Book Review by Dr. V. N. Misra*

The Saraswati Flows on: the Continuity of Indian Culture

by B. B. Lal

New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2002. Pages 146, Illustrations 114. Price: Rs. 1,250, hard-bound; Rs. 500, soft cover.

With the discovery of the Indus (now better known as the Harappan or even Indus-Saraswati) Civilization as a result of excavations at Harappa by Rao Bahadur Dayaram Sahni in 1921 and at Mohenjo-daro by Rakhal Das Banerjee in 1922, the history of India was pushed back at one stroke by some 2000 years. In the ensuing years the two sites were extensively excavated, Mohenjo-daro under the direction of Sir John Marshall, then Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, and Harappa under the direction of Pandit Madho Sarup Vats. These excavations revealed a rich and highly evolved culture with urban centres, having planned layout, twin components, comprising a citadel on a raised platform and containing public buildings like a college for priests, great bath, granary, and residences for the ruling class and other elite; and a lower town for the common populace.

All the buildings were made of kiln-fired bricks. In the lower town the roads and streets ran in cardinal directions and at right angles to each other. The houses were provided with paved baths and drains that discharged into soakage jars or public drains. A strict municipal administration prevented encroachment on streets and ensured perfect public hygiene. The material culture comprised wheel-turned, finely baked, and elaborately painted sturdy pottery; copper vessels; copper and chert tools; weights, mainly of cubical shape, of chert, limestone, gneiss, steatite, slate, chalcedony, schist, and probably hornblende; measures of copper, shell and ivory; ornaments of gold, silver, shell, ivory, faience, and beads of semi-precious stones, including etched carnelian; intaglio seals of steatite bearing masterly carved figures of animals, notably of the Brahmani bull, And an as yet undeciphered writing; and animal and human figurines in terracotta, stone, faience and bronze, the most notable in the last material being the famous dancing girl of Mohenjo-daro.

The Indus system of weights was extremely precise and unique to the contemporary world. In the lower denominations the system was binary: 1, 2, 1/3 x 8, 8, 16, 32, etc., with the traditional Indian ratio of 16, as in the pre-1957 Indian currency of 16 annas = 1 rupee, and weight system of 16 chhataks = 1 seer. The measures, however, seem to have followed a decimal system (Wheeler 1962: 103-104). The Indus people had extensive internal and external trade, both terrestrial and sea-borne, in raw materials and manufactured goods. Their sea-plying boats, depicted on steatite seals and bronze tablets, were identical to the wooden boats plying on the Indus river today.

Right from the time of the publication of reports on excavated sites, the excavators like Sir John Marshall, M. S. Vats and E. J. H. Mackay, and other writers on the Indus Civilization, like Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1953: 103-104), Bridget and Raymond Allchin (1982: 229-347), B. B. Lal (1997: 257-80), and J. M. Kenoyer (1998: 173-83), to name but a few, have been pointing out survival of Indus elements into later Indian culture, particularly Hinduism and its associated metaphysics. These include worship of proto-Shiva in the form of Pashupati or Lord of the Beasts and phallus, animals, particularly bull or Nandi, mother goddess, and pipal tree. M.E.L. Mallowan (1955: 199-202), in his review of Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s The Indus Civilization, had also pointed out the continuity in the system of weights and measures. However, no one has documented the varied and rich evidence of the continuity of the Indus Civilization into the later Indian society as thoroughly and competently as Professor B. B. Lal has done in his present book.

But before dealing with the core issue of the book, we must briefly refer to the inseparable relationship between the Indus Civilization and the river Saraswati. Since the time of the composition of the Rigveda, over four thousand years ago, the Saraswati has been venerated by the Hindus as one of their holiest rivers; indeed in the Rigveda it was held as the holiest river. Since 1874 a number of geographers, geologists and archaeologists have identified this river with the dry bed of a large stream known as the Ghaggar in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, and as Hakra, Sotra, Sagara, Wahind, Raini, Mihran and Nara (Narra) in Pakistan (Anonymous 1874; Nearchus 1875; R. D. Oldham 1887; C. F. Oldham 1893; Stein 1917; Wilhelmy 1969; Misra 1984; Yash Pal et al. 1984). The scholar, who first associated the Saraswati with the Indus Civilization, was the veteran explorer, Sir Aurel Stein. In the winter of 1941-42 Stein explored the Ghaggar-Hakra valley in the then Princely States of Bikaner and Bahawaipur and discovered some fifty protohistoric, including Indus, sites (Stein 1942).

After Independence a number of archaeologists like A. Ghosh, Katy Frenchman, J. P. Joshi, M. N. Deshpande, K. N. Dikshit, R. S. Bisht, B. M. Pande, and others of the Archaeological Survey of India; Suraj Bhan of Kurukshetra University; R. N. Mehta, K. T. M. Hegde, V. H. Sonawane, K. K. Bhan, and others of M.S. University of Baroda; and archaeologists of the Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat State Archaeology Departments in India; and M. R. Mughal and Louis Flam in Pakistan, among others, have discovered a very large number of Indus sites. Today over 1500 sites of the Indus Civilization are known in India and Pakistan. Of these, about two-thirds are located along the banks of the Saraswati or Ghaggar-Hakra river. In the Cholistan desert of Pakistan alone Mughal (1992) has discovered over 300 sites. As against this, less than fifty sites are located on the Indus river after which the Civilization is named. It is, therefore, no surprise that S. P. Gupta (1996) thought it proper to rename the civilization as the Indus-Saraswati Civilization.

The author of the book, Professor B. B. Lal, has had a spectacularly successful and exemplary archaeological career spanning more than half-a-century. He was trained in excavation by the veteran archaeologist, R. E. M. (later Sir) Wheeler at Taxila, Harappa and other famous sites in the forties of the last century. Out of his many pupils Wheeler chose Lal to entrust the excavation of the Early Historic site of Sisupalgarh in Orissa before relinquishing the charge of the Director-General of Archaeology in India in 1947. Immediately after successfully completing and publishing this excavation, Lal took up the highly challenging project of investigating the archaeology of the Mahabharata sites during 1950-52. He discovered many Painted Grey Ware (PGW) sites in the Indo-Gangetic Divide and upper Yamuna-Ganga doab, and excavated Hastinapura, the capital city of the Kurus. To him goes the credit of associating the PGW with the Mahabharata sites and recognizing the PGW culture as a manifestation of the later Vedic culture. The eminent British archaeologists, Stuart Piggott and D.H. Gordon, in their reviews of B. B. Lal’s classic article on the Copper Hoards of the Gangetic basin (Piggott 1954), and his Hastinapura excavation report (Gordon 1957), both published in Ancient India, the annual journal of the Archaeological Survey of India, hailed them as models of research and excavation reporting. In subsequent years Lal excavated the Mesolithic site of Birbhanpur in West Bengal, the Chalcolithic site of Gilund and the Harappan site of Kalibangan, both in Rajasthan, and the Ramayana sites of Ayodhya, Bharadwaj Ashram, Nandigram, Chitrakut and Shringaverapura in Uttar Pradesh.

Very early in his career Lal established a sound and enviable reputation for precise, succinct and lucid writing. He is extremely particular about the veracity of his facts, choice of apt words, accuracy of references, and minutiae of punctuation marks. He argues his case like an accomplished and veteran advocate, cogently and point by point, citing solid evidences in support of it, and bringing it to an irrefutable conclusion.

Today Professor Lal is indisputably the most experienced and distinguished archaeologist of India. For his monumental scholarship, becoming humility, in conformity with the Sanskrit subhashita, Vidya Vinayena Shobhate, and his eagerness to help every archaeologist, young or old, he is held in the highest esteem by the entire Indian archaeological community.

For his academic achievements and the high quality of his scholarship Professor Lal has been honoured by many prestigious institutions in India and abroad. In 2000 the President of the Indian Republic conferred upon him the coveted title of Padmabhushan.

In addition to his many articles on the excavations, conducted jointly by him and the late Shri B. K. Thapar, on the important Indus Civilization site of Kalibangan, a provincial capital city of the Indus Civilization, the Indus / Harappan Civilization in general, and the related subjects of Copper Hoards and Ochre Coloured Pottery (OCP), published in prestigious national and international journals, Lal has already published two books on the Indus/ Harappan Civilization (Lal 1997, 1998). The book under review is a fitting sequel to these earlier publications.

After these introductory comments, let us get back to the review.

In chapter I the author describes the location of the Rigvedic Saraswati on the basis of the Rigvedic hymns, between the Yamuna in the east and the Sutlej in the west, and he cites many hymns, sometimes with his own English translation of them, which vividly portray the many attributes, particularly the grandeur and exceptional sacredness, of the river. In chapter II he makes out a strong case that the Rigvedic Saraswati cannot be any other river except the dry bed of the present-day Ghaggar-Hakra river. This is because the Rigvedic hymn 10.75, Verses 5 and 6, clearly place the Saraswati between the Yamuna and the Sutlej. Several western and Indian scholars have identified the Saraswati with the Harakhvati or the present-day Helmand river of Afghanistan. This identification is untenable because the Saraswati in the Rigveda is described as originating in the mountains and debouching into the ocean whereas the Helmand debouches into a lake. Besides, there are no rivers named as Yamuna and Sutlej in Afghanistan. In addition, the author provides additional evidence from the writings of Yash Pal et al. (1984), V. N. Misra (1984), V. M. K. Puri and B. C. Verma (1998), and Louis Ham (1999) to establish that the Rigvedic Saraswati could have been no other river than the present-day Ghaggar-Hakra of India and Pakistan.

Lal’s formidable arguing and writing skills are in full evidence in his treatment of the vexed Saraswati problem.

Against the overwhelming evidence in support of the Saraswati being an Indian river and majority of the Indus sites being located along its banks, the remarks of the well-known historian, R. S. Sharma, come as a rude shock. Sharma (1999: 35) says, “The fundamentalists want to establish the superiority of the Sarasvati over the Indus because of communal considerations. In the Harappan context they think that after partition the Indus belongs to the Muslims and only the Sarasvati remains with the Hindus” (emphasis B. B. Lal’s).

The fact, however, is that no scholar of repute has made such a statement. The Indus, even though today, flows, for most of its length, through Pakistan, is very much an Indian river as well for it reaches Pakistan only after flowing through Kashmir. Besides, as Sir Mortimer Wheeler (1959) said in his book, India from the Earliest Times to Ashoka, the Indus gave India her name and the Ganges gave her faith. So no sane scholar can make such a foolish and rabid statement.

Chapter III is devoted to presenting a brief and compact but masterly account of the Indus Civilization from its birth through maturity to decline, including the long-discredited theory of ‘Aryan Invasion’ being a major factor in the so-called ‘Extinction’ of the Civilization, still parroted by some Marxist historians.

Chapter IV comprehensively deals with the core issue of the book, the continuity of the Harappan Civilization into the present. Here the author discusses the numerous examples of continuity in various spheres of life and society, like ornaments, make-up and toiletry; games and recreation; house- and town-planning; cooking and associated items; agriculture and water-management; transport, on land and water; crafts; folk tales; religion; social hierarchy; and script. The author eminently succeeds in impressing upon the reader the deep and abiding imprint of the six-thousand year old civilization on our day-to-day life. He supplements the text with high quality black-and-white as well as colour photographs of Indus Civilization items and their contemporary parallels.

While each picture has a story to tell and bears equal importance, the reviewer finds the following ones particularly appealing: terra-cotta female figurine with vermilion in the parting of her hair, maang, from Nausharo, juxtaposed with a picture of Shrimati Rabri Devi, Chief Minister of Bihar, wearing the same symbol of marital status; Mohenjo-daro bronze dancing girl wearing spiral bangles and a living woman from northwestern India sporting similar ornaments; three-in-one toiletry gadget from Harappa with an identical modern parallel; terra-cotta chess gamesmen from Lothal and a modem chess board with gamesmen; Early Harappan ploughed field with crisscross furrows from Kalibangan and an identical modem field from the same place, pottery kamandalu from Mohenjo-daro and a Sadhu using a similar kamandalu; sea-plying boat depicted on a Mohenjo-daro seal and its modern Indus river equivalent; terra-cotta figurine doing namaste from Harappa and senior politicians greeting the Indian President with similar namaste; and terra-cotta writing tablets, takhtis, from Mohenjo-daro with the present-day children writing on similar wooden takhtis, much as the children of the author’s and reviewer’s generation did.

The late George F. Dales (1977), excavator of the Harappan sites of Sutkagen-dor, Mohenjo-daro, Balakot, and Harappa, had drawn similar parallels between Harappan objects and items of Pakistani life, but obviously the author of the book under review did not have access to this publication. A surprising omission, given the author’s thorough mastery over the subject, is the absence of a reference to Harappan system of weights and measures to which Max Mallowan (already cited) had drawn our attention twenty-seven years ago.

The author’s role model in archaeological research and writing is his guru, the late Sir Mortimer Wheeler. This distinguished archaeologist wrote in his autobiography, Still Digging, that his father taught him early in his childhood that while writing anything one should think that one is sending a telegram and that every word costs money. Professor Lal fully imbibed this precept from his guru. Naturally, all his writings are marked by precision, brevity and elegance of prose. Just as Sir Mortimer was a role model to young B. B. Lal, the latter is a role model to all archaeologists of my generation as well as to the aspiring archaeologists of generations younger than mine.

The book under review, displaying the author’s thorough mastery on the Indus Civilization and close observation of the ethnographic scene, will educate the enlightened public about the roots of the present-day Indian society and culture being located in this ancient civilization. It must be made a compulsory reading for the university and college students of both sciences and humanities and should have a place on the shelf of every public and individual library.

Notes & References

Allchin, Bridget and Raymond. 1982. The Rise of Civilization in India and Pakistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Anonymous. 1874. Notes on the Lost River of the Indian desert. The Calcutta Review, CXVII: 1-27.

Dales, George F. 1977. Strange Relics of the Cumbling, Still-puzzling Indus Culture, Smithsonian, July 1977: 56-64.

Gordon, D.H. 1957. Review of ‘Excavations at Hastinapura and Other Explorations in the Upper Ganga and Sutlej Basins, 1950-52’ by B.B. Lal, Antiquity XXXI(122): 108-109.

Gupta, S.P. 1996. The Indus-Saraswati Civilization. Delhi: Pratibha Prakashan.

Kenoyer, J.M. 1998. Ancient Cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Karachi: OUP and American Institute of Pakistan Studies,

Lal, B.B. 1997. The Earliest Civilization of South Asia. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Lal, B.B. 1998. India 1947-199T New Light on the Indus Civilization. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Mallowan, M.E.L. 1955. Review of The Indus Civilization by Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Antiquity XXIX (116): 199-202.

Misra, V.N. 1994. Indus Civilization and the Rigvedic Saraswati, in South Asian Archaeology 1993 (Asko Parpola and Petted Koskikallio Eds.), pp. 511-525. Helsinki: SuornaLalnen Tiedeakatemia.

Nearchus. 1875. The Lost River of the Indian Desert: A Comment, The Calcutta Review, LXX: 323-35.

Oldham, R.D. 1887. On Probable Changes in the Geography of the Punjab and its Rivers: an Historicogeographical Study, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 55: 322-43.

Oldham, Surgeon-Major C.F. 1893. The Saraswati and the Lost River of the Indian desert, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 49-76.

Pal, Yash, Baldev Sahai, R.K. Sood, and D.P. Agrawal 1984. Remote Sensing of the ‘Lost’ Saraswati River, in Frontiers of the Indus Civilization: Sir Mortimer Wheeler Commemoration Volume (B. B. Lal and S. P. Gupta Eds.), pp. 491-97. New Delhi: Books and Books.

Piggott, Stuart 1954. Review of ‘Further Copper Hoards from the Gangetic Basin and a Review of the Problem’ by B. B. Lal, Antiquity XXVIII(111): 172-73.

Sharma, R.S. 1909. Advent of the Aryans in India. New Delhi: Manohar.

Stein, Sir Aurel 1917. On Some River Names in the Rigveda, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 1917: 91-99.

Stein, Sir Aurel 1942. A Survey of Ancient Sites along the ‘Lost’ Saraswati River, Geographical Journal 99: 173-82.

Wheeler, Sir Mortimer 1959. India from the Earliest Times to Ashoka. London: names and Hudson.

Wheeler, Sir Mortimer 1962. The Indus Civilization. Second edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilhelmy, H. 1969. Das Urstrorntal am Orsrand der Indusbene und das ‘Sarasvati-problem’, Zeitschriftfur Geomorphologie, Supplement Band 8: 7093.

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* Dr. V. N. Misra is one of India’s most eminent prehistorians and a former director, Deccan College Post-Graduate Research Institute, Pune. This review appeared in Man and Environment (vol. XXVI, No. 2, July-December 2001), a bi-annual journal published by the Indian Society for Prehistoric and Quaternary Studies, Pune. (Back to text)

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