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The Harappan Culture

The Harappan Culture The extensive Harappan civilisation spanned from late circa 3000BC to 750BC.
This is the period when northwestern India and Pakistan embraced a distinctive form of a Bronze
Age urbanisation. Despite being stretched across 1022 sites (of which 616 were located in India),
only 97 of them have been excavated. With new sites being discovered and old ones being reexcavated, our knowledge of the Harappan civilisation is still evolving. Through radiocarbon
determinations, archaeologists have categorised the chronology of this time period into preHarappan, matured Harappan and post-Harappan civilisations. The Mature Harappan entails the
growth of a cultural tradition that extends back to the starting of village farming communities and
pastoral camps (Possehl, 2000). The Harappans then became the largest ethnic group in the Indus
Valley. Its organisational complexity led to a rapid territorial expansion (Shaffer and Lichtenstein
1989: 123). Urbanization was the most prominent marker of the sociocultural intricacies of the
Matured Harappan. Houses and fortified settlements were a common feature of the Harappan
civilization. The houses in villages were made from mud-bricks, reeds and stones for drains. Cities
had buildings made of burnt and sun-dried bricks (Singh, 2008). Floors were made of hard-packed
earth and covered with sand, while doors (as per clay models) had simple carved designs on them.
Houses were interconnected by elaborate drainage systems and were arranged along a grid
structure. The Harappans also made organised arrangements for bathing and drinking. One of the
most famous structures is the Great Bath. With water-tight bricks and thick bitumen on the floor,
this is one of the earliest signs of waterproofing in the world. The purpose of the Great Bath is still
not confirmed, however, the emphasis on providing water at bathing sites could suggest a religious
reasoning. Wells were also frequently used (particularly in Mohenjadaro), along with other sources
of water like cisterns and reservoirs. Harappa also had post-cremation burials for funerary practices.
Elevated citadels were used for public rituals and civic life; the citadel complex at Kalibangan
interestingly has mud-brick platforms and is referred to as a ‘fire altar’ (Upinder, 2008). The complex
urbanised structures of the Harappans thus indicate a broad range of social customs, religious beliefs
and practices. Agriculture was also practiced at multiple Harappan sites, the most important
domesticated animals being cattles and buffaloes. Presumably, these domesticated animals were
used for meat, wool, milk and as pack animals. Figurines indicate that elephants, tigers, rabbits, dogs
and monkeys (amongst other animals) were found as well. Two-wheeled carts were used to
transport goods and people, this has been depicted by multiple terracotta models. The most
commonly grown crops were wheat, rice, millet, barley and legumes. Goods were carried across
large distances by carts using oxen and donkeys to transport the merchandise. Horses were not
frequently used. Common routes of trade were Baluchistan, Sindh, Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujarat and
upper doab as indicated by settlement patterns and distribution of materials/products. Semiprecious stones, seals, textiles and metal are some examples of goods that were traded. For
example, Lapiz Lazuli was probably imported from Afghanistan, Jade from Turkmenistan, Tin from
Kazakhstan and chlorite from the Persian Gulf. However, barely any West Asian artefacts have been
found in Harappan contexts. Harappan seals are a very remarkable artifact when unraveling the
story behind the civilization. While Harappan seals were primarily used for stamping packages which
were to be traded, they bore religious and mythological motifs of great artistic quality. Sealings
shaped like date-seed, heart, shield, writing board and hare, fish, etc were found only at Harappa in
the Matured period. Pipal trees were a recurring theme in these square seals as well (Dhavalikar &
Atre 1986). Because the trees were 7 in number, it is speculated to have connections with later
beliefs in the seven rishis or seven mothers. The most commonly repeating animals were the
elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, tiger and two composite animals; often identified as deer or hill goat in most seals they are seen eating from a trough. Many silver mythical one-horned animal or unicorn
seals were also found at Mohenjodaro (Atre, 1985). The average size of the seals were around
2.54cm and were made of steatite. Stone seals were made by carving them with drills and chisels.
There were usually short inscriptions on each seal, however, the script has not been deciphered as
of yet. The texts/pictographs are very limited in nature, and there are no clearly recognizable word
dividers which would have possibly helped in analysing its meaning (Parpola, 1986). Considering
these difficulties, it isn’t very surprising that the decipherment of the Indus script still remains
unsolved. However, it is known that the script is read from right to left. Harappans had a high level
of expertise in craftsmanship such as stone working, metal crafting, pottery and bead making. The
pots were made in funnel-shaped kilns and were usually black-on-red (sometimes grey and buff too).
Elaborately painted pots may have been used by those of the upper-class during ceremonies. Ivory
carvings, beads, bracelets all demonstrate the Harappans expertise in shell working. Bangles were
made from conch shells. Bone-working was another form of making beads, pins and awls. One of the
most famous figurines is the “dancing girl” found during the 1926-1927 excavations. She was made
using the lost-wax method. Farmers, hunter-gatherers, craftspeople, sailors, ritual specialists, brick
masons, sculptors, shopkeepers, garbage collectors, merchants and fisherfolk were some of the
many occupations during the Harappan civilisation. While there may have been some form of
centralised control or class structure, the absence of armies, court officials and priest-kings suggest
there could have been a diffused administrative authority (Fairservis, 1967). Given the vast forms of
craftsmanship, trade, agriculture and urban settlements, it is fair to say that the Harappan
civilisation was one of the most prominent and influential settlements in history. Works Referenced:
Possehl, G. L. (2000). The Mature Harappan Phase. Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute,
60/61, 243–251. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42936618 Parpola, A. (1986). The Indus Script: A
Challenging Puzzle. World Archaeology, 17(3), 399–419. http://www.jstor.org/stable/124704
Shaffer, J.G. and Lichtenstein (1989). Ethnicity and Change in the Indus Valley Cultural Tradition, in
Old Problems and New Perspectives in South Asian Archaeology (J.M. Kenoyer Ed.), pp. 117-26.
Madison: Wisconsin Archaeological Reports, 2. Singh, U. (2008). History of Ancient and Early
Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th Century (1st ed.). Pearson India Education.
Dhavalikar, M. K. and Atre, Shubhangana 1986 Fire Cult and Virgin Sacrifice - some Harappan rituals.
Paper read at the International Seminar on South Asian Archaeology, University of Wisconsin,
Madison. November 1986 (In Press) Atre, S. (1985). THE HARAPPAN RIDDLE OF “UNICORN.” Bulletin
of the Deccan College Research Institute, 44, 1–10. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42930107
Fairservis, W. A (1967). The origin, character, and decline of an early civiliza- tion. New York,
American Museum Novitates. In press GADD, C.J