On February 20, The Indian Express carried a news report, headlined ‘National Museum bars non-vegetarian dishes from Harappan menu in event on premises’. A few days earlier, the museum had announced a week-long exhibition-cum-event on culinary history that offered “the Indus Dining Experience” through an “ethno-archaeological kitchen of the Harappan Culture” on the museum lawns from February 19 to 25. It was the menu of this event — which included meat fat soup, fish in turmeric stew, lamb liver with chick-pea and dried fish, among others — that was effectively scuppered.
The reason the museum’s additional director general gave was: “This museum has so many idols of gods and goddesses, and a relic of Lord Buddha. International dignitaries visit this museum. We have to consider these sensitivities here.”
Since no other country is known for its sensitivities regarding consumption of meat or fish as much as India, and since Buddhists in India have rarely made a fuss about anyone consuming these, we can discount the second sentence as well as the second part of the first sentence as mostly a red herring. The real meat, so to say, lies in the rest of the statement and suggests that the “sensitivities” that matter lie in Lutyens’ Delhi (to use TV-channel shorthand for those in power).
What explains this disconnect and discomfort of the ruling powers with the earliest civilisation of India, which also shaped our culture in a significant way?
Before answering that question, we need to see that this disconnect is not new. For example, when the Harappan Civilisation was discovered nearly a century ago by archaeologists, it came as a surprise to one and all. No oral traditions and no ancient literature had prepared Indians for the new-found fact that they were heirs to a very impressive urban civilisation that was contemporaneous with the Egyptian and Mesopotamian Civilisations; was as big in area and population as both of them put together; and, had carved a distinct identity for itself. The vital urban nodes of this large civilisation — Harappa in Punjab, Mohenjodaro in Sindh, Dholavira in Gujarat. were not mentioned in the ancient literature, were not part of any pilgrimage circuit, and were not in our live cultural consciousness. The Harappan script had been forgotten and the most common Harappan seal imagery, that of the unicorn, did not ring a bell either. In fact, even today, if you visit the most impressive Harappan site in India, Dholavira, you are likely to find few visitors.
We now know, most recently from the research findings of population genetics based on ancient DNA, that the reason for this disconnect with the Harappan Civilisation was a major migration that changed the demography of India, especially in the north, between 2000 BCE and 1500 BCE. At a time when the Harappan civilisation was already disintegrating due to a long drought and its people were migrating east to North India and south to South India in search of a new way of life, there were waves of new migration from the Central Asian Steppe region that is today known as Kazakhstan. These were horse-riding pastoralists who spoke Indo-European languages and called themselves Arya and they brought with them an early version of what would later become the language of Sanskrit in which the Vedas were composed.
The new migrants became dominant in northern India and mixed with the existing populations, causing two major developments that were to leave a deep impact on Indian history and culture. One was a language shift from the pre-Arya languages (most likely proto-Dravidian) to Indo-European languages in North India, while in South India, away from the epicentre of that migration, Dravidian languages continued to thrive. The second was a culture shift, with the urbanism of the Harappans giving way to a newly-dominant, pastoral lifestyle that significantly diminished the possibility of new cities of Harappan scale rising up again in the near future. India had to wait for more than a millennium for its second urbanisation, till around the middle of the first millennium BCE, when new cities began coming up in eastern India in the region of Magadha, outside the heartland of the Vedic culture.
Along with the rise of new urban centres, Magadha also saw the rise of new religions such as Jainism and Buddhism that particularly received the patronage of the rising urban and trading classes. The new religions stressed non-violence in general and opposed sacrificial rituals, which were an essential part of the Vedic culture. We could point to this period as the time when the idea of vegetarianism was seeded, even though Buddha and his followers had no problems with eating the meat they received as alms. The idea of vegetarianism slowly spread and was adopted by some communities including dominant groups in areas in the heartland of the Vedic culture — though the vast majority of Indians always remained meat-eaters like their Harappan ancestors.
It is when you keep this history in mind that the discomfort of today’s decision-makers with the practices of the ancient Harappans becomes explicable. But there is a contradiction within their own adopted stand: Even while exhibiting discomfort with the eating habits of the pre-Arya, pre-Vedic and pre-Sanskritic Harappans, there has been a long-standing attempt by the Indian Right-wing to appropriate the very same civilisation as a Vedic one.
For example, there have been continuing efforts to rename the Harappan Civilisation as the Saraswati Civilisation, in order to suggest its Vedic/Sanskrit and Arya nature. But this is problematic for the following reason. The latest research findings show that the Harappan Civilisation is the common heritage of all Indians and that the Harappans are their common ancestors, because when their civilisation declined, they moved all over the Subcontinent. Their culture, therefore, is in many ways the glue that holds India together, the reason for the similarities we observe across the country in many things, from the way we build our houses around courtyards to the design of our kitchen utensils.
The Harappan linguistic heritage may today lie with South India, but their cultural and genetic heritage belong to all. The attempt to erase this history and to appropriate and assign this common civilisational heritage to a narrower subset of the population is a divisive enterprise.
What the modern discomfort of Lutyens’ Delhi with the eating habits of the Harappans should tell us is that some of us have forgotten the essential, exhilarating nature of our common civilisation, forged by four major migrations that happened in prehistory: A unity that is at home with its multi-layered, multi-hued diversity.
Joseph is author of Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From.
Explained: What did the Harappan people really eat?
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