Rethinking the Indus civilisation

This Bronze Age civilisation covered a vast area, from Balochistan in the west to Western UP in the east, from Afghanistan in the north to Gujarat in the south.
A file photo of the Dholavira archaeological site at Khadirbet in Gujarat's Kutch district
A file photo of the Dholavira archaeological site at Khadirbet in Gujarat's Kutch district

A seminar on ‘Art in the Indus Civilization’ was recently held in Chennai. Why art? Because the unverifiable readings of the Indus script are a major impediment, art becomes the most reliable source of information. This Bronze Age civilisation covered a vast area, from Balochistan in the west to Western UP in the east, from Afghanistan in the north to Gujarat in the south, the largest ‘empire’ of the ancient world. Remains of agriculture from 6500 BCE are found in Mehrgarh, Balochistan.

Although Kalibangan (in India) was discovered first, Mohenjo Daro and Harappa were reported first but went to Pakistan during Partition. Subsequent excavations revealed that 75 per cent of the Indus civilisation is situated along the Ghaggar-Hakra, now identified with the river Sarasvati. However, it is still known as the Indus Civilisation because the first sites were excavated there. Kalibangan, Dholavira, Lothal and Rakhigarhi are among the important sites subsequently excavated. In 1924, the Indus civilisation was declared a site of remote antiquity by the British, who had earlier maintained that Indian history began in 600 BCE!

The art of the Indus civilisation includes terracottas, ceramics, glyptics, sculpture, jewellery made of carnelian, steatite, gold, silver and, faience and beads. Art ‘expresses important ideas or feelings’ of a people. Early terracottas are primitive, made of pressed clay and pinched, with huge holes for eyes. The mature period produced beautiful images of trees, animals, birds and deities engraved on seals and paintings on pottery. The art residues are distinctive spokespersons for this civilisation. The seals were made of steatite, faience and terracotta and used commercially and ritually. Dogs with collars and elephants with rugs over their back suggest that they had been domesticated. Images of horses, rhinos, monkeys, rams, other animals and birds appear either as toys or on seals. Ornaments, shells, turquoise and lapis lazuli were moved from 500 to 1500 km away. 

Why is the naked bronze dancing girl presumed to be dancing? Why is the stone priest-king of Mohenjo Daro presumed to be a priest-king? There are no answers. Several images of yoga poses exist, while two naked male torsos of grey lime are outstanding. One twists a leg, a male dancing figure comparable to the Nataraja pose. The other is in samabhanga, perhaps a Tirthankara (Yajurveda mentions three). 

The earliest worship scene in India is a seal from the Indus Civilisation where a three-horned male figure stands inside a stylised pipal tree. There are several seals of male figures with three pipal leaves protruding from the head, recalling the ashvatavriskshastotram. The second important seal type is a tree with prickly thorns and small leaves, the khejari or shami, with a female figure seated on a branch and a tiger below, reminiscent of the paalai or desert described by Tolkappiyar, whose goddess is Kotravai or Durga and plant, the prickly kotran. Durga’s vehicle is the tiger. In the Vedas, ashvata and shami were rubbed together to produce fire. Three-headed male figures meditate in yogic moolabandhaasana. All these are Harappan and Vedic iconography. Popular animal stories from the Panchatantra are painted on jars.

Vasant Shinde, who has excavated several Harappan sites, was fortunate to isolate DNA from the skeleton of a Harappan lady at Rakhigarh. The result was a South Asian gene spread all over India, with no Steppe or Iranian ancestry. But Harappan genomes have been found in Iran and Turkmenistan, giving credence to the Out of India theory. According to Dr Shinde, the dominant gene in most south Asians is 25 to 30 per cent Harappan. By craniofacial reconstruction, he found that Harappans resembled contemporary Haryanvis. 

Some scholars believe that the second urbanisation of 1000 BCE was disconnected from Harappa, with a dark Vedic Age in between. This is false, says Prof Michel Danino, because the same technologies in pottery, water management, metallurgy and crafts are pursued throughout Indian culture. Fire altars and lingassindoor and Mother Goddess figurines, lost wax technique to cast bronze statues, and more have continued since Harappa. Tribal women wear Harappan-style bangles on their arms, and chessmen from Lothal and dice from Harappa are still popular games. Swastika and tree worship still prevailed, while the Harappan weight system continued throughout Indian culture. Check dams to avoid flooding, bathrooms with commodes and drainage lines with manholes for cleaning are Harappan legacies. So, did “untouchability” begin there? Unlike Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Indus people didn’t build pyramids and ziggurats, but made life comfortable for the common person in well-built cities. 

When people travel with their musical instruments, they retain their names. The piano and violin retain their names everywhere. Shail Vyas researched Mesopotamian references to Meluha (as the Indus Valley was known there) and found the names of 30 Indian musical instruments and 60 items of trade, including animals, birds and timber species, from Meluha, all in Sanskrit, with similar Mesopotamian equivalents. These had gone with the sea-faring Meluhans of the Indus. 

It is time to rethink the Harappan civilisation, a culture with much archaeology but little literature. Vedic culture is all literature, and no material remains – is it possible? The Vedas speak of copper, not iron, making it a Bronze Age civilisation like Harappa. The Vedic civilisation was riverine and agricultural, like the Harappan. The Early Harappan Period lasted from 3300 to 2900 BCE, the Mature period from 2900 to 1900 BCE and the Late Harappan from 1900 to 1500 BCE. By 1000 BCE, the Painted Grey-Ware of the Mahabharata period had appeared, so the Vedas would have to be much earlier. The Vedas do not speak of any homeland outside India. The two civilisations were contemporary, probably the same, for Meluhan Sanskrit in Mesopotamia is compelling evidence. It is time our history books reveal the truth.

Nanditha Krishna

Historian, environmentalist and writer based in Chennai

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