By S. Callikan
‘The ancient Harappan genome was compared to the DNA of modern South Asians, revealing that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation were the primary ancestors of most living Indians’ – Smithsonian magazine
The comments left by Pope Francis about ideological colonisation and a somewhat unexpected Indian genome analysis, far from our local realities, prompt this piece. That colonial masters and missionary zeal left a long-lasting imprint, going against even the history and values of a vassalised country, is not a new realisation. But it has been given an undoubted fillip by Pope Francis aboard his outgoing plane as he highlighted the historico-cultural dominance exerted during colonisation and the tenaciously distorting legacy left in its aftermath.
Western authors, researchers and Indologists, over the two centuries of colonisation, have dominated the historical narrative about “their” jewel in the crown, the Indian sub-continent. Colonisation of the Indian sub-continent ended formally seventy years ago, yet the legacy-holders of the distorting colonial prism are still holding on. Nowhere has this cultural dominance been more manifest than in the purported history of the Indus Valley Civilisation (formerly known as the Harappan civilisation) as told by the West, absorbed and recirculated by some intellectual figures within India, most notably the historical narratives of Prof Romila Thapar, a darling of western academia.
Why should it matter to us here? Anything about India’s tapestry, its fabulously rich cultural heritage over its millennia-old ancestry, are all matters which should resonate with the Indian diaspora beyond India’s geographical boundaries. The sub-continent’s vibrant diaspora across all continents have more in common than regional food recipes, spice admixtures, bollywood stars, filmography and music, ritual Sanskrit chants and mantras or socio-religious festivals like Deepavali or Cavadee or Maha Shivaratree.
With distance and adaptation to foreign lands and cultures, the need for bonding with India’s soul and substance (as might have said Dr Tharoor) is perhaps even stronger. That need and the new-found pride in India’s strategic and development accomplishments over recent decades, will be on high display at the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston next Sunday, which will be attended by President Donald Trump.
But on a larger plane, that of humanity’s ancient history, the Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC), with large well-planned cities endowed with sewer systems like Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro, Rakhigarhi or the port of Lothal, had all the hallmarks of a commercially active centre based on agricultural produce, livestock farming, reputed handicraft and a probable payment means through inscribed Harappan seals. That civilization developed initially along the very fertile basins of the Indus River, expanded to stretch across much of modern Afghanistan and Pakistan, into the hills of Iran and the north-west regions of India, an area of settlement and commercial or cultural influence far exceeding that of early Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Chinese fluvial civilisations. The story of the Indus Valley Civilisation pertains to humanity’s ancient history and the unalloyed decipherment of its storyline, however critical to understanding India’s soul and substance, goes way beyond.
That storyline as told by the Western scholars, missionaries and their Indian intellectual followers had several phases. For the first two centuries, the masters of colonised India distilled the idea that the races and peoples in the sub-continent they were ruling, had volumes of Vedic sacred texts but were completely incapable of erecting buildings, statues, temples or the sort of relics they gazed at in dead civilisations elsewhere. Such lack of enterprise was, in their view, a confirmation of India as a somewhat sub-par, un-enterprising, motley collection of races and peoples, a much-needed psychological justification for their colonising forays.
Upon discovering Sanskrit in 18th century, the language of the Vedic sacred scripts, they immediately postulated (for instance, William Jones) that such an elaborate language, richer than Greek or Latin, could only come from elsewhere, some unknown area within the steppes. Erudite Western scholars and linguists threw themselves with gusto on the grammatical analysis and lexicons, searching ardently for the archaic proto-language of their own ancestors over the next two centuries. The story of “Aryan invaders” was born of that psychological necessity of the colonial empire and it governed Western academia and European popular imagination for two centuries.
“Aryan invaders” storming down from the steppes with Sanskrit and the Vedas in their luggage, penetrating Indian north-west, conquering and pushing back the indigenous peoples to the south and east, held such romantic fascination for European scholarship that science flew out of the windows. Although unsupported by credible or scientific evidence, the theory, patched from a network of implausibilities, managed to hold sway for most of two centuries. Even when growing evidence accumulated that the “Aryan invasion” was closer to a mythical construct than scientific research, Academia both in Europe and in their ideologically subsumed minds in India was loath to let go of their cherished research postulate on which so many careers and university departments had founded their authority and secured financing.
The more plausible alternative, that Harappan sophistication and ancient Vedic scriptures might have been an entirely indigenous development of Indian ancestry, at periods when most Europeans were cave-dwellers, could not even be conceived by European colonists, the missionaries who accompanied them, dominant European academia and even some erudite Indian circles, with such figureheads as Prof Romila Thapar. Both Sanskrit, the Vedic sacred texts and the Harappan ingenuity and sophistication must have been imported into India from foreign lands, if not by mythical sword-wielding ferocious and mentally limited Steppe horsemen, then by slow infiltration of illiterate nomadic Iranian shepherds in Prof Thapar’s latest version of the myth! From Europe to India, they held the dominant discourse, dismissing ancient Indian creativity, its civilisational beginnings, its ancient geographical or cultural spread and any opposing archaeological facts or scientific research as mere “Hindutva” contraptions.
Seventy years after its independence, the ideological and intellectual constructs had deeply embedded roots within India, fêted in Western spheres, ferociously resisting any revision of the pet theories of “Aryan invaders” on which so many had easily built academic reputations, careers and even whole varsity departments. They accepted European scholarship about ancient societies of Mesopotamia and Sumer in the Middle East, the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt, the early Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties in China about 5000 years ago, but, whether for psychological, regional or political reasons, found intellectual duress in accepting India’s 8-10,000 year-old autonomous developments around the fertile Indus valley. It was after all about India’s soul and substance, as Dr Tharoor might have said, he who demonstrated so cogently British colonialism’s impact over India.
Recovering DNA from millennia-old archaeological remains in the Indus Valley Civilisation in a hot and humid environment had always been a challenge. The “invader” proponents held that, without such evidence, they could still cling to their myths. That is why the extraordinary feat of DNA traces having been painstakingly recovered from a woman’s buried skeleton more than 4,500 years ago in one of the larger Indus Valley Civilisation towns, Rakhigarhi, and its genome analysis holds considerable significance, which many in Indian and international media have reported last week. “The ancient Harappan genome, sequenced and described in the journal Cell, was compared to the DNA of modern South Asians, revealing that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation were the primary ancestors of most living Indians” to quote a Sep. 5 article in the Smithsonian for instance.
Equally significant, no Steppe pastoralist DNA was observed in the ancient Indus Valley individual dismissing the theory that agriculture developed in the ancient Indus Valley as a result of imported knowledge and skills. In fact, the article goes on: “The IVC genome from Rakhigarhi shows strong genetic similarities to the 11 genetic outliers in [previous] large study of ancient humans, supporting the idea that these individuals ventured from the Harappan civilization to the Middle East”, an “Out of India” position that has always been more consistent with scientific facts and rational analysis.
We suspect that India’s internal dynamics and politics will continue unabated despite such evidence. Whether that unique genetic finding helps some academic circles move out of their staunchly held positions against indigenous Indian knowledge and skills remains to be seen. For the Indian diaspora around the globe, less embroiled in the acrimony of parochial Indian politics, this will go a long way to comfort their pride and self-assurance in their own ancestry and its unique contribution to humanity.
* Published in print edition on 20 September 2019