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Did ancient Indians eat non-vegetarian food?

Whether it's poultry during the covid-19 outbreak or a Harappan meal at a museum, why is non-vegetarian food such an anathema to the custodians of Indian culture?

The display at the National Museum
The display at the National Museum

The past couple of months have seen several controversies erupt over food—with biryani becoming politicized in the run-up to the recent Delhi elections to the sudden omission of non-veg dishes from a Harappan meal at the National Museum in the Capital.

And recently, non-vegetarian food was in the eye of the storm once again when messages started doing the rounds on social media that consumption of chicken and eggs leads to covid-19, a claim that was later dismissed by AIIMS director Randeep Guleria, while adding that all meat should be washed and cooked thoroughly before eating.

It is the National Museum incident perhaps that has earned the ire of food historians across the country the most in recent times. It has been a little over a month since the controversy erupted, but it continues to headline the vegetarian versus non-vegetarian debate, which comes up almost every second day in the country.

In the last week of February, when I visited the Rotunda—the open-air amphitheatre at the National museum—there were huge boards, arranged all around this circular space, featuring images of artefacts from archaeological excavations and traced the evolution of food habits in the Indus Valley Civilization. The nuggets ranged from information about cooking implements to the Harappan way of making bread. This was part of Historical Gastronomica (19-25 February), an exhibition organized by the National Museum and One Station Million Stories (OSMS), a private entity dedicated to storytelling. However, both the tasting menu and the platter curated by chef Sabyasachi Gorai of Lavaash by Saby were conspicuously missing any form of meat, though there is strong archaeological evidence pointing to the consumption of a variety of animals in the Indus Valley Civilization.

Omission of meat from the menu wasn’t part of the original plan. In fact, it was after extensive research that Gorai had included items such as meat fat soup, quail/fowl/country chicken roasted in saal-patta (Shorea robusta), salt-cured sheep and dried fish and mahua (Madhuca longifolia) oil chutney to go with vegetarian fare—going the whole hog to even cook the way the ancients did. However, the National Museum decided just ahead of the inauguration 19 February to leave out all non-vegetarian items. According to a 20 February report in The Indian Express by Jay Mazoomdar, sources in the Union ministry of culture said a “couple of MPs" reacted to the menu shared online. “Actually, there is no rule as such. But we have to respect the museum’s tradition…. This museum has so many idols of gods and goddesses, and a relic of Lord Buddha. International dignitaries visit this museum. We have to consider these sensitivities here," the report quoted additional director general Subrata Nath as saying.

The OSMS team, left to deal with the issue of refunds and queries from those who had pre-booked non-vegetarian platters, decided to shift all dinners to Lavaash by Saby in Mehrauli on 24-25 February. And what could have been a well-rounded ethno-archaeological food experience became shrouded in controversy.

Historians have been critical of what they see as repeated attempts to erase an intrinsic part of social and culinary history. Of late, there have been several attempts to create a political narrative around food history. In fact, as journalist-author Vir Sanghvi wrote in his column in Brunch in January: “I am beginning to believe that, at no point since 1857, has food been as politicised as it is today. The renewed furore about beef eating is mostly political. The battle between khichri and biryani is really not about rice dishes at all. It is about so-called Hindu foods and Muslim foods."

Delhi-based author and food historian Pushpesh Pant says he is disappointed and shocked beyond belief. “The point is that India has never been vegetarian. A select group of Vaishyas, Brahmins and Jains might have been but even that doesn’t hold true across the country.

For instance, the Vaishyas of Chettinad are lusty meat-eaters. The Saraswat Brahmins consume meat as well. Three thousand years before the birth of Christ, there were no Vedic restrictions or Sanatan Dharma, as we know it today, so what are we getting so worked up about?" he asks.

Decoding the Harappan menu

Take the evidence being pieced together at the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi, Haryana, where a team of 25-30 archaeologists, researchers and postgraduate students from Deccan College, Pune—one of the oldest educational institutions in the country—has been quietly at work, excavating layer after layer in an effort to learn more about the ancient civilization. In the process, it has managed to get an idea of the Harappan menu. The team has found tandoors at the site and poultry bones as well.

Is this the first instance of a tandoori chicken having ever been made? We will have to wait for the findings to tell us more—the bones are still being analysed.

Clearly, the food habits of Harappans were a mix of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. The evidence has been pieced together through advanced scientific methods. “One such method is the isotope analysis, which allows us to analyse the bones of people for percentage of elements such as copper, zinc and magnesium. That gives a fair idea of the kind of food they ate. The other one, which we have now started using in India, is the residue analysis," says says Vasant Shinde, who helms Deccan College. This allows archaeologists to scrape the remains in a pot and test its contents. Shinde and his team have found remains of turmeric, garlic and ginger in some of the pots. “These were probably ingredients of the Indian curry. Brinjal has also been found in some of these pots," he says.“We have found a lot of animal bones and can see cut marks on them, which shows these were used for food." Could it be that the grains were for eating and the bones for display? According to food historian and culinary consultant Pritha Sen, a prehistoric civilization such as Harappa would have had fish and various meats as staples as much as barley, millets, and gruels made with the two. “And by meats, I mean all kinds—cattle, wildfowl, including peacocks, wild boar, deer, nilgai, hedgehog, turtles et al. It is also said that the domesticated chicken first made an appearance in the Indus Valley Civilization," she says. A meal back then would have consisted of thick gruels, edible greens and herbs, and spit-roasted meats devoid of much flavouring—reminiscent of the food cooked by many indigenous communities even today. “If the early Vedas glorify meat and fish eating, a culture predating them must have been fiercely so," she adds.

Censuring culinary heritage

The National Museum has also attracted criticism for its statement on the presence of statues of deities. Pant argues the images of gods and goddesses in the museum are khandit pratimas. “Broken images or idols lack prana

pratishta, and are not sacred. If an idol has been destroyed or is broken, it is not worthy of worship. Also, the fact is that a museum is not a temple," he says. Pant is also critical of the argument that non-vegetarian fare should not be served due to the presence of Buddha relics in the museum. “The whole world knows that Buddha was a bhikshu and had no restrictions on eating what was received in alms,"he says.

“This is part of our DNA, and however much you may try, it can’t be erased. Communities will continue to eat the way they have for thousands of years, with certain tweaks," says Sen. Today, we may not eat an elephant or its scrotum flavoured with pipli (long pepper), ginger and clove powder, “as has been recorded in Sangam literature, but we still have ber, barley and millets," she adds.

To avoid such “debacles", as she terms the National Museum exercise, Tanushree Bhowmik, a development professional and a food historian who has created menus around Harappa, Sangam literature and the Mahabharat for her pop-up Fork Tales, has a checklist for anyone who works in the field of food history. “We have to accept as and what the evidence provides to us. We can’t judge it based on our behavioural, social and moral compass," she says. For instance, when she started researching the kind of non-vegetarian prasads served to mother goddesses, Bhowmik was surprised by mentions in the scriptures of 50 kinds of meat that ancient Hindus ate.

“So, when we say no non-vegetarian food should be served in front of deities, we are painting Hinduism with a very broad brush stroke. Hinduism is an amalgamation of a lot of micro beliefs and cultures," she adds. In Bengal, for instance, it is mandatory in a lot of communities for married women to eat fish during Lakshmi Puja. During Saraswati Puja, it is customary to worship a pair of ilish. “Fish is served to Bhairav and different forms of Shiva by many communities. Are you denying these diverse narratives? Then you are not just being dishonest to archaeology and history but also to living practices. We might not eat all these meats today, but we can’t deny the fact that they were consumed. And I can make a choice whether I want to eat them or not".

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