Friday, May 15, 2020

Royal Warriors of Ancient Sanauli

On 29 February, nine days after starting my Retracing Bodhisattva Xuanzang Walk, I crossed River Yamuna at Bega ghat and walked about 9 kms along its eastern bank to arrive at Sanauli. For my readers who are not familiar with the name Sanauli, it is a village in Baghpat district of Uttar Pradesh, about 70 kms to the north-east of New Delhi. Sanauli was featured in the news recently because of the discovery of a cemetery and chariots dating back to the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE. These are one of the biggest archaeological finds of recent times and could require, perforce, a rewriting of the history of this region depending on the revelations from these finds. With these discoveries, Sanauli has catapulted on the world map as archaeologists and historians from world over, particularly the West, are taking immense interest in decoding the meanings hidden in these extraordinary artefacts.



 3800 years old Chariot discovered at Sanauli.


The story of the discovery of the archeological site of Sanauli is equally interesting. It is about two locals, Samsun and Tahir, both of whom I had the chance to meet during my visit to Sanauli. Samsun recalled for me that in 2005, more than two decades ago, he had once taken up the job of levelling an agricultural land, owned by a man named Shri. Om Prakash Sharma. Using rudimentary implements he started removing about 2-3 feet of earth. While digging, he discovered dozens of pots. Many of the pieces got destroyed during the digging but Samsun managed to recover 16 vessels undamaged. He also found a copper dagger, 16 inches in length. He took all of these to place them as decorative items. He told me: Matke bahut sundar lag rahe the (The pottery looked very attractive). At that moment, Samsun did not have a clue about the historical significance of the objects he had discovered. Samsun’s uncle, Tahir, returned home late that evening to find these items placed on the shelf.

With Samsun, Sanauli.



Tahir showing the archaeological implements manufactured by him in his workshop.


I met Tahir, a man in his mid 40's, at his electrical repair shop in Barot which is about 7 kms from Sanuali. In addition to repairing electrical goods, he also produces implements used for archaeological excavation such as miniature spades and shovels. We started conversing in the shop but as customers kept coming and interrupting him, Tahir offered to continue the conversation at his home. So, we went to his home which was like an extension of his metal and electrical worksop with equipment and tools kept all around. Tahir is a graduate in English. At school, he loved learning about ancient civilisations. He knew about the Harappan Civilisation. He had also visited the Archaeological Survey of India in Delhi when he was in Class VIII. Tahir told me that it took him only a glance to recognise that the pottery discovered by his nephew were none other than ancient artefacts. Tahir said that by the appearance of the copper dagger it was especially apparent to him that these were remains of an ancient civilisation. Tahir recalled that his excitement at the discovery of these items was so great that he did not get any sleep that night: mein raat bhar so nahin so saka. The day after the finds, Tahir approached a local Hindi newspaper with his story. They published the news two days later, making the discovery public. Without wasting any time, Tahir then left for Delhi to share his findings with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Soon after the Archaeological Survey of India sent a specialist team to the archeological site and subsequently collected all the artefacts from the site as well as those with Samsun. Tahir told me that Samsun was slightly apprehensive throughout these happenings as he was afraid that he had done an illegal act for which he might be punished. Hence, initially Samsun was not cooperative with Tahir. Afterwards, however, Samsun did extend support to Tahir. 


Dagger replica made by Tahir, picture of the original can be seen in album in background

Tahir brought out an album to show me in which he had chronologically arranged cuttings from different newspapers about the discovery of the archeological site at Sanauli. The album also had pictures of the site. While talking about the discovery, Tahir was using terms and terminologies specific to history and archeology. I was amazed at his understanding and passion for this subject. He was like a professional in the field. Tahir showed me a replica of the copper dagger which he had made as a memorabilia. I picked it in my hand to feel the weight. It weighed about 700 gms. Tahir told me that he made it as close as possible to the original in both shape and weight. Tahir also showed me the implements he has made for archaeological excavations, some of which were used by the ASI during the excavation at Sanauli.

Tahir is sort of a local celebrity now because of the stupendous discovery he has made. He was visited by Dr. Upinder Singh, Daughter of the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh at his shop. He was also visited by Dr. Navanjot Lahiri of Delhi University who took a selfie with Tahir. Tahir has gifted some artefacts from his collection to Delhi University. Tahir’s life and thinking has changed in many ways following his discovery of the Sanauli archeological site. He shared with me that about 2 millenniums ago, Brahmins, who were the ruling class of the Hindu society, persecuted the Buddhists occupying their heritage sites such as monasteries, temples, and stupas. Excavations in the Indian subcontinent reveal Buddhist remains everywhere. Brahmins persecuted fellow Hindus of the lower castes, many of whom ended up embracing Islam. Thus, Muslims of India were originally either Hindus or Buddhists. This view of Tahir does not go down well with his community who would not like to trace their roots to Hindus and Buddhists.

In 2005, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) conducted a proper excavation at Sanauli discovering 116 burials dating from 2nd millennium BCE. After a long hiatus, ASI resumed the excavations in 2018. In the second round of excavation was revealed a wooden coffin burial, copper swords, and helmets. But the most extraordinary find was three wooden chariots with solid disk wheels protected by copper sheets.

I met a local man who has been taking great interest in the excavations at the Sanauli archeological site since its discovery more than two decades ago. Shri Rajkumar Maan is a middle-aged man educated in Mathematics and currently running a tuition centre in Sanauli for aspirants seeking to clear competitive government exams. He does not charge a fee for his classes. So far 68 of his students have qualified for different state and national level competitive exams. Rajkumar ji believes that the findings at Sanauli are clinching evidence that disprove the theory of the Aryan invasion. Put forth by Western scholars in the 19th century, according to the Aryan invasion theory, hordes from Central Asia arrived in the Indian subcontinent around the 2nd millenium BCE, pushed the natives to the south and settled themselves in the north. The invasion apparently led to the decline of the Indus Valley civilisation - the civilisation of the ‘original people’ of India.

Rajkumar ji at Temple where he discovered ancient artefacts while repair works in temple


Rajkumar ji and I walked to the fields in Sanauli where the excavations took place. Sanauli is a big village with over 8000 adults. Most of the streets are wide and clean with a proper drainage system. Houses are big with double-heighted ceilings and having enough space to park tractor or buffalo-drawn carts within the premises. I asked Rajkumar ji why the houses had such high ceilings, he answered with a laugh: Shaan ki baat hai ji, Ghar padosiyon se uchi honi chahiye (It's a matter of pride to have one’s house higher than the neighbours). I noticed cow dung cakes everywhere suggesting that every family has buffaloes and cows. I also saw many buffalo-carts and tractors carrying sugarcane crops. I was told by Rajkumar ji that sugarcane is grown by local farmers round the year because it is very profit-making. The archaeological site of Sanauli is situated on the southwest side of the village. When we visited it, it was covered with sugarcane and wheat crops. ASI carried out the excavations of the chariots from these fields quite masterfully and refilled the trenches to allow farmers to continue growing crops on the field. The chariots were sent to Delhi to the ASI for investigation. Tahir had shown me some video footage of this engrossing excavation process.

Buffalo cart laden with sugarcane a common scene in Sanauli
Fields where excavations took place in 2004 and recently in 2018



According to Rajkumar ji, the village of Sanauli is settled over a mound which was probably the place of habitation in ancient times. Rajkumar ji walked me to a spot which he believed was the highest point on the mound. This ‘peak point,’ according to him, could be the exact place where the ‘royals’ lived. There are houses now over the peak point. Rajkumar ji showed me that water bodies surround the village. These water bodies which appear to be separate constituted one big lake until just a few decades ago. People encroached upon them because of which they now appear as separate ponds. Rajkumar ji pointed out to me a river channel flowing through the southeast of the excavation site. Rajkumar ji thinks this is an old channel of River Yamuna. According to Rajkumar ji, these specific geographic features suggest that the ancient settlement in Sanauli was a fairly big metropolitan. While doing some renovation work in a temple near the ‘peak point’, Rajkumar ji even found some ancient bricks which archaeologists told him dated from the Kushan Period (2nd century CE).

Map of Sanauli prepared by Rajkumar ji

An important thread in the Aryan invasion theory is the use of horses and horse-driven chariots by Aryans. Proponents of the theory argue that the ‘Aryans’ arrived from Central Asia on horseback and in horse-drawn chariots. This gave the Aryans an advantage over the Indus Valley civilisation people whose remains do not show any evidence of riding horses or engineering chariots. Thus, when the ‘Aryans’ arrived with their superior force and technology, the Indus   people were compelled to retreat to southern India. Proponents of the theory claim that horses were introduced in northern India by Aryans around 1500 BCE. The finds at Sanauli have confirmed that around 1900 BCE, there lived a warrior people who had antenna swords and daggers made of copper. They used chest shields and they had horse driven chariots. So, horses were present in the Gangetic plain when the Indus Valley Civilization was flourishing (mature phase 2600 BCE to 1900 BCE) and when it started declining (1900-1300 BCE), and this was much before the proposed Aryan invasion in 1500-1000 BCE.

A view from Sanauli village


The Aryan invasion debate has many facets - besides archaeological, it has linguistic and anthropological dimensions and now even genetics (DNA study) is shedding light on the migration pattern. A little search on the internet led me to a variety of articles with compelling arguments both for and against the proposition. The debate is long and complex one. I have tried to summarize a few good articles that I discovered on the web.

An article by Yaajnaseni which negates the Aryan invasion theory (published online: Swarajya, 24 February 2020) discusses Vijay Kumar’s views from his article A note on Chariot Burials found at Sinauli district Baghpat U.P. published in the Indian Journal of Archaeology. According to Vijay Kumar, the only pottery discovered from the ancient burials in Sanauli are Ochre Colored Pottery (OCP). The OCP belongs to Bronze Age culture in the Indo-Gangetic plain dating from a period ranging from 4000 BCE to 2000 BCE. The Bronze Age in the Indo-Gangetic plain had a local beginning that may be traced to 9000-10000 BCE. The OCP culture was a distinct culture and a contemporary and neighbour of the Sindhu-Saraswati civilisation. Archaeological finds in western Uttar Pradesh indicate that people in the Upper Gangetic valley who belonged to the OCP culture and those of the Indus Valley Civilisation used a common script. According to Vijay Kumar, the finds at Sanauli have established it to be an OCP culture site which was the indigenous culture of Gangetic plains and a contemporary to the Indus Valley Civilisation, and which had horses and chariots as early as 1900 BCE that is long before the ‘Aryans’ entered India in 1500-1000 BCE. The horses in Sanauli (i.e. Upper Gangetic valley), argues Vijay Kumar, may not have come from Central Asia in the west but from Tibet in the east. Vijay Kumar further argues that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation as well as other parts of the Indian subcontinent may not have been ignorant about horses as proposed in early studies aligned with Aryan invasion theory. Recent excavations in the Indian subcontinent have led to the discovery of remains of bones of wild and domesticated horses and terracotta figurines of horses. These finds date from the beginning of 3rd millennium BCE. You can read the full article here at Swarajya.  So, in the light of the finds at Sanauli, the Aryan invasion theory may have come to be challenged.
OCB culture and IVC in Map

Scholars who support the Aryan invasion theory believe that Aryans were the people who introduced the key elements of Indian culture. Two of these include Sanskrit language, which gave rise to the family of Indo-Aryan languages spoken all across northern, western and eastern India today, and Vedic literature which is the foundation of the traditional Hindu socio-cultural system. According to these scholars the ‘Aryans’ came from the Eurasian steppe which corresponds to present-day Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan. Quoting from studies published in the Cell and Science, Shoaib Daniyal (published in Scroll on 12 September 2019), believes that genetic studies have confirmed steppe ancestry in every racial group of India. Once the people of Steppe entered northern India between 2000-1500 BCE, a great melting of races occurred. The steppe people mixed with the Indus Valley people to create what is now called the Ancestral North Indian grouping. A significant portion of the Indus Valley people were pushed southwards. They then mixed with the Ancient Ancestral South Indians to form a group known as the Ancestral South Indian population. This intermixing between Steppe pastorals, Indus Valley people and Ancient Ancestral South Indians stopped about 1900 years ago when Indian society calcified into numerous endogamous groups who do not marry across caste lines and that is still maintained in the Indian society. Genetic study has also confirmed that a single language family - the Indo-European family - which stretches all the way from Britain to Bangladesh was brought by Steppe pastoralists. The coming of the ‘Aryans’ or steppe ancestry gave rise to Vedic Sanskrit - the first Indo-Aryan language which forked into Indo-European language in the Indian subcontinent - and in turn gave rise to the Vedic culture between 1750-550 BCE. The DNA of a woman recovered from a 4500-year-old site of the Indus valley Civilisation in present-day Rakhigarhi, Haryana has no traces of Steppe ancestry. This negates the idea floated by some historians that Indus Valley people were Vedic people who used Sanskrit language. These studies can be found in detail at Scroll In.

The finds at Sanauli establish that horses were present in the Gangetic plains much before the so-called Aryan people (Steppe pastorals) came to the Ganagetic plain in 1500-1000 BCE. while genetic study (ancestry) confirms that the present-day people in the Gangetic valley (and Indian subcontinent) have strong genetic and cultural imprint of Steppe pastoral people. Dr. Sanjay Manjul, the Director of the Sanauli archaeological excavation postulates that the people of the Sanauli site were following vedic rituals: ‘the anthropomorphic figures on coffin indicate religious belief, and the gold, copper anthropomorphic figure associated with Vedic gods are also found. Also, the bodies had the impressions of cloth that suggests purification of bodies similar to what we practice in Hindu religion.’
So what can be deduced from the varying studies with claims and counterclaims on the Aryan invasion theory. ASI has discovered many human skeletons at Sanauli. If they are successful in extracting DNA from these skeletons then it will help in clearing the smoke screen and establishing a link between OCP i.e. the people of upper Gangetic plains (like Sanauli), the Indus Valley Civilisation and Steppe ancestry.
In the situation that the two sides met, a conflict was inevitable. What might have happened when the Steppe pastoral tribes with their chariots encountered the Gangetic people who too were warriors having horse-driven chariots? Genetic studies demonstrate that much of the steppe ancestry in the Indian subcontinent is male. This implies the people from Steppes might have overpowered the male population existing in the Indian subcontinent when they arrived. So, could that mean Sanauli warriors lost to Steppe warriors? It will take some more evidence for this debate to be resolved. At any rate, the finding of Sanauli archeological site is a huge breakthrough which has revived and given a new direction to the long-standing Aryan invasion debate. I posed the question to Rajkumar ji whether the present-day people of Sanauli are descendants of the ancient ‘Royal Warriors’ whose graves have been discovered or are they descendants of ‘Aryans’ who overpowered the ‘ancient warriors’ of Sanauli. He told me that according to oral tradition in his community, the Jat Maan, the people came to the eastern side of River Yamuna around 1200 years ago. I asked him what ASI had to say about the cultural timeline of Sanauli - has there been continuous habitation since 1900 BCE in Sanauli or was there a gap of some centuries. He said that I had raised a very interesting question and he would ask the ASI people about it when he met them next.

For an average person in Sanauli, it is a site associated with Mahābhārata (of the Epic Mahābhārata). Local newspapers and some of the news channels are to great extent responsible for this. A big skeleton was discovered in one of the excavation trenches at Sanauli. A villager went so far as to say that the huge skeleton is most probably of Ghatotkacha, the giant son of legendary Bhima (one of the Pandava brothers of epic Mahābhārata).  Ghatotkacha played a significant role in the epic battle Mahābhārata and he died fighting in the battlefield. The Mahābhārata epic is very deeply rooted in the Indian psyche. Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang, during his journey to India in 7th century CE, was told a version of Mahābhārata Epic at Sthaneshwar (present day Kurukshetra) which is now believed to be the place where the epic battle of Mahābhārata was fought between Kauravas and Pandavas. 

Discussing with the Sarpanch of Sanauli
During my stay in Sanauli, I met the Sarpanch (elected village head) Shri Yogendra Singh Mann. When I introduced myself and explained my purpose of visit, he welcomed me and introduced his younger brother Satyendra Maan for talking to me about Sanauli. Satyendra ji was more aware about excavations and developments. He told me that he is in regular touch with ASI people including Sri Sanjay Manjul, the Excavation Director. He very enthusiastically shared with me how the excavation has brought the village on the world map and that now ASI is planning to acquire 350 acres of land for further excavations and development of the site. I asked him what the reaction of the villagers to this was - whether they were in opposition to the land acquisition move of ASI. He replied enthusiastically: ‘Not at all. My family might have to lose about 100 acres but we are happy about it because Sanauli is a national pride now and we are happy to contribute to it. Sanauli was home to royal warrior people in ancient times and we are making an effort to convince authorities to make a museum here and bring the Sanauli chariots back to Sanauli.’ I asked Satyendra ji whether he had seen the chariots. Pointing to a chair kept by his side, he answered in a disappointed way: ish kursi ke barabar hoga ji (it was of the size of this chair). What he meant was the chariot was not like those big chariots shown in Mahābhārata serial on national television. When Satyendra ji had asked Dr. Manjul why the chariots were small, Dr. Manjul told him these chariots were meant for use by single or two people. Satyendra ji also noticed that the wooden part of the chariot was eaten by deemak (termite) and yet the shape of the wheel and chariot were intact. The chariots discovered at Sanauli have two wheels fixed on an axle that was linked by a long pole to the yoke of a pair of animals. A superstructure was attached to the axle consisting of a platform protected by side-screens and a high dashboard. The wheels were found to be solid in nature, without any spokes, and studded with triangular pieces of copper. Satyendra ji also noticed closely the size of the skeletons in the burials. His observation was that people were not tall, their average height being around 5 or 5.5 ft tall. Just a few days before my visit, a team from Oxford University came to study the site. Satyendra ji had been with the team. He told me that they had come with a certain machine which I guessed was ground penetrating radar. Satyendra received an update about the survey done by the team from Oxford. The Oxford team discovered that the archaeological site was spread in a very large area.

During my three days at Sanauli, I stayed at Shiv Hanuman Temple situated on the outskirts of the village in the northwest. Like temples in rural India, this temple was managed by a village committee. The temple premises was also used as gymnasium by young boys of the village. It had many locally designed equipment and throughout the day, it was occupied by boys aspiring to join the police or military services. Here, at the temple, I met a man named Gaurav Maan, who joined Uttar Pradesh Police recently. Gaurav told me quite proudly that over a hundred youth from his village had joined the police and military services in the recent past. As I did not notice too many girls on the streets, I asked him whether girls too were aspiring to join the police and military services. He said yes, they were a few girls from the village who had joined the state police but not many of them. 

While strolling in the village, I met a group of teenage students who at once became curious to know about me and my project. I told them about Xuanzang whose footsteps I was following through a 2000km long padyatra (foot journey). I was delighted to find out that they not only knew about Xuanzang but also about Faxian (5th CE) and I-tsing (7th CE) - two other Buddhist monks who came from China on a pilgrimage to India. One of the students, Arjun Maan, started talking about the Buddha and the eight stupas made over his body relics. His knowledge surprised me greatly so I asked how he knew in such detail about the Buddha and Xuanzang. All of them answered together that anybody preparing for state or national level competitive exams had to study these topics. I think the governments of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are slowly realizing the deep association of these states with Buddha and therefore incorporating topics related to Buddhism in school curriculum and competitive exams as a way of spreading awareness among students who are best agents for sensitizing a community. One can see school buses lined up outside Buddhist pilgrimage sites in UP and Bihar. Organising sightseeing to heritage sites for students is a part of government awareness generation effort in the field of heritage preservation.

One of the persons who showed me around and gave me company frequently during my three-day stay in Sanauli was Ankush Maan. In 2005 when the first excavation took place in Sanauli, Akush was only 8 years old. Ankush told me that at the time, the event of the excavation was mostly an ‘entertainment’ for children like him, but in 2018, at the time of the second excavation, they were all old enough so then they could understand the enormous importance of the discoveries in Sanauli and their implications. Together with a few friends, Ankush has collected many artefacts which they keep discovering from the fields in the village from time to time. They brought out a heavy and bulging bag full of ancient broken bricks and potshards. Ankush took out a broken piece of terracotta sculpture which he thought must be very ancient. They have shared their collection with the archaeological experts who visit the village often now. The children also keep following every single news about Sanauli that appears in local or national newspapers. I think that the team from ASI have done their work very well of educating young minds in Sanuali regarding the value of the antiquities discovered in their village. Sanauli has many young people who participated in the excavations and understand the larger significance of the place - this is very important for the preservation of the site in the long-term.
 Avi, Ankush and his friends showing me the artefacts that they collected from fields

My host Harinder Maan with his son

I had initially planned a two-day stay in Sanauli but within a couple of hours of my arrival, I made so many friends - Harinder Phalwan, Gaurav, Avi, Ankush, Rajkumar ji among others - they made every effort to make my stay fruitful. All those I became friends with belonged to the Maan Jat community. Maan is one of the many Jat communities that live in western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. The people of Sanauli are mostly a farming community. Almost all the households had buffaloes and cows. So obviously I was offered a lot of milk products in the meals. Because of the hospitality and insistence of my friends, I added one more day to my stay. At 6 am on 3 March when I was about to leave Sanauli, there was a knock on my door. When I opened the door, I was surprised to find Harinder Phalwan, Avi, Ankush and Rohan standing there with a tiffin box. They had brought my breakfast - six parathas and a can full of milk. It was very touching especially because they must have woken up very early to prepare this. After finishing my breakfast and before starting my walk out of the village, we clicked a group selfie. As I exited Sanauli, I saw a welcome hoarding hanging over the Barot highway which had a picture of Shri Yogendra Singh Maan and Smt. Usha Devi. The hoarding mentioned Smt. Usha Devi as the Sarpanch and Shri Yogendra Singh Maan as the husband of the Sarpanch so on the day I thought I was interacting with the Sarpanch, it was actually the husband of the Sarpanch. I turned with a quizzical look to Ankush and Avi who had introduced me to Yogendra Ji as the Sarpanch. Both smiled. I was hardly surprised. Husbands handling the public affairs on behalf of their elected wives is common in India. Ankush and Avi walked with me for more than a mile. Finally, I had to insist them to return with the promise that I would return soon.

Hoarding with pictures of village head and her husband


Ankush, Avi, Nishant, Rohan and Harinder ji....morning see-off


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