‘Rajasthan’, the name itself conjures up a desert landscape ringed by jagged mountains, on the other side of which lie the fertile plains of Mewar and Marwar. A harsh land of valourous heroes and virtuous heroines. A land of hardship and romance. This story of Rajasthan, though, is its more recent, medieval history and a history of Rajput rulers of this period. What, then, was the story of Rajasthan before the coming of the Rajput clans in the 8th-9th century CE?
Well, it goes back billions of years! Did you know that the Aravalli Hills, which play such a central role in the history of the state, go back 3.8 billion years? Or that the earliest recorded habitation here was 7,00,000 years ago, as is evident in old Palaeolithic sites here? We take you back to those times.
The Aravallis: Defining the State’s Geology
Rajasthan is an old and ancient land. The Aravallis are made up of some of the oldest folded rocks on the planet, some of which date back to the Archean series in geology and are as old as 3.8 billion years. The Aravalli Hills derive their name from ‘Ada-vah’, literally meaning ‘an obstruction lying in the path’. This range is older than the Himalayas and is considered one of the oldest folded mountain ranges in the world.
They run in a North-East-South-West direction and divide the state of Rajasthan into two parts. To the north and west of the Aravallis lie the arid plains of the Thar Desert and the Luni Basin. This region comprises 60 per cent of the land area of the state and is arid.
To the east of the Aravallis lie the fertile plains of the Banas, Chambal, Gambhiri and Mahi rivers and their tributaries. This region is known as ‘Mewar’ or ‘Mewad’ and comprises the remaining 30 per cent of the area of the state. This area is comparatively fertile though in some areas it is semi-arid.
The Aravallis were formed during the Dharwar Period and were subsequently peneplained and uplifted in the Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Tertiary eras.
The parent rocks of the Aravallis are quartzites, granites and rocks of the Aravalli series. The softer phyllites and limestones have eroded and formed low hills and broad valleys.
At present, the Aravallis are a worn-down remnant of their former selves. They originally extended as far as Delhi, but today the main body terminates at Jaipur, while only a worn and remnant ridge remains in Delhi.
The highest point in the Aravallis is at Guru Shikhar (1,727 m), near Mt Abu, a hill station and a town sacred to Hindus and Jains alike. The Hindus come here to worship Arbuda Mata while Jains have a fabulous and intricately decorated set of temples called the Dilwara Temples (1031-1582 CE).
The Lower Palaeolithic:- The Early Old Stone Age
There is a lovely story about the discovery of Didwana told by Prof S N Rajaguru, well-known archaeologist and doyen of geoarchaeology. Dr Rajaguru and Prof V N Misra along with a student had briefly visited the site in 1978-79 and found nothing obviously belonging to the Lower Palaeolithic during a surface survey. They were about to leave when a young PhD student with them asked to be excused for a few minutes to relieve himself.
As he went around the sand dune, he came across a pit dug by the Public Works Department (PWD), and lying among the debris was a large Lower Palaeolithic stone tool (actually a very fine hand axe). He came back shouting and the team raced back and realised that they had almost missed out on what would become one of the greatest Palaeolithic sites of South Asia.
Rajasthan is an ancient land it was occupied by early human settlers during the Lower Palaeolithic, Middle Palaeolithic and Upper Palaeolithic periods, as seen in the excavations at the site of Didwana (in Nagaur District in Rajasthan) by prehistorian Prof V N Misra of the Deccan College, Pune, in 1980.
The work was done by him, his colleague geoarchaeologist Prof S N Rajaguru and palaeoclimatologist Gurcharan Singh. Their work dated the site to a minimum 4,00,000 years ago and perhaps even going as far back as 7,00,000 years. Over 300 Acheulian bifaces (hand axes) were recovered from the excavations.
The Acheulian is so called after the site of ‘La Acheul’ in France, where tools like this were first described.
It is a site belonging to our hominid ancestor, Homo Erectus, who was present between 2.2 million years ago and as recently perhaps as 1,20,000 years ago. They were one of the first human ancestors to leave Africa.
Didwana was a major turning point in the prehistoric research of Rajasthan and of India, and has often been referred to as India’s Olduvai Gorge. Soon many more sites were located between Didwana and Jayal. Even more interesting, at Didwana, were the 2,00,000 year dates for the Middle Palaeolithic. Dates this early had never been seen in India before although, today, we have 3,80,000-old dates from Attirambakkam in Tamil Nadu.
The Upper Palaeolithic was also very clearly represented and dated to between 30,000 and 25,000 years ago. The surface layer of the site yielded some fine blade tools and microliths that were classified by the excavators as Mesolithic and dated to somewhere in the Holocene era (younger than 10,000 years).
This was the beginning of an explosion in research into prehistory in Rajasthan. Misra had already surveyed the Prehistoric and Protohistoric sites of the Banas-Berach Basin in the 1960s during his PhD research and the results from his excavations at Didwana firmly placed the prehistory of Rajasthan on the world map.
A large number of Acheulian (Lower Palaeolithic sites) were discovered between Didwana and Jayal (50 km away) as were a number of Middle Palaeolithic sites. These sites were explored by Misra and later by Prof D P Agarwal and his team from the Physical Research Laboratories (PRL), Ahmedabad. Tools include small hand axes, side scrapers, other types of scrapers, borers and Levallois flakes. Levallois flaking is a technique that is exclusive to the Middle Palaeolithic period.
The Middle Palaeolithic: The Middle Old Stone Age
A number of Middle Palaeolithic sites were also found at Budha Pushkar in Ajmer District of Rajasthan. The Berach-Banas Basin (in Mewar) had already yielded similar tools in the mid-60s. Recent explorations by Dr J Blinkhorn (from the Universite Bordeaux, France) of surface sites in the Thar Desert have also revealed further Middle Palaeolithic sites. His work at the site of Katoati in Jayal Tehsil of Nagaur District has revealed not just typical Middle Palaeolithic tools but also shell fragments of the ostrich (Struthio camelus). These eggshells found alongside Levallois cores have been carbon-dated to 45,300 years ago and stratified deposits have yielded ostrich eggshells that have been dated to greater than 58,000 years and greater than 62,000 years (hyper-accurate carbon dating of such early periods is difficult).
The Upper Palaeolithic: The Last Old Stone Age
The Upper Palaeolithic in Rajasthan is largely confined to Central Rajasthan and some sites are found in Western and North-Eastern Rajasthan. The tools assemblages are identified as core trimming flakes, blade-cores, blade roughouts, blades, bruins, carinated scrapers, flake-cores and denticular scrapers, and are confined to Pushkar, Budha Pushkar, Madhya Pushkar, Arjunpura, Mogra and Sar in Central Rajasthan, according to Raymond and Bridget Allchin (well-known South Asian archaeologists).
Some material is also found at sites on the Jaisalmer-Pokaran Road and at Nagari in Western Rajasthan. Two Upper Palaeolithic sites have also been reported from around Neem Ka Thana in North-Eastern Rajasthan. The only properly stratified sequence appears to be the one from Didwana.
The Mesolithic: The Middle Stone Age
Prior to his work at Didwana, Misra had worked in collaboration with the State Department of Archaeology, Rajasthan, at the Mesolithic sites of Tilwara and Bagor. There are over 70 Mesolithic sites known from Rajasthan but surprisingly only nine known sites to the west of the Aravallis.
Tilaura is to the east of the Aravallis and Bagor to the west. The excavations at Tilwara in the Pachparma Tehsil of Barmer District had yielded very fine geometric microliths alongside crude pottery. This site is situated on the banks of the Luni River. The subsequent excavations were at Bagor, a stabilised sand-dune site on the banks of the Kothari River, in the Mandal Tehsil of Bhilwara District.
This is one of the largest Mesolithic sites in India and was systematically excavated over three seasons.
The uppermost horizon belongs to the Early Iron Age but the two lower ones belong to a Mesolithic tradition. The earlier of the two has a number of burials, geometric microliths, the earliest dated domestication of sheep and goats as well as the use of fire and a date of the 6th millennium BCE for the domestication of nachni/ragi (finger millets), jowar (Sorghum bicolor) and barley (Hordeum sp) based on starch grain analysis by Dr Arunima Kashyap. This is a fascinating new development and puts a whole new spin on the emergence of early farming communities in Rajasthan and in India.
The lowermost levels revealed three extended burials and the later Mesolithic levels (dated to the 3rd millennium BCE) revealed two. Interestingly, these later burials also had five distinct copper objects in them. Three arrow blades, a spearhead and a needle. Of these, the arrow blades were perhaps the most important as generically similar examples were later excavated at the sites of the Ganeshwar-Jodhpura Chalcolithic complex, thus providing a link between the Mesolithic people of Mewar and the Chalcolithic culture of Marwar. Ganeshwar lies in the Neem ka Thana Tehsil of the Sikar district and is smack dab in the middle of the copper producing region of the Aravallis.
These mines were perhaps the most important copper sources of the subsequent Bronze Age/Chalcolithic Ahar-Banas Culture settlements and Ganeshwar-Jodhupura Culture settlements of Rajasthan, and also a huge probable source for the Harappan Civilisation. But that is a story for another day.
Thus, Rajasthan went through numerous wet and dry phases from 4,00,000 years ago till today. The wet phases saw human occupation in the arid desert of the Thar as well as in the eastern parts of Rajasthan. Early human hunter-gatherers lived and hunted here almost continuously for the last 4,00,000 years and we have a rare case of dated sites through the entire span right till the period when we first begin to grow our own food as seen at Tilwara, Bagor and many other Mesolithic sites.
Rajasthan has given much to Indian archaeology and the study of Indian prehistory and continues to do so even today.
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