Dani Interview: Full Text

These interview excerpts have been formatted for easy printing. Ahmad Hassan Dani was interviewed at his Islamabad, Pakistan residence by Site Producer Omar Khan on January 6, 1998.

1 A Dravidian Language?4 Aryans?
2 Cultural Connections5 Connections to Hinduism?
3 An Agglutinative Language6 Evolution of the Writing

1. A Dravidian Language?

Q: What do you think about the theory today that the Indus language was a Dravidian language and that there is a connection between the Indus culture and today's South Indian culture?

This is generally believed by those who are now working, particularly my friends like Asko Parpola, Professor Mahadevan, and the Russians Professors who have worked on this subject. They have all been working on the assumption that the language of the Indus people was Dravidian, that the people who build the Indus Civilization are Dravidian. But unfortunately I, as well as my friend Prof. B.B. Lal in India, have not been able to agree with this.

Today the Dravidians are living in South India and we always say if they were the builders of the Indus Civilization and if they migrated from here because of some reason or the other, then something of that civilization they should carry into the south except just the language. But so far we have not been able to find any trace of the Indus Civilization in the whole of South India. It is there is Gujarat, it is there in Malabar, but not in the area where Dravidian is spoken today. Not a single evidence has been found.

Recently when Asko Parpola came about three months ago to Pakistan, he said no Professor, what about Gujarat? Certainly in Gujarat we have got the Indus Civilization, right about to the mouth of the Narmada, right up to the mouth of the Tanti we have got this civilization. There is one more place on the Narmada we have got the Indus civilization, but not south of it. He said that this shows that people have been there. I said even then I will not agree.

2. Cultural Connections

But let me correct myself. There is one particular aspect which does survive, not only in South India, but also in Sri Lanka. This came to my mind when the year before last I was in Sri Lanka at the time of their general election and they had a music performance. In the music performance they were having the dance, and with their drum or dholak, and it at once reminded me of my early life, for I was born in Central India, and I had seen this kind of dance. Not with tabla, tabla is a later comer in our country. It at once reminded me that we have got this dholak in the Indus Valley Civilization. I don't know about the dance, but at least the dholak we know. We have not stringed instruments in Indus Valley Civiliztion. We have got the flute, we have got cymbals, we have got the dholak. Exactly the same musical instrruments are played today in Sri Lanka and South India. So I would like to correct myself: to say that nothing is surviving in South India [is wrong]; this is the only instrument which is surviving there according to me from the Indus Civilization.

Q: What kind of traces would you like to have that would make you think that there is more of a connection between the Dravidians and the ancient Indus?

A: If not the urban, the urban life, at least some pottery, some seal, some material of ivory or any material which we find in the Indus Civilization should be found there rather than in North India. In North India, we know it gradually went later on. But nothing has been found in South India as far as a material object is concerned. As far as the literary object or material is concerned, that we have not been able to know because we haven't been able to read the Indus script.

Q: I was just in Madras. As you know, tigers were very important in the Indus civilization. I noticed that in Madras wherever they are constructing a house, they put a tiger mask in front to ward off the evil spirits. Perhaps this is a trace of an Indus Valley period belief?

A: No, the tiger is also very important in Central India, where I have been living myself, very important. In fact, one of the most important animals in the Indus Civilization is the bull. You visit my museum, I have a painted pottery, not excavated by me, in Islamabad, and all around we have got a bull. Although we do not worship animals in Pakistan, but we do respect the bull because of its utilitarian nature. Bull is used for carriage, in the bullock cart, for plowing, and we have got bull festivals every year. The bull is not the sacred animal in that part of India, it is the cow.

3. An Agglutinative Language

On the other hand, I have been talking to Prof. Parpola that certainly this is an agglutinative language, there is no doubt. That has been accepted by all of us. Dravidian is an agglutinative language. But at the same time Altaic is an agglutinative language, and certainly we know that there was a connection beween Turkmenistan [in Central Asia] and this region. Turkmenistan is a region where Altaic languages are spoken. Even in the pre-Indus period we have a connection. In what we call the Kot Diji period, we have a connection between Indus Civilization and excavations in Turkmenistan. So if we insist on an agglutinative language being used inthe Indus period, why not connect it with Altaic, rather than just with Dravidian? Why not connect it with Sumerian, which is also an agglutinative language? In fact, when I was in Korea, I found that their language is agglutinative, which I did not know before. Just because of agglutinative language, it is not necessary that it is connected with Dravidian. But unfortunately, our history has been so written in the time of the British that earlier we tried to trace out history from the Aryans, and we thought that before the Aryans were Dravidians, that was the idea. So when the Indus Civilization was discovered, it was thought if it is not Aryan, it must be Dravidian, that was the general assumption. But it is not necesssary.

4. Aryans?

Q: Do you think that the Indus Valley people could have been Aryans before the Rgvedic Aryans, another group of Aryans who had come down much earlier and created their own civilization?

A: Whatever we know of the Aryans, from the literary records, in the Rgveda, the earliest book or the first nine books of the Rgveda, do not speak at all of any urban life. They speak of only rural life, villages, and as the Indus Civilization is an urban civilization, therefore to talk of any Aryan association with the urban life seems to me rather unthinkable.

If you read the entire book of the Rgveda and you will find it is totally rural life, not nomadic, they were agricultural no doubt, living in small villages. At the same time, they had no concept of irrigation, they had no use of dams on the rivers; in fact their god Indra is the destroyer of the dams. Hence the type of agriculture and the type of urban life the Indus Civilization people built up was beyond the conception of the Aryans or even the earlier Aryans.

This is very important from our angle. If at all, in the Aryan book, the earliest book whatever we know if today, whatever we have been able to gather from other Aryan languages, not just Sanskrit, from old Iranian, there is nothing of urbanity, nothing of irrigation, nothing called building the dams. All these three are basic factors in the development of the Indus Civilization.

Q: So who would these people have been then? It is becoming mysterious.

Certainly it is very mysterious. So far a large number of scholars have been trying to build on the basis that the language is Dravidian, the people are Dravidian. Unfortunately, I have not been able to agree, nor has my friend Prof. B.B. Lal. Those who have excavated in both Mohenjodaro and Harappa, Lal has excavated in Harappa and I in Mohenjodaro, somehow our concept is entirely different. I know South India very well, I have been living in that part, I have excavated in Mysore and also in other places in South India, of course before 1947. Although I have told you about the music and you have told me about the tiger, it may be possible, it may not be possible, but even then the two are so different that it is after a long, long time that we find urbanization taking place in South India. Tamil literature does not give us any information about a literary form before the first century or at the earliest the second century B.C. We do not have any evidence of damming in the Kaveri river, for example, the most important river in Tamil country, earlier than first or second century B.C.

5. Connections to Hinduism?

Q: You don't think that there are some profound connections with later Hinduism, like bathing in the water, or the yogic figure on some of the seals?

This has no doubt been the intepretation given by Sir John Marshall given in his book [193031] when he wrote and described the religion of the Indus people. But that was because he knew the Hindu religion and society, and on that basis he interpreted, and called it, for example, the prototype of Shiva, and about talked about the yoga and so on. But today we know that there is a very great difference between the two. Certainly yoga continued, but it is possible that it continued even later on [outside Hinduism] for it is simply a question of meditation. For example, when I talk about the meditation derived in Islam today among the Sufis, and when I say it is derived from Buddhism, all the Muslims say no, it is nonsense to say that, but I know it is a derivation. It is quite possible something may have continued, but very little is known.

For example, image worship was known in the Indus Civilization but not known to the Aryans. The Aryans were the conquerors, but the people may have continued that. Similarly, yoga probably was not known to the Aryans in the earlier phases, but later it did penetrate into their society, maybe taken from surviving traditions among the common people. But who were those people, we do not know.

6. Evolution of the Writing

Q: Your excavations of the pre-Indus people, at Rehman Dheri and so forth, what do you think the implications are for understanding the Indus people?

In Rehman Dheri, we do have town planning, we have pottery which shows continuity between Rehman Dheri and the Indus Civilization. With terracotta there is a change, no doubt, but there is some continuity, in designs there is some continuity with what we call the Kot Diji [pre-Indus] and the Indus Civilization. This is no doubt true. But we do not find any seal, we do not find any writing. We have got, no doubt, the forms, engravings, or just scrapings on the pottery. But we do not have a system in the pre-Mohenjo-daro period. The system only evolved in the Indus Civilization. Certainly the shapes are there [earlier]; when you write you have to borrow from the older shapes, that is no doubt true. Even the weight system we do not find earlier. Weights, measure and the writing, the base of the economy is not there earlier, although town planning and architecture is there earlier. Pottery, stoneware, some playthings also continue, but what makes the Indus Civilization is the political economy is not found beforehand. So even today I call it pre-Indus Civilization and Indus Civilization, although many of my friends call it the early Indus Civilization.

We do not know how the writing evolved. I think it was as the trade developed, writing was necessary. Writing was already known in Mesopotamia. So if I am trying to develop writing in my country, it is not necessary that I should use your symbol. I will give you an example. I went to Korea, and there I started reading a Korean book. The moment I saw their alphabet I said what is this alphabet? They said this is an alphabet invented by our King in the 15th century A.D. I said nonsense, I can tell you the whole origin from my country! But what has happened, they have not taken the syllables from my country, but based on that they have evolved their own symbols, perhaps done even better, with verticals and horizontals. Where we have got circles, they don't have circles at all. Wherever there was a curved circle, they made it a vertical. I said I can trace this.

So if writing in the Indus Civilization is derived from Western Asia, it is not necessary that the symbols come from that place. We can use our own symbols. But the basic principle comes from there.

Q: Although now I think the evidence is more that the writing here was an indigenous development.

Could be, it is possible. But indigenous development on the basis of the basic principle [from Western Asia]. Because we do not find development from the pictograph right up to the logo-syllabic writing that we know was used in the Indus Civilization. We do not find the earlier one, which is known to us in Mesopotamia, it is known to us in Egypt. Here we find directly logo-syllabic writing. Hence, they must have known about the logo-syllabic writing then in use in Mesopotamia with whom they had trade connections, and then evolved their own, on the same basis. This is what I am maintaining: that as we do not find from the simple pictograph developing into logo-syllabic in Indus Civilization, but we find it in Mesopotamia, and therefore some wise man, some intellectual here in this region must have known that here is a system of writing, why not evolve our own on the same basis.

Q: It may just be that we haven't excavated enough to find the development.

Quite possible, that is no doubt true, tomorrow we may find something and change our opinion.


© Harappa 1998