Prof V.S. Shinde, senior archaeologist and vice-chancellor of Deccan College, Pune, is the one steering the research at the Harappan site of Rakhigarhi. In an interview with Sunil Menon and Siddhartha Mishra, he explains how Rakhigarhi extends our understanding of the Harappan civilisation. Excerpts:
Sunil Menon: Prof Shinde, what does Rakhigarhi tell us?
V.S. Shinde: We had very little idea about the regional diversity during Harappan times. We always think the Harappan civilisation was homogeneous. In some respects, that’s true. But there were different ecological zones, and you find diversity flowing from that. Like, Gujarat has a slightly different variety compared to the Saraswati region. But overall there is a concept of one nation. This concept was introduced by the Harappans.
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Menon: From archaeological findings, how do you arrive at something as abstract as a nation?
Shinde: See, the Harappan culture occupied about 2 million sq km. Over this vast area, they established some kind of uniform culture. This shows they had united different regions. Not by force, but by mutual consent.
Siddhartha Mishra: Because they never had an army…
Shinde: Yes, they never had one. So we wanted to understand the specific variation of culture in this part. What are its features, how that came into being. We use two terms: one is Harappan culture, the other is Harappan civilisation. The Harappan culture’s time-span is from 5500 BC to 1500 BC. But there’s one phase within that where we find tremendous development and prosperity, where they started developing cities and towns. That’s the Harappan civilisation phase: from 2600 BC to about 1900 BC. We haven’t really understood how the transformation occurred. We wanted to demonstrate that in the structures, in the pottery, other elements of material culture. And this site is ideal for that as we have the early Harappan phase and then the mature phase too.
Menon: Rakhigarhi also unsettles the idea that the Indus was the centre of gravity of Harappan culture, with a few radiating elements. The centre of gravity itself seems to be shifting here…given its size and time-scale.
Shinde: This whole area, the ancient Saraswati region, is so important. Two-thirds of the Harappan sites are in this region. And maybe not many sites in the Indus region.
Menon: But the Indus as a coherent centre also sits well with the idea of a site like Mehrgarh in Balochistan, evolving from the Neolithic to eventually give us the big cities.
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Shinde: So now we have a site like Bhirrana. As old as Mehrgarh. That is, 6500-7000 BC.
Mishra: All of them coexisting….
Shinde: Exactly, and they were in touch with each other, all material developments were simultaneous. So we cannot pinpoint the Sindh region as the nucleus, from where it begins to disperse. It’s not like that. The whole map was occupied by the early communities, evolving simultaneously; ideas flowed from one region to another because of constant contact right from the beginning.
Mishra: Are there cultural differences between the sites?
Shinde: You mostly find the same culture, with a little variation, maybe because of different food habits, or different traditions. Otherwise it was a more or less uniform culture. The same 1.73 gram weight, maybe a slight variation in the shape of pottery…that’s all.
Menon: Harappan cities were even internally heterogeneous...we can talk about shared culture, not ethnicity....
Shinde: We don’t have enough data—very little from Sindh, a bit from Punjab. We have DNA data from Rakhigarhi; we are in the final phase of studying it, but we cannot generalise from that. I believe there were different types of ethnic groups across the Harappan map.
We now have an idea about the cultural evolution in Rakhigarhi. It’s not like the concept of the city came suddenly. The early farmers around 5500 BC were rural; they lived in small circular huts. In the next stage, we get rectangular structures. In the third stage, there’s better planning, bigger rectangular structures. Then they transform it into a city. Elaborate planning, the concept of drainage, bathrooms.
Mishra: And what brings on the decline?
Shinde: Aridity. The Saraswati slowly dries out…probably they had to leave the site itself. The Harappans had flourishing trade with the west, particularly with Egypt. We have archaeological data as well as literary data: the Mesopotamian texts mention it. Of the goods coming from Meluhha, they talk about ‘the red metal’ (copper), articles made of red stones, the semi-precious carnelian, various spices, ivory.
Menon: Was Yamuna the outer limit?
Shinde: Actually, the Gangetic plain is the main boundary, beyond that are zones of Harappan influence. Harappans may have supplied Bihar and its neighbours with technology. There’s influence up to Jammu and the entire Makran coast and Iran. You find different categories of settlements, all in a symbiotic relationship. Out of 2,000 settlements, we have identified five proper cities. Then maybe half-a-dozen towns like Kalibangan or Lothal, and a network of agricultural settlements, villages, and manufacturing centres like Chanhudaro. Also, a large number of ports and small settlements for exploitation of local resources. There’s a pattern of interaction between the cities and the rest.
Menon: Do you find any influence on the Harappans from the outside?
Shinde: We don’t really see that. Some marginal influence perhaps, like the Mesopotamian figure of Gilgamesh shows up in a Harappan form, that’s all. What sets them apart from contemporary civilisations is this: the Harappans did not have Giza, they did not build pyramids or monumental structures like those. They were very capable of building those, having acquired a lot of wealth from the western trade. Instead, the Harappans used that wealth to create healthy, hygienic living cities for the welfare of the common people. That was the diﬀerence in philosophy. So, right from the beginning, we were practical people. Only if you emphasise these aspects will people realise the importance of this civilisation.
Mishra: How were they governed?
Shinde: They had a two-tier administrative system, such as today’s. Kautilya had these ideas because the system was already there before his time. We talk of Kautilya’s Arthashastra, but the ideas were very much there from before. Our system is, in fact, derived from theirs. We still have the panchayat system…that continues from Harappan times.
The Pakistani archaeologist Rafiq Mughal observed that there were two kinds of capitals during those times. In each ecological zone, you find one big settlement. That acted like some kind of a regional capital. Probably, some decisions were taken at the capital. Such as, ‘What should be the brick size?’, ‘What should be the denominations of the seals?’. Then the regional capital enforced those. This is how they maintained uniformity over such a large area.
Mishra: And religion?
Shinde: We don’t have much evidence. But one thing is clear: they were not practising religion as a community, like today. Maybe it was an individual thing. You find a few figurines—probably they were worshipped. The proto-Shiva, a few linga types, but most probably they were in households. We don’t know. But you do not find temples as such.
Menon: So potentially different peoples, perhaps even speaking different languages, sharing only a kind of unified system….
Shinde: Exactly. They must have had some kind of uniform writing system. Right from Afghanistan or the Iranian border, we find the same sort of letters. Not much difference. Maybe parallel languages were spoken. Maybe there were dialects. But the writing system was the same. Like today’s Devnagari is used by both Marathi and Hindi.