Mysteries of the Indus Valley

Print edition : July 04, 2003

The Indus Civilization by Irfan Habib; Tulika Books; pages 110; Rs.225.

REPRESENTING a particularly high watermark of ancient history, the Indus Valley Civilisation has never failed to stoke the curiosity and capture the imagination of historian and lay person alike. This is not surprising. The evidence for this early chapter of the subcontinent's history conceals a great deal more than it yields while yet offering clues to many puzzles and mysteries that continue to confound and confuse us. Locked in the diverse yet relatively sparse representations of the Indus culture are the secrets of the subcontinent's collective identity: of who we are, where we are from, how we are linked, and why we have come to be the way we are.

The Indus Civilisation flourished between 2500 B.C. and 2000 B.C. A comprehensive interpretation of the rich archaeological remains of the Indus culture has not been possible as the elusive Indus script - the key to the civilisation - remains un-deciphered. Further, the modern division into two hostile countries of the region across which the Indus civilisation once lay has undoubtedly been a major impediment in the study of this subcontinental legacy. We have also seen recent attempts by Hindutva writers to re-interpret the evidence from the Indus Civilisation. At the level of serious scholarship, these efforts have been firmly rejected. Nevertheless, theories which posit a Vedic origin for the Indus civilisation, on the basis of a flaky interpretation of archaeological evidence and a `decipherment' of the script, have been popularised by a credulous media. They are also becoming part of classroom knowledge via a new generation of history textbooks for schools.

DESPITE these limitations and setbacks, serious Indus scholarship has moved painstakingly ahead, uncovering new evidence, while reinterpreting and even challenging old theories. To this growing body of scholarship, Irfan Habib's new book on the Indus Civilisation, makes a substantial and valuable contribution. The second in the Peoples History of India series sponsored by the Aligarh Historians Society, this slim book with its sedate layout and presentation packs not a few punches. Though best known as a historian of medieval India, Habib is no stranger to the history of ancient India, although this is his first major work on the Indus period. In keeping with the objectives of the People's History of India project, the book has been written for a popular audience and for use by high school and college teachers. Therefore, considerable attention has been paid to explaining issues that historians might be familiar with but not the average reader, and the book has explanatory notes on the methods of archaeology and the reconstruction of language history.

Archaeologists, like investigative journalists, deal with data or information, often disparate and apparently unconnected. Careful data collection is just one part of the job. The data must be analysed, and the connections of the parts with the whole made. But the most important part of the process is the interpretation. This often necessitates a leap in reasoning which elevates the story to a new level of credibility. Habib is not a primary investigator of the period he writes about and instead draws upon the vast literature that already exists on the theme. But he has constant surprises in store for the reader by his reasoned insights into his subject matter. His study thereby substantially advances the base of our awareness and knowledge of this fascinating period of our ancient past.

If the Indus Civilisation diffused from a small core area, which Habib believes it must have done given the remarkable uniformity of its cultural features, this area has not been firmly established, although it could possibly have been in the Kot-Diji culture area of the Punjab, and northern and central Sindh. According to Habib, the Urban Revolution took place in the region extending from Iraq to the Indus basin between 3500 B.C. and 2500 B.C. The existence of towns would imply that agricultural communities had started producing a surplus and that a group of people were thereby freed from agriculture to take up other occupations. The increase in agricultural production was driven by a range of technological advances. A state apparatus emerged, which collected taxes and administered the towns. Religion and ideology reinforced the process of urban integration. The term `civilisation' describes a society of which town life is a central feature. Habib discusses the Helmand Civilisation, the material remains of which present a model of how urban societies developed out of agricultural communities. The Helmand culture existed in present-day Afghanistan between 2600 B.C. and 2100 B.C. With its two cities of Shahr-i Sokhta and Mundikak, it was a fairly advanced society, although, interestingly, there is no firm evidence of any interaction between it and the Indus Civilisation with which it overlapped in its late phase.

Indus Civilisation sites or settlements shared certain standard cultural features, according to Habib. These included the following: the distinctive Harappan wheel-made pottery which was in widespread use; the Indus script that appears on seals, potsherds and metal artefacts, and which is uniform in the Indus culture zone; baked bricks of a standard size with their sides in the 1:2:4 ratio; standard weights based on a unit equivalent to 13.63 grams; a grid pattern for roads in urban settlements and a drainage system; citadels built adjacent to the town; masonry walls and tanks; and a common burial pattern in cemeteries outside the town. The diffusion of the Indus culture over such a wide extent could only have been driven by political expansion, Habib argues. "One must imagine," he writes, "that the proto-Indus state, by use, perhaps, of ox-drawn chariots and bronze weaponry, subdued the territories of the different Early Indus cultures, and thereafter imposed its major features of economic and cultural life in all parts of the `Indus empire', which was now formed. ...Whatever the details of the process, the role of the state in the spread of the Indus Civilisation is likely to have been crucial."

In the second section of the book Habib puts more pieces of the Indus jigsaw in place by working with existing evidence to examine the historical processes at work, while building new arguments on various facets of the Indus culture. He discusses Indus agriculture, craft production and trade; there is a detailed discussion on towns and urban life; sections on religion, writing and art; and a stimulating discussion on society, state and the Indus decline. The culture was geographically vast (a map of the Indus culture area in relation to the rest of the subcontinent would have provided a sense of its extent). It extended over most of present-day Punjab (in both India and Pakistan), Haryana, parts of western Uttar Pradesh and northern Rajasthan, Sindh, most of Gujarat and parts of northeastern and southern Baluchistan. Population estimates for the area range between one and five million. If at the height of de-urbanisation in the 19th century the rural population was nearly nine times the urban, Habib argues, the rural population of the Indus Civilisation could not have been less than 15 times the urban if they had to produce sufficient food at the existing levels of agricultural productivity. He makes a rough population estimate of four million on this basis for the whole area, or six persons per square kilometre. (In 1901 the same area supported 50 persons per square kilometre). The combined population of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa was 150,000 and the total urban population not less than 250,000.

The use of the plough in Indus agriculture has been proved by the discovery of a clay model, and the discovery of a ploughed field at an excavated Indus settlement. It is the first culture known where wells gave access to underground water. While there is no proof that the pulley was in use for lifting water, the lever-lift based on stone counterweights could well have been in use, Habib argues. The range of crops had increased to 12 by this period and included cereals (but not rice), several millets, pulses, oilseeds, and, most importantly, cotton. Finds of animal bones reveal that the ox and the cow were domesticated as were sheep and goats (kept for meat and wool). The building industry had a major place in the Indus economy. The fired brick that was in use was an "outstanding innovation" according to Habib, as much for its size and ratio as for the technique of use, which gave extra stability to the structures.

The Indus cities were unique for their time in urban planning, and more particularly for their drainage system. The main features of the towns are well known - the division of the town into the `acropolis' or `citadel' built upon a large platform and a `lower town' area; the broad roads laid at right angles, the corbelled roofed drains which cleaners could enter; the granaries, and the `Great Bath' at Mohenjo-Daro. There were several large towns within the Indus culture zone. The occupied area of Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa are estimated at over 200 and 150 hectares respectively. The site of Ganweriwala covers an estimated area of 80 hectares. The sites of Lakhmirwala, Gurni Kalan and Hasanpur-2 in the Punjab, and Dholavira in Kutch are among the larger of the sites (the first three have not yet been excavated though they have been surveyed). The large structures identified as granaries at Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro perhaps stored the grain brought by officials as land tax and was meant for distribution in the citadel area of the cities. The region apparently supported a widespread network of trade both within the different parts of the empire and `internationally'. Historical evidence from contemporary societies hold exciting possibilities for extending our knowledge of the Indus period. The Mesopotamians gave to the Indus basin the name `Meluhha' and there have been finds of Indus potsherds and artefacts at the royal cemetery at Ur in southern Iraq. A seal of the Akkadian period refers to its owner as `Silusu, Meluhha interpreter'. The Indus equivalent of a Rosetta Stone has never been found, but if it ever surfaced it would surely be in a region with which Indus merchants had trade links.

Habib draws a convincing picture of a society that was both socially and economically differentiated, "a well-developed class society, comprising peasants, pastoral nomads, slaves, urban poor, artisans, merchants, priests and rulers, along with their dependents such as warriors, scribes and servants." The existence of private property, and indeed great private wealth and power, is suggested by the vastly different housing standards for the rich and the poor in towns, by the profusion of seals used to mark personal property and merchandise, the discovery of a treasure jar of precious ornaments, and so on. That women had a subordinate position in such a society could well be assumed; interestingly, skeletal evidence also proves it. Habib says that dental studies of Harappan skeletons showed that women from their childhood were less well-nourished. Malaria appears to have been a frequent visitor. According to him, the evidence of a malaria epidemic in India is established for the first time from the study of Mohenjo-Daro skeletons. While life expectancy has not been calculated for the Indus people, from the age profile of 90 skeletons from the Harappan cemetery, "it would be surprising if real average life expectancy exceeded thirty years", he concludes.

According to Habib, the mature Indus Civilisation state could well have created an `Indus empire'. For only a strong centralised state, which was in administrative control of the cities, could have established the sort of institutional and cultural uniformity that set the civilisation apart. Such a state was needed to conquer new regions and keep tax-paying peasants in subjection. What might then have happened to the Indus state? "A large part of the Indus basin having been conquered and held for some time as a centralised `empire'," Habib writes, "might have then broken into two or more parts, each under a separate dynasty but each owing allegiance to the same tradition of culture and governance". If the Indus Civilisation was indeed an empire, ruled by one or several monarchies, the symbols of empire like large monumental buildings, are absent from the remains. Will excavations of the future reveal these? Does the absence of such symbols disprove the theory of a strong and expansionist Indus state, or could imperial power have been expressed in other ways, which new evidence from this period might throw up?

How did it all end? How did a flourishing civilisation with an evolved central administrative system, a wide trade network, a dynamic manufacturing sector, and an agriculture that sustained this edifice collapse in a period of one hundred years? Soon after 2000 B.C., cities and towns practically disappear. Some cities show signs of disrepair followed by abandonment, the writing disappears on seals, the figures of deities and sacred animals on seals and tablets disappear, there are changes in burial practices, the pottery is replaced, and crafts disappear. "The change then was so complete as to bring about a relapse to non-urban conditions and illiteracy, an alteration of religion, and a great qualitative and quantitative contraction of crafts. All the survivals from the Indus Civilisation within the succeeding cultures are of a minor and secondary character; and even these leave the scene fairly soon," writes Habib of the post-Indus scenario.

Habib examines the many theories that have been advanced for this sudden civilisational collapse. Flooding owing to a shifting of the river's course has been suggested as one reason for the decline. Conversely, there is the theory of an arid phase and the consequent drying up of the Ghaggar Hakra river, which in turn caused the depopulation of cities. There is a theory that a human-induced disaster occurred, the consequence of over-cultivation and deforesting of the land. The decline of trade with Mesopotamia after 2000 B.C. is often cited as a reason for the decline of commerce and manufacture in the Indus basin, leading in turn to a collapse of the system.

Habib himself advances a persuasive argument for the collapse of the civilisation. The Indus state, he says, ran into a political crisis, which affected its ability to impose and collect tribute from the rural communities. This could have happened owing to dissension within the ruling class. The towns and townspeople depended on the tribute for their sustenance. The sudden collapse of towns therefore could only have happened if some crisis had caused the tribute to dry up. Prior to the Indus collapse, around 2200 B.C., the Helmand civilisation came to a sudden end, with evidence of arson and violence in the historical record. According to Habib, a reasonable inference that can be made is that invasions from the west overwhelmed first the Helmand cities, then the Kot-Diji culture, and finally the Indus cities. He points to the signs of violence in the later stages of Mohenjo-Daro where 38 skeletons were found in unnatural situations, suggesting that they were victims of acts of violence. Therefore, an internal political crisis of the Indus state, which weakened it, was followed by an external attack or invasion of some sort, which dealt the civilisation a final blow.

However, Habib does not subscribe to the view that the invaders were Vedic Aryans. The end of the Indus Civilisation can be put no later than 1900 B.C., 400 years before the earliest elements in the Rigveda. But he does say that the intruders could have been `pre-Vedic Aryans' who spoke some form of proto-Aryan speech, although this has not yet been proved.

The last section of the book deals with the period in the 500 years following the collapse of the Indus Civilisation. There was progress on some counts, namely an increase in the range of crops which suggested double cropping, and the spread of some craft techniques. But the slide-back from the achievements of the Indus culture were far more pronounced. This was marked by `de-urbanisation', the decay of a range of Indus crafts, and the withering of commerce.

A guide to the literature provided at the end of each chapter instead of footnotes helps keep the narrative flowing. Along with the notes on the methods of archaeology and the reconstruction of language, a note on the archaeological discovery of the major Indus sites, a story by itself, would have been useful and interesting.

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