On a Harappan quest

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Could a village in Haryana have been the ancient civilisation’s very first settlement?

The drone of monotonous activity is occasionally broken by an exchange of words. “I think today might be the day we’ll touch the natural layer,” says one young man in a wide-rimmed hat, to another young man similarly hatted. They are crouched over a 20-foot deep pit situated on a slope surrounded by fields and some dwellings. In the middle of the day, the afternoon light is harsh. They have been here since 7 am. For the past few months, they have had the same, unvarying schedule. Turn up at sunrise, stay till the evening, and dig deeper and deeper every day.

Yogesh Yadav and Nagaraj Rao are PhD students of Deccan College, Pune, known for its famed archaeology department. They are digging into Trench F at RGR 4, which may sound like archaeological mumbo jumbo. To translate, Trench F is part of a Harappan home found on mound No 4 in Rakhigarhi in Haryana. Located in the ‘lower town’, the residential area for common people in the township, the structure, which belongs to the Mature Harappan stage, has a granary where traces of barley and lime have been found, various rooms, and a dump pit. Now in its second year, the excavation at Rakhigarhi—which straddles two villages in Hisar district, Rakhi Khas and Rakhi Shahpur—is part of the most significant research project on the Harappan civilisation being conducted in India presently.

A report released earlier this month by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has added an element of thrill to the project, a rarity in the field of archaeology. The document supports a hypothesis that overturns everything we learnt in our history textbooks in school, such as the misnomer ‘Indus Valley’, identifying Haryana as the cradle of the ancient civilisation. This belt contains both the oldest and largest Harappan sites, at Bhirrana and Rakhigarhi. At 350 hectares, Rakhigarhi is spread over an area that is 50 hectares more than Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan. Old objects recovered from Bhirrana have been dated to a period, 7380 to 6200 BCE, long before those from Mehrgarh in Pakistan, pegged at 7000 to 6400 BCE, pointing to a gradually evolving Harappan settlement, perhaps the very first.

It is a well known but not an easily acknowledged fact, that ever since Partition, when the plummest Harappan sites of the Indus planes fell into Pakistan’s lap, it has been a sore point for India. After 1947, extensive surveys were undertaken to locate more sites on both sides of the border. Pakistan found nearly 800 more. The ASI found close to 2,000 in India, spread over Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. Of these, an estimated 1,000 are in Haryana alone, placed as the state is in the heart of the Ghaggar-Hakra basin, regarded by many as the mighty Sarasvati of ancient legend venerated in the Vedas.

Back at Trench F, men and women from the village mill about the researchers, carrying out their orders. Working with pickaxes, trowels and knives, they bring up soil from within the bowels of the earth, and sort out these samples into heaps. They have been trained to carefully set aside coal samples from animal bones, potsherds and bangles. A few precious findings turn up, steatite beads used by Harappans for jewellery, a fragment of a shell bangle, and a terracotta sling ball. These are taken to a makeshift museum set up in a camp nearby. Trunks full of artefacts have already been sent to forensic laboratories across the country.

At the temporary museum at the camp, a trickle of visitors keeps dropping by from nearby towns and villages. Malavika Chatterjee, a PhD student, explains every artefact and its context to visitors. The most popular exhibits are the animal figurines, which she refers to as ‘the Harappa zoo’, a dog with a collar (Harappans domesticated dogs!), an elephant, a bird, a bull, and a mythical creature with an owl’s head and a quadripedal body. “Most villagers wonder at the fuss we make about mitti ke bartan.”

Since the last week of April, diggers and researchers have been expecting to reach natural soil. If they do, they will know about the earliest settlers on this mound. Some elusive answers to ancient questions will be found.

One man who is searching for clues is Professor Vasant Shinde of Deccan College, eminent Harappa scholar and director of the excavation. Professor Shinde is soft spoken, and with deep reservoirs of patience to explain impenetrable history to the layperson. “We have very little idea of the beginning of the Harappan culture. From about half a dozen sites in Haryana, we are getting dates from 5500 to 5000 BCE and even further back. We know now that it is at least 1,000 years older than we had supposed, or more than that. If we are able to prove that it began from here, it changes everything about our history.”

More than two-thirds of the sites have turned up at the Saraswati basin, and the assumption is that the Harappans fanned out from here to other sites along the Indus Valley and coast of Gujarat. Dr Shinde’s research is focused on the development of the ancient civilisation through its three phases (Early, Mature and Late), to reconstruct their lifestyle and see how they went from small farming communities to settled village life and finally to planned urbanised cities. “We want to throw light on the Harappan philosophy, the mind and imagination of these people. They were very practical people, capable of building big structures, but they used their resources and expertise to build civic amenities for the common man.”

As new sites continue to be discovered, and with the advance of technology in archaeology, Harappan studies are more dynamic than what many assume. Certainly, Harappans are yet to reveal their secrets. Shinde points out that the first phase of research was concentrated on the discovery of sites, the second one looked at town planning and the lifestyle of people. But we are now in a position to examine the development of the civilisation’s culture and identity of its people.

This excavation season, which began in January and will end soon, turned up a big unexpected find. On the seventh mound, which is a burial ground, four skeletons were found: two men, one woman and a child, probably a family. Besides them were pots in which food traces have been found. Harappans, according to experts, believed in life after death. Their skeletal remains have been found and studied before, but for the first time, says Professor Shinde, DNA testing will be conducted on the remains in collaboration with South Korea’s Seoul National University. If the tests are successful, it could be the biggest breakthrough in the study of one of the most mysterious ancient civilisations. It will settle the debate, once and for all, on who the Harappan people really were. Were they indigenous, or did they immigrate from, say, Central and West Asia? What was the appearance of the Harappan man and woman? What is their relation with contemporary society? Are the modern people of Haryana and Punjab descendants of Harappans? What were their food habits? What diseases were they prone to? With DNA, the possibilities are boundless.

Rakhigarhi was discovered by archaeologists in 1963. Every generation of villager, old to young, will recount that whenever it rains, the earth throws up all kinds of artefacts, shards of pottery, terracotta figurines and semi-precious stones. In local folklore, the twin villages are called ‘Kalapaltanshahar’, where ‘kala’ refers to coal and ‘paltan’ to buried treasure.

A narrow dirt road between fields of wheat leads from the fourth to the sixth mound. RGR 6, the most important site in Rakhigarhi, where evidence of early Harappa has been found, is on an agricultural tract of land that belongs to Ram Kala, a lean and tall farmer in his seventies. The archaeological team points out the similarity he bears with the Harappan man, whom we know to be tall, robust and fine-featured, quite like modern-day Jats. Surrounded by his fields, connected to the soil for generations, he appears almost timeless, and it is intriguing to picture his forebears as Harappans.

Over the years, Ram Kala has been able to grasp the historical significance of the land he owns through archaeologists and historians. He steers visitors with an informed guided tour through the site. The walls found on structures here are made of mud, compared with the more advanced structures of mud brick on other mounds; deposits of Hakra-ware, pottery from the Early Harappan phase, have also been found. One wall has been defaced with graffiti, with ‘Khodo hard’ scrawled across. Yadav and Rao shrug helplessly. A rectangular trench lies exposed to the sun, part of a residential structure, with a pot at its centre. “So that people don’t think it’s a swimming pool,” jokes Nagaraj Rao.

There are nine mounds in Rakhigarhi. Excavations were carried out by ASI from 1997 to 2000. Until excavations began last year under the guidance of Deccan College, the site was lying idle and unprotected, a hunting ground for antiquity looters. Rakhigarhi has featured on a list of the world’s most endangered heritage sites. Soil erosion, encroachment (parti cularly on the fourth and fifth mound) and construction are some of the most obvious hazards it faces. Unlike other major sites, like Mohenjo Daro and Harappa in Pakistan and Dholavira in Gujarat, all free of human occupation, Rakhigarhi is a bustling village full of people.

Over the years, the locals have grown more and more aware of the importance of the site. Dinesh Sheoran, the sarpanch of Rakhi Shahpur, is preoccupied with crop damage. Most people in the village, he says, have lived amid antiquity without knowing its significance. But that is changing. “There is great aspiration that Rakhigarhi will be developed as a tourist site,” he says. “We will have new jobs and development. If people can drive from Delhi all the way to Agra, this is much closer, and it is our heritage.”

Wazir Chand Saroae is the most famous resident of the village Rakhi Shahpur. A slight, middle-aged man who works as a government clerk, he comes to meet us at the site and hands over his visiting card. It mentions his name, and below it, ‘Friend of Archaeology’. He has all but turned his passion into his profession. For decades, Saroae would roam the fields of Rakhigarhi and collect treasures that would surface. He built a small private museum at home, and has recently handed over the entire collection to museums in Delhi and Haryana. “I was never tempted by the money,” he says, “Even though there are many in the village who sold artefacts to visitors, I hoarded it so that my name could go down in history.” He expresses disappointment with the unrealised potential of the place and the apathy of the state. “Log aate hain, kachre ka dher dekhte hain, aur udaas ho kar chale jaate hain. (People who visit see mounds of rubbish and go back disappointed).” A walk through the second mound illustrates the problem. RGR 2 is assumed to be the settlement’s citadel, or upper town, where the most important buildings would have been located. Traces of a grand gateway, an entrance to the city, and massive bastions have been found there. Under ASI protection, it is fenced on all sides. Vandals, however, have broken the fence, leaving the mound for locals to access as and when they like. Cow dung pyramids dot the landscape. If not for the excavation in winter months, a visitor to Rakhigarhi would be hard- pressed to find any sign of its historicity.

The only way to save and preserve Rakhigarhi, says Nilesh Jadhav, research assistant and co-director of the excavation, is to sensitise and involve the local people. The village panchayat has recently donated a five-acre plot for an onsite museum, and the state’s Archaeology Department has been enlisted for the project. It involves plans for a museum to display the findings, an additional open- air walk-through museum and an interpretation centre. Locals are especially optimistic now that Ashok Khemka, who has just been posted—on his 45th transfer as an IAS officer—as director general of the archaeology and museums department, has already visited the site. They hope Khemka will be the saviour of Rakhigarhi.

Vijai Vardhan, additional chief secretary, department of cultural affairs and archives and archaeology, says that small but significant steps have been taken to preserve Rakhigarhi, but to do it on a larger scale would require plenty of planning, resources and political will. “It would be a project that would take eight to 10 years and require anything between Rs 1,000 and Rs 2,000 crore. It is a lot of money, almost Rs 300 crore a year, and in a country like ours with all our problems, we have to think if we should spend that much to preserve our heritage. Personally, I think we should do what we can to save it.” For Rakhigarhi to develop into a heritage site, the troublesome question of human displacement emerges. “It is an emotive issue in our country and we would need a comprehensive relocation policy which keeps the interests of the people in mind,” says Vardhan.

KN Dikshit, former joint director general of ASI and part of an Indiana Jones generation that set out to discover Harappan sites after Partition, has worked extensively in Haryana on sites like Girawad, Kunal, Banawali, Siswal, Farmana and Bhirrana. “Damage has already started at many of these sites. The Government has to take steps to protect them—Rakhigarhi in particular, which, because of its immense size, needs to be recommended as a national site. [But] extensive horizontal and vertical excavations cannot be carried out without moving people out.”

One aspect that the archaeological team working here emphasises is the continuity of traditions. It is what makes Rakhigarhi distinctive. Brush away the dust a little, and you could be back in Harappa. Even a casual walk through the modern village is a step back in time. Every house has a profusion of pottery, painted in the same way it was done thousands of years ago. As we stand at the excavation site, the frame of a toy bullock cart made of terracotta emerges from the ground. There is a murmur of excitement. On the street in front of the excavation, a bullock cart passes by, weighed down by sacks of harvested wheat. It is a moment out of the ordinary—where the past and the present converge.