Monday, March 18, 2019

Who were the Original Indians?

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The river knows, they say. Like time she flows without complain, silently observing the rise and fall of civilizations. Humans share an intimate relation with the rivers. While she quenches the thirst of these inquisitive apes and provide them with the vital fertile plains, humans make her immortal through prayers, songs and art. Human civilization is like the river. When it becomes stagnant, it becomes polluted. As long as it is active and flowing, it is graceful. Most of us want to hold on to our culture and the values of our ancestors. Being grounded to the roots is a great thing. But when does the binding force become strong enough to pull a civilization into stagnancy? Those with enough knowledge of history know that cultures and the yardsticks of morality have changed over time. What reference frame in time should one chose to plant their cultural roots? Alas, there is none. Each era has its strengths and weaknesses, as does each civilization.

Mangli is a small river that flows down the dying Aravalli Hills, seeping and snaking smoothly through the beautiful town of Bundi. As you stand at the edge of her yellow rocky bank sporadically covered with short shrubs, you could hear the burble of Mangli as she dance around and jump over the boulders and occasionally slash through the sandstones of Vindhyans. This apparently trivial river have witnessed a lot. Once upon a time, in its hay days, Mangli was a mighty river that sustained quite a large population of hunters and gatherers. These ancient admirers of her have left their mark on the banks inside the small caves that they once called home. Why they created the rock arts we may never know. It might have been an early form of writing that contained important information, may be painting was how they taught their kids, they might have been summoning the divine or simply appreciating a form of art. Whatever may have been the motivation, these ancient rock arts are a rare window to the mind of our hunter ancestors.

This particular window was once lost behind the dessert shrubs, ignored, forgotten, and left to rest in peace. Thousands of years later it managed to find a simple and innocent 8-class pass village bloke, with a passion for the past, peeping through the bushes. His name is Om Prakash Sharma, aka Kukki. Kukki’s hunt for old artefacts like historic coins began in the late 70s when he met a man who used to sell precious stones in Bundi that he claimed to have found in the hills. Kukki tried to imitate the man and found nothing as that man was a sham. As fate would have it, he found something better. He found some rare ancient coins. When he took his findings to the Delhi National Museum the experts revealed that his coins are 100 to 700 years old, with one specific one that was from 4th century BC Mauryan Empire. For the first time Kukki realized that his passion was worth in gold, ancient gold.

It was only after his visit to National Museum in 1988 that he became interested in archaeology. Since then he have been crazily looking for more. With a little experience of artefacts he saw in the museum he found spear-head arrows, hand axes, cleavers, scrapping tools, bronze and copper age artefacts from mounds in Garada, Bhilwara, Bundi and other places. The madness turned a sweetshop owner into an amateur archaeologist who found over 103 sites, and according to him the longest rock art site in the world stretching for 35 kms. His first encounter with rock paintings started only from 12th June 1998. Kukki is in his mid-sixties now, but even time could not erode his craving for archaeology. In his own words, ‘I am richer than Bill Gates. Gates in rich by money, and Kukki is rich by culture. Everyone has at least a bit of money, but Gates do not have the precious artefacts I own’.

We met Kukki in an unplanned trip to the sleepy town of Bundi. Unlike the rock paintings, I found Kukki on internet.  Being a busy man, it is difficult to get his time during working hours. So, we met in the evening and had a long chat. He is a very interesting man who can entertain you with stories for hours. In one of his stories he met a young lady in the field while Kukki was on one of his treasure-hunting spree. A lady, who met him in a deserted piece of land as the sun sat behind the Mangli River, said hi and vanished into thin air. Kukki ran for kilometers at a stretch before fainting near a village. After few rounds of engaging stories and a bit of persuasion he kindly agreed to share his time from a packed day to show us his ‘discovery’. I, along with my wife and an over-enthusiastic 7-year daughter started the trek along the rocky banks of Mangli with Mr. Kukki looking for the ancient art. How often you get the opportunity to see the rare rock paintings away from the mad crowd, with the man who discovered it? It was our lucky day. The paintings we saw are of antelopes, tigers, bears, humped bulls, dogs, dancing men and women, hunting scenes, animal traps, various geometric patterns and one specific one that he claimed to be a giraffe. While the giraffe was not very convincing, the humped bull in site no 23 is my favourite. Who were these Pacassos’ and Da Vincis’ of the past?

The earliest known evidence of anatomically modern human comes from the remains of eight individuals who lived in a cave in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, ~300,000 years ago. The oldest Palaeolithic tool found in India is from Attirampakkam in Tamil Naidu. It dates back to 1.5 million years ago (Ma).  From Hunsgi-Baichbal Valley of Karnataka Palaeolithic tools dating back to 1.2Ma have been unearthed. Palaeolithic sites are scattered all over India, from Tamil Nadu in the south to Ladakh in the North, from the ‘aliens’ of Chhattisgarh to the petroglyphs of Ratnagiri that BBC has called ‘lost Indian Civilization’. Unfortunately most of the sites are getting destroyed due to archaeological department’s apathy. Palaeontology is an endangered science in India, and palaeoanthropology is as good as extinct. There is no national palaeontology institute in India. Amateur archaeologists like Kukki have contributed more to this field than professionals. It is no wonder that despite the large number of accidental discoveries of Palaeolithic sites, no human skeletons have been recovered. We did find the trinity: Bramapithecus, Ramapithecus and Sivapithecus. But further research confirmed Advaita’s philosophy, that they were one and the same. To many people’s dislike further research showed that they were not even our ancestors, but probably 12.2 million year old god of the orang-utans. However, there has been one discovery that did put India on the world fossil map.

Winters, being pleasant, are the field time for Indian geologists. On one such cold winter on 1982 a geologist named Arun Sonakia found a skull, stuck in the fluvial sediments, when he was surveying on the banks of Narmada River in Hathnora village or Madhya Pradesh. This is the oldest fossil that is related to humans found from the sub-continent. The fossil has been named Narmada Man. It turns out that it is a ‘she’ and not a ‘he’. And like many women, this lady too does not want to reveal her age. Most likely it is a hominid stuck between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens that lived around 200,000 years ago. Narmada Man and her likes probably never made it out of the Toba Eruption that happened 70,000 years ago. The deadly eruption created a ten-year-long winter. It resulted in an ecological disaster that destroyed most of the vegetation. The long and harsh winter decreased the Homo sapiens population of the world to just 3,000-10,000 individuals. Other hominids weren’t that lucky. Similar stone tools have been unearthed below and above the Toba ash from few places in southern India like Jwalapuram. Professor Korisettar discovered the site, and upon excavation found similar Middle Palaeolithic tools of 77,000 years old below the Toba ash and of 35,000 years old above it. But these lucky few did not survive for long as our deadly ancestors were on their way. Soon after the Toba catastrophe, the first notable flush of migration took place from Africa. It was called the great coastal migration. This more sophisticated group of Homo sapiens replaced the ‘original Indians’. Some of the more adventurous migrants took the sub-Himalayan route, while rest kept following the coast.  Some of the decendents of this new group of ‘Indians’ (will call them ‘early Indians’, distinct from the ‘original Indians’) then moved towards Southeast Asia and Australia. The genes of the present day humans have significant contribution from this group of coastal migraters. The ‘original Indians’ are long dead, and their genes lost the survival battle of survival as the new generation of skilled Homo sapiens sapiens took over. Thus genetic study will only see peopling of India in the last 70,000 years, while archaeology would record a much older time of 1.5 million years. Palaeogenetic study of human remains unearthed from places like burial sites can bridge the gap between the two.

The best evidence of ‘early Indians’ is preserved in Bhimbetka caves that have more than a dozen rock shelters. The first evidence of these ancient caves was found way back in 1888. They were mistaken for Buddhist caves as every other ancient Indian discoveries of the time. Dr V S Wakankar accidentally discovered them again while he was traveling by train to Bhopal. He realized that he was looking at something prehistoric. The caves contain one of the oldest rock engravings in the world. The caves also have preserved cave paintings of different times superimposed on one another. Some claim a continuous occupation of these caves from 100,000 BCE to as recent as 1000 CE. The people who stayed there were predominantly hunters and gatherers. The type of tools they used gives an indication of the age. Around 45,000 to 20,000 years ago the ‘early Indians’ acquired the skills or making fine tools, also known as the microliths, as compared to the more crude Palaeolithic tools. The paintings also give an indication of the timeline. The paintings revealed the love of our ancestors for hunting, music, and dancing. Later drawing depicts Puranic gods like Ganesha, Shiva Linga, Nandi, Swastika, and Trishula. Quite similar to the ones we found in Bundi and Ladakh.

After a day of acclimatization for the oxygen starved high altitudes of Ladakh we started our long drive towards Dah to meet Alexander’s kin. Our luck ran out and we were stopped 5 kilometres from Dah. The heat from the scorching sun has melted too much snow, increasing the water in the river. Indus has overflowed and blocked our path to Dah. But it happened to be our lucky day. We came to know from the locals that the region where the so-called ‘Pure Aryans’ live was not very far, in a village called Sanith. We took a difficult curvy road, up the mountain, to reach the village that consisted of 24 houses where the people look and speak a language different from the Ladakis. They are Caucasians and not Mongolians. These Western Ladakhi people belong to Brokpas or Minaro (native) tribe. They speak archaic Shina language and are identified by their flowery headdress. They prefer to call themselves ‘pure Aryan’ whose ancestors were part of Alexander’s lost army. Genetic studies show only a faint Greek connection. ‘Aryan’ is also not a race, rather a linguistic division. Whatever their origin is, the mystery and our romanticism with fair skin help them with tourism. Being ‘pure Aryans’ did not bring tourism, rather its tourism that made them ‘pure Aryans’.

My driver insisted that they speak Aryan language that is a mixture of Hindi and English. Interestingly, though he understands both English and Hindi, he cannot decipher their language. The good thing is that the villagers know both Hindi and English. Which meant that they could explain to us the direction to the pre-historic rock-art in a language we understand. The roadblock was actually a boon in disguise. If we had gone to Dah we would have never found the rock-art which happened to be hidden right beside the road for where we took the sharp turn for Sanith village. There is a man-made wall of boulders on the side of the road. Climb it and move to the extreme end towards west. That's where the paintings are. Look for smooth polished surfaces, a sign that the rock surface survived thousands of years. Pre-historic hunters and gatherers flourished along the banks of Indus. They have left their mark as petroglyphs over a 150 kms stretch along the Indus bed. It is not just painting, but emotions etched on the rocks. The figures include Ibex hunting, dancing, caravan scenes etc. The sense of art and beauty, the ability to communicate complex information through oral and written language is what differentiates us from other animals. While most animals can only communicate immediate situations, language gives us the ability to add on to the past information and plan a possible future event. To dig and gather nutritious food from the ground, to hunt without claws or teeth, one needed to be a sophisticated animal. Language made us just that.

Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites

Indian pre-historic men made paints from haematite and chalcedony and not charcoal, and hence carbon dating is difficult. But, based on Rock tools found here, these sites should be equivalent of Bhimbetka (Paleolithic and Mesolithic). But there is a mix and these sites have been occupied periodically even until recent historic times. A disappointed Kukki tells us with a sigh that only because of the poor choice of paints we cannot claim the oldest rock paintings of the world. He complains how the Indian archaeology is lagging far behind. Kukki’s discoveries are left unguarded and unprotected, only marked with numbers. Probably because it was not discovered by any professional, and thus there is no glory for the babus in working for this. But Kukki is hell bent to protect his findings with his life.

Kukki believes that he was a hunter and gatherer living here in his past life. That is why the paintings found him. Despite the threats to his life from mafias who are blasting the hills into the ground for home building rocks, and along with it Kukki’s passions, he continue to protect the sites. His biggest threat however comes from innocent local children and fervent lovers who write their names in the now popular cave paintings. As he was showing us one of the sites, a group of half-naked local tribal children gathered around us. When Kukki yelled at them, they giggled, ran and jumped unto the Mangli River. They were so comfortable with Mangli, as if she was one of their own. It was their time to bath alongside their humped bull who looked no different from the paintings in the wall. I wondered, if the person who drew the humped bull in the Chalcolithic period was yelled at for spoiling the Palaeolithic paintings, would there be the site no 23. May be, the river knows.

Copyright 2019 Subhrashis Adhikari

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1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful story!! Didn't Govt recognize Om Prakash Sharma and his work and sites? Keep writing and exploring :). I need to read it again.


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