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Unicorn in Mythology and on Indus Seals

https://www.harappa.com/sites/default/files/slides/unicorn-seal_0.jpg
Unicorn facing an Offering Stand (Mohenjo –daro, HR 743) Photo J.Mark Kenoyer/Harappa.com
Courtesy Department of Archaeology and Museums, Government of Pakistan

Out of all the animals engraved on the seals unicorn is most prominent and mostly it appears facing an unidentifiable object. It has been suggested by some that the object is an offering stand used in some kind of sacrificial ritual. 

Although Unicorn is considered to be a mythological animal and yet it has been described as a real animal in some accounts. Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador in the Mauryan court describes unicorn as a powerful animal. Early archaeologists associated the Indus seal unicorn with the one mentioned in the Greek records. Both, Sir John Marshall and Sir Mortimer Wheeler state that the unicorn is an animal of Indian origin and has been mentioned by Aristotle and Ctesias. At the same time, these archaeologists doubted that perhaps, what appears as a unicorn on the seals is an animal with two horns but one is hidden behind the other. 

Because of the ridges on its horns, Marshall had ruled out the possibility of the unicorn being an ox as it was originally thought. However, because of his strong physique, he is still compared with the ox and antelope or a composite of these two animals. Marshall finds the unicorn eye as the most prominent feature which looked to him in some images like a cow’s eye and in others like a camel‘s eye. 

Asko Parpola in his extensive study also draws parallels between Indus and the Mesopotamian unicorn mentioned in the Gilgamesh epic. He quotes an account on the medicinal qualities of the unicorn’s horn “…the Indians make this horn into a cup, for they declare that no one can ever fall sick on the day on which he has drunk out of it, nor will any one who has done so be the worse for being wounded, and he will be able to pass through fire unscathed, and he is even immune from poisonous draughts which others would drink to their harm. Accordingly, this goblet is reserved for kings, and the king alone may indulge in the chase of this creature.” Unicorn in this way is associated with immortality as according to a dialogue in this account, when a character is asked if he believes in the story of goblets, another said “I will believe it, if I find the king of the Indians hereabout to be immortal.”

Parpola refers to the three-headed animal image on a seal and suggests that the unicorn is portrayed as a composite animal, first inspired by west Asian art motifs later it was modified to the image of an Indian animal. Kenoyer, on the other hand, suggests that the image of unicorn on the seals is of a bull.

According to John Marshall, “The unicorn was, of course, a familiar creature of Indian folk stories, and Vishnu’s title of Ekaśriṅga (one-horned) may conceivably embody some memory of this prehistoric beast.” I am reminded of the Hindu communities of Sindh who name their boys-Narsingha, the prefix ‘nar’ means masculine. Perhaps, naming animals after the quality or the number of their horns may have been common, for barasinga (12-horned) is yet another animal named after the number of its horns. We can only conjecture that in the ancient past the myth of a one-horned animal was rife and it echoes in the subcontinent from Vishnu’s title to the ordinary names and most prominently in the unicorn images engraved on the seals. 

Marshall had no convincing explanation for the markings on the neck and the shoulder of the unicorn. One of the explanations is that since animals are caparisoned in the Indian subcontinent, this tradition may be a continuation of the Indus civilization. The markings on the unicorn images could be a decorative fabric or leather spread over its back or could be the colored decoration such as the one done on sacrificial animals during the Muslim festival of Eid. 

The tradition of ornamenting cattle and riding animals can also be very ancient and continues in the form of cowrie-shelled and beaded necklaces, bells, embroidered and tasseled fabrics and other accessories. Thomas Postans in his “Personal Observations on Sindh” mentions that blue beaded necklaces were worn by horses because these were also protection against evil eye. Originally these may be the lapis lazuli beads as the tradition, much modified, continues in painting this stone with the eye icon.  These icons can be found in many homes in Pakistan and Iran to thwart the evil eye. This observation lends some support to Parpola’s suggestion that the ‘dot with a circle around’ appearing on Indus seals represents the eye.   

Varuna is also known to be the keeper of the soul and the donor of immortality. This attribute is also associated or confused in Mesopotamian mythology with the unicorn or its horn as seen in Parpola’s quote above. It also illustrates the point that words and concepts can get confused. The Sindhi word for manger is Ahura hence the object in front of the unicorn may be a manger. But the name of a Persian deity Ahura Mazda used for a mundane object hints at the sanctity attached to it. In the ancient past mythology, religion, rituals and art were rolled together and now it is difficult to sift one from the other. We do not know how the names get confused and how the words loose their original meanings and how some of them survive in isolated regions like Sindh and how many are lost like the name of the unicorn.

N.A. Baloch had once advised me to start my research from a clean slate. Hence, I had only three books on my list when I first visited Cornell’s Olin library. Authored by Sir John Marshall, Ernest Mackay and Madhu Sarap Vats, these were the earliest records which published the very first images of the seals discovered from Moen jo Daro and Harappa. In that large corpus of seals I spotted images of a small group labeled as the button seals. I must emphasize that I am used to viewing things from unconventional and unexpected angles, which helps me in spotting and highlighting what has been marginalized or ignored. In the case of button seals I came to understand that  they were never incorporated in the mainstream research  because the geometric patterns engraved on them were disregarded for being votive symbols and therefore, unrelated to the rows of signs and symbols which were thought to be a form of  writing representing an unknown ancient language. My research on button seals was therefore, a pioneering work as it was for the first time that this group of seals was considered for a serious research. It was an experience of working  in total isolation with no reference that I could depend on. 

Button seals formed the first part of my research project at Cornell. I focused on the computation of the line segments used in the composition of geometrical designs. I observed the designs were well calculated, and their numerical value remained constant. The  segments, no matter how they were arranged and rearranged to compose a design, their numbers in each design added to a common number 24. It was in this part of my research that I observed, what the ancient scribes may have observed thousands of years ago, that the lines could be manipulated to form angles. It was still much later to occur to me that the Sindhi word ‘angal’ might be the logical term used for angle. My paper on this subject is published in the Sindh Through the Centuries 2

The results of the first part of my research demonstrated that the geometric patterns also represent an early experimentation with the basic principles of geometry. Indus people are already known for their proportions and precision reflected in their weights and measures and for their sense of symmetry and calculation  evident in the grid plan of their cities and even in the standardized size of their bricks-maintaining a ratio of 4:2:1.  On a micro level this geometric sense is reflected in the designs of the button seals. The second part of the project including signs and symbols engraved on the larger group of seals revealed even more geometry.  Suffice to say here that where other researchers saw merely religious symbolism on the button seals I saw something beyond -the basic geometric rules used in the construction of each symbol.

The story of the seals is interwoven with the larger story of the Civilization and one can see their evolution as the Civilization evolved. Button seals are the oldest as they were made before the cities were made. Some of these, made of terracotta, were discovered from pre-urban sites of Balochistan dating back to 3300 BCE. As compared to the intaglio seals which are densely engraved with symbols and a variety of images, button seals are engraved with geometric designs and they are simple tablets without a boss on the reverse.  Also, whereas the intaglios appear in various shapes-squares, rectangled, rounded and even cylindrical-the earliest button seals are mostly square shaped tablets.  

Most common motifs found on button seals are swastikas, gammadions, stepped cross motifs and circles with a dot at the center.  Intaglios are the hallmark of the urban era and were manufactured in larger numbers, the largest percentage was unearthed from Mohen jo Daro. Most evolved iconography of Indus civlization’s scribes is found on the narrative seals made in the later period of the urban phase. It is on these seals that we see strange scenes- a man figure standing between two tigers; a woman figure standing in a tree; a deity surrounded by animals; seven women figures standing in a row; unicorns facing unidentifiable objects and much more. We still do not know whether these scenes are telling us a story or they are simply records of strange rituals. 

Interestingly, button seals being the oldest have lasted for the longest period of time and they continued to appear even after the collapse of Indus civilization’s urban phase. In fact, some of the designs of these seals are still painted by Hindu folks on their mud walls in rural Sindh. I have seen these and their versions in my village much before I saw them engraved on the seals. I have spent many days with the villagers enquiring about the significance of the designs they painted, but failed to receive a convincing answer. The explanations they gave are  immersed in superstition, mythology and even magic. 

In August of 1991 at a meeting of the Harappa Society hosted by Walter Fairservis Jr. in Sharon, Connecticut, I met George for the last time. He was diagnosed with cancer and had lost much weight. He and Barbara met with me very warmly, they had enjoyed the Amtrak journey from California to Connecticut.  I told them about my research which was in its preliminary stage. George was very keen to see its progress and I promised to send him the draft of the initial results. I also met Jonathan Mark Kenoyer after many years and for the first time I met Gregory Poessehl. It was nice to see B.B. Lal who was retired by now but still spoke at length about the Indus-Saraswati Civilization. Few months later Kenneth Kennedy called me one afternoon to give the sad news that George Dales had passed away. 

In August of 1992, when all of us met again at Walter’s house it was decided to contribute articles for a book dedicated to the memory of George Dales, the responsibility of coordination and editing was accepted by Mark Kenoyer. I think it was at this meeting that I met R.S Bisht who had just started with the excavations of Dholavira in Ran of Cutch. Spread over an area of more than hundred acres, it is one of the larger Harappan sites, for me it is special because the only specimen of large Indus symbols were discovered from the ruins of its gateway. The symbols are unusally large and arranged in a row, they are labeled as signboard.

In 1994 the book dedicated to George was published with the appropriate title From Sumer to Meluhha Wisconsin Archaeological Reports, Volume 3. In the acknowledgements of my article I had written, “Dr. George F. Dales gave me my first chance to work with an American Archaeological Mission.  As a friend and a guide he will always remain a source of inspiration.  My only regret is that death did not permit him to see my present work.” Later, in 1995, the updated version of button seals research along with the analysis of signs and symbols of the intaglio seals was published as a book by the Institute of Sindhology at the Sindh University, Jamshoro. The introduction was written by G.A. Allana professor of linguistics and a former vice chancellor of Sindh University,  the book was titled Evidence of Geometry in Indus Valley Civilization 2500-1500 B.C: Principles of Seal Designs and Signs

Soon after, George and his Berkeley team launched the Harappa excavations. Being the second largest site of Indus Civilization, Harappa shares few common features with Moen jo Daro. After the ban on Mohen jo Daro excavations George had always hoped to unearth some significant material from Harappa to compensate for what could not be salvaged from the sub-merged layers of Mohen jo Daro. The opportunity arrived when the Smithsonian Institute sponsored his eighteen-member team to undertake excavations at Harappa. In 1988, after digging many finds, he had come to deliver a lecture at the American Consulate General in Karachi. After the lecture he sat with me for an exclusive interview for the daily Dawn.  

The meeting coincided with the times when I was studying the symbols and the iconography of the seals. By now I had realized that 5000 years ago the Indus scribes made use of horizontal and vertical lines and they knew the concept of parallel lines! However, the answer that I was seeking from George was not about this simple observation but about his views on interpreting the seals. I was curious to know about a seal he had discovered from Moen jo Daro and I received a detailed answer: “One of my intentions to come to Pakistan was that I was interested in the sea trade of the ancient people. The whole question of trade obviously needed boats but the archaeological evidence of boats is practically zero and there are only three representations of boats that I know of in excavated sites. When we excavated Mohenjo Daro in 1965 we discovered the seal with the picture of a boat and perched on top of the boat was a bird…when we went down to the Indus river via Mohenjo Daro and saw Mohannas (fishermen) who live in their boat homes and that in every single boat there was a bird as they used these birds for fishing purposes we could see a continuity of tradition, here we have a 4000-year-old representation of it in Pakistan.”

 Amidst all that disappointment in the seal research George’s evaluation of the seal made some sense, at least through the seals, we can identify many present-day traditions rooted in the Indus Civilization. I had often wondered why the traditions and dialects of the Indus region were not considered for serious research, although a few Sindhi scholars had done significant work on this subject. I feel most of that work has not reached the mainstream archaeologists.

I am not a linguist but Sindhi being my mother tongue has helped me in identifying a few ancient words that had survived in the vernacular dialects. Growing up in my village in the Tharparkar district of lower Sindh, I am familiar with the rustic language of older folks, sadly, that language is now on the verge of extinction. N.A. Baloch, realizing the value of such words, had strongly suggested the inclusion of Sindhi in the mainstream Indus seals research; G.A. Allana, also a former vice chancellor and professor of linguistics,  University of Sindh, Jamshoro, had listed Sindhi words to draw their comparison with the Dravidian words; Murray Emeneau of the University of California Berkeley had already researched the non-literary Dravidian languages. Considering all these precedents similar research can be done on the Sindhi language. I asked George the next question: “Do you think the study of such words and their derivatives will help in the understanding of Indus language and script?’  He drew my attention to the existence of the sub-stratum of words that go beyond urbanization of Sumer. Ancient words from the pre-urban phase of Indus Civilization may be preserved in the Sindhi language. However, further research in linguistics is required to identify such words. 

My chance to study the seals officially came in the spring of 1991 when Cornell University in Ithaca, New York accepted me as a visiting scholar. Kenneth Kennedy, physical anthropologist and Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evoultionary biology who was also known for his work on the early humans in South Asia, provided me with the opportunity to lecture in a semester-long seminar on South Asian prehistory. Apart from Kenneth and myself, Sudharshan Seneviratne of the Institute of Fundamental Studies, Kandy, Sri Lanka was the third participant of the seminar. (Currently, Seneviratne is the High Commisioner of Sri Lanka in Bangladesh). For me the seminar was also a perfect platform to introduce my work and this led to my affiliation with the South Asia Program at Cornell for the next seven years. 

By that time I had also realized that identifying ancient words on the seals was not so simple, perhaps, there were a few more steps to be crossed in order to reach that stage. I was still struggling to understand the lines and had made minor progress by observing that the Indus  scribes also knew the concept of dividing a line in equal parts as on some of the seals the vertical lines were broken in two or three equal segments. A few researchers feel that such vertical lines and their segments or the short strokes appearing in the row of signs and symbols might be representing numbers.  I realized that while these lines and their segments appear independently on the seals they were also used to construct a few symbols such as the man sign and rake sign often referred to as the tree sign.  This observation turned out to be the first step of my research  at Cornell. It made sense that in order to understand the big picture of the seal iconography I must begin  by studying the smallest component of that iconography- The line segments.

So far Brahmi numerals are considered to be the oldest specimens of numbers used in the subcontinent, but there are strong and logical chances that their precursors were engraved on the ancient Indus seals. In his book The Universal History of Numbers George Ifrah has guessed about the pre-Brahmi numbers. A chart in his book shows the semblance between his proposed pre-Brahmi numerals and the vertical lines and their segments appearing on Indus seals.

http://www-history.mcs.st-and.ac.uk/Diagrams/Indian_num_5.gif

Many experts agree that the very first idea of counting numbers came from the human limbs, the hand that allowed counting on fingers. And when it came to counting larger numbers, where fingers were not enough, natural substances such as sticks were used as substitutes, and then at some point merely the images of sticks represented by lines were used for counting. But before getting lost in the infinity of the numbers I preferred to focus merely on the very first five lines that the scribe may have drawn to represent the four fingers and a thumb. He or she must have realized that these lines could be manipulated in more ways than the real fingers. They could be positioned horizontally, vertically and diagonally, they could touch each other from any point and they could even intersect each other, perhaps, a vague idea of angles might have occurred to the scribe as he or she played around with these segments to form more angles and more shapes. But the very first and the most mystifying moment must have been the realization that even the shape of the man himself could be created by five sticks or five lines and that is exactly what he or she engraved on the seals.  The stick figure man that we still use as a symbol to represent the human body was used for the same purpose by the Indus scribes. 

 Hence, when one looks at the many rows of symbols one can spot the man sign standing along with the fish sign, the rake sign, the tree sign and so on. I began my research by studying step by step through diagrams, how a particular number of line segments could be arranged and rearranged in a specific template to construct a variety of signs. As simple as it all seems I still had no answer for the curved lines that made the ovals, the fish signs and what looked like parenthesis or brackets. There are many scholars who are intrigued by these images and who have dedicated their lives to deciphering these images and while I admired their dedication I also wanted to be one of them.

The symposium of 1978-79 was also a part of the Save Mohen jo Daro campaign and was organized by the federal government of Pakistan in collaboration with UNESCO. I was the only Pakistani woman to present a paper on that occasion and I was the youngest. The only other woman who presented her paper was the British archaeologist Bridget Allchin. She along with her husband Allchin had been working on very important sites including the flint tools industry of the Rohri hills. Allchins were an impressive British couple, I will be meeting them almost two decades later in Ithaca, New York.

Kenneth Kennedy, the well known physical anthropologist and Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell, was hosting a meeting of the Harappa Society at Cornell and I wanted my daughter Jehan to attend one session in which I was presenting an update on my research. Surprisingly she enjoyed the proceedings and att ended throughout, later Kenneth invited her also for the dinner at Antlers. It was at the other end of the table where she was conversing with the Allchins and where I overheard that they were setting up a library and had moved into a beautiful house they had built to celebrate their retirement.

Back at the UNESCO symposium I was also provided with the opportunity of meeting those who were involved with Indus Civilization-the British, French, Italian, American, Afghan and Indian archaeologists and the Pakistani officials of the Department of Archaeology and Museums. I also met two other notables, Hamida Khuhro, director of the Pakistan Studies Centre, University of Sindh, Jamshoro and  N.A.Baloch, a former vice chancellor of the same university who at that time was heading the distinguished Council of Historical and Cultural Research.  Baloch generously offered me the position of a research associate at the Council, which I regretfully declined as I was not prepared to move to Islamabad. 

When I look at the black and white group picture taken on the last day of the symposium I rejoice seeing myself clearly in the front row. Few others that I can still recognize in that row are Salma, a curator at the National Museum, whose last name I forget, F. A. Durrani of Peshawar University; B.B.Lal, the director general of the Department of Archaeology, India, B.K.Thapar also from India, Ishtiaq Khan, director general of the Department of Archaeology and Museums, Pakistan.  In the second row behind me stood my husband Suleman, others recognizable are Rauf Khan of Karachi University, George F. Dales of the University of California, Berkeley, Rafiq Mughal and S.M.Ashfaque of the Department of Archaeology. In the third row I can only recognize Bridgett and Raymond Allchin of Cambridge University and Richard Meadow of Harvard University. 

My meeting with George Dales had turned out to be the most productive as he accepted me as a volunteer  to work with his team. George was the last archaeologist to excavate Moen jo Daro in 1964, it was just before the government imposed a ban on further excavations. Fourteen years later he had returned to examine the artifacts collected from Moen jo Daro, these were bagged and  stored at the Excavation and Exploration Branch of the Department of Archaeology and Museums in Karachi. 

George’s first visit to Pakistan was in 1960’s when he was at the University of Pennsylvania. He had been a student of Samuel Noah Kramer, one of the foremost authorities on Sumerian literary works of Assyriology. Kramer is known to have drawn the attention of Indus archaeologists towards a distant source that could help in the reconstruction of Indus’ story. ‘There is, however, one possible source of significant information about the Indus Valley Civilization which is still untapped: the inscriptions of Sumer,’ he wrote while translating a Sumerian text that spoke of a ‘flood story’ and a Sumerian ‘Noah,’ who after the ‘Deluge’ was transported to a land called Dilmun where he lived as an immortal among the Gods. Dilmun, according to the text, was located somewhere in the East of Sumer and was described as a ‘blessed, prosperous land dotted with great dwellings.’ Kramer theorized that Dilmun, the paradise on earth, was a reference to ancient Indus cities. I found Kramer’s account very encouraging, it was an inspiration to explore more seals. If the ancient cuneiforms of Sumer can provide information on the distant Indus Civilization; Indus’ own symbols can provide even more. Kramer even visited Pakistan to test his hypothesis but eventually, it was George who got inspired to undertake a hectic search for the lost paradise. Accompanied by his wife Barbara, Rafiq Moghul, and two camels George surveyed the Makran Coast in Balochistan. He describes the details of his exploration in his account Exploration of the Makran Coast: A Search for Paradise.

Sindh, as compared to Balochistan, is a paradise but despite all the blessings there has always been something malignant lurking over this happy land. Sir Charles Napier on his conquest of Sindh punned ‘I have sinned.’  Sir Richard Burton refers to a few prophecies pointing to the end of Sindh; The great Pir of Giror predicts that DoomsDay will befall Sindh forty years earlier before it strikes the World; And in 1830 when Alexander Burnes, was allowed to sail through Indus, a faqir had exclaimed ‘Alas Sindh is now gone since the English have seen the river.’ The apocalyptic legacy continues and can be trivialized. At the UNESCO Symposium, during a tea break, I watched a Pakistani official standing next to the poster of ‘Save Moen jo Daro,’ facing a few international scholars he was forecasting that the efforts of the world would fail in saving a civilization that had been destroyed by the wrath of God!

In 1979, I worked five days a week at the Exploration and Excavation branch of the Department of Archaeology and Museums. It was inspiring to be in a place surrounded by ancient artifacts, my job was to label these with black ink.  Hundreds of potsherds, figurines, toys and unidentified objects passed through my hands. It was ‘the most intensively studied body of pottery from Mohen jo Daro,’ George wrote later in his book. For me, one of the best things in his book was the inclusion of my name in the acknowledgments. I came to know Barbara, George’s wife and Jonathan Mark Kenoyer, his student during this period. 

One wonders, how did a baked brick, a hallmark of Indus Civilization reach Sumer? But, let’s return to Indus and ask another important question. Who could have molded and baked those mountains of bricks and subsequently lay them together to build a perfect city like Mohen jo Daro?

Archaeology demands an interdisciplinary approach to reconstruct the story of a ruined site. Folklore and legends containing hints to the ancient past can help build its story, even the ancient words preserved in the present day languages of the region can fill in the blanks. Archaeology alone fails to tell the human component that existed in the city-the woes of separation that the sailors and merchants had experienced; the anxiety of their loved ones who waited for their return; the toil of the townsmen and women who tilled the soil; the creative energy of the craftsmen and women used in their creations. As for the labor of the very folks who built that city, Shah Abdul Latif, the most beloved Sufi poet and saint of Sindh, often speaks of Oads, simple and honest nomads who had been wandering Sindh since ancient times, ready to pitch their tents wherever a village or a town was being built and required their services. 

What has been constructed by the Oads

cannot fall short even of a handful of clay

Without referring to a specific building or a city, Latif points to what has been constructed perfectly by the Oads. Excavations of Mohen jo Daro have revealed a perfect city, it seems each ingredient was measured and the right proportions of clay and water were mixed to make standard-sized bricks. Much later clay became the basic building material of the Sumerian cities. The epic of Gilgamesh describes the city of Urak (modern Warka) in Iraq: ‘One part is city, one part orchards, and one part clay pits. Three parts including the clay pits make up Uruk.’

I have always felt that in the absence of direct textual records, folk literature becomes even more important and must be preserved along with the cultural preservation of physical remains. Latif died in the mid-eighteenth century but Oads continue to live even though their status as professional builders is reduced to the level of ordinary laborers. Their old rules of construction and units of measurement are outdated now and their tools like their language are almost extinct. Is it possible that Oads were professional builders during the urban boom of Indus civilization when Mohen jo Daro was being perfected? Further research is required to answer this question

At the same time, references to Indus Civilization in foreign texts are equally important to understand Indus Civilization. It was through a later Sumerian text referring to a region that exported timber for the construction of a temple in Sumer that we came to know of a region named Melluha which is now identified with the Makran Coast in the Indus region. All this evidence put together confirmed that Indus Civilization was indeed a contemporary of Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations. According to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the trade between Mesopotamian and Indus civilizations lasted from the period of Sargon of Akkad 2350 BCE to the decline of the Hammurabi dynasty in 1700 BCE. 

While the contrasts and comparisons between the Indus and Mesopotamian civilization has led to the dating of Indus Civilization and placing it in a proper chronological context, it has also led to judging it with the yardstick of its contemporary civilizations. Egypt and Mesopotamia had colossal buildings – pyramids and ziggurats, temples and towers, palaces and royal tombs- whereas Indus’ sites just offer a great bath and the roofless structures, a monotony of bricked walls that best suggest a grid planned city with a highly developed drainage system. Its architectural remains have no comparison to the ones that inspired Agatha Christie to write Murder in Mesopotamia. Even now in the year 2021, the long awaited Pope’s visit to Iraq includes a pilgrimage to the Ur of Chaldees. 

However, in this day and age as the criteria to judge a civilization is beginning to change,  Mohen jo Daro too is rising above its old image. According to Nial Ferguson, a historian of the twenty-first century, ‘The success of a civilization is measured not just in its aesthetic achievements but also, and surely more importantly, in the duration and quality of life of its citizens. And that quality of life has many dimensions, not all easily quantified.’

Ancient Indus society certainly lacked artists in the conventional sense; it also lacked kings to patronize them; there is some faint evidence that hints at the existence of an obscure ruling authority, but the nature of that authority whether secular or theocratic is not known The larger cities of the civilization were fortified and had communal buildings, these stood separate from the low-lying residential areas and were built on high platforms. Perhaps they served administrative and religious functions, Sir Mortimer labeled the area of Mohen jo Daro’s communal buildings as the Citadel Mound. One of the interesting structures in the Citadel Mound is the Great Bath which might have been a part of a temple to worship a water deity or even a venue for the performance of a water cult. Water continued to remain sacred in the region even after the advent of Islam as we are told by Latif, the beloved Sufi saint poet of Sindh:  

She who visits no shore nor alights a lamp

How could she expect to see her mate again? 

(Translation Mushtaq Ali Shah)

I imagine this to be a long lost sailor’s complaint found in a bottle washed ashore! After all, since ancient times there was a network of land and river trade routes spread on the Indus land  stretching as far as Mesopotamia. Arabian Sea coast dotted with busy dockyards and port towns crowded with ships, boarding sailors and loading and unloading bales of merchandise even suggest an active maritime trade. The Westernmost port so far discovered is Sutkagen-Dor, standing on the mouth of Dasht River on the Makran coast, quite close to the border of Iran. On the eastern periphery of the Civilization is the port town of Lothal, located in Gujarat, India. 

What amazed the archaeologists was the uniformity of culture prevailing in hundreds of settlements scattered in the Valley and beyond. The larger cities, Mohen jo Daro, Harappa and Kali Bangan, in India, were built on grid plans, their residential and communal areas were divided as the public buildings stood detached and on a higher elevation. One of the things revealed by their structures is the common brick size which was actually used in many other settlements throughout the Civilization. Indus society may not have matured to an empire with kings, but it had reached an urban boom that bloomed before empires could take their roots. Indus’ ruins present a snapshot of a pre-state organized society which is very important to understand the history of urbanization. It is about time that we stop seeing Indus civilization in the shadows of Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations and start judging it on its own merits.  

After receiving my master’s degree, ranked first with distinction, I, therefore, prepared a research paper that attempted to identify the specific socio-cultural stage that Indus Civilization had achieved on the evolutionary ladder. Briefly, it was the stage where classes had not yet been formed but where professional specialization had made distinctions between the brickmakers and woodworkers, between weavers and dyers, between potters and scribes. The evidence of specialized crafts suggest a surplus production of crops in the Indus Valley which was able to sustain non-agrarian communities in its cities. With that kind of a mixed economy-agrarian and mercantile- it seems the civilization was still at a stage where ideology had not yet given way to an institutionalized religion and it will still take a long time for Mohen jo Daro water cults to evolve rigid rituals of purifying the soul, the likes of which are best witnessed in the present day reverence for the River Ganges. Above all, the Indus era was a period in prehistory where writing was not yet born but symbols that may have later evolved to alphabets were in the making.  It was a period when images of animals and script, swastikas and circles, triangles and gammadions were rolled together.  Distinctions between alphabets and numbers, between art and writing and between geometry and religion were yet to be set. These are the highlights of my paper which luckily, I got the opportunity to read at the UNESCO symposium held at the National Museum on the first day of 1979. 

One hundred years ago was discovered a city that lived 5000 years ago, below are a few excerpts from the account of my journey to decipher its story encrypted in symbols. 

My first visit to Mohen jo Daro was during my early college days in the mid-sixties. I had enjoyed the long train journey from Karachi and the weekend stay-over at the guest house of the site. We reached when the sun was about to set, the rooms were comfortable, I shared with three girls. 

Prior to the visit, having heard of Sir John Marshall as the discoverer of the site, I browsed through his book Mohenjo-Daro and the Indus Civilization. Drawing inspiration from whatever little I understood, I enjoyed walking through the ancient streets. 

The archaeological value of the site of Mohen jo Daro was realized only in the early twentieth century when it came to the notice of the officials of the Archaeological Survey of India  (ASI). It was the tailend of the British colonial rule, only about three decades before they quit India and created Pakistan. Sindh, was in the northwest of their Indian empire and was a part of the Bombay Presidency, hence, its archaeological sites fell under the jurisdiction of the Western Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India. Rakhal Das Banerji was the superintendent of the Circle, who realized the pre-historic value of the site as early as in 1919. Soon after Mohen jo Daro was formally surveyed and recorded in his words, ‘The ruins consist of vast mounds of burnt bricks surrounded by smaller ones. In the centre of this area is a very high mound about 80 or 90 feet above the level of the surrounding country. This is called Muhen-ju-daro.’ Mohen jo Daro or more accurately Muan jo Daro  means the ‘mound of the dead’ in Sindhi language, however, it is now spelled  Mohenjo Daro which has completely changed the meaning and the original name of the site. This version of the name has led to a few hypotheses such as the one that the city is named after Mohannas, the most common word used for the fishermen in Sindh; someone even went as far as suggesting that the city was named after a certain Mohan, a common name. 

Banerji  had spotted the fringes of the walls of an abandoned Buddhist stupa that crowned the highest mound and he had hoped to recover the precious relic casket containing Buddha’s ashes which was rumored to be buried in the ‘drum of the stupa.’  He had absolutely no idea of a sprawling city buried under its foundations. 

One of the reasons why archaeologists were unaware of the existence of Mohen jo Daro was that unlike its contemporaneous Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities it was not recorded in the later texts. The four Vedas, the earliest known sacred books of the Indian subcontinent, compiled in 1500 BCE on the very banks of the Indus, do not shed any light on the Civilization.  Rig Veda, the oldest of the four, refers to Sapta Sindhu, the Land of Seven Rivers, but mentions no such civilization.  The Mahabharata epic, while describing the war between Kurus and Pandavas, which was most likely fought in the plains of Punjab, does not even hint at the existence of an extinct Civilization.  The Persian records refer to Sapta-Sindhu as Hapta-Hindu but are silent on the existence of a civilization and so are the Greek chronicles. This lack of reference has been one of the problems in reconstructing the proper picture of Indus Civilization.  Even a simple task of establishing its age was achieved by cross dating some of its objects discovered in distant Sumer. 

Mohen jo Daro was discovered at a time when the British Museum in collaboration with the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania had undertaken the excavations of Ur of the Chaldees, one of the largest cities of the Mesopotamian Civilization.  It was easy to locate ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities as these had clues in the Bible.  After all there is some truth about the image of the archaeologists surveying these regions with spade in one hand and Bible in another. In the case of Ur even the Islamic tradition could have served as a source, perhaps, this was the city where Nimrod’s fire to burn Abraham alive had turned into flowers. Before the excavations, Ur too, like Mohen jo Daro, was conspicuous due to the high mound which covered its ziggurat, Arabs called it ‘Tell al Muqayyar’ The Mound of Pitch.’ The archaeologists identified the land around it with the plains of Biblical Shinar where people coming from the east had settled. 

When I first saw a picture of the Hollywood famed T.E Lawrence standing in the ruins of Ur, I thought he had excavated the site.  Only later did I discover that it was Sir Leonard Woolley, standing next to him, who had the honor to excavate the grand city, the birthplace of Abraham.  Sir Leonard may not have discovered Islamic relics but he did unearth the Great Ziggurat and the famous Royal Tombs loaded with treasures and skeletons – apart from royalty a majority of these were the remains of high officials who were buried alive to serve kings and the ‘court ladies’ in their afterlife. He even discovered the statuette of a ram and identified it with the Biblical ‘Ram caught in a thicket.’  And amidst all his spectacular discoveries were ‘certain elements’ which were common to the ones found in the Indus civilization. 

What is more interesting is that Woolley found about eight feet below the Sumerian culture of Ur a mixed culture which was destroyed by a deluge. Woolley in his book Ur of the Chaldees: A Record of Seven Years of Excavations (1929) states that this flood of Sumerian history and legend was the flood on which is based the story of Noah. Furthermore, in that older level of culture he found a baked brick which looked older to the other bricks. This led him to surmise that the pre-flood period habitations were not limited to mud and reed huts but had solid brick houses also. This suggests a possible connection between Mohen jo Daro and Ur.

One hundred years ago was discovered a city that lived 5000 years ago, below are a few excerpts from the account of my journey to decipher its story encrypted in symbols. 

There are five ancient river civilizations in the world, the largest of these emerged on the banks of River Indus in Pakistan. In the absence of any evidence of weapons and wars, it is also considered to be the most peaceful of all. Whereas its contemporaneous Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations with their conspicuous monumental architecture tell the stories of their mighty kingdoms;  Indus civilization’s most enigmatic finds are the tiny steatite seals engraved with images of humans, deities, animals, trees, and unidentifiable objects. Above these images are rows of strange signs and symbols and encrypted in them is the story of the civilization. 

Incidentally, the first seal was discovered much before the discovery of Mohenjo Daro. It had surfaced in 1873 during brief excavations at the site of Harappa, four hundred miles away from Mohenjo Daro. In fact, it was rejected as a foreign object by Sir Alexander Cunningham, the director general of the newly formed Archaeological Survey of India. 

In 1922 with the discovery of Mohenjo Daro when a few similar seals were discovered by Rakhal Das Banerji their value was recongnised and it was established that Mohenjo Daro and Harappa belonged to a common civilization. Two years later, on September 1924 Sir John Marshall announced the discovery of the ‘Ancient Indus Civilization’ in the prestigous Illustrated London News. By now a significant number of ancient settlements have been identified as the Indus sites, Some of the sites in India-Rakhigarhi, Dholavira, Lothal-are large enough and more excavations may reveal them to be larger than Mohenjo Daro. Until now, after a hundred years, Mohenjo Daro remains to be the largest and the most elaborate city of the Indus Civilization. 

 Since 1873 there have been many attempts to decipher the seal signs and the symbols. Many experts consider these to be a script representing an unknown ancient language. My research, however, began with a non-linguistic approach as I examined the geometric composition of the signs and the designs. Later on, while most of the researchers were searching for answers in distant languages and cultures. I decided to seek clues in the indigenous languages and culture of the land where the civilization was born and lost, it has been a long journey!

Antiquity had always fascinated me and it was in abundance around my village located in the  Tharparkar district of lower Sindh, southern Pakistan. The long abandoned riverbed of Puran with its old bridge near the village, a few ancient ruins on its banks, the so-called abode of the fairies lost in the bushes, the impoverished shrine of Chand Maurya just a mile away,  a samadhi behind my village, the mazar of Ghulam Shah in our garden- are some of the landmarks that I had been exposed to since my childhood days. Amid such landmarks, often seeing older folks,  relaxing under the shades of equally aging trees, led me to a fantasy that they knew some secret. At the school when I learned that only an archaeologist would know the secrets of the past, I decided to be one. The credit for achieving that goal mainly goes to my father who had decided to take his daughters out of the purdah. By the time I was four years old, he had already bought a bungalow in Karachi and we kids left the village only to visit it during summer and winter vacations. I being the eldest daughter, thus became the first girl of the Talpur Mirs of Mirpur Khas to receive education, English education.

I never lost hope even when I was enrolling for my master’s degree and discovered at the last moment that there was no department of archaeology at Karachi University. I remember walking into the office of the vice-chancellor with the request to establish one. The vice-chancellor, Ehsan Rashid responded with an Urdu verse that I do not remember but the gist was that I had the nerve to jump all the relevant authorities below and come to the highest with a tall order. Nonetheless, he took my request seriously and assigned one of his staff members to help me. My first responsibility was to convince a few more students to sign up for archaeology classes and I found five of them. Still, opening a department overnight was not possible so I approached Ishtiaq Khan, the director general of the Department of Archaeology and Museums, with the request if he can permit one of his officers to teach archaeology at the General History Department of Karachi University. Khan too had been very helpful and recommended Syed Mohammad Ashfaque, the superintendent of the epigraphy section for the task. This arrangement between the Karachi University and the federal Department of Archaeology and Museums seemed feasible and was approved by the vice-chancellor. It enabled six of us, and many more students after us, to study archaeology at one of the largest universities in Pakistan. 

Syed Mohammad Ashfaque was a highly qualified archaeologist. He had organized two excellent courses which gave us a good understanding of the subject and that is when I learned the details of Mohen jo Daro. Located in upper Sindh, about 300 hundred miles from Karachi, it is the largest site of the Indus Civilization and the largest repository of the enigmatic seals, the hallmark of the Civilization. Moen jo Daro is acknowledged in UNESCO’s World Heritage List as an endangered site threatened by waterlogging and salinity. 

The Civilization is named after Indus, the river which is known to have fascinated the Western World since the days of Alexander the Great. Legend has it that the great conqueror had searched for the famed Fountain of Youth in its waters. In the early twentieth century Sven Hedin, the famous Swedish explorer, had looked for its source. At the sight of the Lion River, as it is called in Tibet, he made a resolve, ‘Though it costs me my life I will find some day thy source over yonder in the forbidden land.’ In 1907, in his Himalayan journey, Hedin finally discovered that source in Kailash, the highest peak of a Mountain range in Tibet. Indus continues to lure the West in the twenty-first century as confirmed by Alice Albinia who undertook the daring journey ‘upstream and back in time.’  

From Kailash, the Indus begins its 2000-mile long course.  Cutting its way through the Himalayas, it enters India and traverses through the North-South length of Pakistan. The land around its banks is dotted with ancient sites, some of these are scattered in the network of its tributaries such as the Puran. So far, more than 2000 Indus sites have been identified in an area stretching from Pakistan’s borders touching Afghanistan and Iran in the west to Gujarat in India in the East, and from the foothills of the Himalayas in the North to the Arabian Sea coast in the South.  

Indus itself is many things, a revered river in ancient Rig Veda and Sindhi Sufi poetry; a water resource for the ancient civilization and modern Pakistan; a riverine trade route since ancient times; a boundary line of the easternmost satrapy of Persia’s Achaemenid Empire and a retreat point of Alexander the Great. The distribution of Indus’ water had been a source of trouble between India and Pakistan; its redistribution is a sensitive issue between the federal and provincial politics of Pakistan. In 1932,the largest barrage in Asia – the Sukkur Barrage – was constructed over Indus to harness its water for irrigation, ‘It had transformed Sindh from a desert to a garden,’ bragged British officials. Certainly, the Barrage came as a blessing and was acknowledged as a marvel, ‘if you have not seen Sukkur Barrage you have not seen anything,’ I often overheard this phrase. 

In the long run, however, the surplus water in the area has raised the water table and has caused damage to the site of Mohen jo Daro. According to one estimate, two thirds of the ancient city is submerged  and excavations are not possible, hence the government has imposed a ban on further excavations. In addition to the damage caused by water logging, salt encrustation has been corroding the exposed structures. Pakistan Department of Archaeology and Museums, therefore, prepared a Master Plan suggesting means of lowering the water table to salvage the submerged structures and conserve the bricked structures. In 1973 the Master Plan was presented to UNESCO and hence a worldwide campaign called ‘Save Moen jo Daro,’ was launched.  

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Here is my journey to Mohenjo Daro in a documentary by LHI (Live History India).

I am pleased to present the latest documentary on MohenjoDaro produced by Live History India. The documentary includes my interview on MohenjoDaro’s fascinating history.