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Harappa’s greatest centre sheds light on our today

Vasant Shinde, Professor of Archaeology at Deccan College, Pune, speaks to Pawanpreet Kaur about Rakhigarhi, conceivably the largest centre of the Harappan civilisation.

PAWANPREET KAUR  16th Sep 2012

The excavated site at Rakhigarhi

hat can you tell us about Rakhigarhi?

Rakhigarhi is a village in Hisar district, Haryana, around 150 kilometres from Delhi. Our excavations have revealed it is the largest Harappan Civilisation site in the Indian subcontinent, with an estimated area of 400 hectares, which is 100 hectares more than any other known site. It is situated near the dry bed of Ghaggar (a section of Saraswati), which once flowed here.

What led to its discovery?

After the Partition, archaeologists began a systematic survey for Harappan sites along the Indo-Pak border. Archaeologists like J.P. Joshi, B.B. Lal, B. K. Thapa and A. Ghosh were convinced that sites like Mohanjodaro and Harappa were to be found here. Around 1963, Suraj Bhan, who was doing his PhD then, discovered that the village of Rakhigarhi was the site of an extensive Harappan city, in fact it was one of the early Harappan settlements. At first, no one was ready to accept its size, but after excavations were carried out between 1997 and 2000, people began to believe.

How were scholars able to determine the extent of the site at Rakhigarhi?

In addition to traditional methods of excavation, we used ground penetration radar (GPR), which uses electromagnetic radiation to image upto 20 metres of the subsurface. The digging has been followed up with scientific analysis of data and artefacts in the Deccan College laboratories.

What have excavations in the region revealed?

We have found typical Harappan features: town planning, wide roads (wider than Kalibangan), brick lined drains for sewage, pits that were used for sacrificial or religious purposes, a gold foundry and furnace, thousands of semi-precious stones and tools and a burial site with skeletons and their belongings.

What makes you sure that Rakhigarhi belongs to the early Harappan phase?

The artefacts we found point to Early and Mature Harappan phases, especially the pottery. We found deposits of Hakra ware, which is typically found in the Early Harappan phase. As against this, the pottery from the Mature phase has painting, Harappan motifs and even some letters from its script. In addition to this, the impressive number of pottery pieces, terracotta statues and seals, needles, fish hooks, weights and bronze artefacts that we have found all point to this particular phase. In fact, some major discoveries from the Harappan period have pushed back its antiquity by several hundred years.

While Western scholars think that this civilisation originated in Sindh, we are increasingly discovering that there could have been important sites that not just predate these but could have existed around the same time as Mohanjodaro and Harappa.

Have excavations in Rakhigarhi shed light on other discoveries made at Mohanjodaro and Harappa?

There is a misconception that the Harappan civilisation was homogenous. That is far from the truth. There are distinct signs of regional diversity, especially in town planning, disposal of the dead, in artefacts and so on. For instance, the skeletons we found at Rakhigarhi's burial ground all had their heads turned to the north. And, in the seals, the animals' faces are turned to the right instead of the left, as seen in the seals found in Mohanjodaro and Harappa. Each region had distinct features but these need to be studied more extensively.

What is significance of Rakhigarhi in the study of the Harappan Civilisation?Image 2nd

While most Western scholars think that Harappan civilisation originated in Sindh, we are increasingly discovering that there could have been important sites that not just predate these but could have existed around the same time as Mohanjodaro and Harappa. So, Rakhigarhi is an important site to study the evolution of the Harappan civilisation itself. Also, given its size, strategic location and proximity to the Khetri belt in Rajasthan, which has a rich reserve of copper, Rakhigarhi may well have been an important trade centre, especially of semi-precious stones or at least a significant trade route. Also, I feel it may have also been an important point of contact with the contemporaneous non-Harappan, non-urban cultures.

What is the condition of the site today?

Of the seven mounds at the site, three have been fenced and security arrangements put in place. One is under occupation (people are living there and it is impossible to move them), one is under cultivation and one is quite intact. We are trying to stop encroachments from the village, which is the single biggest threat to this site. And instead of using formulaic methods of Western laboratories, we are trying to determine indigenous methods to ensure the preservation of these structures using locally available material. But, I think at one level archaeological research has been flawed because scholars tend to focus only on the bigger sites. For instance, of the 2000 Harappan sites we have discovered so far, only five are cities. And yet, they have hogged all the limelight. There are other industrial and rural allied centres that deserve as much attention.

Has Rakhigarhi been able to shed any light on the theory of the origin and history of Aryans?

It is an intriguing question, one that can be understood only by identifying the actual cultural sequence of the Ghaggar/Saraswati. There are different hypotheses as regards the identity of the people who thrived on the banks of the Saraswati. Some people believe these were Aryans while others insist they were non-Aryans. My argument is that from 7000 BC onwards, we don't have any evidence of people migrating. If we say the Aryans came from outside, it should reflect in their lifestyle. From 7000 BC onwards, we have been able to observe that they are the same people. Studying Rakhigarhi has been a study of their legacy. The model Haryana household today is exactly how the households of people must have been thousands and thousands of years ago. There are too many similarities between modern day and ancient Rakhigarhi to ignore.

What future works do you plan to undertake in Rakhigarhi?

Aside from the excavations and analysis, we are trying to stop encroachments and trespassing by involving the villagers. You know, in 1965, 250 sites were identified in the basin. Today, only one or two of those are left. At first the villagers viewed us with suspicion. They thought if we found something the government would take away their land. Or that we were after the treasures buried in the ground. But when they saw us collecting bones and pieces of pottery, they were convinced we were doing serious work. Once they realised what the excavation meant, they took immense pride in the history of their village. So, we are now trying to promote Rakhigarhi as a historical tourism destination and for this we are involving villagers in activities like artefact-replica production, training as guides and so on. We are also trying to build an onsite museum and a research facility with an extensive training programme for students.

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