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Tag Archives | Harappa

In Pragati: Book Review – The Lost River by Michel Danino

The Lost RiverIn 2003, the Union Minister for Tourism and Culture, Jagmohan sanctioned Rs. 8 crore to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to search for the river Sarasvati. Though it was an inter-disciplinary archaeological program involving the Indian Institute of Technology and the Birbal Sahni Institution, designed to settle different schools of thought regarding the existence of the river, the venture was seen as “an attempt by RSS inspired historians to liken the Harappan civilisation with the Vedic era.” The project was shelved by the UPA Government.

In February 2009, the “International Conference on the Sindhu-Sarasvati Valley Civilization: A Reappraisal” was held in Los Angeles, CA, “to discuss, reconsider and reconstruct a shared identity of the Sindhu (Indus) and Sarasvati cultures, using archaeological and other scientific evidence as well as Vedic literature.” The title of the conference, specifically the use of the word Sarasvati, caused consternation among few Western scholars prompting Prof Ashok Aklujkar, Professor Emeritus at University of British Columbia to write a scathing rebuttal.

To understand why Sarasvati is a controversial topic in the 21st century we need to look at evidence from a number of sources: from tradition, archaeology, literature, geology, and climatology. We need to understand the path of Sarasvati, its life span, and traditions that arose within its banks that survive to this day. Finally, we also need to look at how Sarasvati challenges the Aryan invasion/migration theory.

In this 368 page book, Michel Danino narrates Sarasvati’s tale, assembling it from the reports of Western explorers, Indian scholars, Archaeological Survey publications, and Vedic texts. Danino who was born in France and has been living in India since the age of 21, has published papers like The Horse and the Aryan Debate (2006), Genetics and the Aryan Debate (2005), A Dravido-Harappan Connection? The Issue of Methodology (2007) and also the book The Invasion that Never Was (2000) on the Aryan Invasion Theory.
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Dr. Allchin and Sarasvati Research

In the 31st Indian History Carnival, we featured a post by Nicole Bovin on Dr. Raymond Allchin, the South Asian archaeologist who passed away on June 4th. The European Association for South Asian Archaeology and Art too had a brief note about his work.

Raymond Allchin was born in Harrow in 1923 and educated at Westminster, but his lifetime commitment to South Asia came when he was posted there during the War in 1944. Quickly switching interests from architecture to archaeology, Raymond was appointed a Lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1954 before moving to Cambridge in 1959. Following a career of fieldwork and research across India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, he retired from Cambridge University with the title of Emeritus Reader in South Asian Archaeology in 1989. Now freed from University burdens, Raymond committed the next twenty years to developing the research profile of The Ancient India and Iran Trust.[In memoriam Raymond Allchin]

Dr. Allchin was an expert on the Indus Valley civilization. “Cultural convergence” — that is the name he proposed for the process by which various regional cultures like Amri-Nal, Kot-Diji, and Sothi-Siswal converged for the Mature Harappan phase. Dr. Allchin also connected Harappan motifs with Vedic themes. For example, looking at a seal from Chanhu-daro he connected it with the Vedic theme of union of heaven and earth. When Dholavira was discovered in J.P.Joshi in 1966 he thought it was one of the most exciting discoveries of the past half a century. On the fire altars found at Kalibangan, he noted that fire rituals formed a part of the religious life at a civic, domestic and popular level.

One of the questions that still remain unanswered about the Indus civilization is this: How was it administered.? We don’t know who controlled the urban centers or how such a vast territory — bigger than ancient Mesopotamia or Egypt — was controlled. Even though he acknowledged that there was no trace of royalty like in other ancient societies, Raymond Allchin thought that there was a forgotten Indian leader who unified the Indus heartland and controlled trade with Mesopotamia.

He had accepted the Ghaggar-Hakra as Sarasvati. This was not unusual for Sarasvati was not such a controversial topic then. Ever since the French scholar Vivien de Saint-Martin identified the Ghaggar, Sarsuti, Markanda and other small tributaries as part of the Rig Vedic Sarasvati, scholars like Max Müller, Sir Monier Monier-Williams, A. A. Macdonnel, A.B. Keith, Louis Renou, Thomas Burrow A. L. Basham along with Indian scholars like M. L. Bhargawa, B.C.Law, H.C. Raychaudhuri, A.D. Pusalker and D.C. Sirkar had all agreed on this point.

In the entry he wrote for Encyclopaedia Britannica he mentioned that hundreds of Indus sites were found on the banks of the ancient Sarasvati river which flowed east of the Indus. He also wrote how moved he was standing on a mound in Kalibangan looking at the flood plain of Sarasvati. Dr. Allchin also believed that there was a reduction of sites between 2000 – 1700 BCE after a major part of the river’s water supply was lost.

But doesn’t this mean that the Vedic people, who composed the Rig Veda, while Sarasvati was a majestic river co-existed with the Harappans? Dr. Allchin was not ready to make that leap. In the same book where he mentioned that Sarasvati lost a major part of the water supply between 2000 – 1700 BCE, he contradicted himself and wrote that Sarasvati was a major river between 1500 and 1000 BCE. By this trick, Sarasvati remains a mighty river when the Aryans came in 1500 BCE.

This is not surprising too. Only few scholars like B.B.Lal, S.P. Gupta, V.N. Mishra and Dilip Chakrabarti have argued that the Vedic people lived along the banks of Sarasvati while it flowed from the mountain to the sea during the Mature Harappan period.


  1. Michel Danino, Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin Books India, 2010)
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Harappan Coastal Towns

The city of Dholavira (see map), an important site of the Harappan civilization, is located in a small island in the Rann of Kutch. Discovered in 1966, it was excavated two decades later. It was not a small town; extending over 47 hectares, it ranks among the top five Harappan sites. Now new discoveries from this area are changing our understanding of the Harappan sites which were hundreds of kilometers away from the well known sites of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, but were coastal towns.

For example a huge tank like structure was discovered at Lothal, which is about 50 km east of Dholavira. Located near Bhogavo, a tributary of Sabarmati river, Lothal is a small site (7 hectares) which followed the Harappan tradition of wide streets and fortification. The “tank” structure is 217m long and 36m wide and its walls were made of millions of baked bricks.  When stone anchors and marine shells were found in this tank, archaeologists identified it as a tidal dockyard. During high tide, boats could sail up the Bhogavo and dock here. The warehouse was nearby and there was a spillway for overflowing waters.

Then as with almost anything related to the Harappan civilization, this identification is controversial. Some argue that it was just a reservoir and nothing more. Then shouldn’t a reservoir have slanted steps like in Dholavira or Mohenjo-daro? If it were a reservoir, would the Harappans empty waste water into it?[1Recently Dennys Frenez of the University of Bologna found some hints that wide canal connected the basin with the sea which supports the theory that the tank was indeed a port[3].

To understand what goods went out from Lothal we need to visit Kanmer.  Located close to Dholavira, it had a population of less than 500 people during the peak of the Harappan civilization. The people of this fortified city were involved in bead making — from carnelian, lapis and agate — and exporting. One of the difficult tasks for the bead makers was drilling the small hole for the string which was done using drill bits made of hardened synthetic  stone. Also found in Kanmer were clay seals with a central hole (see pic). According to the dig director Toshiki Osada, they might be pendants used as a kind of passport in trade. 


  1. Michel Danino, Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati (Penguin Books India, 2010).
  2. D.P Agrawal et al., Redefining the Harappan hinterland, Antiquity, 084, no. 323 (March 2010). 
  3. Andrew Lawler, The Coastal Indus Looks West,  Science, May 28, 2010. (via Ranjith P)
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The sign board at Dholavira

While various techniques are being applied to decipher the Indus script, there is an even more fundamental debate on if the Indus people were literate or not. The average length of a seal is five symbols; the longest single-sided inscription has seventeen signs.

One probable use of Indus seals was in economic activity; the seals found in Lothal had impressions of a coarse cloth on their reverse and sometimes several seals were used to mark the goods. Thus the seals meant something to the sender and receiver though we are not quite sure what. But did those seals have meaning only to the trading community? The sign board at Dholavira says no.

This signboard — accidently discovered and painstakingly excavated — is large. The board is 3m long and each of the ten signs is “35 cm to 37 cm tall and 25 cm to 27 cm broad.” The width of the board to the specific length was intentional: it fit the northern gate of the citadel. The signs were made of baked gypsum so that it could be seen from the distance.

Since this board was placed in a public place, big enough to be seen by people in the middle and lower town, it is sure that it had some meaning. According to R. S. Bisht, who discovered the board in 1991, “The inscription could stand for the name of the city, the king or the ruling family,”

He also adds

Bisht opined that the Harappans were a literate people. The commanding height at which the 10-sign board had been erected showed that it was meant to be read by all people.

Besides, seals with Indus signs were found everywhere in the city – in the citadel, middle town, lower town, annexe, and so on. It meant a large majority of the people knew how to read and write. The Indus script had been found on pottery as well. Even children wrote on potsherds.

Bisht said: “The argument that literacy was confined to a few people is not correct. You find inscriptions on pottery, bangles and even copper tools. This is not graffiti, which is child’s play. The finest things were available even to the lowest sections of society. The same seals, beads and pottery were found everywhere in the castle, bailey, the middle town and the lower town of the settlement at Dholavira, as if the entire population had wealth. [Inscriptions on stone and wood]

See Also: Stone inscription with Indus signs

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Stone inscription with Indus signs

(Indus Signs from a earlier find in Dholavira)

An inscription on stone, with three big Indus signs and possibly a fourth, has been found on the Harappan site of Dholavira in Gujarat.

The discovery is significant because this is the first time that the Indus script has been found engraved on a natural stone in the Indus Valley. The Indus script has so far been found on seals made of steatite, terracotta tablets, ceramics and so on. Dholavira also enjoys the distinction of yielding a spectacularly large Indus script with 10 big signs on wood. This inscription was three-metre long. [Stone inscription with Indus signs found in Gujarat]

Dholavira, located on the island of Khadir in the Rann of Kutch, is among the top five Harappan cities in terms of size. Previously an inscription with ten large size signs of Indus script was found here. This sign board was hung on a wooden plank in front of a large stadium.

It is usually mentioned that if the Indus script indeed did represent something, it must have been for the elite. The sign board at Dholavira refuted that claim. It has also been mentioned quite often that the Harappans never wrote anything on stone. This discovery refutes that claim too.

This new find — the stone with three or four inscriptions — is not really a new find. It was discovered in 1999 and was even mentioned in the 2007 ASI report. Finally in 2010, someone decided to take a look which makes you wonder how many such Indus script pieces must be lying in the basement of various Government institutions.

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