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The Indus Riddle - By Raj Chengappa

A flurry of excavations has uncovered startling evidence that presents a radically picture of the Indus Valley civilisation -- and calls for a complete revision of ancient Indian history. Indus Valley to school students, history classes on the Indus Valley civilisation have always been simplistic. Even dull. Most textbooks talk of how the civilisation appeared like a meteor on ancient India's sky scape, shone brilliantly for a while and then was snuffed out either by marauding Aryans or sudden floods.

Archaeologist Ravindra Singh Bisht describes the syllabus as "dead boring". He could be dead right. Egyptian mummies somehow seem to evoke more interest than the town-planning feats of the Indus engineers. Did you, for instance, raise your hands in class and ask just how stone-age farming communities almost overnight took a giant leap forward and transformed themselves into sophisticated urbanites living in cities so well designed that Indians have never been able to replicate the achievement even 5,000 years later? Did you actually believe that poppycock about an Aryan blitzkrieg that wiped out a glorious civilisation, plunging India into the dark ages for over a thousand years?

Indus Valley You probably did. Now if Bisht has his way, you will have to relearn ancient Indian history. For the past six years, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) team headed by him has been systematically excavating an Indus site called Dholavira on the salty marshes of the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. What they have been uncovering is turning accepted notions on the Indus on their heads. Says Bisht: "Exploring Dholavira is like opening a complete book on the Indus. We now have answers to some of the most enduring riddles about the civilisation." For starters, Indus town planners are not as "monotonous" and "regimented" as archaeologists had us believe. In Dholavira they display a surprising exuberance that expresses itself in elaborate stone gateways with rounded columns apart from giant reservoirs for water. Bisht also found a board inlaid with large Harappan script characters -- probably the world's first hoarding.

While experts regard Dholavira as the most exciting Indus find in recent times, archaeologists have excavated or are in the process of digging up 90 other sites both in India and Pakistan that are throwing up remarkable clues about this great prehistoric civilisation. Among them: That Indus Valley was a misnomer and that in size it was the largest prehistoric urban civilisation -- even bigger than Pharaonic Egypt. That the empire was ruled much like a democracy and the Indus people were the world's top exporters. And that instead of the Aryans it was possibly a Great Depression that did them in. In Lahore, M. Rafique Mughal, Pakistan's top-ranking archaeologist, says: "It is both a revelation and a revolution. Our history textbooks need to be rewritten."

Should It Be Called Sarasvati Civilisation?

Archaeologists have an exasperating tradition of labeling their discoveries after the name of the site on which it is first found. Since Harappa and Mohenjodaro were the first to be excavated in the 1920s, Sir John Marshall,
who headed the team of explorers, called it the Indus civilisation because it flourished in the valley of that river. Marshall's announcement wowed the world and pushed India's known history back by about 2,000 years. At the time of Independence there was no real need to change the epithet as barely a dozen Indus sites had been explored.
With the prime sites, Mohenjodaro and Harappa, going to Pakistan, however, a feverish hunt began in India to locate and excavate Indus sites -- a race that its neighbour soon joined. In doing so, they began uncovering a civilisation so vast in its extent that at its peak it is estimated to have encompassed a staggering 1.5 million sq km -- an area larger than Western Europe. In size, it dwarfed contemporary civilisations in the Nile Valley in Egypt and in the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in Sumer (modern Iraq). Its geographical boundaries are now believed to extend up to the Iranian border on the west, Turkmenistan and Kashmir in the north, Delhi in the east and the Godavari Valley in the south.

A recent count showed that as many as 1,400 Indus sites have been found, of which 917 are in India, 481 in Pakistan and one in Afghanistan. While Mohenjodaro and Harappa were rightly regarded as principal cities, there were at least several others such as Rakhigarhi in Haryana and Ganweriwala in Pakistan's Punjab province that match them both in size and importance. It is also apparent that the civilisation did not just centre on the Indus Valley. When the sites were plotted on a map of the subcontinent, archaeologists noticed a curious clustering of sites along the Ghaggar river which flows through Haryana and Rajasthan and runs almost parallel to the Indus. After entering Pakistan, where it is called Hakra, the river finally empties itself into the sea at the Rann. Over 175 sites were found along the alluvial plains of the Ghaggar as compared to 86 found in the Indus region.

What puzzled them was that the Ghaggar-Hakra river and most of its tributaries are dry and their courses have silted up. So why did so many cities come up on such a desiccated watersheet, especially at a time when rivers were the lifelines of civilisation? Unless, of course, at one time a mighty river flowed perennially. In their search for answers, Indus experts homed in on the Rigveda, which is believed to have been composed when the Indus Valley civilisation was on the decline. Many of its hymns mention a sacred river called Sarasvati, describing it as the foremost of rivers, big as the ocean, rising in the mountains and flowing between the Yamuna and Sutlej before entering the sea. But in later Vedic hymn it is no longer described as mighty.

In the '80s, Indian satellite images of the region showed that the ancient bed of the Ghaggar-Hakra river could be traced from the Sivaliks to the Rann of Kutch. Where it is not covered by sand, the bed of the river consists of a fertile loam and its width extends from three to 10 km on different parts of its course, making it a very large river. Putting together the evidence, V.N. Misra, director of the Department of Archaeology in the Deccan College, Pune, recently concluded that the Ghaggar-Hakra river was the Vedic Sarasvati and existed when the Indus civilisation flourished. Misra is now among the growing band of archaeologists demanding that the Indus be renamed the Sarasvati Valley civilisation. Mughal and Bisht disagree and say that recent findings indicate that Indus was indeed the nucleus of the civilisation's growth. Foreign scholars view the debate as a subcontinent turf battle. Says Gregory Possehl, professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in the US and an expert on the Indus civilisation: "With over 1,000 sites spread all over the subcontinent, why be so parochial?"   (more at this above site )



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