In 1829, one of the most spectacular discoveries of all time was made in the unlikeliest of ways. Charles Masson, a British soldier with a dodgy reputation (he had deserted his army camp in Agra in 1827) had run off again, leaving his colleagues who were en route to Afghanistan.
While on the road, Masson found himself near the small town of Sahiwal in Punjab, now in Pakistan, and was astonished by what he saw. He was looking at large, exposed brick structures, which he believed were the remains of a great city left behind by Alexander 2,000 years earlier. Only, they weren’t. What Masson had found was Harappa!
Masson marvelled at the large brick structures and sketched many of them. Over the years, he went on to find many more historic gems and, what do you know? The army deserter came to be feted as an explorer!
Oddly, despite the dramatic nature of Masson’s discovery, it was another 25 years before an archaeologist actually returned to that mound in Sahiwal, and almost a century before the significance of what they had found dawned on the archaeological community!
Phase I – The Lost Years
After Masson, the second individual of significance to visit the mound of Harappa in Sahiwal was Sir Alexander Cunningham (the first Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India), who made his way there in 1853. While Cunningham too did not realise the importance of the site – he thought it was a lost Buddhist site – he revisited it a few years later, only to find it plundered for its bricks. Sadly, its upper portions had all but been demolished as contractors hired by the British to build the Multan Railway line had used bricks from the mound to lay the railway bed.
Believe it or not but this quirk of history turned out to be a double-edged sword, for it was the kind of brick and debris that the contractors had been bringing to the railway line, and the artefacts that were surfacing, that had brought Cunningham here. He even found a seal, which he attempted to decipher in 1875. Sadly, there was no local memory of the Harappan Civilisation, which wasn’t even a part of the mythical or folk traditions of the region. So much for being one of the world’s largest Bronze Age Civilisations!
Alexander Cunningham: Digging Deep
The secrets of this amazing and unique civilisation would, quite literally, remain buried for the next 45 years.
So why did it take so long? Unaware of what he was passing up, Cunningham was more interested in the Buddhist trail and following the travels of the 7th-century Buddhist monk, scholar and traveller, Hiuen Tsang. Cunningham’s successor, James Burgess, was almost totally devoted to Brahmanical and Buddhist art history, architecture and epigraphy, and his key area of interest was the Deccan and Central India.
Then, from 1888, the ‘Buck Crisis’, named after Edward Buck, put a major crimp on the budget of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and, in 1892, Buck announced the imminent closure of the ASI to generate savings for the government's budget. Luckily, some great discoveries by the ASI, of Ashokan Edicts at Nigali Sagar (birthplace of Kanakamuni, a former Buddha) and at Lumbini (birthplace of Gautama Buddha), both in Nepal, saved the day. These discoveries were proof that the place of the Buddha’s birth had been found and they kept the ASI’s sights firmly focused on the Buddhist trail. The newly appointed Director-General, Sir John Marshall, followed this tradition and carried out a huge excavation at Taxila.
But, in the early 20th century, Harappa was destined to be rediscovered. In 1912, John Fleet of the ASI discovered a number of seals and brought the Sahiwal site to the notice of Marshall, who sent Hiranand Shastri to survey Harappa and asked his protege Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni to conduct systematic archaeological excavations in 1921-22 along with M S Vats. This finally led to the true discovery of the Harappan Culture.
Simultaneously, archaeologists D R Bhandarkar and Rakhaldas Banerji were dispatched by Marshall to Mohenjodaro, a mound until then considered Buddhist due to the Kushana-period Buddhist stupa and vihara that crowned it. In 1924, Marshall brought together Sahni and Vats, and the data from the excavations at Mohenjodaro and Harappa. He instantly realised he was looking at something that could rewrite the history of the subcontinent. And thus started an altogether new fascination in Indian archaeology.
Phase II – The Many Discoveries
There was a flurry of activity between 1924 and 1947, a period during which a large number of Harappan sites were discovered and excavated.
Marshall took over the excavations at Mohenjodaro for a year (1924-25) in the midst of his 20-year-long excavations at Taxila. M S Vats completed the excavations at Harappa. N G Majumdar, who had worked at Mohenjodaro in 1923, was appointed Superintending Archaeologist in 1927, and carried out extensive explorations in the Sind. He discovered 69 Harappan sites and excavated at Chanhudaro in 1930. Sadly, he was shot dead during fieldwork at Rohel ji Kund by Pathan bandits in 1938.
Excavations were also carried out at Nal by Harold Hargreaves in 1924, and Amri by Majumdar in 1929. These two sites later became incredibly important as they both revealed a pre-Harappan cultural sequence. The polychrome ceramics from Nal and the Buff painted pottery of Amri have become ceramic markers used to this day by Harappan archaeologists. In 1935, F A Khan excavated the site of Kot Diji, perhaps the most important site to understand the transition from the pre-Harappan to the Mature Harappan phase.
After Majumdar, Ernest Mackay took up further excavations at Chanhudaro in 1935. This site turned out to be very rich in artefacts, with evidence of large-scale production of items such as shell ladles; copper knives; razors and spears; beads of shell and carnelian; seals; and many other objects. There were so many copper tools recovered that the site was nicknamed the ‘Sheffield of the Harappans’. The long-barrel carnelian beads found here along with evidence for their manufacture were also found at Mesopotamian burials, thus making this the first confirmed evidence of trade between the Harappans and the Mesopotamians.
Due to World War II, almost no new research was carried out at these sites from 1939 to 1944 and then, in 1944, the ASI got a new Director-General in Brigadier Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler, who was deputed from the British Army. Among the four excavations he conducted during his four-year stint, one was at Harappa. Wheeler’s excavations, especially at Cut XXX (a technical name for an archaeological trench) along the fortification walls, yielded very early pre-Harappan ceramics for the first time at Harappa. One of the questions Wheeler was most interested in answering was: what had happened between the Harappans and the Ganga Valley Early Historic cultures? Although he didn't find the answer during his stay in India, the question lingered in the minds of the ASI’s archaeologists.
Phase III – The Indian Chapter
The ‘loss’ of Harappa and Mohenjodaro after Partition in 1947 provided an impetus to search for new sites in India, and led to the excavations at Ropar in Punjab, Kalibangan in Northern Rajasthan and Lothal in Gujarat. Explorations in Gujarat had revealed a possible Harappan site at Rangpur and this was excavated by S R Rao from 1953-56. What was most interesting was the decline and subsequent post-Harappan culture at the site. Finally, an answer to what had happened after the decline of the Harappans.
Y D Sharma began excavations at Ropar in 1953. The excavations revealed, for the first time, a sequence that went from the Mature Harappans to the Late Harappans. This was followed by the Painted Grey Ware Culture and then the Northern Black Polished Ware, Mauryan levels, Sunga-Kushana levels and Gupta levels. For the first time, there was a hint at a possible continuous history from the Mature Harappan Period to the Gupta Era.
Amalanada Ghosh surveyed the dry river bed of the Ghaggar River and realised that there were a number of Harappan sites along the river. He excavated at Sothi and conducted preliminary excavations at Kalibangan in 1953. His preliminary work revealed the fascinating possibility of an undisturbed Harappan site and Kalibangan was taken up for large-scale horizontal excavations from 1960-1969 under the directorship of archaeologists B K Thapar and B B Lal of the ASI.
Their work revealed a fascinating two-tier city with intact roads, houses, tandoors, ceramics and ritual platforms. The city appeared to have been deserted due to the drying up of the Ghaggar. This raised tantalising questions – was this then one of the reasons for the decline of the Harappans? Was the Ghaggar the legendary Saraswati of the Rig Veda, which had disappeared below the sands of the desert?
In 1957, S R Rao began excavations at the site of Lothal in Gujarat. His discoveries were startling. There was a Harappan walled city in southern Saurashtra and it had all the trappings of a classical, Mature Harappan city from the Indus system! There was also a huge, rectangular, water-proofed tank, which he felt was a dock used by the Harappans in their trade with Mesopotamia.
By the end of the ’70s, the Harappan Era was well documented in India. Archaeologist Jagat Pati Joshi of the ASI excavated the site of Surkotada (1964) in the Kutch and discovered the site of Dholavira (1967), among many others. The focus now shifted to Gujarat, with excavations by the State Archaeology Department of Gujarat at Shikharpur and by M S University, Baroda at Nagwada, Nageshwar, Loteshwar and Bagasra.
In 1975, French archaeologists working at the Bactrian Greek capital city of Ai Khanum discovered a Mature Harappan site on the Amu Darya river in Northern Afghanistan, 500 km from the nearest Harappan site and 1,100 km from Mohenjodaro. This site, the northernmost outpost of the Harappans, was excavated by Henri-Paul Francfort, whose work clearly establishes that the settlement was an outpost to protect the source of Harappan lapis lazuli in the Badakhshan mines.
Pune’s Deccan College of Archaeology also jumped onto the Harappan bandwagon. In the early ’90s, M K Dhavalikar excavated Kuntasi, near the city of Morbi in Gujarat, and in the mid-’90s, Vasant Shinde excavated Padri, near Talaja in Bhavnagar District of Gujarat.
Kuntasi turned out to be a port site with strong evidence of exporting lapis lazuli to Mesopotamia. Padri was a small rural outpost, which the excavator believes was a salt manufacturing site. The most unique thing about Padri, though, was the discovery of a chronologically pre-Harappan yet non-Harappan Chalcolithic culture at the site, and the discovery in these layers of the most specific ‘type ceramic’ of the later Gujarat Harappans called the ‘stud-handled bowl’.
R S Bisht of the ASI excavated the site of Banawali, not far from Agroha in Haryana, from 1974-1977. He discovered a unique ‘D-shaped’ city with evidence of the earliest-known plough (a toy terracotta plough was found here) and the earliest-known recipe for detergent/shampoo (a mix of awla, shikakai and reetha found in a charred lump from the roof of a burnt house where the fruits were drying).
This competitive exploration and excavation programme by the ASI, alongside many student explorations from other institutes, resulted in the discovery of hundreds of new sites in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. These discoveries widened the scope of research, added quantitative data, increased our understanding of local, regional cultures prior to the arrival of the Harappans, and even after their departure. The work on understanding the lost Saraswati River revealed one of the major reasons for shifts in the Mature Harappan population and for the beginnings of the decline phase.
Excavations at sites like Daimabad in Dhule District in Maharashtra, and Bhagwanpur near Thaneshwar in Haryana, made the sequence very clear in different regions. Daimabad has very clearly shown that the Late Harappan levels were succeeded by a local culture called the Daimabad Culture, which subsequently became the Malwa (Chalcolithic) Culture of the Deccan. At Bhagwanpur, Jagat Pati Joshi is adamant that after Period 1A, which is Late Harappan, period 1B is a clear transition from there to the subsequent PGW period 2 at the site. This points out that the PGW was a very clear successor to the Late Harappans.
B B Lal, working in the Ganga-Yamuna Doab, had already seen the PGW below NBP levels at his excavations. He believed that the OCP (Ochre Coloured Pottery) people were remnants of the Harappans moving eastward and that it was they who introduced the agro-pastoral culture to the Ganga Valley. Excavations at Sanauli (Baghpat District, Uttar Pradesh) by the ASI have yielded a huge cemetery with hundreds of burials including antenna swords, carnelian beads, bronze studded chariots and legged-coffins.
The site is dated between 2200 and 1800 BCE, and this has put paid to the theory that the OCP people were Harappans. They were a contemporary Bronze Age culture and their story is only just being told. Alongside the OCP, there have also been very interesting developments on the Ahar Culture in Southern Rajasthan. The ancient Aharians were contemporaries of the Harappans, and excavations in the ’90s by V N Misra of Deccan College, at Balathal (Udaipur District, Rajasthan) and then at Gilund (Udaipur District, Rajasthan) by Vasant Shinde and Gregory Possehl have revealed close links between them.
Questions about the disappearance of the Harappans are now steadily being answered as are questions about who their contemporaries were in India.
Excavations at smaller, fortified sites like Kanmer (Rajasthan), and Bagasra and Kotada Bhadli (both in Gujarat) have been filling in blanks on trade routes, specialised manufacturing sites and exploitation of local resources.
The most recent Harappan excavations have concentrated on Haryana and Northern Rajasthan, which includes the sites of Bhirrana, Farmana and Rakhigarhi in Haryana and Binjor/4MSR in Rajasthan. The excavations by Sanjay Manjul of the ASI at Binjor in 2014-17 have yielded the remains of multiple furnaces and a manufacturing site for copper objects.
In 2004-06, L S Rao of the ASI excavated the site of Bhirrana in Fatehabad District in Haryana. Excavations here yielded remains of pre-Harappan Hakra ware and were dateable to 4000 BCE, and a potsherd with an engraving of a dancing girl that was eerily reminiscent of the bronze statuette from Mohenjodaro. The site has also yielded two copper celts with Harappan letters engraved on them.
In 2006-09, Vasant Shinde excavated over 70 burials at the Harappan necropolis of Farmana. These excavations also revealed a large number of burial goods and helped archaeologists recreate food habits. Palaeobotanists and archaeologists Arunima Kashyap and Steve Weber painstakingly analysed sherds of broken cooking vessels unearthed at the site and revealed that a curry made of brinjal with turmeric, ginger, garlic and mustard oil was once placed in one of the burials at the site. This 4,500-year-old recipe is the oldest known recipe in the Indian subcontinent.
Rakhigarhi, one of the largest Harappan sites in the subcontinent, was first excavated by Amrendra Nath of the ASI, from 1997-2000 and subsequently by Vasant Shinde of Deccan College in 2014-16. The discovery of a number of burials at Rakhigarhi led to scientific exposure with minimum contamination to try and recover Harappan DNA. The team actually managed to recover the DNA of one individual and this has electrified the field of Harappan research.
The Way Forward
As of the year 2019, a whopping 925 of over 1,500 known Harappan sites were found in India. What we can say with certainty is that the discovery of the Harappan Civilisation has enriched the Indian subcontinent by adding 8,000 years to its history. When Cunningham left the ASI, the history of India stretched back to the 6th century BCE; when Marshall left the ASI, he had taken it back to the 3rd millennium BCE; Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler added to this and then Amlananda Ghosh, Rafique Mughal and Katy Dalal (nee Frenchman) pushed back the pre-Harappan to the 5th millennium BCE by the 1970s.
Jean-Francois and Catherine Jarrige took the antecedents of the Harappans to 8500 BCE at Mehrgarh in Balochistan, Pakistan. The period from the ’70s to the ’90s saw a huge leap in Harappan studies and opened up new vistas in our understanding of the day-to-day lives of these people and their trade with each other and distant lands.
Closer to today, we have spectacular culinary residue analysis and DNA information from Rakhigarhi, the first of what we hope are many such instances. The large necropolises being excavated are also telling us much about the health of the people buried there.
In the 100 years since Sir John Marshall realised that archaeology was on the cusp of great discovery and pursued the study of the mound at Sahiwal, leading to the ‘discovery of Harappa’ in 1921, we have come a very long way. Here’s looking forward to the next 100 years of Harappan research!