Distortions in Indian History

B.B. Lal


History has been defined in one of the dictionaries as 'a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written in a chronological order.' But a million-dollar question is: Can this 'narrative' be wholly truthful i.e. without any 'distortions'? If you pause for a while and ponder over the question, your answer, in all likelihood, would be: 'Perhaps not.' Why? Because, just as 'beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder', I would say, 'history lies in the perception of the historian'. To the best of my understanding, no narrator of any event can honestly claim that he/she has seen that event in its entirety. The position is more or less like the proverbial description of an elephant 'seen' by blind persons. Those who touched the legs said that the elephant was like the trunk of a tree; those who had a feel of the ears compared the animal with a big fan; and so on. No one ought to blame these persons since they reported what they observed. But, as we know, their descriptions were only partly correct and cannot be taken to be 'all-inclusive' and are, therefore, 'inconclusive'.


Leaving aside this narration of an elephant, even if we look at the reporting of any of the current events in a newspaper or on the television, we will find that the situation is not much different. For example, the recent beating up of some Biharis who had come to Mumbai to appear at a Railway Entrance examination, by the members of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena was hailed as 'patriotic' by the leaders of the Sena, whereas others condemned it as 'atrocious'. The same event was seen with coloured glasses worn by the viewers concerned and their own versions will go down as 'history' written by their respective 'historians'.


Let us take another example of yesteryears. What happened in India in 1857 has been termed as a 'Mutiny' by the Britishers, but hailed as the 'First War of Independence' by Indians. Perhaps both the parties will insist that their perception was/is correct. Who is going to be the arbiter?


The real culprit in all such cases seems to be the element of 'perception' of the narrator, in other words the 'mind-set' of the 'historian'. And howsoever the historian - or for that matter anybody - might try to be 'truthful', he just cannot be, since how can he detach himself from his 'perception' - something ingrained in his mind? The above-noted two simple examples, namely those of the Mumbai beating up and the 1857 event, amply illustrate this. Thus, history can never ever be 'true' in its entirety: the grey patches will always remain, though the depth and extent of the greyness may vary from narration to narration. And, to be honest, how is the reader better qualified to be the judge? Does he too not have his own 'perception' which, not unjustifiably, has often been termed as 'prejudice'?


Having accepted the fact that no history can be bereft of 'distortions', I would like to distinguish between 'unconscious' and 'conscious' distortions, in other words distortions which may have crept in unwittingly and those which were deliberately engineered. Whereas the former could be the result of sheer ignorance of the complete data or of a shabby analysis thereof and are, therefore, pardonable in a way, it is the 'conscious distortions' on which a heavy axe must fall. I will illustrate my point by citing examples of these two categories. However, since I am a bit more familiar with the writings on ancient Indian history, my examples will naturally be drawn there from.


Way back in the 19th century, the renowned German scholar Max Muller dated the Vedas to circa 1200 BCE. This he did on a very ad-hoc basis. Having accepted that the Sutra literature could be as old as the sixth century BCE, he assigned a duration of two hundred years to each of the preceding periods, namely those of the Aranyakas, Brahmanas and Vedas. Thus, 600+200+200+200= 1200 BCE was his ready-made date for the Vedas. However, when his contemporary scholars, such as Goldstucker, Whitney and Wilson raised objections to this kind of ad-hocism, he relented and came out with the following statement:


"I have repeatedly dwelt on the merely hypothetical character of the dates, which I have ventured to assign to the first periods of Vedic literature. All I have claimed for them has been that they are minimum dates, and that the literary productions of each period which either still exist or which formerly existed could hardly be accounted for within shorter limits of time than those suggested." (Emphasis added.)


But when even this explanation-cum-apology did not satisfy the scholars, Max Muller threw up his hands in sheer desperation. His confession, as follows, is worth noting (Max Muller 1890, reprint1979):


"If now we ask how we can fix the dates of these periods, it is quite clear that we can not hope to fix a terminum a qua [sic]. Whether the Vedic hymns were composed [in] 1000 or 1500 or 2000 or 3000 BC, no power on earth will ever determine." (Emphasis added.)


In so far as Max Muller was concerned, the matter was closed from his side. But the greatest irony is that his original fatawa of 1200 BCE, given in the 19th century, is sill ruling the roost in ceratin quarters even in the 21st century!


The disastrous effect of this fatawa was seen in the 1920s when the Harappan Civilization was discovered and attempts were made to identify its authors. On the basis of the occurrence of several objects of this civilization in deposits of certain already-dated West Asian cultures, it was assigned to the 3rd millennium BCE. The net result was that the Vedic people were never even considered to have been the authors of the Harappan Civilization, since according to Max Muller's fatawa the Vedas were only as old 1200 BCE. Simultaneously, without any sustainable reason the authorship was thrust on the Dravidian-speaking people. And this is how the first major distortion took place in interpreting ancient Indian history!



Adding fuel to the fire was the famous declaration of my revered guru, Sir Mortimer Wheeler. In 1946, after having discovered afortification-wall around one of the mounds at Harappa and on learning that in the Vedas Indra has been described as puramdara (i.e. destroyer of forts), he lost no time and announced (1947: 82): "On circumstantial evidence Indra [symbolic of the Vedic Aryans] stands accused [of destroying the Harappan Civilization]." This was the second major distortion. The hands of the Vedic 'invaders' were sullied with the blood of the so-called 'Dravidian-speaking Harappans' who were said to have been massacred by the former, and whose territories were usurped by them driving the latter all the way down to south India.



In support of the (supposed) massacre, Wheeler cited some skeletons met with at Mohenjo-daro. However, an in-depth analysis of the provenance of these skeletons shows that they occurred in different stratigraphic levels - some in the middle, some in the late and yet some others in deposits which had accumulated at the site after its abandonment. Had an invasion been the cause of these deaths, one expects that the skeletons would have been found in one level which also would have been the uppermost, after which the inhabitants are taken to have deserted the site and migrated to south India. Further, all the skeletal remains came from the Lower Town which was occupied by the commoners, but none from the Citadel area which was the seat of the government. Are we expected to believe that the 'invaders' killed the commoners and carefully spared the high-ups? The doubt about the deaths having been theresult of an 'invasion' is also supported by that fact some of the skeletons bore cut-marks which had been healed - a process which must have taken quite some time. There would have been no healing had the deaths been due to a 'massacre'. I am in full agreement with George F. Dales who captioned his paper (1964): 'The Mythical Massacre at Mohenjo-daro'.


In this context, it also needs to be added that no site of the Harappan Civilization has yielded any evidence of 'invasion', much less of 'massacre'. Nor is there any evidence of an alien culture overtaking any of these sites. On the other hand, the data show a continuity of occupation and only gradual cultural transition - such as into what has been labeled as the Jhukar Culture at Chanhu-daro or Cemetery H Culture at Harappa or the Rangpur Culture in Gujarat.


Confronted with the foregoing situation, the crusaders of the 'invasion theory' now no longer swear by it. But the 'ghost' of that theory has begun to re-appear in a new avatara (incarnation), namely that of 'migration'. Says Romila Thapar (1989-91: 259-60): "If invasion is discarded then the mechanism of migration and occasional contacts come into sharper focus. The migrations appearto have been of pastoral cattle breeders who are prominent in the Avesta and Rigveda." Faithfully following her, R.S. Sharma asserts (1999:77): "... the pastoralists who moved to the Indian borderland came from Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex or BMAC which saw the genesis of the culture of the Rigveda."


It appears that both Thapar and Sharma are still wedded to the bygone notion that the Vedic Aryans were nomads. But they do not appear to have done any home-work about the Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex. V. I. Sarianidi and his colleagues have unearthed the wonderful remains of the BMAC,which spread over the area from Turkmenistan to northern Afghanistan between circa 2100 and 1700 BCE. And, as would be seen from what follows, the BMAC was a highly developed urban culture having nothing to do with 'nomad-ism' - the basal point of the Thapar-Sharma thesis.


Thus, it seems necessary to spell out, howsoever briefly, the characteristic features of the BMAC. The settlements were not only marked by well planned large-sized houses but also had distinctive religious and public buildings like temples at Dashly-3 in Bactriaand Togolok-21 in Margiana, and even Citadel complexes like the one at Gonur. The Dashly-3 temple was circular on plan, with a diameter of 40 metres and was provided with nine square bastions on the exterior. The Toglok-21 temple was much more elaborate. Situated on about 1.5 hectares of land, it had an inner unit measuring 60 x 40 metres, provided with circular and semi-circular bastions on the exterior. This inner complex was surrounded by two successive enclosures which too had bastions on the outer side. The 'Citadel' at Gonur was a still more elaborate affair. Covering an overall area of 120 x 115 metres and enclosed by a massive fortification-wall with rectangular bastions all around, it included within the complex the king's palace, audience hall and administrative and garrison blocks.


The antiquities found at the BMAC sites also speak volumes for the high calibre of the culture. Without going into too many details, it may suffice to draw attention to even just a few items. Thus, for example, there is the elaborate axe of silver covered withgold lamina. At the butt-end it bears the heads of two eagles and a winged feline. Evidently, this axe was not an ordinary one (like so many others found at the site) but appears to have been used for some ceremonial purpose. Maybe it was mounted on a staff which was held by the ruler as a symbol of authority.


The sculptural art of the BMAC people was, once again, of avery high order. This may be seen from the three illustrated specimens. One of the figure shows the seated statue of a lady from Bactria. In order to bring out a contrast in the portrayal, the sculptor has used a blackish stone for the dress but a pinkish white for the head and hands. Attention may also be drawn to the fine herring-bone weave of the garment and to the delicate hair-style. And the animal-portrayals were no less breath-taking. Thus, for example, a feline is covered with a gold-leaf in which are embedded semi-precious stones of a variety of colours. No less remarkable is the limestone goat whose horns, eyes and beard are made of lapis lazuli.


Would you like to deduce from the foregoing that the BMAC people were nomads - whom Thapar and Sharma would like to push into India as the progenitors of the Rigvedic people? I am sure, you wouldn't.


But why blame the Thapar-Sharma duo alone? Even the principal excavator of the BMAC sites has erred when he sees in its authors the ancestors of the Vedic Aryans. I thoroughly examined these pitfalls in the Inaugural Address which I delivered in July 2007 at the 19th International Conference on South Asian Archaeology, held at the University of Bologna, Ravenna, Italy. (A printed copy of it was circulated amongst the over-500 participantsand pending its publication in the official Proceedings, it has already been included in Puratattva, No. 37, 2006-07, pp. 1-19). Here I shall touch upon just a few major blunders in Sarianidi's thesis.


He advances four arguments in support of his thesis, namely those of: (i) soma, (ii) asvamedha, (iii) fire-worship, and (iv) cult-motifs on the BMAC glyptics.


It has been claimed by Sarianidi that the remains of ephedra and poppy occurred in the temple at Togolok-21, which he identifies with soma of the Vedic people. First of all, it needs to be stated that not all scholars agree that ephedra is indeed soma. Secondly, Harri Nyberg (1995), the well known authority on the subject, categorically denies the identification of the pollens concerned with those of ephedra or poppy. Hence the shaky nature of this argument.


Having found a skeleton of the horse with the head missing, Sarianidi concludes that it was a case of asvamedha sacrifice. In the first place, this skeleton lay just a few centimetres below the surface and there was no burial-pit. Thus, the missing of the head could be due to a variety of extraneous reasons. More importantly, however, the remains do not conform to the description given in the Vedic texts about the asvamedha which states: "The axe penetrates the thirty-four ribs of the swift horse, the beloved of the gods, (the immolators), cut up (the horse) with skill, so that the limbs may be perforated and recapitulating joint by joint." The theory of asvamedha sacrifice, therefore, is a non-starter.


The case of fire-worship is still worse. Sarianidi first compares the outer plan of a structure at Gonur with that of a fire-temple at Nush-i-Jan. But there is no evidenceof any fire-worship at Gonur. Let that alone, the error is beyond redemption when Sarianidi calls a structural complex at Mohenjo-daro a 'fire-temple'. The excavator of Mohenjo-daro, however, categorically calls it a normal residential complex (Marshall 1931, Vol. I: 202). But the greatest pitfall is that whereas the Mohehjo-daro complex belongs to the 3rd millennium BCE, the Gonur example is assignable to the 2nd millennium BCE. Did Sarianidi ever realize the adverse repercussion of these dates? Indeed, if his comparisonwere to be valid, the movement of the people would have to be from India to the Bactria-Margiana region. Would he like to accept this position?


Now to the cult-motifs on the BMAC glyptics. Since there occuron some Bogazkoy tablets the names of the Vedic gods like Indra, Mitra, Varuna and Nasatya, Sarianidi (1993: 677) argues as follows: 'Since it is Mitanni texts that contain the oldest mention of Aryan deities, there can not be any doubt about the connection of the Mitanni empire with the so-called Aryan problem. As the replication of Mitanni art in Bactria and Margiana is clearly not coincidental, we are justified in connecting the tribes migrating into Central Asia and Indus Valley with the settlement process of the Aryan or Indo-Aryan tribes.' While some parallels between the motifs on the BMAC and Syro-Hittite glyptics may be conceded, these have hardly to do anything with Aryan deities. To be more specific, may not one ask Sarianidi to point out what exactly Aryan is there in the two of the seals chosen by him in this context? Does he think that the 'standing nude anthropomorphic winged deity with avian head and holding animals by their tails in the former of these seals is Indra or Mitra or Varuna or Nasatya? At that rate, one fine morning someone might come out with a brilliant idea that the scene in the next seal, depicts "the offering of Soma to Indra", where Indra is the figure seated on the chair and a devotee is offering the soma in a cup, the beverage itself having been stored in the jar behind!


However, more important than whatever has been stated in the past couple of paragraphs is the fact that no cultural element ofthe Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex ever reached east of the Indus, which was the domain of the Vedic Aryans as per the Nadi-stuti Sukta of the Rigveda itself (10.75: 5 and 6). How can then one force the entry of the BMAC people into the Rigvedic region even through a back door?


And now to yet another daring attempt at pushing the Vedic Aryans from the Bactria-Margiana region into India. The renowned author from Finland, Asko Parpola, states in one of his papers (1993:47): "A newly found antennae-hilted sword from Bactria paralleling those from Fatehgarh suggests that this same wave of immigrants may also have introduced the Copper Hoards into India."


Those who are familiar with the Indian Copper Hoards know full well that these comprise not merely one type, namely the antennae sword, but several others, such as the anthropomorphs, harpoons, bar celts, shouldered celts, etc. Besides, should the occurrence of a single antennae sword in Bactria entitle that country to be the 'original home' of the Copper Hoard Culture (which, incidentally, also has many other components such as the distinctive Ochre Colour Ware)? At that rate, on the basis of the occurrence of a single Harappan seal at Gonur in Margiana Parpola might one day turn round and claim that the Harappan Civilization also originated in that region! Hasn't it been rightly said that to the jaundiced eye everything appears to be yellow?


This over-enthusiasm to somehow push the Aryans into India from the west has led scholars even to mis-interpret the Vedic Texts. And here is a case in point. The learned Sanskrit scholar at the Harvard University, Professor Michael Witzel, writes (1995: 320-21):


Taking a look at the data relating to the immigration of the Indo-Aryans into South Asia, one is struck by the number of vague reminiscences of foreign localities and tribes in the Rigveda, in spite of repeated assertions to the contrary in the secondary literature. Then, there is the following direct statement contained in (the admittedly much later) BSS [Baudhayana Srautasutra], 18.44:397.9 sqq which has once again been overlooked, not having been translated yet: "Ayu went eastwards. His (people) are the Kuru-Pancala and Kasi-Videha. This is the Ayava (migration). (His other people) stayed at home in the west. His people are the Gandhari, Parsu and Aratta. This is the Amavasa (group)." (Emphasis mine.)


Though Witzel takes pride in being the first to translate this passage from the Baudhayana Srautasutra, have a look at the deliberate distortion he has made. In order to make my point clear it is necessary to quote the relevant text in the original. It runs as follows: "Pranayuh pravavraja. Tasyaite Kuru-Pancalah Kasi-Videha ity etad Ayavam. Pratyan Amavsuh [pravavraja] tasyaite Gandharayas Parsvo "ratta ity etad Amavasam."


In the first sentence of the text the verb used is pravavraja which means 'migrated'. Simple rules of grammar require that in the second sentence too, wherein the verb is not mentioned but is understood, it has got to be the same, namely 'pravavraja'. The correct translation of the entire piece will thus be: "Ayu migrated eastwards. His people are the Kuru-Panchalas and Kasi-Videhas. This is the Ayava (migration). Amavasu migrated westwards. His (people) are the Gandhari, Parsu and Aratta. This is the Amavasava (migration)."


What then the text really says is that (from some intermediary region) Ayu migrated eastwards and Amavasu migrated westwards. In other words, the migrations must have taken place from an area somewhere between the Gandhara region on the west and the Kuru region on the east. In contrast, Witzel's translation says that while Ayu migrated eastwards, the Amavasu group stayed back, implying thereby that there was an eastward migration from a body of people who had their own land in the west and where they stayed back. This is a deliberate distortion by Witzel in order to give a boost to his pre-conceived theory of an Aryan immigration from the west.


The Baudhayana Srautasutra does in fact narrate the story of a section of the Vedic Aryans, namely the descendants of Amavasu, having migrated westwards, via the Gandhara region in Afghanistan to Persia (Parsu of the text) and Ararat (Aratta) in Armenia. From there they must have proceeded to Turkey where the Bogazkoy tablets of the 14th century BCE refer to a treaty between the Hittite king Suppiluliuma and Mitanni king Matiwaza who cite the Vedic gods Indra, Varuna, Mitra and Nasatyas as witnesses. In my forthcoming book, How Deep are the Roots of Indian Civilization?: Archaeology Answers, I have included a special chapter on this topic in which I have quoted literary, epigraphical and archaeological evidences, variously from India, Iran, Iraq and Turkey, duly establishing this westward emigration of the Vedic people in the 2nd millennium BCE and would not like to take more of the precious time of my audience now. Only a map is presented here, which speaks for itself.


Now some parting words. While no doubt it is our bounden duty to set the distortions right, it is imperative that this ought to be done only with cogent evidence and fully sustainable arguments. No talking in the air or emotions will do. Further, we must also guard against being swayed away by any kind of political or religious considerations. A true academic should worship only one God: the truth - unmitigated truth.


(Mr. B. B. Lal is the former Director General ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) and Chairman, Archaeological Society of India. This paper was presented by him at the International Conference on Indian History (ICIH 2009) held in New Delhi.)




Dales, G.F. 1964. The Mythical Massacre at Mohenjo-daro. Expedition 6(3):36-43.


Lal, B.B. 2007. Let not the 19th Century Paradigms Continue to Haunt Us.Inaugural Address delivered at the 19th


International Conferenceon South Asian Archaeology, held at the University of Bologna,Ravenna, Italy, on July 2-6, 2007.(


Since published in Puratattva, No. 37, 2006-07, pp. 1-19.)


--- In press. How Deep are the Roots of Indian Civilization: Archaeology Answers. New Delhi :Aryan Books International.


Marshall, John.1931. Mohenjo-daro and the Indus Civilization, 3 vols. London:Arthur Probsthain.


Muller, F. Max. 1890, reprint 1979. Physical Religion. New Delhi: Asian Educational Services.


Nyberg, Harri. 1995. The Problem of the Aryans and the Soma: The Botanical Evidence. In G. Erdosy (ed.).
The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia, pp. 382-406. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.


Parpola, Asko. 1993. Margiana and the Aryan Problem. In IASCCA Information Bulletin, 19, pp. 41-62. Nauka.


Sarianidi, V.I. 1993. Margiana and the Indo-Iranian World. South AsianArchaeology, Vol. II, pp. 667-80.


--- 2002. Margush: Ancient Oriental Kingdom in the Old Delta of the Murghab River. Ashgabat.


Sharma, R.S. 1999. Advent of the Aryans in India. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers.


Thapar, Romila. 1988-91. In Journal Asiatic Society of Bombay, Vol. 64-66,pp. 259-60.


Wheeler, R.E.M. 1947. Harappa 1946: The Defences and Cemetery R 37, Ancient India, 3:58-130.


Witzel, M. 1995. Rigvedic History: Poets, Chieftains and Polities. In G.Erdosy (ed.), The Indo-Aryans of Ancient South Asia,


pp. 307-52. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.


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