FROM INDUS TO INDEPENDENCE: A TREK THROUGH INDIAN HISTORY

Canberra, 8 December 2012
PART 4
HARAPPAN (INDUS VALLEY) CIVILISATION (3300-1300 BC)
Anecdote. In 1856 AD, two brothers, both British engineers, were laying the East Indian Railway Company’s line from Karachi to Lahore. In order to get sufficient ballast they visited an ancient ruined city called Brahminabad full of well-burned bricks. The bricks were promptly used as ballast and a few months later the railway line passed near another ruined city, the bricks from which had already been used by villagers living at the same site called Harappa. The bricks from these two sites now provide ballast for nearly 150 kilometres of railway track from Karachi to Lahore. These bricks were from the ruins of an ancient civilisation that flourished on the banks of the River Indus.
[Note: In this chapter the terms Indus Valley Civilisation (IVC) and Harappan Civilisation have been used interchangeably, as also the words Indus people and Harappans, and Indus culture and Harappan culture.]
More than five thousand years ago a thriving civilisation existed in the Indus Valley—located predominantly in what is now Pakistan and encroaching onto western India, this is the earliest known urban culture in the Indian subcontinent and is called the Harappan Civilisation, after the village Harappa in the then Punjab province of British India, where the first cities were excavated.  Since other sites were subsequently discovered in the valley of the River Indus it also came to be called the Indus Valley Civilisation. The IVC is the most extensive of the ancient riverine civilisations—Egypt, Mesopotamia, China and India—covering an area almost equal to Western Europe. However, of all the four, the IVC is the least known because the Indus script has not yet been deciphered and therefore, the archaeologists continue to rely on surviving cultural material to gain an insight into the life of the Harappans (the name given to the ancient people who lived in the IVC). It is estimated that at its peak the IVC may have had a population over five million and is credited with having developed new techniques in handicraft and metallurgy.
Discovery
There are two conflicting opinions regarding the first report of the existence of the IVC ruins. One states that in 1826, a British Army deserter, James Lewis, posing as an American engineer and on his way to enter service with the ruler of Afghanistan recorded in a note the presence of mounded ruins at a small town called Harappa. The second states that Harappa was first described in 1842 by Charles Masson in his journal ‘Narrative of Various Journeys’ in Balochistan, Afghanistan and the Punjab, where an ancient city extending across 25 miles was mentioned. [Maybe because Lewis was a deserter and imposter, not to mention going into service in Afghanistan against British interests, the second opinion finds more purchase in written histories of the period.] However, it would be nearly a century after these indications before any archaeological interest was shown on this site.
Alexander Cunningahm, who was then head of the Archaeological Survey of India, visited the area in 1853 and 1856 and although the presence of the cities was confirmed in the next few decades, it was not until 1920 that its antiquity or importance was recognised. Cunningham made public the first Harappan seal around 1872-75 (with an erroneous interpretation of the script), but it was the discovery of several more seals by J. Fleet in 1912, that prompted an excavation campaign in 1921. The excavation was led by John Marshall, then director of the Archaeological Survey of India, and resulted in the discovery of the civilisation at Harappa and subsequently at Mohenjo-daro. [Other prominent archaeologists who participated in the excavation were: Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni, Madho Sarup Vats, Rakhal Das Banerjee, and E. J. H. MacKay. Subsequently the following archaeologists worked on IVC sites up to the partition of India in 1947: Ahmed Hasan Dani, Brij Basi Lal, Nani Gopal Majumdar and Sir Marc Aurel Stein.]
The Harappan Civilisation spanned a period 3300-1300 BC, with the Mature Phase being considered from 2600-1900 BC; the preceding and succeeding years are termed Early Harappan and Late Harappan phases. The Mature Phase saw the civilisation reach the zenith of its economic expansion and urban growth, an era that is at times referred to by historians as the golden age of Harappa. The Mature Harappan Phase coincided with the Early to Middle Bronze Age, corresponding to Early Dynastic to Ur III in Mesopotamia, Prepalatial Minoan Crete and Old Kingdom to First Intermediate Period in Egypt. 
Geographical Spread. The Indus Valley Civilisation extended from Baluchistan to Gujarat and spreading into the modern Indian states of Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab with a northward thrust to Rupar on the upper Sutlej. Recently Harappan sites have been discovered in Pakistan’s NW Frontier Province, at Shortughai on the Oxus River in Afghanistan, at Manda on the River Beas near Jammu and at Alamgirpur on the Hindon River about 28 kilometres from Delhi. The sites are most often found on rivers, although a few have also been located in the ancient seacoasts and very rarely on islands. Some archaeologists claim that since over 500 (almost 50 per cent) Harappan sites have been found along the dried river beds of the Gaggar-Hakkra River system and only around 100 along the Indus, the civilisation should be known as the Indus Gaggar-Hakkra civilisation. [This is a recent politically motivated argument. Since the Gaggar-Hakkra when it existed was a tributary of the Indus, the case for renaming is without any merit. The common archaeological usage is to name the civilisation after its first ‘findspot’, which in this case would make ‘Harappan Civilisation’ the correct name.] By the time Harappan Civilisation reached maturity around 2800-2600 BC a number of early communities had turned into large urban centres, as found in Harappa, Ganeriwala, and Mohenjo-daro in modern day Pakistan; and Dholavira, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Rupar and Lothal in modern day India. [A total of 1056 cities and settlements have been discovered so far of which only 96 have been excavated.] Irrespective of its name, the basic fact is that the area of influence of the Harappan Civilisation lay athwart the route of invasion into the Indian subcontinent, which could have been of significant influence in its decline around 1800 BC. 
Urban Centres
The Indus Valley sites give unquestionable proof of the existence of an extremely sophisticated and technologically advanced urban culture. The quality of town planning suggests an in-depth knowledge of urban planning, architectural development and efficiency in municipal governance that was unparalleled in the ancient world. The city was laid out in a grid-pattern with the buildings and streets oriented in alignment with the cardinal directions with great care being made to segregate private and public areas. Further, the essential institutions of civic life were gathered in the west, while the residential quarters were located in the east. The impression is that of civic concern with maintaining urban order while also advancing an efficient economic system managing land, labour and water. The Harappan city plans also included the world’s first known urban sanitation systems: the city had many drinking water wells from which individual homes or groups of homes obtained water, all houses were equipped with latrines, bathing rooms and sewage drains that drained into larger covered main drains that lined the major streets and eventually deposited the fertile sludge on surrounding agricultural fields. The ancient Harappan system of sewerage and drainage used across the Indus region were far more advanced than found in any other contemporary urban site in the  Middle East and more efficient than systems found in some parts of the subcontinent even today. A surprising fact is that the site layouts throughout the Indus region are very similar, which has been interpreted to mean that there was uniform economic and social structures within these cities, brought about through exchange of ideas and probably a centralised, but loose oversight of town planning.
The cities were the centres of production for crafted items and were maintained from the surplus produced in the countryside and the resources gathered or mined in various regions. The craftsmen were extraordinarily skilled and talented and the items they created were traded far and wide. They were adept at making pottery and Harappan pottery is distinctive with designs of birds and plants in black, which has become a primary clue to recognising Harappan sites. Even though the layout and planning of the urban centres were far more sophisticated that other contemporary civilisations, IVC does not have any large identifiable structures like palaces or temples and no indication of kings, armies or priests. The only monumental buildings are the ones on or near the citadels around which walls were built. However, the walls are not considered to be defensive in nature and are thought to have been built to divert flood waters. The absence of grand buildings is perplexing when trying to analyse the governance aspect of the Harappan Civilisation. The other peculiar aspect of IVC is that although some houses were larger than others, there is a uniformity and remarkable similarity to the buildings in all the cities, indicating an extraordinary level of egalitarianism and giving an impression of a society with relatively low wealth concentration.
Different Facets
Governing Authority. There is no archaeological evidence to indicate a centre of power or a ruling ‘person’ or a group of people in power. However, the uniformity of the buildings, seals, weights and pottery (discussed later in this paper) prompt some assumptions: there was a single state, even if very loosely confederated together; different towns/cities would have had different rulers or groups of rulers; the society by itself was based on the concept of equality; and there must have been representatives from the different cities that coalesced as a group that ruled as a committee in the later part of the Mature Harappan period. By all accounts the authority system was complex. It is an interesting fact that throughout the entire spread of the IVC there are no monuments erected to glorify individuals or any depictions of warfare, conquest and victory. Therefore, it can be inferred that the Harappan rulers governed through the control of manufacture and trade, not by military or physical might. The controlling authorities could have been wealthy merchants, powerful landlords or even acclaimed spiritual leaders.     
Scientific Development. The Harappan Civilisation perfected a system of measurements—for length, mass and time—that achieved great accuracy, and were the first to develop uniform weights and measures. The smallest measure of length was 1.704 mm marked on an ivory scale found in Lothal, which is the smallest division so far recorded in the Bronze age. The Harappans followed the decimal system for both length and mass indicated by the hexahedron weights. These were in the ratio of 5:2:1 with weights of 0.05, 0.1, 0.2, 0.5, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 units with each unit weighing approximately 28 grams (very similar to the English Imperial ounce and the Greek uncia). Some of the weights are so tiny that it could only have been used by jewellers to measure precious metals. This same system of weights was used later in Kautilya’s Arthashastra (4th century BC). From a medical point of view, the first evidence of dentistry, with clear evidence of human teeth drilling in a living person, has been found in a number of skeletons.
The Harappan Seals. The large numbers of seals found in the sites are thought to be artefacts that depicted the power and status of the ruling people, whoever they may have been. The seals are decorated with animal motifs—elephants, tigers, water buffalo, and unicorn—and are also inscribed with the Indus script. The inscriptions are believed to represent the office or clan of the owner and could have been used in a similar manner to how signatures are used today, to indicate agreement of commercial transactions. In 2001, a workshop that manufactured the seals was unearthed and indicated that the scripts could have evolved and changed over a period of time, making its deciphering even more difficult. Some seals also depict a man sitting cross-legged in a yogic pose surrounded by animals. This figure, sometimes called Pashupati, is thought to be of Shiva a Hindu god, who is contemporarily also depicted as sitting in a yogic position and is considered the friend of animals. If this hypothesis—that the figure depicted on the seal is indeed Shiva, the Hindu god—can be irrevocably validated, then two very interesting facts get established: one, that at least some aspects of Hinduism predate the Vedas, which is now considered the beginning of the religion; and two, that the belief that the Aryans ‘defeated’ the locals through an invasion and established the Vedic traditions would not be correct. Both these hypothesis, based on an as yet un-interpreted seal, have significant ramifications for contemporary understanding of ancient history.
The Indus Script. The main body of Indus writing is in the form of more than 2000 seals that are still in good legible condition, with nearly 600 distinct symbols having been found on them. However, they have not been deciphered despite scholastic efforts for the past 90 years. The reasons for this ‘failure’ are many, but the primary one is that there are no bilingual texts available to provide a ‘Rosetta’ moment in the case of the Harappan civilisation. Further, majority of the inscriptions are only five or six characters in length, the longest on any object being just 26 characters. Opinions differ about the ‘language’ in IVC with some considering it a literate society and some believing that the symbols were a variety of non-linguistic signs belonging to a system that was also used in the Middle East. However, in 2009, a computer-generated comparative study of the script concluded that the Indus script’s pattern was closer to that of the spoken word, supporting the hypothesis that it was an as yet un-deciphered language. However, this finding has also been disputed. Currently there is no consensus on the Indus script.      
Other Arts and Crafts. The majority of artefacts recovered from the Harappan sites have been crafted objects like sculptures, pottery, gold jewellery and detailed figurines in terracotta, bronze and steatite. The dancing pose of a number of gold and terracotta figurines reveal that formalised dance in some form was known, indicating a high level of aesthetic sophistication within the civilisation. There is also evidence of a harp-like instrument depicted on some seals and two shell objects found in Lothal that point towards the knowledge and use of stringed instruments and some sort of music. The Harappan people knew the method to create ceramics that requires a kiln to create consistent temperature of 940 degrees Celsius. The type of kiln that was excavated in 2001by Jonathan Kenoyer [Co-director and Field Director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Harappan Archaeological Project (HARP) and professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison] and the technique used to produce ceramics are still used in some parts of India and Pakistan—a sort of dubious continuity over thousands of years!
Trade. Throughout human history trade has been indelibly connected to and influenced by transportation and this relationship is evident in the IVC also. The Harappan economy was significantly dependent on trade for its well-being. Trade in turn was facilitated by major advances in transportation technology with IVC being the first to use wheeled vehicles. The transportation system included bullock carts remarkably similar to the ones still in use throughout South Asia today, confirmed by a large number of terracotta and bronze bullock cart toys unearthed in the excavation sites. They also used fairly sophisticated boats that could have been sail-driven and more importantly, archaeological evidence point towards a sea-going tradition, confirmed by Harappan ceramics being found in southern Turkmenistan and northern Iran. Similarly fairly intensive caravan trade is also indicated, giving credence to the belief that the trade network encompassed a large and well integrated area that included Afghanistan, coastal regions of Persia and Mesopotamia. Some evidence also indicate trade contacts with Crete and Egypt with the commerce being handled by ‘middle-men’ possibly from modern Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.  
Agriculture. Food production is thought to have been indigenous to the Indus Valley with evidence of the people of Mehrgarh having domesticated wheat and barley. This further supports the interpretation of the ancient urbanised and complex social organisation having developed in conjunction with progress in agriculture. It is believed that the progression from hunter-gatherers to pastoralism and then agricultural settlements as seen in the IVC was a localised phenomenon aided by technological advances that also brought about cultural refinement. The agriculture must have been highly productive because it generated the surpluses that formed the basis for the development of the urbanised cities and trade. However, there is little knowledge regarding the farmers who were the foundation for the other developments that pushed the Harappans into the forefront of civilisation in their time.        
Religion. It is possible that the people of the Indus Valley followed some sort of ritual worship mechanism in a sort of vague religious manner. The earliest elements of ‘Hinduism’ that can be discerned are the seals that show the swastika and the sitting yogic figure considered to be the earliest depiction of ‘Pashupati’  and epithet of later Hindu god Shiva. [The implications of this have been discussed earlier.] Some scholars believe that the Harappan people worshipped some sort of a Mother Goddess symbolising fertility, although the reason for such belief—the presence of numerous figurine in the sites—is perhaps not sufficiently robust to make this assertion believable. The yogic posture of both the sitting and the standing figures in the seals has been variously interpreted to mean not only the prevalence of yoga as such, but in conjunction with the three and four faced persons in the seals, to denote a connection to the Jain concept of their Tirthankaras facing all directions as well as to Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. These are unproven speculations—it is a fact that these seals can be interpreted in a number of ways and there is no tangible proof that one or the other is correct. Further, almost all that has been written about the religion of the Harappan civilisation are purely exploratory and the fact remains that even today there is no knowledge of the role of religion in the lives of these people.
Decline and Collapse
Unlike the Pyramids in Egypt and the Ziggurats in Mesopotamia, the Harappan Civilisation left no monumental structures for posterity. [This could be the reason that the Harappan culture does not merit a mention in any serious book on architecture.] Around 1800 BC the Harappan culture began to decline and in a short span of a little over a century most of the cities were abandoned, which was earlier believed to be the result of the invasion of foreign people. However, recent excavations provide evidence that the decline was the result of the combination of a number of factors: political and economic overreach; drying up or changing courses of the rivers; over population leading to unsustainable social conditions that in turn gave rise to the growth of a new social order; and the arrival of an Indo-European tribe from Central Asia called ‘Aryans’. Although certain aspects of the elite culture disappeared, the Indus Valley culture did not vanish completely—the basic culture by itself was not lost and some elements of the Indus culture can be seen in later cultures. [Many cultural aspects seen in the cities that sprang up in the Ganges and Yamuna river valley systems between 600-300 BC—technologies, artistic symbols, architectural styles, social organisation—can be traced directly to the Indus Valley.] The earlier presumption that the Harappans were defeated by the invasion of the Aryans has been almost fully disproved through recent excavations and the study of the languages, cultures and customs that emerged in later years. However, it is indisputable that the Harappan people and the foreign Aryans overlapped in geography and chronology in Indian history.      
There is an underlying continuity in the culture of the Indian subcontinent and the changes that have occurred are considered to be the result largely of internal factors. The IVC did not ‘disappear’ overnight; in fact the influence of the Late Harappan period has been conclusively proven to have persisted until about 900 BC, with one settlement in Pirak having continued to thrive till the invasion of Alexander the Great in 325 BC. The most probable reason for the decline of the IVC is climate change, with the Indus climate becoming cooler and drier from about 1900-1800 BC, linked to a general weakening of the monsoons. Another alternative scenario is the disappearance of a major portion of the Ghaggar-Hakkra river system, possibly because of a tectonic event, that could have diverted the source of this system towards the Gangetic river system. However, there is uncertainty both whether such an event did actually take place and if so, the date that it took place. However, it is safe to assume that the actual reason for the rapid decline of this thriving civilisation was a combination of all these factors. Recent research, by different scientific agencies, indicate that the gradual eastward migration of the Monsoon across Asia could well have been the primary reason for the decline of the Harappan cities since they were reliant on seasonal monsoons for agriculture and had not developed an efficient river-based irrigation system. As the monsoons shifted eastwards, drying up the water supply for agricultural activities, the people also migrated east towards the Ganges basin where they established isolated villages and farms. These small communities could not produce the surplus needed to establish trade and so the concept of large centralised cities gradually died out!
And, So…..What?
Of equal importance as what has been found in the excavation sites of the Harappan Civilisation is what has not been found and the inferences that can be drawn from the absence rather than the presence. One—almost no real weapons have been found, and there are no traces of spears, swords or arrows; obviously it was a very peace loving culture. Two—as yet no temple or house of worship has been positively identified, which lends credibility to the hypothesis that if at all the Harappan people were religious, worship was confined to the home, much like the practice of Hinduism today. The absence of a central worshiping place underscores the fact that, like in many other places in the world at that time, the sacred and the secular were not as rigidly differentiated as they are today. There was no separate ‘religious’ domain. Three—there is a total absence of any indications regarding the concept of life after death; it can be surmised that the focus of life was the sustaining and renewing of life in the here and now. The rituals and beliefs therefore, served a conservative purpose, to maintain a status quo with the land, nature and the elements.
Harappan Civilisation—a highly evolved society that was unable to adapt to the uncontrollable changes brought about by nature, but one that lived in harmony with the land and nature for as long as it could, and then faded away into oblivion!
This being the case, the total, albeit gradual, eclipse of Harappan civilisation is all the more mystifying. Sumerian civilisation led on to that of Babylon, Egypt’s Old Kingdom was succeeded by the Middle Kingdom, China’s dynastic succession scarcely faltered. But in the Indian subcontinent the first great experiment in urban living, in political organisation and in commercial enterprise disappeared without trace beneath the sand and the silt.
          John Keay, A History of India     
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

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