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.
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.
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.