Wazir Chand Saroae is a slight, nearsighted man with a shuffling gait, the go-to man when electrical appliances in the village need fixing. His house is like any other here—compact, two-storeyed, neat. There are no signs at all to suggest that in a small room on the first floor of this house, Saroae is sitting on a treasure trove that is both priceless and timeless.
Displayed in rickety cabinets with glass fronts, Saroae’s treasure does not look like much—bits of pottery, beads of various sizes, a few clay figurines and toys—but their antiquity is stunning. The oldest things here date back to between 5000 BC and 4500 BC, the early phase of Harappan civilization. The most recent ones are from 2300 BC.
This is not entirely surprising in Rakhigarhi, a cluster of two sprawling villages—Rakhikhas and Rakhi Shahpur—in Haryana, around 170km from Delhi. People living here are used to finding little bits and pieces of ancient history—even 10 years ago, the villagers will tell you, you could not plough your field without unearthing a potsherd (bits of pottery—ceramic is exceptionally durable).
“When I was a child, I found particular pleasure in finding these pots and vases,” Saroae, 52, says. “And then dropping them from a height and breaking them.”
Now he can give you detailed descriptions of the various types of Harappan pottery and figurines, tell you about the great Harappan city that once stood where the village and its farmland is, down to town planning details, and walk you through the most important areas for archaeological excavations.
That Rakhigarhi was a large Harappan town was known in 1963, when the area was first surveyed. What archaeologists are finding out now is that it is the biggest ever Harappan city, larger and more extensive than the massive Mohenjo Daro.
“The whole site is around 400 hectares, which is nearly double that of Mohenjo Daro,” says Vasant Shivram Shinde, professor of archaeology and joint director of the Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute, Pune. “It’s in critical condition because of encroachment and construction.”
About 40% of the Rakhigarhi site is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)—which translates to a fenced boundary wall and a guardroom with no guard. The wall is broken in several places, and the protected area is used by the villagers as a place to dry cow dung. The unprotected areas have houses and farmland. The ancient Harappan city lies buried under.
“People pick up Harappan objects from their fields and sell them for as little as Rs.100,” says Saroae. “They don’t mean to do anything illegal; it’s just that they have little awareness about it.”
All of this is set to change. The Global Heritage Fund (GHF), a non-profit organization based in the US that works to preserve the world’s most endangered heritage sites, put Rakhigarhi on its project in 2012. This makes the Harappan site one of GHF's 13 projects worldwide, which include Ping Yao Ancient City in China and Ur in Iraq.
“The scope of this site should be emphasized,” says Dan Thompson, director, global projects, Global Heritage Network. “It is large and was occupied for a long period. The potential for research and knowledge is amazing, and I think that with skilled archaeologists, historians and designers, you can craft that knowledge into a compelling narrative that people will want to see.”
GHF will not only coordinate an ambitious excavation and conservation project at the site, led by Prof. Shinde, beginning this month, it will also work with the local community to develop home stays, train tour guides, and establish an on-site lab and museum with the help of the ASI, Deccan College, and other government agencies to turn Rakhigarhi into a heritage tourism hot spot.
“In our experience around the world, local communities are eager to cooperate and preserve the cultural heritage in their midst when they are included in the discussion and their concerns are addressed,” Thompson says. “The economic benefits that can come from heritage preservation are a great incentive to save these sites, as is the pride that communities derive from saving their past.”
For the few villagers in the know, like Saroae, this is a dream come true.
“I have been hoping for something like this from the time I began to understand the importance of this place,” says Saroae. “This work can’t come soon enough.”
Even though the Harappan or Indus Valley Civilization is one of the three oldest urban civilizations, along with Egypt and Mesopotamia, it is the least understood. Its script is yet to be deciphered, and the knowledge of social structures and life during that period is scant. Rakhigarhi promises to change this too. It is one of the few Harappan sites which has an unbroken history of settlement—Early Harappan farming communities from 6000 to 4500 BC, followed by the Early Mature Harappan urbanization phase from 4500 to 3000 BC, and then the highly urbanized Mature Harappan era from 3000 BC to the mysterious collapse of the civilization around 1800 BC. That’s more than 4,000 years of ancient human history packed into the rich soil.
That’s not all—intensive excavations in the last decade have revealed hundreds of Harappan sites all over Haryana. “Rakhigarhi was probably the centre of this vast collection of towns, villages and cities in the Haryana region,” says Prof. Shinde.
A collaborative project between Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and Cambridge University, which began in 2008, has been central to unearthing this trellis of Harappan towns. Their surveys uncovered 127 sites that spanned an incredible timeline from Early Harappan to early medieval (13th century) in the vicinity of Rakhigarhi, a majority of them unknown before; 182 sites spread across the area through which Haryana’s largest seasonal stream, Ghaggar, flows, 125 of which were unknown, and many more.
“In 2009, we excavated at Masudpur, which is 12km from Rakhigarhi, and discovered 13 sites that date back to the Early Harappan phase,” says Ravindra Nath Singh, from the department of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology at BHU, and one of the leaders of the project. “It is highly likely that these sites fell under the socio-economic and political catchment area of Rakhigarhi.”
The project aims to answer perhaps the most compelling question about the Harappan civilization—why did it disappear? The current assumption is that the shifting and dying away of ancient river systems led to the great Harappan cities to be abandoned. This is the first multidisciplinary and focused investigation into this assumption, bringing together archaeologists, historians, geographers and environmental scientists.
Even though in archaeological terms the probe has just begun, the sheer number of discoveries is turning previous beliefs about the Harappan civilization on its head. Till recently, there was little evidence in India of a gradually developing civilization through the Harappan era. Most discoveries were from the Mature phase only, while in Pakistan, there was plenty of evidence of the earliest years of the culture. This led to the belief that the civilization took root in the regions now in Pakistan before gradually spreading eastward as it developed.
“Now the evidence suggests possibly the opposite,” says Prof. Shinde. “We’ve got a few sites now in Haryana which date all the way back to 6000 BC and it’s evident that this area was one of the first places in the world where humans graduated from a nomadic hunting-gathering lifestyle to settled agricultural communities.”
New carbon-dating tests on material found at an extensive Harappan site in Bhirrana, Haryana, have also thrown up some startling dates. In research led by B.R. Mani, ASI joint director-general, and K.N. Dikshit, former ASI joint director-general, charcoal and shell bangles found at Bhirrana date back to as early as 7380 BC. Like Rakhigarhi, Bhirrana was occupied from the earliest to the last dates of the Harappan era.
Yet another site with the same epoch-bridging characteristic is Farmana, less than 50km from Rakhigarhi. Prof. Shinde and a team from Deccan College and Maharshi Dayanand University in Rohtak excavated this site from 2008-11. As they uncovered layer after layer of evidence, an extraordinary tableau was revealed.
First, a Harappan town with a population of around 3,000 and all the characteristics of the Mature phase—mud brick houses set in chessboard patterns, an elite central part of town, fortifications and industrial areas for potteries and copper and bronze artisans on the outskirts. In the layer below this, more modest, rectangular complexes of houses. Finally, buried deep, the first settlers, in circular pit dwellings dug into the earth.
“It’s such clear phases of development,” says Prof. Shinde, “that we are finally in a position to understand the progress of the civilization in some detail.”
There were more startling discoveries. Burnt rice found near the site dated back to 4000 BC, even though it is widely believed that rice only came to India from China in 2500 BC.
Then, on a winter afternoon in January 2008, as the archaeologists at Farmana were about to break for lunch, a farmer came and told them that he had found something while ploughing his field, a kilometre from the excavation site. What he had stumbled upon is one of the biggest Harappan burial sites ever discovered.
In all 71 burial pits and the skeletal remains of 35 individuals were found. These people died between 2400 and 2100 BC, at the height of the civilization. They were a diverse lot—adults, adolescents, children, men, women, rich and poor. The bones went to Veena Mushrif Tripathy, assistant professor of physical anthropology at the archaeology department at Deccan College, and an expert in the forensic study of ancient diseases.
This is what the dead revealed: That burial had an important ritual significance even then, as sometimes only parts of the body were buried, the rest possibly lost in an unnatural death. A man, 35-40 years old, had only his femur and tibia interred. He was also the tallest of the lot here, at a little over 6.1ft. The largest pit (the size of the pit and the number of burial goods like pottery in it determine the socio-economic status of the person buried), had only two skulls, and a few small bones. One of those skulls, an adult male, had signs of a massive blunt object trauma on the left side of the cranial—a gaping crack that should have killed him.
“But he lived for almost two months with that injury,” says Tripathy. “We can see the stages of healing. The only way he could have survived this is if he had some kind of medical attention and medication. He died only of secondary infections later.”
Tripathy, who is at the last stage of interpreting the data, says there is close resemblance in both bone and muscle structure between the 4,000-year-old citizens of Farmana and its current inhabitants. “They were big-boned, had big muscles, a healthy population, with no signs of infectious diseases or malnourishment,” she says.
Genome sequencing to compare DNA with Haryanvis now has so far been impossible because the wet, acidic earth destroys all DNA. Tripathy hopes that in the next three-four years she will be able to collect enough data from other sites, including Rakhigarhi, to be able to compare and find patterns.
“The Haryana region is fantastic if we do systematic scientific analysis,” she says. “Because it has everything when it comes to the Harappan civilization. We can reconstruct our early history with great accuracy, especially with a multidisciplinary approach.”
Lost and found
But this great Harappan network of towns and cities, buried for so many thousands of years, is in danger of being forgotten entirely. Much of the areas excavated in Farmana, Bhirrana, in and around Rakhigarhi are quickly being converted into farmland or land for housing, destroying the chances of preserving these sites. There are few preserved Harappan sites in India—Dholavira and Lothal in Gujarat, and Kalibangan in Rajasthan—none in Haryana.
Prof. Shinde says villagers are reluctant to let archaeologists even work in their areas because of the fear that a discovery will be made and the government will throw them out of their land.
“It’s difficult,” Prof. Shinde says. “The land is precious, and there is no clear, transparent procedure to acquire land for these purposes.” The excavated sites in Farmana, for example, have been turned into farmland, despite the ASI trying to enlist it as a nominee for the Unesco World Heritage list.
Only Rakhigarhi seems to be escaping this fate. It makes Saroae happy, even if that means his private collection might not remain with him much longer. “When the ancient city rises here, next to my house,” Saroae says, “I will go myself and put these things where they belong.”