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Tuesday 18 April 2017

Vaishali bricks throw up posers on Harappa last leg

Krishnendu Das
The discovery of some Harappan-type bricks from Raghopur Diara of Vaishali district near Patna (report published in The Telegraph on April 8, 2017), is of immense importance to the country from both archaeological and historiographical perspectives. The findings may not only answer many hitherto unsolved questions that shroud the last phase of the great Harappan civilisation, but may force us write our early-period history afresh as well.

The director of Bihar's state archaeological directorate, Atul Verma, visited the place some six months ago and collected two bricks. He examined the bricks himself and also showed it to the former joint director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India, K.N. Dikshit. Dikshit confirmed the Harappan identity of the bricks after checking their thickness, width and length ratio which is 1:2:4, a typical "mature Harappan" trait.

Scholars have divided the entire Harappa era broadly into three phases - early, mature and late. The early phase spans from 3500 BC to 2800/2700 BC (from the beginning of village farming to the beginning of urbanisation). Mature phase was from 2700 BC to 2000/1900 BC (from the beginning of urbanisation to the starting of the devolution of the urbanism). The late phase spanned between 2000/1900 BC and 1400/1300 BC (post-urban Harappan).

In the mature phase, there was a standard ratio of the Harappan bricks as mentioned above. The kiln-fired bricks which were recovered from Raghopur Diara were exactly of the same size and nature as the mature Harappan bricks. This is startling as mature Harappan kiln-fired bricks were never found in east India so far. Till date, the easternmost Harappan site has been identified as Alamgirpur of the Ganga-Yamuna doab area of Uttar Pradesh. Other prominent Harappan sites which were situated in the vicinity of Alamgirpur are Hulas, Mandi, Sanauli and so on.

Alamgirpur and Hulas are late-Harappan sites though some mature Harappan materials - mud bricks, burnt brick (burnt bricks were not found in Hulas though unearthed in limited numbers from Alamgirpur), pottery pieces, stone and bone implements and some Harappan mud and mud brick structures have been excavated from there. The earliest dates, measured through the C14 method (a method to ascertain the date of an organic material using the radioactive isotope of carbon) of those sites go back to the middle of the 3rd millennium BC. Though some mature Harappan materials were found from these sites, any sign of mature Harappan urban prosperity has always eluded these areas.

Sanauli is a late-Harappan burial site. Some 125 graves have been discovered here. The site is very important because of the scarcity of the late-Harappan burial sites. Mandi is famous for its Harappan jewellery hoard. The hoard was found accidentally in the course of a ground levelling operation.

After the discovery, the villagers there began a hunt for more jewellery which continued for the next four to five days. The news reached the Uttar Pradesh archaeology department only after a few more days. Some 10 kilograms of jewellery were recovered from the site when the Uttar Pradesh state archaeology department and the Archaeological Survey of India sent teams to survey the village.

Archaeologists identified Mandi as a late-Harappan site. The treasury consists of two copper containers and a large number of beads made of gold, banded agate, onyx and copper. These types of materials were found earlier in sites such as Mohenjodaro, Harappa, Lothal, Kalibangan, Allahdino, Chanhudaro, Surokotada and Kunal, though not in hoards.

Scholars are yet to come to a conclusion as to how this jewellery hoard could be related to an otherwise "unimpressive" late-Harappan site as Mandi. However, what is strikingly significant here is that in none of the above mentioned eastern Harappan sites did archaeologists ever recover large numbers of Harappan kiln burnt brick as found at Raghopur Diara.

The late phase of the Harappan civilisation has long been a subject of scholarly debates and theories. What were the causes of the decline of the Harappan civilisation? Where did the Harappans go after the decline of the civilisation? Scholars such as Mortimer Wheeler and Gordon Childe believed that the invasion of the Aryans caused a civilisational downfall in Harappa. Primarily because Wheeler discovered some scattered human skeletons at Mohenjodaro. But this theory lost its validity after a close scrutiny of those 37 scattered skeletons of Mohenjodaro by archaeologist G.F. Dales of the University of California at Berkeley. Dales, one of the co-directors of the ground-breaking Harappa Archaeological Research Project, published his theory in the journal Expedition (May 1964 issue) describing the whole issue as a "mythical massacre".

Floods in the river Indus and several other natural calamities such as drought, earthquake and decline in the external trade of the Harappan civilisation are various other theories propagated by various scholars that dot scholarly materials regarding the decline of the Harappan civilization. In recent times, the most discussed theory on the decline of Harappa has been that of the drying up of the Ghaggar-Hakra rivers which are often identified with the Rig Vedic Sarasvati river.

Now, many archaeologists feel that we should look at the decline of Harappa from an altogether different angle. They believe that instead of the downfall of the civilisation, we could perhaps simply call it a process of gradual de-urbanisation of the Harappan civilisation. Whatever may be the cause behind this de-urbanisation, scholars have always remained sure that a group of Harappan people had migrated towards the east. The discovery of late-Harappan sites such as Alamgirpur, Hulas, Mandi, Sanauli and so on is nothing but examples of eastward migration of the civilisation.

But the unique case of finding of mature Harappan kiln-fired bricks at Raghopur Diara, about 1100 kilometres southeast of Alamgirpur, is sure to perplex archaeologists. The main question doing the rounds is that if the sites in Uttar Pradesh are known as late-Harappan sites, how can mature Harappan civilisation travel further eastward?

Therefore, scholars may now have to trace the entire course and span of Harappan civilisation anew if more associated Harappan materials are excavated from Raghopur Diara or its surroundings that authenticate the importance of the primary finding. The context of a finding is of utmost importance in archaeology. The findings have sent archaeologists across the country in a tizzy and many of them are already set to go to Raghopur Diara to survey the area in search of more clues.

If Raghopur Diara is established as a mature Harappan site, it will not only throw in the bin many theories on the civilisation and its decline but will also warrant a great deal of rewriting of the course of the civilisation, and therefore our history. But for now, we will have to wait for the results of the explorations which are going to be conducted by archaeologists.