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Updated: September 23, 2010 16:01 IST

Study on Harappan world

Shereen Ratnagar
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This account of the Harappa civilisation presents, in 11 somewhat repetitive chapters, a history of discovery, environment, prehistoric background, the formative period, urbanism and states, subsistence and craft economies, trade, “landscape and memory” (the cemeteries mainly), religion, and the decline. The best parts are the ones on topics the author knows first-hand: patterns of settlement along the Beas and the Ravi; the development of village life at Mehrgarh; exquisite grey pottery with black-painted designs; and the sequence at Harappa. Rita Wright worked with the Harappa Archaeological Research Project, and we are reminded that a consolidated report is long overdue.

Environmental change

After the recent flooding in Pakistan — its scale now ascribed to deforestation and interference with river flow — environmental change is of special interest. I wish there had been more detailed accounts of the use of spring water and of flood water capture as sustainable systems. (Until recently, spate irrigation has been important for the region from the Helmand to the Sutlej-Jumna Divide.) There is useful material about changes in river courses and the relative incidence of monsoon and cold-weather rainfall, a factor that probably affected crop choice. Wright does not, however, mention Pakistani work on shifts of the Indus delta or changes in the level of the Arabian Sea and hence the Ranns. The deep tank with baked brick walls at Lothal belongs to an environment quite different from that of the rock-cut reservoirs of Dholavira, and these cannot be clubbed as representing the same phenomenon as she has done. Let not the unsuspecting student believe that American research along the major rivers is all that we need to know about recent trends in Harappan archaeology.

Four theoretical models of the early city — Central Place Theory, the city-state, “spatial models” of city planners, and the “gateway city” — are suggested. A model of the location of retail marketing in uniform geographic conditions, Central Place Theory — devised in early 20th century — is inappropriate. Gateway cities, for their part, are huge centres that develop on an advancing frontier of settlement and I wonder if this model can apply to little settlements in Makran and Badakhshan. Politically, independent city-states are of interest, but which were these? To which city-state did the seven-hectare Lothal belong? Wright refers to the uniform system of weights over the entire Harappan world as indicative of a “strong overarching authority” but does not admit that this contradicts the idea of city-states. She does not regard the occurrence of stone statuary (men and animals) almost exclusively at Mohenjo-daro as evidence of the special importance of that town. Surely, also, the use of baked brick for the construction of Mohenjo-daro is a pointer to an exceptional scale of labour mobilisation.

Interpretations

Wright's descriptions and interpretations of the terracotta figurines at Harappa, the cultural sequence at Harappa, the imagery on seals, and the Mohenjo-daro stone statuary are useful and interesting. I wish she had built her book around essays on these themes. In that case, we could have overlooked the complete absence of Surkotada and Bagasra in her book. The first is a delightful stone fort, well restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. With the citadel of Dholavira, Surkotada puts paid to any claim about the absence of warfare or defence architecture.

Strangely, the third millennium Mesopotamian cities with their known warrior kings have no defences to compare with the formidable gateways of the citadels of these two sites. (A destruction level, in fact, precedes the fortification of Surkotada and a large number of stone missiles have been found, especially in the citadel.) The idea of a state without warfare is long outdated: Bridget Allchin had pointed out in the 1980s that it did not make sense! That early constructions at Amri and Kot Diji anticipate Harappa-period citadels, incidentally, is inaccurate, and in any case contradicts the theory of absence-of-warfare.

No reference

Equally surprising is the lack of reference to Bagasra in Kutch, a preliminary report on which was published by the MSU, Baroda, in 2003. Bagasra highlights the problem of distinguishing Harappan urban and rural economies. The Anarta horizon of Kutch too, explored by the MSU, finds no mention. The cenotaphs of Dholavira, for their part; deserve some mention, so do stations at the navigation heads of the Chenab and the Sutlej. Nor is there any reference to the necklace from Kashmir, so elegantly displayed in the National Museum. There is reference to a jute imprint on a pot, but not to silk string, identified and published in 2008. Oddly, the bibliography includes work on the Ayodhya dispute and the text of the Arthashastra, but not Iravatham Mahadevan's “Concordance of the Indus script.” Nor do inquiries into the decline of the civilisation find a place. Without some degree of completeness and with no reference to alternative views, a book such as this can give the impression that archaeology yields conclusive truths.

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