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Abandoned city: Why Mohenjodaro's heritage risks extinction

Updated 15 Apr, 2017 06:26pm
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The outer perimeter that surrounds Mohenjodaro, the largest city of the ancient Indus Valley Civilization, appears to be in poor condition, its structure crumbling without efforts at preservation. Built in 2,600 BC, Mohenjodaro is seen as one of the world’s earliest urban settlements going as far back in history as the civilisations of ancient Egypt. But despite its historical significance, it faces neglect and serious need for preservation.

At its height, Mohenjodaro is said to have had a planned urban layout, spread over 555 acres, with most buildings built with baked bricks and mortar. The city also had two storey buildings. With 10 per cent of the Mohenjodaro site excavated in the 1920s and the 1930s, it was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1980. Since then, however, 10 per cent of its walls have caved in. The main reason for this deterioration is what conservationists term as crystallisation and hydration – accumulation of salt and water – indicating the lack of adequate conservation over decades.

During excavation at Mohenjodaro, the brick walls were found to be relatively well preserved. Soon afterwards, white salt efflorescence started depositing on them and since then they have rapidly deteriorated, causing a five kilometre stretch to cave in. “Soluble salts are absorbed into the bricks and travel to the surface because of the migration and evaporation of moisture. Possible sources of moisture are rainfall, rising subsoil water and condensation,” explains an officer at Mohenjodaro, wanting to remain anonymous.

Officials at Mohenjodaro do not have adequate equipment required to maintain the site.

In 1984, the government installed 27 tube wells to control the increasing levels of subsoil water. These tube wells were 300-400 feet deep and each of them absorbed eight cusecs of water per second. But even this massive operation “not only failed to solve the problem but it also threatened to sink the entire excavated structure due to which the government removed the tube wells in 1997,” said a local official.

Also, the same year, Unesco offered additional funding and reportedly a two-decade-long preservation project was planned to strengthen standing structures and prevent flooding. But there are no visible signs at Mohenjodaro if any work has been done in the past to stop further ruin, or is presently being carried out under this plan.

The authorities may have undertaken some periodic work to reduce decay but it is clearly not enough. Officials say the restoration attempts to date include the removal of soluble salts, the placement of damp-proof courses under the top course of the walls, sealing of the wall bases and the installation of a drainage system. Other preventive measures, they claim, include mud capping on top of walls, support to leaning walls with bricks as well as mud, spot leveling and planting salt absorbing foliage.

But during a visit to Mohenjodaro in November 2011, the accumulation of rainwater both inside and outside the structures within the site as well as the accumulation of salt efflorescence on brick walls was visible. Rainwater appeared to have seeped through walls, eroding the bricks and mortar structures, destroying the bottom courses of some walls. The most serious deterioration was found near the base of the walls. In some places, walls were completely missing from structures that otherwise looked like rooms, especially in what was the residential part of this ancient city. Many enclosed spaces did not have an outlet for water drainage.

Some government officials at Mohenjodaro claim they used buckets to drain out rainwater last year [2011] to prevent further damage. Others dispute their claim, explaining that water clogged the site until it evaporated or seeped into the surface. With only seven guards manning the entire site, authorities also seem oblivious to the hazards of permitting thousands of visitors who dump trash, trample on fragile structures and even harm the walls and other built areas.

Having lived in the area since his childhood, a 50-year-old employee at Mohenjodaro expressed concern about the rapidly disintegrating remains of the archaeological site. Wanting to remain anonymous, he explained that his father, too, had worked at the site for 40 years before retiring 20 years ago. “So I can tell you which walls don’t exist anymore.” As a witness to the site losing its walls and structures because of official neglect, he attributes this lack of care to the apathy of conservation staff. “Entire walls will cave in within a couple of years if there is no proper conservation work,” he warns. “I have not seen experts removing salt from bricks for the last several years,” adds yet another local official. “Over the last one and a half decade, only 10 per cent of the work required for the conservation of the site has been carried out,” he concedes.

The authorities may have undertaken some periodic work to reduce decay but it is clearly not enough.

Officials at Mohenjodaro do not have adequate equipment required to maintain the site. Unlike the past, when spray guns were used to splatter mud on the walls, presently plastic jugs are used which isn’t as effective.

Qasim Ali Qasim, Sindh’s director of the archaeology and museums department and also a member of an official technical committee on Mohenjodaro, says the Sindh government has approved one million rupees for conservation work at Mohenjodaro. This allocation is part of a 2006 only if conservationists on site are trained and have the resources and manpower.

At present, with one curator and another conservator on site, Qasim believes that a welltrained team – led by a senior archaeologist as its project director with financial and administrative autonomy – is the need of the hour. He suggests that the team should include an archaeological engineer and at least four conservators, each with a group of 10 trained labourers. “Without such a workforce, Mohenjodaro seems set to disappear into oblivion,” Qasim warns.

This article was originally published in the Herald's Annual 2012 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.