These lectures suggest alternatives to the ‘holocaust’ theories of civilization collapse. They attempt to identify social, political, and religious processes that could account for the end of the Indus valley civilization, they argue for structural strains in Bronze Age systems. The lndus or Harappa civilization is placed in a wider geographic setting to explore not just internal factors but also those operating within the Bronze Age world at large.
An appendix gives a brief survey of the post-Harappan cultures, for easy reference, for students. The text is illustrated with diagrams, maps and photographs.
Shereen Ratnagar is Professor of Archaeology and Ancient History at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. With training at the Deccan College, Pune, and in Mesopotamia Archaeology from the Institute of Archaeology, London, she gained field experience in Turkey, Iraq and the Gulf. She is currently a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.
I thank the Heras Memorial Institute for the honour of the invitation to deliver this year’s Lectures. I have chosen as my topic the decline of the Harappan civilization, which civilization Twill refer to as a Great Tradition.
To begin with, I would like to pay particular attention to how the problem of the decline may be appropriately formulated. There is, for instance, a widespread misconception that it was the people—the Harappan rulers, tillers of the soil, seal carvers and boatmen—who were wiped out. While ‘the end of the IVC’ is more or less taken for granted, the notion that Harappan culture elements like the bullock cart and method of bead manufacture are still with us is accepted equally unquestionably. Moreover, not enough discussion has been directed to the idea that the decline of this civilization, which had appreciable contacts (albeit in varying degree) with the world at large, could be connected with happenings in Mesopotamia (Iraq), its eastern neighbour in lowland Iran, Elam, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, or even Central Asia, particularly in the matter of dependence on imports of metal. We also need to make a consistent attempt to distinguish symptom from cause, event from evidence, and triggers from underlying structural conditions.
What we need to explain is not a population ceasing to reproduce, but how a civilization, and its characterizing culture traditions, came to an end. This civilization was the product of a period of historical development in South Asia and was distinctive among the great river valley traditions of the third-millennium Bronze Age.’ The great Harappan cities may not have been as large as the primate cities on the Euphrates, but they were built with the finest quality baked brick and with great skill in masonry; they were often laid to a plan; and they had street drainage systems which few other third-millennium urban centres had. Flourishing between about 2600 and 1800 BC, the Harappan civilization had an impressive geographic spread in contrast to the Egyptian and Central Asian civilizations, for example. There is strong evidence of its seafaring reach and in this the Harappans could not be rivalled by the people of Mesopotamia, the Gulf, or Egypt, even though Harappan metal technology was comparatively rudimentary and the Harappans did not build grandiose pyramids as did the pharaohs of Egypt. In terms of the specifics of material culture, archaeologists can easily distinguish the seals of the Indus civilization from, say, contemporary Mesopotamian seals.
To continue with the rubric ‘civilization’, in archaeology this term signifies a stage of cultural development when metal and stone technology replaces reliance on stone and bone tools; when mud huts give way to multi-room dwellings, fortified enclosures, and grand residences at certain points on the landscape; when writing and monumental figurative art appear, and cities grow as political and economic nerve-centres. Further, in the stage we call civilization, diverse regional cultures are subsumed under a widespread style of material culture. Instead of a mosaic of various regional cultures we have similar archaeological assemblages spread across a large territory. Thus, what we will be dealing with first and fore most, is defined as an archaeological entity that was bounded in time and space. It is not some vaguely conceived ‘source’—linguistic, religious, or technological of our present culture.
The archaeological phenomena we identify as Harappan— baked brick houses, steatite seals carved in intaglios with high, pierced bosses, weights of a specific and uniform standard, long cylindrical carnelian beads, and sturdy red pottery in a set of recognizable shapes among other features—cease to appear in the archaeological record of the centuries between about 1900 and 1700 BC. Additionally, a very large percentage of Harappan villages and towns were deserted during or before that period, so that no vestiges of subsequent cultures are to be found at them. Thus a commonly drawn conclusion that ensues is that some holocaust such as enormous and unusually high floods, or a dramatic shift in the course of the Indus, or rainfall change of high magnitude had occurred. Often the material excavated is reified and equated with ‘a people’ in the sense not of the people who created those material objects, but an ethnic group. When Harappan artefacts were first found in Gujarat, for example, it was thought that ‘the Harappans’ had migrated there as refugees. It was not realized that the presence of Harappan artefacts there could mean the extension of the Harappan socio-economic system—for example, the spread of ascertain method organization of pottery manufacture—to that region. What we call Harappan material culture is not the same thing, and cannot be coterminous with, a past ethnic identity or breeding population in the biological sense. Thus our primary concern is neither demography nor ethnicity.
This is why the discussion that follows will not give pride of place to natural calamities such as floods or to radical environmental change as forces behind the end of the civilization. Instead, I will briefly review the theories that have been advanced regarding the natural catastrophes that could have brought Harappan civilization to an end, and the aim will be to gain a perspective.
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