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Posts Tagged ‘Mohenjo Daro Centenary blogs’

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 Their old rules of construction and units of measurement are outdated now and their tools like their language are almost extinct.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. 

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