Film

Ashutosh Gowariker’s ‘Mohenjo Daro’ Falls Prey to Hindutva Horseplay

The Hindu right’s worn-out, archaeologically-baseless argument that the Harappan civilisation and Rig Vedic age coincided, may get a new lease of life through the film’s poor depiction of history.

A still from the trailer of Ashutosh Gowariker's Mohenjodaro, featuring lead actor Hrithik Roshan and showing the horse seal. Credit: Youtube

A still from the trailer of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro, featuring lead actor Hrithik Roshan and showing the horse seal. Credit: Youtube

It seems that Ashutosh Gowariker’s quest for good cinema ends with humongous sets and big stars. While there seems to be a sudden – and welcome – urge among Hindi filmmakers to make historical epics, their lack of attention to historical facts leaves the discerning audience with a bad taste in the mouth. Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani recently portrayed Bajirao as an indefatigable Hindu warrior, one whose only mission was to hoist the saffron flag in India by defeating his Muslim opponents, the Mughals. That the modern Indian state was yet to be born and that the Mughal empire was no caliphate, are facts disregarded by him.

Yet again, a historical film seems to be catching public attention, but for all the wrong reasons.

Gowariker, of Lagaan (2001) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008) fame, recently released the trailer of his much-awaited Mohenjo Daro, which is being touted as not just his magnum opus but the greatest film ever made in India. Unfortunately, the trailer gives us nothing but a twisted idea of a civilisation that seems far from real. Mohenjo Daro, which was the name of one of the biggest urban townships of the Harappan or Indus Valley civilisation, is the story of one of the first cities of the world. Gowariker gets the date right – 2016 BCE, which the trailer announces – but apart from this, he gets almost every other aspect of the ancient civilisation grossly wrong.

The use of heavily Sanskritised Hindi in the trailer leads one to believe that a similar dialect was spoken around that time. There is no disclaimer to the contrary. Professional historians, archaeologists and Indologists alike have argued that multiple dialects of the Bronze age were possibly in use during the Indus Valley civilisation, or that it could have been a nonlinguistic civilisation. At any rate, there is hardly any evidence for a Sanskrit-based, spoken or written, language; this was something that evolved much later.

A contemporary dialect of Hindi would still have been acceptable in the name of cinematic liberty. However, the use of a cryptic, Sanskritised Hindi flatters only the Hindutva propagandists that have been trying to push back the Rig Vedic age to the time of the Harappan civilisation. Consider this: the protagonist, played by Hrithik Roshan, while proposing his love to the female lead played by Pooja Hegde, says: “Tu meri sangani hai” (“You are my partner”). The dialogue conveniently switches between the colloquial and the textual.

The horse seal debate

Language politics is important in this case. In the year 1999, US-based engineer-turned-Hindutva ideologue N. S. Rajaram and palaeographist Natwar Jha suggested, in their co-authored book, The Deciphered Indus Script: Methodology, Readings, Interpretations, that the Harappan script came from the Sanskrit family. He further tried to connect Harappan archaeology to Vedic literature. This was a revelation in professional historical research, as most studies until then had concluded that the Rig Vedic Age came almost 2000 years after the Indus Valley civilisation and the two had no organic links.

Rajaram’s study connected all the dots that the Hindutva ideologues had made, without any substantial evidence to back their claims. His study, naturally, gave the Hindu right a lot to celebrate about. Unlike the professional historical theory that the Aryans were not autochthonous to India and settled here, the Hindutva ideologues, in their obsession to create a glorious Indian past that was subsequently ruined by a foreign (read: Muslim) invasion, believe that the Aryans belonged to India and were the ‘founders’ of the ‘scientific’ Vedic age.

Rajaram and Jha went on to claim that horses were a part of Harappan civilisation, using the ‘Mackay 453’, a seal that depicts a unicorn bull, to do so. Research has time and again proved that horses were introduced to the region only after Aryans migrated there. Horses, according to professional theories, were brought to India around 1500 BCE by the Aryans, who used their speed to subdue the ox-driven populations of India. However, the right-wing historians debunk these findings and claim that horses were integral to Indian culture. Vedic literature has many references to horses, but there is hardly any mention of the animal in the pre-Vedic age. Thus, Rajaram and Jha’s assertion about the presence of horses during the period was greeted as a revelation.

A Harappan unicorn seal, displayed at the Indian Museum. Credit: Wikipedia

A Harappan unicorn seal, displayed at the Indian Museum. Credit: Wikipedia

The tall claim was busted as soon as it was made, however. Michael Witzel, an Indologist at Harvard, and Steve Farmer, a comparative historian, dismantled it point by point in a detailed cover story in Frontline magazine. Not only did they prove that Rajaram had fabricated the image of the seal through ‘computer enhancement’, but they also showed how he had not adhered to academically accepted methodologies in constructing the theory:

“The horse seal is only one case of bogus data in Rajaram’s book. Knowledge of Vedic Sanskrit is needed to uncover those involving his decipherments… Rajaram claims that the language of Harappa was ‘late Vedic’ Sanskrit. This conflicts with countless facts from archaeology, linguistics, and other fields. Indeed, ‘late Vedic’ did not exist until some two thousand years after the start of mature Harappan culture.”

They go on to say that in the case of “Hindutva revisionists” like Rajaram, who “push the Rigveda to the fourth or even fifth millennium, the problem is worse,” for such people feel compelled to “find domesticated horses and chariots in South Asia thousands of years before either existed anywhere on the planet.” The evidence, however, suggests that the horse (Equus caballus) was absent from India before around 2000 BCE, or even as late as 1700 BCE. Archaeology dates its preliminary presence in the Indus plains below the Bolan pass to only around that time.

In short, in order to prove that the Vedic period was the ‘ancient-most’ of India, the Hindu right has always tried to push back its dates to around the time of the Indus valley civilisation.

Noted historian Romila Thapar critiques Rajaram’s theory when she says:

“To insist that a particular seal represents the horse as Rajaram does, was an attempt to foreclose the argument and maintain that the horse was important to the Indus civilisation, therefore it was an Aryan civilisation. Quite apart from the changes made in the computer enhanced image of the seal to give the impression of a horse, which have been discussed in the article by Witzel and Farmer, the animal in the photograph of the seal is clearly not a horse. Furthermore, if the horse had been as central to the Indus civilisation as it was to the Vedic corpus, there would have been many seals depicting horses. But the largest number of seals are those which depict the bull unicorn.”

Gowariker’s teaser has clearly gotten it wrong. It shows the famous horse seal, or ‘Mackay 453’, to establish the flaunting of Arabian horses in Mohenjo Daro.

Thapar summarises that trying to prove the Indus civilisation was Aryan necessitates deciphering its language as a form of Sanskrit and finding evidence of an Aryan presence – which is currently associated with the horse and chariot. She points out that attempts to decipher the language of the period have so far been unsuccessful, as have efforts of reading it as Sanskrit. Crucially, she adds, “there are linguistic rules that have to be observed in any decipherment. These make it necessary for a claim to stand the test of linguistic analyses. The readings also have to show some contextual consistency.” She concludes that Rajaram and Jha’s decipherment lacks all this.

Mohenjo Daro artifacts in the National Museum, New Delhi. Credit: Shome Basu

Mohenjodaro artifacts in the National Museum, New Delhi. Credit: Shome Basu

The Mohenjo Daro teaser fits solidly with Hindutva propaganda. While the sets and initial promotion make the film look like a Gladiator-style epic of the Roman empire, the so-called historical detail depicted by Gowariker misses reality by a considerable margin.

For a long time, right-wing ideologues have tried to establish the Indus Valley civilisation as the oldest in the world – a theory that is factually wrong. The Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilisations are older, according to professional historians. Much research of the Harappan period has been undertaken, and the historical evidence includes terracotta seals, the presence of copper, standardised weights, town planning and more.

That Gowariker chooses to pander only to Hindutva sentiment, by focusing on the horse and Sanskritised Hindi, goes to show how even popular mediums like Bollywood are not free from political agendas. Undoubtedly, the film has given the Hindu right another chance to flog a dead horse.

  • Harris Reid

    When the Aryan Invasion Theory was developed or shall I say forged, no remains of Horses had been identified in pre Rig Vedic Cultures of India. But then came overwhelming evidence from Neolithic sites like Kodekal and Hallur of Karnataka and Koldihwa of Uttar pradesh and numerous Chalcolithic (Kayatha) and Harappan Sites (Suratkoda, Kalibangan, Ropar, Malvan and Lothal) which wouldn’t fit the fantastic theory of the Horse borne Aryans wiping out the advanced yet peace loving Dravidians. Also little bit of research would prevent blunders like “2000 years between Rig Vedic Civilization and Indus Valley Civilization”. This is why ideology is poison, be it religious or political. In brief, Aryan Invasion Theory is a dead horse.

    • Velamur Anand

      Those Harrappan sites you mention are all late Harrappan sites, and Harappa and Mohenjodaro themselves, 300 to 500 years earlier than the sites you mention are very much bereft of signs of a domesticated horse. Even Mackay 453 as shown by Gowarikar is without a bushy tail which Rajaram et al had forged onto Mackay 453 simply in order to lend verisimilitude to their bogus claim of a Vedic connection to Harappa. There is no such connection. There is, on the other hand, a very suggestive and plausible theory of a Dravidian connection, with the ubiquitous fish depiction on Harappa Seals, taken to speak for stars based on similar Tamil words “min”and “meen” for star and fish and the use commonly found among early languages by experts of similar sounding words being used for symbolic references of one for the other.. Also, Brahui language, spoken by millions in Baluchistan and Afghanistan , is of the Dravidian family and a Harappa Dravidian connection would fit with that presence as well. However, all this remains only a hypothesis . Harppan writing is from right to left , resembling sumerian in Iraq, prevalent at the same time. In the horse’s case, there is a clear migration from west to east with the earliest archaeological evidence in Ukraine/ Asia MInor and the horse bones in Ballia in East UP dating to only around 1000 BC. Neither the horse nor its relative the donkey is native to India. And the horse scores the maximum references in the Rig Veda, with over 250 citations. Even the venerable GoMatha scores only 170 hits in the Rig Veda.

      I cant for the life of me understand why saffronites cant be proud of a Dravidian association with Harappa , which is also anative connection in India. They cant be allowed to get away with such blatant self-promoting fabrications motivated by their indo-aryan racism, whether as film-makers or sarsanghchalaks or film actors.

    • Ashoka Maurya

      Relax dude,no genuine historian supports Aryan Invasion Theory. But they do say that it was Aryan migration to Indian subcontinent from Central Asia, which is widely accepted today.

  • Rebel Ravi

    Indus Valley people spoke Dravidian language Of Tamil is almost accepted by many indologists. But Hindi cinema is an absurd medium, so none will take this nonsense seriously.

    • Thrive thrive

      There is no evidence to support this claim

    • Rohini

      So, do you suggest that a Hindi Film be made in the tamil language for authenticity, going by your and the author’s logic?
      Tamil le pannlama?

    • Rahul R

      Summa poyi sollatha da rumba over huh

  • Raj Singh

    This article is just left wing propaganda, has no sense of balance and presents no actual evidence to back up any of the claims it is making, other than just dropping names of other left-wing scholars like Thapar. I would normally give a very detailed and long reply tearing the article to smithereens, but I don’t think it is worth my time. I will just say this, the myth that the Harappans had no horses has been exposed as a myth for years. The fossils remains of horses, horses on seals and figurines of horses have all been discovered.

    • Prasenjeet

      Worth your time? What do you mean by that? How do you plan to argue with world famous historians? What data sources do you have? It is such baseless, illiterate confidence that never benefited India in the past nor is it of any use today. Oh God, you seem to be a toad with confidence of Einstein. worst combination. worst.

    • Velamur Anand

      horse bones are only at late harrappan sites like lothal and not in the original Harappan civilisation.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    The quest of the fundamentalists to show everything ‘ hindu’ leads to nowhere. The film maker does not heed to the principles of honesty in presenting movies and subverts historic content to bring out ‘ commercial’ Hindu film. There have been many Hindi films which had some historic basis but the content was exploited to suit populist tastes. This film will be no different and go down as an attempt to appease Hindus audiences. There should be some law or procedure go curb such f misleading films.

  • Rohini

    This is a move based on history,not a documentary. So, the makers can and should take considerable cinematic liberty with it, including using any animals and any language they think,Will make their movie fun.

    On language..the authors only objection to the language seems to be that it is sanskritised Hindi? In other words, correctly spoken Hindi is what the author objects to? And he believes commercial Hindi would have been better..yes, in his mind it would have added authenticity to the movie if they spoke the language spoken in modern bollywood films. But, he is not the maker..so the maker chose shuddh Hindi.. And it will be perfect. Using this persons logic, manimekalai cannot be made in old Tamil for authenticity, for e.eg

    The author quotes the infamous Farmer on the IVC language…maybe he doesn’t know Farmer has tried to discredit the entire IVC script theory…according to him, IVC didn’t have a language with a formal script at all…how strange the author should quote him as a buttress to his point on IVC language.

    On the dates of the IVC, I request the author to read the latest research published in Nature magazine in 2016 where it is proven that the date is now pushed as far back as 8000 BC. So,please move beyond Thapar and her generation to new research.

    Finally, please stop playing useless word games …right wing ideologues vs. Professional historians…implying that only those who stick to the line accepted by the likes of thapar are professionals ..all others are right wing.

  • KP

    It’s poor trailer,I think some right wing NRI funding in Bollywood to make these kind of non sense I guess…

  • http://www.shunya.net/ Namit

    I really agree with the thrust of this article. The film appears to be a total disaster. Such a lost educational opportunity these blockbusters are, with their total disregard for truth. Rather than hire real historians to get the period details as accurate as possible, they seem to have hired two-bit screenwriters and other hacks with zero scholarly temperament. Pathetic.

    However I need to point out an error in the article. It says, “Professional historians, archaeologists and Indologists alike have argued that multiple dialects of the Bronze age were possibly in use during the Indus Valley civilisation, or that it could have been a nonlinguistic civilization.” Nobody has argued that IVC was a nonlinguistic civilization. They of course had a spoken language. The question is whether they had a linguistic script. A real possibility is that the so-called Harappan “script” is nothing more than a set of symbols they used (conceptually similar to road signs today). That would make IVC similar to many other civilizations of the past.

    • Ajoy Ashirwad

      There is no error. Nonlinguistic civilisation doesn’t mean they had no language. Just the linguistic categories of grammar, structure do not apply. Michael Witzel argues this theory which has also been refuted. That’s why I wrote about both the possibilities. “Professional historians, archaeologists and Indologists alike have argued that multiple dialects of the Bronze age were possibly in use during the Indus Valley civilisation, or that it could have been a nonlinguistic civilisation. “

  • lyone

    The author of the article expects a popular film to adhere to “historical accuracy” (as if there even is such a thing?). But really, when we go to see a Hrtik Roshan vehicle, aren’t we just expecting to have a great time for a few hours? This looks like it will be a good flick, and that is what matters to me. . . . . . until I can get my time machine fixed and can tell everyone which theory about the Vedas and the Harrapan civilization is the right one!!

  • method man

    just one trivial issue. would a civilisation have called its epicentre the mound of the dead? someone with a little more imagination would have at least renamed the city.

    I didn’t hear too much sanskritised hindi in the teaser. at least, not of the ramayan/mahabharat vintage.

    Also, couldn’t this article have waited until the movie came out? seems to be too much ink wasted, for a teaser. :-/

  • Thrive thrive

    The author talks of authenticity while talking with a straight face about ”unicorn” bulls! As far as I know, unicorns are mythological creatures found in children’s fairy tales from the west. Then with an equally straight face, he goes on to lecture us about the absence of ”real” horses in the Indus Valley.

    GOing by this authors blinkered logic, AG pandered to the communists in Lagaan (triumph of the workers), in Jodha Akbar, he completely distorted history to pander to the lefties (present a benign love story between a Hindu woman and a Muslim ruler)..and now, he panders to the right with Mohenjodaro….so he is an equal opportunity offender.. Hence I suggest the author just enjoy the movie (or not)

  • Megh

    I. The author says “At any rate, there is hardly any evidence for a Sanskrit-based, spoken or written, language…”.

    Question 1 to the author: Using the same basis of ‘lack of evidence’, will the author disregard the Proto-Indo-European langauge – a reconstructed language – Does PIE have any actual hard evidence of existence? This question is not a comment on the existence of either PIE or Samskrtm but is merely a question on whether or not the author would apply his method of causation consistently.

    II. The author says: “For a long time, right-wing ideologues have tried to establish the Indus Valley civilisation as the oldest in the world – a theory that is factually wrong. The Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilisations are older, according to professional historians.”

    Question 2 to the author: One does not expect the author to be a well-read scholar. Did the author, however, miss reading mainstream newspapers in the week of May 29-June 04 (2016)? If yes, may be the following might help him catch up:

    http://timesofindia.indiatimes

    “Scientists from IIT-Kharagpur and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) have uncovered evidence that the Indus Valley Civilization is at least 8,000 years old, and not 5,500 years old, taking root well before the Egyptian (7000BC to 3000BC) and Mesopotamian (6500BC to 3100BC) civilizations. What’s more, the researchers have found evidence of a pre-Harappan civilization that existed for at least 1,000 years before this.”

    http://www.thehindu.com/sci-te

    “The recent research by a team of researchers from IIT Kharagpur, Institute of Archaeology, Deccan College Pune, Physical Research Laboratory and Archaeological survey of India (ASI) also shows that the civilisation itself was much older than thought — it is at least 8,000 years old.”

    The paper (published by scientists referred to above), in Nature magazine, may be found here: http://www.nature.com/articles

    III. That both Aryan invasion and the subsequent Aryan migration were both myths and that “neither aryans migrated into north-west nor tamils migrate into south india” are easily established when one considers the following sources of evidence:

    1) http://archaeologyonline.net/a

    2) http://www.newsgram.com/neithe

    “The Rig-Veda was composed while the river was in full flow, and on the basis of current archaeological evidence, this would take us before 2600 BCE (when the river first broke up near what is today the international border in western Rajasthan).”

    3) http://www.hindunet.org/hindu_

    4) http://swarajyamag.com/culture

    Contrary to long-held theories that Indo-Aryans entered the subcontinent at this juncture and began imposing their culture on the natives, we find the development of distinct regional characteristics, and the shift towards hardier crops like millets and Kharif crops after 1900 BCE, suggesting that there was no new population – much less one with rudimentary agricultural skills as the incoming Aryans would have been – but a native one that knew the land and conditions intimately enough to diversify and adapt quickly in a rapidly changing scenario. More importantly, the Indo-Aryans seem to have had an apprehension that the declining monsoon may well lead to the vanishing of the Sarasvati, as the verse in the beginning of this article suggests. That can only mean one thing. Interestingly, Clift and his group seem to think so too, for they conclude: “This is a testament to the acuity of the Rig Veda composers who transmitted to us across millennia such an incredibly accurate description of a grand river!”

    5) http://www.newsgram.com/no-evi

    “Contrary to what has been stated by Thapar and Sharma, the BMAC is not a pastoral culture, but a highly developed urban one. The settlements are marked not only by well-planned houses but also by distinctive public buildings like temples, e.g. those at Dashly-3 and Toglok-21 sites. Then there were Citadel complexes like that at Gonur. The antiquities found at BMAC sites also speak volumes about the high caliber of this civilization. In the face of such a rich heritage of the BMAC, would you like to deduce that the BMAC people were nomads – whom Thapar and Sharma would like to push into India as progenitors of the Rigvedic people? I am sure, you wouldn’t.

    But much more important is the fact that no BMAC element, whether seals or bronze axes or sculptures or pot-forms or even the style of architecture ever reached east of the Indus, which was the area occupied by the Vedic Aryans as evidenced by the famous Nadi-stuti hymn (RV 10.75.5-6). Hence, there is no question of the BMAC people having at all entered the Vedic region.

    Thus, the theory of ‘Aryan Migration’ too is a myth.”

  • Birendra K Jha

    I went through your article “Mohenjo Daro makes historians cringe, Hindutva bigots proud”. The “Hindutva Horseplay”, what you are citing was Chennai based Frontline’s unsuccessful attack some more than a decade earlier against my father, Late Dr Jha and his eminent associate Dr NS Rajaram. In this matter I have to put following comments:

    WHAT MOHENJODARO MEANS TO THE INDIANS

    There are strong and proved evidences which portray the real picture of Mohenjodaro ( literal meaning in Sindhi is the Mound of Mohen ( Krishna ). This is not “mound of dead”. This Civilization was of Krishna and his successors. The famous Unicorn Bull is the icon of Krishna himself. This evidence is recorded in the Mahabharata. With the help of Brahmi – Phonecian and Armaic scripts, Dr N Jha, had given more than a decade earlier the Sanskrit reading of the various Mohenjodaro seals including agni ; indrah and so on.

    After the demise of Krishna, Bajranabha, was made as successor of the Saraswati Province, which Krishna was commanding. This place is recorded in the Mahabharata as Sakraprastha. Bajranabha in the memory of his grandfather undertook many activities in the vast Sarasvati Province including the construction of the present Dwarkadhish temple and the name Sakraprastha was named after call name Mohen. Latter on Sindhi started calling it the Mound of Mohen.
    Great India had recorded brilliant literatures, but still Colonial minded historians are not able to shed from the distorted facts what the Colonial history taught Indians some more than 200 years ago. From Mohenjodaro to the present Mehargarh in Baluchistan is symbol and evidence of Indians presence, which says that the two nation theory of Jinnah was wrong and creation of Pakistan is not any State but State of artificial mind, which has no base and existence. Real India stretches towards Mohenjodaro to Baluchistan crossing vast land of India.

    History says that the borders of any nation do changes after every 50 years. One day the borders of India shall melt with the artifical dividing line at Baluchistan and the history books quite taught at school level, will hold the fact that in the Civilization of Krishna, horse is relevant. One with open mind should compare Horse seal of Dr Jha – This is not fabricated but real horse seal; horse and Krishna can’t be separated. The entire Kurukshetra war is the testimony of horse and Krishna with lot of horse readings on Indus seals; evidence of Kriya – Yoga ( Compiled by Patanjala ) – Mohenjodaro was known as Great seat of Kriya Yoga with Krishna himself as Great master on the subject; Great Seal Library – where compilation of the Vedic words Nighantu is seen and many other things associated with Krishna.

    Refer site: https://sites.google.com/site/indusculture/

    Birendra K Jha
    Birendrajha03@yahoo.com