Digging Through Time - The Cradle Of Indian Civilization Slowly Reveals its Secrets
By Mark Sissons
Lothal is one of the most prominent cities of the ancient Indus valley civilization.
India’s history begins with the birth of the Indus Valley Civilization, which dates back to around 3000 BC, and rivals Sumer and Egypt as humanity’s oldest. In fact, all the ancient Egyptian mummies that have been excavated have been wrapped in Indian cotton – indications that the Indus Valley Civilization could be older. In its prime this early society spread from the present borders of Iran and Afghanistan to Kashmir, Delhi and southern Gujarat, covering an area larger than its contemporary civilizations Sumeria, Egypt and China. Hailed as the land of urban culture, the Indus Valley has captured the imaginations of generations of historians, Today, visitors to India can visit some of its excavated cities and explore the mysteries that continue to surround its origins, culture and decline.
A Civilization Lost & Found
The Indus Valley Civilization was a prosperous and literate society, importing raw materials from regions as far west as Egypt and trading ornaments, jewelry and cotton cultivated in the fertile delta plains. Each town was almost identical, with separate areas for the ruling elite and the workers. A uniform system of weights and measures, corresponding almost exactly to modern ounces, was also used, as well as complex, efficient drainage systems unmatched by any other pre-Roman civilization.
Despite its technological advances, the Indus Valley Civilization began to decline around 1900 BC; initially due to a series of heavy floods that swept away the towns and villages in the delta regions of major rivers in Sind, Saurashtra and southern Gujarat in India. Until the mid-19th century the Indus Valley Civilization was “lost” or forgotten, even by the peoples who lived in the vicinity of its sand-covered ruins.
Then, in the late 1850s, workers digging a railway line along the Indus Valley for their British rulers uncovered a number of artifacts, including several soapstone seals imprinted with various carvings, beads, animal bones, gold, silver, terracotta ornaments, and the figure of a bull inscribed with a strange script. A British general and future head of the Indian Archeological Survey ordered a full-scale excavation of what came to be recognized as one of the earliest and most mysterious of all human civilizations.
Well-planned, sophisticated settlements dating back to 2500 BC were first discovered in 1924 on the banks of the River Indus in present-day Sind (in Pakistan), at Mohenjo Daro (which means “mound of the dead” in Sindi). Further excavations in 1946 on the banks of the River Ravi in Punjab revealed the city of Harappa, dating from the same era, on which archeologists based their knowledge of the entire Indus Valley Civilization. To this day, the Indus Valley Civilization is commonly known as Harappan, after its most important city.
Today the script still has not been deciphered and much of the original mystery remains. But decades of extensive excavation at the original site and hundreds of other sites throughout the Indus Valley have uncovered a huge complex of cities and villages that made up the first civilization in South Asia.
Although much about this complex society remains unknown – including its impenetrable script – similarities do exist between the Indus Valley Civilization and present-day India. While its most important deity appears to have been a horned god, there was also a strong custom of worshipping a mother goddess, in the same way as Hindus do today. The peepal tree was revered as it is by Buddhists today. There is also evidence of phallic worship, still strong among Shaivites. Altars bearing the remains of animal sacrifice have been discovered, and in every settlement, large baths suggest a belief in the purifying quality of water.
Ancient Indus Valley (Harappan) Sites
Of the hundreds of settlements and towns that flourished across the vast breadth of the Indus Valley Civilization between 3500 and 1700 BC, many were lost or destroyed by shifting river paths. Others are probably buried under modern towns. What does seem clear is that the important sites were commercial centres. They are on rivers or near the coast. Various specialized manufacturing facilities also suggest that they were heavily involved in trade with each other and far outside the region.
Various tour operators can arrange visits to several of the Indus Valley civilization’s most important excavation sites throughout northwestern India. Among the most fascinating are:
Dholavira: Located on Khadir Beit, an island in the Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat State, this site has only been excavated since 1990. One of the largest Harappan sites in India, Dholavira has some of the Indus Valley Civilization’s best-preserved architecture. It is also thought to have been a highly literate society because of seals, tablets, pottery, bangles and copper tools discovered on the site. A tantalizing signboard (circa 3000-1500 BC, and possibly the world’s oldest) with Indus script has also been discovered, as well as some of the world’s oldest stadiums and five Great Baths. Natural disasters, namely earthquakes in 2800 BC, 2500 BC and 2000 BC are widely believed to have caused the decline of Dholavira.
A naturalistic bird motif on an uncleaned and unrestored pot, circa 2400 BC.
Lothal: At the top of the Gulf of Cambay in Gujarat, near the Sabarmati River and the Arabian Sea, this is the most extensively researched Harappan coastal site. A bead factory and Mesopotamian seal have been found here, like many sites on the Gulf of Cambay.
Gola Dhoro: Excavation began in 2004 on this site in Gujarat. A unique ancient Indus seal was found here, as well as extensive evidence for the sudden evacuation of this tiny town with very concentrated manufacturing facilities.
Daimabad: Near Mumbai in Maharashtra, this controversial site was discovered in 1958. Some suggest that the pottery and single shard with Indus Valley signs on it is definitive of Harappan settlement; others say the evidence is not enough. A unique hoard of exquisite bronze chariots and animals that may or may not be of Indus Valley style was also found here.
Kalibangan: On the bank of the dry bed of the Ghaggar River in northern Rajasthan, the third excavated city of Harappan sites and the earliest town destroyed by earthquake was first excavated between 1960-61 and 1968-69. It’s name comes from two words: Kali, meaning black, and bhangan, which means bangle. Kalibangan was, in fact, named after the myriad pieces of terracotta bangles excavated here.
What’s New: Archaeologists expect Khirasara, near Kutch, to be the next important site for Harappan civilization. Discovered in the early 1960s, rediscovered in the ‘70s, excavation began in late 2009 and has turned up pottery, weights, spouts and other items that have turned sedate archeologists into excited schoolchildren. A rock engraving found in the Edakkal Caves in Kerala has linked Indus Valley civilization to South India. “There had been indications of remnants akin to the Indus Valley civilization in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, but these new findings give credence to the fact that the Harappan civilization had its presence in the region, too, and could trace the history of Kerala even beyond the Iron Age,” says historian M R Raghava Varier.
For more information on the history and culture of the Indus Valley, contact Indiatourism, Toronto at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.incredibleindia.org
A Significant Discovery
R.S. Bisht pointing to the Indus inscription engraved on a sandstone at Dholavira in Gujarat.
“The inscription on stone is unique because it is the first of its kind [in the Indus civilisation area]. It is the first inscription on a stone slab. But only part of it was found,” said Dr. Bisht, , former Joint Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India, who led 14 field excavation seasons at Dholavira between 1989 and 2001. “It was a natural limy sandstone cut into shape and then engraved with an inscription,” he said.
The script has three large Indus signs, running from right to left, and there appears to be a fourth sign, too. “The inscription must have run longer, but the stone was broken into pieces,” said Dr. Bisht.
He surmised that the stone with the script must have been used as a lintel of the doorway of an underground chamber so that people could notice it. The inscription could have stood for the name of the house, its owner or an incantation. “It is a closed book,” he said. (The Indus script has not been deciphered yet).