Excavations Show the Cultural Continuity of the Vedic Harappans

Excavations Show the Cultural Continuity of the Vedic Harappans

Nonagenarian archaeologist B.B.Lal has synthesized his findings of the latest decades in the book The Rigvedic People: Invaders/Immigrants or Indigenous (Aryan Books, Delhi 2015). In it, he seeks to answer three questions: (1) did the Vedic Aryans originate outside India? (2) Did the Harappan civilization originate outside India? (3) Were the Harappans Vedic Aryans?

We need not maintain the suspense; his answers are very straightforward. There is no sign of a foreign origin of either the Indus-Saraswati civilization or the Vedic Aryans.

Indeed, recent excavations in Kunal and Bhirrana have pointedly confirmed an already existing impression of civilizational continuity since the 6th millennium BC. Neither has anything “proto-Harappan” been found in Mesopotamia or anywhere else outside India, of which the typically Harappan lifestyle could have descended.

Moreover, the area known to the Vedic Aryans and described in the youngest layer of the Rig-Veda (10:75:5-6) reaches from the Ganga to the Western tributaries of the Sindhu, thus coinciding with the Harappan territory (minus its Gujarati borderland).In earlier layers, the Vedic heartland is already on the then-mighty Saraswati river in Haryana, exactly where the highest concentration of Harappan settlements is found. Finally, Lal’s spade has never bumped into any trace of Aryans penetrating India.

Painted Grey Ware

Especially in his case, this latter fact is remarkable. It was he who, as a young archaeologist in the 1950s, made his name by finally digging up the long-awaited proof of an Aryan invasion. He had identified a pottery style, the Painted Grey Ware (1200-800), as typifying the Aryans penetrating deeper into India. That is what was taught to us in university, and even recently-published books upholding the Aryan Invasion Theory cite this finding as “proof”.

But Lal himself has grown away from it. At the time, he had simply applied the reigning invasionist framework, until he understood that this was but a hypothetical construct unsupported by hard findings.

Linguistic-archaeological Disconnect

Sketching the earlier Homeland theories, Lal notes that in the late 18th century, India itself became the first preferred Homeland, but was discarded in the early 19th century. All in all, he takes a rather skeptical view of this Homeland search, as do some of the Western Homeland searchers themselves.

“The latest” among the Homeland theories is said to be the one by Johanna Nichols (1997): “She holds that the dispersal of the Indo-European languages commenced from a region somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Bactria-Sogdiana, thus bringing the scenario closer to the Indian subcontinent, but not quite there.”(p.6)

As a philologist, I may be forgiven for doing some nitpicking here: the Bactria region is not her innovation as a Homeland candidate. It has been in the running for two hundred years, but was discarded in the course of the 20th century in favour of the Pontic steppe area. But then she revived it with newer linguistic arguments. She did her work in ignorance of the archeological findings on which Lal relies to push the Homeland even farther east, into India.

Similarly, Lal asserts: “However, an important postulate in Nichols’ thesis is that it was only the language that got dispersed and not the people.” (p.6) This needs some explaining.

Indian critics of the Aryan Invasion Theory easily lapse into fulminations against the racial interpretation of the Indo-European dispersal. This tends to raise smiles (or worse) among Western specialists, because they discarded this interpretation ca. 1945, all while confidently maintaining a more westerly Homeland than India.

They have faced the proven fact that languages can cross racial frontiers, e.g. Jamaicans are predominantly Black even though they speak the language imparted to them by the White Britons; Turks are European-looking through many generations of capture or enslavement of White women, even though their ancestors in Western Mongolia were (and fellow Turkic tribes like the Kirghiz and the Yakut still are) Mongoloid.

So, the Indo-European language too may have changed races. Indeed, it certainly has: either it started among Europeans and was adopted, through a very minoritarian migration, by differently-looking Indians (that would be the invasion theory), or else it was originally spoken by Indians and adopted by Europeans. For Nichols and her colleagues, this was already a given, and she did not have to contend with a theory that Indo-Europeans, all while migrating, retained their race without admixture. But she did privilege the linguistic evidence because that has persisted through the centuries and is available as a living remnant of ancient migrations.

Anyway, there is a slightly defective understanding among archaeologists of what linguists are busy with. And the reverse is also true. The findings that, to Lal, form such clinching evidence for an Indian Homeland, are mostly not even known by Western linguists (the main support base of the belief in a westerly Homeland), and at any rate their relevance to the whole debate is little understood.

They might, however, start to see the point by studying the European part of Indo-European archaeology. Around 2900 BCE, Central Europe witnessed an enormous upheaval caused by an invasion from the east, easily traceble in the material record, and a partial population replacement, now traceable with the new science of genetics.

So that is what an Aryan invasion looks like.

And that precisely is what is totally missing in the archaeological record of India. As robustly as the Aryan invasion of Europe has been proven, as conspicuously absent is the evidence for an Aryan invasion of India.


Lal shows how the assumption of a non-Aryan identity for the Harappan Civilization in the 1920s followed from the chronology established (in spite of his later doubts about it) by Friedrich Max Müller.

B. B. Lal


Max Muller had put the first Vedic hymns as late as 1200 BC, centuries after the demise of the Harappan cities. As a consequence, for almost a century, we have had to sail upstream against the non-Vedic and non-Aryan paradigm of the Harappan civilization. But his chronology was completely arbitrary, even though it is still commonly followed.

Like Umapada Sen and Shrikant Talageri, Lal dates the Rg-Veda mostly to the 3rd millennium BCE. This is one or two millennia earlier than in Max Müller’s account, but more moderate and sober than the ages or eternities proposed by some zealous Hindu scripturalists.

Reply to Critics

As some points had been made by Lal in earlier publications, the opposite camp has tried to refute these. Unlike the many would-be decipherers of the Harappan script, who have smugly installed themselves in their own pretended solution and not taken account of criticisms or rival decipherments, Lal does take issue with his critics.

He opposes the attempts to understand the “Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex” (BMAC) as a settlement of pre-Vedic Indo-Aryans on the way from Russia to India. (p.26-33-) Thus, he mentions Viktor Sarianidi as citing a bas-relief found in Bactria from some 2000 BCE and relating it to objects found in Mitanni (Syria), where the local Hurrian language in 1500 BCE contained many Sanskrit words.

Lal correctly remarks that this does not prove they were ancestral to the (India-based) “Vedic Aryans”, whom the invasion theory assumes to be more recent than the Mitanni Aryans. But it does prove (or at least indicate) something else: that the Bactrian culture was ancestral to the Mitanni culture. As per Sarianidi’s own evidence, an east-to-west migration from Bactria to Mitanni is indicated. And this may have been the second leg of a migration beginning in India.

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Similarly, Lal opposes a claim made by the late Gregory Possehl that a horse find in Bactria indicates a Vedic horse sacrifice, performed by Aryans on their way to India. He points out that the horse was beheaded and thus does not satisfy the Vedic prescriptions for a horse sacrifice.

We remark that there was no need for being so defensive: for argument’s sake, just let this horse be a Vedic sacrificial victim. Since the Rg-Veda was composed in the 3rd millennium (and not in 1200 BCE as Possehl assumed), earlier than this Bactrian horse, it only confirms an India-to-Bactria migration, not the other way around.

Speaking of horses, it is widely claimed that the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization could not have been Vedic because it lacked the Vedic glamour animal, the horse. Admittedly, the horse remains are few in number — as they were in later, definitely Aryan cities such as Hastinapura, and even in the BMAC, where horses are native. Yet, they did exist, both in depictions and in reality. Apart from mentioning Lothal and Mohenjo Daro, Lal goes through the evidence for horse bones from Surkutada, certified by the Hungarian horse specialist Sándor Bökönyi,

Likewise it is often claimed that there were no spoked wheels in Harappa, though they make their appearance halfway through the Rg-Veda (as Talageri has shown). True, India’s hot and humid climate is not conducive to the preservation of wooden implements, but a number of terracotta models of the same spoked wheel have been dug up.

Finally, Lal’s claim that the excavated “fire altars”, of the kind Vedic priests used for fire ceremonies, has been ridiculed in the West. A typical Hindu mysitification when obviously these are just kitchen hearths, so they said. Therefore, Lal quotes a leading Western archaeologist, the late Raymond Allchin, as confirming the ritual purpose of these fire-pits. He also takes the trouble of showing in detail why these cannot be kitchen hearths. Among non-technical reasons, he highlights a finding of fire-altars where a genuine cooking hearth stood close by, as if to demonstrate the  difference.

Vedic Harappa

The continuity of the Harappan civilization is expressed in many ways. Several findings confirm the presence of Shiva in Harappa: lingam-yoni motifs are associated with a male figure seated in meditation posture, the same figure is the addressee of a bull sacrifice, and two attributes of Shiva are found together: a bull with a trident engraved on his hip.Ascetics are found depicted as sitting in Bhadrâsana (noble pose), Vajrâsana (diamond pose) or Siddhâsana (yogi pose).

There is also a depiction of a well-known Hindu fable: The Thirsty Crow. A deer could not drink from a narrow pitcher, but a crow could stick its beak in. When the water was still too low, it dropped stones into the pitcher so the water level rose, and he could drink.

Statuettes show the Namaste salute with folded hands. Married women are shown wearing red powder in the parting of their hair, like their modern granddaughters. The Harappan ladies wore spiraled bangles and other cosmetic gadgetry that is still in use today.

Concludes the dean of Indian archaeology: “So, it is abundantly clear that all the objections against a Harappan-Vedic equation are baseless.”(p.151) Indeed, “the Harappan civilization and the Vedas are but two faces of the same coin.” (p.123)

Finishing the Aryan Homeland Debate

In the last fifteen years, two heady developments have made the westerly Homeland hard to sustain. Philological work, mainly by Talageri and by the Greek Sanskrit professor Nicholas Kazanas, has given flesh to an Indian Homeland framework and traced it deeper in ancient Indian literature. The new genetic approach has discovered new proof for westward migrations from India.

The archaeological progress has been slower but no less spectacular. Though not given the proper publicity outside India, excavations in ever more Harappan cities have confirmed the emerging picture of full cultural continuity with early Neolithic as well as with later Hindu society. None of Lal’s colleagues has discovered the long-awaited trace of an invasion.

We ought to be happy that a synthesis of the archaeological arguments against the Aryan invasion has now been published. B.B. Lal’s life work has earned him a memorable place in history. After he had first discovered pillar-bases of the demolished Rama temple in Ayodhya, he was ridiculed and denounced as “Hindu fundamentalist”. Then, when he shifted from the invasionist to the “Vedic Harappa” position, he was denounced as that “known propagator of the non-existent temple”.

Yet, later Court-ordered excavations laid bare the entire foundation of the temple, proving him right. Likewise, new findings confirm his stand on the Vedic Sindhi-Saraswati civilization.

Koenraad Elst

Dr. Koenraad Elst earned his Ph.D., from the Catholic University of Leuven based on his research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism. Author of more than a dozen books on Indian society and politics, he has worked in political journalism and as a foreign policy assistant in the Belgian Senate. He has also published about multiculturalism, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and language policy issues. In the ongoing Aryan homeland debate he has played a key role.