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.

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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.