It was mesmerizing. The beige white ground spread in front of our eyes, small mounds rising on the horizon and millions of brick red pottery shards strewn across till horizon ! The shards were more than precious. Priceless actually because this was the earthen connection to our past, of not a few centuries but a millennia back.
Just try to turn the wheels of time to 2500 BCE, and you will find yourself standing in a bustling metropolis abuzz with activity and not the present day Rakhigarhi, a sleepy town in Haryana.
Indus Valley or Harappan culture refers to archaeological finds pertaining to time period of 2500-1900 BCE having specific similarities. The importance of these ruins is their timeframe. The distinguishing characteristic of this culture is the presence of town planning evident in spacious perpendicular roads, sewerage system, fortified townships and large houses with courtyard and brick walls. Findings of seals, weights, beads, gold ornaments indicate flourishing trade. The pottery is again painted finely with geometric designs and baked to perfection. In all, it was a culture of urban people who enjoyed a good life.
Certain sites show the initial phase of this culture known as early Harappan pegged at 3200-2600 BCE. Mature Harappan is found between 2600-2000 BC. The declining phase termed as late Harappan is dated at 1900-1300 BCE.
This urban civilization, almost 5000 years old, found in Indian subcontinent changed the landscape of Indian history entirely. The earliest monuments found in Indian subcontinent date back to third century BCE, which are the Buddhist stupas or rock carved caves at Barabar in Bihar or later at Bhaje in Maharashtra. Before that archaeologist have found human dwellings which can be categorized as chalcolithic cultures. Chalcolithic Era implies use of metal and stone as per the evidences gathered from various archaeological excavations. India also has several Neolithic dwellings discovered. The urban settlements found in the subcontinent almost all date back to Mauryan Era. So, till third century BCE, there was no evidence of planned townships existing on this land from archaeological perspective.
On a global timeline, Egyptian civilization is pegged at 4000-3000 BCE, the Sumerian, present day Iraq also boasts of a civilization as old as to 3000 BCE. The classical Greeks reigned in by 1000 BCE while the Romans tried to conquer the world in Christian Era.
Till recently India did not have enough evidence to establish its antiquity. This all changed in 1922 when a well-planned city was excavated literally from the mound of dead people, that is Mohenjo-Daro.
In the vast dry land of Sindh now in Pakistan, on the banks of Sindhu river stood a mound. There was a Kushan era stupa excavated earlier here dating back to third century BCE. What they found now was totally different. Layout of a city with roads crossing at right angles wide enough to accommodate 2 bullock carts side by side, plinths of houses lining the roads and their openings in adjacent lanes. The most important discovery was of a functional waste water management or sewerage system through properly built brick channels. The level of sophistication discovered put the site right up there with some of the earliest civilizations of the world.
Mohenjo-Daro has a large rectangular tank, Was it a ritualistic bath or a something like a modern day swimming pool! They have found a granary in Mohenjo-Daro implying that surrounding arid lands were green and giving at that point in time. Kalibangan in Haryana on the banks of Ghaggar, presents a ploughed field near the settlement. Kalibangan also has fire altars built with baked bricks. Kuntasi is a factory site producing millions of steatite beads. They had a flourishing trade outside India, there is even a seal with a ship drawn on it! Lothal excavation in Gujarat resulted in discovery of dock to safely harbour large ships. Dholavira, in Rann of Kachh is a prominent site with fortification and 4 entrances to the city in 4 directions. Archaeologist found a signboard scripted with incomprehensible Indus signs dating back 5000 years. Dholavira citadel has large spacious halls with their pillar bases intact.
The earthen seals found in abundance have several things carved on it, right from the typical Indian bull with massive hump to sitting yogi posture. From elephants to cats to one horned animal, there are even depictions of fire altars on some seals. The peacock was important , carved on several pots as we find now.
They sure were great traders, as we find Indus valley seals in far off regions like Iraq and Turkey. The Acadian people of Iraq, contemporary to this civilization called them merchants of Meluha and imported several things including beads of garnet and shells!
Let us now move north to Harappa. On the banks of the river Ravi, this town is home to a settlement that lay buried for 5000 years. Harappa is particularly unfortunate as the priceless standardized baked bricks that were used to build houses of Harappan metropolis in 3200 BCE were stolen in large quantities to build the Karachi-Lahore Railroad in 19’th century, by the contractors in their ignorant bliss. Still the unearthed huge granary and citadel has given us a fair idea of a thriving economy and polity.
This IVC or Sindhu Saraswati culture can be found in a large region covering Sindh, Punjab and part of Baluchistan in Pakistan. In India, several sites have been discovered in Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Some sites can be found as far as Rangpur in Uttar Pradesh and Daimabad in Maharashtra.
Coming back to Rakhigarhi which is the largest IVC site in independent India.
The road to Rakhigarhi leads us through the famous ‘Sarason ke khet’ all around us, lovely bright yellow flowers spread across acres, green fields of wheat giving an equally beautiful alternative to the eyes. The flattest land with not a hill in site, the air fresh and morning mist reluctant to go away with the dawn of every day being a sight to behold. There were lakes and happy buffaloes relaxing in it, dew drops still waiting on the leaves and sun rays trying hard to make inroads to reach us. One such charming day found us in Rakhigarhi.
The site is spread on 7 mounds that generally depict a place where people had lived for centuries and now moved away. The prominent feature of Rakhigarhi is the fortification wall. Unfortunately it is so neglected and encroached by the present village that for an onlooker it looks like a heap of mud with pigeon nests in between. But a closer look will reveal the famous fine baked Harappan bricks standing solidly for last 4500 years.
Rakhigarhi shows continuous settlement from early to late Harappan phases. Several copper , gold and silver artefacts have been found along with the ceramics of Indus brand. One of the interesting finds at Rakhigarhi is graffiti like wall decorations, which could very well be signs of an early Indus script.
After Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, archaeologist discovered several sites along the course of Indus in present day Pakistan. The name Indus valley culture was given primarily because most of the sites of this culture were found in Indus valley after the first excavation in 1922. Post independence, since both Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa became part of Pakistan, Indian archaeologists were keen to find similar site on Indian soil and they were not disappointed. We now have almost 1000+ Indus valley sites in India belonging to early, mature and late cultures. Most of them are in the so called Saraswati river valley hence, many insist on calling this culture as Sindhu-Saraswati culture.
Now where is this Saraswati river? All Indians believe in their hearts that Saraswati river once flowed on this land and there is ample literary evidence in the scriptures to prove it. Rig Ved mentions Saraswati in glorious terms, a river more prominent than Sindhu or Ganga. Mahabharata records Balram having done Saraswati Parikrama and vanishing of river Saraswati in the desert, in a place called Vinashan Tirtha. It is assumed that Ghaggar River in India and Hakra-Nara channel in Pakistan must be the old river bed of Saraswati. Ghaggar is not a perennial river as it originates in Shivalik mountains and is fed by glacial waters. Hence it is much likely that Sutlej from west and Yamuna from east were the major tributaries of Saraswati thus giving her substantial water load.
Saraswati dried up because of tectonic movements and its major tributaries changing their course. This must have happened around 1900 BCE approximately. It had a great impact on environment as the fertile land turned arid. Decline of Indus culture is also attributed to this sudden change in the climate. Late Harappan culture shows marked down gradation in the quality of pottery, town and artefacts. It is assumed that the trade declined, people left their cities and spread outside the region in search for greener pastures. A probable reason why camel bones are not found in mature Harappan sites excavation.
Close to Rakhigarhi is another IVC site of Farmana. On the banks of river Chautang which was Dwishdwati of the past, is this tiny town holding evidences of a legacy in an idyllic setting. Shades of green and yellow smile at you from all corners of horizon. With a backdrop of clear blue sky and buff alluvial soil, it was a riot of colours, unexpectedly from the most simple, rustic surroundings. The brickwork of a forgotten era, the pottery scattered around and serene calm; as if it was a different world, in a different time with only the landscape remaining as a sole witness.
An excavation was done in the middle of a field here. Archaeologists found roads crossing at right angles, a big house with hearth, storage pits and a main door opening in a side lane.
The excavated sites of this culture have shown that people of those era had opportunity to live in fortified cities, walk on planned good roads, live in big houses with courtyard and adjoining rooms, wear gold ornaments and bead bangles. They had the finest pottery to drink and to eat from. The children played with beautifully made earthen toys and people probably worshipped earthen idols. There were seals with images and scripts, most likely used for trade and weights used for measurements. Sometimes there were citadels, huge halls and granaries, but everywhere a standard sized brick was used.
They had ‘Tandoor’ ovens in their courtyard just like their present day predecessors. And they entered their houses from doors opening in the adjoining lanes, just like todays inhabitants, to avoid the blast of sand storms in summer. They ate wheat, barley ,peas spiced with mustard. They used sesame oil and had jowar. They wore clothes made from cotton washed with indigo and women used henna to beautify their hands. They had many cows, bulls and chickens strutting in their backyard and also loved cats and dogs and had them as pets.
The men and women wore ornaments made from gold and use of tusk was common. The beautiful stylish pottery would take us by surprise. Big jars with perforated walls, dish on a stand, huge round barrels for storing grains and delicate stemmed pots to drink from ! The quality of pottery found in Harappan sites is superb with a fine finish.
The earliest scripture in Indian history, the oldest surviving texts through oral tradition is Vedic literature. And Rig Ved is the oldest set of poetic hymns available to us. But there is not a strong archaeological support to this oldest text, so dating Rigveda is a daunting task. Whereas in Sindhu Saraswati culture there are countless artefacts and ancient ruins to look at and study but since we don’t know the script, there are limitations to our understanding about the people who built this. This is biggest riddle in Indian history and historians are trying to solve it for years now.
Author – Manisha Chitale
She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org