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Tag Archives | Harappa

In Pragati: What caused the decline of Harappa?

(via Wikipedia)

(This was originally published in Pragati)

In The Wonder That Was India, A L Basham presented a dramatic picture of the decline of the Harappan civilisation. According to him, from 3000 BCE, invaders were present in the region. After conquering the outlying villages, they made their move on Mohenjo-daro. The people of Mohenjo-daro fled, but were cut down by the invaders; the skeletons that were discovered proved this invasion. Basham concluded that the Indus cities fell to barbarians “who triumphed not only through greater military prowess, but also because they were equipped with better weapons, and had learnt to make full use of the swift and terror-striking beats of the steppes.” Sir R Mortimer Wheeler claimed these horse riding invaders were none other than Aryans and their war-god Indra destroyed the forts and citadels at Harappa. But Basham was not that certain of the identity of the charioteers; he stated that they could be non-Aryans as well.

Basham wrote his book in early 1950s and a lot has changed after that. The decline of the Harappan civilisation is no longer attributed to “invading Aryans”, though that theory is still kept alive by political parties in South India. Even the non-Aryan invasion theory has been refuted as there is no trace in the archaeological record for such a disruptive event or the arrival of a new culture from Central Asia. The skeletons, which were touted as evidence for the invasion, were found to belong to different cultural phases thus nullifying the theory of a major battle. Due to all this, historians like Upinder Singh categorically state that the Harappan civilisation was not destroyed by an Indo-Aryan invasion. Instead of blaming the decline of the civilisation to invading or migrating population, the end is now attributed to environmental changes and whims and fancies of rivers.

From the late 1950s, historians believed that Mohenjo-daro was destroyed due to tectonic shifts in the region. According to one version, tectonic movements blocked the course of lower Indus river which must have caused floods that submerged the city. An opposing and the currently favoured theory suggests that instead of submerging in water, the city was starved of water. This happened because Indus shifted away from Mohenjo-daro, thus disrupting the crop cycle as well as the river-based communication network.

While Sindh, where Mohenjo-daro and Harappa are located, has just 9 percent of the 1140 Mature Harappan sites, the Ghaggar-Hakra basin has 32 percent of them; Archaeologists like S P Gupta and J M Kenoyer identify Ghaggar-Hakra with Sarasvati river. Around 1900 BCE, Kalibangan, located on the left bank of Ghaggar, was abandoned. Between the Mature and Late Harappan period, the number of sites along the river reduced considerably implying that the some hydrological change stopped the river from flowing.

One theory suggests that declining monsoons impacted water availability in Ghaggar-Hakra and that in turn caused the societal changes. Around 4000 years back, a dramatic climate change happened across North Africa, the Middle East, the Tibetan Plateau, southern Europe and North America. In India, during that period, there was an abrupt shift in monsoons, which lasted two centuries. In general, if you observe the patterns of recent years, monsoons have strong years and weak years, but they rarely deviate far away from the mean due to the dynamic feedback systems. It is a self-regulating system, but there have been occasions when the anomaly has lasted for few decades.

But what happened 4,000 years back was truly unusual; it was an anomaly larger than anything the subcontinent had faced since in the last 10,000 years. A paper published recently by Berkelhammer was able to narrow down the exact time frame during which this shift happened and it coincides with the decline of the Harappan civilization. This new study does not depend on indirect proxies (like pollen data), but uses a direct terrestrial climate proxy from the Mawmluh Cave in Cherrapunji and hence was able to show an unprecedented age constraint.

According to the paper, the most dramatic change occurred between 4071 (+/- 18) years and 3888 (+/- 22 years) Before Present (BP) for a period of 183 years. First there was a small rise between 4315 and 4303 years and a more precipitous one between 4071 and 4049 years BP. Once this change — which was earlier onset of monsoons or earlier withdrawal — happened, the monsoons stayed in this state for around 180 years before returning to normal values. Earlier monsoon withdrawal suggests that monsoon, which is tied to ocean-atmosphere dynamics and influences from the land surface, was weakened. For the Ghaggar-Hakra, which was fed by the monsoons, the impact was quite serious as it affected the habitability along its course. The study is quite interesting because it provides precise numbers for the duration and onset time for this climactic event. The previous studies did not have proper age constraints and some of them depended on factors (pollen, sedimentation rates) which could be influenced by external natural and man-made causes

Thus when one study claims that Ghaggar was a monsoon fed river and hence was easily susceptible to the vagaries of declining rainfall, there is another which shows that Sarasvati was a glacier-fed river and climate is not the only cause for changes. A paper in Current Science by K S Valdiya published in January of this year, titled The river Sarasvati was a Himalayan-born river, provides numerous counter arguments. First, the Sarasvati flowed through Western Rajasthan, which is one of the dustiest places on earth. 3500 years of dust storms have altered the landscape so much that the landforms created by the river would not be visible today. Second, the river ran through a region which saw tectonic upheavals and that would have altered the course of the river, like what happened to Indus. Third, the dimensions of paleochannels in the upper reaches of the river show that it was created by a large long-lived system. The paper strongly states that it was not a weakened monsoon, but the deflection of rivers by powerful tectonic activities which caused the decline of the Harappan civilisation along the Ghaggar river. Around 3,750 years Before Present, the Tamasa river joined Yamuna and a millennia later the Sutlej joined Beas. Due to this, the discharge of water in the Ghaggar was reduced and forced the Harappans to migrate elsewhere.

This is a contentious issue among academics; arguments and counter-arguments arrive sooner than you can digest them. While one controversy is over if tectonics or monsoon was responsible for the drying up of the river, there is another one over the climatic conditions during the Mature Harappan period. Some papers claim that Mature Harappan period occurred in a wetter phase and there are several others which show that Harappan urbanism rose in an arid phase. Paleoclimatology is a complicated field and more studies will give clarity to this controversy. But there is one certainty: the decline of the Harappan civilisation was not caused by invading Aryans or non-Aryans.


  1. Singh, Upinder. A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century. 1st ed. Prentice Hall, 2009.
  2. Basham, AL The Wonder That Was India;: A Survey of the Culture of the Indian Sub-continent Before the Coming of the Muslims. 21st ed. Evergreen, 1977.
  3. Danino, Michel. Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati. Penguin Books India, 2010.
  4. Berkelhammer, M, A Sinha, L Stott, H Cheng, F S R Pausata, and K Yoshimura (2012), An abrupt shift in the Indian monsoon 4000 years ago, in Climates, Landscapes, and Civilizations, Geophys. Monogr. Ser., vol. 198, edited by L. Giosan et al., 75–87, AGU, Washington, D. C., doi:10.1029/2012GM001207.
  5. Valdiya, KS “The River Saraswati Was a Himalayan-born River.” CURRENT SCIENCE 104, no. 1 (2013): 42–54.
  6. Giosan, Liviu, Peter D Clift, Mark G Macklin, Dorian Q Fuller, Stefan Constantinescu, Julie A Durcan, Thomas Stevens, et al. “Fluvial Landscapes of the Harappan Civilization.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (May 29, 2012). doi:10.1073/pnas.1112743109.
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Origins of Indian traditions

 Indian curries (via Wikipedia)

Indian curries (via Wikipedia)

Slate has an expanded article based on last year’s discovery of “curry” in Farmana. It has details on the technical advances that made this discovery possible.

Archaeologists have long known how to spot some ancient leftovers. The biggest breakthrough came in the 1960s, when excavators began to drop soil from their sites—particularly from places where food likely was prepared—onto mesh screens. The scientists then washed the earth away with water, leaving behind little bits of stone, animal bones, and tiny seeds of wheat, barley, millets, and beans. This flotation method allowed scientists to piece together a rough picture of an ancient diet. “But spices are absent in macro-botanical record,” says archaeologist Arunima Kashyap at Washington State University Vancouver, who, along with Steve Weber, made the recent proto-curry discovery.*

Examining the human teeth and the residue from the cooking pots, Kashyap spotted the telltale signs of turmeric and ginger, two key ingredients, even today, of a typical curry. This marked the first time researchers had found unmistakable traces of the spices in the Indus civilization. Wanting to be sure, she and Weber took to their kitchens in Vancouver, Washington. “We got traditional recipes, cooked dishes, then examined the residues to see how the structures broke down,” Weber recalls. The results matched what they had unearthed in the field. “Then we knew we had the oldest record of ginger and turmeric.” Dated to between 2500 and 2200 B.C., the finds are the first time either spice has been identified in the Indus. They also found a carbonized clove of garlic, a plant that was used in this era by cooks from Egypt to China.[The Mystery of Curry]

As you read the article you find that our food habits (rice with curry, tandoori chicken), the ingredients used in our food (ginger, turmeric), culture of leaving food for animals and treating cows as sacred animals have not changed in the past four millennia.

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Rakhigarhi and the history of Aryans


Apsidal Structures and Fire Altars (from ASI report 1997-1998)

Apsidal Structures and Fire Altars (from ASI report 1997-1998)

The area covered by Harappan civilization was bigger than ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia combined  and there are various model which try to explain how the land was administered. One model suggests that it was not centrally governed, but had  various domains centered around five major cities. While Mohenjo-daro and Harappa are the most well known sites of the Indus-Saraswati civilization, Rakhigarhi in Haryana, which was probably one of those capital cities, is less known. Located on the dry river bed of Saraswati, apsidal structures and fire altars too have been discovered there.

In an interview with Sunday Guardian, Vasant Shinde, Professor of Archaeology at Deccan College talks about Rakhigarhi and the question of Aryan invasion/migration.

Has Rakhigarhi been able to shed any light on the theory of the origin and history of Aryans?

It is an intriguing question, one that can be understood only by identifying the actual cultural sequence of the Ghaggar/Saraswati. There are different hypotheses as regards the identity of the people who thrived on the banks of the Saraswati. Some people believe these were Aryans while others insist they were non-Aryans. My argument is that from 7000 BC onwards, we don’t have any evidence of people migrating. If we say the Aryans came from outside, it should reflect in their lifestyle. From 7000 BC onwards, we have been able to observe that they are the same people. Studying Rakhigarhi has been a study of their legacy. The model Haryana household today is exactly how the households of people must have been thousands and thousands of years ago. There are too many similarities between modern day and ancient Rakhigarhi to ignore.[Harappa’s greatest centre sheds light on our today]


  1. Danino, Michel. Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati. Penguin Books India, 2010.
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Guest Post: Michel Danino on the antiquity of Indus-Saraswati Civilization

[This post is in response to this news item – “Archaeologists confirm Indian civilization is 2000 years older than previously believed”. It is adapted from Michel’s response on IndiaArchaeology eGroup – JK]

Early farming village in Mehrgarh, c. 7000 BC, with houses built with mud bricks.

Early farming village in Mehrgarh, c. 7000 BC

Seing that several blogs and mass mailers are repeating this piece of “news”, I would like to emphasize that the article sensationalizes things without understanding the issue. The Indus-Sarasvati civilization (accepting that the word “civilization” connotes urbanism) emerges around 2600 BC, and those dates have not been challenged.

It has long been established — for at least 20 years — that its antecedents at Mehrgarh (Baluchistan) go back to the 8th millennium BCE, in the context of a Neolithic rural society, that is with just stone tools, yet a fairly advanced agricultural economy. The new development (“new” meaning some seven years) is the comparable antiquity of the earliest stages at Bhirrana (Haryana) excavated by the late L.S. Rao. This is also a rural stage, which probably straddles the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic; the pottery type is the Hakra ware, which has emerged at a few other sites of the Sarasvati basin in Haryana (such as Farmana) and Cholistan (in Pakistan).

How such antecedents, whether in Baluchistan or in the Sarasvati region and probably with contributions from other regions, converged towards the Early Harappan stage (usually dated from 3800 BCE) is the very interesting question which should have been addressed instead. As too often, the media hype conceals the real issues.

In any case the dates for the Indus cities — Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Kalibangan or Dholavira — in their Mature urban stage will not change. They are firmly in the 3rd millennium BCE, as hundreds of carbon 14 and thermoluminescence have established.

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A Harappan Feast

(via Wikipedia)

(via Wikipedia)

If you are having a proper Indian lunch or dinner, there is good chance that your food will contain ginger or turmeric or lentils. You have rice or millet and maybe even a banana to top it off. If so, the food that we eat today is no different from the ones eaten by our ancestors who lived in the Indus-Saraswati region, 4500 years back. An article in Science explains that due to new tools, researchers can now identify food, based on microscopic left overs. Ginger and turmeric were identified for the first time using these new tools and techniques at Farmana and it is the first time they have been spotted in the Harappan region. Thus, in Western lingo, Harappans ate “curry.”

The interesting find though is the banana, which was first cultivated in Papua New Guinea. It is not clear if banana was cultivated in the Harappan region or if it was obtained via trade with people in the East via the trading hubs of the ancient world. In fact there is a bit of controversy over the banana find and I had written about it here.

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