic literature when approached through the framework like that of Sri Aurobindo. It can also open our eyes to continuity of Harappan culture to our own times.

Most of the paradoxes and puzzles that Indology suffers from seem to be self-inflicted. For example, in the given case, all answers can be obtained by letting go of the false binary classification of Harappan as non-Vedic and of Vedic as the horse-riding Aryan bringing in the Indo-European culture. Once that is done most of the jigsaw pieces naturally fall in places. And what we then witness is a civilisation that has been flowing perennially for millennia, absorbing many streams, changing , adapting - yet never losing its basic core nature - which in turn is reflected from the discovered past remains to her experienced present.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

    An Appeal...

    Dear Reader,

    As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.

    Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.

    We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.

    Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.

    Become A Patron
    Become A Subscriber
    Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.

    Latest Articles

      Artboard 4Created with Sketch.