Harappan Culture: The First Bronze Age Civilization of South Asia
Department of Archaeology Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute Deemed University Pune/India
The period between the Stone Age and the Early Historic period was considered to be the “Dark Age” in Indian History. However, the discovery of the Harappan Civilization, the first Bronze Age Culture of South Asia, in the twenties of the last century pushed back the antiquity of the settled life in India by two thousand years at one stroke. This was considered to be the greatest archaeological discovery of the twentieth century in the Indian subcontinent. The development and spread of agriculture and pastoralism in South Asian are complex phenomena that have taken place over the course of more than 9000 years. “First light on a long forgotten Civilization” was probably the first reference to the discovery of the today well known “Harappan Civilization” of the Indian Sub-continent by John Marshall in his article in the Illustrated London News dated September 20th 1924 to the western world. Today, this Urban Civilization known for its unique town planning, script, trade contacts with the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, well developed craft techniques etc. is the focus of popular academic debate not just within the sub-continent but international academic circles especially since even today we have not been able to decipher their writings.
The Harappan Culture is known by different terms by different scholars such as Indus Civilization, Indus Valley Civilization, Indus-Saraswati Civilization, etc. Today ideas of indigenous development as a result of regional interactions among the existing earlier groups of people is believed to be the cause for the development of this civilization covering an area of 2.5 million sq. km nearly four times the size of its contemporary Mesopotamian and Egyptian Civilizations. Today the Harappans are believed to be a complex of many ethnic groups representing several cultural identities with large regional urban centers like Harappa (Punjab), Mohen-jo daro (Sindh), Rakhigarhi (Haryana), Dholavira (Kutch/Gujarat) and Ganweriwala (Cholistan) supported by numerable craft centers, and smaller village settlements practicing agriculture which supported this urban and international trading economy.
The Harappan culture cannot be studied as a homogeneous cultural phenomena as the cultural assemblages are varied, and include the Pre/Early-Harappan between 3500-2500 BC; Mature Harappan between 2500-2000 BC and the Post/Late Harappan after 2000 BC. A date of 2600 B.C. marks the approximate beginning of the urban fabric of the Harappans with the unification of the urban settlements, the use of writing, weights, Harappan-type ceramic designs, civic planning, etc and is believed to have disintegrated by 2100-1900 B.C.
The urban or the Mature Harappan Phase includes a wide range of urban and non-urban rural sites that are varied in size and function but are inherently known for several features like the town planning with defensive walls with impressive gates around the site, two or more divisions of the settlement at the site, drains, baked brick structures, brick size (4:2:1 ratio), pottery, script, similarity in craft products and techniques (etched carnelian beads, copper-bronze artefacts, lithic blades), seals, weights and measures, evidence of external trade etc.
The economy was largely based on agriculture, animal husbandry and trade with specialized exchange networks for the procurement and distribution of raw materials and manufactured items within and beyond the civilization in existence.
The Harappan civilization boomed with industrial activity and a wide range of mineral resources were worked at various sites notably marine shells, ivory, carnelian, steatite, faience, lapis lazuli, gold, and silver. Craftsmen made items for household use (pottery and tools), for public life (seals), and for personal ornament (bangles, beads, and pendants) for elite markets and long-distance trade. The standardization of crafts is attributed to centralized control of production, organized by a state-level organization.
Harappan pottery is perhaps the finest in India and is betokening of the achievement of the Harappan potter. It is made of extremely fine, well-levigated clay, free from impurities, and is uniformly well fired. The surface is treated with a red slip over which designs are executed in black. The painted patterns are rich in variety and the characteristic ones include intersecting circles, fish scales, the pipal leaf, etc but the bulk of the pottery is plain. Typical Mature Harappan shapes include S-shaped jars, the dish-on-stand and perforated cylindrical jars.
Use of copper and bronze for shaping tools, vessels and ornaments was a characteristic feature of the Harappans. Most of the artifacts found are tools of everyday use such as axes, adzes, knives fish hooks, chisels including pots and pans and items of personal use such as jewellery in form of bangles, beads, diadem strips, etc., while relatively few weapons of war have been found.
Evidence from sites in Mesopotamia suggests that the Harappans (Meluhha) exported wood, shell, ivory, gold, decorated carnelian beads, lapis lazuli and perishable items like textiles, cotton and food grains; and much of this trade would have been routed via the Gujarat coast due to its strategic location at the delta of the Indus River. Other goods found are indicative of the trade networks include gold from southern India or Afghanistan, silver and copper from Oman or Rajasthan, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan and turquoise from Iran and Afghanistan. It is believed that trade existed between Egypt and the Harappans on the basis of two terracotta mummies from Lothal. Also the blue colour used by the Egyptians is said to have come from Indigo cultivated in India. The presence of cubical weights of precise measures and impressions of seals (sealings) also point to a well-developed and structured system of trade with control and distribution methods. The well developed though undeciphered script was probably also an integral part of this network.
There is no clear idea about the composition of Harappan population in spite of the fact that a number of their grave-yards have been excavated. The sites like Harappan, Kalibangan, Rakhigarhi, Lothal, Farmana, etc., have produced separate cemeteries, but due to lack of sufficient scientific analyses such as DNA, Isotope, Neutron Activation, Trace Element, etc. features like genetic aspects, health and diet of the people is not sufficiently known yet. However, social stratification is evident in their burials.
Due to deteriorating climatic conditions, collapse of social network, dwindling trade, loss of agriculture base, etc. the Harappan culture began to decline, which is clear in their material equipment. It continued to survive in a decadent form up to 1500 BC and then disappeared from the scene. However, the Harappan legacy still exists in the area it flourished and the modern population are carrying forward it’s numerous traditions.