BRITISH MUSEUM – Gallery Talk by Hilary Lewis Ruttley

Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery (Room 33) 

Saturday 24th November 2018, 1.15-2pm

EAST OF NiNEVEH: India at the time of Ashurbanipal (669 - 631BCE)

I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria

While Ashurbanipal was proclaiming himself King of the World and King of Assyria, east of his capital at Nineveh, developments were afoot.

The Assyrian empire reached its zenith in the 7th century BCE under Ashurbanipal’s  reign (669 – 631).  Ashurbanipal commanded the world of western Asia, from the eastern Mediterranean littoral to the western mountains of Iran.  During the rise and decline of his world however, two other cultural polities were emerging - in India and China.  The middle centuries of the first millennium BCE are transformational in world history.  

Running parallel to the timeline of the British Museum’s current exhibition on the life and culture of Ashurbanipal and the Neo-Assyrian empire, this talk looks at India. What were the factors that made these years so critical? Did these three polities – Western Asia, India and China inter-connect? Do we know what society in northern and peninsular India looked like on the ground?  How did their varied communities live, trade and conceive of a cosmic world and a civil society of ethics and spiritual belief?

The talk considers the evidence provided by material archaeology,  textual and oral literature and the continuing legacy of history still practised today. It brings together different sources and interpretations of our understanding  of this period.  Ceramics, metalware especially iron, glass and beads give clues to local development and cross-cultural contact.  Megalithic burial practices, notably in central and southern India, indicate sophisticated stone-working skills, intellectual constructs and suggest the predecessors of later structures such as the Buddhist stupa.  Their siting changes radically during the first millennium BCE and their funerary pottery typologies (Black and Red Ware and Russet Coated Painted Ware) and contents provide further information of continuing social and exchange patterns as the archaeological finds are linked to subsequent historical artefacts.  

In northern India, textual evidence and luxury pottery types (Painted Grey Ware and Northern Black Polished Ware) point to a diversity of cultures between the north-west and the north-eastern Ganges delta. They indicate shifts towards spreading agriculture and the significance of water in food production, crafts and river trade. Villages are mentioned for specialist crafts such as black-smithing, weaving of cloth and baskets, pottery and carpentry.    Settlement forms are a mosaic of small units and urban centres presenting different types of polity, governance and cultural attitudes.  The multiple janapada kingdoms coalesce in key areas to become mahajanapadas but their modes of social organisation contrast with those of communities known as gana-sangha.  

The talk will consider the religious transition that takes place and the linguistic and social connotations of aryavarta and mleccha. Linguistic study comparing early Rg Vedic period texts with later ones, has identified the emergence of iron technology (mentioned in the Arthavaveda ) as well as India’s major language groupings, sub-strata and loan words at this time.  They lend insight into changes in population geography and imply some of the social, economic and ritual factors which brought about the new world views, ontologies and spiritual concepts seen in the early Upanishads and ritual practices of the Brahmanas.  

The narratives of the Puranas (asserted as of  both divine  and human origin) and the texts of the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics collectively provide glimpses of earlier 8thand 7thcentury BCE historical places, figures, events and features such as the ‘philosopher-king’ of the kingdom of Videha.  Women philosophers as well as men, Vedic and non-Vedic viewpoints provide something upon which a picture (of certain localities at least), can be built. What is clear is that there is no uniform sweep of Vedic culture and that many of the elements that become intrinsic in later philosophy and religion are non-Vedic. The centres of innovation in thought are shown to arise not only in a ritually and institutionally dominant group but also among peripherals of these diverse cultural communities.  Early Jain and Buddhist sources and contemporary brahmanical texts composed in the centuries coeval with those immediately following the fall of Assyria, show these diverse philosophical roots.

It is interesting to step back from the texts and place them within the context of India in the 7thcentury BCE. With Ashurbanipal’s territory at its fullest extent, India supplied exports to the palace at Nineveh and traded with other parts of the Assyrian empire via sea routes and overland (the Bactriana, Margiana and northern Iranian route). India also traded its own products and provided a conduit for Western Asian items with China, notably the Dian people in Yunnan (via the India , Myanmar, Yunnan route).  


Examples can be found in the Ashurbanipal exhibition and in the Asia gallery. The artefacts in question illustrate how efficiency is not always paramount in cross-cultural communication and exchange.  Instead, it is colour, form and aesthetics that attract and create value.  Whether these trade goods start as luxury items or commodities, it is the human element of desire and delight of artistic form that can be seen to prompt imitation and technological development. 

The British Museum’s exhibition looks at Ashurbanipal’s immediate family and his up-bringing.  His lineage passes from his grandfather, Sennacherib (705-681) and father  Esarhaddon (681-669) and we see the queen mother, Naqi’a and his wife, Libbali-sharat. In addition to his training for kingship as the Crown Prince, known as entering the ‘House of Succession’, he also had a tutor, an astrologer (Balasi)  and he was taught how to write in cuneiform by a sage-scribe, Adapa.  Ashurbanipal records his intense pride in his numeracy, learning and writing (cuneiform) abilities.  Ashurbanipal’s thirst for knowledge is famously evidenced in his library. It was both an organised depository of texts relating to government and a critical resource for decision-making and strategic action based on ways of fore-telling the future and interpreting omens and events. The most sought-after source for texts and acquisitions from other library collections came from south of Nineveh, in Babylonia.  The scholar-scribe persona and practice of librarianship is a genre that pre-dates and is wider than Ashurbanipal’s collection.  His self-identification as a scholar-scribe in his own right reveals the prestige of intellectual skill and scribal knowledge in his cultural world. Education is a conspicuous component of Ashurbanipal’s communication of power in, and beyond, war and hunting. Our attention is deliberately drawn to it in his portraits on carved wall panels, which depict clearly, the stylus tucked into his belt. 

Looking at parallel histories, the talk considers the issue of knowledge acquisition and value in India against the backdrop of Ashurbanipal’s library.  In India, it is a period of enormous significance in her intellectual, religious and cultural history.  Among the society attached to the Vedic tradition, the Upanishads emerge, they show the development of not only a very different approach to the concept of knowledge and understanding but a very different method of creating and organising it. It is an oral tradition that carries out a strictly disciplined retention and transmission of knowledge, ritual, esoteric insight and governance. 

The earliest Upanishads, the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya, were composed during the period of Ashurbanipal’s reign.  They are associated with the lives of Upanishadic thinkers such as Sandilya (670-640BCE), Uddalaka Aruni and Yajnavalkya (640-610BCE). Their places of origin, as for all the Upanishads, are the Kuru-Pancala and Kosala-Videha regions of northern India.  

Rg Vedic practices appealed for the assistance of elemental gods and the rituals required became extremely complex and costly. In c.8thcentury BCE, the Brahmanas were composed explaining and rationalising ritual method and outcome and providing a philosophical gloss on the Vedas.  The 7thcentury Upanishads, on the other hand, are a dramatic move forwards in thinking but first, it is useful to consider the focus of Ashurbanipal’s collection.

In the contents of Ashurbanipal’s library, a very large proportion of documents are concerned with ritual and omen interpretation. They include a group of cuneiform clay tablets relating to divination, religion, ritual, medicine and epic while a second group concerns oracular inquiries and reports and interpretations of significant events.  A third group is a collection of administrative documents, contracts and census-surveys.   

There is cosmological speculation in the Brahmanas and Ashurbanipal’s library tablets and there is also concern with Vedic ritual and sacrifice (particularly the Horse sacrifice and Soma ritual) in the Upanishads. However, from their earliest appearance in the Brhadaranyaka and Chandogya , contemporaneous with Ashurbanipal’s collection, the Upanishads present a different focus. They scrutinise the human body in all its aspects (physical, cognitive and its essential humanity). The body is homologised with cosmic phenomena and the task is to discover the hidden connections between the body, the cosmos and ritual. In a different way, Ashurbanipal’s library is motivated by the desire to create an organised structure of worldly matters and find a pattern to understanding and thereby controlling or bringing human affairs into favourable alignment with what are otherwise arbitrary and disparate elements of life events. The Upanishads embark on a journey exploring a vision of interconnectedness in which the cosmos, the world and humanity are not made up of disorganised elements but are integrated and bound together by a fundamental, divine singularity.

This talk invites reflection on the one-two centuries in India which form the prelude to the appearance of Mahavira and Jainism and of Gautama Siddharta who became the Buddha.  They are formative years. Bringing together material archaeology from northern and peninsular India, Western Asia and China, comparing knowledge systems, written and oral texts, the contribution of language studies and imagery of visual art, the talk welcomes your participation and thoughts.