Rakhigarhi in Haryana is one of the most important Harappan sites in India. A recent phase of excavations had made national headlines, thanks to fascinating discoveries such as a lapidary (bead-making centre), drains and a burial ground. This has led to an increased understanding of Rakhigarhi as a site and of Harappan settlements in India. Disha Ahluwalia, an archaeologist and excavation supervisor at Rakhigarhi excavation, shares some very interesting insights into these recent discoveries
On 5th January 1921, Rai Bahadur Daya Ram Sahni began excavating at Harappa, on the banks of the Ravi River. Little did he know that this excavation would push back the antiquity of the Indian subcontinent to the 3rd millennium BCE, making the newly found civilization a contemporary of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian civilizations.
The Harappan Civilization, as it is now known (named after the first archaeological site that marked the discovery of this Civilization) is the largest civilization of the ancient world. Spread from Sutkagan Dor in the west to Alamgirpur in the east, it is not restricted by one river valley or current political boundaries. A century has gone into excavating, understanding and assessing the remains from the sites that dot this landscape. We now know that the Harappans lived in a civilization that was dynamic, diverse yet unified. It comprises a mix of rural, semi-rural, factory/industrial and urban centres.
Of these, five major cities, the metros of Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Ganweriwal, Rakhigarhi and Dholavira, stand out due to their sheer size and magnitude. These big cities are known for the straified settlements divided into the citadel, middle town and lower town; systematic town planning; drainage systems; rainwater harvesting; etc.
Each has its own unique features yet unified by standardisation of brick size, weights and measures, to name a few. More importantly, these major cities are located strategically on the trade route of the Harappans, covering the different geographical zones within the realm of the civilization.
Rakhigarhi – An Iconic Site
Mohenjo-daro and Harappa on the Indus River Valley and Dholavira in Kutch, Gujarat, have been extensively excavated. Rakhigarhi, on the other hand, being the largest site in the eastern (Indian) domain of the civilization and on the banks of the Chautang of the Saraswati river system, remains largely unexcavated. Comprising seven mounds (RGR 1 to 7), it is spread across the present-day villages of Rakhi Khas and Rakhi Shahpur and adjoining fields in Hissar district of Haryana, merely 160 km west of New Delhi.
The archaeological wealth of the site was first reported by Dr Suraj Bhan in 1969, but the site was subjected to systematic excavation in 1998 for the first time. He collected Mature Harappan (c. 2600-1900 BCE) artifacts from the surface, which suggested that the site is at least 5,000 years old.
But the first systematic excavation was carried out by the Institute of Archaeology, ASI, under the directorship of Dr Amrinder Nath, who carried out three field seasons (1998-2001) on all seven mounds. A large number of important antiquities including Harappan seals were excavated along with structural remains.
This excavation gave a broad chronological context to the site, right from c. 4000 BCE to 1900 BCE. In other words, it suggested that Rakhigarhi as a city in the Mature Harappan phase evolved from a largely agrarian, Early Harappan phase. Excavations were also carried out in the burial ground (RGR 7) that unearthed many skeletal remains of the Harappan period, an example of which you can see in the National Museum, New Delhi.
The importance of this excavation goes beyond just retrieving archaeological data as it laid a strong foundation for future endeavours. After a hiatus of over a decade, the site was re-excavated by Deccan College, Pune, headed by Prof Vasant Shinde in collaboration with the Haryana State Archaeology Department, from 2013-16. The famous DNA study was conducted during this time, and it grabbed headlines and made the world look at Rakhigarhi from a fresh perspective.
Excavations at Rakhigarhi
Before the pandemic paralyzed the globe, the Government of India had declared around Rs 3,000 crore for the development five major archaeological sites – Dholavira, Adhichanallur, Hastinapur, Shiv Sagar and Rakhigarhi. The aim of this project is simple – to promote the relics of the past, to educate people about the glorious past of the country, to provide amenities to visitors, and to conserve the sites for public viewing. The project aimed at promoting the relics of the past. Taking this lead, the Archaeological Survey of India started excavation at Rakhigarhi on 24th February 2022 under the directorship of Dr Sanjay Manjul, on the lines of developing this major Harappan city under the government project and most importantly to understand the settlement of Rakhigarhi, holistically by identifying the individuality and interrelationship of the seven mounds.
Three of the seven mounds, RGR 1, 3 and 7, were taken up for investigation by Dr Manjul and his team.
The Lapidary Cent
Upon reaching Rakhigarhi in mid-February 2022, I set foot on this 6m high mound, at the corner of which our camp was set. As I put down my bags in my tent, I looked out at this site which we were about to break open with our trowels. We started with digging trenches on the eastern half of the mound. Earlier, the western half of RGR 1 was excavated by Dr Nath and his team in 1998-01. They uncovered a large quantity of debitage/waste of semi-precious stones such as agate, carnelian and jasper, which was used in the manufacture of objects like beads. They also reported a furnace and hundreds of semi-finished beads. Taking clues from that data, we wished to further the information on the nature of this site aided with scientific means.
Only a few centimeters below the ground, structural remains began to appear and soon we found ourselves digging a Harappan street about 2.6 m wide and running for 18 m in an east-west orientation. The street was being used for a long time and was raised as the level of habitation was rising. The street is between two mud-brick structures. These lanes were found intersecting at 90 degrees. Interestingly, at the intersections, soakage jars were placed, an attempt by the Harappans to keep their city clean.
It was thrilling to uncover the kind of evidence we grew up reading in textbooks. The street with a multiple coursed brick wall that was 18m in length and evidence of workshops-cum-habitation on either side evidently suggested that Rakhigarhi was a well-planned city with high standards of Harappan town planning.
Besides this, semi-finished and finished beads, a large quantity of debitage/waste, stones, raw material, hearths etc strongly suggest that at RGR 1 Lapidary was the main activity and it was a settlement of craftsmen.
Street with Drain
With a blue marbled Mazar on top of the mound, RGR 3 is sandwiched between two of Rakhigarhi’s largest mounds – RGR 2 on the west and RGR 4 on the east and south-west of RGR 1. This mound is approximately 11 m high and remained unexcavated till Dr Manjul decided to investigate the site to tap into the ‘grey areas of research’.
Evidence of a baked brick wall about 15 m in length, enclosing a residential complex and a brick-lined drain on the one side is yet another example of sophisticated town-planning that the Harappans are known for. The kind of antiquities and pottery from this mound differentiate its nature from RGR 1 but at this point in research, it’s hard to come to any conclusion.
The Burial Ground
The DNA sample retrieved from Rakhigarhi gave an impetus to a long-drawn debate and controversy. This sample was extracted from one of over 60 burials excavated at RGR 7 located about 500 m north of the lapidary centre, (RGR 1) in the agricultural field. Buried in privately owned agriculture fields, the remains of this ‘cemetery’ of the people of Rakhigarhi yielded a large number of skeletal remains unearthed in 1998-01 and then in 2013-16.
However, despite the DNA results and multiple seasons of excavation, there was a need to link this ‘cemetery’ to the rest of the six mounds on the basis of material culture and also to see if multiple phases of burial activity was prevalent in the ancient past.
After a few weeks of digging, two burials of female individuals were unearthed. They were buried with a plethora of pottery and adorned jewelry like jasper and agate beads and shell bangles. In one burial, a symbolic miniature copper mirror was buried along with the skeleton.
Since these burials were found at the topmost level, an attempt was made to dig below in one portion of the trench. Instead of more skeletons, we uncovered habitation levels that were not known to us before. Multiple hearths at different working levels pointed to an earlier settlement at RGR 7. This raises many questions that will be answered in the coming field season.
From streets to drainage and a plethora of important antiquities including Harappan seals and a sealing with an elephant relief, the celebrated past of this archaeological site has once again been narrated. We now know that the city was well planned, even the areas where craftsmen of the city resided. What we now also know is that trade and rising demand for finished goods enabled the city to grow not only as a trading centre but also as a manufacturing centre.
However what we now most certainly know is that before Rakhigarhi evolved into a big metropolis, the Early Harappan settlement was larger than previously thought, in other words the findings especially of early Habitation level at RGR 7, are motivating us to look beyond the set narratives of the past. As eminent archaeologist D P Aggarwal once said, the 'fear of new discoveries should not come in our way of reconstruction of the past… new data will always force revision; that is the way of all research'. Our only hope is that the next season will bring more clarity to the findings and will bring a new dawn to the past that is buried beneath the ground at Rakhigarhi.
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