Battle for history

Putting the horse before the cart: What the discovery of 4,000-year-old ‘chariot’ in UP signifies

The ASI find has revived the debate over whether horses existed in India before the coming of the Indo-European ‘Aryans’.

During an excavation in western Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district that has been on since March, the Archaeological Survey of India uncovered the remains of what have been called “chariots”. The find, which was announced on Monday, is said to date back to 2000 BC-1800 BC, although a final date will be available only after carbon dating. (Carbon dating determines how old a material is by measuring the rate of decay of a type of carbon known as carbon-14 within it.)

“The wheels rotated on a fixed axle linked by a draft pole to the yoke of a pair of animals,” SK Manjul, head of the excavation, told India Today. “The axle was attached with a superstructure consisting of a platform protected by side-screens and a high dashboard.” Moreover, the wheels were solid, not spoked.

The find has generated a lot of excitement, for various reasons. For one, the media has associated the vehicle with the Hindu epics. “The three chariots found in the burial pits could remind one of the familiar images of horse-drawn carriages from mythological television shows,” wrote India Today. The website of the Hindi television channel Aaj Tak was more explicit: “Baghpat is one of the five villages demanded by the Pandavas. As a result, these finds are being connected to the Mahabharat age.” This points to a trend, present even in formal Indian archaeology, of treating religious epics as literal history.

The other strand the find has dug up is the theory of Indo-European migration into the Indian subcontinent (also called the Aryan migration or Aryan invasion theory). On Tuesday, “True Indology”, a popular Right-Wing Twitter handle, suggested the “path-breaking” discovery “fundamentally changes long held perceptions about ancient India”. It explained: “The mainstream historians long held that chariots were introduced into India from central Asia. The chariot has been excavated from Sanauli which is in heartland of Kurukshetra.”

Another Right-Wing columnist called it a “decisive blow to the Aryan Invasion Theory”.

Importance of the chariot

The spoked-wheeled chariot is “fundamental to Aryan identification”, according to Edwin Bryant, an Indologist at Rutgers University in the United States. The Proto-Indo-European culture (often misnamed “Aryan” in popular culture) is closely identified with this vehicle known by the Proto-Indo-European word “rota” (from which the modern Hindi word “rath” is derived). Many academic theories identify the Proto-Indo-Europeans as branching out from a Central Asian homeland and streaming into the subcontinent around 1500 BC. Consistent with this theory is the fact that the chariot is not only prominent in Indo-European texts such as the Homeric hymns, it also plays a notable part in Vedic texts. In fact, the iconography of the chariot or rath is also present in modern Hinduism. Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani undertook his high-profile cross-country rally in 1990 to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and build a Ram temple in its place in a Toyata van decorated to look like a chariot. The rally itself was called a “rath yatra”, or chariot journey.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between the chariots of Indo-European history and the ones found in Sanauli – the type of wheel. The former is typified by a spoked wheel while the one found in Uttar Pradesh has a solid wheel with no spokes. Moreover, if carbon dating places this chariot after the accepted date of Indo-European migration, it would actually strengthen the Aryan migration theory, pointed out Vagheesh Narasimhan, a geneticist involved in Indo-European studies.

The Sanauli chariot has a solid wheel. (Credit: via Twitter)
The Sanauli chariot has a solid wheel. (Credit: via Twitter)

Of chariots and horses

Even more fundamental than whether the chariot had spokes is the use of the term chariot itself. A chariot is necessarily defined as being pulled by horses and used for warfare or racing. A two-wheeled vehicle pulled by an animal (including but not limited to a horse) and used generally for carrying loads would be called a cart.

While the team that led the excavation has called the find a “chariot”, it has also expressed lack of clarity on the animal – bull or horse – that drew it. This, in turn, points to another facet of the debate around Aryan migration: is the horse indigenous to India?

In the Vedas, the horse is an incredibly important animal. Yet, the material culture – the seals, pottery and such – of the Indus Valley civilisation has simply no mention of the animal. “It has often been pointed out that the complete absence of the horse among the animals so prominently featured on the Indus seals is good evidence for the non-Aryan character of the Indus Civilisation,” writes Iravatham Mahadevan, an expert on the Indus script. As a result, the Out-of-India school – which postulates Indo-European migration from, not to, India – has often focussed on finding evidence of horses in the Indus Valley civilisation.

A desperate attempt

In 1999, NS Rajaraman, an American researcher of Indian origin, claimed to have discovered widespread evidence of horses in Harappa, even pointing to the existence of a horse seal. But Micheal Witzel, an Indologist from Harvard University in the United States, proved the seal was a hoax created with the use of digital graphics. In 2015, Rajaraman’s frequent co-author, David Frawley, was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award, by the Narendra Modi government.

Apart from material culture, archaeologists have also tried to look for physical horse bones at Indus Valley civilisation sites. In 1974, an Archaeological Survey of India excavation in Surkotada, Gujarat, led by JP Joshi and AK Sharma unearthed what they claimed were horse bones dating from 2100-1700BC – which meant that they pre-dated any Indo-European migration into India. These claims were widely disbelieved with Richard Meadow, a specialist in zooarchaeology at Harvard University, arguing that “the ‘horse’ of Surkotada… is likewise almost certainly a half-ass, albeit a large one”.

Two decades after the discovery, however, Hungarian archaeologist Sandor Bokonyi claimed the bones were indeed those of a horse. Meadow challenged Bokonyi but before anything further could be said, the latter died.

High horse

Advocates of the Aryan migration theory, however, argue that Bokonyi’s opinion made little difference to the fact that there is a mismatch between the exalted status of the horse in Vedic civilisation and its absence in Harappan sites. Bokonyi himself said the horse was not native to India but “reached the Indian subcontinent in an already domesticated form coming from the Inner Asiatic horse domestication centers”.

Witzel writes:

“Even if this [the Surkotada horse] were indeed the only archaeologically and palaeontologically secure Indus horse available so far, it would not turn the Indus Civilisation into one teeming with horses [as the Rigveda indeed is, a few hundred years later]. A tiger skeleton in the Roman Colosseum does not make this Asian predator a natural inhabitant of Italy.”

There is strong academic consensus that the horse was brought to India – which, of course, challenges any theory of Indo-Europeans being indigenous to India. However, in India, modern politics around Hindutva has meant that the theory of Indo-European migration is widely contested. The director of the Sanauli excavation did not only label the vehicle a chariot but also claimed that “evidence of horses, including fossils of teeth, have been found at other Harappan sites”.

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