Sunday, May 3, 2020

An archaeologist of consequence: Prof. B.B. Lal

(in BR Mani: A Legendary Archaeologist: Prof. BB Lal Felicitation Volume, Delhi 2018)


The first time I heard the name B.B. Lal was ca. 1980 in my hometown Leuven, when the leading Orientalist Prof. Pierre Eggermont mentioned him in a lecture on the putative Aryan invasion. At that time I had no idea yet that his widely shared hypothesis was less than fully supported by the evidence, or that it was going to be the stake of a hot controversy. What little of evidence that Eggermont could build on, was precisely a finding by B.B. Lal.

When still a beginning archaeologist, Lal made his name internationally by digging up the missing link between the Aryans and India: the Painted Grey Ware (PGW, 1200-800) culture. As we ought to have realized since the controversies among anthropologists about hyped “missing links” between ape and man that turned out to be overrated or faked, a missing link tends to be tricky business. Eggermont told us Lal had identified the PGW as a marker of the Aryan invaders making their way deeper into India, and Lal’s first publications on the subject could be cited to that effect. Indeed, they still are: till today, some believers in the Aryan invasion quote Lal’s early hypothesis on the PGW as material evidence for their hypothesis. (Update: even at the annual conference of the European Archaeological Association, Maastricht 2017, I heard this said urbi et orbi, without anyone protesting; which incidentally confirmed that in the fifty years since, no other such “proof” has materialized.)

But the fact is that Lal has abandoned this hypothesis long ago. Nothing in the PGW data positively proved that it was “Aryan”, or more “Aryan” than its surroundings. This was only assumed because it would fit neatly in the Aryan invasion hypothesis, which was taken to be a fact. Actually, the PGW had to fill the yawning gap in the evidential support basis of the Aryan invasion hypothesis. As Lal delved deeper into the subject, he realized that the invasion hypothesis was not a proven factual framework within which one could interpret new data. Instead, it was itself a mere hypothesis, one among several unproven ways to look at the available facts. So he has grown away from it.

But alright, back then an inertial reliance on Lal’s juvenile convictions could be excused. Today, this is no longer acceptable. The PGW is but one of many dashed hopes of Aryan invasion believers looking for a material sign of their hypothesis. None of Lal’s colleagues has discovered the long-awaited trace of an invasion.


Later, Prof. Lal has presented in his books a much larger corpus of archaeological data that militate against the Aryan invasion scenario. I have had the privilege of being asked by the magazine Hinduism Today to review Lal’s book The Rigvedic People: Invaders/Immigrants or Indigenous (Aryan Books, Delhi 2015). There he explains how recent excavations in Kunal and Bhirrana have pointedly confirmed a civilizational continuity since the 6th millennium BC, rather than an interruption by invading Aryans. He documents how, contrary to Western opinion, the horse, supposedly the Vedic glamour animal, is attested in a number of Harappan cities, and the spoked wheel likewise through terracotta models. The excavated fire altars, of the kind used for Vedic fire ceremonies, have been ridiculed in the West as just kitchen hearths, but Lal finds more confirmation for the ritual purpose of these fire-pits as well as indications that real kitchen-hearths, equally attested, were of a different type.

The continuity of the Harappan civilization is expressed in many ways. Lingam-yoni motifs are associated with a male figure seated in meditation posture, the same figure is the addressee of a bull sacrifice, and two attributes of Shiva are found together: a bull with a trident engraved on his hip. Ascetics are found depicted, as also a depiction of a well-known Hindu fable: The Thirsty Crow. Statuettes show the Namaste salute with folded hands. Married women are shown wearing red powder in the parting of their hair and spiraled bangles on their wrists. Concludes the dean of Indian archaeology: “So, it is abundantly clear that all the objections against a Harappan-Vedic equation are baseless.” Indeed, “the Harappan civilization and the Vedas are but two faces of the same coin.”


Over the years, I met Prof. Lal several times, once even in Los Angeles. The last time till now was at the Draupadi Trust’s Delhi conference on the Sindhu-Saraswati Civilization, March 2015. During one session I was sitting just next to B.B. Lal. On archaeology, I am a layman, I am not too interested in the material details of excavations, though as a historian I set great store by the end results. So I was listening only with half an ear to a rather technical paper, meanwhile leafing through the new e-mails on my laptop.  

I had received a message from one of the world’s top scholars in  historical and comparative linguistics, a German teaching in the US, as part of an ongoing debate on the Indo-European homeland. He argued, as almost any Western specialist of Indo-European languages would, that the Homeland is a settled matter, at least to the extent that it was not in India: “Everyone knows it.” But here I was sitting in a hall with India’s top archaeologists, where every speaker pleaded that in his own excavations, he had found total continuity and no trace of an Aryan invasion. It happens only rarely that on one topic, Indian scholars and Western scholars hold such diametrically opposing views.


The name B.B. Lal was again on the frontpages during the scholarly controversies about the Ayodhya  temple/mosque issue ca. 1990, a debate in which I also figured. He stood by the findings he himself had done during on-site excavations in the 1970s. These showed that pillar-bases of the demolished Hindu temple stood underneath the Babri mosque. More thorough Court-ordered excavations in 2003 have amply confirmed the existence of these pillar-bases, along with many other Hindu temple remnants.

This made Lal the target of much slander and mud-throwing. He was ridiculed and denounced as “Hindu fundamentalist”. He was lambasted as “that once-meritorious archaeologist who uses his reputation to propagate the non-existent temple”. Pedantic opponents demanded to see Lal’s field notes, locked away under Archaeological Survey of India rules – as if these writings by Lal himself would contradict Lal’s own conclusion. In any case, he was completely vindicated by later excavations as well as by the written evidence. 

Meanwhile, a publicly available proof of his objectivity and bona fides was eagerly cited by the secularists themselves, because they reckoned it could embarrass the Acharyas leading the Ayodhya agitation. These Hindu leaders had thought that Lal’s support to the temple thesis implied a support to all their beliefs about Rama, including a very high chronology. But Lal’s excavations only found human habitation at the Rama Janmabhumi till the second millennium BCE, not earlier. This greatly disappointed them, and they protested loudly. So Prof. Lal answered: “I don’t say so, but my spade tells me so.”

Though he himself never allowed his successes to go to his head, it must, in hindsight, be an archaeologist’s dream come true to play a prominent role in major controversies and be proven right in the end. At any rate, such are the highlights of Prof. B.B. Lal’s career.

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