Monday, 7 November 2011

Indus Valley Civilisation

Map of the Indus Valley Civilisation
Indian history was a bit of an enigma to archaeologists for many years and, to a great extent, it remains so. Alexander’s invasion of north-west India in 326 BC was an early fixed date but it was evident that Alexander had entered a land that already had an ancient culture. Scholars were aware that there were ancient religious texts called the Vedas, the oldest of which was dated to around 1200 BC but these were religious texts that dealt only obliquely with historical events and did not shed much light on what was happening in India when these texts were composed. Scholars worked on the assumption that India was a relatively late civilisation, one that was predated by Sumer and Egypt by thousands of years. Around the turn of the last century there were striking discoveries along the Indus River that proved this assumption completely wrong.

A site called Harappa, in what is present day Pakistan was excavated, showing the remains of a city. The locals believed it to be the city of a medieval king but once dated, it was discovered to be around five thousand years old. Other discoveries were made in the region and soon it became apparent that there had been an advanced civilisation in the area. There were a series of cities all along the river all built along a vaguely similar pattern.

Mohenjo-Daro: Note Possible public bath in foreground
The cities showed some signs of urban planning. Drainage was attended to and streets were laid out in an orderly fashion. There were walls but it was unclear if these were for defence or for flood control (or both), as nearly all the cities were built very near rivers. There were raised areas in the cities that were identified as citadels but it is impossible to properly describe their function. Early investigations noted the absence of monumental architecture. There were no gigantic pyramids or ziggurats to mark these cities, their skyline was comparatively quite boring. But if you were an inhabitant of one of these cities, such as Mohenjo-Daro, you might have been consoled about the lack of public temples by the fact that the cities appear to have public baths. Public baths might seem unhygienic to us now but they were light years in advance of bathing facilities available to the ancient Egyptians.

Statue from Mohenjo-Daro
They weren’t quite as egalitarian as once thought. All of the houses had access to public drainage but well, some got neat cisterns and covered drains, others had open sewers. But they do not appear to have had kings in our sense of the word. No single dwelling in the cities was vastly larger than the others. Archaeologists speculate that the cities may have been controlled by trading elites.

They certainly were interested in trade. Once the artefacts of the Indus Valley Civilisation were recognised for what they were, they began turning up in archaeological digs in what is now Iraq. Clearly there were trade links between the two cultures but the Sumerians do not seem to have sold any of their artefacts in return. This is odd because the Sumerians lacked real commodities to trade. The strength of their civilisation lay in their ability to use irrigation to produce multiple harvests. This leads to the fascinating possibility that perhaps the Indus Valley traded luxury goods for grain, building ships to transport grain over thousands of miles of open sea to feed their population five thousand years ago. While the Indus Valley did not have irrigation complexes on the scale of Mesopotamia or Egypt they nevertheless were a major agricultural society so this idea is of course, highly speculative (and given the nature of boats in those times, rather unlikely). There are remains of what could be ports but their uses are debated. 

Cylinder seals from Indus: Note the writing above the pictures
We have some of their artwork but it is impossible to understand much of their culture or history because their writing is currently undecipherable. Like many ancient cultures they signed their documents using cylinder seals that would be rolled in wet clay to leave a distinctive mark on a trade document. Most of the writing recovered from the Indus Valley has been on these seals and these terse statements in an unknown tongue and isolated script, have sadly proved undecipherable so the enigmatic builders of the cities must remain silent for now.

This unassuming, well organised civilisation existed for hundreds of years before going into decline around 1700 BC. Possibly the causes were invasion, cultural changes or climate change but the cities were gradually abandoned. To this day only a few of the many known sites have been excavated and less is known of this culture than of any major civilisation that existed around that period.

Indra: Accused?
Partly this is because of the difficulties in understanding their writing but mainly this is because of politics. Different political ideologies have, over the years, really messed up any attempt to properly understand things. Firstly the British archaeologists (remember at the time the cities were discovered all of the Indian subcontinent was under British rule) assumed that the cities had been built by Dravidians (peoples who spoke a type of language most commonly spoken in southern India) and that the ancestors of the current inhabitants of northern India had arrived as nomads from Iran and Afghanistan, worshipping Iranian gods and destroying the civilisation that stood in their path. When a prominent British archaeologist was asked what had destroyed these cities he famously stated, “Indra (an early Hindu god who may have been known as the destroyer of cities) stands accused.” This belief in nomadic invaders from the north is known as the Aryan Invasion Theory.

Quite frankly there is very little evidence for any violent invasion. There is a strong suspicion that, by portraying Hindu culture as basically a foreign imposition, the British were trying to justify their own foreign rule. Be that as it may, some Hindu fundamentalists see the cities of the Indus River as being part of an ancient Hindu culture. They explain cultural and linguistic similarities between their culture and Iran by saying that the culture spread from India to Iran rather than vice versa. There is a much stronger version of the theory that states that all civilisation and the Indo-European language family originally came from the Indus Valley. This is known as the Out of India theory and there is almost no evidence to support the strong version of it.

Bullock Cart Statue from the Indus Valley
To compound the religious and cultural issues involved in “claiming” the Indus Valley, some people from the south of India believe (following elements of the Aryan Invasion Theory) that the language (and by extension the people and culture) of the Indus was Dravidian rather than Indo-European. Due to the unfortunate tension that exists between India and Pakistan and the fact that some Indian political parties claim the Indus Valley as the birthplace of distinctively Hindu civilisation, there have been issues in conducting large scale excavations.

So, do check out the Indus Valley Civilisation online but be aware that we know very little about it. Also be aware that, sadly, there are people who have very definite agendas, or political and religious points to make so be wary in your research.This is one area where political interest in history has unfortunately obscured the search for truth.