Harappa: The Indus-Sarasvati Civilization
About 50 million years ago the vast tectonic plate we now know as the subcontinent of India crashed into Asia and produced the world’s largest mountain range, the Himalayas – “the abode of snow” in Sanskrit – which separates the Tibetan Plateau from the Indian subcontinent. The Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region extends 3,500 km over all or part of eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east, affecting air and water circulation systems, and impacting the weather conditions in the region. Today it is the source of ten large Asian river systems – the Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra (Yarlungtsanpo), Irrawaddy, Salween (Nu), Mekong (Lancang), Yangtse (Jinsha), Yellow River (Huanghe), and Tarim (Dayan). Drawing warm air from the south, which cooled and precipitated as torrential rainfall, the Himalayas created the monsoons and a fertile area in the Northwest that may well be “the land of seven rivers” described in the Vedas. Between 7000 and 5000 BCE, pastoral camps and the first village farming communities settled into this fertile region. Over millennia these communities developed and interacted with others, sharing skills and technologies such as pottery, metallurgy, town planning and farming. Hence, by 2,500 BCE the region became the largest, if not the greatest civilization of the Ancient world, expanding over one million square kilometers in its mature (Integration) phase with an estimated population of five million people.
Known as the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization, its zenith lasted about thirteen centuries and flourished in the basins of the Indus River, one of the major rivers of Asia, and the Sarasvati or Ghaggar-Hakra River, which once flowed through northwest India and eastern Pakistan. The majority of the discovered sites are located either along these major rivers and their tributaries or along trade routes linking larger urban centers.
Iran, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent had engaged in seasonal and trade migration for hundreds of years so the people of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization already had long-standing connections with regions to the West. In addition they established links with Gulf Coast cultures reaching all the way to southern Mesopotamia and via intermediaries, such as Bahrain’s Dilmun traders, far beyond. They exported gold, copper, timber, ivory and cotton to Mesopotamia and imported bronze, tin, silver, lapis lazuli, and soapstone. To maintain such an extensive trade network they must have possessed advanced skills in ship building, sailing and overland transportation.
“For navigation, compasses carved out of conch shells appear to have been used to measure angles between stars. A voyage from Lothal to Mesopotamia to sell the prized Harappan carnelian beads, which the kings and queens of Ur were so fond of, meant at least 2,500 kilometres of seafaring; of course there would have been halts along the shore on the way, but still, 4,500 years ago this must have ranked among the best sailing abilities.” Michael Danino, IIT-Madras, 1999.
Indus-Sarasvati Civilization artifacts such as seals, beads and pottery have been found in Mesopotamia, Oman and Bahrain, indicating trade with distant regions across both land and ocean. Pack animals and carts were used as well as ocean going ships. Smaller trading outposts are found far away from the center of the civilization like the one found at Shortugai in Afghanistan. The recently discovered Jiroft site on the Iranian plateau lies along the path of this trade network and here archeologists have found lapis lazuli (from Afghanistan or western Baluchistan) and carnelian (likely from the Indus Valley) along with artifacts from other regions.
Archaeology has its roots in European imperialism, which has historically meant that certain regions such as Mesopotamia and Egypt have been emphasized over others. Scholars estimate that less than two percent of an estimated 2,600 sites have been excavated across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and more may still be found (G. L. Possehl). It is often referred to as the “Harappan” civilization from the name of the first discovered site. Findings in the Indus-Sarasvati region date from as early as 7000 BCE up to 300 BCE. Most sites appear to be small villages and towns, but others, for example the site of Ganweriwala in the Cholistan region of Pakistan is estimated to cover 80 hectares, and Rakhigarhi located west of New Delhi is thought to exceed 225 hectares, making it the largest site discovered to date in India and second largest in the subcontinent, after Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan. Although threatened by urban development and mismanagement, it is hoped that significant breakthroughs in understanding of the Indus-Sarasvati Civilization will come to light in the near future as new sites are unearthed using modern archaeological techniques and DNA research.