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Dr. Allchin and Sarasvati Research

In the 31st Indian History Carnival, we featured a post by Nicole Bovin on Dr. Raymond Allchin, the South Asian archaeologist who passed away on June 4th. The European Association for South Asian Archaeology and Art too had a brief note about his work.

Raymond Allchin was born in Harrow in 1923 and educated at Westminster, but his lifetime commitment to South Asia came when he was posted there during the War in 1944. Quickly switching interests from architecture to archaeology, Raymond was appointed a Lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1954 before moving to Cambridge in 1959. Following a career of fieldwork and research across India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, he retired from Cambridge University with the title of Emeritus Reader in South Asian Archaeology in 1989. Now freed from University burdens, Raymond committed the next twenty years to developing the research profile of The Ancient India and Iran Trust.[In memoriam Raymond Allchin]

Dr. Allchin was an expert on the Indus Valley civilization. “Cultural convergence” — that is the name he proposed for the process by which various regional cultures like Amri-Nal, Kot-Diji, and Sothi-Siswal converged for the Mature Harappan phase. Dr. Allchin also connected Harappan motifs with Vedic themes. For example, looking at a seal from Chanhu-daro he connected it with the Vedic theme of union of heaven and earth. When Dholavira was discovered in J.P.Joshi in 1966 he thought it was one of the most exciting discoveries of the past half a century. On the fire altars found at Kalibangan, he noted that fire rituals formed a part of the religious life at a civic, domestic and popular level.

One of the questions that still remain unanswered about the Indus civilization is this: How was it administered.? We don’t know who controlled the urban centers or how such a vast territory — bigger than ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt — was controlled. Even though he acknowledged that there was no trace of royalty like in other ancient societies, Raymond Allchin thought that there was a forgotten Indian leader who unified the Indus heartland and controlled trade with Mesopotamia.

He had accepted the Ghaggar-Hakra as Sarasvati. This was not unusual for Sarasvati was not such a controversial topic then. Ever since the French scholar Vivien de Saint-Martin identified the Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda and other small tributaries as part of the Rig Vedic Sarasvati, scholars like Max Müller, Sir Monier Monier-Williams, A. A. Macdonnel, A.B. Keith, Louis Renou, Thomas Burrow A. L. Basham along with Indian scholars like M. L. Bhargawa, B.C.Law, H.C. Raychaudhuri, A.D. Pusalker and D.C. Sirkar had all agreed on this point.

In the entry he wrote for Encyclopaedia Britannica he mentioned that hundreds of Indus sites were found on the banks of the ancient Sarasvati river which flowed east of the Indus. He also wrote how moved he was standing on a mound in Kalibangan looking at the flood plain of Sarasvati. Dr. Allchin also believed that there was a reduction of sites between 2000 – 1700 BCE after a major part of the river’s water supply was lost.

But doesn’t this mean that the Vedic people, who composed the Rig Veda, while Sarasvati was a majestic river co-existed with the Harappans? Dr. Allchin was not ready to make that leap. In the same book where he mentioned that Sarasvati lost a major part of the water supply between 2000 – 1700 BCE, he contradicted himself and wrote that Sarasvati was a major river between 1500 and 1000 BCE. By this trick, Sarasvati remains a mighty river when the Aryans came in 1500 BCE.

This is not surprising too. Only few scholars like B.B.Lal, S.P. Gupta, V.N. Mishra and Dilip Chakrabarti have argued that the Vedic people lived along the banks of Sarasvati while it flowed from the mountain to the sea during the Mature Harappan period.

Reference:

  1. Michel Danino, Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin Books India, 2010)

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2 Responses to Dr. Allchin and Sarasvati Research

  1. svat July 19, 2010 at 5:20 am #

    There is not, strictly speaking, a contradiction: a river could lose “a major part of the water supply” and remain a major river. If this Wikipedia list is correct, the Amazon could lose 80% of its water supply and still remain in first place!

    It’s probably unlikely in this case and a “contradiction” by the standards of history, but it’s not a logical contradiction.

    • jk July 19, 2010 at 11:07 pm #

      svat,

      In the case of Sarasvati, once the major water supply was lost, people abandoned sites. For example in the Hakra bed there were 174 Mature sites, but only 50 Late ones. Similarly there were 31 Mature sites in Rajasthan and none in the Late phase. Evidence indicates that it did not remain a major river.

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