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Kot Diji was the home of the earliest Harappan civilisation dating back to 2800-2600 BC | Photo by Arman Tejani
Kot Diji was the home of the earliest Harappan civilisation dating back to 2800-2600 BC | Photo by Arman Tejani

Ever since the teaser of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Mohenjo Daro released, the film has been subjected to scrutiny, amplified by the persistent attempts of Sangh parivar’s ideologues to give the Indus Valley civilisation a saffron tinge. The historically inaccurate and politically controversial flashing of horses and the use of heavily Sanskritised dialogues in the film have left a bad taste in mouth of the discerning audience.

However, the film has revived the age-old debate around the Harappan civilisation. While majority of historians find most of these aspects of the civilisation already resolved in the the discipline of history, the energised right-wing has found yet another opportunity to drive home their points of view, which have, time and again, been methodologically refuted.

In this context, The Wire interviewed noted archaeologist Shereen Ratnagar about her views on the controversial issues surrounding the civilisation. Ratnagar, a former professor of archaeology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is considered an authority on the Harappan civilisation.

Educated at Pune’s Deccan College and the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, her books include Understanding Harappa: Civilisation in the Greater Indus Valley (Tulika, 2006), The End of the Great Harappan Tradition (Manohar, 2002), Encounter: The Westerly Trade of the Harappa civilisation (OUP,1981), Enquiries into the Political organisation of Harappan Society (Ravish Publishers, 1991), Trading Encounters: From the Euphrates to the Indus in the Bronze Age, (OUP, 2004). She has also written several research papers on the subject. She is currently working as an independent scholar investigating various aspects of the Bronze Age civilisation. Excerpts from the interview:

Q. With the release of the film Mohenjo Daro and its depiction of the controversial Mackay 453 seal, the seal is back in news. The film shows the seal to introduce horses in the film, as Hindutva ideologue N.S. Rajaram and palaeographer Natwar Jha had first tried to propound. Indologist Michael Witzel and the comparative historian Steve Framer completely debunked the theory. Could you please tell us whether the archaeological findings until now establish the presence of the horse during those times?

A. There is no zoological proof [and] no securely identified set of bones at any Mature Harappan site to indicate the presence of the horse. There are no horse harness pieces either, as we find in the later Iron Age burials in peninsular India.

Also read: Come to Kashmir, the valley of roses, apple trees and corpses

Q. The Harappan script and the language question is shrouded in mystery. Hindutva ideologues have tried to draw links between Sanskrit and the Indus Valley script.

A. This is not the case. It appears from things like certain signs occurring often at the ends of inscriptions, which indicate grammatical suffixes, which could mean that the language encoded by the script was a Dravidian one.

Q. Can this be proven scientifically? How have historians resolved the language question?

A. Much of archaeological reasoning remains inferential. Inference is different from speculation and most people do not realise this.

Q. There is a renewed interest among a large section of the Sangh parivar to draw similarities between the Rgvedic Age and the Indus Valley civilisation, both in terms of chronology and culture. Most professional historians believe that the two civilisations did not coincide and culturally they did not resemble much. What is your opinion?

A. These are tiresome old questions – scholars should, by now, have moved on. In the Bronze Age we have an urban civilisation organised at the level of the state. The Rgveda is a collection of hymns to be recited at the time of ritual conducted by priests for individuals. What we can cull out from the Rgveda text – which is hard to understand, it being in Vedic and not classical Sanskrit – is a society organised on kinship. One wonders how many proponents of the ‘Harappan civilisation is equal to Rgvedic culture’ theory know the language of the Rgveda.

Shereen Ratnagar | credit Facebook
Shereen Ratnagar | credit Facebook

Q. In your book Understanding Harappa, you have suggested that calling it Harappan civilisation is more appropriate than ‘Sarasvati civilisation.’ However, with the excavation of Rakhigarhi and the Haryana government’s efforts to brand the Ghaggar river as Sarasvati, are you willing to reconsider your viewpoint?

A. Rakhigarhi was known even when I wrote that book. It is not the only site on the alleged ancient Sarasvati. I do not say that one site, however large, will make a difference.

Q. In your book you have also explored a range of possibilities as reasons for the decline of the civilisation – from natural calamities to the end of overseas trade. However, the film definitively shows a devastating flood as the reason, following which some survivors migrated to the Indo-Gangetic plains, from where the Vedic age emerged.

A. For reasons of visual narrative, I suppose floods would be easier to show. While no civilisation can cease because of a single flood, we cannot for our part become orthodox and say not this, not that.

Q. We know that the Indus Valley civilisation was an evolved urban economy as opposed to a largely rural, pastoral Vedic Age. The knowledge of iron in the Rgvedic Age also marks a departure point from the Bronze Age civilisations prior to that. You have researched about the Mehrgarh site to establish continuities between pre-Harappan and Harappan periods. With the continuity aspect between the Vedic Age and Harappan period making a political comeback, could you tell us a little about how historians themselves have dealt with the change or continuity question during this long period?

A. Some insist that weights, for instance, show a continuity, but cubical weights are not known in the early historic period, just the system of counting or measuring – and it is evident centuries after the end of the Harappan period. What happened in the interim? Deep freeze? Cold storage? Again, the iconic long carnelian beads were not made any more. The system of writing vanished – one or two resemblances to Harappan signs is not tantamount to a writing system. People did not use long chert blades for agricultural and household work after 1800 BC or so. Most importantly, there is a large scale desertion of Harappan towns and villages instead of continued occupation until the Iron Age. There is no slow and gradual cultural transformation at sites and in any case there are different regions of occupation, different crops too in some place.

This is something most archaeologists refuse to do – either because it requires a lot of reading or out of some misplaced sense of superiority saying our that civilisation is unique,

Q. Any conversation about the Harappan civilisation brings about the politically controversial topic of Aryans – whether they migrated, invaded or were autochthonous. The film clearly veers towards them being indigenous. This question has become so important that DNA samples of excavated dead bodies have been sent to test.

A. Which dead bodies? Do any skeletons have surviving DNA? And how big a sample would we need?

Q. Today, various excavations and its findings in Harappan sites are turned and twisted according to different political interests. As an archaeologist, what do you think are the most important or relevant questions about the Indus Valley civilisation that need to be the focus, something that will help us understand the period better.

A. We need to reinstate warfare as an aspect of Harappan life. For this, we need to reinvestigate the ballista or stone/terracotta missiles used in the defence of citadels and walled sites. They are there at Mohenjo-daro, at Surkotada and at other sites – and can no longer be brushed under the carpet. We can also investigate the forms of the characteristic Harappan pottery – which of these were used for cooking, which for feasts and social occasions such as serving food or gifts, which for storage.

The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda has excavated small sites on the coast of the Gulf of Kutch that though small, have substantial material for craft production. How did the rural economy sustain such production of shell and stone ornaments and for whom or where were these made?

The flash flood harvesting system at Dholavira merits further study as well. We need the help of geologists to estimate the depths of the aquifer at the site.

We could do some cross-cultural study to compare and contrast this civilisation with those in Mesopotamia and Egypt: the sizes of towns, the bronze technology, the storage buildings and the presence or absence of temples. This is something most Indian archaeologists refuse to do – either because it requires a lot of reading or out of some misplaced sense of superiority saying that our civilisation is unique, or because of such a literal mindset that any comparison is understood as deriving our civilisation from somewhere else. The chauvinism in Indian archaeology is very evident.

This was originally published in The Wire, India

The writer is Deputy Editor at The Wire.

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Comments (22) Closed

Asif Mir Aug 20, 2016 05:30am

Some one made a film and not a documentary. Ajay just had to compulsively write an article.

Babu Aug 20, 2016 09:13am


Surya Kant Aug 20, 2016 10:57am

Beautiful picture. Facade made of small brick walls that we see in Haryana where lots of Indus Valley Civilisations remains dating older that Mohan jo daro are found.

Ron Aug 20, 2016 11:33am

History starts with arrival (conquest) of Bin-Qasim. FACT.

MAH Aug 20, 2016 11:54am

This is no surprise, given that all Indian movies so far that were based on historical figures and events modified facts to an extent that the story itself completely changed. Ashoka, Joda Akbar, Neerja and the list goes on ...

Oracal Aug 20, 2016 12:03pm

Ajoy will agree that there one in every crowd, with present company accepted

Tamil Indian Aug 20, 2016 12:03pm

Dravidians are the real native of the land. Aryans were barbaric Gypsies who spoiled our cultural identity and made them as theirs.

Random Aug 20, 2016 12:15pm

History has always been distorted depending on who is in power and who is writing.

raghu Aug 20, 2016 12:23pm

While no civilisation can cease because of a single flood,

Ashutosh Aug 20, 2016 12:36pm

Common things are common. Almost all civilisations in the world are derived from their predecessor. Just because we cant read their language,excavate properly or do what we will be able to in future doesnt mean the connection isnt there.where you think there will be no intact dna you wish to find horse bones. In fact pottery shards and beads form almost all of the finds

tamil Aug 20, 2016 02:15pm

We once ruled Egypt,Sumer,Indus Valley , now we have lost our past glory .

muhammad javaid Aug 20, 2016 03:03pm

My understanding is that the indus civilization gradually migrated to other areas the country & vanished because of lack of arable water perhaps because of climatic changes coupled with change of the course of the rivers. A similar phenomenon was responsible for the demise of Mayan & Aztec civilizations South America.

Nag Sahay Aug 20, 2016 03:44pm

@tamil We still do it, in our dreams.

edward singh Aug 20, 2016 04:53pm

This civilisation is as old as Hinduism--5000 yrs !!plus---bfore Christianity,islam !!

Secular Hindu Aug 20, 2016 06:46pm

Most Movie makers in India take more creative liberties in narrating story , which takes story away from actual. But thats what fantasies are for. But archeologists, historians, geologists should not work like Movie makers. To have credibility it is expected all these professional scholars keep rational, open mind while doing research and bringing out facts without getting clouded by biases of political leaning. Latest RW "historians" who are indulging more in to fantasies rather than scientific research is doing damage to Indian students and its future. Lets hope , Mohenja daro ( not Movie) and other sites bring out facts about our past, without Horses stamping their legs and making atmosphere murky.

Sympathiser Aug 20, 2016 07:17pm

The whole of Indian subcontinent at least right from Afghanistan stretching upto Myanmar and from North of Hindu kush mountains to beyond Mauritius was the cradle of Hindu civilization, followed by Buddhism... It was glorious civilization... Then came the Muslim Religion about 700 years ago...

R S Chakravarti Aug 20, 2016 10:48pm

@Ron A mosque in Kerala existed almost a century earlier. Prehistoric?

Badar Munir Aug 21, 2016 06:59pm

A very well informed article. Good job. It was fascinating to learn more about past of our land

Badar Munir Aug 21, 2016 07:05pm

@Sympathiser -- The discussion is NOT about religious history of subcontinent but of its many civilizations.

However, Christianity and Judaism came to India before Islam.

Lunatic Aug 22, 2016 02:36pm

@Tamil Indian Dravidians migrated to India from Kumari Kaandam. Somewhere near Australia. DNA analysis shows that they are related to the Australian aboriginees. Dravidians from Tamil Nadu have demanded that the Australian Government hand over the Australian continent to the dravidians from Tamil Nadu.

Raoul Aug 22, 2016 04:19pm

this is obviously a much debated subject. I wanted to add two points - the Harappan civilisation was the largest amongst the river valley ones including the - Nile, on Euphrates-Tigris and the Yellow River ones. It extended from present day southernGujarat to parts of Afghanistan and plac central asian places like Kashgarh had settlements; from Pakistan's sindh province to Punjab in India.

Second fact - this civilisation predated the so called Aryan invasion (DNA markers now show the same dna across so called dravidian - in Tamil lands - & aryan populations of Punjab (in pakistan and India)) and that unlike the other civilisations, no great monuments were built / survived.The key feature of this civilisation was the civic sense & civil engineering (covered drains to loos/ in homes, connected to waste sewage pits )....... the word CIVILisation can truly be used for these ancient people of pagan faiths and a language now not spoken anywhere on the Indian sub continent.

chandran methil Aug 22, 2016 09:07pm

It's probably not a flood that caused the fall of the Indus Valley Civilization. Climatic change could be a cause. The Indus Valley was part of the prehistoric heliotropic civilizations of Sumer,Ancient Egypt and perhaps the Yangtze basin in China. The people tend to have Dravidian characteristics and lived in urban centres. The people of the Rigveda were pastoral.We do not know for sure what happened between the fall of the heliotropic and the rise of the Rigveda civilizations. Our archeologists have yet to decipher the script of this civilization. We have to remember that during the colonial period there had been serious attempts to downplay the importance of the Indus Valley and there are still some anglophile archeologists who still parrot the colonial stance that there was an Aryan invasion. No signs of warfare have been found in any of these sites.Indigenous research is necessary to unravel the mystery.