Harappan Era: Breakthroughs & Enigmas (3000 BCE - 1700 BCE)



The hauntingly beautiful ruins of the Harappan city of Dholavira lie on a small crescent-shaped island called Khadir in the middle of the Greater Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. It is surrounded on all sides by salt and a salty marsh today. But it was not always like this.

Around 4,000 years ago, in its heyday, Dholavira was a vibrant port site and an emporium of the Bronze Age world, where ships from the Indus and the Persian Gulf called in with exotic fare like lapis lazuli, turquoise, copper, wood and fine cloth. All this was traded for goods made at Dholavira and its hinterland.

In fact, archaeologist R S Bisht, who excavated the site, calls Dholavira the site with the first recognised ‘Special Economic Zone’ or ‘SEZ’ in the subcontinent because half the citadel was a series of workshops accessible only through the upper town where the elite lived. Today, when the term is popular, it is almost unbelievable to think there was a ‘SEZ’ 4,200 years ago!

Dholavira Pillar Base
Dholavira Pillar Base|Wikimedia Commons

The Kutch, is still rich in minerals such as chalcedony, chert, ochres, white clay, Fuller’s earth (mung mitti), glass-sand, salt, gypsum, different types of rock and building materials, and these were all exploited by the Harappans. There is clear evidence of bead-making at Dholavira from the earliest period onwards. What’s more, stone pillar members from Dholavira have been excavated as far away as Mohenjodaro and at Harappa, over 700 km away!

A late Harappan seal at Dholavira
A late Harappan seal at Dholavira|Rhea Dalal

But that’s not all. Dholavira and the Harappan world in general throw up many more exciting and fantastic facts about what life was like thousands of years ago. Decades of painstaking excavations and research have pulled out a wealth of information. And as any archaeologist working on this era will tell you, the information available in textbooks or for public access, are decades behind actual work on the ground.

We go wide across the Harappan world and deep into sites and reports, to piece together what we know – as of now based on excavations, climate records, tectonic history, the many attempts to decipher the script and scientific research .

A Different World

Dholavira, which was discovered in the 1970s by archaeologist J P Joshi (former Joint Director of the Archaeological Survey of India) had the amazing good fortune to have never been re-occupied after its abandonment at the end of the Bronze Age. Here, you will find evidence of the rise of the city to its prime and the devastating changes that ensured its slide into oblivion.

Around 1900 BCE, tectonic movement in the Yamuna Divide of the Himalayas dried up the Saraswati River. This was because of the rerouting of the Sutlej into the Indus and the Yamuna into the Ganga. The Nara (the lower half of the Saraswati) River, which ran parallel to the Indus, dried up, no longer flowing into the Rann. The mouth of the Indus then slowly moved towards the east, and the Rann, never a very deep sea, was filled with silt. Dholavira, with its cyclopean walls and impeccably organised water management system and town planning, was soon in decline as its access to the sea was cut off. It never recovered.

The site of Lothal after the rains
The site of Lothal after the rains|LHI

It is important to note that, today, when we look at the crumbling metropolises of the Harappans in their dusty settings, we are not seeing them as they were in their heyday. Around 4,500 years ago, these cities were at their peak. They were bustling centres of urbanism amid lush fields on the banks of mighty rivers. Ports like Dholavira, Desalpur, Padri and Lothal were within sight of the sea, not stranded on dusty flats or surrounded by salt flats.

We need to understand the change in climatic conditions and the environment that turned verdant lands into dust bowls. Research by teams specialising in geology, hydrology, geography, palaeobotany, environmental studies and climate sciences have done yeoman service to the cause of Harappan archaeology by helping us reconstruct the days of yore.

What Happened To the Harappans?

In the 100 years since its discovery in 1921, we now know that the Harappan Civilisation was the most widespread civilisation of its time. It was more than twice as large as either the Egyptian or the Mesopotamian civilisations. The discovery of Harappa and the sites thereafter, opened up layers and layers of the subcontinent’s past, catapulting its antiquity over 3,000 years back.

Excavations at Mohenjo Daro (1922)
Excavations at Mohenjo Daro (1922)

If the early excavations carried out at the site of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro gave us insights into the advances in urbanism perfected by the people living here, subsequent excavations – a flurry of them all the way from 1938 at Amri, Nal, Chanhudharo, Kot Diji and many other sites, and more recently, sites like Rakhigarhi, Farmana, Bhirrana and Binjore – revealed an even hoarier past.

We now know more than ever before about the Harappan world.

For long, there have been three big questions that have dogged us about the Harappans: Where did they come from? What did they write about – the challenge of deciphering their script and What happened to them?

The earliest supposition was that the Indus Valley civilisation was an extension of the mighty Sumerian civilisation of Mesopotamia or perhaps of the Elamites of Iran. It seemed impossible to believe that this was a completely autochthonous culture, one that had developed indigenously. But subsequent excavations at sites like Kot Diji were already pushing back the antecedents, when French archaeologists Jean Francoise and Catherine Jarrige excavated the sites of Mehrgarh and Naushero, and took back the antecedents of the Harappans, in a direct genealogy, all the way back to the pre-pottery, Neolithic culture dateable to 8000 BCE.

Today, not only do we know about the antecedents of the Harappans, we also know of contemporary cultures in Kashmir that seem to have been influenced by them. At the Neolithic site of Burzahom in Kashmir, we see a pot with motifs uncannily reminiscent of Kot Diji (over 1000 km away). We also have very early Neolithic sites in the Ganga Valley at Jhusi (the location of the ‘Triveni Sangam’ outside Allahabad) going back to 7000 BCE, and at sites like Lahuradewa in eastern Uttar Pradesh dated to 6500 BCE.

As far as the end of the Harappans was concerned, there was a fair share of postulations and hypothesis too. The era of the Second Urbanisation in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab or plains was separated by at least 1,000 years from the last known, Late Harappan sites (around 1500 BCE). Because so little was known of this intervening period, it was often called a ‘Dark Age’.

 Sir Mortimer Wheeler
Sir Mortimer Wheeler|Wikimedia Commons

The first person to really come up with what seemed a plausible theory on this period was Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India. After studying the excavations at both Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, he concluded that the evidence pointed towards a large-scale invasion of the Harappan Civilisation by an Aryan horde that had invaded the Indian subcontinent. He used the discovery of 13 skeletons outside the citadel of Mohenjo Daro to substantiate this theory.

Wheeler’s famous words, “...Indra stands accused” were a direct reference to ‘Indra’ as Purandara (the destroyer of forts) in the Rig Veda. This reference was taken as proof that the Vedic Aryans (hence the verse on Indra) had stormed Harappan forts. It took 25 years for scholars to realise that there was really no such evidence and the so-called ‘massacre at Mohenjo Daro’ that Wheeler had referred to and ‘skeleton lane’ were events that post-dated the fall of Mohenjo Daro (circa 1800 BCE).

Later, based on scientific data, new ideas emerged. American archaeologists Walter Fairservis and Goerge F Dales believed that the civilisation collapsed due to climate change and drought brought about by massive deforestation. This deforestation was caused by the baking of burnt bricks on an industrial level (for the ever-growing cities) and the use of wood for ceramic production, copper smelting and making other things like faience, stoneware and lime.

A view of Harappa’s granary and great hall  
A view of Harappa’s granary and great hall  |Wikimedia Commons

Today, we know that a combination of events led to the decline of the Harappan Civilisation. Massive tectonic movements in the Yamuna Divide in the Himalayas led to the Sutlej and the Yamuna rivers changing course. They were both originally feeders of the Saraswati but the Yamuna turned east towards the Ganga, and the Sutlej turned west to join the Indus.

Bereft of its two perennial sources, the Saraswati dried up and major Harappan cities on its banks, like Kalibangan, Ganveriwala, Binjor, Berore, Tarkhanewala and Dhera, had to be abandoned. This was followed by global climatic changes and the appearance of a ‘little Ice Age’, when the monsoons failed repeatedly and also shifted towards the east.

Over the years, we have found clinching evidence of this. For instance, Prof M K Dhavalikar, noted Indian archaeologist and Bronze Age expert, used the Egyptian Nilometers (hollow towers on the banks of the Nile used to measure annual floods going back over 5,000 years) to corroborate this. According to the data from these Nilometers, the failure of the Nile valley floods coincides with the same period as the collapse of the Harappans, and then the other Chalcolithic cultures of Western India. This is because the monsoon that breaks over India first breaks over Ethiopia, and the Blue Nile floods the Nile valley. Thus the Nilometer records the strength of the monsoons.

The same drought is also recorded in the cave sequences in Meghalaya, where there is evidence of a massive drought that started around 4,200 years ago. This coincides very well with the Harappan decline.

Meanwhile, the gap between the Harappans and the Iron Age – Second Urbanisation – was further shortened with the discoveries of post-Harappan Bronze Age cultures like Jhukar (1900 - 1300 BCE) in Sindh, in the west and the Ochre Coloured Pottery (OCP) culture to the east near Delhi and Hastinapur.

Sanauli chariot
Sanauli chariot|Disha Ahluwalia

The most recent discoveries of chariots and burial sarcophagi from excavations at Sanauli (near Delhi) by S K Manjul of the ASI have confirmed that the OCP people were a full-fledged Bronze Age culture, which arose around 2000 BCE and continued till 1400BCE, following which we have the iron-using Black and Red Ware Cultural horizons seen in the more easterly sites, and the Painted Grey Ware (PGW) culture. At the site of Bhagwanpura in Haryana, you can clearly see the transition from the Late Harappan period, according to its excavator, J P Joshi.

Sanauli burial
Sanauli burial|LHI

All this has led experts to believe that the Painted Grey Ware culture, which we know coincided with the period of urbanisation in the Ganga Yamuna Doab (6th-7th c BCE), was actually a continuation from the Late Harappans and the Ochre Coloured Pottery culture. This evidence has led archaeologists like Vasant Shinde and B B Lal to surmise that the people of Harappa moved east and south as they deserted their by-now dried-up cities between the Indus and the Saraswati.

They also moved upstream, towards Haryana and finally the Ganga Yamuna Doab, between 1900 and 1400 BCE. They went and settled among or started many of these cultures (Jhukar, Cemetery H, Bara, OCP, PGW) and hence the civilisation never really ended – it just continued in a new, transformed avatar.

Interestingly, this parallel is seen across the Bronze Age world. Cataclysmic climatic or tectonic events seem to have wiped out advanced, urban Bronze Age civilisations, dependent on natural resources. They were replaced with much smaller rural centres. Over time, in India, as in ancient Greece, the very memory of the great civilisation was wiped out.

While there is a lot more we don't fully understand, we must lay the debate about the end of the Harappan Civilisation to rest.

Deciphering The Harappan Script

While questions about the origin, decline and disappearance of the Harappans have been largely put to rest, the question about their enigmatic script remains. One of the first persons to try and decipher the Harappan script was Sir Alexander Cunningham, who tried to equate it with the newly deciphered Brahmi script in his Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum (Vol 1 Plate XXVIII) in 1877.

Cunningham was followed by Father Henry Heras of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai (in 1935 after the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo Daro). Father Heras thought the symbols were each a word and that the fish-shaped symbol represented the forever open eye, and therefore – God.

The script on seals
The script on seals|Wikimedia Commons

Through the decades, almost each and every archaeologist in India and many abroad have been inexorably drawn towards deciphering the Harappan script. In the 1970s and 80s, it was the turn of two great scholars, Dr Iravatham Mahadevan (Epigraphist) and Dr Asko Parpola (of Finland), who were convinced that the key lay in the Dravidian languages and they started by first creating lists of all the symbols in the Harappan script, something no one had done before. Parpola was the one who created a corpus of all (then) known Indus scripts and their occurrence both geographic and temporal.

Archaeologist Dr S R Rao, who excavated Lothal, thought that the script was Aryan and not Dravidian but no one but he could understand the system he devised. This status quo continued till 2004, when Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat and Michael Witzell set the proverbial fox among the chickens by saying that the script was a set of family and locative symbols (like coats of arms) and not a script per se. The somnolent archaeological community in India erupted and new work was soon being done to disprove this.

Dholavira signboard
Dholavira signboard|Wikimeida Commons

Work done at the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education in Mumbai has resulted in a number of papers, including one published in the journal Science, using complicated computer-driven models to show similarities with other ancient texts.

RPN Rao, the lead author of the Science article (2009), has also been engaged in an academic battle with Sproat, with accusations and counter-accusations following. Despite all this academic activity, the Harappan script is proving a tough nut to crack. But let's remember that is not the only undeciphered ancient script in the world. The Rongorongo script of Easter Island and the Minoan Linear A from the Mediterranean are just two examples of over 20 undeciphered, ancient scripts.

The Harappans Abroad

While the Harappan script remains a puzzle, we have achieved a lot in other areas. Harappan seals as well as other artifacts were discovered in Mesopotamia from the Sargonid and Isin Larsa periods – 2350 - 1770 BCE. However, earlier archaeologists like Shireen Ratnagar, writing on this in the 1980s, were perplexed by the lack of any Mesopotamian evidence at Harappan sites. We now know better.

Persian Gulf type of seal
Persian Gulf type of seal|Author

New evidence shows that the Harappans traded with Mesopotamia via Oman and Bahrain. We have a ‘Persian Gulf’ type seal at Lothal to prove this. We also have large numbers of Harappan ceramics at Persian Gulf sites like Ras al Hadd and Ras al Junayz in Oman. From Ras al Junayz, we have a potsherd with a four-symbol Harappan inscription too.

Seal of the interpreter from Meluhha named Shu-ilishu, dated to 2300 BCE
Seal of the interpreter from Meluhha named Shu-ilishu, dated to 2300 BCE|Author

The Harappans were long-distance traders and the Harappan lands were known as ‘Meluhha’ to the Mesopotamians. There is also a known cuneiform seal of ‘the interpreter from Meluhha’ found in Mesopotamia. This indicates that there could have been an ‘official’ translator from Harappa at the court in Mesopotamia. Bahrain was a rich source of copper and perhaps a key site for Harappan commerce. Mesopotamian records show that wood, furniture, figurines of birds, carnelian, lapis lazuli and live animals were imported from Meluhha.

Revisiting & Recreating Technology

Harappan long-barrel carnelian beads made most probably at the lapidaries of Chanhudaro in Sindh have been found in royal tombs at Ur in Mesopotamia. Extensive work done by Mark Kenoyer (University of Wisconsin Madison) and K K Bhan (of MS University of Baroda) with the Khambat lapidaries has helped recreate the entire process of making long-barrel carnelian beads. This is a new ethnoarchaeological approach to technology and is valuable to our understanding of that era.

Revisiting excavated data has also led to very interesting, new revelations. A careful analysis of a small copper object from the Chalcolithic levels at Mehrgarh has revealed that this is the earliest-known object in the world to have been made using the ‘lost wax’ technique 6,000 years ago!

Large Copper Fish Hook from Padri
Large Copper Fish Hook from Padri|Vasant Shinde

The Harappans used woven cotton from their earliest Chalcolithic days. We know this because of multiple impressions of woven cloth from Early and Mature Harappan sites, and because of a few strands of cotton thread preserved intact within a copper bead at Mehrgarh, belonging to a period over 6,000 years ago.

Carbon dating has long played an important role in helping us with the chronology of Harappan sites but now other scientific techniques are being used. Work done at the sites of Padri (in Bhavnagar District of Gujarat), Farmana and Rakhigarhi (in Haryana) by Vasant Shinde and his colleagues has written many a new chapter.

Padri represents the first rural Harappan site and excavations indicate that the people here were probably engaged in salt manufacture and fishing, with evidence for marine fishing of giant catfish. Padri also revealed a non-Harappan, in fact pre-Harappan Chalcolithic culture found neatly below the Harappan period.

Rakhigarhi Burial for DNA recovery 
Rakhigarhi Burial for DNA recovery |Vasant Shinde

Palaeobotanist and archaeologist Arunima Kashyap and Steve Weber have recovered starch grains from the inside surfaces of a pot from a burial, which in turn has yielded evidence of the oldest ‘curry’ on the subcontinent. It was a dish of brinjals cooked with ginger, garlic and turmeric in mustard oil. The site of Rakhigarhi has given us the first complete DNA profile of a woman from the Harappan period.

MS University of Baroda has also been doing some fascinating work in the field of Harappan studies. Their work at the shell-working site of Nageshwar in Gujarat and the shell bangle-making site at Bagasra, also in Gujarat, has given us a deep insight into local resource utilisation. Their work at Loteshwar has revealed yet another local Chalcolithic culture. Finally, the work done by Prof K Krishnan in the field of archaeochemistry has helped us understand better the ceramics and their manufacturing techniques.

Archaeozoological work done by the team of P K Thomas and P P Joglekar (and their colleagues and students) of Deccan College in Pune has proved the existence of horses at the Harappan site of Kuntasi . This is significant because it questions the generally accepted belief that it was the ‘Aryans’ who brought horses with them.

Recent Excavations

Excavations at smaller sites in the Kutch, like Kanmer, Khirsara and Kotada Bhadli (Jeevan Khadakwal of the Institute for Rajasthan Studies, Udaipur, Jitendra Nath of the ASI and Prabhod Shirvalkar of Deccan College) have thrown new light on the smaller trading centres and fortified towns, which were satellite cities of the Harappans.

Harappan structures in the central part of the site of Kanmer 
Harappan structures in the central part of the site of Kanmer |Jeevan Kharakwal

Kanmer was heavily fortified despite its very small size and turned out to be a major bead manufacturing centre. Khirsara has revealed fascinating evidence of changing agricultural patterns coinciding with the dry phase, around 2100 BCE. Here, you will find a shift from the cultivation of barley-wheat to millets.

Kanmer Sealings
Kanmer Sealings|Jeevan Kharakwal

S K Manjul of the ASI has revisited the site of Binjore in North-Western Rajasthan and re-excavated the site, revealing a small but very important manufacturing complex with a number of furnaces and seal-making activities on the banks of the Ghaggar-Hakra.

The newest players in the field of Harappan studies and excavations in the Kutch are teams from the University of Kerala, who under Dr Rajesh SV have been carrying out a series of excavations at sites like Nani Rayan, Navinal and Moti Cher. These are also helping us understand that the early historic and medieval phases too saw continued habitation at the edges of the Rann of Kutch and that there appears to be a continuity of occupation at specific locations over time.

Juna Khatiya burial ceramics 
Juna Khatiya burial ceramics |Rajesh SV

Their most recent excavations at the Harappan necropolis near Khatiya village in Kutch have revealed ceramics which are hitherto seen at very Early Harappan sites like Kot Diji, Nal and Amri, leading the excavators to consider long-distance trade into the Kutch as early as 3,000 BCE.

Juna Khatiya  excavations
Juna Khatiya excavations|Rajesh SV

From all the material gathered, what we do know is that the Harapans were farmers and pastoralists who lived on a complex diet of grains and meat with vegetables, oils and spices. They wore garments made of cotton cloth and adorned themselves with gold and silver jewellery and beads made up of carnelian, jasper, jet, onyx, lapis lazuli, faience, shell and steatite. Their hands were adorned with bangles made up of terracotta, conch shell, faience and stoneware. They used tools made from copper imported from far off lands. They travelled long distances trading with cultures over land and sea and exotic foreign goods were doubtlessly brought back from these journeys. Bullock carts and ships laden with Harappan goods made from local and foreign raw materials criss crossed the Harappan lands and went abroad too. They lived in finely built houses of brick, burnt, brick and stone with advanced sanitation and town planning. They had a good life in the cities and in the villages.

Alas they were masters of much, but not of nature and changing river patterns. Climatic changes and increasing aridity led to the collapse of their societies. Today dust storms blow where once their cities flourished.

Pick up any school text book covering the Harappan civilisation and you will find mention of how well their cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa  were planned. Look at any coverage of the Harappan period in the media and you will find mention of the age old debate about whether there was an ‘Aryan Invasion’, were the Harappans Dravidians, and the ‘mystery’ surrounding what happened to them. Sadly most publications seem stuck in a  time warp. They aren’t updated and they don’t cover the many new finds and research material that has been painstakingly excavated and collected by archaeologists and scientists across the world. The sad fact is that the public knowledge or understanding of the Harappan Civilisation is at least thirty years behind the actual information we have. While this, is still just the proverbial tip of the iceberg in terms of our understanding of the period and a lot more excavations, research and analysis is needed, it is important to tell the world what we know,  as of now.

This article is part of our 'The History of India’ series, where we focus on bringing alive the many interesting events, ideas, people and pivots that shaped us and the Indian subcontinent. Dipping into a vast array of material - archaeological data, historical research and contemporary literary records, we seek to understand the many layers that make us.

This series is brought to you with the support of Mr K K Nohria, former Chairman of Crompton Greaves, who shares our passion for history and joins us on our quest to understand India and how the subcontinent evolved, in the context of a changing world.

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