A week has passed since the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) claimed to have stumbled upon three pre-Iron Age chariots that can challenge the famed Aryan invasion theory, lending sharper focus on to whether it were horses or bulls that pulled these carriers estimated to be from 2000-1800 BC.
The copper remains of the chariots, found inside burial pits in a quiet spot along the Gangetic plains in present-day Western Uttar Pradesh's Baghpat district, date further back to the Bronze Age. That would mean an antiquity of 4,000 years—and a possible hint at their similarities of what existed during the civilisation in faraway Mesopotamia in Western Asia, according to ASI officials.
The latest round of a three-month-long excavation in Sanauli, 75 km west of Delhi, began in March this year, and has unearthed eight burial remains as well. Out of these, three are coffins, archaeologists reveal. All the burials have pottery kept around the body: big pots near the legs and small bowls close to the head—indicating their lying in northwest direction, reveals Dr Sanjay Kumar Manjul, director of the ASI’s Institute of Archaeology, in charge of the excavation.
As for the discovery of the chariots, a conclusion about the animal that pulled them is important. Why? The answer lies in the cultural history of India. For, the discovery of a horse chariot, dated back to 2000 BC, would challenge some of the basic premises of the construct of the ancient Indian history. Historians who support the Aryan invasion theory claim that horses were brought in by the invading Aryan army around 1500 to 1000 BC. Chariots pulled by horses had given the Aryans the edge over the Dravidians and the power to conquer the North Indian plains by pushing them to south of the peninsula.
According to these historians, the Vedic culture was brought into India by the invading Aryans from central Asia. The Rig Veda, for instance, carries references to horses, they point out about the ancient Hindu text said to be composed during the same period (1500-1100 BC) when the Harappan civilisation was on its decline.
This argument gets empirical support: there was hardly any evidence to show the presence of horses in the Harappan civilisation. Clay seals of different shapes and sizes with figures of bulls and dancing girls had been unearthed in large numbers at the Harappan sites, but none with the figure of a horse. This is one of the prime arguments that support the Aryan invasion theory.
Of late, several Indian and foreign historians have challenged it, saying that this theory is being floated by Western historians to attribute India’s ancient Vedic culture to the invaders from Central Asia. The Aryan invasion theory will face a more serious challenge if the archaeologists get scientific proof to the presence of horse-ridden chariots dating back to 2000 BC.
The swords, daggers, copper-chest shields and helmets confirm the presence of a warrior population in the Gangetic plain—these also challenge the theory of an easy invasion by Aryans from Central Asia.
The dusty pocket in UP’s Sanauli was first excavated in 2004-05, leading to the discovery of 116 burial remains. Following that, authorities decided to undertake more trail excavations to understand the extent of the burial site and the habitat, points out Dr Manjul, who initiated the excavation. He is of the opinion that the latest findings will aid “recalibrate” India’s position on the map of ancient global history.
Globally, excavations have unearthed chariots dating back to 2000 BC, near the burial sites of Mesopotamia and Greek civilisations, but such a discovery is pioneering for the Indian subcontinent, says Dr Manjul. These chariots have many similarities with those unearthed in Mesopotamia (which has sites tracing back to the initial period of the Neolithic Revolution of 10000 BC). “This would give a new dimension to our history and ancient culture,” he adds.
“The 2005 excavations helped us discover pottery of different sizes, besides beads and other materials that were similar to those of the Harappan civilisation, but a chariot near a coffin is not seen anywhere in the Harappan sites. That way, this is a “path-breaking” discovery, Dr Manjul adds.
In Sanauli, decorated copper-plated anthropomorphic figures having horns, peepal-leafed crowns and even a torso shaped armour made of copper have been found near the coffins, indicating the possibility of the site featuring a “royal burial”, the expert says. Apart from this, researchers have discovered four copper antenna swords, two daggers, three copper bowls, combs, mirrors and beads of different shapes and sizes.
The ASI, which functions under the Union government’s ministry of culture, has been surveying the area for the past two decades. The 116 Sanauli burials shed light onto the settlement pattern of Protohistoric period of this region, where they “are very much similar” to those discovered in Harappa and Mohenjo-daro (2500 BC) besides Dholavira (in today’s Gujarat state), also of the Indus Valley civilisation.
Yet, coffins with copper decorations, and chariots have never been discovered anywhere in the subcontinent. “It was during one of our visits to Western UP that some villagers informed us of their having found a few pieces of pottery and traces of copper in their fields. This prompted us to start excavations in Sanauli,” says Dr Manjul, revealing how scientists stumbled upon this discovery. On whether the chariots were run buy a bull or a horse, the expert says more research can ascertain the matter.
The swords unearthed at Sanauli have copper-covered hilts and medial ridge making it strong enough for warfare. The chariots discovered have two wheels fixed on an axle that was linked by a long pole to the yoke of a pair of animals. A super structure was attached to the axle consist of a platform protected by side-screens and a high dashboard. The wheels were found solid in nature, without any spokes, Dr Manjul says. “This is just a trail excavation. Now we are planning to have more detailed excavations in this area.”
Local youths are also roped into the excavation activities. The villagers are excited to see their sleepy, backward village grabbing global attention now. The chosen among them have been given basic training to support the ASI’s field staff camping at the site for the past three months.
Locally, many people believe that Sanauli is one of the five villages that the mythological Krishna unsuccessfully negotiated with the Kauravas to avoid the epic war of Kurukshetra. The Mahabharata carries many references of horse-ridden chariots. In fact, a popular image of Lord Krishna is of him revealing the essence of the Bhagavat Gita to the Pandava prince Arjuna, while sitting in his war chariot. That apart, Dr Manjul refuses to link the discovery of a chariot to any mythical story. “As a scientist, I can’t support any such overarching links without having valid scientific evidence,” he says.
People from the nearby areas are coming in large numbers to see the site. “They are influenced by the Mahabharata serial aired by Indian television channels,” shrugs Dr Manjul, with a smile. “Many who had come here to see an impressive golden chariot are disappointed after seeing the shape and size of the unearthed chariot.” However, for archaeologists Sanauli is much more than a point of ephemeral historical interest.
(The writer is a Delhi-based television journalist.)