I try not to spend my week-ends in Chennai. Whenever I have been forced to stay back I found myself doing just about nothing except moving out of bed to Gangadhar’s mess for food. This week-end, however, I was told to stay back in order to indulge in some socialization with the colleagues at the office – atleast for the sake of reclaiming my rightful place amidst fellow humans. (The last few week-ends had been spent socializing with the Dobermann and the mongrel in Coimbatore).
Apart from the after affects of serious eating contests (in which I think I did rather well) this week-end has been quite stimulating. I had the good fortune of attending a talk on one of those ancient Indian mysteries. Make that two mysteries. The first mystery concerns the River Sarasvati and the other is concerning the long fought over question of root of suffering (and god’s role in it).
The talk on Sarasvati was delivered by Michel Danino, author of ‘The Lost River: On The Trail of River Sarasvati’. The author begins with tracing the geography of Sarasvati quoting verses from the Rig Veda and slowly builds his case for a lost river using both ancient and recently uncovered evidence. In either a embarrassing validation of the inadequacy of our history text books or perhaps as a result of my urban deracination much of the plainly obvious insights offered by the author jolts one into pleasant surprises.
Consider the various instances wherein the undying continuity between the ‘Indus’, Gangetic or Harappan civilizations can be observed in traditions that are still alive: endless knots of ‘Kolam’, what appears to Linga-worship, Swastika in Indus seals, images of Gods in yogic postures and so on and so forth.
But not all evidence is based on what our eminent aunties at JNU may scoff at as mere conjectures. Solving the Sarasvati riddle has clearly needed months of painstaking research in archives and analysis of contemporary data.
The array of evidence offered to build a compelling narrative of the Sindu-Sarasvati civilization’s slow death and migration to the east include British topographic surveys going back to the early 19th century, analysis of satelite imagery, paleochannel mapping and evidence collected from excavations from the now dead Sarasvati – Gaggar river valley.
Most convincing among these are the noticeable changes in settlement pattern seen concurrent with the complete drying up of the river in the late Harappan phase. The narrative inspires in the mind of the beholder incredible imagery of the Harappan cities at around the time the river dries up. In just a few years the river which was until then the very lifeline of the dozens of large cities is suddenly observed to be drying up. Drought occurs, food shortages become quickly common, cities are unceremoniously abandoned, civic order begins to collapse…it would make for an fascinating animation movie!
Yet despite our own fondness towards a postulation offering the solace of unbroken civilizational links with the Harappan antiquity some questions do remain.
For instance, Danino dwells quite a bit on the defensive structures and massive walls seen in the Harappan cities while at the same time speculates if the Harappan people were not much affable towards war like activities. But we do see that elaborate city walls and forts were built to defend the cities from enemies. Clearly, those who built the cities were apprehensive about being attacked – but who was their enemy? Was the Harappan Sindhu-Sarasvati civilisation a multi state one with warring factions? How is that the Rig Veda has considerable praise of Indra’s warlike activities if the Harappan’s were rather shy of war? What ancient memory of great struggles moved them to compose those hymns of war?
Ideally I would have put these questions to Danino in the same forum he was speaking. However the Madras book club had arranged for a talk by Arun Shourie on his latest book ‘Does he know a mother’s heart?’ and I got word at the last hour. As soon as Danino had finished I chose to rush as the event would have already started in another venue and it would take me a good twenty minutes to reach there.
Part II – A Saturday with Shourie