Only days ago, there was big news that the ancient Harappan people had lived on meat-heavy food. Most simple Indian Hindus found the news startling and disturbing. They kept saying the researchers may have gone somewhere wrong in methods of digging out facts. The findings indicate that ‘Indus Valley’ people were exceedingly fond of eating meat. More so, they preferred to consume beef over other meats. These findings have been reported in a new study titled ‘Lipid residues in pottery from the Indus Civilisation in northwest India’ published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
As the title suggests, the researchers studied lipid (component of cells) residue in ceramic vessels used during the Indus Valley Civilisation, specifically during the time span known as the mature Harappan period (2600/2500 BC to 1900 BC).
The study focused on five villages in India that were once part of the civilisation --Alamgirpur (UP), Masudpur (Haryana), Lohari Ragho (Hisar), Khanak (Bhiwani, Haryana), Rakhigarhi (Haryana) and Farmana (Rohtak, Haryana). The research team recovered 172 pottery fragments from these sites and a lipid residue analysis was done on them. The ‘ceramic lipid residue analysis’ has recently become a powerful tool for figuring out the food habits of ancient people. It has been used across the world in many significant archaeological studies as ceramics are one of the most ubiquitous artefacts recovered during archaeological excavations of ‘proto’ and historic South Asian sites.
Ordinary folks across the present-day communities of India are actually unaware of the food choices of ancient Indians, mostly Hindus. But scholars have known for centuries that the ancient Indians ate beef.
After the fourth century BC, vegetarianism began to gain respect in India, particularly among the Buddhists, Jains and also Hindus. But the majority of Hindus continued to the Rig Veda period (c. 1500 BC), cow meat was popularly consumed. Around that time, cattle were source of happy life and livelihood; cattle were currency; and cattle determined social status. Thus, most of the civilised communities belonged to a cattle-breeding culture. The Vedic Indians generally ate the castrated steers.
But they would eat the female of the species during important rituals or when a guest or a person of high status arrived. No wonder, the ancient ritual texts known as ‘Brahmanas’ (c. 900 BC) and similar other texts that taught religious duty (dharma) from the third century BC, say that ‘a bull or cow should be killed to be eaten when an important visitor arrived’.
Methodically, researching scholars have found out that the practice of vegetarianism began spreading in India first among Buddhists, Jains and also some Hindus. But the majority of Hindus did not give up beef eating until 1500 BC. Another ancient Indian text, Tirukku?a?, originally written in the south Indian language of Tamil, states moderate diet as a virtuous lifestyle and criticizes "non-vegetarianism" in its Pulaan Maruthal (abstinence from flesh or meat) chapter, through verses 251 through 260. It says that one can never have a kind and considerate heart if one develops his own flesh by eating the flesh of other creatures. The wise people with strong minds do not eat the severed body of another living animal (verse 258).
Interestingly, in Chapter 10 of ‘Sushruta Samhita’, it is clearly recommended that the diet and nutrition for pregnant women, nursing mothers must include milk, butter, fluid foods, fruits, vegetables and fibrous diets along with soups made from Jangala (wild) meat. Further, it says emphatically that those recovering from injuries, growing children, people doing tough physical labour and, above all, expecting mothers must consume carefully-prepared meat. Historically, all Indian communities, including the Brahmins, used to eat beef both in what is called the Vedic and the post-Vedic periods. Gautama Buddha rebelled against this tradition because during his time there was a huge consumption of beef by the priestly class. Buddha asked people not to kill cows for sacrifice and never to kill beyond what they needed for consumption.
From that period to the modern times of today, the upper caste Hindus have gradually discarded cow meat, but the poor and the backward castes, particularly the untouchable Dalits in south India sustained themselves on beef, mainly in summer times when food scarcity was acute.
They would even eat dead or diseased cattle because no one gave them cereal grains like rice or millet or any food stuff for survival. This situation continues even now in quite a few pockets of rural India. So, Muslims and Christians are not the only consumers of beef in India as is often made out. In Hyderabad, during the month of Ramzan, Muslims eat haleem (stew), whether of lamb or beef or chicken, only after they break their fast at sunset (iftar) and after the evening prayers.
But the other communities, including the Brahmin youths, start eating haleem at around 4.30 pm. A major portion of beef-haleem in restaurants is consumed by non-Muslims even before Iftar. In essence, more non-Muslims consume large quantities of beef than Muslims.
Strangely, the consumption of beef by Christians in India is very little. Incidentally, Adi Shankara’s preaching for a healthy, spiritually-perfect life emphasised non-meat diet. Two communities seem to have been enormously influenced by Adi Shankara’s food prescriptions -- the Brahmins of south India and the Banias of the northwest India. They have remained vegetarian until this day. The Buddhists were never vegetarians; the Jains were pure vegetarian.
It is believed, to counter the so-called ‘theory of food-linked violence’ of Buddhists, Shankaracharya had started the first-ever ‘vegetarian campaign’ among the Brahmins and upper castes of ancient India. On record, the Brahmins of south India were the first community among Hindus to turn vegetarian.
But unfortunately, a particular political party in power in a democratic state like India is out to destroy the food culture of some communities and their access to protein and food choice. That is unlawful as choice, especially of food, is very important in a vibrant democracy.