Dig this! Haryana has a Harappan connect

Jun 24, 2012, 12:06 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Dated over 5,000 years ago, and located barely 150 km from Delhi is one of South Asia's oldest and largest sites belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. Sunday MiDDAY gets to the bottom of this nondescript, and astonishingly neglected landscape that requires immediate attention to save it from permanent ruin

Indiana Jones might want to come out of retirement after reading this.

On April 27, the Asia Society, a repository of global affairs that covers culture, education, arts and heritage, had released a worrisome list on its website. This list, compiled by Jeff Morgan, executive director and co-Founder, Global Heritage Fund (GHF) had chronicled 10 of the most endangered heritage sites in Asia. Sites from Pakistan, the Philippines, Laos, China, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Afghanistan and India made it to this unenviable list.

The Indian mention was located in rural Haryana, in the sleepy twin-village of Rakhigarhi. At first sight, the landscape in and around Rakhigarhi can be deceptive — rural India in its rustic earthiness look pristine. Images of this location revealed a site in neglect and shocking ruin, such that it might well have fallen off the archaeological map of the world.

Rescue mission
When archaeologists stumbled upon this site, it proved to be a revelation. Digs had unearthed evidence of paved roads, drainage and rainwater collection systems, terracotta bricks, statues, and advanced working tools. Some of the mounds here measure up to 50 feet high with the width of three football fields.

While partial excavations were done a decade ago, work at this gold mine was abandoned in 2004. Eat this — presently, this site is used for the drying and harvesting of cattle dung, which is used by villagers as cooking fuel! Sadly, the important site lacks markers to highlight its importance to visitors who might chance upon it. Encroachments are another constant threat. Looting has also been rampant with both residents and non-residents having dug out the mounds to steal priceless artifacts for the international market.

In fact, GHF has just released a new report, Asia’s Heritage in Peril, which throws more light on this treasure trove and the urgency to salvage it from complete ruin. With Rakhigarhi coming under the GHF purview, one hopes that the site’s chances at survival will get a shot in the arm. The body will provide protective cover during the excavation works in order to ensure protection of the site, its findings and prevent vandalism.

What next?
SK Misra, the chairman of the Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development will be coordinating developmental activities relating to the twin villages. In this context, he has already had a preliminary meeting with the Chief Minister of Haryana, Bhupinder Singh Hooda. The next step will involve the formation of a Developmental Committee for Rakhigarhi. This will be set up with all stakeholders and concerned organisations as well as government representatives. The matter was in discussion when this story went to press.

Eminent archaeologist Professor Vasant S Shinde of Pune’s Deccan College, has been associated with the Rakhigarhi Project from the start. Excerpts from an interview:

How did Rakhigarhi enter this list? How did your team stumble upon this site, possibly among countless others in the reckoning within the Indian subcontinent?
Rakhigarhi is the biggest Harappan site known to archaeologists since 1965. Since 2006, we would visit the site while excavating the site of Farmana, which was in the vicinity. Whenever we reached the site, we noticed that its size was getting smaller because of encroachment. To save it, we began to conduct research and conservation.

What were some of the defining factors that helped classify it as a site that belonged to the Indus Valley Civilisation?
Characteristic Harappan artefacts, including seals and sealings, pottery, weights, terracotta figurines of human and animals, blade tools and their jewellery that were found on the surface, are testimony to their antiquity. Three seasons of work at the site brought our attention to a part of the typical Harappan grid town planning.

What do you believe helped the Indus Valley sites (Mohenjo-daro, Harappa and now, Rakhigarhi) survive and be regarded as an advanced civilisation?
The Harappan legacy has not died down. Most of the traditions and technologies that were introduced by the Harappans 5,000 years ago continue in many parts of the Harappan region. Modern-day man in these parts also believes that they are the abodes of their ancestors and hence revere them.

What are the concerns that need to be addressed here? How can this process take shape with the Indian, state and local bodies?
The immediate concern is the need to save this, the largest Harappan site in India. By undertaking research we hope to understand the evolution of Harappan cities, the role played by this site in socio-economic organisations of the Harappans and its contribution to the history of the region, and the world. We would like to develop the site for tourism too.

What other Indian sites nearly made it to the GHF list of endangered heritage sites?
Farmana and Mitathal in Haryana, Dholavira and Lothal in Gujarat, and Gilund in Rajasthan.

Is Asia on par with the rest of the world as far as heritage conservation is concerned?
Of late, yes. There is a growing awareness and the government, NGOs, private citizens and establishments are striving to preserve heritage sites.

What were your most definitive findings at Rakhigarhi?
Initial investigations tell us that the site appears to be potent in understanding development and distribution of craft specialisation, civil engineering skills of the Harappans and resource management. There’s plenty to learn from this civilisation. The legacy continues, and we in India are following the traditions developed them.

Did you know?
> While the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures are best known and studied, the largest was actually the Indus or Harappan civilisation.
>This culture once extended over more than 3,86,000 square miles (1 million square kilometres) across the plains of the Indus River from the Arabian Sea to the Ganges, and at its peak may have accounted for 10 per cent of the world population.
>The civilisation developed about 5,200 years ago, and slowly disintegrated between 3,900 and 3,000 years ago — populations largely abandoned cities, migrating toward the east. 

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