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The Aryan Invasion:

Myth or fact?
Michel Danino points out significance
historical evidence that demystifies the Indian
subcontinent’s greatest fable

ost Indian history textbooks tell us theory’ (AIT) or ‘Aryan migration theory’
M that about 1500 BCE, semi-barbarian, (AMT) was first propounded in the nineteenth
Sanskrit-speaking nomads called century by European scholars, notably F Max
‘Aryans’ poured from Central Asia into the Müller. It was a convenient way to explain
Indian Subcontinent. There, they came upon obvious similarities between Sanskrit and
the Indus or Harappan cities, destroyed them Greek or Latin, since another branch of the
and drove survivors southward (where they Aryans were assumed to have migrated towards
became ‘Dravidians’), although softer versions Europe. But it also allowed India’s British
propose that the Aryans arrived after the masters to portray themselves as ‘one more
decline of the Indus cities. Either way, they Aryan wave’ destined to bring about a ‘reunion
swept across the Indus plains, composed the of the great Aryan family’ and to bring once
Vedas over a few centuries, spread Sanskrit more true civilization to this land! Besides,
and their caste system over India, and built the the Aryan theory proved useful in deepening
mighty Ganges civilization. divisions among Indians between high-caste
This neat tale, known as the ‘Aryan invasion (supposed descendants of the Aryans) E

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E and low-caste or tribal (supposed While the origins of Vedic culture

descendants of India’s original inhabitants), remain a complex and open-ended issue,
also between North and South Indians. the Aryans have quietly bowed out of the
In Europe, meantime, an obsession archaeological literature of
with racial superiority and the mythical the Subcontinent: not only are they so elusive
‘Aryan race’ added grist to the mill of a as to be invisible, but they are simply not
rising German nationalism, until Hitler needed to explain the evolution of cultures
declared that the said race was the ‘master from proto-historical to historical India.
race’ destined to rule the world—with the
consequences we know. But let us leave The Sarasvati
those aberrations and examine the theory The Rigveda lavishes praise on Sarasvati,
in its Indian context. the goddess-cum-river, as ‘flowing from
the mountain to the sea’, while a ‘hymn
The silence of the Indian texts A manuscript of the Rig-Veda, India’s most ancient text. Harappan cities, like Dholavira here (in the in praise of rivers’ specifically locates the
It rested not just on linguistics but also on Rann of Kutchh), show no evidence of having been destroyed by invaders Sarasvati between the Yamuna and the A map of the
clues that European Indologists claimed Sutlej. Intriguingly, the rivers listed are rivers listed in the
Rigveda’s ‘Hymn Part of a bronze figurine from
to find in the Rigveda, India’s most ancient from east to west, while Aryan immigrants Mohenjo-daro, with an anklet
in praise of rivers’
text, consisting of hymns to various gods negative, however. Had Aryans come, the reverence for the swastika, a linga-like would have listed them from west to east.
and goddesses. But some Indians disagreed. Indus civilization would be culturally pre- object, the trishula and the ashvattha (or Later literature, such as the Mahabharata,
Swami Vivekananda, for instance, asserted, Vedic, while the Gangetic civilization of pipal) tree, and ornaments, such as anklets, describes the Sarasvati as disappearing
‘There is not one word in our scriptures,
not one, to prove that the Aryan ever came
the first millennium BCE would be Vedic,
so that we would have a wide cultural gulf
among many others. (For further information,
see article ‘The Harappan Legacy’, BBC
in the desert; in time, the river becomes
a metaphor for loss. However, since the
Nothing in our knowledge of India’s
from anywhere outside India.’ Indeed, the between the two—a gulf earlier referred Knowledge, April 2012) nineteenth century, its dried-up bed has protohistory warrants a sharp demarcation
between Aryan and non-Aryan races
Rigveda’s geography is limited to northwest to as a ‘Dark Age’ or ‘Vedic Night’. But in The emerging picture is that of a cultural been traced by geologists, topographers and
India. Moreover, as Sri Aurobindo pointed recent decades, numerous bridges continuum from India’s prehistory to its archaeologists, and more recently by satellite
out, its rich spiritual symbolism and the have, on the contrary, come to historical phase in the Indo–Gangetic photography: it runs from the Shivalik
complexity of its Vedic Sanskrit language light, both in technical fields plains. As the US archaeologist Hills in Haryana (where a petty stream been enumerated in the river’s basin since But how few? Can we picture a small
are quite incompatible with the cultural (from construction or metallurgy Jonathan Mark Kenoyer puts it, called ‘Sarsuti’ still exists today), is joined the 1940s. And almost all the settlements number of nomads imposing their culture
status of supposed Aryan nomads. to water systems and agriculture) “Current studies of the transition by several tributaries, proceeds through located in that basin’s central part, such and language on the whole of north
Curiously, the earliest Tamil (or and in cultural areas: Harappan between the two early urban Punjab, Rajasthan and Pakistan’s Cholistan Kalibangan in north Rajasthan, were India? In historical times, just the opposite
‘Sangam’) literature is also silent about a seals depicting deities seated civilizations claim that there was desert in a course south of the Indus, all the abandoned around 1900 BCE, which points happened with sizeable invaders from
clash with Aryans, and on the contrary in yogic postures, female no significant break or hiatus.” way to the Rann of Kutch. At its widest, to a collapse of the river system. Persians to Hunas: their cultural impact on
lavishes praise on the Vedas. In other words figurines with sindoor The British archaeologist Colin the Ghaggar-Hakra, as it is locally called, But then, how could Aryans, reaching India was minimal, while they often found
both supposed aggressors and supposed (vermilion) applied Renfrew went further by exceeds six kilometres, and most experts the Sarasvati sometime after 1400 BCE, themselves ‘Indianized’ like the Kushans.
victims carry no memory of the alleged at the parting of the stating, “It is difficult to see have proposed that the Sutlej and the have worshipped it as a ‘mighty river’ Although many questions remain to
invasion—a strange case of double amnesia! hair, male figurines in what is particularly non- Yamuna once contributed to it. ‘flowing from the mountain to the sea’? be answered, nothing in our knowledge
various asanas (some Aryan about the Indus Valley When was the Sarasvati reduced to There is a fatal chronological impossibility. of India’s protohistory warrants a sharp
Archaeology shows no evidence doing a namaste), fire and civilization.” a seasonal stream in its upper reaches? In any case, only one culture—the demarcation between Aryan and non-
Had an Aryan people entered the sacrificial altars, worship Archaeology again provides an answer, Harappan—was identified in the Sarasvati’s Aryan ‘races’, cultures, even deities (Shiva
Subcontinent, they would have brought of a Mother goddess, as some 360 Harappan settlements have basin while the river was active, strongly is Dravidian, Vishnu is Aryan!). Whatever
new types of tools or weapons, new styles suggesting a connection between Harappan migrations may have taken place to and
of pottery, figurines and other art forms; and Vedic (even if the exact nature of that from India, a rigid break between pre- and
but archaeologists working in The cultural and technological continuum of connection remains to be defined). post-Aryan India finds justification neither
the Indus basin have detected India’s history debunks the Aryan invasion theory. in early literature nor in archaeology.
no such intrusive culture in The real question
the 1st millennium BCE. There is more evidence from anthropology
French-born Michel Danino has been living
The preceding millennium and genetics. Apart from rejecting the
in India since 1977. He lectures on Indian
(2600–1900 BCE to be notion of ‘race’ altogether (and therefore civilization at several higher educational
precise) saw in the same of an Aryan or a Dravidian race), they institutions, and writes in French and
Wikipedia, Michel Danino X2, ASI X2

region the rise and decline of have recently demonstrated a biological English. His recent book is titled is The Lost River: On
Harappan cities, but in none continuity in populations of the Northwest the Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin India, 2010).
of them has evidence of man- around the time of the supposed Aryan
made destruction come to immigration; both disciplines have failed find out more
light. For these two reasons, to detect the arrival of a new people, E The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-
the current consensus among forcing proponents of the migration theory Aryan Migration Debate
archaeologists is to reject the to shrink it down to a ‘trickling in’ by a by Edwin Bryant (OUP, 2001)
invasion / migration theory. few Afghan tribes, few enough to avoid E The Sarasvati Flows On: The Continuity of Indian
The verdict of detection by archaeology, anthropology or Culture
archaeology is not just genetics. by B.B. Lal (Aryan Books International, 2002)

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