In the arid scrubland of the Thar Desert, just 205 km from the vibrant city of Bikaner in Rajasthan, is evidence that ancient settlers tilled the land and lived off its bounty around 4,700 years ago. And what a bounty it must have been! For here, archaeologists have found evidence of the earliest-known ploughed agricultural field in the Indian subcontinent, on the outskirts of an ancient city near the now dried-up Ghaggar River.
These fields have been unearthed at the site of Kalibangan, which was inhabited by two sets of settlers – pre-Harappans and the Harappans – at different points in time. The fields were worked by the pre-Harappans in 2,700 BCE, while the Harappans settled here around a century later. The site gets its name from the dense distribution of bangle fragments found on the surface (Kalibangan means ‘black bangles’).
The site of Kalibangan was discovered in 1917 by Italian Indologist, Luigi Pio Tessitori, who was surveying archaeological sites in Rajputana but it was first identified as Harappan almost 30 years later by Indian archaeologist Amalanda Ghosh. The site was excavated from 1961-69 under the Archaeological Survey of India, led by the then Director-General of ASI, B.B. Lal and archaeologist B.K. Thapar, which unearthed what is believed to have been a provincial capital of the Indus Valley Civilization.
Kalibangan is on the banks of the now dried-up Ghaggar River in Hanumangarh District in Rajasthan. Both the pre-Harappan and the Harappan periods have yielded fascinating finds. First, let’s take a look at two amazing discoveries that relate to the lower, pre-Harappan level.
One was the discovery of ovens or tandoors in the courtyards of well-planned houses, which offers a glimpse into the cooking practices of those times. Interestingly, such tandoors were also discovered at other Indus Valley sites like Mohenjodaro. Two varieties of tandoors – overground and underground – were found at the northern end of the courtyards. Interestingly, they resemble modern-day tandoors. Both varieties were made of mud plaster, with an overhang near the mouth in the underground variety, and a bridged, side opening for fuel in the overground oven.
The tandoors were positioned away from the house, in the northern corner of the courtyard. Archaeologist Jagat Pati Joshi states in the excavation report of Kalibangan that, “the Early Harappans were conscious of smoke pollution as they deliberately chose to locate the tandoors in the north-western corner of courtyard of the house, as for major part of the year the wind direction in the region is from NE to SW.”
The second exciting discovery relating to the pre-Harappans at Kalibangan is evidence of the earliest-known ploughed agricultural fields in the subcontinent, located about a hundred metres south of the settlement. They had two sets of furrows, of two different sizes, each set intersecting each other at right angles and forming a grid-like pattern. The layout of the fields indicates mixed-crop cultivation and the size of the furrows depended on the type of crop used. Interestingly, this type of ploughing is relevant even today.
Among the other discoveries of this period were artefacts such as blades, beads of copper, carnelian, chert and steatite, terracotta toys, and distinctive, well-polished pottery decorated with motifs.
The pre-Harappan period is believed to have witnessed a massive earthquake in around 2,700 BCE, which is believed by scholars to have been one of the earliest recorded earthquakes. This calamity likely caused the pre-Harappan people of Kalibangan to flee. The site remained abandoned for about a century till it was occupied by the Harappans in around 2600 BCE.
The Harappan Kalibangan
The Harappan period marked the second phase of occupation at Kalibangan. Meticulously planned cities are a trademark of Harappan civilization and Kalibangan was no different. The Harappans built a fortified city, planned in a grid-like pattern, and divided into two parts – the citadel and the lower town. The houses were spacious and had courtyards – one even had a staircase to access the roof! Unlike other Harappan cities, though, while the citadel at Kalibangan had drains, the lower town lacked a street drainage system and collected waste in large storage jars.
One of the most intriguing finds of this period were the fire altars found in both the citadel and the lower town. Scholars believe they were used for ritualistic purposes. Interestingly, the southern part of the citadel had no houses, just a series of fire altars, which were mud-brick platforms with rows of clay-plastered pits. Animal bones were found in one of these altars, suggesting animal sacrifice. A well was found close to these fire altars, which according to archaeologist B B Lal, suggests “ablutions before the performance of the ritual – a tradition still in vogue among the Hindus”.
Houses were discovered in the northern part of the citadel. They probably accommodated the people who performed these rituals, and the elite. But it was not just the citadel that had these altars. Oblong fire altars surrounded by charcoal, ash and terracotta cakes were found in some homes in the lower town too.
Surprisingly, unlike the pre-Harappan settlement, the Harappan period did not yield any evidence of tandoors. According to J.P. Joshi, ”It is an enigma as to why this superior technology of baking roti was not continued and discarded during the Harappan times who used the terracotta chaklas (rolling board) for preparing phulka roti.”
The Harappans were involved in agriculture, trade and commerce, which is evident from several finds. Wheat and barley were found along with wooden handles with long chert blades, probably used for agricultural purposes. Apart from these, weights, measures, seals and sealings, terracotta toys and objects, beads, objects of bone and ivory were found.
Among these, two standouts were a realistic-looking terracotta human head and a charging bull. A variety of bangles were discovered from both the Harappan and pre-Harappan levels. These were made of shell, terracotta and copper.
Three types of burials were also found at Kalibangan, located around 300m south-west of the Citadel. However, skeletal remains were found only in one burial, in either a rectangular or an oval pit. In one of the graves, a child’s skull having holes was discovered. Scholars believe these holes were due to Trephination, a surgical process in which a hole is scraped into the human skull. A similar skull was also found at Lothal. A male skeleton was discovered with a sharp cut on his left knee, which was probably caused by an axe.
The other two types of burials were probably just symbolic burials as no skeletal remains were found in them. Of these, one was a pot burial in a circular pit containing utensils, pots, beads and shells. The other was either in a rectangular or oval pit, containing only funerary objects.
A feature common to most Harappan cities was their tryst with natural disasters. The Harappan people of Kalibangan are believed to have abandoned the city due to the drying up of the Ghaggar River.
If you make it to Kalibangan, you must visit the on-site museum there. Set up by the Archaeological Survey of India, it displays excavated materials from both the pre-Harappan and Harappan periods.
It’s been one of the most sought-after semi-precious stones since antiquity. Prepare to be enthralled as we trace the story of lapis lazuli from the Sar-e-Sang Valley, the Ajanta Caves, the Ateliers of Renaissance Italy to the court of Imperial Russia.
Get access to weekly Live events, experiences and an exclusive repository of films, articles and books