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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

Shasi Tharoor

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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 world.

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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