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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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