Asking the right questions

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST


Understanding Harappa: Civilization in the Greater Indus Valley by Shereen Ratnagar; Tulika, Delhi, 2001; pages X+165, Rs.220.

SCHOLARLY inquiries into the Harappan civilisation have to cope with a relative dearth of source material. There is no firm mooring to which the inquiry can be tethered, since no surviving texts or cultural traditions can be even remotely traced to the Harappan period. The material remnants uncovered by excavations in the Indus Valley and its contiguous areas have, in other words, to speak for themselves. The few inscriptions that have been recovered reveal little but the most rudimentary features of the script. Hence, it is a situation where sobriety and extreme analytical rigour are called for, although unfortunately there has in recent times been a tendency for excesses to flourish.

Ratnagar's book, built on the experience of years spent in the study of Harappa, is in this sense a model of scholarly restraint and sobriety. This is the author's fourth book on the Indus Valley civilisation, although it is different in being a general introduction for the lay reader. Earlier works dealt with specific phases and aspects of the Harappan civilisation. This volume summarises the knowledge accumulated through all the specialist work into a compelling tour of distant horizons. It is richly illustrated with photographs, maps and sketches.

The author is candid about the limits to which the available evidence will take the understanding: "Material things are but a fraction of any living culture and surviving material remains are only a fraction of the total material component... Thus the archaeologist gets to deal with only a small - and rather skewed - fraction of an ancient culture system. It follows that only limited questions can be meaningfully asked about the Harappan civilization."

The key to understanding Harappa then is to ask the right questions and not to allow partisan passions of the moment to influence the pursuit of answers. Ample signs of the new tendentious reading of ancient India are now available, notably in the National Museum's recently opened Harappan gallery, where the Indus Valley civilisation is with deliberate political intent renamed the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation.

RATNAGAR explains that in line with accepted scholarly practice, two names have been in common use to refer to the bronze age civilisation in the northwestern part of the subcontinent: Indus Valley bears reference to the geographical area where most of the relevant settlements have been discovered, while Harappa refers to the first and until now perhaps the most elaborate site uncovered from that period. It is considered standard practice to use either one of these names to refer to the whole family of sites. But to bring the Sarasvati into the reckoning betrays another agenda which is quite remote from scholarly concerns. It only speaks of a rather laboured effort to derive a direct line of cultural evolution between the Indus civilisation and the later Vedic period.

Vedic texts are suffused with references to the Sarasvati in two different contexts - as a magnificent life-sustaining river and as a goddess of rivers. However, contemporary identifications of the Sarasvati are at best tenuous. The closest approximation today is the Ghaggar, a seasonal stream that runs a short course through Haryana and parts of Rajasthan before it runs dry. Across the border, the dry river bed in Pakistan is known as the Hakra.

Its paltry status today is one thing, but Ratnagar questions the importance bestowed upon the Sarasvati in the context of the Harappan civilisation on other grounds. First, it is not clear that the number of Harappan sites discovered on its banks are of sufficient number to justify the nomenclature. Excavations on the Ghaggar have uncovered sites of a distinct local culture with pronounced Harappan contact. However, there is no basis to conflate the two into one cultural type. Second, the name "Sarasvati" itself is evocative of a close association between the Harappan and Vedic cultures, when in fact, there seems none at all.

However, the Hakra is another matter. Just downstream of the medieval Derawar fort, a dense cluster of Harappan sites has been found, the largest of which shows evidence of a characteristic kind of social stratification. But this clustering of sites, says Ratnagar, could be fortuitous. The Hakra in ancient times could have received water flows from streams that today feed the upper Sutlej and the upper Jamuna. And once the river ran dry, the sites in its vicinity would have a greater chance of surviving to modern times than those on the banks of "active and periodically flooding rivers".

It is a part of the value of this volume that it does not engage in unnecessary polemic and only seeks with unfailing sobriety to set the factual record straight. The bulk of the book is devoted to an exposition of all that is known about the material culture of the Harappan civilisation. These chapters are rich in detail and require attentive reading.

Ratnagar draws attention for instance, to the remarkable "similarity of form and decoration in pottery across Harappan sites". Trade between different regions cannot be an explanation, since pottery is not easily transported. A possible hypothesis then is a kingly fiat which governed the production of pottery and enforced certain uniform standards of form and decoration. This contrasts sharply with the evidence of textile production, which in its vast variety, points to a subsistence oriented activity done individually and in households.

The uniformity in brick sizes, similarly, is an indication not of trade but of mass-production. The house forms in the Harappan sites have been extensively catalogued, since they offer vital clues to social life. But with the extreme caution that her subject matter warrants, Ratnagar only offers a few tentative hypotheses. For example, a number of wells found within the residential perimeters in Mohenjodaro are not in public spaces like street intersections. This raises questions about the functional use of the residential space. Was it, as in modern times, the exclusive and private space of a family? Or did it accommodate larger social units?

Harappan urban form, with its characteristic grid pattern, has also been correlated with various other functional requirements of a city, such as drainage, sewage disposal and transport systems. Again, there are no definite connections, since in Mohenjodaro there is a clear connection between the grid and the drainage system, although Kalibangan offers an example of a grid sans drainage.

WHAT do the layout of the streets and the pattern of house construction suggest about the patterns of social interaction - like children playing and citizens gathering for discussions on public issues and private affairs? Within the typical Harappan city there seem few identifiable recreational spaces or locations where public assemblies could have taken place. However, Ratnagar does suggest, in a rare moment of audacity, that social interactions could have taken place on the roofs of the residential structures, by people conversing across the space that separated their houses.

The characteristic "citadel" that has been unearthed at several sites - mostly set apart from the main settlement, although some do occur within - speaks of a certain degree of social stratification. The elevation, structure and building forms within these citadels, point towards certain social barriers and a nascent political hierarchy.

For readers who have been conditioned to think of Harappa only in narrow geographical terms, the sections on trade with west Asian cultures would come as a revelation. Indeed, one of the few textual references available to the Indus civilisation occurs in Mesopotamia, where the south Asian territories of "Meluhha" were known as a source of certain artefacts.

Ratnagar provides brief discussions of ritual, religion and political organisation, before rounding off her volume with an inquiry into the possible causes of the end of the Harappan civilisation. Again, she refuses to stress the available material and textual evidence with an excessive burden of explanation. A variety of factors are discussed, including natural calamities, the erosion of the ecological basis of sustenance, and rigidities of social and political organisation that made adaptation difficult. After about 1800 B.C., most Harappan settlements began to be abandoned. It also marked the beginning of the decline of the Mesopotamian settlements and the collapse of the Bahrain-Kuwait cultures, which had carried on a certain volume of trade with the Harappan region.

Concurrently, there is a resumption of population movements between Central and South Asia. This is in Ratnagar's assessment, the perspective in which the so-called "Aryan invasion" is to be understood - not as a violent and cataclysmic military conquest, but as spontaneous migrations of people driven by subsistence pressures. There is evidence pointing to a population incursion from Central Asia into the fringes of the Harappan territory. But no causal connection can be drawn between this and the decline of the Harappan civilisation. Rather, a complex of internal and external factors contributed, all part of a larger decline of elite-dominated, stratified urban civilisations, which proved unable to sustain themselves in the face of relentless subsistence pressures. "And in some ways," concludes Ratnagar, "a spectacular failure of the past can be of as much interest as the lineages of steady continuity that we call tradition."

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