Amal Kiran’s Contribution to the Study of Indian Prehistory

Amal Kiran developed a systematic understanding and exposition of the subject of Indian prehistory over a period of almost forty years.  Four books by him bear upon this subject.  Two are devoted entirely to this topic, while two more touch upon it along with considerations of early history.


It is evident that he has minutely pored over several hundred original research sources and findings covering a wide array of viewpoints and methodologies.  Nothing has been rejected from consideration on doctrinaire or dogmatic grounds; each item has been dealt with on its merit.  He has sifted through a mass of details of both fact and conjecture, compared theories and data within and across sources, weighed probabilities and subjective assessments assigned by and to different authors, and systematically discovered inconsistencies between theories and between theory and fact.  He has synthesized and integrated all relevant material available during the course of his work.  With novel insights gained from such a deep study, he has put forth a cogent view of Indian prehistory that unifies known facts and relieves inconsistencies.  He has corresponded with several researchers either to test the validity of his view or to test the conviction of their position, and he has refined his ideas, their substantiation and their presentation through successive publications.


 “The Problems of Aryan Origins” was first published in 1980 as a result of work since 1977.  A second extensively expanded edition, which tripled the size of the material, was published in 1992.  “Karpasa in Prehistoric India: a Chronological and Cultural Clue”, with introduction by Dr. H. D. Sankalia of the Deccan College in Pune, was published in 1981.  “Ancient India in a New Light” was published in 1989, and “Problems of Ancient India” was published in 2000.  Much earlier, in 1963, he published a paper, “The Aryans, the Domesticated Horse and the Spoke Chariot-Wheel” in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bombay.


Amal Kiran has not conducted fieldwork that produces primary physical evidence.  Such work is hardly a requirement of every researcher in this domain, or indeed in any scientific pursuit.  He has considered in detail and without prejudice the fieldwork of others.  The lack of narrow specialized expertise has freed him to bring his penetrating analysis to every aspect of this complex and many-sided issue.  Far from producing derivative or imitative works, he has staked out new and defensible ground with his method and results.  His research is scholarly and thorough and follows the best principles of sound scientific methodology.


Amal Kiran’s central thesis regarding Indian prehistory, stated negatively, is that there was not in or around the mid-second millennium B.C. an invasion or even a migration of a people into northwest India who brought or later developed the culture and practice evidenced in the Rigveda, and stated positively, is that the Rigveda and its associated culture was developed by a people substantially native to the greater Punjab, in the period of 3500 B.C.-2500 B.C., and it continued as and contributed significantly to the civilization of the Indus valley and other interior settlements.


He does not deny the possibility of an incursion into the Indian northwest circa 1500 B.C. or at other times, but does deny that such presumed intruders were the bearers or later developers of the Rigveda.  He does not claim that the people of the Indian northwest developed in isolation; rather he identifies a belt of like civilizations, fairly developed by 4000 B.C.-3000 B.C., spanning the Indian northwest and the Black sea.  He does not claim nor deny that the Rigvedic Indians migrated out and colonized Iran and Central Asia, though he does suggest that the civilization in the Indian northwest was the most advanced one in the fourth millennium B.C., based on available evidence.


This focused, clear and defensible statement, unencumbered by ideological postures and fully submitted to Occam’s razor is strenuously defended and convincingly developed by Amal Kiran in his books.


A significant effect of Amal Kiran’s work, aided by the compulsions of mounting evidence, has been to move the main line of discourse on the opposing point of view from the position of a sudden invasion in 1500 B.C. to one of a gradual migration over 2000 B.C.-1000 B.C. into the Indian northwest.  The refinement of the opposing position can be said to have broadened it to such an extent that the only remaining major discrepancy appears to be the precedence relationship between the Rigveda and the Indus civilization.


Numerous items have been excavated in the many Indus sites which find no mention in the Rigveda: wheat, rice, cotton, tiger, ass, camel, and indeed the urban and commercial character of the civilization itself is at variance with the contrasting pastoral worldview.  All of this supports the precedence of the Rigveda.  There is, however, the mention of horses and chariots in the Rigveda, and these have not, it is claimed, been satisfactorily evidenced in the Indus excavations.


Amal Kiran deals with this issue thoroughly in multiple places in his books.  The following quotation from “The Problems of Aryan Origins”, second edition, supplement II, pp 180-183 is reproduced below not only to bear upon this issue but also to illustrate his comprehensive treatment of this (and any) subject, and his exposition (as always) in the clear light of logic and in masterful English.


The scapula of a camel has been found at the considerable depth of 15 feet at Mohenjo-daro, but no seal depicts a dromedary.  Again, “nowhere is a donkey shown” and yet the bones of the domestic ass (Equus asinus) have been recovered from Harappa.  Unless we know the “why” of the depictions we cannot make any capital out of “the fact that the horse is conspicuously missing”.  We cannot infer from it that the horse was unknown.


Here scholars like Parpola may urge: “The non-depicted animals have still left their bones for the archaeologist.  Where are horse-bones from early Mohenjo-daro or Harappa?  Earlier than c. 2000 B.C. we have no osteological evidence of Equus caballus.  With such a double blank – that is, osteological plus pictorial – how can we claim knowledge of the horse as possible in the early Harappa Culture which, according to you, was later than the Rigveda in the Indus Valley?


A counter-question which at once springs to mind is: “Surely, c. 2000 B.C. is much before the postulated arrival of the Rigvedics in India.  How could the horse be present at least 500 years before them?”  Parpola, aware of this difficulty, has the remark: “As Mr. Mahadevan mentioned, the Aryans are thought to have come to India earlier.  I agree with this, although I think it was a different wave altogether.  An earlier wave than the Rig Vedic Aryans.”  When even the Rigvedic wave is a hypothesis lacking either archaeological or documentary evidence, how can we dare to bring in a fairly earlier wave?  From references in the Rigveda we know that the Rishis were in India at whatever period we may deem most appropriate.  What grounds have to place in India a wave of Aryans in a period around 2000 B.C.?  Have we to go in for this wave merely because the Harappa Culture has horses around that date in an apparent way?  The explanation is arbitrary.  It seems more natural to believe that Aryanism was at work in the Harappa Culture as one element in the midst of several at the root of it.  And, looking more deeply, more logically we can perceive a basis for such a belief.


Not only must the unknown “why” of the horseless depictions keep us unattracted to Parpola’s novel supposition.  Even the absence of horse-bones should not draw us to it.  For, indeed an eye-opener is the background against which we have to view the Harappa Culture of the third millennium B.C.  Stuart Piggott has observed: “one clay figurine from Periano Ghundai [in North Baluchistan] seems to represent a horse, and is interesting in connection with the find of horses’ teeth in RG [Rana Ghundai] I, at the type site.”  He assigns this figurine to the RG III phase which he begins some centuries before 2500 B.C. and ends as still pre-Harappan.  He traces the diverse relationship between the Harappa Culture and RG, especially with pottery in mind.  RG areas have also evinced that characteristic feature of the Harappa Culture: the “stamp seals”.  What is of yet greater import than the obvious suggestion of horse-knowledge by the Harappa Culture on account of all this relationship with a horse-knowing locality is marked not only by Piggott but by other archaeologists as well.  Among them is H.D. Sankalia who srites of “Rana Ghundai IIIc Culture found under the debris of Harappan and the low level (-32 feet) Mohenjodaro”.  So we have at the two central sites of the Harappa Culture in the Indus Valley a background of horse-knowledge and horse-use much before 2000 B.C.


Once we note this the reluctance to see the Harappa Culture as post-Rigvedic must disappear.  And I may draw Parpola’s attention to the curious fact that the Rigvedic testimony to the horse’s presence in the Indus Valley is not at all borne out by archaeology for the post-Harappan period he assigns to the Aryans of the Rigveda.  In the several excavated sites in Punjab and Northern Haryana – Bhagwanpura, Dadheri, Ropar, Kathpalon, Nagar, etc. – in the early time after 1500 B.C., when iron was not yet in use, has any sure sign of the horse been discovered?  The only definite equine bones the Indus Valley has yielded around this date are from an upper level of Mohenjo-daro and from Area G in Harappa which is likely to be just post-Harappan but has nothing to do with any possible Rigvedic presence.


I may add that the eminent archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler, who has always been against the idea of Aryanism in the Indus Civilization, has yet an attitude unlike Parpola’s.  Not only does he write: “One terracotta, from a late level at Mohenjo-daro, seems to represent a horse, reminding us that the jaw-bone of a horse is also recorded from the same site, and that the horse was known at a considerably earlier period in northern Baluchistan.”  He notes as well after referring to the bone of a camel recovered from a low level at Mohenjo-daro: “There is no evidence of any kind for the use of the ass or mule.  On the other hand the bones of a horse occur at a high level at Mohenjo-daro, and from the earlier (doubtless pre-Harappan) layer at Rana Ghundai in northern Baluchistan both horse and ass are recorded.  It is likely enough that camel, horse and ass were in fact all a familiar feature of the Indus caravans.”


Seeing things in a wider perspective than Parpola’s, Wheeler attaches hardly any importance to the lack of ass-bones or the absence of ass-representation.  He considers it reasonable to surmise the use of this animal no less than of the camel and the horse.  So, even if Parpola’s mention of a negative result regarding osteological and pictorial evidence be correct, the vision of the whole ancient area of which the Harappa Culture formed a part could suggest to us most naturally the equine’s presence in the Indus Civilization.


Now we give brief summaries of the books.  “The Problem of Aryan Origins” begins with a critical examination of the invasion theory on several grounds in the first five chapters: on archaeological, literary, historical (studying the correspondence between the Mittani documents with the Rigveda, for example), cultural.  Then the following chapters begin to give a positive view by exploring the knowledge of horses and chariots in the Indus Civilization, the pre-Harappan Aryanism of the Rigveda, the belt of Aryanism and its dating, and pointers to the ultimate origins of the Aryans and the Rigveda, with sidelights on linguistic arguments and symbolic interpretations.  The second edition has several supplements that respond to reviews and criticisms, expand on special points and critique or survey recent work, in particular Asko Parpola’s “The Coming of the Aryans to Iran and India and the Cultural and Ethnic Identity of the Dasas”.


“Karpasa in Prehistoric India” begins by considering the remarkable absence of the term for cotton in Rigveda and all subsequent literature conventionally dated to span a thousand years, in the face of the discovery of cotton seeds and cloth in the Indus civilizations.  However, this is used only as a starting point, and the case is buttressed by additional evidence.  While “Problems” can be considered primarily a defensive book, “Karpasa” is almost entirely positive.  It proceeds to tackle the precedence relationship between the Rigveda and the Indus civilization and then gives the cultural process by which the Rigvedic culture developed into the latter with corresponsdence to the post-Rigvedic literature.  It casts lights on the relationship (equality) of the Indus civilization to Melukkha mentioned in Mesopotamian documents, problems of the Indus script and linguistic aspects.


“Ancient India in a New Light”, as it pertains to the topic at hand, argues from the traditional Indian chronology of the royal dynasties, examines them for internal consistency, compares them to accounts from Greek, Chinese, Arabic and other sources, shows them to reach back to 3138 B.C. to the end of the Mahabharata war, points out a flaw in the conventional correspondence accorded to the different lists as it pertains to Sandrocottus in circa 320 B.C., and reconciles them by pushing back the correspondence by around seven hundred years.


“Problems of Ancient India”, as it pertains to the topic at hand, provides in chapter 2 an in-depth exposition of “the Aryans, the Domesticated Horse and the Spoked Chariot-Wheel”.


– o –


Recent studies in the subject of human prehistory in general and Indus civilizations in particular (especially because of its charged nature and checkered history) favor primary, quantitative, physical evidence over subjective interpretations of literature or culture.  Archaeology, carbon dating, genetics and geological surveys are often relied upon to provide primary data.


Over two thousand sites of the Indus civilization have been discovered.  Out of these, less than five per cent have so far been excavated.  Amongst those that have been excavated, several have been found that show over eight thousand years of continuous in situ development.  Much more is there to be learned from the remaining sites and from still others that are yet to be uncovered.


Genetic studies of the Y chromosome in diverse populations for a record of markers along with their observed rate of mutation strongly suggest a pattern of human migrations out of Africa.  It is claimed that the first migration began 50,000-60,000 years ago and traversed South Asia along the coasts, reaching Australia.  A second wave of migration began 30,000-40,000 years ago, went north to Central Asia and then entered the Indian northwest.  This second wave eventually populated the entire globe over subsequent millennia.  The racial diversity found in India is accounted for by these two waves of early humans, along with minor incursions from the northeast and elsewhere.  But their dates are in the remote past, and certainly not in the last 10,000 years or more.  Specifically conducted studies have not discovered any gene splash in the Indian northwest in this period of interest.  Studies of the mitochondrial DNA consistently yield similar but earlier results, typically by 20,000-50,000 years.  Genetic studies conducted so far have been of miniscule segments of the population, and have typically focused on finding the exceptions.  They need to be expanded significantly for the mainstream population.


The other techniques are yielding insights into the courses of rivers (especially of the much-described Saraswati of the Rigveda) from geological surveys and locations and epochs of the Rigvedics based on astronomical calculations.


The clinching evidence for Amal Kiran’s viewpoint would be the unambiguous archaeological discovery of horse remains in the Indus sites.  There is ample room for such a discovery by patient and professional scientists delving into the secrets of Indian prehistory.




This article appeared in “K.D. Sethna (Amal Kiran) A Centenary Tribute” edited by Sachidananda Mohanty (2004).

9 thoughts on “Amal Kiran’s Contribution to the Study of Indian Prehistory

  1. I am not clear as to what is your conclusion. Were the so-called Aryans indigenous inhabitants of India if there were then it follows that the Aryans and the Harrappans were one people. All research in recent times points to this conclusion in fact the days of ambiguity are over. Please clarify.

    Ashok Mehta

  2. The conclusion is: “Amal Kiran’s central thesis regarding Indian prehistory, stated negatively, is that there was not in or around the mid-second millennium B.C. an invasion or even a migration of a people into northwest India who brought or later developed the culture and practice evidenced in the Rigveda, and stated positively, is that the Rigveda and its associated culture was developed by a people substantially native to the greater Punjab, in the period of 3500 B.C.-2500 B.C., and it continued as and contributed significantly to the civilization of the Indus valley and other interior settlements.”


    Rakhigarhi, the biggest Harappan site

    An important problem about the Harappan civilisation is the origin of its culture, Dr. Shinde said. The Harappan civilisation had three phases: the early Harappan from circa 3,500 BCE to circa 2,600 BCE, the mature Harappan which lasted from circa 2,600 BCE to circa 2000 BCE, and the late Harappan from circa 2000 BCE to 1,600 BCE.

    Dr. Shinde said: “It was earlier thought that the origin of the early Harappan phase took place in Sind, in present-day Pakistan, because many sites had not been discovered then. In the last ten years, we have discovered many sites in this part [Haryana] and there are at least five Harappan sites such as Kunal, Bhirrana, Farmana, Girawad and Mitathal, which are producing early dates and where the early Harappan phase could go back to 5000 BCE. We want to confirm it. Rakhigarhi is an ideal candidate to believe that the beginning of the Harappan civilisation took place in the Ghaggar basin in Haryana and it gradually grew from here. If we get the confirmation, it will be interesting because the origin would have taken place in the Ghaggar basin in India and slowly moved to the Indus valley. That is one of the important aims of our current excavation at Rakhigarhi.”

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