The Surkotada Horse

Surkotada is a small place in Kutch district of India's western state of Gujarat. Wikimapia gives the coordinates of this place roughly as 23°37'N 70°50'E , which places it roughly about 120 Km Northeast of Bhuj City and about 22 Km Northeast of town of Rapar. An ancient mound with an height of about 16 to 26 feet stands at this site, surrounded by undulating rising ground and small sandstone hillocks covered with red soil giving this entire region a reddish brown colour. Surrounding landscape is almost barren with patches of scarce vegetation consisting of cactus, small Bhabul and Pilu trees and thorny shrubs.
In 1964, Mr. Jagat Pati Joshi of the Archaeological Survey of India, discovered this mound as a possible site of human settlement of pre-historic times. In the ancient days, a small river flowed past the north-eastern side of the site and emptied into the Little Rann. This might have been an important reason for siting the town here. Now this river is only a small seasonal stream. Archaeological survey of India undertook excavation work on this mound first in 1970-71, when it was found that the settlement consisted of a citadel and a lower city adjacent to it. The excavations were continued next year (1971-72), when it was confirmed that the settlement was inhabited in a sequence of three fold cultures labelled as 1A,1B and 1C, roughly belonging to periods: Period 1A (2100 BC - 1950 BC) ,Period1B (1950 BC - 1800 BC) and top layer Period 1C (1800 BC to 1700 BC). From this it was clear that the earliest inhabitants of this settlement were people from Indus civilization, popularly known as Harappans from the Bronze age.
At the close of period IB, a devastating fire had spread all over the settlement indicated by an uneven and thick layer of ash spread throughout the site. However the settlement was continuously in use even there after. In the next sub period or period 1C new people had occupied the settlement. The site also revealed a large number of animal bones from the different sub periods from three categories, firstly Domesticated animals, secondly animals living in vicinity of settlement like hog, rat etc and thirdly animals that were hunted for food like deer.
Surkotada settlement was not unique in any sense. Many such settlements have been found in the Indian sub-continet over years. What made this settlement unique and special was finding the bones of a domesticated animal, found no where else, in any of the excavations carried out so far in the Indus -Ghaggar basins. This animal was Equus caballus Lin or in plain English a Horse. In fact, the archeologist from the team, Mr. A.K.Sharma was very clear, when he reported existence of incisor and molar teeth, various phalanges and other bones of Equus caballus Lin (Horse) along with bones of other horse like animals Equus asinus and Equs hemionus khur (wild asses) in the top layer 1C. He also reported finding of many Equus bones in other layers, which may not have been necessarily that of a horse.
The discovery was so sensational that most of the archeologists, indologists and historians simply refused to believe this. The discovery just made all the grand theories of Aryan invasion of India, propounded by early European historians of Indian sub continent stand on their head. Ever since John Marshall discovered the Indus civilization in 1920's, many European historians firmly believed the Aryan invasion theory. Their argument was as follows:
None of the sites excavated in Indus-Ghaggar river basins so far had come up with any evidence of a domesticated horse or Equus caballus Lin. On the other hand, in the Vedic civilization that overtook the sub continent, sometime between 1700-1500 BCE after demise of Indus civilization, horse is the most revered animal. It was argued that the Aryan invaders must have invaded Indus civilization settlements on the back of of horses around 1500 BCE in a Genghis khan style and used its speed to crushing advantage in order to subdue the native, ox-driven populations. This line of reasoning was regarded as so evident and foolproof that it was taken to be the final word on the issue.
This darling theory of the European historians was now just being proved wrong by an humble archeologist from India, who was claiming that a domesticated horse was already known and was used by Harappans from 2000 BCE onwards, a period much earlier to the supposed arrival of the Aryan warriors. 

The discovery of the Horse's remains from 2000 BCE, by an Indian archaeologist, Mr. A.P. Sharma in 1971-72, remained neglected for next twenty years or so. A celebrated archaeologist Dr. Richard H. Meadow, in fact commented in 1987 to reject Mr. Sharma's claim altogether and I quote:

It is on the basis of this phalanx that one can ascertain from the published photographs that the 'horse' of Surkotada, a Harappan period site in the little Rann of Kutch, …... is likewise almost certainly a half-ass, albeit a large one.” Unquote.
However, more supporting evidence came to light. A Harrapan port city at 'Lothal” was discovered south of Surkotada in 1955-56 itself, by another Indian Archaeologist and his team, Mr. S.R.Rao. It was a major Harappan port on Kathiawar coast with a large dock built for handling cargo and servicing ships. In further excavations at this site, Mr. S.R.Rao made significant discovery of two figurines of terracotta horses. One of the horses had a short stumpy tail, long neck and pricked ears. 
The horse controversy however was sidetracked as excavating a major site, from 1991 to 94, Indian archaeologists made a huge discovery of an Harappan metropolis at Dholavira, merely 60 Km north of Suratkoda. This site revealed a huge cache of artifacts, seals and sealings and ornaments. However no evidence of presence of a horse came forthwith.

The Sukotada horse again came to limelight, twenty years later, after A.K.Sharma had discovered the horse remains at Surkotada, when an Hungerian archaeologist, Sándor Bökönyi was passing through New Delhi for a conference. He examined the bones excavated at Surkotada and later declared in the conference in unequivocal words:
The occurrence of true horse (Equus caballus L ) was evidenced by the enamel pattern of the upper and lower cheek and teeth and by the size of and form of incisors and phalanges. Since no wild horses lived in India in post-pleistocene times, the domestic nature of the Surkotada horse is undoubtful.”
The Indian archaeologist, A.K.Sharma was vindicated and received two minutes of applause from the entire assembly. He, however felt sad that his work was appreciated by his own countrymen only after it was vindicated by someone from another continent. He comments:
This was the saddest day for me as the thought flashed in my mind that my findings had to wait two decades for recognition, until a man from another continent came, examined the material and declared that “ Sharma was right.” When will we imbibe intellectual courage not to look across borders for approval? The historians are still worse, they feel it is an attempt on the part of the “rightists” to prove that Aryans did not come to India from outside her boundaries.”
Sándor Bökönyi, further stressed this point in his 1993 report to the Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. Bökönyi says in his report:
Through a thorough study of the equid remains of the prehistoric settlement of Surkotada, Kutch, excavated under the direction of Dr. J. P. Joshi, I can state the following: The occurrence of true horse (Equus caballus L.) was evidenced by the enamel pattern of the upper and lower cheek and teeth and by the size and form of incisors and phalanges (toe bones). Since no wild horses lived in India in post-Pleistocene times, the domestic nature of the Surkotada horses is undoubtful. This is also supported by an inter- maxilla fragment whose incisor tooth shows clear signs of crib biting, a bad habit only existing among domestic horses which are not extensively used for war”
The Surkotada horse controversy, more or less came to an end after this and it was accepted that domesticated horse was known to Harappans from about 2000 CBE. However, the proponents of the Aryan invasion theory had another point in their argument. They said that the use of a spoked wheel in the chariots of the conquering Aryans made the chariots far superior to the solid wheels used by Harappans. 

This point is very well answered by the terracotta models, recovered from many Harappan sites, which clearly establish that the Harappans were fully familiar with the spoked wheel. On the specimens found at Kalibangan and Rakhigarhi, the spokes of the wheel are shown by painted lines radiating from the central hub to the periphery, and in the case of specimens from Banawali these are executed in low relief.
It is now an accepted fact that there was no Aryan invasion of the India and Harappans were never subjected to hordes of invading armies on horseback and chariots. We must however appreciate that during pre-Harappan and early Harappan periods, no traces of an horse have been found anywhere. Similaraly, a horse does not not seem to have any cultural importance in Harappan civilization, though it might have been domesticated in mature Harappan phases. Unfortunatly, this means that the fundamental questions that puzzled the early historians, still remain unanswered.

Why did a vast civilization that had spread from Swat (presently in Pakistan) in the north to Kathiawar coast to the south and up to the Ganga basin in the east suddenly had its demise?
Why a civilization that was so advanced that as to have it's own script, built ships to trade with middle east, had perfectly planned cities, ended without leaving a legacy?

Finally, it has been known that Harappans were idol worshipers. 
They worshiped a female figurine as Goddess of fertility and also the phallic symbol in form of a Lingam. If there was no invading Aryan army, how did India changed to a Vedic culture, where there was no idol worship but Gods represented the five elements like water, wind or fire and an Horse has great symbolic importance in religious rituals.
Not all of these questions have been answered as yet, logical explanations have been found for only a few. 

With the theory of Aryan invasion to the Indian sub continent in the pre-historic times no longer being acceptable, the reasons for demise of the Indus-Ghaggar civilizations after flourishing over several millennia remained a great puzzle for the historians and the archaeologists till now. A report of a study, published on 28th May 2012 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and lead authored by Liviu Giosan, a geologist with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) claims that they have found the answer to this riddle. I have described in details, the findings of this research team in an earlier article, which anyone interested can go through. However, for sense of continuity, I am repeating here, some of the main observations from this report.
Before massive human habitation of Indus-Ghaggar civilizations had settled in, for previous ten thousand years, wildly flowing river Indus and its tributaries had deposited rich soil sediments on stretches between them. The research team led by Giosan has been able to discover a massive mega-ridge 10 to 20 meters high, over 100 kilometers wide, and running almost 1000 kilometers along the Indus, in this mounded plains. It has been named as "Indus mega-ridge," as it was constructed by the river itself with sediments deposited along it's entire lower course. Remains of Harappan settlements, which are found today are not buried underground in this ridge but rather lie at the surface of the ridge.

The monsoon rains that brought floods to the rivers, actually started declining with time. Weakened monsoon rains and reduced run-off from the mountains, helped in taming the wild Indus and its Himalayan tributaries, so that agriculture along their banks became possible. As a result, human settlements bloomed along the Indus and its tributaries from the coast to the foothills of the Himalayas. The weakened monsoon rains created a window of about 2000 years in which Harappans took advantage of the opportunity and a great civilization arose on the banks of Indus and tributaries. Indus civilization, was built on bumper crop surpluses along the Indus and the Ghaggar-Hakra rivers from this earlier wetter era and required a huge concentration of workforce. This workforce requirement developed into great urban centers like Mohenjodaro and Harrapa.

As monsoon weakened progressively, this window of prosperity began closing and widespread aridification of the lands, where plenty of water was available earlier, drove the Harappans eastwards east or towards Ganga river by 1500 BCE, where monsoon rains remained reliable. The economic structure in the east with local rain-fed farming and dwindling streams could only support smaller agricultural surpluses and could not support large cities of Indus civilization. The cities collapsed and with them the urban arts such as writing. The population in Ganga basin now dispersed in small agricultural communities, survived and even diversified.

The study also reports another major finding, which solves the riddle of Sarswati river. Archeological evidence suggests very intensive human settlements during Harappan times in the basin of Ghaggar-Hakra river, which is believed to be the long lost Sarswati of the Vedas. The geological evidence like presence of sediments, topography discovered in this study shows that these rivers were indeed sizable and highly active in this region, most likely due to strong monsoons, during Harappan period. However these rivers were not Himalaya fed rivers. There is no evidence of waters of nearby Himalayn rivers like Satlaj or Yamuna flowing in this river. The study therefore suggests that Sarswati or Ghaggar-Hakra river was a monsoon fed perennial watercourse and the aridification reduced it to short seasonal flows like at present. but most likely due to strong monsoons. 
However some Indian scientists do not agree with this analysis. They feel that the Sarasvati river system can be considered as a separate entity and not as a part of the Indus basin. It dried up a few thousand years back, due to tectonic movements, tributary diversions and climate changes. This thesis is now well documented and accepted by almost all, barring a few skeptics. The dry courses of the main river and its tributaries are at present covered with sand, loam and silt, deposited by wind over last few thousand years. They could be discerned only after the advent of remote sensing techniques. (Sankaran, A.V., 1999; Roy and Jakhar, 2001).

I would only like to add that whatever may be the actual reason, end result happens to be the same.   

In addition to shifting of monsoons, Harappan cities in the south like Dholavira faced another natural calamity. The archaeologists excavating Dholavira have already found out the damages caused by a massive earth quake. Similar earthquakes must have changed the entire geographical structure here and a region once extremely fertile became an arid and marshy zone. As Giosan suggests, the populations of the Indus civilizations of the south must have simply dispersed to further south (Gujarat) and the east (Rajasthan), where better weather conditions must have prevailed.

Some of the archaeologists suggest that the Saraswati or Ghaggar river, once emptied itself into Arabian sea just, north of Rann of Kutch, what is called as Kori creek today. If this was the case indeed, one can imagine, how fertile and prosperous the region around Dholavira and Surkotada must have been.

Two years before, I paid a visit to the National Museum in New Delhi. This museum has a great collection of many items and artifacts from Indus civilizations. I found that a number of things like bullock cart designs, kitchen utensils, toys were very similar to what was in use even about 50 years before, in India. To me, Indus civilization legacy to Indians is not lost but continues even today.

The then director general of the Archarological survey of India, Mr. Braj Basi Lal had addressed a gathering in the Indian city of Bhopal, arranged by National Council for Education, Research and Training (NCERT) in November 2002. In his speech, Mr.Lal had highlighted the similarities between Harappa culture and The present Indian culture. I quote: 
" whichever walk of life you talk about, you will find in it the reflection of the Harappa Culture: be it agriculture, cooking habits, personal make-up, ornaments, objects of toiletry, games played by children or adults, transport by road or river, folk tales, religious practices and so on. Here we give just a few examples. The excavation at Kalibangan has brought to light an agricultural field dating back to circa 2800 BC. It is characterised by a criss-cross pattern of the furrows. Exactly the same pattern of ploughing the fields is followed even today in northern Rajasthan, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Today mustard is grown in the widely-distanced furrows and chickpea in the narrower ones and it is most likely that these very crops were grown in a similar manner during the Harappan times; we do have evidence of both these items from the Harappan levels. Kalibangan has also yielded a linga-cum-yoni of the same type as is worshipped now. This very site, along with Banawali, Rakhigarhi and Lothal, has brought to light 'fire-altars', indicating rituals associated with fire. ” Some other parts of Mr. Lal predicts a totally different course of history, but is is better to leave it to the experts. What I find important here is the thought that Indus-Sarswati civilizations never really were wiped out but rather continued in other parts of India with blooming of the Vedic culture.

I have mentioned above that the inhabitants of the southern habitats of Indus civilization migrated towards Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra. It is natural to question existence of any evidence to support this claim. Luckily extensive excavations carried out by archaeologists from Deccan College, Pune in the basin of Pravara river (a tributary of the giant Godavari river) have brought up such conclusive evidence. The Archaeologists call the Chalcolithic culture of the people of peninsular India in the time period between 1700 to 1400 BCE as 'Malwa Culture.' Great similarities are observed between this culture and Mature Harappan culture from places like Dholavira and Surkotada. In a place called as Daimabad a local farmer, Chhabu Laxman Bhil , found a hoard of four bronze objects  in 1974. One of the objects is a sculpture of a chariot, 45 cm long and 16 cm wide, yoked to two oxen, driven by a man 16 cm high standing in it. This chariot along with other sculptures of animals are so exquisite that they have completely baffled the Archaeologists.

 Oxen pulled  Bronze chariot found at Daimabad in Maharshtra

Figurines of mother Goddess with a bull, found at Inamgaon
Inamgaon is a small village south of the Pravara basin, on the banks of River 'Ghod.' The excavations carried out here have revealed human settlements here that lasted for an extended period starting from 1700 BCE to 800 BCE. In this period, three independent cultures with their own differentiable and exquisite features were found to exist here. These are known to Archaeologists as Malwa, early Jorwe and late Jorwe cultures. Inamgaon habitat more or less proves the spread of Sindhu civilzation to east and south, where it got mixed and assimilated with other Indian neolithic cultures from India. Another important finding of Inamgaon excavation is continuing worship of mother goddess or Goddess of fertility from the Indus civilization. 

Now we come to the last point regarding adoption of Vedic religion by India somewhere in second millennium BC. There are serious differences of opinion between historians about exact plave of origin of the Vedic culture. Historian Romila Thapar along with others believe that Vedic religion originated in Marginia/Bactria region of northern Afghanistan, whereas Mr. B.B. Lal, whom I have mentioned above believes that Vedic culture originated on the banks of Sarswati river. Whatever may be the place of origin, the real point of interest is how this new religion managed to uproot the Lingam and fertility idol worship of the Harrapans with a vedic religion, which had no idols. I want to compare this to more modern adoption of Buddhism by many countries in Asia such as China, Japan, Korea and Thailand. Around 300 BCE, Indian emperor Ashoka sent Buddhist monks all over Asia to spread this new religion. There was no question of forcing anyone or no coercion. Yet we find that these countries adopted Buddhism. I feel that Indians must have adopted Vedic culture in this fashion, still keeping some elements of Indus religions and cultures in the new religion. The best examples of this could be the retaining of Durga or the mother goddess and Lingam, now associated with Rudra (an original Vedic God) in the new culture.

A recent genetic study by India's Council of Scientific research suggests that modern humans have migrated to India from three origins: the central Asia, Malaysia and Andaman islands. It is quite likely that the Indus civilization people came there from central Asia, settled down there for 2 or 3 millenniums and later, when things became tough, again moved eastwards and southwards. Indus civilization never really saw it's demise. It just moved eastwards and southwards. 


  1. Excellent site!
    I have copied some of your posts to the Facebook site...

  2. Insight in to happan times is well explained .But there are still many doubts.

  3. Excellent analysis. Particulalry the Horse question. Lot of work has gone into this article. Thank you.

  4. Very informative and conclusions are good...but still more to go!

  5. Hi..Nice article. Can you tell me how one can reach Surkotada from Rapar? And then from Surkotada to Bhuj.Thanks