January 26, 1998  
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HERITAGE: ARCHAEOLOGY
The Indus Riddle

A flurry of excavations has uncovered startling evidence that presents a radically picture of the Indus Valley civilisation -- and calls for a complete revision of ancient Indian history.

By Raj Chengappa

Indus ValleyTo school students, history classes on the Indus Valley civilisation have always been simplistic. Even dull. Most textbooks talk of how the civilisation appeared like a meteor on ancient India's skyscape, shone brilliantly for a while and then was snuffed out either by marauding Aryans or sudden floods.

Archaeologist Ravindra Singh Bisht describes the syllabus as "dead boring". He could be dead right. Egyptian mummies somehow seem to evoke more interest than the town-planning feats of the Indus engineers. Did you, for instance, raise your hands in class and ask just how stone-age farming communities almost overnight took a giant leap forward and transformed themselves into sophisticated urbanites living in cities so well designed that Indians have never been able to replicate the achievement even 5,000 years later? Did you actually believe that poppycock about an Aryan blitzkrieg that wiped out a glorious civilisation, plunging India into the dark ages for over a thousand years?

Indus ValleyYou probably did. Now if Bisht has his way, you will have to relearn ancient Indian history. For the past six years, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) team headed by him has been systematically excavating an Indus site called Dholavira on the salty marshes of the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. What they have been uncovering is turning accepted notions on the Indus on their heads. Says Bisht: "Exploring Dholavira is like opening a complete book on the Indus. We now have answers to some of the most enduring riddles about the civilisation." For starters, Indus town planners are not as "monotonous" and "regimented" as archaeologists had us believe. In Dholavira they display a surprising exuberance that expresses itself in elaborate stone gateways with rounded columns apart from giant reservoirs for water. Bisht also found a board inlaid with large Harappan script characters -- probably the world's first hoarding.

While experts regard Dholavira as the most exciting Indus find in recent times, archaeologists have excavated or are in the process of digging up 90 other sites both in India and Pakistan that are throwing up remarkable clues about this great prehistoric civilisation. Among them: That Indus Valley was a misnomer and that in size it was the largest prehistoric urban civilisation -- even bigger than Pharaonic Egypt. That the empire was ruled much like a democracy and the Indus people were the world's top exporters. And that instead of the Aryans it was possibly a Great Depression that did them in. In Lahore, M. Rafique Mughal, Pakistan's top-ranking archaeologist, says: "It is both a revelation and a revolution. Our history textbooks need to be rewritten."

SHOULD IT BE CALLED SARASVATI CIVILISATION?

Archaeologists have an exasperating tradition of labelling their discoveries after the name of the site on which it is first found. Since Harappa and Mohenjodaro were the first to be excavated in the 1920s, Sir John Marshall, who headed the team of explorers, called it the Indus civilisation because it flourished in the valley of that river. Marshall's announcement wowed the world and pushed India's known history back by about 2,000 years. At the time of Independence there was no real need to change the epithet as barely a dozen Indus sites had been explored.

With the prime sites, Mohenjodaro and Harappa, going to Pakistan, however, a feverish hunt began in India to locate and excavate Indus sites -- a race that its neighbour soon joined. In doing so, they began uncovering a civilisation so vast in its extent that at its peak it is estimated to have encompassed a staggering 1.5 million sq km -- an area larger than Western Europe. In size, it dwarfed contemporary civilisations in the Nile Valley in Egypt and in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in Sumer (modern Iraq). Its geographical boundaries are now believed to extend up to the Iranian border on the west, Turkmenistan and Kashmir in the north, Delhi in the east and the Godavari Valley in the south (see map).

A recent count showed that as many as 1,400 Indus sites have been found, of which 917 are in India, 481 in Pakistan and one in Afghanistan. While Mohenjodaro and Harappa were rightly regarded as principal cities, there were at least several others such as Rakhigarhi in Haryana and Ganweriwala in Pakistan's Punjab province that match them both in size and importance. It is also apparent that the civilisation did not just centre on the Indus Valley. When the sites were plotted on a map of the subcontinent, archaeologists noticed a curious clustering of sites along the Ghaggar river which flows through Haryana and Rajasthan and runs almost parallel to the Indus. After entering Pakistan, where it is called Hakra, the river finally empties itself into the sea at the Rann. Over 175 sites were found along the alluvial plains of the Ghaggar as compared to 86 found in the Indus region.

What puzzled them was that the Ghaggar-Hakra river and most of its tributaries are dry and their courses have silted up. So why did so many cities come up on such a desiccated watersheet, especially at a time when rivers were the lifelines of civilisation? Unless, of course, at one time a mighty river flowed perennially. In their search for answers, Indus experts homed in on the Rigveda, which is believed to have been composed when the Indus Valley civilisation was on the decline. Many of its hymns mention a sacred river called Sarasvati, describing it as the foremost of rivers, big as the ocean, rising in the mountains and flowing between the Yamuna and Sutlej before entering the sea. But in later Vedic hymn it is no longer described as mighty.

In the '80s, Indian satellite images of the region showed that the ancient bed of the Ghaggar-Hakra river could be traced from the Sivaliks to the Rann of Kutch. Where it is not covered by sand, the bed of the river consists of a fertile loam and its width extends from three to 10 km on different parts of its course, making it a very large river. Putting together the evidence, V.N. Misra, director of the Department of Archaeology in the Deccan College, Pune, recently concluded that the Ghaggar-Hakra river was the Vedic Sarasvati and existed when the Indus civilisation flourished. Misra is now among the growing band of archaeologists demanding that the Indus be renamed the Sarasvati Valley civilisation. Mughal and Bisht disagree and say that recent findings indicate that Indus was indeed the nucleus of the civilisation's growth. Foreign scholars view the debate as a subcontinent turf battle. Says Gregory Possehl, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in the US and an expert on the Indus civilisation: "With over 1,000 sites spread all over the subcontinent, why be so parochial?"

WERE THEY INDIANS OR OUTSIDERS?

From the name game, the focus has now shifted to a more pertinent question: Just who were these people? Research in the past few decades is beginning to throw up a much clearer answer. In the '70s, when Braj Basi Lal, a former ASI director-general, began excavating Kalibangan, a site in the desert sands of Rajasthan, he was amazed to find evidence of a field of crossed furrows dated to around 2900 BC, preserved by a strange quirk of nature. Looking around he found that farmers in the region used a similar ploughing technique even after 5,000 years. The ancient houses had tandoors (earthen ovens) similar to ones found in kitchens in the villages in the area. As Lal says, "It was as if the present was the past and that despite the passage of time not much had changed."

Lal's findings have been corroborated by other sites excavated in the past decade. Analysis of the skeletal remains, including the ones found recently at Dholavira, indicate that they are basically the same as present-day Indians. Harvard anthropologist Richard Meadows, who made an extensive study of skeletal remains in the region, showed that the people were in good health and, more importantly, there was a diverse mix of population just as at the present. So the question had to be modified to: Who were these peoples?

Given the vastness of the Indus empire, V.H. Sonawane, director, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History in the MS University of Baroda, points out: "The first casualty is the earlier notion of a Harappan homogeneity. It is clear that there was tremendous regional diversity just as we have in modern India." But was this assemblage of people originally from the subcontinent or did they come as migrant hordes from Central Asia? New evidence from several sites both in India and Pakistan show a remarkable continuity of culture over a period of 2,000 to 3,000 years before the Indus Valley peaked. Dholavira, for instance, shows the existence of small farming and pastoral villages on the same site before it was transformed into a bustling metropolis.

Mughal's studies in Pakistan have helped chalk out an approximate chronology of the changes. The beginnings of village farming communities and pastoral camps were reported as early as 7000 to 5000 BC. But developed farming communities, which grew wheat and barley, emerged around 4300 BC. In a site called Mehrgarh near the Bolan river in Baluchistan province, there are signs of agricultural surplus with the establishment of community storage silos. The conclusion: Sorry to use the cliché, but we had unity in diversity even then.

WERE THEY COPYCATS OR GENIUSES?

How did the Harappans take the great leap from self-contained agricultural societies to a trade-oriented, luxury-conscious, sophisticated, urban civilisation that gave the world the concept of town planning? Analysing the evidence from various sites, Possehl found that between 2600 BC and 2500 BC, the Harappans experienced a century of cathartic changes. Before this he finds no breadboard models of the expansion to come, be it the invention of writing or the awesome town-planning techniques. A tremendous jump in human ability is evident. So what or who caused it?

In the past, the reputed British archaeologist, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, argued that ideas have wings and that the Harappans were influenced by their trade contacts with the Sumerians. But the diffusion theory of civilisation, as it is called, is slowly being given the heave-ho. Cambridge historian Raymond Allchin, an authority on the subject, says: "We are now beginning to see the foundation being laid in the preceding 100 to 200 years in smaller sites. There appears to be a completely organic process of growth that threw up the Harappan culture as we know it."

Yet, the evidence of that process continues to be scanty. In Kunal in Haryana, archaeologists recently found what are known as proto Indus seals. On pottery on many of the smaller sites in both India and Pakistan, graffiti similar to some figures on the script begin to appear. And at Dholavira and at Banawali in Haryana, the distinction between the citadel and the lower city is beginning to evolve. There is, however, a huge jump in scale in such activity in those critical 100 years. For, in Harappa as in most Indus sites, the distinct gridiron pattern for streets appear, a scientific system of drainage that linked up to even the smallest house in the lower city is established, precise weights and measures begin to circulate, and the writing system evolves. So were the Harappans copycats?

Archaeologists say the Indus people couldn't have copied their town-planning from Egypt and Mesopotamia because in those civilisations the roads meandered like village streets. Nor was the writing similar to Sumer's cuneiform or the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The Harappans had their own distinctive style. Lal explains the dramatic change as a result of centuries of growth reaching a critical mass that caused an unparalleled urban explosion. Trade, he believes, was the driving force of the revolution. Even a sceptic like Possehl maintains that "these are indeed an expression of the Indian genius".

SURPRISE, WAS IT A DEMOCRACY?

The Indus people appeared to have shunned personality cults. It is almost a faceless culture with no glorification of individual rulers and no royal tombs. The religious monumentality that characterised the contemporary Egyptian civilisation with its pyramids, or the Sumerians with their ziggurats, has so far not been found. If there was any attempt to organise vast amounts of labour it was for such mundane civic tasks as building reservoirs, fortress walls or even the great bath at Mohenjodaro. A silver crown found in Kunal did get archaeologists excited recently as it indicated a royalty in early Harappan settlements. But it is not enough to establish that monarchs ruled. There is evidence of fire worship, the emergence of a proto Shiva and the possibility of a priestly class.The Indus people were deeply religious and ritual played a big part in their lives, points out D.P. Sharma, head of the Indus collection, National Museum, Delhi. While Wheeler called a white idol found in Mohenjodaro a "priest king", there is little evidence to show that the Indus people were ruled by them.

Yet there was remarkable uniformity in the vast empire that spoke of some sort of central political authority. There were clearly skilled engineers who planned the big cities with awesome precision. Most of the cities were parallelograms in shape and the bricks had a uniformity in size with a clear ratio of 4:2:1. Weights were standardised and the same script was used by the entire empire. There was also a homogeneity of crafts. The notion that Harappa and Mohenjodaro were twin capitals is losing ground. Rather, Mughal sees control being exercised by half a dozen principal cities that functioned as regional capitals.

That there was social stratification is evident from the way the towns were planned. The citadel was a good 20 ft higher than the lower or middle cities. It led Wisconsin archaeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer to envisage several competing classes of elite who maintained different levels of control. Instead of one social group with absolute control, he speculates that the rulers included merchants, ritual specialists and individuals who controlled resources such as land, livestock and raw materials. Maybe -- just maybe -- we are seeing an ancient democracy at work.

CAN WE CRACK THEIR CODE?

A Nobel prize possibly awaits the person who can decipher what the Indus people wrote. Along with the Etruscan of Italy, it is the last script of the Bronze Age that is yet to be deciphered. The Egyptian hieroglyphics were cracked by the chance discovery of a rosetta stone found by Napoleon's men who invaded Egypt in 1798. It had on it an inscription in three languages -- hieroglyphic, demotic (another script popular in ancient Egypt) and Greek, which helped decipher it. Sumer's cuneiform script was deciphered by Henry Rawlinson, a British officer in Iran, after he found the Behistun inscription on a high rock that provided clues to it. So far no such bilingual artefact has been found that could help break the Indus writing code.

Yet, there is no dearth of claimants: since the sites were discovered, over a 100 theories have been put forward and even high speed computers employed. But in the absence of an independent test, none of them could be corroborated. What they did throw up were some patterns that hold a clue to what the Indus people wanted to communicate. The inscriptions are usually short, made up of 26 characters written usually in one line. The script, largely glyptic in content, has around 419 signs, which is far short of the 50,000 the Chinese script has.

The writing system is believed to be based on syllables. The Indus people also wrote from right to left as is manifest by the strokes, but it does follow at times a rebus style similar to that of a farmer ploughing a field. The dominant animal to be featured is the unicorn, the mythical beast, followed by the short-horned bull. Among lettering, a jar-shaped alphabet is the most common. I. Mahadevan, an Indian archaeologist, has a fetching theory about the conical standard that appears on most seals. He believes it is the legendary soma urn used to make alcohol. Apparently there was no ban on advertising it.

Asko Parpola, a Finnish scholar who has spent several decades banging his head against the script, homes in on the Dravidian script and points to the fact that one of its languages, Brahui, has been spoken in Baluchistan for at least a thousand years. He rejects an Indo-Aryan genesis to the script. Parpola's thesis has been contradicted by Shikarpur Ranganath Rao, a distinguished archaeologist responsible for the excavation of Lothal. Rao claims to know what exactly the seals mean and says the script has a close link to Vedic Sanskrit and Semitic symbols. But many archaeologists disagree with his approach, and remain despondent about ever cracking the code.

The bottomline: While some progress has been made, the Indus seals are still a lot of gibberish to us.

THE WORLD'S GREATEST EXPORTERS?

If Rao found himself on shaky ground where the Indus script was concerned, he made waves with his excavation of Lothal, an Indus port town located off the Gujarat coast. It shattered notions that the Indus was a landlocked civilisation, conservative and isolated, and as a result sank without a trace. Rao uncovered a dock 700 ft long -- even bigger than the one currently at Visakhapatnam. It took an estimated million bricks to build it. Next to the dockyard were massive granaries and specialised factories for bead-making. Hundreds of seals were found, some showing Persian Gulf origin, indicating that Lothal was a major port of exit and entry.

Meanwhile, independent evidence started flowing in when Indus seals were found both in Iraq, where the ancient Sumer civilisation flourished, and in the Persian Gulf. The Sumers apparently called India "Meluha", and their inscriptions talk of how they purchased beads of various kinds, timber, copper, gold and ivory crafts from India. It was evident that the goods were upmarket and purchased by the Sumer royalty. Indus sailors appear to have discovered the trade winds long before Hippolus, and their maritime interests were vast. "Harappan traders were among the most enterprising," says Jagat Pati Joshi, another former ASI director-general, who discovered Dholavira. Gold, for instance, was carted from distant Karnataka, and then hammered into delightful chains to be exported to Sumer. A lapis lazuli bead factory recently discovered in distant Shortugai in Afghanistan is believed to have been a major supplier to Harappan traders.

Like modern-day Indian businessmen, the Harappans had a huge domestic market to cater to. The climate around that time was conducive for growing a variety of crops in the region. Harappans are credited with being the earliest growers of rice and cotton. The agricultural surpluses ensured craft specialisation. And at its peak, the Indus was dotted with over 300 cities of varying sizes, supported by hundreds of towns and villages which supported a cottage industry. Quality standards seems to have been strictly observed, resulting in uniformity of arts and craft. And the flourishing trade was an energiser that powered Indus' phenomenal growth in the middle of the third millennium BC. It brought prosperity that saw the cities provide their citizens with the finest of drainage systems and reservoirs to supply water. And helped them evolve into one of the greatest civilisations ever.

DID ARYANS KILL THEM OR A DEPRESSION?

Archaeologists are known to stumble, but the kind of knocking Wheeler has taken over his Aryan invasion theory has few parallels. When the British archaeologist discovered a dozen skeletons in Mohenjodaro, he propounded a theory about the final massacre by marauding invaders that put an end to the Indus civilisation. When an Indian scholar told him of Hariyuppa being mentioned in the Rigveda, he took it to mean Harappa. And since a fort was known as pur, and Indira, the Aryan god, was known as Purandhara or destroyer of forts, it all fitted neatly. After all, weren't the Indus cities among the most fortified?

Yet the past 50 years, and more so the last decade, has shown just how wrong Wheeler was. The last massacre theory was his imagination running riot. Far from being snuffed out, there was a brilliant resurgence of Indus culture further south for a while. Possehl, who made a recent study, found that in 2000 BC in Pakistan's Sindh district the sites were down from 86 to 6 and in Cholistan, 174 to 41. But in India the sites in Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan exploded from 218 to 853. Possehl asks: "How can this be construed as an eclipse? We are looking at a highly mobile people."

Allchin argues that there is clear indication that the rainfall pattern, which had initially brought fertility, had become adverse in the Sindh region. And theorises that, given the instability of the Himalayan region, there may have been a massive earthquake that possibly changed the course of rivers such as the Sarasvati and affected many Indus cities. The Indus people then migrated eastward. Lal talks of steep decline in trade because of problems in Sumer that resulted in a Great Depression and turned many urban centres into ghost cities.

Bisht concurs with Lal but goes a step further. He says that after the quake hit the heart of the civilisation, the Indus people migrated east which acted like a sort of bypass to their woes. And like a dying candle, it shone brilliantly again but briefly before being snuffed out. Dholavira, Banawali, Mehrgarh, Harappa -- in fact, all the major cities show that as the cities declined, encroachments on streets that were unseen at its peak began to occur with alarming regularity. There was a breakdown in sanitation and cities like their modern-day counterparts in India simply ran themselves aground. They were replaced by massive squatter colonies and an explosion of rural sites as people, disillusioned with cities, went back to farming communities. A giant step backward.

Yet it wasn't as if all came to nought as was earlier believed. Some of the writings survived in the pottery of the following ages. The weight and decimal system too lived on. And so did the bullock-cart technology that the Indus had perfected. Rather than a violent transition, there may have been an orderly interaction with oncoming Aryans. Lal in his most recent book even puts across the most audacious theory: Could the Bronze Age Harappans be Aryans themselves? He says this because of the presence of fire worship and the discovery of horse remains and idols in Indus sites. Meadows dismisses it as premature and points out that it was more likely that ass remains were mistaken for that of a horse's. And that the Vedas showed a great antipathy for urban centres.

Whatever the cause, it would take another 1,000 years for a semblance of civilisation to return to the subcontinent -- a dire warning to modern India of the catastrophe that can befall an errant populace.

Indus Chronology

 

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