There is a process of
globalization afoot (see Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat) which seems
unstoppable. An undesirable part of it is the homogenisation of cultures,
which deserves rigorous discussion. Societies, even whole cultures, are
disappearing. Those that are at the margin, the brink so to speak, are
fraying badly. Inevitably, a lot stands to be lost. Moreover, we risk
forgetting the ambience and the ethos that added such rich, varied
textureseven uniquenessto our legacy. Therefore, we need to record as
much as we can, even if we cannot salvage it all.
A person attempting to profile an individual culture or its component
social elements faces two kinds of compunction. First, despite every
attempt you make, suspicion abounds that you are staking out a hierarchy
in which your tribe or caste is presented as superior in terms of some
metric or the other. (The "my village" syndrome in anthropological
literature often betrays this tendency.) There is another part to this
political caveat. The writer stands to be accused of undermining national
unity; ultra-nationalists would even accuse one of sedition, if not
Secondly, besides politics, there is another caveat, rooted in academic
conflict. The writer has to take cognizance of the recent controversy that
has roiled academe: at the one end there is doubt as to what happenedand
whereafter hominids left Africa some 200,000 years ago. Four hominins
(sic) have been identified in the ongoing, vigorous human genome project:
Neanderthals, Denisovans, Flores, and us; at the other end, the same
uncertainty regarding inter-breeding has begun to loom large regarding
The latter phenomenon is of greater relevance to us as we begin to zero
into how castes, tribes and nations emerged from the amorphous, inchoate,
nebulous primal source of hominins100,000 years agoand through the
relatively well recorded, and yet uncertain, continuum of cultural
diffusion over the past 5000 years.
In his latest book, Bhupinder Singh Mahal shows no desire to present the
Jats as superior or inferior; and in a carefully researched and well
written account he shows awareness of the dispute regarding divers origins
of species and the nature of cultural diffusion. Since he has handled well
those two caveats, socio-political and anthropological, it adds a lot to
the importance of his book (Origin of Jat Race: Tracing Ancestry to the
Scythians of Antiquity, by Bhupinder Singh Mahal, Munshiram Manoharlal
Publishers, New Delhi, 2015.)
As the focus turns to the Indian Subcontinent, we have to juxtapose
Mahal's carefully researched and well written account with the raging
controversy over how the Indian nation was formed. Historical India's
Adivasis, the Hindu-Sikh-Buddhist-Jain complex and the Muslims are seen by
some basically as an amalgam of two main strains: Aryans and Dravidians.
Others dispute that; they doubt the Aryan invasion theory. They contend
that diverse peoples were milling around the subcontinent for thousands of
years; moreover, this cultural diffusion included trans-montane diasporas
across the Hindu Kush massif.
This is where Mahal's findings begin to make great sense. Scythians (as
also many others) may have entered Punjab long before 1500 B.C. (the focal
point of the "Aryan invasion" thesis); it's equally clear that Scythians
were of Iranian-Aryan stockto use the latest widely accepted
nomenclature. This appellation applies equally to studies regarding the
origin of the Siddis, Rajputs, Lohanas, Marwaris, Khojas, Bohras,
It's invidious to make comparisons; but Mahal's research comes across as
more rigorous and plausible. It fits in well with the consensus forming
around the notion of thousands of years of wide-spread cultural
intercourse. As he points out, the Eurasian steppe was full of political
upheavals which constantly shifted whole groupings from one location to
another; indeed, the Scythians are shown to have dispersed helter-skelter
across more than a thousand miles.
During one such upheaval, around 519 BCE, Emperor Darius of Persia caused
the uprooting of a large chunk of dissident Aryans of Scythian stock.
(They were rooted in the Altai-Sayan region of Central Asia.) The tribe,
as also its predecessors and successors of the same ilk settled in India
in at least five waves. Gradually this distinct cultural group came to be
identified as Jats. From the Indus valley, the Jats radiated mostly across
North India (including the Pakistani part of Punjab).
The term Scythian has no ethnographic connotation; scholars use it to
refer to an ever-changing, patchwork of Central Asian confederacy of
culturally similar pastoral tribes. This fits in well with increasing
evidence that there was wide and profuse cultural diffusion, including the
Scythians, across time and space.
A major Scythian tribe vanquished and forced out from its homeland by
Darius was called Massagetae, which name got shortened to Getae. In a
lingual transition (similar to how Sindhu led to the name Hindu), Getae
(pronounced Je-te) gives way eventually to the name Jat. First Buddhism
and then Hinduism was the faith adopted by the Jats. Later, a huge bulk of
them converted to Islam. But the faith with which the non-Muslim Jats came
to be very largely identified was Sikhism.
Mahal has embarked on some speculation with which the reader may disagree.
For example, he says that the Jats were drawn to Sikhism because of its
rectitude and egalitarianism. The desire to do good is a common
denominator that suffuses all religions. Furthermore, like all others,
Sikh sovereignties were quite hierarchical.
Indeed, Mahal's pointing out that the Jats were never quite a monolith
resonates well with the present suit being pressed by many Jats,
especially in Haryana. Indisputably poor, many Jat groups in Haryana are
asking to be designated as an underprivileged minority, deserving
Affirmative Action. Clearly, as Mahal indicates, the Jats are
heterogeneous; Pakistani Jat fiefs lord over their Jat quasi-serfs in the
same manner as Indian Jat zamindars do over 'their' poor Jats.
The author convincingly dwells on a similarity between Scythian lore and
the Jat notion of an individual's right to exact revenge. This 'right'
seems to be an alien import in the Indian social milieu. The Jats, no
doubt, gave to Sikhism as much as they took from it. Mahal recounts among
these ritual equality; oath of fellowship; revering the double-edged
sword; council of elders; wearing of gold jewelry by both men and women;
coiling of hair and fastening with a comb under the male turban, etc.
(pages 63-84). Khushwant Singh, the pre-eminent scholar of Sikh history,
is quoted to indicate how much the Jats contributed not just to Northern
India but also to the principle of grass-root governance.
The author draws a similarity between the hopak of the Scythian Cossack
and the Bhangraquite a hop. Be that as it may, it's interesting to learn
that Guru Gobind Singhji forbade smoking because of its association with
the marijuana habit rampant among the Jats.
Bhupinder Singh Mahal has amply scrupled to distinguish between research
and speculation. A large bibliography gives clear evidence of his toil.
Where he was unable to pinpoint a water-tight source, he has flagged the
tentativeness of his conjecture. Fact and fancy, especially when clearly
marked, together with his proclivity to not let language get in the way of
communication makes Jats delightful reading.
Emeritus Professor of Social Science
Western Michigan University