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Reports & Essays: History - Asian History

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Harappa Culture of the Indus Valley
The Harappa civilization flourished in the Indus Valley during India's Bronze Age of the third millennium b.c. This thriving culture was all but completely descimated in 2500 b.c. by invading Aryan groups from the west. The archaeological evidence that has been produced by the famous sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro suggest that the people of the Harappa Culture may have in fact, contributed more substantially to modern Hindu culture than was previously believed. The Harappa Culture of the Indus valley saw it's peak during the Bronze Age of India. It stretched from it's northern capital, Harappa, in the Punjab, to the southern city, Mohenjo-daro, on the Indus in Sind (Piggott, 134). These two sites together comprise the most well known and best excavated representatives of Bronze Age Harappan culture. However, it should be noted that in addition to these two famous sites, there are fourteen smaller villages in Harappa's "Northern Kingdom", and seventeen smaller sites in Mohenjo-daro's "Southern Kingdom";together, these sites comprise the remains of the once extensive Harappan culture (Piggott, 136). Both main sites have certain striking features in common; in particular, both are, or were, located on the banks of major rivers -- Harappa on the Ravi, and Mohenjo-daro on the Indus. Additionally, the plan and lay-out of the two cities is quite similar, consisting of: "an irregular series of mounds toward the east and a recognizably higher and more compact mound placed more or less centrally and on the edge of the site[s] to the west," (Piggott,159). These mounds are now recognized as the remnants of fortified citadels in which stood "certain buildings of peculiar plan defended by a battered wall of baked bricks... with towers and great gateways," (Piggott,159). Unfortunately the majority of the evidence at Harappa has been destroyed by "brick-robbers" and has been rendered largely incoherent. Luckily, Mohenjo-daro has been better preserved and we can turn to it as a model in interpreting Harappa. At Mohenjo-daro, one of the most striking features is the presence of a remarkable complex of buildings centering on a great bath, "built of very fine brickwork," nearly 40 by 24 feet across, and eight feet deep. Around this central bath was a cloister, and small "changing-rooms" on three sides (Piggott, 163). If one considers the "tank" ancillary to every Hindu temple of the middle-ages, the Great Bath can easily be seen as a sacred site. Also present at Mohenjo-daro were two other outstanding architectural features: the Collegiate Building and the Pillared Hall. The Collegiate Building was a large building measuring 230 by 78 feet,with an arrangement of rooms suggesting a "college" of some sort, and a cloistered court resembling that which surrounded the Great Bath. The Pillared Hall was located to the south of these buildings, and although much altered since it's original erection, it apparently once consisted of a "nearly square hall about 80 feet each way, with a roof supported on twenty rectangular brickwork pillars," (Piggott,164). These buildings have led archaeologists to conclude that Mohenjo-daro was once "a centre of religious or administrative life on a significant scale," (Piggott,164). The buildings of Mohenjo-daro followed normal "oriental custom" of the time, with the outside walls of the houses being as featureless as possible, save the presence of doorways (Malik, 83). Most of the buildings were either shops, houses, or a combination of both. The houses seem to have been built around a central courtyard, and on two or three sides were grouped rooms of varying sizes -- including bathrooms (Piggott, 168). The bath probably would have been taken by pouring water over the body from a large jar, as it is still done in many parts of India. In addition to the presence of bathrooms, beneath the city was an elaborate drainage system to which access was gained through brick man-hole covers (Piggott, 168). This entire system shows a concern for sanitation unparalleled in the Bronze Age, or even modern Asia. The water supply for both cities was obtained from brick-lined wells, some of which served private homes, but others were meant for public use, serving the purpose of the water stall, or piau, of modern India (Piggott,177). Around these wells numerous fragments of little, mass-produced, clay cups have been found (Malik,97). This evidence suggests that, as in modern Hinduism, there may have been a taboo against drinking from the same cup twice. Toward the north of the Mohenjo-daro site, behind the area known as the "workers quarters", a collection of grain mortars were found. These "orderly rows of circular working floors carefully built of baked brick, .... , and originally containing at the center a massive wooden mortar sunk in the ground, in which grain could be pounded to flour with long heavy pestles ... [are] still employed in Bengal and Kashmir," (Piggott, 179). Within the walls of the two cities, evidence of commerce has been found in the form of small, cuboid weights made of chert (Piggott, 181). The weights run in a unit ratio of sixteen; "this use of the multiple of sixteen is interesting and curious, as the number had a traditional importance in early Indian numerology ... [and] in the modern coinage of sixteen annas to one rupee," (Piggott,181). Along with commerce came the need for a writing system. Essentially, the Harappa script was a pictographic one, "recalling the formality of Egyptian hieroglyphics," (Piggott,179). Like Hebrew, the language was probably read from right to left, and when a second line of characters was present, the boustrophedon practice was likely to have been followed (Piggott,180). While the idea of writing may have come from the Mesopotamians, the Harappa style of script is unique in most respects. However, the spoken language of the Harappan Culture will likely remain a mystery. The presence of a "Dravidian type of language in Baluchistan ... has given rise to the supposition that the Harappa language also belonged to this group," (Piggott,181). The majority of the examples of script have survived on the stamp-seals engraved with various representations of animals, gods, and humans (Piggott, 178). This type of seal (like a signet ring) was very common all over bronze age West Asia; with examples being found in Syria as early as Halaf times, and similar seals appearing in the "Tal-i-Bakun A phase in Southern Persia (Piggott, 184). The Sumerian cylinder-seal is, however, practically absent from the Harappa sites. The fact that Haraappa is characterized by stamp-seals and not cylinder-seals "should indicate that its eventual antecedents are likely to have been from Persia"(Piggott,185). For the most part, the pottery of the Harappa culture was plain, having been mass-produced for utilitarian reasons (Piggott, 1191). The most common type of decorated pottery was a black-on-red ware, suggesting ties with North Baluchistan (Piggott, 192). The surface of this pottery type was almost always dull (with the exception of two pieces), with the lines of the design being flush with the surface of the piece (Malik, 13). A less common polychromatic ware, which employed the use of green, red, black, and occasionally yellow pigments was less commonly found at the sites (Sankalia,1978; 13). It should be noted that this type of polychromatic ware is rarely seen in other Asian sites of the time (Piggott,195). Typical designs consisted of either geometric or naturalistic patterns (Sankalia 1975, 132). Among the most common motifs were interlocking circles, scales, and combs; naturalistic motifs included indigenous animals (peacocks, antelope, and zebras were common) and plants, with occasional human depictions as well (Malik,13-15). "As compared to Baluchistan, the designs of the [Harappa] ware are characterized by a certain boldness and careless freedom of patterning," (Malik,12). These uniquely Harappan designs were probably painted with donkey hair brushes similar to those still used in Sind today (Malik,14). Among the artifacts produced by the Harappa metal-smiths were simple flat-type axes, as well as shaft-hole axes, indicating that some of their culture may have been inherited from early Iranian tradition (Piggott,200). Additionally, chisels, knives, razors, spears (lacking the strengthening mid-rib), and fish hooks have been found at both sites. The lack of armour at the Harappa sites points to a lack of contact with the warlike Sumerian culture. And aside from purely utilitarian copper objects, a wide range of bronze and silver bowls, cups, vases, and various other vessels have been found at both sites (Piggott,200). Archaeologically, of all the Harappa sites, Mohenjo-daro has produced some of the most convincing sculpture. In these pieces the use of inlay and was quite common, the "Bearded Man" being an excellent example of this technique: "...the trefoils on the robe and the disk on the bared right arm; probably the eyes and perhaps the ears may also have held inlays, while the sockets for a metal ... collar can be seen ... behind the ears," (Piggott,186). This type of inlay was "frequent in prehistoric Western Asia,but ... not characteristic of early historic Indian culture," (Piggott,186). An abundance of small, female clay figurines suspected to have been "godlings in household shrines," (Piggott,187) were uncovered at the Harappa sites. Interestingly, Harappa civilization was completely devoid of all forms of public art -- from temples to monuments -- and one gets the impression of cities with threatening blank walls enclosing secret religious practices and great hordes of wealth. The Harappa Culture was likely to have been administered by priest-kings (Piggott, 201), a practice which was not uncommon in Western Asia of this period. Among the religious objects left at the sites, the afore mentioned clay figurines, and a seal bearing a representation of a woman with a plant emerging from her womb, suggest the worship of a Mother-Goddess (Piggott, 201-2). These goddesses are commonly worshipped even today in Hindu practices in the rural areas of India. Depictions of a man with three faces, sitting in a yogi's position and surrounded by four beasts has been interpreted as being a predecessor of the god Shiva (Piggott, 202). References to the sacred fig tree, or pipal, still considered holy in modern Hindu practice, are seen as common motifs in Harappa pottery (Piggott, 202). These links between Harappa and modern Hinduism explain many of the features that cannot be attributed to the Aryan traditions brought to India with the fall of the Harappa civilization. "The old faiths die hard: it is even possible that early historic Hindu society owed more to Harappa than it did to the Sanskrit-speaking invaders," (Piggott,208). Looking at the burial practices of the people of the Harappa Culture, links to modern Hindu practices have been noted here as well. For example, the dead were often placed in "post-cremation urns". These urns contained the remains of completely cremated individuals, and according to modern Hindu practice, they were supposed to have been thrown into a river for proper disposal (Piggott,204). The consistency of grave goods across the various settlements suggests a relative homogeneity of culture. Most burials were extended, with the head pointing north. A typical grave was large enough to hold large quantities of pottery vessels -- sometimes up to forty pieces (Piggott, 205). Personal items typically included in the graves were: copper rings (usually found on the third finger of the right hand), necklaces and anklets, bangles, bead strings, and rods for applying eye make-up (Piggott, 205). One burial in particular does stand-out however. In 1946,the body of a young girl was found wrapped in a shroud of reeds, and buried in a wooden box. This type of burial was commonly found in Sumerian sites dating between 2800 and 2000 bc (contemporary with Harappa), and has been taken to imply a link between the cultures (Piggott, 208). However, aside from this possible Sumerian link, parallels with other contemporary cultures of the time have been difficult to find in the burial practices of the Harappans. Forensic archaeological evidence indicates that the people who created this culture were of mixed racial backgrounds. Skulls characteristic of the "Mediterranean type" -- long from chin to forehead -- have been the predominant skeletal type found at the Harappa sites. This type of skull is commonly related to expansion from the west, and is "associated with the earliest agricultural settlements: at Sialk, ... ,[and] Alishar," (Piggott,146). The other main type of skull to be found belongs to people of the Proto-Australiod group (Piggott, 146). These people, having curly hair, darker skin, and flatter facial features, resemble the Aborigines of Australia and New Zealand, and have long been considered to have been the original inhabitants of India as well. In Harappa society, these people were probably the main constituents of the lower working classes, just as in today's Hindu society, the lower castes are primarily composed of people belonging to this racial group (Pigggott, 147). Their location on rivers made the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro quite accessible to trade with foreign cultures as we have seen from the evidence just presented. Evidence of trade with Sumer dates from 2300 to 2000 bc or later.While evidence of Harappa goods has been found in Sumerian sites, no such reciprocal evidence has been found at the Harappa sites, suggesting that the bulk of the Sumerian contribution probably consisted of consumable goods (Piggott, 208-9). Harappa contact with the Hissar III Culture of North Persia has been archaeologically established through the presence of the previously mentioned, mid-rib lacking spear heads. Additionally, evidence of intermittent contact with the people of the Caucasus and Turkestan has been established through the presence of characteristic bronze pins at Mohrnjo-daro and Harappa (Piggott, 210). In conclusion, then, while Harappa Culture may bear the marks of some of its contemporaries, as well as its Aryan conquerors, it was clearly in no way a second-hand culture. It was, in most ways, a truly unique and distinctly Indian culture. Much of the evidence contained in the archaeological remains reveals the foundation of what may have become modern Hinduism. From the obsession with cleanliness, as exemplified by the baths and drainage systems, to the identification of seals bearing the likeness of Shiva, we see the significant contributions made by Harappa Culture to the formation of Indian culture and Hindu practice of today.

 



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