Prof BB Lal: How the ‘Dean of Indian Archaeology’ dug out truth on AIT and Ayodhya temple

Prof BB Lal played a crucial role in bringing out new evidence in favour of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya and also debunked the outside origins of the ‘Aryans’

Koenraad Elst September 14, 2022 19:06:04 IST
Prof BB Lal: How the ‘Dean of Indian Archaeology’ dug out truth on AIT and Ayodhya temple

Professor BB Lal. Image courtesy News18

Now that Prof Braj Basi Lal, the ‘Dean of Indian Archaeology’, has left this world at 101, it is fitting to highlight the most striking among his many achievements. For seven decades he was in the forefront of India’s archaeological research, even charting new ground in our knowledge of the less-known Ganga civilisation (From the Mesolithic to the Mahājanapadas, Aryan Books International) in 2019, at age 98. But his place in history has been made by two issues with an importance far beyond pure scholarship: The Ayodhya temple/mosque controversy and the Indo-European (‘Aryan’) invasion debate.

In the 1980s, when the present writer studied Oriental Philology and History in Leuven University, he asked his professor of Indo-European Linguistics if there was any proof for the generally assumed Southwest-Russian homeland of the Indo-European language family. He said that this had been proven by archaeology. Another professor, the leading Dutch Indologist Pierre Eggermont, spoke in the same vein, and also named his source: Prof Braj Basi Lal’s 1950s’ exploration of the Painted Grey Ware (PGW).

This was a type of pottery that Lal explained as typical of the Aryans penetrating deeper into India. Thirty years later, he had not fundamentally changed his mind yet. So when, around that same time, I heard my professors quote him as a source of authority, they were simply reproducing the state of the art. Indeed, till today, Lal’s invasionist interpretation of his own PGW findings is still being cited as proof of an Aryan invasion, e.g. by SV Pradhan (The Elusive Aryans, 2014) and at the annual conference of the European Archaeological Association, Maastricht 2017. This decades-long exclusive appeal to Lal’s finding at least confirmed that in the intervening decades, no other ‘proof’ has materialised.

Even today, that state of the art has not been strengthened by any new evidence. The elusive Aryans fail to show up in the archaeological record. And the state of the art has evolved since then, because crown witness BB Lal realised that his invasionist explanation was only an interpretation, viz. a force-fitting of the data into the reigning paradigm, the one he had absorbed from his mentor, Sir Mortimer Wheeler. Later he came to understand that he had merely developed an application of the paradigm, not an independent proof of it.

So now we have to face the complete absence of archaeological evidence for an Aryan immigration. An invasion of the military type has long been ruled out (as opposed to Europe, where an “Aryan” or Indo-European military conquest emanating from the Black Sea coast has been confirmed by all manner of archaeologically attested material and cultural innovations), but a peaceful influx under the radar yet replacing the thickly-populated subcontinent’s language and religion as well. Even invasionist champion Michael Witzel confirms that no archaeological proof for the Aryan invasion has been found ‘yet’. This explains why most leading Indian archaeologists are no longer shy about their scepticism of the invasion scenario.

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Since the 1990s, Lal has published a number of books detailing the archaeological evidence for full continuity between the Harappan cities, such as The Saraswati Flows On: The Continuity of Indian Culture (2002), The Homeland of the Aryans. Evidence of Rigvedic Flora and Fauna, and Archaeology (2005), and culminating in The Rigvedic People: ‘Invaders’/’Immigrants’? or Indigenous? Evidence of Archaeology and Literature, (2015, all through Aryan Books International, Delhi).

Thus far, Lal’s efforts have not yet made a dent in the dominance of the invasionist paradigm: ‘An ostrich-like attitude is perpetuating the Aryan invasion myth’. (in Bal Ram Singh’s Origin of Indian Civilisation, 2010) But the Indo-Europeanist establishment cannot keep on stonewalling the accumulating archaeological and other evidence forever. They can look the other way when their only archaeo-supporter turns away from their Aryan invasion scenario, and even when his younger colleagues, together with scholars from other fields, find new evidence against it. But the truth has a way of finally asserting itself.

We have already seen it in the Ayodhya temple/mosque controversy. In the 1970s, the same BB Lal came up with archaeological evidence for the temple, of which remains formed part of the foundations and the pillars of the Babri Masjid. This was the first scientific confirmation of a commonly accepted tradition (also by the local Muslims and the British) about a pre-existing Rama temple at the mosque site. The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, ordered Lal to keep silent about it. But once the ‘eminent historians’ started roundly denouncing the existing consensus, among scholars, Lal’s evidence was highlighted, together with a growing body of documentary evidence. Yet, the media kept the old consensus and the new evidence for it for some more years out of view; they stonewalled Lal’s evidence just as the Indo-Europeanist establishment is still doing, or even decried him as a ‘born-again Hindu nationalist’. Unfortunately for the ‘eminent historians’, truth bypassed their efforts at suppressing it, and now judgements by Allahabad High Court (2011) and the Supreme Court (2019) have definitively confirmed that Prof Lal had been right all along.

A similar end of the affair seems to be in store for the Aryan immigration debate. Here Lal is instrumental in a return to the assumption of an Indian homeland of the Indo-European language family, common in Europe in the half-century around 1800. As the leading linguist from Leiden, RSP Beekes, has written: “When the IE family was discovered and people sought its land of origin, they at first thought of India.” The Out-of-India Theory is not some far-fetched novelty, but stood at the cradle of the very notion of an Indo-European language family. It is to Prof Lal’s eternal credit that he has played a crucial role in restoring the true story with new evidence.

The writer is a well-known Indologist from Belgium. Views expressed are personal.

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