KARACHI The undeciphered script of the Indus Valley civilisation holds the key to a question with sharp political overtones were the people of the subcontinent's earliest recorded civilisation Aryans or Dravidians? Or neither?
In 1946, an Indias archaeological survey team was at one of its favourite digs when it stumbled upon 37 skeletons. Two lay on the steps of a well with visible marks of head injury. Five were on the steps of another well room. A few others were hastily buried as if times were so bad that the dead could not be taken to the cemetery.
'Men, women, children seemed to have been massacred in streets and left dying or, at best, crudely covered without any last rite,' wrote Mortimer Wheeler, who led the expedition.
Archaeologists were at a site on the west bank of River Indus that is now Pakistans Sindh province. For veterans of this dig, the areas local name seemed appropriate. The Sindhis called it Moenjo Daro, meaning mound of the dead, but for the University of London-educated Wheeler, it was time to revisit history textbooks.
As an undergraduate, he had learnt by rote a sentence in the Cambridge History of India The history of India is, in large measure, a struggle between newcomers and earlier inhabitants.
More than 1,500 sites of the Indus Valley civilisation have been discovered since 1924 when Moenjo Daro and Harappa were first excavated. Archaeologists believe the area is roughly a quarter of Europe. Dholavira in Gujarat is the last major site discovered. It was excavated in the 1990s.
Wheeler recollected what his mentor at the archaeological survey, John Marshall, often said that ancient people on the banks of Indus were Dravidians. In 1924, Marshall led an expedition to Moenjo Daro and Harappa, 500km away and announced a civilisation as ancient as Mesopotamia and as grand as Egypt. Excavation doubled the recorded age of the civilisation in the Indo-Pak subcontinent, shifting it to about 2500 BC from inscriptions of Ashoka in 250 BC.
Marshall could never forcefully claim the Dravidian affiliation of the Indus Valley civilisation. For Wheeler, 37 skeletons vindicated his mentor. 'It may be no conjecture... Aryans slaughtered aborigine men, women and children,' he said in a 1947 article in the Bulletin of Archaeological Survey.
Those were the tumultuous times. The Indo-Pak subcontinent was split into two nations and buffeted by partition. Initial reactions to Wheeler's announcement were muted. But the English archaeologist had stirred up a hornets' nest. The Aryan invasion theory was more than 70 years old then.
But several Hindu nationalists were never at ease with Aryan Invasion theory. It struck at root of their belief that the earliest Indians were Aryans. Indologist P V Kane fired the first salvo.
In 1950, he denounced Wheeler and Marshall as typical Englishmen who find invaders everywhere. Kane argued that Moenjo Daro was a large city and had there been an invasion, Wheeler should have found more than 37 skeletons.
'If Dr Marshall and Dr Wheeler had not been so blinkered they would have seen the people of Indus for what they were,' he said.
He was referring to a seal dug out by Marshall. On it was inscribed a horned person seated on a stool, its arms covered with bangles and was flanked by small figures of tigers, elephants. For Kane, this was the Vedic deity Pasupati, precursor to Shiva. It was proof that the people of Indus Valley were Aryans. But in a later article he counselled caution resolution to the Indus Valley mystery lay in its seals. -PPI