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The Languages and Peoples in Ancient India

The Rig Veda was included in the UNESCO “Memory of the World Register” in 2007 because, “being among the first literary documents in the history of humankind, [the Vedas] transcend far beyond their identity as scriptures. The Rig Veda, the oldest among the four Vedas, is the fountain source of the so-called Aryan culture in all its manifestations that spread beyond the Indian subcontinent to large parts of South and South-East Asia, as well as parts of Central Asia.” Prior to the Rig Veda (RV), no other literary document – the Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian etc. – can be considered as a book per se. The exact timeline of RV itself is a matter of debate, as are many things of antiquity which have failed to leave behind any archaeological footprint. RV was preserved through oral transmission for a considerable amount of time before it was first written down. That’s another problem in claiming its authenticity or originality. It may be argued that the form in which it has been preserved might have gone through several stages of alterations, editing and modifications over the past few millennia. Nevertheless, if not on the basis of real archaeological evidences, a lot of history can be peeled out of the different layers in RV on the basis of linguistics. Some modern disciplines like Linguistic Palaeontology come handy in this respect. Being the earliest known literary document of the entire set of Indo European languages and peoples, RV holds a very crucial position in the research of their origin and development. On linguistics terms RV can be categorized into three classes:
  1. Early (probably 1700 - 1500 BC) - Books 6, 4, 2 & 5
  2. Middle (1500 - 1350 BC) - Books 3, 7 & 8
  3. Late (1350 - 1200 BC) - Books 1 & 10
Apart from Burushaski – it was perhaps the lingua franca of the entire Central Asia in early 2nd millennia and is now a dying language spoken in a few villages of POK in the remote parts of the Karakoram mountains by the Burusho tribe – RV has, from the earliest books, a lot of substrates of a language which has similarities with the present day Munda languages. This should be the language of the northern Indus people with whom the Rig Vedic people are likely to have lot of interaction since long. We can call it a para Munda language, as has been suggested by Michael Witzel. RV suddenly has lot of Dravidian substrates and loan words in the books of Middle Age, especially in books 7 and 8. The books of Early Age have virtually no Dravidian substrate. This implies that the Dravidian speaking people would have started interacting with the Rig Vedic people only around 1500 BC – the time period of the Middle Age books. So there seems to be another language in this area – a Proto Dravidian language. Many place names in Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat and Maharashtra still bear the Dravidian palli, meaning village. Palli has become wala in Punjab (Jallian-wala, Gujran-wala, Dogar-wala); vali in Maharashtra (Boro-vali, Sara-vali); and wari-wadi in Gujarat and Maharashtra (Chanda-wari, Amba-wadi, Dangra-wadi) and Sindh (Kadan-wari, Shanh-wari, Bathe-wari, Fateh-wari, Karde-wari) – p of palli changes to v/w and l to r. This implies that Sindh, Punjab, Gujarat and Maharashtra are within the locus of the Dravidian people. It's highly possible that they were among the Indus people in Sindh during the last phase of Indus Valley civilization (1900 – 1500 BC) and that they spread to the Punjab in the north and Gujarat-Maharashtra in south around 1500 BC. The Meluhhan language of Sindh is still an elusive thing to us. The Indus scripts are yet to be deciphered. But Sumerian records have some words which are believed to be Meluhhan. Some of these words have striking similarities to the present day Burushaski language. Such a connection is possible only if we assume that Burushaski or a related language was spoken in Central Asia, whose connection with Indus people is supported by archaeology. Hence a proto Burushaski language is considered as the lingua franca of Central Asia prior to the Rig Vedic timeline. In Sumerian records there are names with Meluhha as personal names. Urkal and Urdlama are called sons of Meluhha. There's also a village called Meluhha. The products of Meluhha include gis-ab-ba-me-lu-hha (abba wood from the land of Meluhha), si-in-da (Sindh wood),  gis-ha-lu-ub (haluppu or perhaps Harappa wood), gis-gisimmar (shimmar/shimmal wood), etc. The word Sinda is quite interesting. Burushaski has the word sinda for river. It's possible that during the timeline we're talking about, the Proto Burushaski language, the lingua franca of Central Asia, had a similar word from which came the Sanskrit (Skt.) Sindhu, the name of the river that gave the identity to a country, religion and civilization. Monier Williams, in his Skt. dictionary, mentions that the word Sindhu is of improbable origin. The shimmar of gis-gisimmar is very likely related to Skt. Shalmali (a tree, Shimul in Bengali) which seems to be Munda and hence from the North Indus language. Following are some probable Burushaski (Bur.) substrates in Skt. found in RV. Skt. mesha, ram ~ Bur. Mesh Skt. kuhu, new moon ~ Bur. Kuha Skt. karpasa, cotton ~ Bur. Gupas Skt. Sindhu, Indus River ~ Bur. Sinda Skt. kilala (amrita) and kilata (cheese) ~ Bur. kilay, sweet drink ~ Tamil kilan, curd Skt. muja, people and also the Mujavat Mountain, the Meru Mountain ~ Mruza, the ancient self-designation of the Burusho people who speak Burushaski now ~ Avestan Muza ~ Tibetan Bruza ~ Skt. Purusha, another name for Mount Meru. MujaMuzaPurusha and Burusho all have come from the original word Mruza. Following are some probable Munda substrates in Skt. found in RV in the form of names of people: Kavasha, son of a slave girl elevated to the rank of Rishi – reminiscent of absorption of non Rig Vedic people, Shambara, name of a chieftain of enemy, Kushika, name of a lineage of poets, Kulitara, name of a chieftain of enemy Kikata, name of a place despised of in the Rig Veda – interestingly ki in Suremian means country –, Srinjaya, King, Sribinda, demon; related is Vindhya Mountains; both may be from the same Munda root bind, Kurunga, name of a chieftain of Turvasha, one of the Pancha Krishti, the Five People of RV. Then there are the Munda names of rivers and places: Rivers Ganga, Gandaki and place names like Magadha, Gandhar – all may have come from the Munda gad/gand, Shatadru (Sutlej) River – old name Shutudri may have come from she-tu-datu means float in Munda, Vipasha (Beas) River – old name Vipash may have come from Munda vipaz/vibal. There's a Vibali River of indefinite origin in the RV. The name Vishpala in RV may also be related, Kubha and Krumu, modern Kabul and Kurram rivers. There are also other Munda words in RV, like: kimshuka, name of a flower/tree,  kinash, cultivator of land, niggard, karambha, a food, shalmali, tree, shakunta, shakuntaka, bird. Also related is Kunti, a tribal name, kaparda, hair knot in the shape of cowrie shell, kumara, boy, kurira, woman's head dress, kulaya, nest, sharvari, night, There is no direct Meluhhan substrate in Sanskrit. But the Skt. Mlechchha (or even Mridhra) meaning out-caste may be a derivative of meluhha. Among the Dravidian substrates in RV, we’ve the following: Skt. phala, fruit ~ Tamil (Tam.) palu, Skt. pinda, dympling ~ Tam. pinti, flour, Skt. mayura, peacock ~ Tam. mayil (The Proto Munda mara is related), Skt. danda, stick ~ Telegu danda (danta in Santal, one of the Munda languages, is related), Skt. ulukhala, mortar ~ Tam. ulukkai, Skt. path, read ~ Tam. patu, sing, Skt. nagara, city ~ Tam. nakar, Skt. kuta, hammer, Skt. kunda, vessel ~ Tam. kuttam. In general the RV has picked up names of places (Gandhar, Kikata), rivers (Sindhu, Vipash, Shutudri) and people (Shambar, Pramaganda, Kulitara) and words of local plants (shalmali), animals and large number of agricultural terms (phala, ulukhala, langal) from local languages and only a few Indo European words for agriculture like krishsa (sow), sita (furrow) and sira (plough) have been retained. There are instances of civil wars among the Rig Vedic people. It’s possible to infer, from some hymns, that there were perhaps two batches of Rig Vedic people – one older and one newer – who were averse to each other. Then, around 1500 BC, the Dravidian people started interacting with them. The newer Rig Vedic people were understandably averse to both the Dravidians and the older Rig Vedic people. Gradually they pushed both of them to the periphery of their settlement.  It's possible that the older Rig Vedic people, along with the Dravidian people in the Punjab, made way for the newer Rig Vedic people and moved out to the peripheries, to the west (towards Gandhar) and east (towards Magadha, Vanga) quite early, may be sometime around 1500 BC. This implies that the Proto Bengali and Magadhan people of the east and the Gandhar people of the west were all the same lot thousands of years back. Incidentally both the people of Gandhar and Magadha are referred to as despised people in the Vedas. RV speaks about several Kings and tribal confederations across north India. Some of the tribes mentioned are Kuru, Puru, Gandhari, Chedi, Kikata and Parsu. Kikata is perhaps Magadhi and Parsu Persian. The association of Parsu with Persians is based on an Assyrian inscription dated 844 BC, referring to the Persians as Parsu, and also an inscription of the great Achaemenid Emperor of Persia Darius I referring to Parsa as the origin of Persians. Gandhari and Kikata were referred to as despised people. Out of these tribes mentioned in RV, Chedi, Magadha and Gandhar eventually became prominent confederations or Janapada, meaning foothold of people, and finally Maha Janapadas by 700 BC. The Kuru and Puru tribes and the respective confederations or kingdoms were quite prominent in the early Vedic Period till 1000 BC.  From the geographical description – with the mention of the rivers like Yavavati (Maybe Ravi), Shutudri (Shatadru or Sutlej), Vipash, Vitasta, Sindhu and Sarasvati – it's almost certain that the land of the Rig Veda was the undivided Punjab in India and Pakistan. There are many references to warfare in the RV. Some conflicts appear to be between the Rig Vedic and the non-Rig Vedic people, perhaps the natives of other parts of India. Many of the people with whom the former fought in the mountains seem to have Munda names like Shambara and Kulitara. The confrontation with Shambar is mentioned a number of times throughout the Rig Veda. But there are also instances of friendship with the Munda people. Kushika and Taruksha, both Munda names, are listed as Aryan offerers in rituals. The Rig Vedic doctor twins Ashvini Kumars are said to have helped Karkandhu, Shryata and Vishpala – all Munda names. The Battle of Ten Kings, referred to many times in RV, is a sort of civil war between the various tribes of India. King Sudas of the Tritsu tribe and a descendant of the legendary King Bharata is fighting against a confederation of ten other tribes – Bhrigu, Druhyu, Turvasha, Paktha, Bhalanas, Alina, Vishanin, Shiva, Anu and Puru. Many of the kings of these tribes seem to have Munda names like Kavasha and Shimyu. The Bhrigu lineage still exists among Hindus. The Paktha may be the Pakhtun or Pashtun people of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Bhalanas people should be related to the Bolan Pass in Pakistan. The present day Puris may be the Rig Vedic Puru. There are a number of people with Iranian sounding names – Kashu (Avestan Kasu), Kanita (Scythian Kanites), Tirindira (Trinidates), Parshu (Old Persian Parsa), Anarshani (Iranian Ershan) – which appear suddenly in the Book 8.  Let's focus on some of these Iranian tribes mentioned in the later books. śatam aha tirindire sahasra parśāv ā dade | rādhāsi yādvānām ||  8.6.46 (46th verse of 6th hymn of the 8th book of the Rig Veda) A hundred thousand have I gained from Parshu, from Tirindira, And presents of the Yadavas. If the Parshu people referred to in this verse are taken to be the Persian people, then they are kins of the Rig Vedic people. So, it's not surprising that they are also, at times, considered among the elites. In fact the term Persia comes from the Old Persian (OP) Parsa, modern Fars. A related word in OP is parsava, meaning border, borderlands. Both parsa and parsava seem to be akin to Skt. parshva, which is derived from parshu and means near. Even the Skt. term Parshava means the Parshu people. The next two verses seem to be referring to the Parthians and Medians. The term Parthia comes from OP Parthava which is surely akin to Skt. Prithu and Parthava (of Prithu). Similarly Media comes from OP Mada and Avestan Maidiia, akin to Skt. Madhya, meaning central, middle. The country of Madra, which appears later in the Skt. epic and is no doubt located to the north west of India, may possibly refer to Media. It's possible that around 1500 BC the Parthians, Medians and the Persians, all of whom later adopt Zoroastrianism and eventually create three of the biggest empires of the world, are all located side by side in northern Iran, the Medians being in the middle, madhya. All of these people seem to be in close interaction with the neighboring Rig Vedic peoples. yuvā narā paśyamānāsa āpyam prācā gavyanta pthuparśavo yayu dāsā ca vtrā hatam āryāi ca sudāsam indrāvaruāvasāvatam || Looking to you and your alliance (āpya), O ye Men, the Prithu-Parshus (pthu-parśava) went forward (prācā yayu), fain for spoil (gavyanta, the desire for go, cattle). Ye smote and slew his Dāsa and his Āryan enemies, and helped Sudās with favour, Indra-Varua. o na śiśnā vyadanti mādhya stotāra te śatakrato |  sakt su no maghavan indra mṛḷayādhā piteva no bhava || 10.33.3 As rats eat weavers' threads (śiśnā), the Madhyas do the same to worship (stot), O Shatakratu (Indra). Have mercy on us once, O Indra, Bounteous Lord (maghavan), be thou a Father unto us. The next verse is important because it introduces the term Kuru for the first time. Kuru eventually becomes one of the most important clans in India. But unlike the later Vedic and epic literature they are not omnipresent in RV. kuruśravaam āvṛṇi rājāna trāsadasyavam |  mahiṣṭha vāghatā ṛṣi ||  10.33.4 I chose as prince most liberal (mahiṣṭha) Kurushravana, the son of Trasadasyu. I, the priests' Ṛṣi (vāghatā ṛṣi) The Skt. Kuru is surely a cognate of OP Kurush, the original name of the Persian King Cyrus the Great (Cyrus is a Greek formation).  The Skt. Kuru comes from the root kri and means action, performance, to do, to build, to make. It has cognates in many Indo European languages – Old Irish cruth, Old Prussian kura, Lithuanian kurti, all meaning to make, build. Shravana means fame. So Kuru Shravana may simply mean famous, or literally fame of action. The meaning of Kurush in OP is not clear. One of the meanings connects kurush to khur, meaning sun, coming from khwar in Persian and akin to svarsurya in Sanskrit. In the same way the ancient region of Khorasan (parts of north-eastern Iran, northern Afghanistan and southern Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) is also connected
Sudipto Das | 10-Aug-2017