Posts Tagged ‘Gujarat’

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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‘I met a traveller from an antique land…’ wrote the rebel poet Percy B. Shelley in 1818. Even today, how we dream to meet such a traveller who could tell us tales that are lost in the mists of time. In the early days of my love for archaeology, I hoped to write the story of Mohen jo Daro, but it lacked the basic required material–there is no record of its existence in later texts; it has a script which remains undeciphered. To make matters worse excavations of the site are banned since 1965 leaving no hope for the recovery of a Rosetta Stone. In such a hopeless situation with limited artifacts and ruins even a small piece of information bearing some relevance to the site becomes precious. And sometimes such information can come from unexpected sources.

Shelley’s sonnet is so relevant to archaeology and yet so far removed. It reminds me of how ancient travellers and traders in distant lands left behind some evidence which helped the archeologists to learn a few facts about Mohen jo Daro. The sonnet also invites to read the folk poetry of the Indus region which might be holding clues useful for reconstructing the story of the region’s past.

Mohen jo Daro was discovered in the first quarter of the twentieth century, its discovery coincided with the excavations of Ur of the Chaldeans ,the birthplace of Abraham and the famed Biblical city of Mesopotamia. Whereas Mohen jo daro had no reference in any later texts such as the Vedas or the Mahabharatha and was discovered accidentally under the foundations of a Buddhist stupa, the ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian cities were located easily through the Biblical references. In the case of Ur even an Islamic tradition can be cited, perhaps, it was the city where Nimrod’s fire to burn Abraham alive had turned into flowers.

Initially, it may sound disappointing that the simultaneous excavations of Mohen jo Daro and Ur dwarfed the image of the Indus city as Ur stole the show. Its overwhelming architectural remains and the lavish artifacts unearthed from them even attracted celebrities. Ur caught my attention when I saw a picture of T.E. Lawrence standing in its ruins. In fact, I thought that he had excavated the site, later on, of course, I learned that it was Sir Leonard Woolley standing next to him had unearthed Ur. Both were great archaeologists of their times and together they had worked on the ancient Hittite sites on the borders of Syria. However, the archaeological career of T.E Lawrence is not much known today as he is more remembered through the portrayal of his political life by Peter O’Toole in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia.” Another interesting celebrity that I came to know through Ur was Agatha Christie who met her future husband in Ur. The site also inspired her to write a novel “Murder in Mesopotamia” which was later made into a movie with the same title.

However, we must remember that Mohen jo Daro, though marginalized in the media of those days, did benefit through excavations at Ur. Among the most known discoveries of Sir Leonard were the Great Ziggurat of Ur and the Royal Tombs laden with treasures and an overfill of skeletons – the remains of slaves who were buried alive to serve royalty in its afterlife. He even discovered the statuette of a ram and identified it with the Biblical ‘Ram caught in a thicket.’ And in between these spectacular discoveries came bits and pieces of evidence which suggested links between Mohen jo Daro and Mesopotamia- a few Indus beads scattered in Ur’s royal jewelry; the cylindrical seals engraved with Indus type inscriptions; trefoil pattern on Sumerian “Bulls of Heaven” that resembled the print on the robe of Mohen jo Daro’s “Priest King” even a small group of houses that bore semblance to Mohen jo Daro’s structures.

Later on, the discovery and decipherment of Sumerian texts indicated trade with the Indus regions. They referred to a few goods- timber, carnelian beads, ivory- which came from a place named Melluha located in the east of Sumer. Melluha was identified with the Makran Coast, but at the same time the Indus region was considered to be a colony of Sumer and hence the civilization was labelled Indo-Sumerian Civilization. It took some time for Sir John Marshall to change the label wisely to Indus Civilization.

The evidence of trade between the two civilizations also helped in the dating of the Indus civilization as it confirmed that indeed it was contemporaneous to the Mesopotamian and the Egyptian civilizations. According to Sir Mortimer Wheeler the trade between Sumer and Indus lasted from the period of Sargon of Akkad 2350 BCE until the decline of the Hammurabi dynasty in 1700 BCE.

Now we know that much before their contact with Mesopotamia ancient Indus cities had already a long history and experience of transporting wood. According to Alice Albinia, who in recent times journeyed through Indus, “The transport of wood down the Indus and its tributaries, between the Himalayas and the plains, is the oldest trade that we know of in the region.” At some point in prehistory that network of Indus’ trade reaching for the Arabian seacoast extended overseas to reach Mesopotamia.

This overseas trade, predating the trade on the Silk Road, was extensive and certainly a great means of income which must have boosted the agrarian economy of the region. Archaeological evidence suggests that there were busy port towns with dockyards. The Westernmost port was Sutkagen-Dor, close to the border of Iran it was located near the mouth of Dasht River, on the Makran coast. At the other end was the port town of Lothal which was active until 1900 BCE. It was located in Gujarat (in India) on the eastern periphery of Indus Civilization.

With the exception of a few inscribed seals discovered from Lothal, there is no written record describing the mercantile activities of such massive scale between the two civilizations. There must have been ships in and out of the harbor, sailors and merchants boarding them, laborers loading and unloading the cargo. Perhaps, we can trace these details in the folklore of the region. But sometimes poets can be the avatars of ancient scribes whose accounts are lost. As hazy as it may sound but apart from the ruins, folk poetry can be another repository that we can rummage to find the ancient past. For example, Shah Latif the beloved sufi saint poet of Sindh, has described in detail the sea trade in his ‘Raga Samoondi’ (Song of the Ocean) Latif laments in his poetry of abandoned cities he even accompanied jogis on their pilgrimages to ancient shrines. They shared with him knowledge, wisdom and many oral traditions transmitted to them through older generations. Latif polished and preserved those traditions and tales in his poetry. Apart from Sindhi Indus’ folklore is scattered in a variety of languages – Punjabi, Seraiki, Multani, Gujrati- these need to be explored. It will be hard to find even the mutilated remains of events that happened in the prehistoric past when Mohen jo Daro lived. But an attempt must be made before discarding region’s folklore as poets’ imagination

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