The Sinauli Chariots — An Analysis
Understanding the recent excavations at Sinauli in UP, and their links to our Vedic past.
Archaeologists of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) under the leadership of Dr Sanjay Manjul excavated Sinauli in 2018. He discovered 116 burials there.
It is Asia's largest burial site excavated as of now. It provided the first ever ancient chariot discovered in Bharatavarṣa. This chariot is now dated to between 2100 BCE and 1900 BCE.
It is a solid wheel chariot but contains triangular shaped radial reinforcements made of copper (a different kind of spoke), making it better than the spoked wheel fast chariots unearthed in other parts of the world, avoiding quick breakage of wheels, while moving fast.
The 3,000 BCE and 2,500 BCE solid wheel chariots unearthed from other cultures of the world like Mesopotamia pales in comparison with this advanced chariot unearthed from Sinauli.
Placing this newly discovered Sinauli chariot in the same category as a solid wheel chariot in comparison to these 1,000 to 500 years older chariots, is an injustice to the Sinauli chariot.
The Sinauli Chariot has a pole situated towards the front portion of the chariot box. The passengers use this pole to keep themselves steady as the chariot moves fast.
The most important aspect of the chariot are the wheels. After a lot of back and forth since 2018, it is confirmed that it is a solid wheel chariot. But it will be wrong to immediately categorise it as a primitive chariot.
The chariots of 3,000 BCE and 2,500 BCE unearthed from Mesopotamia are solid wheel chariots, but very primitive compared to this Sinauli chariot by many counts.
The Sinauli Chariot has copper triangular reinforcements on the wheels, which can be vaguely called as spokes (ara), though not the kind of spokes understood in the spoked wheel chariots.
These copper triangles give good integrity to the wheels and make it durable and are not meant for mere decoration. Using the technology evolution of the mobile phones as an analogy, it would be like the Nokia 3310 mobile phone launched in 2,000 CE verses the Samsung Galaxy S1 phones of 2010.
How close, however, it is to the chariot of Arjuna?
Arjuna's chariot as described in the Mahabharata is a little more advanced. It would be like the Samsung Galaxy S8 released in 2018, if we use the mobile phone analogy.
It had the provision to yoke four horses. The Sinauli chariot doesn't look like it can yoke more than two animals. Arjuna's chariot clearly had a driver's seat. The Sinauli chariot doesn't have it. Hence, the driver had to be within the cabin along with the warrior.
How close is it to the chariots of the Kuruksetra War, in general?
Spokes are mentioned in the Kuruksetra War chariots. But if we interpret the spokes as the copper triangles like the ones seen in the Sinauli chariot, that poses no problems in the identification.
The excavated Sinauli chariot is missing the umbrella and the pole to keep the banner of the warrior. The colour of umbrella, the colour of the banner (flag) and the sign printed in the banner are vividly described in the Mahabharata for each warrior. Arjuna had an ape symbol in his banner. Drona had the pot symbol, and so on.
It is possible that these parts are lost in these excavated chariots. The banner can be affixed atop the pole situated towards the front portion of the chariot box.
Maybe, the umbrella too is affixed on top of this same pole, with the flag-post and the flag affixed atop the umbrella. The umbrella is made of silk or other cloths. Since these are not made of durable material, it can disintegrate and get lost easily in 4000+ years.
But a better explanation is that these chariots are a slightly older version, and prepared for the burial rituals as a sub category of the Soma carts corresponding to the 10th Mandala burial related hymns.
A possible Ṛgvedic Connection
The Ṛgvedic hymn 15 in the 10th Mandala speaks about both burying the dead (anagni-dagdha ) and cremating them (agni-dagdha). The hymn 18 of the 10th Mandala talks about a burial house (grha) often compared to a womb (yoni) where ghee (clarified butter) is kept in pots.
This matches with the 116 burial houses unearthed at Sinauli. They contain many earthen pots which could have been used to fill offerings like ghee, butter and medicines. The Ṛgvedic hymn 18 of the 10th Maṇḍala mentions about taking the bow from the hand of the dead.
The bow of the warrior taken from his hand is placed beside the dead-body of the warriors in Sinauli. Along with the bow, other weapons of the warrior like the shields and swords are kept. Their chariots, too, are kept in the burial house.
A pair of chariots is seen in one of the Sinauli burial houses, possibly belonging to a king or a chief. This is close to the descriptions of the pair of Soma carts mentioned in the Rgveda (hymn 13 of the 10th Mandala).
One of them represents mortality (Yamayana) and another immortality (Devayana). The pair, Yama and Yami, are the overseers of death since Yama, the son of Vivasvat, chose mortality instead of immortality and hence is the first mortal.
The hymn compares the deceased with the Yama and Yami pair and urges them to choose mortality instead of immortality for the sake of the devatas and for the sake of their offspring.
The hymn talks about the five steps (panca padani) to climb the mount (rupa) and to ascend the four-legged bed (Catuspadi) as per the ritual injunctions.
These four-legged death beds or coffins, where the dead body is placed are found in the Sinauli burials. The mount mentioned in the verse may be referring to the burial mounts.
The Rgveda 10th Mandala hymn 15 also talks about ritual offerings of Soma, butter and ghee (clarified butter) to the forefathers inside the burial house.
The ritual pots found inside the Sinauli burials indicate offerings made to these forefathers. Thus, the Sinauli burial sites resemble very closely with the descriptions of the funeral hymns in the 10th Mandala of Rgveda.
Some individuals are mentioned in the Rgveda Anukramaṇi (as authors of hymns) with the suffix Yamayana, indicating that they are deceased with some significant death ceremonies given for them.
For example, Sankha Yamayana (RV 10.15), Damana Yamayana (RV 10.16), Devasravas Yamayana (RV 10.17), Samkusuka Yamayana (RV 10.18), Mathita Yamayana (RV 10.19), Kumara Yamayana (RV 10.135) and Urdhvakrsana Yamayana (RV 10.144).
The name of the king or chief who is buried with the two chariots in the Sinauli burial site, could be any of these names.
Kumara and Urdhvakrsana are not directly related to the funeral, though related to death. Devasravas is an ancient king ancestral to Divodasa and older than the oldest Mandalas like 3, 7 and 6 and hence can be excluded.
Mathita, too, can be excluded as the narrative is not close to funerals but to cows. Damana is cremated instead of buried as the corresponding hymn (RV 10.16) urges the fire (Agni) to be gentle with his body as it burns. The hymn of Śankha, too, leans towards cremation.
Samkusuka is surely buried as indicated by the corresponding hymn (RV 10.18). Hence this burial with two chariots could as well be that of Saṃkusuka.
The hymn urges the earth to be gentle, be soft as wool, to his body as he is buried.
उप सर्प मातरम् भूमिम् एताम् उरुव्यचसम् पृथिवीं सुशेवाम् |
ऊर्णम्रदा युवतिर् दक्षिणावत एषा त्वा पातु निरृतेर् उपस्थात् ||
Can the Sinauli burials be non-Vedic?
Some analysts are dismissing Sinauli as unrelated to Vedic culture or Samskrti because the people are buried instead of cremated. It is sure that cremation is popular in Sanatana Dharma, but burials are also present in our tradition.
Burials are also mentioned in Rgveda as one of the ways in which the dead individuals are treated, as we have already seen. Another doubt that has arisen is due to the design of the head-gears. The head-gear of some of the warriors contains horns. In the current depictions of our ancient people, the horned-headgear is associated with the Daityas and the Danavas.
It will be misleading to conclude that Sinauli is non-Vedic based on these factors alone.
The Bharatas and their ancestors were an admixture of the Adityas, the Daityas and the Danavas.
The ancestral king, Yayati, had two wives — Devayani and Sarmistha. Devayani is the daughter of Daitya Guru Sukracharya.
She is the mother of Yadu and Turvasa, the eldest sons of Yayati. Sarmistha is the daughter of the Daitya king Vrsaparva. She is the mother of Anu, Druhyu and Pūru, the younger sons of Yayati.
The mother of all the Yadavas is Devayani and the mother of Puru, the founder of the Puru dynasty is Sarmistha, both Daitya women.
The Bharatas descended from the Purus and the Kurus, like the Pandavas and Kauravas descended from the Bharatas.
Krishna, Balarama and other Vrsnis descended from the Yadavas. The Danavas like Maya were allies of the Pandavas who gave them many weapons and chariots.
The chariot of Arjuna came from Varuṇa, who is revered by the Bhargava sages like the Asura Guru Sukracharya and by the sages in the lineage of Vasistha and Agastya.
Vasiṣṭha was the priest of Sri Rama. Vyasa was the descendant of Vasistha and the grandfather and guide of the Pandavas.
The Rgveda mentions many wars and the Puranas render them as the wars between the Devas and the Asuras. But if we analyse the Rgveda closely, these wars are fought between the people who worship Indra (like the Purus and the Bharatas) and the other people who don't worship Indra (like the Anus and the Druhyus).
The Puranas portrayed the people who do not worship Indra as the Asuras, categorizing them as Daityas and Danavas. The word used by Rgveda for the non-Indra worshipers is anindra (those who are without Indra) and avrata (those who don't have any devotion to Indra).
The Sinauli settlement with their burial practices and horned head-gears can as well belong to the groups affiliated to the Daitya-Danavas like Maya Dānava.
But this doesn't make them non-Vedic, because Danavas like Maya do have a place in our Vedas, Itihasas and Puranas.
The Analysis of the Place Names
The place Sinauli falls in the Kuru Rastra, or the Kuru Janapada, the region between Ganga in the east and Sarasvati in the west and divided by Yamuna into two parts. A place named after Maya viz. Mayastali or Mayarastra (Meerut, 52 km away) is close to Sinauli.
The places mentioned in the Mahabharata like the Vyaghra-prasta (Baghpat, 25 km away), Svarna-prasta (Sonipat, 29 km away), Paniprasta (35 km away), Varanavati (21 km away) are close to Sinauli.
Hastinapura is 75 km to the east and Indraprasta is 55 km to the south of Sinauli.
Parasurama Ksetra (now Alamgirpur, the eastern most Harappan settlement, 3300-1300 BCE) is 33 km away from Sinauli, where Paruṡurāma taught weaponry to Bhisma.
The region around Sinauli is dotted with places resembling chariot construction such as Rathora (Rathakara — chariot-maker, 6 km away) and Luhara (Lohakara — metal worker, 2 km away).
The name Sinauli is likely a derived form of Sina-sthali, similar to the other place-names in Kuru Rashtra ending with the suffix 'sthali' (meaning, a place) like Bastali (Vyasa-sthali), Bamanauli (Brahmana-sthali).
The place names in Kuru Rashtra contains suffixes like Prasta, Sthali and Ksetra. The word 'sina' means a 'store’, 'garment' 'fetter', 'bond', 'body' etc, implying that it is one of the places associated with making chariots and weapons.
Probably, the people who lived in this Sinauli settlement were a warrior class of men and women supplying weapons to the army of the kings.
Sinauli and the Kurukṣetra War
Whether the warriors buried in the Sinauli burials participated in the Kurukṣetra War as one among the many small military units, depends on the chosen date of the Kurukṣetra War.
Sinauli excavations are dated to 2100 BCE to 1900 BCE.
One of the Kurukṣetra War dates close to it is 1793 BCE proposed by Ashok Bhatnagar. If we take this Kuruksetra War as the basis, then the Sinauli warriors were 100 to 300 years older to the Kuruksetra War, placing them as part of the late Rgvedic period, during the formative periods of the 1st, 5th, 8th, 9th or the 10th Mandalas, especially the 10th Mandala.
Several battles are mentioned in these Mandalas too, like in the older Mandalas. With the Kuruksetra War date at 1793 BCE, we can date Samtanu mentioned in the 10th Mandala of Rgveda to around 1930 BCE. Samtanu is the youngest king in the lineage of the Bharata kings mentioned in the Rgveda, who also appear as the ancestors of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who waged the Kuruksetra War.
In the lineage of kings leading to the Pandavas the Rgveda stops at is Samtanu.
In the lineage of sages leading to Vyasa, the Rgveda stops at Parasara. Samtanu’s son Vicitravirya and Parasara’s son Vyasa is in the future of Rgveda.
Dhritarastra and Pandu are the next generation of Vicitravirya and Vyasa. The Kauravas and the Pandavas, who took part in the Kurukṣetra War, are in the next generation of Dhṛtarāṣtra and Pāṇdu.
Thus, this date — 1793 BCE — corroborates well with our analysis that the chariot and the Sinauli burial sites belong to the 10th Mandala funeral hymns which speaks about the burials.
Another date of Kurukṣetra War 1952 BCE is from Shri Mohan Gupta. If we follow this date, then this settlement falls right in the Kuruksetra War period.
The 3K Kuruksetra War dates of Shri Vedaveer Arya (3162 BCE) and Manish Pandit (3067 BCE) will make the settlement well into the future of the lifetime of the Kuru-Pandavas during the lifetime of their descendants named in the Puraṇas like Visnu Purana.
There is another date by Shri KK Ramamurthy at 1504 BCE and RN Iyengar at 1478 BCE, which will make this settlement part of the middle Rgvedic period of Mandala 2 and 4, closer to the lifetime of the sages like Grtsamada and kings like Sahadeva and Somaka or even to the early period of Mandala 6, 3 and 7, closer to the lifetime of the kings like Sudas and Divodasa, depending upon the variability in the chronology of the Mandala wise evolution of the Rgveda.
Is the Sinauli chariot driven by horses?
This aspect of the Sinauli chariot is not very clear because the excavators could not find horse remains in the burial. The chariot’s design indicates that horses can be yoked on to this chariot. We do have horse remains discovered in other sites. The Surkotada site contains horse remains dated to around 2000 BCE. As per A.K. Sharma, it is found in layers datable to 2100-1700 BCE.
For a Ṛgvedic 10th Maṇḍala dated to 2100 BCE to 1900 BCE, this evidence is sufficient. Besides, the Mahabharata always mentions obtaining the horses from the north west countries like Kamboja, Kasmira, Vanayu, and from the banks of Sindhu River (its northern course through J&K and Tibet).
The horse always comes as part of trade through Uttarapatha to the main Janapadas like Kuru and Pancala.
It is not found in the local forests, where only elephants are found predominantly and used in warfare along with the horses.
It seems the Bharatiya native-born horses were weaker. It is likely that the Vedic term ‘asva’ was broadly used to denote a wide range of equine animals from the donkeys to these weaker horses born native to Bharatavarsa as well as to the better horses in the north and west of Bharatavarsa.
This explains why the English word ‘ass’ roughly translate as ‘donkey’ and the ‘smaller members of the equine-family’, whereas the Samskrit word ‘asva’ denote proper horses today, but likely referred to a wider range of animals belonging to the equine-family.
The kings mentioned in the Mahabharata in the Kuru and Pancala Janapadas sought better quality horses from the north west and the kings in the north west like Asvapati (literally owner of horses) supplied them.
Regions of north-west is mentioned as Asvaka and Asvalaya for that precise reason which are roughly the Afghanistan and Central Asia of today.
The Asva-Gaṇa-Sthana (the domain of the people with the horses) became Afghanistan, the place where big war quality asva (horses) is available.
All the great horses available in Central Asia or its periphery were collected and exchanged with the late Harappan/late Rgvedic people as well as with the Kuruksetra War era people through Afghanistan through the northern end of Uttarapatha at the north western periphery of SSC/IVC/Harappan civilisation.
The female warriors found in Sinauli
We have got material evidence of female warriors from Sinauli, from where we got shields of both men and women.
The shields of the male warriors were decorated with copper decors. The shields of the female warriors were decorated with white steatite.
No doubt, our men dominated the wars, especially the Kuruksetra War, which was an all-men war. But there were other wars where women warriors are mentioned as a dominant force such as the wars of Kartikeya who fought with the Asuras at Kuruksetra.
In Devi Bhagavata and Skanda Puraṇa, too, such armies with women warriors and women commanders are mentioned. From our Itihasas, like Ramayaṇa, we know that Kaikeyi participated in the war of her husband Dasaratha, protecting him in his chariot while the battle was raging.
From the Harivamsa of Mahabharata, we know Satyabhama fought alongside Krishna during the Narakssura War. We know Subhadra rode the chariot while Arjuna fought with the Yadavas as they eloped from Dwaraka to Indraprastha.
We know the warrior prowess of Draupadi and her ability to use lightweight swords, when Jayadratha tried to abduct her.
Durga and thousands of named female warriors are mentioned in the Devi Bhagavata. Hordes of female warriors are mentioned in Skanda Purana, Devi Bhagavata and such texts.
Onake Obavva, Rani Velu Nachiyar, Rani Abbakka, Bibi Dalair Kaur, Nayakuralu Nagamma, Jhansi Rani and many other female warriors are recorded in our medieval history, fighting against the European colonial invasions of the Portuguese, British forces and the Mughal Islamic invasions.
Except in special categories like mace fight and heavyweight weaponry, male and female bodies are equally designed for warfare. Archery, lightweight swords, chariot riding are all suitable for men and women equally.
Certain attitudes like those expressed by Bhishma, that he won't fight with a women warrior, resulted in the Kuruksetra War to be an all-men war. In different versions of the Mahabharata, Sikhandi is varyingly described as a woman and as a neutral gender warrior.
The Pandavas decided to include Sikhandi as a main commander in their army, despite the objections of the Kaurava army supreme commander Bhishma.
In our recorded history, when the Abrahamic culture spread to different parts of the world, they considered women as mere property and reduced the value of women, forced them to disarm or didn't train them in weapons.
Women's participation in warfare then declined compared to what was existing in the pre-Abrahamic polytheist societies.
However, not all men or all women possess warrior qualities. Hence, many women choose to be non-warriors and excelled in dance and fine arts like many men chose to be non-combatants and excelled in trade, peasantry etc.
It is good to know that both, in literature and now, in this corroborated material evidence at Sinauli, we get evidence that our women participated in wars.
The presence of female warriors and the burial could indicate that these people participated in the wars like that of Kartikeya or Durga with high participation of women, rather than the Kuruksetra War where the presence of women is not well attested in literature.
In conclusion, the Sinauli chariots, the Sinauli burials and the Sinauli warriors of both genders are going to revise our understanding of our pre-History and we will be able to see a new narrative of Bharatavarsa emerging soon based on these remarkable findings.
This is a very significant discovery of our lifetime, led by Dr Sanjay Manjul and his ASI team and well supported by the others like Prof BB Lal, Dr BR Mani and Dr KN Dikshit.
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