Professor Vasant Shinde is one of India’s leading field archaeologists. He is Vice-Chancellor of Pune’s Deccan College and has headed a number of excavations around the country, from Harappan sites in Gujarat and Haryana to Chalcolithic—Copper stone age, 3000-2000 BCE—sites in Madhya Pradesh and the Deccan, to protohistoric and early historic sites in Rajasthan and Maharashtra. He believes his current research, based on new DNA evidence from the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi, Haryana, will crack the mystery about who the Harappans really were and how the modern Indian is related to them. Edited excerpts from an interview:


How did you get interested in archaeology when it wasn’t a popular choice for education or employment?

The first I heard about archaeology was after I completed my B.A. in History from Nowrosjee Wadia College in Pune. One of my teachers suggested I do my masters in archaeology from Deccan College, Pune. I went and met the head of the archaeology department, a very well-known pre-historian called Professor V. N. Misra. He asked me, ‘Why do you want to do archaeology? There is no scope, no jobs. What will you do after MA?’ I was a little disappointed. I spoke to other teachers at the college who encouraged told me , ‘You should study archaeology because we are old and somebody has to take over. People like you should join’. But I decided to study archaeology because the college was very close to home. It was convenient as I was working night shifts in a company and had to go to college in the morning.

In my second year of Masters in Deccan College I participated in the excavation at Inamgaon, 90 km from Pune. Even now it is considered the best archaeological excavation conducted in the country and the published report on that site is considered the model excavation report. For the first time, most of the elements of what we now call the new archaeology or scientific archaeology were applied here. I was supposed to be there for a short period, but after convincing my teachers I stayed there for a month. I was fortunate to learn under Prof Dhavalikar, master of field archaeology and in the application of science in archaeology. After my MA, I started my PhD and got a job in Deccan College in 1982. My PhD was on the settlement pattern of early farming communities in the Tapi river basin in northern Maharashtra. I wanted to find out what  factors led early farmers to establish settlements there and what was the Harappan influence on early farming communities of the Deccan region.


When did your interest in the Harappan civilisation begin?

After I joined Deccan College, I participated in more excavations. It was then that I specialised in excavation, in field archaeology. I learned all the techniques of excavation, exploration, and the application of various scientific methods. I also worked on early farming communities, what is known as the Chalcolithic communities in south India; they are called southern Neolithic people. Since Harappans had a lot of impact on these communities, I wanted to know more about the Harappans. So, Harappa, in a way, was like the continuation of my interest; it didn’t happen suddenly.

A lot of archaeologists, particularly in India, think that unless you work on Harappan archaeology, you would not get recognition. That is a general understanding, which, to some extent, is true as well. But my interest in it was gradual; it was problem-oriented. I recognised some research problems and that led me to Harappan archaeology.

Vasant Shinde, Vice-Chancellor, Deccan College, Pune and lead archaeologist at Harappan
site of  Rakhigarhi, Haryana. Photo: Sriram Vittalamurthy.  (Title Image) The DNA excavated from skeletons
at the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi holds definitive clues about the origins of Indians. Photo: Fountain Ink archives.

In what ways were the early farming communities influenced by the Harappans?

We always thought the early farming communities were impacted by the Harappans. We noticed that the basic technologies were not developed in that region;  they were probably from somewhere else. Who could be the people who impacted them? The Harappans were right on the border—from Chalcolithic (2000-70 BCE) Deccan to Gujarat in fact. Gujarat is close to the Tapi basin. I excavated two sites there. One is called Kuntasi, a small Harappan port on the Saurashtra coast, and the other  is Padri, again on the coast. The difference is that Kuntasi was a port and Padri a salt-farming settlement. The Harappans started that. There is a lot of evidence about the beginnings of Harappan culture.

A lot of people think the cities came into existence suddenly. That is not the case. It was a long process and I could discover its early phases, from which the urban phases evolved, for the first time in Gujarat. The early phase dates to almost 4000 BCE. It was a local culture that evolved. When they were evolving, they were in touch with other regions where Harappan culture flourished. In the earlier Harappan stage, there were a lot of original cultures and they were independent but still well connected by trade. There was some impact on each other and that ultimately led to the development of Harappan civilisation at some stage, maybe around 2600 BCE.


How big was the area under Harappan civilisation, how diverse and inter-connected?

It was almost 2 million sq. km, from Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab (both in India and Pakistan) and Jammu, the entire Haryana region, western Rajasthan, Gujarat, including Kutch and Saurashtra to the border of Maharashtra. That was the area of the Harappans.

In this area, there were networks of different regional cultures. They were not homogeneous in the initial stage. But they were in touch and started developing some common elements. And then, there is a transformation. It could be noticed around 2600 BCE. After that we find some kind of uniform, integrated culture. In fact, from 2600 BCE to 2000 or 1900 BCE, for 600-700 years, it was developing. So when I started this work, I developed a lot of interest. I could see some (Harappan) elements coming from the Mewar region of Rajasthan. After working for seven to eight years in Gujarat, I moved to Mewar, close to Udaipur, where I studied two important sites—Balathal and Gilund.

In Balathal we could see, like Padri, the early phase of Harappan culture; it was a regional culture. One could also see a gradual development of Harappan elements at this site. Elements not present in Gujarat were introduced at some stage from Mewar region. Particularly, local pottery, which had some elements found in Gujarat, fragments of that. Similarly, some Gujarat pottery is found in that region also. So we could see that a lot of interaction happened.

In the developed phase of that culture, we could see a lot of Harappan elements. For example, they introduced bricks at some stage, proper Harappan bricks in the same ratio—1:2:3 or 1:2:4. Construction material was also similar to what Harappans used. They started developing fortified settlements as well. The walls were broad at the base—a Harappan style—and then they tapered upwards. Some pottery, purely Harappan, was also found along with the local pottery. So a lot of Harappan elements were developing there also.


It was almost 2 million sq. km, from Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab (both in India and Pakistan) and Jammu, the entire Haryana region, western Rajasthan, Gujarat, including Kutch and Saurashtra to the border of Maharashtra. That was the area of the Harappans.

Which elements are basic to Harappan culture and help you identify the existence or influence of Harappan culture? How far and wide was its impact in India?

The brick, the building, along with the seals and weights, these are common to all. Also, the typical Harappan terracotta figurines, they stand out along with terracotta bangles and terracotta triangular cakes. You don’t find them outside Harappa. Typically, when you find one set of bangles you know there is a Harappan element there. Or maybe it’s the site itself because these are classical elements associated only with that culture. And we find that impact till Karnataka. Harappans were connected with Karnataka. They sourced gold from the Hatti mines near Gulbarga.

That (gold resource) was exploited by the Harappans but they did not come here (Karnataka). They had contact with the locals. They were getting raw material from here and had the technology to extract gold. This has been scientifically established. They also had access to gold from Afghanistan and Iran. We have done chemical analysis of Harappan gold and modern gold of Afghanistan and Iran. That gold is more pure, 24 carat. But in this part (Karnataka) it has silver elements. The gold ornaments made with gold from Afghanistan and Iran crack because of purity. Here, because of this mixture of silver, it is really considered to be good. So the Harappans used this.

So, naturally, because of the trade contracts, there is some Harappan element in the pottery found in this region. It’s a very interesting story. It’s not that Harappans were confined to that part (the north). The entire peninsular India was impacted by Harappan culture.


In the popular imagination, Harappans are associated only with the sites of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro...

Yes, exactly. That is partly because these two sites were excavated on a very large scale by British archaeologists along with some Indian archaeologists. Most of the history we know today is based on the excavated remains from these two sites—Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. But after partition we have discovered a large number of settlements in India. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the Harappan sites are now on the Indian side. We have discovered nearly 2,000 sites, nearly 1,600 or 1,700 of which are located in this part.


What do we know about the development of Harappan civilisation?

The work I did in Mewar and at Gilund was interesting because we discovered signs of Early Harappan and Mature Harappan civilisations. Until then, it was not clear how the early Harappans evolved. It was in Gilund that we found this evidence. At the base of the settlement, we found Mesolithic remains—the last of the hunter-gatherer people. These people were slowly converting into agricultural communities. It was very clear, this transformation, because we found two phases in the Mesolithic. In the early one, we found Mesolithic tools, mostly blade tools. In the second stage, we see some small structures, huts, and they also started making some crude pottery. That happened around 5000 BCE. From that, a proper early Harappan settlement developed. For the first time, it was established that the early Harappan evolved from the Mesolithic phase. In fact, we could see the evidence at the same site—we had the Mesolithic phase; on top of that was the early Chalcolithic and the developed Chalcolithic. We could clearly see the evolution of the culture there and the cultural changes. This work was done in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania.


The excavation of Rakhigarhi is your most well known work. What led you there?

I had some research problems. We were getting very early dates for the Early Harappan culture from some sites but there was a lot of criticism that the dates might have been contaminated. Unless we got similar dates from several other sites, people wouldn’t be convinced. That was the view of most  archaeologists then. So we accepted the challenge. Farmana was one of the sites  excavated from that point of view. Then I excavated a site called Girawad, Mitathal and then came to Rakhigarhi. I studied the Rajasthan elements and then I moved towards Haryana in 2006. I have been moving state by state and this (Rakhigarhi) was the final destination.

There were a couple of reasons for moving to Haryana after my work at Gilund. One, it was always considered the epicentre of Harappan culture because when we look at the distribution of Harappan sites, the majority are located in this part. Secondly, a lot of historians and archaeologists believe this was the ancient or Rig Vedic Saraswati region. We wanted to understand whether the Rig Vedic text is reflected in the actual culture in that part. We wanted to find the correlation between textual data and archaeological data. Thirdly, a lot of sites were getting destroyed. In 1965, I remember, there were nearly 450 sites discovered and reported. But the earlier documentation was not perfect. So I wanted to visit the sites and check the location and also the relation between different sites.

When I reached there, to my utter surprise there were hardly 40 or 50 sites left. Close to 400 sites had been destroyed.



Yes. The archaeological site is in the form of a mound and the height depends on the duration of occupation and activities there. The mound is above ground level. An archaeological site contains a high percentage of phosphate because of the decomposition of organic matter and that is not good for crops. Farmers know that, so they want to remove the mounds and get to the natural layer. That is how sites are destroyed. And, in Haryana, every inch of land is precious, it is very fertile. They wanted to convert the sites to agricultural fields and in that process most of the sites were destroyed. We cannot stop it because it is private land. The government should take over this land but that is not happening. That was a major issue.

I was working at Farmana, Rakhigarhi is hardly 30 km away. So I frequently went from Farmana to Rakhigarhi. I used to take my students and they would get to know about the formation of the site; they learnt a lot from the site. I worked at Farmana six years and every year, I saw more damage to the site, more encroachment and I thought that one day the site will be destroyed. I thought if we started our archaeological research there perhaps the destruction would stop. Even though part of the site is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) with a fence and security guards, people are still encroaching on it. The entire village is located on top of the site and nearly 10,000 people live on top of the major part of the site. Even today, you can see paddy fields there.

Why is Rakhigarhi an important Harappan site?

Rakhigarhi is a very good candidate for studying the development of the Harappan cities and towns. It is ideal because it has a very thick deposit of early Harappan and also of the Harappan civilisation or mature Harappan levels here. We know mature Harappan evolved from early Harappan so we can study that evolution properly at this site. And since this is a proper city we can learn how the transformation from village culture to urban culture happened. It is the biggest Harappan city, much bigger than Mohenjo Daro. And the research we have done reveals that the site has much potential to provide us with clues to understand various facets of the Harappan world which were not until today understood.

You can study the role of the local cultures in the development of the Harappan element at this particular site. Also about the role sites like Rakhigarhi played in the Harappan socioeconomic organisation. What roles have sites like this played? Apart from this, it also has a big cemetery, a huge treasure. From that we can try to understand who the Harappan people were. What was the composition of the population?  What is their relation with the contemporary population? Are the modern people descendants of the earlier population?


You have conducted DNA analyses on the Harappan skeletal remains. What was the idea behind it?

 We have different hypotheses, different theories about the Harappan population. Some say maybe they were local people but this has not been established properly. Others say they came from Mesopotamia and established Harappan civilisation. The only way to settle this issue is with proper scientific data—by getting DNA from Harappan skeletal remains. Before Rakhigarhi, I tried this at Farmana. It has the largest Harappan cemetery, spread over an area of four hectares. We excavated a large number of burials but probably our methods were wrong. There was nothing wrong in the excavation itself but the mistake we made was that we excavated all burial sites at the same time. We also kept the site open for the public to give them a chance to see these people, out in the open for more than a month and there was a lot of contamination because of wind and rain. Scientists from different parts of the world—the US and Japan—tried really hard to extract DNA from the burials. But they failed. In spite of the fact that we excavated nearly 70 human skeletal remains, we could not extract any DNA. The data slipped away.

After this, I established contact with some South Korean scientists from Seoul National University, which has one of the best forensic science departments in the world and some of them work on ancient DNA. They had worked on 400-to 500-year-old mummies discovered in Korea, successfully extracting DNA from them and establishing their genealogy and genetic aspects. They asked us to take precautions during excavation as modern DNA can contaminate ancient DNA. If people come to the site in large numbers, there will naturally be contamination. And even if we are able to extract DNA, we would not be sure if it’s modern or ancient DNA. They told us to excavate one burial at a time and use separate instruments for each. They asked us to wear masks, gloves and surgical gowns before beginning the excavation.

That is exactly what we did at Rakhigarhi. We started the excavation very quietly, only two or three students working on the site. The excavation usually happens in the winter when there is a standing crop. The farmer on whose land the cemetery is located was growing mustard and wheat. We started excavating in the middle of the mustard field and since mustard grows really tall, the excavation was not visible from the outside. We excavated one burial at a time, properly documenting it and immediately packing and transporting it to a laboratory in Pune. We followed this procedure for all burials for two years in which we excavated about 40 graves. We collected sufficient data for DNA analysis.

I wanted to make sure the entire process was done in India. We involved a scientist from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular biology (CCMB) Hyderabad, Niraj Rai, who is working on ancient DNA. We cleaned the samples as per their norms and transported them to Hyderabad. In the initial stage, we failed miserably again. Only five of the 14 turned out to be potential samples. There was no DNA in the rest.

But the five samples became very important. Rai collaborates with a well known scientist at Harvard called David Reich, who has developed a new technique for extracting DNA from the petrous bone. We used this method to extract DNA from the five samples. Harvard has also developed a technique to separate modern DNA from ancient DNA. So even if there is contamination we can identify which is modern and which one ancient.

We made three sets of the samples. Rai tested one set and found some faint signature there. We got it sequenced by a private firm in Bengaluru and analysed the data. The data gave some hint of the possible outcome. We supplied the second set to the Koreans to confirm whether our presumptions were compatible with their findings. But they weren’t successful in finding a signature. We supplied the third set to David’s (Reich) lab and he found a very strong DNA signature. Also, his findings were not very different from what we had found. This happened last year. We decided that we would go for the publication of the results because at least we are getting some hint.


What does the DNA study from Rakhigarhi say about the genetic ancestry of the Harappans?

One thing is clear, people have not come from outside. It is local development. We have sufficient data to establish that it was the local people. That much I can reveal at this stage. Their contact with the contemporary population forms part of the paper we are finalising now.

We had a hypothesis when we had finished the first part, on the basis of the faint signature. But later we got very strong signatures in two more samples and that gave us a completely different perspective. Our hypothesis which was on the basis of actual archaeological data is now supported by scientific data.

We want to ensure that the results are published in a high impact international journal. We want to reveal the results only after they are published and accepted by the scientific community. We published the first part of the results which were not properly supported by data, but now we have sufficient data.


One thing is clear, people have not come from outside. It is local development. We have sufficient data to establish that it was the local people. That much I can reveal at this stage. Their contact with the contemporary population forms part of the paper we are finalising now.

What can you share about the genetic ancestry of the Harappans?

We are now very close to cracking the mystery about who the Harappan people were and how the modern people are related to them. Also, what the Harappans’ relations with contemporary populations were. The paper we’re publishing in a couple of months about whether the Harappans were local people or came from outside is based on scientific data; we are considering both the genetic data and the archaeological data. We discovered the Harappan civilisation exactly 100 years ago. In 100 years, this is going to be the biggest breakthrough.


So, what implications does it have for the Aryan migration theory? Based on your study, can we say that it’s not valid?

 Yes, you can say that. There is no archaeological data to prove it. Aryan migration theory is bakwas (rubbish). Those advocating this theory should provide the data on which the theory is based.

What is interesting is that when we want to talk about culture or people, we have to consider both archaeological and genetic data. This has not been done so far. We propose some hypothesis that people came from outside and they occupied the north-western part of the subcontinent. They are called Aryans. Max Mueller floated this idea and we have been following it for 70-80 years. But there is no basis for it.

But now the scientific data will prove whether people came from outside or not. It’s important to recognise the difference between migration and movement of people. Movement was always there, like today. Interaction. People move from one region to another for trade. So mixing can happen that way. I’m just giving you a hint about what type of evidence we are getting. That movement is very clear in the genetic study also.

 If your genetic data shows something and archaeological data shows something else, how do you explain that? They have to corroborate. Suppose we are getting evidence of central Asian presence there, but it is not showing in the genetic population, how do you explain that? We have to consider them both. This is what we are doing.


Did you find any correlation between the Rig Vedic text and the archaeological evidence found in this region?

 We are working on that. At this stage I strongly feel that Rig Vedic texts are talking about Harappa only. The description in the texts refers frequently to the river Saraswati. Most historians, archaeologists and geologists agree that the modern Ghaggar was the ancient Saraswati. Then it talks about the flourishing cities and towns in the past. The beginning of towns and cities occur in the Harappan levels and then it continues in the subsequent periods also. When we look at data from this Ghaggar region we have flourishing Harappan cities, and settlements but no cities of a later period are found here, not even mediaeval cities. Only early cities are found. Later, there may be settlements here and there but no big cities. Suppose they are discussing cities and towns probably they are discussing Harappan cities and towns.


So do you believe that Rig Veda is not talking about the Aryan but the Harappan?

Exactly. This has happened because of the misinterpretation of Rig Vedic texts and that is not based on any scientific analysis. It has misled us for so many years. That is causing so many problems in fact because of the misinterpretation of the data. One should be clear, historians and archaeologists should be careful about the interpretation of data. If they don’t have sufficient supporting data, or scientific data to support their hypothesis they should not really interpret it that.


Why is it important or significant to know who the Harappan people are?

It is not that significant. It is not necessary to know who the Harappan people are, but what is clear is that they are the founders of Indian culture. Most traditions started by the Harappans continue till today. There is no change. Only the media might have changed. Even today people are making a lot of earthen pots in Harappan shapes. Sometime we can see that even when they switch to metal pots. The pots retain Harappan shapes. There is a continuity even in traditions like yoga. We have strong evidence for yoga being practised through figurines found in the Harappan levels. In villages of Haryana the modern house plan is a copy of the Harappan house plan that existed in the same region. Since the region has extreme weather, you can see the houses have thick mud walls, there is an open courtyard and the rooms are in the side. All of this is the Harappan plan which continues in the modern village at the same site.


You have been working as a field archaeologist since 1977. How much has field archaeology changed since then?

Unfortunately, it is going backwards. The first training course was in 1944, formal training for archaeologists in which most of the well known archaeologists of the country were trained by the British archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler at Taxila, now in Pakistan. After that, no one has tried this. Individually, we are doing this here and there. One of our aims is that we want to set up a field training school at the site of Rakhigarhi, where students are invited and trained properly not only in excavation but also interpretation and classification of data, to figure out what scientific tools they can employ for extracting more information from the archaeological data. That is not being done in the country and because of that a lot of young people are losing interest in field archaeology. That is the unfortunate part.


You have helped set up several international museums. What do you think Indian museums lack that they fail to interest people? What should they be doing?

 In India we treat museums like godowns where we store artefacts. We don’t make them interesting. In the museum that we are planning at Rakhigarhi we not only want to display objects but also tell their stories, the messages they convey and what we can learn from them. This is not done in our museums. We are not making history interesting. It’s become a case of ‘this is what happened in the past’. Even in the case of Harappans, suppose students are told that they built big house, big cities, the next question they ask is: so what? We will not be able to explain the ‘so what?’

We treat history as just another subject which has no relevance or meaning. We see a beautiful figurine, that’s all. We see that they developed copper or brass technology, that’s all, we don’t go beyond that. That is the reason we don’t appreciate museums. You have to make them interesting to attract people. That is being done in other countries. I have worked with many international museums in Europe and in Japan. Even if they don’t have much, they have an interesting story around it which makes people want to go there. And that story keeps changing. It’s not that they develop one story and that remains for 10 years. Every six months they change the stories. We are not doing that here.