Did the Harappans eat meat and beef?
by Jayasree Saranathan on 09 May 2021 1 Comment

The Indus Valley Civilisation culture didn’t come into existence suddenly one fine day. A systematic decipherment of the events of the Mahabharata shows that it was post- Mahabharata culture. (From Mehrgarh to Saraswati, Dwarka people spread and started the Early Harappan culture)


There is a clear demarcation of 3 regions in the IVC:

(1) The Saraswati region occupied by the descendants of Satyaki, i.e., the Vrishnis from Dwarka


(2) The Sindhu region encompassing the entire stretch of the river Sindhu and its tributaries and going northward beyond Afghanistan occupied by the Saindhavas of Jayadratha, Gandharas, Vahikas etc and


(3) The stretch to the west of Sindhu in Baluchistan stretching up to Kacchi plain that include Mehrgarh occupied by the descendants of Kritavarma which was originally occupied by the ancestors of Satyavan and Savitri before Ramayana times.


It is better we start talking from purely itihasic perspective that I have established by showing that the early Harappan was a post-Mahabharata culture. There are cultural differences including food habits between these segments.


The Dwarka people being Vrishnis and related to Krishna were cattle breeders and could not be expected to have consumed any meat product. The evidence for this comes from Kotada Bhadli in north Gujarat which is presumed to be the Milk Capital of the IVC since 4000 years ago.




So far there is no evidence of meat in the IVC settlements along the river Saraswati. This region was occupied by the Dwarka people after Krishna’s exit. If at all such evidence appears, we must study it on a case by case basis to know whether they were migrants from other places.


Now looking at the Sindhu region, even as early as Mahabharata times, meat, beef, pork and liquor were common in that region. Karna censured Shalya that the people of Madra, Vahika and Sakala (all coming under Sindhu region of the IVC) ate beef with garlic, flour mixed with meat and boiled rice, fish, sheep, pork, meat of fowls, asses and camels. They consumed liquor too. This was before the early Harappan and therefore not surprising if meat preferences are discovered in this region of the IVC.


In Baloch region, meat eating is said to be found in Nausharo. This is not surprising given the fact that as late as 1881 (census record) he-buffalo was sacrificed to the Goddess of Hi?glaj by a specific community. There were people in ancient India whose profession was to steal buffalos to distribute them among their people for their means of living. This was an accepted practice. They sacrificed buffalos to appease the goddess for successful raids. We find a detailed description of similar traits and events in Silappadhikaram, a real life story in Tamil written 2000 years ago. So any evidence of cattle bones must take this also into consideration, before branding the entire IVC as a meat eating culture.


By and large, the people of India remained vegetarians until recently. At any time a small number of people consumed meat and liquor. They were singled out by King Pariskhit who identified their regions as abodes of Kali Purusha. Giving a parallel from Tamil Sangam literature, there is a verse on Irunthaiyur (Madurai) which describes the occupations of all the inhabitants, but mentioned about a few drunkards, lying on the fields. So in any society and at any time, some fringe elements would be there with despicable practices, but that cannot be taken as reflective of the behavior of the majority population.


Even as early as Rama’s period, the Vyadha had existed in Janaka’s Mithila. As per Markandeya’s version in Mahabharata (Mbh 3-206) when the ascetic Kausika went to meet him, he was found selling venison and buffalo meat to a large number of people.


There is even a version in Mahabharata in the words of Bhishma to the Pandavas that ten butchers are equal to one oilman. Ten oilmen equal to one drinker of alcohol. Ten drinkers of alcohol equal to one courtesan. Ten courtesans are equal to a single territorial chief, i.e. king (Mbh 13-125). Why was a king censured like this?


The reply can be dug out from Sanjaya’s talk to the Pandavas when he went to Upaplavya to meet them for peace on behalf of Dhritarashtra (Mbh 5-24). He says that the Kshatriyas (like Pandavas) follow a rule fit for butchers. What is that rule? He continues that like a butcher they cause harm to those that bear no ill-will to them and that such practice is not good. So, even Kshatriyahood was compared with butchery that was despised by the Vedic society. Those committed to Vedic life of ashrama dharma had given up non-vegetarian food.


It is on record as late as the 18th century that Indians by and large abstained from meat. John Phillip Wesdin, an Austrian who travelled through India between 1776 to 1789, wrote in his book “Voyages to the East Indies” that

“Their (Indians) total abstinence from all flesh, and the express prohibition of their religion which forbids them to kill animals, prevent them from dissecting them and examining their internal construction.”


The Census Report of 1881 says “that Hindoos are almost completely vegetarians and that the Mahammedans are the butchers and the flesh eaters of the country”.


The problem of untouchability started only with wanton or forced killing of cow.


This long discourse is given to establish that Indic society did have some elements with meat eating habit in the past. In the IVC region we have to segregate the regions and the habitats for this habit. The evidence of meat eating was collected from seven sites and the researchers are aware that this evidence cannot be made into a sweeping statement on the eating habits of the entire IVC region.



Taking up the individual sites from where they collected the samples, Farmana individuals were found to be first generation migrants in the isotopic analysis of human tooth enamel. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4414352/) Migrant labor was very much a reality then as it is now. Their eating habits cannot be generalized into IVC habit.


In this context, the evidence of beef-eating in Gola Dhoro (Bagsara) offers a good case study. This region in the heart of Gujarat (Kutch) was found to be agro-pastoral in many IVC researches.


Among the IVC sites, only Gola Dhoro is seen with substantial evidence of meat and beef consumption. The site is a walled structure made after clearing the region by fire, which means the region was forested earlier and was cleared by fire for habitation. (Khandava vana was cleared in the same way). Two phases are recognized in this structure - Phase I and Phase II. Beef eating is reported in Phase I while Phase II has evidence of pork and sheep. There is no evidence of trade in livestock, but there is presence of domesticated animals. There is also a marked difference in food habits between inmates of the walled structure where shell cutting was done and those living outside the walled structure.


The site was abandoned suddenly with huge quantities of raw materials (shell) left. So something happened that forced the inmates to vacate en masse. During Phase II (2480-2280 BC) seals and sealing with Unicorn (varaha) motifs were found. This shows that the inmates had come from the Sindhu region of Jayadratha as migrant workers. The Saindhavas using Varaha motifs were not Vedic followers even as early as Mahabharata times. (The image of the priest king with shaven upper lip is a proof for non-Vedic practices or degraded Vedic practices in the Sindhu region) The migrants had left abruptly for some reason. So the cuisine evidence of this site cannot be generalized for the natives of this region.


The Early Harappan coincides with Post-Mahabharata date (3136 BCE). The first wave of migrations in the IVC had started after the exit of Krishna in 3101 BCE. The evidence of meat eating coming only from the Mature Harappan period (2600–1900 BCE) a few centuries later shows new infusions and migrations from far and near to cash in on the growing importance of the IVC as a major manufacturing hub. So any interpretation of the cultural traits detected in the IVC must take into consideration the migrant angle too.




{This article was originally posted as a reply to a question about animal remains found in the culinary items of Indus Valley Civilisation sites}

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