Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

This Very Eden

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In 1826, Charles Masson, a renegade from the army of the East India Company posing as an American, went walkabout across what is now Pakistan. In the vicinity of Chichawatni town, he came upon the village of Haripa [sic] amid a thick jungle. Hard by the village was a series of low mounds crowned by derelict buildings and the remains of a brick castle. Going by Masson’s description, most of the ruins dated to Mughal times or slightly earlier. According to lore, this was an important city, extending some 20 kilometres as far as Chichawatni, destroyed by Providence to punish its evil king.

By the time general-turned-archaeologist Alexander Cunningham came surveying historical sites in 1864, Harappa was extensively pillaged for bricks by locals as well as railway contractors. Disappointed by the absence of Buddhist remains, Cunningham nevertheless published a report featuring the ancient pottery, stone tools as well as a seal showing a feeding bovine topped by a hieroglyphic script never seen before. Neither he nor any of his colleagues could make anything of the seal or its script.

About 55 years would go by before the Archaeological Survey of India began proper excavations at Harappa. What this team found below thick layers of dust was a city that began some 5300 years earlier. Here, in those prehistoric times, was a thick forest in a vast flatland and an oxbow lake formed by the serpentine Ravi River that flowed close by. In this setting, a band of homesteaders established an agricultural village in about 3300 BCE. For the settlers, this was a very Eden, an alluvial floodplain rejuvenated annually by the river for premium agriculture with abundantly stocked hunting and fishing grounds, to put down roots and flourish.

And flourish they did, for within 400 years a city emerged, expanding to over 150 hectares from its original 25, and becoming the hub of a trade network that brought all manner of raw material from Balochistan, Sindh and Afghanistan. Even as early as 2500 BCE, there is evidence of industry producing carnelian beads, chert and copper tools and sea shell ornaments from these imports.

As the trader bringing down copper ore from the Balochistan highlands approached Harappa by river boat, he would have been awed by the towering mud-brick wall surrounding the city. The wall was punctuated by hefty bastions and a lofty gateway of kiln-fired bricks topped with guardrooms to oversee entry and exit. Inside the walls, the streets were laid out in a grid on cardinal points of the compass to connect several localities centred on what must have been a large water tank.

It was once believed that the cities of Indus valley were divided along class lines with the elite living separately from the working class. The contention is no longer valid. Harappa was a town where various localities had craft workshops clumped together with large and small houses interspersed with public buildings and market areas, suggesting the city was clearly homogenous without any segregation on social grounds.

The ruling class of the Indus civilisation controlled their city states not through military might. Instead, governance and control were enforced through religion and trade. In Harappa and its sister city Moen jo Daro, there is no evidence of monuments commemorating rulers or depictions of warfare and vanquished enemies.

By osmosis, as it were, this fact of life was persevered in the collective memory of the people of this land for millennia: classical Greek writers heard about the tradition of Indians neither invading other countries nor being invaded by outsiders. But that was before the advent of the Indo-Aryans. What we do find in place of military monuments is an array of stone and steatite seals finely worked with images of deities and real and mythical animals topped by a script that has continued to puzzle archaeologists since it was first discovered more than 150 years ago.

At the height of her glory, Harappa’s merchant class was trading with far off commercial centres, bringing immense wealth and fame to the city. But then came the downfall. The Rig Veda records the defeat of the Vrcivans of the city of Hariyupiya on the banks of the Yavyavati River (Book 6, Hymn 27) by Indra, the god of war. Early archaeologists surmised the name Harappa derived from ancient Hariyupiya, which in itself was an unmistakable clue to the violence of the Aryan hordes.

Except Indra was not really the destroyer. Sometime about 1700 BCE, the hydrology of Ravi River was altered, causing floods, which, in turn, led the citizenry to abandon Harappa. Only a vague memory of the city’s greatness survived together with its 5000 year-old bricks that are even today the material of many houses in the modern village of Harappa.

When they dug the bricks for reuse, those 19th century vandals had not realized they were destroying the evidence of an ancient civilization. By the time archaeologists arrived in 1920, much of the glory of Harappa was lost. And we know only a fraction of its history. One day, the layers of even older periods of occupation beneath the ruins will come to light to make the story of Harappa replete.

Related: Discoveries of Empire - Book of Days 2014

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 3 January 2014 at 17:37, Blogger Memoona Saqlain Rizvi said...

This is a ruin that strongly makes one feel the presence of its ancient inhabitants. Did u come across those clay burial pots? Or they're used for some other purpose? Great piece as usual.

At 3 January 2014 at 22:37, Anonymous haroon said...

Brilliant as always. A big thanks from the region.

More of the same please.

At 4 January 2014 at 10:07, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Memoona, I think at the time of the ruins we see on the surface, they were still doing full burials. Urns were used when they began cremating. And that was later.But there are burial urns in the museum, if I recall.

At 4 January 2014 at 10:08, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

thank you, Haroon. I'm very glad you like it. There's more on the way.

At 15 September 2014 at 03:27, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You have mentioned about a (Rig Vedic) battle that took place near the city of Hariyupiya on the banks of Yavyavati River. Interestingly, Indian Rig Vedic scholars identify Hariyupiya as the name of a river and not a city. In-fact many Indian scholars state that Hariyupiya and Yavyavati are two different names of the same river. There is a lot of confusion in this regard as some identify River Yavyavati with River Zhob as well. However, one thing is clear that the Hariyupiya mentioned in Rig Veda was not a city, but was as a river.



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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days