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Through the decades that I had known Dr. N.A. Baloch, I know him best for his knowledge of culture, history and pre-history of the Indus region, particularly Sindh. His knowledge of Sindhi folklore, language and idioms provided me with new material to reconstruct the picture of the Indus Civilization.  Since my research is focused on the images engraved on the Indus seals, I found Dr. Baloch’s approach on this subject to be most logical and his source material most authentic.

Even though Dr. Baloch referred to himself as ‘a friend of the archaeologist,’ he had surveyed more miles of the Indus land than many other archaeologists and his understanding of its sites was vaster than a mere friend. Above all, unlike mainstream archaeologists who are following the trend to research Dravidian languages of South India to understand the ancient Indus script, language and civilization in general, Dr. Baloch draws our attention to seek clues in the indigenous languages specially Sindhi which has retained some of the most ancient words which can possibly be traced to the Indus Civilization. According to him “the key to the decipherment of the Indus script may be found right in the land where it had been lost— Indus Valley. The decipherment could, perhaps, be worked out looking into the words and phrases of the language of the Indus valley, the language of the land itself, Sindhi of the peasants, as it has remained unaffected throughout the centuries[i].”

It is common sense that in order to understand the ancient past of a region one has to first consider the history, culture, languages, scripts and symbols which originated and evolved in that very region. Unfortunately, on this long journey of seal decipherment there have been some detours which have misled the researchers to distant places. Dr. Baloch rightly advises that “For the language of the (Indus) script, the scholars will have to abandon their wild-goose chase of looking for the proto-type in Turan and South India and look for the evidence within the land where the seals were made and discovered…this lock of the Indus script had apparently been prepared by the great smiths of yore that is not likely to yield to such foreign-made keys so easily[ii].”   Dr. Baloch has been a strong advocate of the inclusion of Sindhi language in the Indus seal research and as I proceed with my new book on this subject I sincerely feel that his approach has the potential of making a positive contribution towards the understanding of the Indus seals.  The mainstream foreign archaeologists may find this whole concept difficult to grasp but it must be shared.  As advised by Dr. Baloch, I have already made a beginning by drawing their attention to this approach in my book on Moen jo Daro[iii].

Dr. Baloch had also guided me on other periods of Pakistan’s past. For this I will have to go back in time to my first meeting with this great man at the National Museum Karachi.  It was the last day of 1978, the participants and guests invited at the three day UNESCO Symposium on Moen jo Daro were having their tea-break.  I spotted Dr. Baloch, standing next to Dr. Hamida Khuhro, he was conversing with a few participants.  I left my husband in the company of the Allchins  and walked towards him. I didn’t feel like interrupting and waited for a pause in his conversation. He was a thorough gentleman, for as soon as he saw a lady waiting to speak with him he excused himself and greeted me very warmly. I had no idea that he had already read my article on Chand Morya (Dawn October 13, 1978) and was in fact very supportive of my research. Now that he saw me at an international symposium his opening words were that he is very proud to see for the first time a Pakistani Sindhi woman ready to read a research paper on Moen jo Daro and the Indus Civilization. Apart from a few women guests and two female curators the only other woman archaeologist was Bridget Allchin wife of Raymond Allchin, the well-known husband wife British team who had arrived from the Cambridge University to share their research.  My first impression of Dr. Baloch was that he was very attentive during our conversation.

The next evening when the Symposium was over and my husband and I were still talking to a few guests in the garden of the Museum, Dr. Baloch was coming out of the parking lot. We walked towards him and in that brief encounter he asked me if I would be interested in applying for the post of a research assistant at the National Commission on Historical and Cultural Research in Islamabad. Dr. Baloch at that time was the chairman of this prestigious Commission of the federal government of Pakistan.  I thanked him for his generous offer and at the same time informed him that I am desperately applying to American universities and a few prestigious foreign institutes and if he could help me with that. He advised me that I should also be looking for positions in UNESCO and UN and he offered to write letters of recommendations, a few months later I asked him for a letter.  I must mention here that in 2007 I discovered that Dr. Baloch was also a very good record keeper. Through his letters published by the Institute of Sindhology I was pleasantly surprised to see my letter and Dr. Sahib’s response in his book[iv]. For the sake of convenience I am attaching our correspondence published in this book to show the picture of a great scholar guiding a curious student. These letters also provide me with a guideline to write this article.

In the two brief meetings at the National Museum I had already judged Dr. Sahib’s honesty, that he was not speaking to me as a mere formality but he believed in giving chance to a young struggling graduate and now through his letter he certified that how much he valued my research on ‘Chand Morya.’

Since my student days,  I had been working on the hypothesis that Emperor Chandragupta Maurya (340-297 BCE), who had established the first empire of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent and who in his last days had abandoned the throne, converted to Jainism and migrated to an unknown destination, had perhaps reached lower Sindh where he spent his last days. My research indicates the possibility that the remote shrine in the Tharparkar district might be his gravesite.  My research was already known to Dr. Ishtiaq Khan, the Director General of the Department of Archaeology and Museums, but a few encouraging words of Dr. Baloch really boosted my morales.  Since he had personally surveyed the lower Sindh and was familiar with every inch of its land his acknowledgment meant a great deal.  In one of his books [v] he recalls his wanderings in Sindh: “As a student of Sindh’s history and folklore, I have roamed around in the Lower Indus Valley of Sindh for quite a few years, seen numerous sites and collected the current lore about settlements of the bygone times. As a friend of the archaeologist, I propose to share, in a layman’s language , information relevant to what I presume to be the potential Indus Culture sites contemporary with or successor to the great city of Moen jo Daro. ..A search for the location and identification of pre-historic sites can profitably be made, mainly along the old courses of the Indus. A guiding hypothesis may be formulated: if one follows the old beds of the Indus and its channels, it is very likely that the prehistoric sites are discovered.” The shrine of Chand Morya, located close to my village in the Tharparkar district, incidentally stands on the bank of the abandoned bed of Puran, an ancient tributary of Indus.

Dr. Baloch was also familiar with the most unknown landmarks of Pakistan and he drew my attention to the group of Chandragup mud volcanoes of Baolchistan. I was excited to learn that yet another version of the name Chandragupta exists in Pakistan and because of the sanctity attached to the highest volcano of this group and its proximity to the sacred cave temple of Mata Hinglaj, I found this geographical feature very interesting and relevant to my research. This is just one example how Dr. Baloch promptly came up with relevant information regarding topics on history and archaeology.

I had published two articles on the site of Chand Morya, one in the Daily Dawn and the other in the Pakistan Times, the idea was to make my research known to the public but these articles also showed me a path of how to share my ideas on archaeology, history and culture, hence I also got addicted to writing journalistic articles. My plans to work in a foreign institute had failed and freelancing was the only means left for me to keep bonded to the books. I finally felt that I should devote myself to something more academic and thus registered for a Ph.D. at the Karachi University.  It was during these years that one day, through the editor of Dawn, I received a letter from Dr. N.A Baloch. It was dated 25th January 1988, almost a decade after our first meeting.  Once again he appeared as a guiding light in my life as he suggested that instead of writing articles I should be writing a book on the Talpur History. I was little surprised because of the coincidence as a few weeks ago Justice Mir Khuda Buksh Marri had also made the same suggestion. Justice Marri, the Chief Justice of Balochistan High Court had not only served as the, governor and chief minister of his province, but he had also written the history of Balochs and was keen that the ‘golden period’ of Baloch history under the Talpur rule should be written in English by a Baloch.  It was obvious that because of the suggestions of two honorable Baloch intellectuals I will consider the idea very seriously, though I felt little incompetent for such an undertaking. So when I met Dr. Baloch again at an international seminar on Sindh held at the University of Sindh I told him writing a book is a long assignment whereas I am used to writing short articles. I had started the conversation on a negative note but he gave me hope by saying that I should not think I am writing a book, “think of writing just one chapter at a time, think you are writing a long article and call me anytime you need help.”  I promised Dr. Baloch that I will write the book. But I did not anticipate that my circumstances will suddenly change and push the freelancing, the Ph.D and the Talpur book on the back burner.

I moved to the United States in 1990 where the first seven years kept me busy with the research on Indus seals at the Cornell University, New York.  After the publication of my research reports in the Wisconsin Archeological Reports and a book from the Institute of Sindhology, I decided to call Dr. Baloch to say that I am now getting back to the Talpur History. I was little nervous to call as it had been so many years and I thought by now he would have lost faith in me. But that was not the case as he spontaneously responded by saying “You are a true Baloch, you have not forgotten your promise.” This is how in 1996 began another phase of correspondence between us. I mailed a letter along with a copy of my book on Indus seals[vi]. Luckily Dr. Baloch’s reply to my letter is also published in his book of correspondence and can be seen in the attachment. I also called him often for advice; he was always available and welcoming I still remember how on each call he said “very kind of you.”

In 1997 I made a short visit to Pakistan and made sure to meet Dr. Baloch and present to him the draft of my book.  He invited me over for a lunch at his bungalow in the old campus of Sindh University. The bungalow was located on a huge yard in the city of Hyderabad. It had an aura of peace and it was hard to believe the way it maintained such quietness in the heart of the city. This was the first time I visited Dr. Baloch’s house and met his wonderful wife Adi Khadija, a professor by profession and a very warm person. I found them to be a very hospitable couple. The lunch was very delicious and they even asked me to stay overnight as it will be tiring to return to Karachi on the same day. After the lunch three of us sat in the drawing room and the conversation revolved around a variety of subjects. I asked Dr. Baloch a few questions but to avoid shop-talk  never for once did I bring any reference to the Talpur book. He answered questions politely and in detail. I asked his opinion about a few people and he answered without any hesitation which showed his honesty. In this homely atmosphere I found Dr. Baloch to be a very interesting conversationalist.

A year or two later I had a few telephonic conversations with Dr. Baloch when he and Adi Khadija were visiting their son Fareed in USA. It was during this trip that I also emailed him my final draft.  The book was finally published by Ferozsons in 2002.  And then in 2003 I made the most sad call to Dr. Baloch, Adi Khadija had passed away, it was a condolence call. In the brief conversation I could feel the pain of his loss but he was going through the tragedy in a very graceful manner.

In December 2006, Dr. Baloch was the chief guest when I made a presentation on the Indus Seals at the Pakistan Study Centre, University of Sindh, Jamshoro. It was during this event that he suggested the idea of writing a book on Moen jo Daro for general readers.  The idea was very well-timed as I was to spend the year 2007 as a visiting professor at the Sindh University and this was to provide me the opportunity to revisit Moen jo Daro and enough time to receive guidance from Dr. Baloch.

I will never forget Dr. Baloch’s gesture of kindness when he visited me and my husband at the University’s guest house. He visited along with his daughter Adi Hamida and grandson Arshad Baloch, who I always saw on the side of Dr. Baloch on each university event he attended, surely Arshad is the upholder of the Baloch legacy.   Adi Hamida gave me a gift of beautiful Sindhi prints and told me about the school that her great father had established in their village, I always knew that he believed in educating the younger generation of Pakistanis.

This is a good place to mention Dr. Baloch’s great knowledge of etymology. During the conversation my husband told him how he appreciated his knowledge of Arabic and Persian languages which helped in the translations and interpretations of several important documents of history such as the Chachnama and Talpur period manuscripts. Dr. Baloch replied that one of his regrets is that he did not learn Sanskrit as that would have led him to the roots of many more Sindhi words. Nonetheless, he enlightened us on the roots of a few,  I still remember the two words that came under discussion- Runni Kote and Hurlo the word used for the Persian wheel. Dr. Baloch even emphasized that the concept of lifting underground water for irrigation has its origins in Sindh and the idea later went to Persia during the Achaemenid rule of Sindh. Next day, Dr. Baloch sent me his article “Irrigation Technology in the Indus Basin: A Peep in the Past” published in 1982 by the Irrigation Research Council. This article explains in detail the word Hurlo used for the Sindhian wheel. Today, I am struggling to solve the mystery of the 600 wells discovered in Moen jo Daro, can these wells shed some light on the origins of Sindh’s wheel technology or at least the origins of the idea of such a technology? I have the article of Dr. Baloch in my hand and I am looking at his hand-written note at the end of the article where he writes “the origin of Urlo/Hurlo is defined. You will find some of your answers in these interpretations.”

Once again in 2007  Dr. Baloch invited me over for lunch and I had the honor of meeting his children and grandchildren, what a wonderful family,  I am grateful to Farooq Baloch and Arshad Baloch for staying in touch with me.  As I said Dr.Baloch will always provide me with tons of information and references on each query that I made and his answers will always open a new door of knowledge for me. In this regard I must mention how I was led to seeking clues of the past from folklore. It was the day we discussed the ideology of Moen jo Daro I asked what he feels about the Great Bath and if there was any water cult associated with it. Without any hesitation he said, water worship must have been central to the Indus culture and it is the most logical ideology due to the sanctity of Indus. He also felt it is the most lasting ideology as reverence for water in Sindh continued even after the advent of Islam, to illustrate the point Dr. Baloch quoted a verse of Shah Abdul Latif with his English translation:

One who does not make offerings to water
And does not light diyas (clay lamps)
Should not hope for union with the beloved
Returning safe from the journey overseas

The verse appeared to me as a lost letter unearthed from an ancient port town which could be Bhanbhore, Lothal or even Moen jo Daro. I began to read the Risalo as a source of history and archaeology. Latif’s  Bhanbhore, a flourishing emporium, where Sassui and Punhoon played their destinies can very well be mistaken with any ancient Indus city. I felt the verse had bestowed life to the deadness of archaeology and I explained these thoughts in greater details in my book[vii] on Moen jo Daro.

Dr. Baloch also believed that Moen jo Daro is a much larger city but in view of the continued ban on excavations, he had already suggested horizontal excavations to the relevant authorities. Incidentally, a couple of years later, UNESCO also suggested similar excavations in order to establish the limits of the ancient city.

I came to know many more dimensions of Dr. Baloch’s life and personality through his book “World of Work” which I received in my office at the Pakistan Study Centre, Sindh University Jamshoro. It was a fine spring afternoon of April 2007, I had just finished preparing the next lecture and therefore, had time to browse through it. There was an envelope that came with the book, inside was a letter requesting me to write a review of the book. The letter was by Dr. Shoukat Shoro the publisher of the book and director of the Institute of Sindhology. I am so thankful to Dr. Shoro for giving me this opportunity as the book gave me a chance to know more about Dr. Baloch’s life.

Dr. N.A. Baloch needs no introduction. He is known to all for his vast knowledge on a variety of subjects and for his passion for quality education to the younger generation of Pakistanis. For me he will always remain a mentor who put me on the path of writing books and who always acknowledged my work. It was very kind of him to refer to me always as “Dr. Talpur.” One day I took the courage to remind him and said “Dr. Sahib, it’s so nice of you to call me “Dr. Talpur” but I have not earned a Ph.D.” He replied quickly: “But you have done more research than a Ph.D holder.” This was an overwhelming acknowledgement. I was unable to say a word and after this I never even thought of a Ph.D. degree.

(Article contributed on the 5th death anniversary of Dr. N.A.Baloch)

Endnotes:

[i] N. A Baloch, “Decipherment of the  ‘Indus Script’ of the Sindhu Civilization” https://ia801709.us.archive.org/35/items/DECIPHERINGINDUSSCRIPTDRNABALOCH/DECIPHERING%20INDUS%20SCRIPT%20DR%20N%20A%20BALOCH.pdf Accessed on April 4 2013

[ii] N.A. Baloch.  Deciphering Indus Script. http://archive.org/stream/DECIPHERINGINDUSSCRIPTDRNABALOCH/DECIPHERING%20INDUS%20SCRIPT%20DR%20N%20A%20BALOCH_djvu.txt Accessed on September 2012.

[iii] Parveen Talpur, “Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900 BCE)” SIJ Books, USA, 2014

[iv] N.A. Baloch,  “World of Work: Predicament of a Scholar” Institute of Sindhology, University of Sindh, Jamshoro, 2007.

[v] N.A. Baloch, Sindh:Studies Cultural. Pakistan Study Centre, University of Sindh, Jamshoro. 2004

[vi] Parveen Talpur, “Evidence of Geometry in Indus Civilization 2500-1500 BCE” ” Institute of Sindhology, University of Sindh, Jamshoro, 1994.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My book “Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE)” is now published as an eBook and is available online at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, eSentral, Scribd and ePubDirect. It is an illustrated book with original pictures by Pakistan’s acclaimed photographer Amean J and artwork by Laila Shahzada ,the internationally renowned Pakistani artist. Below is a brief description of the book, enjoy the images and reading on your favorite device.

“Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE)” is a personal view book on the largest and the most elaborate city of the Indus Civilization, located in present day Pakistan. Beginning with the myths and legends surrounding the civilization, Moen jo Daro ends with an appeal for its 3-dimensional digital preservation in the modern age. In between it covers the accidental discovery of the city under the foundations of a Buddhist stupa, the life of its mysterious inhabitants, the unknown ideology they followed as well the strange symbols and script they left behind. The book is not a mere description of the architectural remains and the artifacts discovered in their ruins, it examines the theories of its rise and fall in the larger context of the Indus civilization. I have told the story of Moen jo Daro through conventional sources as well through the legends, folklore, and ancient words retained in the indigenous languages of the Indus region. Some of the interpretation comes from my understanding of the ancient signs and symbols I researched at the Cornell University, New York. Finally, the artwork and original photographs captured exclusively for this book, has infused life in the dead city (Moen jo Daro means the Mound of the Dead).

“Moen jo Daro : Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE)” is meant for general readers and the scholars and students, and is a must read for an international audience. Pakistan is on the center stage of global politics and the world is keen to know it beyond its typical day-to-day reporting.

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You can buy it from Amazon – click here.

The title is Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE). The text is interspersed with the original images specially photographed for this book by Pakistan’s well-known photographer Amean J. It is also enhanced by the artwork of internationally known artist Laila Shahzada. The book is reviewed by Dr. Subhash Kak, Regents Professor Oklahoma State University and Dr. Shoukat Shoro, the former Director of the Institute of Sindhology, Jamshoro Pakistan.

The idea of writing a book on Moen jo Daro for general readers was given to me by Dr. N.A. Baloch. At the same time he suggested that it should not be a handbook of the site but a work presenting Moen jo Daro in a wider historical and geographical context of the Indus region; it should inspire the future generations to seek clues in the languages, legends and folktales of Sindh, Balcohistan, Rajasthan, Kutch, Gujrat, Punjab and beyond. Later on he wrote the foreword of the book.

Indus civilization was spread over a vast area and archaeology allows crossing political boundaries; hence, I approached Dr. Vasant Shinde to write a second foreword of the book. Dr. Shinde is working on the Harappan sites discovered in the Indian Punjab and he is also the vice chancellor of the prestigious Deccan College deemed University. His foreword is most befitting as Moen jo Daro symbolizes the common heritage and history of Pakistan and India.
Moen jo Daro: Metropolis of the Indus Civilization (2600-1900) BCE) is now available on Amazon.com for purchase – Click here.

It is a personal view book and is divided in nine chapters, below is a brief description of these chapters.

The first chapter is about myths and legends thriving in the Indus region. Due to lack of direct references to Moen jo Daro legends can become one of the valuable sources of information. The chapter demonstrates how some of these can hold important clues for the understanding of Moen jo Daro and Indus Civilization.

The second chapter is about the Mound of Dead which is the English translation of Moen jo Daro. The Mound was crowned with the remains of a Buddhist stupa which led to the discovery of this ancient city. The chapter gives the history of the discovery of the stupa which was actually the major attraction for British officials. It also provides the background information on the Buddhist period and Buddhism in Sindh.

The third chapter describes the layout of the two parts of the city. It also lists the artifacts discovered from its ruins. Most of these are showcased at the site museum of Moen jo Daro and the National Museum, Karachi. With the exception of a few, the photographs of the architectural remains and the artifacts are by Amean J.

Chapter four describes the geographical extent of the Indus Civilization as well as its origins, its nature and its decline. Beginning from the Neolithic agrarian communities of Balochistan, it traces their socio-cultural evolution to a mature urban phase that bloomed in the Indus Valley. Moen jo Daro in this chapter is examined in the larger context of the Civilization.

Chapter five is an attempt to reconstruct the picture of the inhabitants and their life in Moen jo Daro and Indus Valley. It also refers to the views of various archaeologists and how their reconstructed pictures differ from each other according to their orientation and generation.

Chapter six describes the ideology of the ancient Indus society as reconstructed through a variety of evidence gathered from Moen jo Daro and a few other significant Indus sites. The chapter sheds some light on the possible links between the ancient Indus ideology and the later Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain religions. It also examines the status of women and the role of mother goddesses in those remote times.

Chapter seven deals with the most striking finds – the enigmatic signs and symbols engraved on tiny steatite seals. It gives a history of their decipherment and the hurdles in research. In this chapter I also share my research on the signs and symbols engraved on the seals.

Chapter eight explores the reasons of the ‘sudden collapse’ of the urban phase of Indus Civilization. Beginning with the Aryan invasion theory and its rejection, it highlights a few other sites to explain a gradual deterioration of the urban centers and an eastward migration to Gujarat.

Chapter nine gives the background of the international campaign of saving Moen jo Daro from the threats of water logging and salinity. It includes the preservation measures recommended by Pakistani officials and experts from UNESCO member countries. In this chapter I also appeal to the readers to join me in my campaign calling for the three-dimensional digital preservation of Moen jo Daro. You can also see a related blog here.

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At a local ladies book club in Columbus Ohio, during a talk on my eBook Obscure Women Obscure Stories: A Pakistani Trilogy, the following passage from Purani Kahani, one of the stories, came under discussion and a question was asked.

“Bhaag Bhari would go in the hut to fetch her small chest of jewelry. It was metallic painted green and had a latch from which hung an oversized iron lock. Haji Hussain would reach for the key tied strongly to the tassel of his trouser string. Next, he would reach for the money in the side pocket of his shirt. He would count it, wrap it in a silken scarf with the rest of his savings, place it in the box and lock it again.”

Anybody could have stolen the box, how was it kept safe? I was asked. Here is my expanded answer:

Theft is a universal theme. It took 17 years and more than 1300 pages for Victor Hugo to scrutinize it in his novel Les Miserables wherein Jean Valjean suffers 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread.  The novel is not only about an ex-convict and his heroic struggle for redemption. It is also an appeal to law makers to look into the atrocities of law and the risks of judicial errors. For those who do not have the patience to read the novel, here is a theatrical first look of the recently released filmic adaption of Hugo’s classic.

Purani Kahani, however, is a short story about an ancient race of people who did not have any concept of theft. It is hard to imagine a person under severe hunger who would not steal a loaf of bread. Even the birds fight over a worm, but a man or woman from Thar would not resort to such an approach.

So who are these noble people and why am I writing about them since last twenty five years? It is true that being the inhabitants of my home district of Tharparkar I have special bond with them. It is also true that being a historian and archaeologist their antiquity fascinates me – but there is more to it. In an article published in the daily Dawn’s Friday Magazine, dated February, 27, 1987 I had warned: “It is alarming that nothing concrete is being done to record and document the cultures of the tribes living here (in the Thar Desert) who will hopefully undergo an irreversible social and economic change due to the upcoming development projects in the district. The government has not paid any serious attention towards the cultural preservation of Thar though its importance has been emphasized at the highest level.”

The article was actually part of my speech at the Goethe Institute where I was invited to speak on the launching of a photo exhibition of Thar and its people. The exhibits were by Ayaz Rashdi, a high government official, who was also an amateur photographer. It was an individual’s effort to document the life of a dying culture. Such efforts have been made by other individuals in the fields of film, television, journalism, history and artwork.  “Purani Kahani” is an attempt to do the same in fiction.

Thar is a part of the Great Indian Desert lying between Sindh and Rajasthan. It is also the worst section of the desert where temperatures can rise to 120 degrees. In olden days natives called it Marusthali, the region of death, where disasters and diseases were personified into mother goddesses. Out of fear and reverence small pox was called Mata, mother; famine was Bhukhi Mata, hungry or famished mother.  Goddesses in ancient worlds are known to play dual and opposing roles of being healers and killers.  Hundreds of terra cotta figurines discovered from Indus Civilization suggest that they had been ruling the spiritual realms of Sindh since those remote times; 5000 years later their concept survives crudely in the collective subconscious of Thar. There are many more ancient traits retained in Thar communities, perhaps because they have lived in splendid isolation, away from the world and close to nature.   Even in this day and age they accept calamities as part of a natural cycle. Along with their cattle, they arrive in the fertile patches of Sindh during the long spells of famine and return as soon as they see lightening in the East.

In 1987, Thar was in the third year of its famine and Rashidi’s photographs were exhibited to draw the attention of Karachi elites towards the miseries of Desert folks. As a result of the famine a large number of them had migrated to the irrigated and fertile parts of Sindh, some of the families camped outside my village. It was one of the shelters they had been using through times immemorial; they were not strangers to the villagers and I could remember their earlier sojourns  from the 1960s and 70’s (due to the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war).

Amongst the many who came was a man named Qasim, so soft spoken that only he could speak with the animals. He knew ways to diagnose their diseases and heal their wounds, even the bulls and buffaloes would cow down to him. There was an old woman who knew the art of dehydrating all the vegetables under the sun; you need to store a lot for the droughts in desert.  One day I saw her picking up a piece of roti from the floor, kissing it, looking at it with reverence and savoring it bit by bit.  Whole wheat bread is a delicacy for those who survive mostly on millet. There was yet another woman, a seamstress with perfectly carved features and dexterous fingers.  She had no idea of geometry but she could create thousands of geometric patterns in her embroidery and her quilts. She had a chest, her most prized possession, a mini storage that accommodated her colored beads and threads, mirror pieces, cowrie shells, cloves, and a few pieces of silver jewelry. ‘It was metallic painted green and had a latch.’ It looked out of place like a luxury item discovered in the ruins of a civilization that used baskets for storing items. No one robbed her of her precious box but I did steal its image and used it in Purani Kahani.

Thar Desert was incorporated in the Tharparkar district during British rule.  Today in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan it remains to be the home of the largest Hindu population. In a region where the instinct of theft is non-existent the concept of co-existence thrives. There is an unwritten social contract (going beyond the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke) between Muslims and Hindus, between neighbors, between family members that keeps them contented with their own share of grain. Let’s not create conditions where a Jean Valjean is born; the land lacks a Victor Hugo and the news is not good.

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In olden days people said storms were nature’s way of reminding man of his fragile existence. We heard similar expressions even in modern days. When Sandy hit a large part of the United States, many people felt it was there to change the tide of presidential elections and hence the fate of the country and the world.  However, there are only few who can sense the subtle warnings of an approaching storm. In Indian mythology a fish had sensed these. According to the Hindu belief it was actually Lord Vishnu in the guise of a fish who saved Manu (father of the human race) from a devastating deluge.

The fish appears as a savior in many ancient legends spread around the World.  The belief in its powers may have existed in the Indus Civilization (2600 to 1900 BCE) as indicated by the discovery of a large number of fish images from Moen jo Daro, Harappa and a few other ancient Indus towns. Total number of symbols/signs engraved on Indus seals is close to 400 and out of these 10% is of fish and its variants. Fish images are also generously painted on the Indus pottery.

The first Indus seal discovered from the site of Harappa was engraved with six signs – one of these was a fish. Its image was published in 1875 by Alexander Cunningham in his report in the Archaeological Survey of India. About half a century later when Sir John Marshall, the director general of the Archaeological Survey, published the first account of a number of seals discovered from Harappa and Moen jo Daro, fish was immediately spotted by Ernest Mackay. He was the Director of the Field Museum-Oxford University and was excavating Mesopotamian sites. Mackay drew Marshall’s attention to a fish sign engraved on a seal discovered from Kish, located in Persian Gulf. Fish symbol has been discovered in other civilizations East and West of Indus; from Japan to Mesoamerica. Fish Talisman’s, mostly depicting carp, continue to remain popular in today’s China and Japan.  Yuri Knorozov, the Russian scholar, who is more known for deciphering the Maya script, had suggested that the fish depicted on Indus seals is carp. Knorozov’s view that Indus script represented a proto-Dravidian language eventually lead the fish to a celestial status.

In 1950s Father Henry Heras, a Jesuit priest and a supporter of Knorozov’s idea suggested that fish actually represented star as in Dravidian language the word Minh is a homonym for fish and star. He used the signs engraved next to the fish for further proof. For instance the inverted letter V sign over the head of the fish was interpreted roof and represented the black star or Saturn. The fish sign appearing with six vertical strokes depicted six stars and represented constellation Pleiades.

Heras’ theory is further developed by Asko Parpola and Iravatham Mahadevan. However, there is an opposing view presented by S.R.Rao suggesting that Indus script represents an Indo-European language. As the two schools of thought Dravidian versus Sanskrit argue against each other, there are scholars who question whether Indus script is a script at all and whether the fish sign is a fish. Walter Fairservice argued that the eye of the fish is missing. Also, fish is not represented in an upright position in later Indus folk art, could it be just a loop or a letter? One of the recent researchers feel that fish may have been used for weights in the Indus cities. Furthermore, what appears as a roof to Heras appears as a crown and a mountain to others.

Speculations can multiply and the argument can go on for another century. It is about time to seek clues in diverse and scattered sources such as the mythology, etymology, ancient texts and indigenous folklore. Below are just few thoughts.

There may be a reminder to the old myth of fish power in a Sindhi saying ‘Jeko chawundo Jhule Lal Tehnija Theenda Bera Paar’ meaning whoever says Jhule Lal (swing Lal) his/her ship will reach the shores (safely). The story behind the saying is that River saint Udero Lal as a child, rested in a jhula (swinging crib) that kept on swinging on its own. In iconography, however, he is depicted riding a fish that swings with the waves of Indus waters. Fish in fact is a vehicle that takes Lal through the storms of life, hence the slogan Jhule Lal.

Some of the fish images engraved on Indus seals are depicted with horns. If these could be interpreted as numerals, vowels, diacritical marks or rays. They can also be interpreted as a symbol of superiority and authority. A deity engraved on Indus seals and labeled as proto-Shiva too is wearing horns. The tradition continued in historic times and even Alexander the Great is depicted with horns on a few images. The last name Singh adopted by martial communities of Rajputs and Sikhs, literally means horns. Above all the exalted fish in Manu’s story is said to have horns around which Manu fastened the rope that dragged his ship to the shores.

The missing eye of the fish so far can be found in Mahabharata where Arjun, the ace-archer shoots the eye of a fish statuette and wins the competition. The story is used for moral lesson; while going through the vicissitudes of life remain focused on the target; Arjun won Draupadi as during the competition he did not bother to see what others were seeing-the sky, the clouds and the trees.

As for the upright position perhaps ancients discovered one fish in Indus that swam against the current. The palla fish of Sindh, perhaps the upright position is to illustrate the resolve of a struggling fish. Knorozov had already compared images of Indus fish with carp, another fish that is known to swim against the current and which is still considered a symbol of courage and resilience in Japanese and Chinese cultures.

And on this day of Christmas let’s not forget the Biblical references to fish. Merry Christmas.

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