Beware Aryan hypotheses

The Archaeology of Ancient Indian Cities
December 8, 1995

Some books are stuffed with ideas, basic data of all kinds, charts, lists, plans and long bibliographies. Dilip Chakrabarti's recent book on the archaeology of the most important developments in the long antiquity of the Indian subcontinent is one of those works.

He has looked at the growth and subsequent decline of the third millennium bc cities of the Indus civilisation and has traced developments leading from that period to the rise of urbanism again in the middle centuries of the last millennium bc. His approach is practical and refreshing, founded not on speculation or intuitive model-building but on a careful recitation of the basic data. This book is peopled with neither Aryans nor invaders. It contains no easy answers to near insoluble problems such as exactly why the Indus people stopped living in their great cities. That problem, infesting the brains of many great scholars over three generations, is seen not as a problem that can be solved but rather as a process of decline to be presented as the record of fact permits. The result is an accurate record, free from unsubstantiated hypothesis. What a relief that is and what a useful sourcebook for reference and study the book becomes.

Chakrabarti traces the growth of the second urbanisation not in terms of linking ancient texts with archaeological data, an almost hopeless task in all but the most impressionistic terms, but by using reliable history and the available archaeology. This approach yields a comprehensible and memorable series of three dateable stages for this later urban development (c. 600-700 BC, third to second century bc and the early centuries ad) based on some simple archaeological facts: relative numbers of sites over time and their sizes.

Chakrabarti views Indian culture as home grown but takes no cheapening populist line in denying contact with the world. As all things are connected to their broad setting, so was the dynamic richness of ancient India linked in a myriad of ways with its many neighbours. Such a view is clear in this book. The growth, therefore, of urban culture in the far northwest of the subcontinent was influenced by the overwhelming political and economic power of the ancient Persian empire. Other regional ancient urban forms had other, local origins.

The data-rich approach means sometimes that whole pages of facts can be used as information sources. Page 269, for example, is a daunting list of site names. With this, however, comes the remark that sharply-drawn distinctions between, say, the Kushans and the Guptas in the archaeological record are often "routine labelling exercise(s) based on 'field intuition'" - thus openly questioning much published data and the method of its acquisition. This could be the language of mere polemic but really it is practical, questioning, scholarly common-sense, free from speculation and false models. It illustrates the theme implicit in this book, a plea for an empirical approach to archaeological problems. We must welcome wholeheartedly the creative debate the author raises here and salute his refusal in the absence of data to confine the specifics of culture change. The truth about these ancient cities may always consist of no more than the tentative hypotheses mentioned in the last paragraph of his excellent book.

Robert Knox is keeper of oriental antiquities, British Museum.

The Archaeology of Ancient Indian Cities

Author - Dilip K. Chakrabarti
ISBN - 0 19 563472 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 296

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