Critical Podium Dewanand India
The wonder that was Harappan India 20 May, 2007
by Shasi Tharoor
Sacrificer Shasi Tharoor
Sacrifice code wfor0330
Sacrifice date 20 May, 2007
Printed from the Times of India
The wonder that was Harappan India
20 May, 2007 l 0040 hrs IST
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When even a booster of the new India like myself looks around the decay
and dilapidation of some of our cities - with our rutted roads, uncollected
garbage, choked drains, corroded water pipes, peeling paint and plentiful
potholes - one is tempted to think back to the great Indian cities of
antiquity and wonder what went wrong.
Evidence of human habitation in India goes back to the Second Inter-Glacial
Period, between 400,000 and 200,000 BC. While some relics and implements
of the pre-historic period have been found, there is no substantial body
of information available from archaeological or other sources for the
years before 3000 BC.
But Indian religious philosophy and myth describe cycles of existence
that are dated precisely back into pre-history. There are continuities
in Indian life that suggest a closer connection to the formally "unknowable"
past than we might otherwise dare imagine. Historians have seen many of
today's rural Indians as virtually a living archive of the country's ethnohistory.
But what of our city-dwellers? Can we trace the heritage of Howrah back
to the halls of Harappa?
I'm not being facetious here. The first proof of early Indian civilisation,
after all, dates back to about 3250 BC, in the valley of the river that
has given our country its name. The discovery of the Indus Valley Civilisation
occurred by accident, when a pair of enterprising contractors in Sind,
in the late 19th century, supplied the builders of a major road with bricks
from a desert trove. The bricks turned out to be more than 4,000 years
old. This got the Archaeological Survey of India interested, and in 1922
British and Indian archaeologists dug up the source of the bricks - not
just one but two complete cities buried in the sand some 400 miles apart.
The bigger city was at Mohenjodaro on the Indus, the smaller at Harappa
on the banks of its tributary, the Ravi. Subsequent excavations - within
a region of some 500 miles on either side of the Indus and about 1000
miles along its course - unearthed remains of other ancient cities, all
contemporaneous with the other great valley civilisations of the world,
the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates.
At Mohenjodaro, no fewer than nine layers of buildings were excavated,
evidence of a city that had been built and rebuilt for centuries. Archaeologists'
finds - jewellery, terracotta figurines and seals, statuary and earthenware
- speak of a rich and well-developed culture, well in advance of its time
(the Chalcolithic Age, when stone implements co-existed with those of
copper and bronze). The cities were well-planned, with broad avenues intersecting
at right angles, advanced sewage and drainage systems (including septic
tanks), spacious two-storey homes and hypocaustically-regulated public
baths. (Today, few Indian towns boast a public swimming pool. But water
was clearly important to our civilisation in those days, and the remarkable
"Great Bath" of Mohenjodaro may have had a ritual significance).
Wheat, barley and dates were cultivated; several animals, from the camel
to the humped zebu, were domesticated (though the cat was apparently unknown);
they had already invented the wheel, and probably yoked buffalo or oxen
to their carts. Gold, silver, copper, bronze and lead were used, and garments
of cotton spun and woven some 2-3,000 years before westerners wore them.
Somehow our modern cities never quite lived up to this heritage. Perhaps
in other aspects they did: historians believe the society of the Indus
Valley Civilisation to have been a patriarchal and hierarchical one, probably
ruled by a dominant priestly class, refined (with much personal ornamentation),
religious (worshipping Pashupati, "Lord of the Beasts," a precursor
of later Hindu gods) and not particularly warlike - for they had no swords
or defensive armour. Some historians have deduced a king who was worshipped
as divine; others see a bureaucratic system at work in the meticulous
organisation and professional urban planning. Some of the art that has
survived is simply magnificent, with one famous figure of a dancing girl
reflecting considerable creative and casting skill. Despite its patriarchy,
the Indus society was far more egalitarian, apparently, than its contemporaries,
with ordinary citizens living far better than in Egypt or Mesopotamia,
even enjoying a degree of comfort and luxury then unknown in the civilised
Some of these conclusions are speculative, since the pictographic script
found on the seals has not been conclusively deciphered, but most are
widely accepted. The cities were obviously connected by trade and recent
evidence suggests their commerce was international, for similar seals
have been found as far away as Sumer in Iraq, with which trade could have
been conducted along the Makran coast. Here, too, is the earliest evidence
of Indian pluralism, for the Indus society was apparently multi-racial:
the human beings depicted on Indus Valley artefacts are of several ethnic
types, as are the skulls found in the excavations.
In other words, in these cities of the distant past, our forebears created
a society not unlike our own - and arguably superior to ours in many respects.
For over a thousand years, till about 1750 BC, the Indus Valley Civilisation
flourished and prospered. It was then snuffed out abruptly. The archaeological
evidence - heaps of skeletons, signs of disarray and sudden death - suggests
some sort of catastrophe: perhaps a natural disaster, perhaps a brutal
invasion. A great flood from the Indus itself, possibly triggered by an
earthquake, is one possibility. Another is the advent of a horde of nomads
who would one day give our country the foundations of its present civilisation
- the Aryans. The destruction of the Indus Valley Civilisation snapped
the umbilical cord that linked its way of life to those of later generations
of Indians. Dare one suggest that as we look to the 21st century, we might
do well to be inspired by an Indian example - one that flourished in the
21st century before Christ?
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