Idea of India Part 2 The Idea of Civilization

If you were a farmer living five thousand years ago, the Indus Valley was probably the best place you could hope to settle in. The river brought in vast amounts of nutrient-rich silt from the Himalayas and deposited them in the plains; the Indus and its tributaries provided a steady supply of fresh water and, unlike the great rivers of the Middle Eastern and Egyptian civilizations, they didn’t flood as often. Agriculture leads to surpluses, which means that not everyone in the community has to be involved in the job of finding food, which allowed for large classes of people with specialized functions in society. This led to kings, priests, scribes and traders, many of whom lived in large cities.

Anyone with a passing interest in ancient history almost instantly falls in love with the Indus Valley Civilization. Who doesn’t love an enigmatic culture that for thousands of years was lost to silt, sand and salt in today’s north-western India and Pakistan? It was only discovered by accident in the 1920s, by British engineers trying to build a railway in the province of Sindh in modern-day Pakistan. The discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization was of significance to people outside the realm of history too, for it re-cast the modern denizens of the Indian subcontinent as the descendants of a great and ancient civilization. It was a civilization whose cities were planned and laid out better than any of their contemporaries in Egypt or Mesopotamia. They had broad avenues, large public baths, and a drainage system that surpassed those found in most urban settlements in modern India and Pakistan.

Since its rediscovery, the Indus Valley has been a source of both pride and discord among modern citizens of the Indian subcontinent. Most historians in the first half of the twentieth century postulated that the Indus Valley collapsed between three to four thousand years ago and that the Vedic Age, ushered in by migrating Indo-Iranians from Central Asia, was a completely distinct culture. Some academics stated that the presence of dead bodies in cities such as Mohenjo-Daro was evidence of war and possible genocide from the Vedic migrants. However, so far, archaeological excavations at Indus Valley sites have showed few to no signs of warfare or weapons, and their cities were not surrounded by defensive walls and fortifications.

Archaeological findings in modern-day Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan, alongside linguistic evidence, indicate that Vedic India was an amalgamation of both cultures. Climate change led the remnants of the Indus Valley Civilization to abandon their cities and migrate eastwards. Similarly, the Proto-Indo-Iranians were forced by climate change and the acidification of their pastures in Central Asia to migrate into Iran and India.

This view is nearly unanimous among historians, archaeologists, and linguists across the world. However, attempts to situate the origins of India even further into the past have led many Indian historians to reject this model in favour of the Out-of-India Theory, which postulates that the Indus Valley Civilization was a Sanskrit-speaking culture that eventually became Vedic India.

This ideological divide showcases the role that history plays in defining modern identity: events can be re-written to mould the idea of India to a modern-day agenda. A culture that declined over three and a half thousand years ago now finds itself at the frontline of identity politics. Even in Pakistan, a nation where hard-line religious fundamentalist dogma dictates government textbooks, the Indus Valley Civilization is seen as the spring from which the nation was born. The textbooks begin with the Indus Valley Civilization and then gloss over the next two and a half thousand years of history to pick up the thread with the first Muslim conquerors in the subcontinent. Unlike fundamentalists in the Middle East and Afghanistan, who regard ancient structures as idolatry, and have spent the last few decades destroying priceless historical artefacts and archaeological sites, Pakistan still takes pride in the fact that the epicentres of the decidedly pagan Indus Valley Civilization are mostly located within their borders.

Such is the power of history: that a civilization whose language is unknown, whose source and fate are a mystery, and whose writing remains the most tantalizingly undeciphered script in modern archaeology, is yet the battleground for differing interpretations of the idea of India. Perhaps we will never know who the Indus Valley people were. As people who lived along the banks of the Indus river, we can say with confidence that they deserve the moniker of ‘Indian’ much more than we do. After all, the Indus neither starts nor ends in modern-day India, but only flows very briefly in its remotest corner. Regardless of whether or not they would see any of themselves in us today, we have not stopped trying to find ourselves in them.

To celebrate the upcoming 10th anniversary of JLF, we’ve launched a series of blogs that will look back and further explore some of the themes we’ve discussed over the years.
We start with The Idea of India, which over the next few weeks, will delve into pivotal chapters that have shaped the evolution of the Indian identity.
Written by by Harish Alagappa, one of our Festival Bloggers from 2015, The Land of India kicks off the series.

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