The discovery of three pre-Iron Age chariots in the present-day Western Uttar Pradesh's Baghpat district in June 2018 had electrified the historians and the archaeologists alike.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) stumbled upon the chariots, found inside burial pits at Sanauli, around 75 km from Delhi.
The site was earlier excavated in the years 2003-04 and 2005-06, revealing a necropolis. It is the largest known burial site in India.
The present excavations led by S K Manjul, Director of Institute of Archaeology, ASI found the chariots buried with dead bodies.
The chariots discovered have two wheels fixed on an axle that was linked by a long pole to the yoke of a pair of animals. A super structure was attached to the axle consist of a platform protected by side-screens and a high dashboard.
The wheels were found solid in nature, without any spokes, and studded with triangular pieces of copper.
According to a TOI report, carbon dating has now confirmed that the burials date back to 1900 BC, making the chariots 3,800 years old.
In this article, we will examine the implications of Sanauli findings.
OCP and Harappan culture in western UP
In a paper published in the Indian Journal of Archaeology, Vijay Kumar notes that the pottery found at the Sanauli site is of Ochre Coloured Pottery (OCP) culture.
The OCP is a 4000 BC to 2000 BC Bronze Age culture of the Indo-Gangetic plain. It was a contemporary neighbour of the Sindhu-Saraswati civilisation.
“No Harappan pottery or any other pottery except OCP was found from the graveyard of Sinauli. The grave in question belongs to the OCP people who were late contemporaries of Harappans”.
Kumar disputes the popular notion that the OCP is a degenerate form of the mature Harappan culture. He argues, instead, that OCP is an independent ceramic tradition different from mature Harappan pottery and eastern chalcolithic and Neolithic ceramic traditions.
Kumar notes that the OCP culture had a “local beginning” that would go back to 9,000-10,000 BC.
“..Had it not been so this whole area would have yielded the Neolithic/ early Chalcolithic potteries from east (corded-ware tradition) or from west (Qili-gul-mohammed/Mehrgarh)".
The OCP culture rubs shoulders with corded-ware tradition in the east, and in the west, it rubs shoulders with Harappans, writes Kumar.
Vijay Kumar notes admixture of mature Harappan shapes with the OCP in the western region of the Indo-Gangetic plain.
“The material found from excavations in western UP shows potsherds with Harappan script. It indicates that between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, the people of Indus valley and Upper Ganga valley were using common script”
Kumar also notes that the OCP weapons can be seen all over India.
“It appears that they were importing copper and finished copper objects from all over India”.
“They imported copper from Himalayan zone, Rajasthan, Central India and Eastern India. They also imported ready-made vessels, weapons and other artefacts made of copper..from Harappans”
Reportedly, the burials at Sanauli bear similarity to Vedic rituals. Anthropomorphic figures on coffin indicate religious belief, and the gold, copper anthropomorphic figure associated with Vedic gods are also found.
“What is startling is the impressions of cloth found on bodies that suggests purification of bodies similar to what we practice in Hindu religion,” said Manjul.
Were these chariots driven by horses?
“The size and shape of the chariots indicate they were pulled by horses. The axle, chassis and wheels show similarities to the contemporary chariots,” Manjul said.
Kumar refers to the rock paintings of Chitrakoot. He says that the antennae sword found in Sanauli shows that the OCP people were inspired by the Mesolithic harpoons shown in one of the rock paintings of Chitrakoot.
“It appears to be the precursor of barbed harpoons of Chalcolithic OCP culture of Gangetic valley. These copper hoard weapons were used in the Gangetic plains between 3000 BC to 1700 BC by the inhabitants of the Ganga valley”.
The rock paintings at the Chitrakoot show some foot soldiers and horse riders wielding harpoons.
“This clearly indicates that these horse riders and foot soldiers can be associated with the people of OCP culture. The horse riders wielding harpoons indicate that OCP people were using horse for their war machinery,” says Kumar.
The weapons recovered from the Sanauli site also match with those drawn in these cave paintings.
Kumar further states that it is a wrong assumption that the horse in India only came from Central Asia.
He says that while the western India might have received horses from Central Asia, the eastern India - the region of the OCP culture - might have gotten the horses from Tibet. He gives the example of Riwoche pony which is an ancient breed of horse belonging to Tibet.
He gives the following reasons behind this hypothesis:
- The shortest path from Tibet to India is through the gorges of Trans-Himalayan Rivers and different passes. This route is roughly 150 km long
- The Himalayan tribes were a link between the Tibet and Gangetic plains, archaeological and historical evidence shows
- There was a regular trade between northern India and Himalayan/ Trans-Himalayan region for copper, copper artefacts and other goods
The carbon dating has shown the chariots to be from 1900 BC. Other finds show that the OCP people were using the copper hoard battle axes, harpoons and antennae swords.
According to Kumar, the rock paintings of Chitrakoot reveal that Vindhyan area, south of river Yamuna was invaded by the horse-riding, copper-hoarding OCP people. This might have happened around 2000 BC. He states that it appears that the proto-historic North India was dominated by these people.
He also notes that the chariots buried in Sanauli are “horse driven light chariots used in wars, sports and game”, and therefore, reinforce this conclusion. He also noted that the chariots were light and seems to be made for carrying two persons.
How this affects the Aryan Invasion theory
Historians who support the Aryan invasion theory claim that the horse was brought in from the central Asia by the invading Aryan army around 1500 to 1000 BC.
Allegedly, the horse-pulled chariots gave the Aryans an edge over the “Dravidians” with bullock carts, and the former conquered the north Indian plains, pushing the latter to the south of the peninsula.
Even with the 1900 BC chariots, the invasionists argue that they “only show the arrival of Indo-European speakers in South Asia at the fag end of the Harappan Civilisation” - meaning, these chariots were brought by the Indo-Europeans.
But archaeological evidence shows the first sign of Indo-European culture with horse chariots west of the Indus river only in 1600 BC. How come the Indo-Europeans arriving from central Asia reached Sanauli in western Uttar Pradesh 300 to 500 years before they reached Indus?
Plus the archaeological evidence is clear that the chariots were being used by OCP people. OCP has been identified as distinct from, and contemporaneous with mature Harappan. According to Kumar, it’s indigenous to the Indo-Gangetic plain and goes back to 9,000-10,000 BC.
The invasionist hypothesis receives a serious setback from the finding that the horse-driven chariots were being used by the OCP people as a part of their war machinery around 2000 BC, who supposedly came to dominate the whole of the north India.
This is hundreds of years before the penetration of the "Vedic Aryans" coming from central Asia into the Yamuna-Ganga plains.
Other findings of the horse remains throughout India also corroborate Kumar’s hypothesis.
In an article published by the Journal of Indian History and Culture of the C P Ramaswami Aiyar Institute of Indological Research, Michel Danino explores the horse and the Aryan debate in detail.
G R Sharma et al found horse bones at Mahagara (near Allahabad) whose “six sample absolute carbon 14 tests have given dates ranging from 2265 BC to 1480 BC”.
Near Hallur, Karnataka, A Ghosh found the horse remains that were dated between 1500 and 1300 BC.
M K Dhavalikar, in his excavations in the Chambal Valley found horse remains and a terracotta figurine of a mare, dated between 2450 and 2000 BCE. He recorded the presence of horse at Kayatha in all the chalcolithic levels. Dhavalikar noted that the remains were of a domesticated horse.
Also, since there is archaeological evidence of the admixture of the OCP as well as the Harappan cultures in the western Uttar Pradesh, to the extent that both were using the Harappan script, it is likely that the Harappans were familiar with the horse-driven chariots.
At Surkotada, a Harappan site in Gujarat, quite a number of bones of domesticated horse were found, coinciding with the mature Harappan phase.
The presence of the domesticated horse at Surkotada was endorsed by the late Hungarian archaeo-zoologist Sándor Bökönyi, a globally respected authority in the field, whose work in tracing the introduction of the horse into Europe from central Asia is widely cited.
Some horse figurines from the Mohenjodaro and Lothal have also been found.
The invasionists often point to the paucity of the horse depictions on the Indus Valley seals and horse remains. However, this arguments is neither here nor there.
The depiction of horse remains equally rare even after the Harappan period. It was only in 3rd century BC and the Mauryan empire that the horse symbol becomes popular.
Archaeologist S P Gupta postulates that the paucity of horse remains in the IVC is in line with that of the other animals which were not consumed for meat, but are known to exist at the time.
This argument is also consistent with the findings in other parts of the world, like contemporary Bactria and America, where the spread of the horses is well known but their significant remains are not found.
The scholar K D Sethna pertinently asks, “As there are no depictions of the cow, in contrast to the pictures of the bull, which are abundant, should we conclude that Harappa and Mohenjo-daro had only bulls?..Was the unicorn a common animal of the proto-historic Indus Valley?”
Danino also disputes the purely materialistic or ritualistic reading of the Rig-Veda, which he calls unjustified when other mythologies, from the Babylonian to the Egyptian and the Greek, have long been explored at deeper figurative and symbolic levels.
The invasionists assume that the ashwa of the Rig Veda is the true horse of the central Asia. However, Rig Veda as well as a passage in the Shatapatha Brahmana describes the horse as having 34 ribs. A true horse generally has two pairs of 18 ribs, that is, 36.
Danino suggests that the horse referred to in the Rig-Veda may have been a different species, such as the smaller and stockier Siwalik or Przewalski horses, which often (not always) had 34 ribs.
The scholar Paul Manansala stressed this point and concluded, “So the horse of India, including that of the asvamedha sacrifice in what is regarded as the oldest part of the Rgveda, is a distinct variety native to southeastern Asia.”
This in line with the Kumar’s Tibet hypothesis described in the last section.
Apart from the carbon dating of the chariot found in Sanauli, recently, different research papers regarding the presence of Saraswati river had also raised serious questions against the Aryan invasion theory.
The dating of a mighty Saraswati river as described in the Rig Veda puts the text contemporary with, or older than, the mature Indus-Saraswati civilization.
Even so, Danino says, we need not expect Harappan art to be a pure reflection of Vedic concepts.
“The Veda represents the very specific quest of a few rishis, who are unlikely to have lived in the middle of the Harappan towns. Although Vedic concepts and symbols are visible in Harappan culture, the latter is a popular culture; in the same way, the culture of today’s Indian village need not exactly reflect Chennai’s music and dance Sabhas”.
This is in line with Bibhu Dev Misra’s hypothesis that the Harappan civilisation might be a bilingual culture, where Sanskrit was only used for liturgical purposes - never meant as a language of popular communication.
An emphasis on purity and secrecy meant that the language was only transmitted orally within a network of educated men through Guru-Shishya Parampara - the reason Sanskrit didn’t have its own script, notes Misra.
He argues that most of the Indians were speaking proto-Dravidian languages right to the 6th century BC, while Sanskrit speakers, who were almost always bilingual, continued to conduct rituals in Sanskrit.
In fact, Sanskrit has never been the language of the masses in India, and Sanskrit speakers are almost always been bilingual.
According to Misra, the current north-south language divide appeared due to popularisation of the Sanskrit-derived Prakrit, Ardh Magadhi and other languages among commoners - a phenomena he attributes to the spread of Buddhism and Jainism.
At this point, it is also important to remember that there is no denying the fact that there were central Asian groups that moved into the subcontinent - but we do not know for a fact that they were "Vedic Aryans". Genetic evidence goes only so far.
A thousand years from now, genetic makeup of a dead-body found in Mumbai can tell you that the person was most likely from north India or south India, but not about their language, religion, culture, practices and lifestyle.
With further archaeological and research in the direction, the scholarly consensus may move towards a more nuanced view as opposed to the Aryan Invasion theory.