Power, Politics and Ariya Mayai: 'Aryan Illusion' in The Study of Indian History

Dilip K. Chakrabarti*



'Aryan Invasion' has been one of the most debated and powerful theories for the last two hundred years. It has affected not only the history writing in various countries but also the very social fabric of many countries. Very few indeed know that the entire hypothesis of Aryan Invasion was born and nurtured out of political necessities and still remains a political tool in the hands of academics as well as politicians. In this article, the author looks at the way Aryan Invasion theory has affected the Indian polity and society.



While approaching the Indian side of the display in the British Museum's Asian gallery, one comes across a stone sculpture of Surya, and the museum's explanatory note, as observed on September 21, 2008, had the following introductory statement:


The sacred traditions brought into India by the Aryans were eventually written down in texts known as the Vedas. The best known of these is the Rigveda, dated to about 1200 BC.”


The museum scholars who penned the above sentence were almost certainly unaware of the socio-political implication of their premise, but it may nonetheless be interesting to spell it out: Hinduism developed out of the belief-system brought in by the Indo-Aryans to India about 1200 BC. The underlying implication is that Hinduism is not something which can be considered an inherent product of the Indian soil. It was something which was associated with a group of migrants and, thus, by implication, as much indigenous to the land as Islam and Christianity which came many centuries later.Secondly, the premise ignores the continuity of the basic column of Indian culture and tradition, supposing a major break around 1200 BC.


The scholars who wrote the explanatory note on this British Museum Surya figure are by no means isolated, even in 2008, in their opinion. Upinder Singh, a Delhi University history professor and the author of a book on ancient India which was released in August/September 2008 under a blaze of publicity highlighting her as a daughter of the Indian Prime Minister, poses, quite early in her volume, the question “who were the Indo-Aryans” without casting even a shadow of doubt on the assumption that they were actual people and had a specific homeland. If one considers this, along with her tacit acceptance of the opinion that the earliest Indo-Aryan text dated from c.1200-1000 BC or 1500-1000 BC and her apprehension in viewing the Harappan religious beliefs 'through the lens of later-day Hinduism', one realizes that this Delhi University professor and the British Museum scholars whose opinion has been cited above share the same attitude to the Indian past, i.e. Hinduism is as much indigenous to the Indian land as any other religious beliefs brought in by later immigrants.


Scholars like Upinder Singh are silent about a crucial issue: if the Harappan religious beliefs should not be viewed through the lens of later-day Hinduism, by which lens should it be viewed? After all, this is the lens through which the first major report on the Indus civilization tried to make sense of its religious beliefs. They should also be aware that the attempt to relegate Hinduism to the status of just another 'immigrant' religion in the subcontinental context has a long history and different modern manifestations, including the one which denies Hinduism the privilege of being a single religion and ascribes its current status as the majority religion of India to the decision of the British census operators not to classify people according to their Saivite, Vaishnavite and myriad other affiliations. The latter opinion was expressed by Von Steitencron, a German Sanskritist who was awarded the Padmasri in 2004 by the NDA government under the prime ministership of Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee.


The long shadow which the Aryan hypothesis has cast over the study of Indian history and archaeology, the absence of any historical or archaeological rationale behind it and the sheer futility of speculating about prehistoric languages in the light of comparative philology or historical linguistics, its negative impact on the nation's historical image of itself, and the dangers it poses to the nation's unity by advocating imaginary ethnic faultlines — these all need a straightforward examination. In the present paper, this examination will be concerned only with the academic logic, or rather, the absence of it, in the whole exercise.


The historical trajectory of the Indo-European linguistics is not my concern, nor am I competent to speak about it. I shall, however, draw attention to the facts that the Aryan concept emerged in the 18th century when the Biblical theory of creation was in vogue, and that the emergence of this concept coincided with the emergence of the concept of race in European thought. It will be interesting to point out how these two concepts went hand in hand and provided the philosophical backdrop of viewing the human civilization in terms of discrete categories of language and their correlation with a superior/inferior hierarch y of race – a view which also fitted eminently in the framework of European or a 'superior' group of people's expansion and dominance all over the globe. In Archaeology, I shall enquire when did it become commonplace to integrate the language and race framework into archaeological thinking, and how it is doing now. In certain quarters of modern archaeology, the precepts of comparative philology have acquired great charm and attempts are afoot to view a wide array of things from Neolithic beginnings to contacts across the Indian Ocean in terms of the speculations derived from comparative philology. I shall later hazard an explanation why the language-raceculture correlation has made a comeback in archaeology.


In the Indian context, I shall examine the extraordinary web of lies, half-truths and politics which have gone into the making of the Aryans as an undisputed archaeological and historical phenomenon in the Indian context and how this has affected how the nation views itself.




The title of a book published in Tamil in 1943 by C.N. Annadurai who later became the first non-Congress chief minister of Tamil Nadu, was Ariya Mayai or 'Aryan Illusion' He wrote that there was no concrete evidence to prove that the Aryans invaded India and destroyed the Dravidians : “Our people will be liberated from ignorance only on the day we are freed from the Aryan illusion.” (Barnett 1976:73)


If one believes, as I do, that there is no conceivable logical way to correlate a pre- or non-literate archaeological culture with a particular language or language family, one has to wonder why the Aryan concept, which does precisely that, has persisted for more than 200 years. The only way of justifying such an exercise is to accept the framework of an admittedly imagin ary language history that has been constructed for the concerned geographical area by comparative philologists or historical inguists. The question which is seldom asked is why should archaeologists, or for that matter, anybody else except comparative philologists, accept the untestable premises of prehistoric language history? Can 'comparative philology' date specific events in language history or can it offer any proof that its reconstruction of prehistoric language dispersals approximates even a modicum of historical reality? If 'comparative philology' is incapable of doing any of these things, what does archaeology gain by attaching itself to it? I shall try to answer this question by drawing attention to some India-related examples.


There is an archaeological school which links the beginning of rice cultivation in east, southeast, and by implication, south Asia to the spread of Austric language super-family comprising the Austronesian language family of Taiwan, the Malay archipelago, Pacific islands, and Madagascar, and the Austro-Asiatic language family of mainland southeast Asia with extensions in east India (cf. Diamond and Bellwood 2003). However, in the case of rice cultivation in India, the earliest domesticated evidence is dated 7th-6th millennia BC and comes from the site of Lohuradeva near Gorakhpur (Tewari et al 2004). This is a clear case of independent beginning of rice cultivation in the central Ganga plain. In fact, multiple beginnings of rice have been advocated on the basis of genetical considerations as well (Londo et al 2006), and apparently there is no reason to consider it linked to only one area in its possible geographical range or to associate it with any language dispersal. Coming to a more recent chronological horizon, one may refer to the handling of Indian archaeological data on the beginning of iron period in the mid-1960s when it was linked to the coming of the Indo-Aryan language speakers to India. Even on the basis of the same set of  archaeological data it was possible to argue in the mid-1970s that the beginning of iron technology in India was an early and independent process (Chakrabarti 1976b). This premise was substantiated in the 1990s by a wide range of archaeological data from different parts of the country (Tewari 2003).


In 2007, David Anthony, an American professor of anthropology, published a book entitled The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. India figures only marginally in this discussion, but the author's perception of the process which brought the Indo-European speakers to India is as follows.


Between c.2000 and c.1800 BC, two groups of archaeological cultures with their origins in the Ural region of Russia–the Petrovka and Alakul-Andronovo groups – settled in the Zeravshan river valley of Tadjikistan and Uzbekistan and began mining for copper and tin. It was around this time that “horses and chariots appeared across the Near East, and the warfare of cities became dependent, for the first time, on welltrained horses”. According to Anthony, “the Old Indic Religion probably emerged among northern-inspired immigrants in the contact zone between the Zeravshan and Iran as a syncretic mixture of old central Asian and new Indo-European elements”.


“From this time forward the people of the Eurasian steppes remained directly connected with the civilization of central Asia, south Asia, and Iran, and through intermediaries, with China. The arid lands that occupied the centre of the Eurasian continent began to play a role in the transcontinental economics and politics” (Anthony 2007:462).


The crucial chronological point of Indian contact of these horse/chariotriding population of central Asia, is, as one reads above, the opening centuries of the second millennium BC. The Rigveda, according to Anthony, was composed between 1500 and 1300 BC. He makes no effort to enquire if horse and wheel could be known in India earlier. The earliest evidence of domesticated horse in the subcontinent is from the 5th millennium BC context at Rana Ghundai in the Zhob-Loralai area of northeast Baluchistan. The veterinary officer of the Loralai Cantonment, to whom the animal teeth discovered at the site were given for examination, found them “practically indistinguishable either in structure and size from those of our cavalry horses”. Among the faunal remains of the mature Indus civilization levels at Harappa, Lothal, Surkotada and Kalibangan horse-bones have been identified by a number of scholars including one from the Zoological Survey of India (for a summary, Lal 2002). The objections raised against the validity of these identifications do not deserve any credence (cf. Meadow and Patel 1997). There is even a terracotta representation of horse from the Indus context at Lothal. Equally revealing is Anthony's silence about the presence of terracotta representations of spoked wheels in the mature Indus civilization levels of Rakhigarhi, Kalibangan, Banawali (for a summary, Lal 2002) and Bhirrana (Rao 2005-2006). There is no doubt that both spoked wheel and horse were known in India long before the chronology suggested for this by Anthony.


I find the sub-title of Anthony's book intriguing – “How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World”. What is intriguing about it is the sheer antiquity of such notions about central Asia. In 1858, R.L. Mitra, one of the first Indian antiquarians, wrote something very similar. Central Asia, according to him, was a region from where “in the darkness of a time far beyond the limits of history, peoples and races have come forth to take possession of the earth” (Mitra 1858). It is also common knowledge that this idea goes further back to the beginning of the 19th century when it can be found in the writings of the German Romantics such as J.G. Herder and F. Schlegel (for the details, Poliakov 1974).


There is a major difference in the way this idea was expressed in the beginning of the 19th century and around the middle of that century. In 1789, an English mathematician in India, Reuben Burrow (1789) thought that the position of Equator was once further north, bringing about a better climatic condition in central Asia which was then inhabited by the Hindus and from there the Hindu religion 'probably spread over the whole earth'. This romantic notion of India as an area which sent out roving bands of ascetics as missionaries of civilization died out by the middle of the 19th century. As I wrote earlier, “with the Raj firmly established, it was the time to begin to visualize the history and cultural process of India as a series of invasions and foreign rules” (Chakrabarti 1976). As far as India is concerned, there is a clear echo of Britain's Indian empire's power and politics in both Mitra's and Anthony's image of chariot-driving and horse-riding groups coming out of central Asia.


In fact, William Jones' classic assertion that Sanskrit had an immemorial affinity with Latin and Greek was also rooted in the ground reality of British control of the late 18th century Bengal and the politics of its expansion elsewhere in India. I have emphasized (Chakrabarti 1988) that Jones' writings on India were in response to the contemporary political and intellectual need to relate India to the pre-evolutionary structure of European knowledge of the world's history and civilization. His famous “third anniversary discourse” of February 1786 – famous because it contains the sentence about the immemorial affinity between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin – also declares Sanskrit's 'immemorial affinity' with a long list of languages including 'the Chinese, Japanese and Peruvians'. In the days when the Biblical theory of creation was in vogue, all human families were supposed to have descended from the sons of Noah and thus they had to be mutually related. Jones' aim was to trace such linkages in the case of India and thus make India understandable to the European scholarship of the day, which was necessary in view of the increasing European/British power in the region. It must be understood that for more than 150 years before Jones, there was a close European mercantile familiarity with India, which resulted in voluminous written material on the country. No grand theme runs through these writings. Jones' grand narrative, including the germination of the subsequently full-blown Aryan idea, came about in the changed political context of the late 18th century India.



When did the Aryan idea become important in the study of Indian history? M. Elphinstone's The History of India, published in 1841 and the first major textbook of Indian history, set no store by it. Elphinstone was aware of how the Indo-European language question was shaping up, but he wrote that “to say that it spread from a central point” was a “gratuitous assumption” (Elphinstone 1841:97-98). A few years later, however, J.C. Marshman (1867) had no doubt that the upper caste Hindus belonged to the 'conquering race'. In 1869, a British Indian official, George Campbell (1869), thought that the people of the hills north of Panjab were “among the purest Aryans in the world”. That the message got down to the level of ordinary educated Indians possibly had something to do with F. Max Muller's voluminous writings on what he called 'the science of language'. Although Max Muller did not hide in print his contempt for the Indians (for the details, Chakrabarti 1997), he was a well-known scholar among the Indians for his English translation of the Rigveda and the editorship of the Sacred Books of India series.


Before we take up the ramifications of this idea in the historical writings of the subsequent periods, it may be important to emphasize that the Aryan concept has been, almost from its very beginning, nothing but a racist idea embroiled in the notion of a hierarchy of superior and inferior people. Max Muller's statement that there is nothing called an Aryan skull hides, in fact, his own ambivalence in this matter. As I pointed out before,


“What mattered most was not Max Muller's personal opinion in this regard but what most of his contemporaries thought and passed on to the succeeding periods. It was the idea of correlation between the diverse elements of race, language, history and culture which was dominant throughout and fully triumphed in the end” (Chakrabarti 1997).


The idea that the rulers and the higher echelon of the ruled in India belonged to the same group of people was eagerly accepted by both sides, and served the interest of the empire from that point of view. A remarkable book of this category was E.B. Havell's The History of the Aryan Rule in India in 1918 (Havell 1918). His is a celebrated name in the history of Bengal art in the early part of the 20th century. The motivation to write this book came from his belief that in honouring “our Aryan forerunners in India we shall both honour ourselves and make the most direct and effective appeal to Indian loyalty”. On the Indian side, the eagerness with which the historians from R.C. Dutt (1889-90) onwards have clung to the Aryan invasion idea makes sad reading. To Dutt, “Hindu Aryans” came as conquerors; to K.M. Panikkar they were 'fair-skinned' having contempt for the dark-skinned. According to R.K. Mukherjee (1956), another influential historian, “the history of India is mainly that of the Aryans in India”. The socio-politics of such writings lies in the fact that the Indian historians who almost invariper strata of the Indian caste system never took the trouble of hiding their elation at being considered the successors of people who colonized and civilized the land (for the details of this paragraph, Chakrabarti 1997).


By the middle of the nineteenth century the Aryans, apart from emerging as a historical and racial issue, had acquired some social and political dimensions as well. It appears that the first step in this regard was taken by Christian missionaries. I quote from Rosalind O'Hanlon (1985: 80-81):


Missionary propaganda… attempted to undermine the legitimacy of traditional practices by showing that they were quite recent innovations, running counter to the ancient beliefs of the Vedic society. John Wilson's book India Three Thousand Years Ago, published in 1858, set out to describe the origins of the Aryan people, their arrival in the subcontinent and their conflict with the indigenous tribes, the nature of their customs and religious beliefs”.


A clear manifestation of the missionary angle in the English translation of many of the ancient Hindu texts was the publication of such volumes as John Muir's Original Sanskrit Texts on the Origin and History of the People of India, Their Religion and Institutions in three volumes in 1868-1871. The repeated emphasis was on the fact that in the light of the original early texts of the Hindus, it was self-evident that Hinduism was not a revealed religion but had undergone various stages of social, moral, religious and intellectual developments. “The ideas and beliefs which are exhibited in their oldest documents are not the same as those which we encounter in their later writings” (Muir 1872 reprint, vol.1, p.1). Interestingly, this missionary view lies at the root of a long traditional association between Sanskrit and 'Divinity'/Religion faculties of some Western universities.


Jyotirao Govindrao Phule, the famous 19th century social reformer of Maharashtra, turned the Aryan hypothesis on its head. His basic idea of this matter was clearly formulated in his book Slavery (in This Civilized British Government under the Cloak of Brahmanism) published in Marathi in 1873 It would be helpful to quote some extracts from this book:


Recent researches have demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that the Brahmins are not the aborigines of India. At some remote period of antiquity, probably more than 3000 years ago, the Aryan progenitors of the present Brahmin Race descended upon the plains of Hindoo Koosh… They appear to have been a race imbued with very high notions of self, extremely cunning, arrogant and bigoted… The aborigines whom the Aryans subjugated or displaced appear to have been a hardy and brave people from the determined front which they offered to these interlopers… The cruelties which the early European settlers practiced on the American Indians in their first settlements in the New World had certainly their parallel in India in the advent of the Aryans and their subjugation of the aborigines” ( Deshpande 2002: 22-29).


Phule goes on to add that the Brahminical mythology, code of laws, caste system and priest-craft were all geared to making the life of the Brahmins easy whereas the Sudras were treated with nothing but contempt.


In contrast, Swami Dayananda Saraswati in the 11th chapter of Satyarth Prakash (1875) asserts that the Aryans had been in Aryavarta (India) since 'the beginning of the world'. Aryavarta under the Aryans was imagined to be a golden land.


All the knowledge that is extant in the world originated in Aryavarta (India). Thence it spread to Egypt, thence to Greece, thence to the whole continent of Europe, thence to America and other countries” (Bharadwaja 1927:313).


The Puranic form of Hinduism was anathema to Dayananda. He systematically exploded the myth of the wonders of India. As J.T.F. Jordens (1978:112) comments, despite his enthusiastic portrayal of the image of an Aryan Vedic India complete with fire-arms, his exposure of Hinduism was 'a savage one'.


Among the non-Aryanist Indian writers, only B.R. Ambedkar had a correct academic perception of the situation. In the chapter on “Shudras versus Aryans” in Who were the Shudras?, he wrote in 1946:


“…the theory is based on nothing but pleasing assumptions and the inferences based on such assumptions. In the second place, the theory is a perversion of scientific investigation. It is not allowed to evolve out of facts. On the contrary the theory is pre-conceived and facts are selected to prove it”, (Ambedkar 1970 reprint: 73-74).


In Tamil Nadu the Aryan theory was at the heart of its non-Brahmin political tradition. There it took two forms. In one case, the Dravidians were thought to have contributed significantly to the Indian civilization, especially in its pre-Aryan form, and it was assumed that the later-day Indian civilization was the result of a synthesis between the Aryans and the Dravidians. G. Slater in his The Dravidian Element in Indian Culture (Slater 1924) rightfully diagnosed that, for an Indian, to be regarded as a Dravidian rather than an Aryan carried the sense of a denial of his “kinship with the western European” and relegation to an inferior category. This, according to him, was the main stumbling block against a proper understanding of Dravidian contribution to Indian culture. Although published in 1925, only one year after the formal announcement of the discovery of the Indus civilization, T.R. Shesha Iyengar's book Dravidian India (Iyengar 1925) carried a detailed discussion on the possibility of its being a Dravidian civilization. Some Contributions of South India to Indian Culture (1923) was the title of S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar's book, but there he adopted an approach which had major impacts on the study of the Tamil past and also on Tamil politics.


History begins for India with the coming of the Aryans into the country. It may be said with almost equal truth that the history of South India… begins with the coming of the Aryans into the south. In this particular context the term “Aryan” seems to stand for the Brahman”, (Aiyangar 1923).


The second form taken by the Aryan theory in Tamil Nadu was a serious reaction against this approach which was synonymous with the maintenance of the Brahmanical caste supremacy in the region. In 1939 this took an extreme form in the concept of Dravida Nadu put forward by E.V. Ramasami Naicker alias the Periyar: “a homeland for the Dravidians who spoke Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada and were racially, ethnically and culturally different from the Aryans of the rest of India”, (Mohan Ram 1968: 79). In Tamil Nadu and possibly elsewhere in the south, Annadurai's 'Aryan illusion' was something which acted as the focal point of movements against Brahmanical caste orthodoxy and the maintenance of Brahmanical power (for some details, Bergunder 2004). On the other hand, for the Brahmins, that was a major intellectual plank for retaining their position and power.


It should be clear by now that the Aryan hypothesis was never a mere academic concept right from its inception in the late 18th century when it was linked to the politics of the rising British power's necessity to relate India to the history of world civilization, as it was then understood in the light of the Biblical theory of creation. By the middle of the 19th century, with the establishment of the direct imperial rule, India lost her position as a centre of civilization sending out people in the western direction. It then became far more easy to appreciate India at the receiving end of various migrations from the west, and the notion of a group of horse-riding people penetrating the vast Indian land mass and imposing, as they went along, their superior language and culture on the natives was something which suited very well the intellectual climate of the day. This also fitted perfectly with the racial schemes of the Indian population, which came along during that time and of course, with Max Muller's version of 'the science of language'. The fact that the Indian historians which appeared as a group basically from the last quarter of the 19th century and belonged by and large to the upper castes would gloat over their 'Aryan' identity and kinship with the members of the ruling power was not surprising. What is surprising is that this idea came to be interpreted in various ways by social reform movements in different parts of the country. Whereas Dayananda Saraswati offered the image of an Aryan utopia with the Aryans being the autochthones of the land, J. Phule and others turned this on its head and used it to build up the identity of the lower castes vis-à-vis the upper caste Aryans. In Tamil Nadu the reaction against the idea led to the consolidation of Dravida identity. Only B.R. Ambedkar, the founder of Dalit movements, could see logically what the idea was worth: a theory “based on nothing but pleasing assumptions and the inferences based on such assumptions”.




The examples that I have cited above are all more than 50 years old. How has the Aryan notion fared within the last 50 years in India and what is its status now? In the 1950s and 1960s, with the vastly increased amount of archaeological researches in Indian protohistory, the Indian archaeologists entered the scene in a big way, there being theories galore regarding the archaeological identifications of the Vedic Aryans. They were logically inconsistent, mutually contradictory, and led nowhere (for a review, Chakrabarti 1968). A fair amount of damage was done. In the books and articles written by powerful Indian historians and archaeologists up to the 1980s, it was considered almost axiomatic that the Painted Grey Ware culture of the upper Ganga plain and the Indo-Gangetic divide (c.1200 BCc. 700/800 BC) represented the Later Vedic culture. There was no reason why it was more acceptable than many other theories of this type except that B.B. Lal, a prominent Indian archaeologist, propounded it (Lal 1955), and it was accepted by historians like R.S. Sharma (cf. 1985) who was the chief of the Government of India funding body named 'Indian Council of Historical Research'. To the ordinary footsoldiers footsoldiers of the subject like the present author, the question was why should the pursuit of archaeology in the country be bogged down in the Aryan quagmire and why could not one offer a strictly archaeological version of Indian history.


Since the 1980s the problem has taken a sinister political turn, slowly degenerating into a question of 'progress' versus 'reaction' or the 'secularists' versus 'Hindu fundamentalists'. The background of this development is as follows:


Since the late 18th century, the geographers of the subcontinent have been aware that the Indus river system had a parallel but dried-up river system to its east – from the Siwaliks of modern Haryana to the Rann and the Gulf of Kutch. James Rennell's map of the region in 1788 clearly shows the major channel of this dried-up river system passing through the bordering region of modern Rajasthan and Sind. Named variously in various sectors, this river system is generally known as the Ghaggar-Hakra river system and identified with the course of the Sarasvati which is the most important river mentioned in the Rigveda. Despite some doubts to the contrary, this identification is firmly established. The most detailed discussion so far on the drainage lines of the whole of the region from the Siwaliks to the sea was published by H.G. Raverty in 1892. This more than 500-page discussion was based on an exhaustive enumeration of the writings of the early Muslim chroniclers and geographers and also on the results of an unpublished ground survey conducted before 1790.The archaeological potential of this currently arid region has also been understood since the1830s. In the upper part of this river system in modern Haryana, Panjab and Rajasthan archaeological explorations and excavations have brought to light, since the 1950s, a plethora of Indus civilization and related sites. The full significance of this river stretch remained, however, to be understood till in 1974-77 an exploration on the Pakistani side brought to light a large number of sites belonging to the entire sequential growth, development and decline of the Indus civilization.


Archaeologists confronted a new reality: the largest concentration of Indus and Indus-related sites was not along the Indus but along its parallel river system to the east, i.e. the river system identified as that of the Sarasvati mentioned in the Rigveda. With the induction of remote-sensing techniques in the cause of Indian archaeology, a more detailed knowledge of the course etc. of this ancient river system is slowly becoming available (for the details of the Sarasvati research, Chakrabarti and Saini, in press, chapter 1).


The details of this ongoing research are not the concern of the present paper. What is important is that this has brought to the fore an old debate: whether the Indus civilization people could be associated with the composers of the Vedic literature. Considering that the Rigveda was composed in the valleys of the Indus and the Sarasvati and considering that only the sites of the Harappan or Indus tradition are found in this region, the correlation between the Vedas and the people of this civilization is certainly not an improbability. A logically strong argument in favour of this proposition has been put forward by B.B. Lal (cf.2005). On the other hand, those who believe in the Aryan concept with all its trappings are unhappy with such opinions and have gone to the extent of doubting virtually everything that has been written about the Sarasvati since the late18th century. Irfan Habib (2001) seems to be a representative of this school which seems to be ignorant of the fact that this is an old debate going back to the very period when the civilization was discovered and that scholars such as P.V. Kane, M.S. Vats, R.P. Chanda and B.N. Dutta had no problem in accepting a relation between the Harappans and the composers of the Vedas (for the details, Chakrabarti 2008). That an old academic debate is currently given a political shape as a conflict between 'progress' represented by historians like Habib and 'reaction' typified by Hindu fundamentalism is inexplicable.


Equally inexplicable is the fact that in the current Indian historical literature there are two apparently contradictory attitudes to the Aryan issue. On the one hand, scholars such as Romila Thapar, a long-time adherent of Aryan invasion theory, currently try to sanitise the notion by taking all racial implications out of it (Thapar 2007 reprint), and on the other, there are scholars such as D.N. Jha (1998), a former general president of the Indian History Congress, who find in them a 'distinct physical appearance'. Aryanism manifest in the writings of Indian historians such as those of Thapar, Jha and Sharma (2003) will need a separate analysis which, again, is beyond the scope of this paper. In the writings of some scholars, the Aryan idea is considered as a mythology/myth (cf. Lincoln 1999, Arvidsson 2006) which can be analysed by applying the techniques of literary criticism. It has never been such an innocuous concept. The Nazis might have carried this ideology to its extreme but even way beyond the Nazi world, vicious racism has always been an intrinsic part of its cultural baggage. Why the old correlate of biology, language and culture is making a strong comeback in archaeology is not clear to me. It is possible that in the modern uni-polar world, the idea of a superior group of people – horse-riding or not – as harbingers of change sits easy on scholarly mind.


(*Dilip K. Chakrabarti is Professor Emeritus of South Asian Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology at Cambridge University. A former teacher in Calcutta, Delhi, Visvabharati and Jahangirnagar (Bangladesh) universities, he has published extensively, his recent books being Archaeological Geography of the Ganga Plain : the Upper Ganga (Oudh, Rohilkhand and the Doab (Delhi 2007 : Munshiram Manoharlal) and The Battle for Ancient India, an Essay in the Socio-politics of Indian Archaeology (Delhi 2008 : The Aryan Books International).




1. Aiyangar, S. Krishnaswami. 1923. Some Contributions of South India to Indian Culture. Calcutta


2. Ambedkar, B R. 1970 reprint. Who were the Sudras? Bombay.


3. Anthony, D.W. 2007. The Horse, the Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton.


4. Arvidsson, S. 2006. Aryan Idols, Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science. Chicago.


5. Barnett, M.D. 1976. The Politics of Cultural Nationalism in South India. Princeton.


6. Barrow, R. 1789. A proof that the Hindus had binominal theorem. Asiatic Researches 2: 487-497


7. Bergunder, M. 2004. Contested past, anti-Brahmanical and Hindu nationalist reconstructions of Indian prehistory. Historigraphia Linguistica 31: 59-104


8. Bharadwaja, C. 1927. Light of Truth or an English Translation of the Satyarth Prakash. Lahore.


9. Chakrabarti, D.K. 1968. The Aryan hypothesis in Indian archaeology. Indian Studies: Past and Present 9: 343-358


10. Chakrabarti, D.K. 1976a. India and the Druids. Antiquity 50: 66-67


11. Chakrabarti, D.K. 1976b. The beginning of iron in India. Antiquity 50: 114-124


12. Chakrabarti, D.K. 1988. A History of Indian Archaeology from the Beginning to 1947. Delhi


13. Chakrabarti, D.K. 1997. Colonial Indology. Sociopolitics of the Ancient Indian Past. Delhi.


14. Chakrabarti, D.K. The Battle for Ancient India. Delhi.


15. Chakrabarti, D.K. and Saini, Sukhdev. In press. The Problem of the Sarasvati River, and Notes on the Archaeological Geography of Haryana and Indian Panjab. Delhi.


16. Deshpande, G.P. ed. 2002. Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule. Delhi. Diamond, J. and Bellwood, P. 2003. Farmers and their languages: the first expansions. Science 300(5619): 597-603


17. Habib, I. 2001. Imaging river Saraswati:a defence of commonsense. Social Scientist 29: 46-74


18. Iyengar, Shesha, T.R. 1925. Dravidian India, vol.1. Madras.


19. Jha, D.N. 1998. Ancient India in Historical Outline. Delhi.


20. Jordens, J.T.F. 1978. Dayananda Sarasvati, His Life and Ideas. Delhi.


21. Lal, B.B. 1955. Excavations at Hastinapura…. Ancient India 10&11: 6-151


22. Lal, B.B. 2002. The Saraswati Flows on: the Continuity of Indian Culture. Delhi.


23. Lal, B.B. 2005. In Search of the Aryan Homeland – the Continuation of a Debate. Delhi.


24. Lincoln, B. 1999. Theorizing Myth, Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Chicago.


25. Londo, J.P. et al. 2006. Phylogeography of Asian wild rice, Oryza rupifogon, reveals multiple independent domestications of cultivated rice. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences USA 103 (25): 9578-9583.


26. Meadow, R. and Patel, A. 1997. A comment on “horse remains from Surkotada” by Sandor Bokonyi. South Asian Studies 13: 308-315


27. Mitra, R.L. 1858. Buddhism and Odinism, their similitude; illustrated by extracts from Prof. Holmboe's memoir on the “traces of Buddhisme en Norvege”. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 28: 46-69


28. Muir, J. 1872 reprint. Original Sanskrit texts on the origin and history of the people of India, their religion and institutions/ collected, translated and illustrated by J. Muir. London.


29. O'Hanlon, R. 1985. Caste, Conflict and Ideology. Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Low Caste Protest in Nineteenth Century Western India. Cambridge.


30. Poliakov, L. 1974. The Aryan Myth: a History of Racism and Nationalist Ideas in Europe. London. Ram, Mohan 1968. Hindi against India, the Meaning of DMK. Delhi.


31. Rao, L.S. 2005-2006. The Harappan spoked wheel rattled down the streets of Bhirrana, district Fatehabad, Haryana. Puratattva 36: 59-67


32. Sharma, R.S. 1985. Material Culture and Social Formations in Ancient India. Delhi.


33. Sharma, R.S. 2003. Advent of the Aryans in India. Delhi.


34. Slater, G. 1924 The Dravidian Element in Indian Culture. London.


35. Tewari, Rakesh. 2003. Origins of iron-working in India: new evidence from the central Ganga plain and the eastern Vindhyas. Antiquity 77: 536-544


36. Tewari, Rakesh et al 2004. Archaeological studies in Lohuradeva area, implications, Ganga plain. Abstract, Lucknow, pp. 59-60


37. Thapar, R. et al. 2007 reprint. India: Historical Beginnings and the Concept of the Aryan. Delhi.


more videos

Designed & Developed by