Posts Tagged ‘Sir John Marshall’

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. 

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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.

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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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I still remember, with great fondness, the evenings of the holy month of Ramazan when the village women will gather in our courtyard to break their fast. Amidst the laughter and hushed gossips they also exchanged interesting stories. Out of the many that I overheard one was about the special blessings of 27th Ramazan, the gist of the story was that on this day even deer observe the fast. As a child I wondered how anyone would even know that a deer is fasting. However, as I grew up and developed a mature attitude I began to understand and appreciate the certitude of those women who never questioned the irrationality of the story.

Last week while browsing through a book on Sultan Bahoo , a seventeenth century Sufi poet of Punjab, I came across another story of a deer appearing in the month of fasting. It provided a few more details such as the deer would bring in food and water for the Sultan and his companion who were travelling in the region of Kallar Kahar in Punjab. The story is even authenticated by two graves in that region which supposedly are of an Ahoo (deer) and Bahoo (the saint).

It was natural for my thoughts to wander to an Indus seal engraved with the image of a deity sitting in a meditative posture and surrounded by animals including deer. I am referring to the well-known proto-Shiva seal as Sir John Marshall associated its deity with Lord Shiva in his avatar of Pashupati. I would like to suggest that this seal can also qualify to be a proto-Buddha seal.

In my book “Indus Seals (2600-1900 BCE) Beyond Geometry: A New Approach to Break an Old Code” I have a chapter explaining how the appearance of some of Buddha’s symbols on the seals combined with the recent revised work on the remains of Moen jo Daro’s  stupa architecture can lead to a reinterpretation of the seals and consequently to a greater understanding of the Civilization in general. Bearing this in mind along with the rich folklore and tradition of the Indus region I would like to add here my interpretation of this seal. It will make more sense to those who have already read my chapter “Indus Seals and Buddhism.”

Considering the fact that the Indus region had been a stronghold of Buddhism and that several Buddhist symbols are found on the Indus seals it is possible that Islamic versions of the deer stories associated with fasting have evolved from the Jataka tales wherein deer is portrayed as a compassionate animal and even Buddha appears as a golden deer. Such deer stories would have been more valuable during the period of early archaeological research which began with the quest of an ancient Buddhism and which I have covered in another chapter of my book.

Briefly, it was Sir Alexander Cunningham who became the first director general of the Archaeological Survey of India in 1861 and who initiated the idea of the existence of an ancient Buddhism. He also believed that ancient Buddhism was more widespread than what is described in history.  In his quest he followed the footsteps of Xuanzang, the Chinese pilgrim and a scholar who wandered in the Indian subcontinent for many years (between 630-645) to search the original Buddhist scriptures. To cut the story short of that long journey, Cunningham reached the Shahbazgarhi Rock near Peshawar where he examined the edicts of Asoka the Maurya king (304-232 BCE) who had converted to Buddhism. When he realized that the script used on Shahbazgarhi is different from the script used in Asokan edicts carved elsewhere in the subcontinent, he became curios about the origins and earlier versions of that script.

Cunningham’s journey took him to Harappa which until then was known through the writings of two earlier travelers – an absconder and a spy- Charles Mason and Sir Alexander Burnes. But while those travelogues reported mostly the architectural features, Cunningham’s report also published smaller objects, most intriguing was the image of a tiny seal he had chanced to see. The seal was inscribed with six symbols and the image of an animal below. On his first observations Cunningham had rejected the seal as a foreign object but  later on he realized that the symbols engraved on it might be the precursors of the Shahbazgarhi script.

With this background in mind we can only imagine Cunningham’s enthusiasm , had he journeyed another 400 miles and spotted in the flatland of upper Sindh a mound about 80 feet high and crowned with a Buddhist stupa. It could have led him to his Eureka moment had he spotted the seals engraved with Buddha’s symbols in the ruins of a city unearthed below the foundations of that stupa.

Dear reader, on page 103 of my book I have reprinted the symbols of Buddha that Cunningham published seventy years before the discovery of Moen jo Daro. Out of these symbols I have pointed to two which also appear on a number of Indus seals and which appear together on an object discovered from Moen jo Daro. Today, as I am looking back to Cunningham’s list of symbols I also notice a deer image along with those two symbols. This leads me to say that the appearance of deer on Indus seals might also be telling us a long lost story of a fasting Buddha, and the proto-Shiva image might be representing a fasting proto-Buddha.

I must add here that although, Sir John Marshall labeled the deity on the seal as proto-Shiva but the deer image below the throne of Shiva reminded him of the deer motif in Buddhist iconography. In fact he has recognized several other seal symbols and architectural features as Buddhist.

Changing a label leads to different consequences. The book on Sultan Bahoo while referring to the two graves also informs us that, “Till 2001, this place was famous by the name of Aahoo and Bahoo but in 2002 its name was changed to ‘Hoo-b-Hoo.” This is the case, which the writer rightly observes can lead to “altering the actual history.” The case of Indus seals is unique as I explained in my book “Had Cunningham lived long enough to witness the unearthing of Indus Civilization he might have identified its cities as citadels of  ‘ancient Buddhism.’ But the fact is that Buddhism, Jainism, Hindusm, Bhaktism, Gandhism and Sufism are all deeply rooted in the Indus Civilization, which being far removed in time was not branded with one of these ‘isms’ but which is reflected in all these through its imagery and through its most prominent trait, the nonviolence. To call this trait a philosophy, an ideology or a religion will be wrong, for the civilization at that moment of socio-cultural evolution was at a stage where philosophy, ideology and religion were all rolled together.” Hence, the seal under discussion might be representing earlier avatars of Shiva, Buddha and even of Mahavir Jain all kneaded together.



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