When Sassi awoke from her love-induced slumber, her beloved Punnu was already gone. Lost in the legend along with him was Sassi’s abode — the city of Banbhore or Bhambore that her father ruled.
Henry Cousens, a 75-year-old retired British scholar of antiquities, arrived in 1929 at a site known as Sassi jo takar (Sassi’s hill). It was believed to be her lost city. Cousens found little of archaeological value at Sassi jo takar — a vast barren stretch of desert land about 65 kilometres south-east of Karachi. He did not feel the need, or reason, to excavate the site, yet his visit ignited interest and curiosity about its origin.
A little less than thirty years later, the site intrigued F A Khan, the founding head of Pakistan’s archaeology department. He led a team of researchers that excavated the site between 1958 and 1966 and concluded that it was not Banbhore but Daybul or Debal, the fort where the Arab general Muhammad bin Qasim had defeated Raja Dahir, a local Hindu ruler, in the year 711.
Daybul – derived from the Sanskrit word devalaya (meaning “abode of God”) – was an ancient harbour city in the Indus delta. It was described in the journals of Arab and Persian travellers of the 10th century for its fishing vessels, thriving commerce, flourishing centres of Islamic learning and arid landscape.
What happened to the site after its demise is anybody’s guess; there is no material evidence available to help the researchers make an informed inference.
Nearly half a century after Khan’s excavation, the site is under the scanner again. A team comprising Pakistani, French and Italian researchers and archaeologists started exploring it in 2010, under a licence from the Sindh antiquities department. Historians Valeria Fiorani Piacentini and Monique Kervran, respectively from Italy and France, and archaeologists Kaleem Ullah Lashari (a former secretary of the Sindh Department of Antiquities) and Asma Ibrahim (director of the State Bank of Pakistan Museum) are the members of this team. A handful of young graduates from different universities in Sindh are assisting them.
The need for excavation emerged after the unearthing of a number of fortresses along the Indus delta. Additionally, in 2004, the pots recovered from the site were found to be inaccurately dated, casting doubt on the findings that could have led Khan to declare the site to be Daybul. Another reason to “open the earth”, as Lashari puts it, was the loss of previous records: only 17 pages of Khan’s notes survive.
Equipped with decades of field experience and extensive knowledge of the region, the four researchers have put together their expertise to understanding the site. Coming from different personal and professional backgrounds, they have adopted an interdisciplinary approach to undertake their research — mixing and merging such academic disciplines as archaeology, topography, geomorphology, architecture and analysis of ceramics, coins, metals and glass. They have also gone through the diaries of earlier excavators. Piacentini refers to the team’s approach as “a mixture of hard-headed realism on the one hand, and the pursuit of vaporous historical trails and accounts, on the other.”
The researchers are employing latest tools and technologies, doing archaeometry on the field, running an onsite laboratory and collecting records in a three-dimensional format. Using the older processes of digging the site, if not employed carefully, would have destroyed the evidence, says Lashari.
The team is working in three separate but closely coordinated units. During its last season in the field (in 2014-2015), its focus had been on investigating the structure of a citadel at the site and the fortification encircling the entire town. The researchers were able to produce a comprehensive photographic and topographic documentation of the excavated trenches dug to examine the residential buildings and the palace, in addition to the building materials used in them, the waste disposal and drainage systems, pottery and local craftsmanship.
Another major aim during the recent fieldwork has been to resolve the mystery of a wall running diagonally across the site from north to south. The researchers, says Piacentini, wanted “to clear once and for all the raison d’être of this so-called partition wall.”
The site consists of an enclosed area fortified by a wall made of stone and mud and suggests that its builders or residents had a reasonably sound sense of municipal zoning. Apart from residential areas, the site has a textile factory, finishing and storage facilities for the textiles, a hydraulic system for water supply, cisterns and drainage structures. The remnants of a mosque built in the eighth century stand in the eastern section and those of a Shiva temple in the western one. A semicircular stone building with lime flooring suggests it could be the residence of the local ruler. “It was an active, skilled, cosmopolitan society, typical of a great harbour town and market: multicultural, multi-ethnic and multireligious,” says Piacentini.
Divided into two sections by the partitioning wall, the site has three entrances. The main gateway, flanked by stone bastions, overlooks the blue waters of Garho Creek that once reportedly stretched into the Arabian Sea to its south. A local guide points towards the water and says: “This is where Muhammad bin Qasim conquered Sindh.”
A miniature depiction of Qasim’s battle with Dahir can be seen at the small museum in Banbhore, built in 1967, right next to the site being explored. The museum showcases storage jars, kitchen utensils, small copper and silver coins, metal objects, ivory, precious stones, jewellery and terracotta figurines, all found here. Another important exhibit is religious text carved in stone. It was found from the mosque.
The local residents gleam with pride as they boast to be the inhabitants of Babul Islam, the gateway through which Islam reportedly made its entry into the Indian subcontinent. Experts are more cautious: people everywhere in Sindh make such claims, says Ibrahim. The legend of Sassi and Punnu (about 1,000 years old and immortalised by the 18th century Sindhi Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in his Shah Jo Risalo), the political and historical controversies over Sindh’s conversion to Islam and the occasional discoveries of architecture and artefacts have kept interest alive in this site. “No one knows its date of origin or who first bastioned it as the water table [below the site] prevents us from reaching the virgin soil [for further exploration], just as it had prevented Khan,” Piacentini explains.
“The site reveals itself to us,” is a term Lashari repeatedly uses, as he explains how the exploration process is moving forward. In the process of unearthing layer upon layer of civilization that lay beneath the ground, the researchers have been able to get some critical insights about the site’s inhabitants — their everyday life, social structures and changes in their demographic patterns and politics. “Everything we have recovered tells us about the site and its value systems,” he says.
The presence of artefacts such as shells, glass, wood, ivory, ceramics and metals suggests the site was once prosperous and could have been a major trading post. What we have is a picture of a town that went through peace and volatile times, experienced economic prosperity and economic crunch and suffered from a diminishing role in international relations until it finally disappeared from the map altogether close to the end of the 12th century, explains Piacentini. It is difficult to conclude if the disappearance resulted from human ravages, such as attacks and wars, or from natural catastrophes, or both, she says.
What happened to the site after its demise is anybody’s guess; there is no material evidence available to help the researchers make an informed inference. The study of the artefacts found here, however, provides a good idea of when the site was developed and expanded as a port town, how well it was connected to the region around it through trade and commerce and how it eventually declined. The implications of these findings are likely to impact the history of not just the areas that constitute Sindh or Pakistan. The market town and the harbour at the site are found to be participating in international land and sea mercantile network of the time, he says. Their location marks almost the midway point on a prominent sea route of the ancient times that linked South East Asia with the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. “We are looking at a multinational scenario,” says Lashari.
Some missing pieces of the puzzle, however, may not be found at the site at all. Archaeological research and ongoing excavations in regions such as the Middle East, Central Asia and the Indian Ocean may throw up those pieces, says Piacentini.
Are the researchers on the cusp of a major discovery? Is the site a part of some ancient but so far unknown civilization? How important, or big, a trade centre has this site been? Is it Sassi’s Banbhore, the Arabs’ Daybul or the Barbarikon of the ancient Romans?
There are no definitive answers to these questions – at least none so far – but the researchers claim to have achieved at least one major breakthrough: the partition wall was hurriedly built either in the 12th century or early 13th century as perhaps the last defensive structure against repeated attacks and plunder from the outside. They also state with a high degree of confidence that the partition was not meant to keep the Muslim population separated from the Hindu population, as earlier believed.
The members of the research team remain circumspect about its identity. “We are in no rush to pass a judgement,” says Lashari. According to him, it is too premature to arrive at any conclusion given the complexity and ancient origin of the site. “We are trying to understand the site itself. Once we have done that, the question of its identity will settle itself,” he adds.
If and when everything about the site becomes known, its overall historical, commercial and cultural significance may dwarf its status as Sassi’s lost city or Dahir’s conquered fort. “Light has begun to pierce the clouds of our knowledge, unveiling a glorious page of the history of the Indus delta and Sindh,” is how Piacentini underscores the importance of the site.
This article was originally published in the Herald's April 2016 issue under the headline "Sands of time". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald.