Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Besting the Nile

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Sargon, king of Akkad or Mesopotamia, who ruled during the 24th century BCE, is known to have boasted about the greatness of his country’s markets and the splendid trading vessels anchoring in his ports. Among other lands, he proudly mentioned Meluhha, suggesting the social, cultural and economic importance of what we now have reason to believe was Sindh. The ships that called at Sargon’s ports came from the rich and flourishing city ironically known today as Moen jo Daro or Mound of the Dead.

In 1921, the Archaeological Survey of India arrived to investigate the dusty mound for Buddhist remains. They uncovered the Buddhist stupa, all right. But as they probed deeper, they hit upon an urban centre, well-developed and orderly and more ancient than anything Indian archaeologists could expect. Little did they know that investigations during the next two decades would push back the provenance of Moen jo Daro to the 3rd millennium BCE.

Laid out in a neat grid aligned with the waxing and waning of celestial bodies, the city had distinctly separate walled and gated precincts besides a dominant citadel area. Unlike Mesopotamian cities, there were no opulent mansions or exclusive temples for the elite. This was clearly a homogenous society with large residences belonging to the rich abutting the humbler homes and workshops of the working class.

Personal hygiene and cleanliness were of paramount importance for the people of this remarkable city. Most houses had in-built wells. Alternately, groups of four or five houses shared a common well. Every house had a bathroom with a bathing platform from where the water drained through a chute into covered sewers lining the streets. Rectangular sump pits interspersed at regular intervals along the sewage drains collected solid waste. Rubbish bins lined all major streets, which together with the pits, required regular clearing, suggesting an efficient municipal system at work.

The discovery of the Great Bath in Moen jo Daro implies that religious rituals centred on the use of water. Billed as the “earliest public water tank in the ancient world”, this structure, with bricks laid on edge in gypsum plaster and sealed by a thick layer of bitumen to prevent seepage, is a marvel of ancient engineering.

In awe of the previously discovered grandeur of Mesopotamia, early archaeologists believed the Indus civilisation was derived from the former. But investigations carried out by American teams in the last quarter of the 20th century indicate that it was significantly independent. They also show that various technological innovations were deployed in Moen jo Daro and Harappa some 500 years before being exported to Mesopotamia. Notable among these was bead making from precious and semi-precious stones. Today, we even know that the Indus civilisation maintained colonies of craftsmen in Mesopotamia. The artefacts discovered in western Iran, the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia now have provenance: they are all reminders of the earliest Indus Valley travellers.

The most intriguing facet of this culture is, doubtlessly, the variety of its stone and steatite seals. Square in shape, they are imprinted with images of rhinoceros, crocodile, bull and unicorn. In most cases, the animal’s image is topped by a line of symbols – clearly a hieroglyphic script that still remains undeciphered as it is different from any known system of ancient writing.

The discovery of 13 skeletons among the ruins in what was believed to be postures of “agony and violence” led early investigators to attribute the destruction of this fabulous city to the Aryan influx in about 1800 BCE. It is now recognized, though, that these deaths, occurring inside a house, were the result of a roof collapse.

On the contrary, rather than destroying, the newcomers adapted and assimilated with the host culture. The Vedic god Shiva, for instance, is clearly modelled after the deity depicted on the seals, just as Parvati derives from the Mother Goddess figurine recovered from the Indus cities. Moreover, since the Central Asiatic newcomers were not acquainted with the monkey and elephant until they reached the Indus valley, it is likely that the Hindu gods Hanuman and Ganesh were also based on existing local deities. Curiously enough, more than 2000 years after the demise of the Indus cities, Celtic tribes of the British Isles depicted their god Cernunnos in exactly the same posture as the ancient Shiva prototype from the Indus valley, seated cross-legged in yogic posture surrounded by wild animals.

Today, the Vedic war god Indra stands exonerated from culpability of destruction as we know that the mighty Indus itself, the river that spawned this great civilization, proved its real nemesis. By about 1700 BCE, intermittent flooding resulted in wealthy citizens abandoning Moen jo Daro. A marked decline in the construction of this late period implies that the city was taken over by the less affluent. By and by, they too moved on and the dust of the ages smothered the city.

About two millennia later, a group of pious Buddhists crowned the highest part of the forgotten city with a stupa and monastery. Over time, this also passed into oblivion, only to be dug up in 1921 so that the story could reach back to 2600 BCE, when the city was flourishing. But even that is not yet full circle as archaeologists tell us that below the uppermost and last phase in the life of the city, there sit several earlier stages of occupation. One day, when they are capable of probing the water table, we will finally be able to tell what this wonderful city was in the 6th millennium BCE and earlier.

Related: Discoveries of Empire

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 1 February 2014 at 15:16, Blogger afatqiamat said...

very Interesting , my question , how was Moenjodaro a port,,?, was the mighty Sindhu so broad that ships could sail upto Moenjodaro...!1 we know during the British period , River Sindh was used for navigation ..

At 1 February 2014 at 21:59, Anonymous Saswati Sarkar said...

Is Sindh Festival today on the ruins of Mohenjadaro worrying you and other history buffs?

At 1 February 2014 at 22:03, Anonymous Saswati Sarkar said...

How can Sindhi culture be saved by wrecking Moenjodaro?

At 1 February 2014 at 22:12, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought Mohen jo Daro belongs to the world! BTW, it may not be the same after the jiyalas celebrating Sindh Festival are through with it.


At 1 February 2014 at 22:14, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ruined again ruined.

Nazia Khurshid

At 1 February 2014 at 23:28, Anonymous Farrukh Haye said...

Gr8. Farrukh Haye Till now only gud thing done by BILAWAL

At 2 February 2014 at 13:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Forget the festival. This is an excellent stuff. I am going to get this diary. I know where from ;-)

At 2 February 2014 at 22:54, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where in the world do we have best assortment of artifacts from Moen jo Daro? What books best describes the site like book by Jonathan Mark Kenoyer on Harappa?

At 3 February 2014 at 11:36, Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Fascinating story!

At 3 February 2014 at 18:21, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting read! specially the last part of the city having history before the now known harappan era.

At 7 February 2014 at 23:09, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Afat Qiamat. Mone jo Daro was a river port. They did indeed sail right up to it.


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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