In the late fifth century BCE, one Ctesias of Cnidus, a Greek physician at the Persian court, wrote passages that described the Indus River and its environs in the distant land of Sindh, and spoke of local exotica, including unicorns. Even then there was no memory of the great ancient civilization that once flourished there and then fell, a millennium and a half before. Another millennium and a half was to pass before British railway builders stumbled upon the startling remains of what is today called the Harappan, or more commonly, the Indus Valley Civilization, which once straddled the now sometimes contentious border region of southern Pakistan and northwestern India. Among the artifacts eventually uncovered were ancient Indus seals–contemporary with Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt–inscribed with a script that yet remains undeciphered, and decorated with images of unicorns!
The hearts of ancient history aficionados tend to beat a little faster when the Indus Valley Civilization comes up in conversation. One of three great ancient civilizations of the Old World, along with Egypt and the Mesopotamian city states, it almost certainly hosted the largest population–perhaps as many as five million–and was the most geographically widespread. Yet, it is the least known and thus the most fascinating and enigmatic of the three.
It is this that makes the publication of The Indus, by Andrew Robinson–the first entry in a new series entitled Lost Civilizations–such a welcome addition to the scholarship. In a remarkable achievement, Robinson–a polymath who is at once journalist, scholar, and prolific author–has written an outstanding digest-sized volume that brilliantly summarizes nearly everything that we know about Indus and what remains unknown or in dispute. Moreover, he does so in an engaging narrative style replete with fact, analysis and interpretation suitable to both the scholarly and popular audience.
In 1856, British engineers laying the East Indian Railway Company line in the Punjab pilfered tons of bricks for ballast from forgotten ruins along the way, including Harappa, which unknown to them was once a great urban center inhabited from 3500-1300 BCE, and one of the largest cities of the Indus Valley Civilization. Some years later, amateur excavations turned up the first unicorn seal, but its significance was overlooked. Serious archaeology began in the 1920s, and coincided with the discovery of another large city, Mohenjo-daro, in Sindh. The following decades revealed that the Indus Valley Civilization encompassed a vast region represented by well over a thousand cities and settlements (uncovered thus far), extending over at least at least 800,000 square kilometers (more than 300,000 square miles), with a population in the millions.
This astonishing civilization, at its height 2600-1900 BCE, was built upon thriving river basin communities centered upon wheat and barley cultivation (and later, rice) along the Indus River, as well as another ancient river that long ago went dry and vanished, that some–including Robinson—identify with the legendary Saraswati and its descendant, the Ghaggar-Hakra river system, which now flows only with the monsoon. It is clear from Indus seals (which depicted real as well as fanciful creatures!) that they domesticated animals, including the humped zebu cattle and the water buffalo. Arts and crafts were highly developed, as was metallurgy. In addition to a writing system, they created a uniform system of weights and measures. Extensive trade networks by land and sea carried raw materials and finished objects as far as away as Mesopotamia, where no less a historical figure than Sargon of Akkad circa 2300 BCE boasted of ships from “Meluhha,” as the Indus was known to him, docking at his capital. Trade may also have extended to Egypt and Minion Crete. Their cities were architecturally stylized masterpieces of engineering, evidenced careful street planning, and remarkably sophisticated water drainage and sewage systems–including the world’s first toilets–that could only have been possible in a highly organized and carefully managed society. Yet, there appears to be no indication of armies or warfare. Indus Valley Civilization flourished for centuries before entering a period of slow decline most likely due to environmental factors, around 1900BCE—several hundred years prior to the time Ramses II ruled Egypt—and eventually disappeared entirely, although tantalizing traces of its cultural imprint can be detected even today.
What can we make of Indus, which truly is a “lost” civilization? As Robinson describes it, the challenges of archeology and interpretation have been and remain substantial. Stripping ruins for railway construction was only the first of many insults to the legacy of Indus. Early excavations were sloppy, in the days before strict archaeological methodology was standardized. With scant evidence, conclusions were reached and loudly trumpeted of a warlike people given to “militaristic imperialism” led by a “ruthless authoritarian regime,” who finally only succumbed to Indo-Aryan invaders—none of which stands up to scrutiny. The material culture has yet to reveal any traces of war, or even soldiers. And while Indo-Aryan migrations into the region did in fact occur, these were not coterminous with Indus decline. At the other extreme, Hindu nationalists—who vehemently reject the scholarly consensus that Sanskrit is a member of the Indo-European language family rooted in those later Indo-Aryan migrations—have on entirely spurious grounds attempted to hijack Indus as the autochthonous ancestor of Hinduism and Indian national identity. These politically powerful forces have even created from whole-cloth a faux decipherment of the Indus script, to serve their propaganda objectives, which is utterly baseless. Archaeological efforts have been compromised over the years by a variety of factors, most prominently the 1947 partition that created Pakistan and India as separate and often hostile nation states—and effectively drew an international boundary line through Indus sites in a volatile region that makes excavation both difficult and dangerous. Moreover, environmental dynamics in flooding and high water table salinity threaten existing sites and complicate future excavation. In fact, about ninety percent of Indus sites remain unexcavated, including Ganweriwala, a huge urban center that ranks in size with Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro! Finally, the stubborn resistance of the Indus script to decipherment despite decades of intensive efforts offers little hope that the many mysteries of the Indus Valley Civilization will be resolved anytime soon.
It is a testament to the genius of the author that he was able to take so much material and condense it down to such a small volume without compromising the quality of the work. Concisely but carefully, in chapters that examine architecture, trade, society and the like, he discusses what is known and deconstructs competing arguments of interpretation. And while he refutes the specious attempts of Hindu nationalists to connect the dots from ancient Indus to modern India, Robinson makes a strong case for continuity in conspicuous traces of Indus Valley Civilization that seem to have indeed left an indelible footprint on the South Asian landscape. There are elements of religious symbolism that echo in Hinduism, including ritual purification, as well as the unique system of weights and measures that still survives in markets in India and Pakistan today. One of the book’s many delightful photographs shows Harappan terracotta votive objects depicting zebus and a wheeled cart, juxtaposed with a facing page contemporary photo of a similar bullock cart in use in the Indus valley, some four thousand years later. Robinson includes much discussion of the Indus writing system and the lost language it recorded, as well as its possible link to the Dravidian family of languages prevalent in southern India today.
Robinson’s little book is an excellent introduction to an extraordinary civilization that has been all but lost to time. Skillfully organized and well-written, this fine work also contains a wealth of illustrations, photographs, maps, and a timeline, adding to its accessibility for the general audience, while the meticulous notes underscore its reliability for a more scholarly one. A glance at some of the human faces staring back at us from Indus art provokes chills of a sort for the modern reader, evoking snippets of Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias and reflecting that long before Caesar, or Pericles, or even Tutankhamen, in the days when Khufu’s mummy was interred at Giza, there was a magnificent civilization in South Asia that then disappeared from human memory for thousands of years. And we are still trying to rediscover it.
[Map credit: By Avantiputra7 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons,
[Unicorn Seal credit: Unicorn Seal, Mohenjo-Daro, https://www.harappa.com/indus/25.html]
I have reviewed other volumes in the Lost Civilizations series here: