Mohenjo Daro, still an enigma

August 16, 2020

Mohenjo Daro is a symbol of the region’s rich, glorious past, the loss of which will be a huge cultural and historical blow not only to Pakistan but also to the whole world

Stupa of the Mohenjo Daro city.

In a budget speech in February this year, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that the word shreni (meaning: traders’ guild) is inscribed on the Harappan seals. She was talking about the historical perspective of the Indian economy in the Bronze Age. Before this a three-day conference was held at the Mohenjo Daro Museum in January this year where archaeologists and linguists from around the world gathered to solve the mystery of the Harappan script. The conference concluded without any major findings.

30 kilometres south of Larkana city, the Mohenjo Daro-Radhan road connects the main city to the ruins of the largest civilisation of its time. The recently established state of the art motel inside the premises of the Mohenjo Daro complex offers good dine-in facilities and furnished rooms for tourists to stay and revel in the lost glory of the ancient city. Sitting comfortably in one room, one can observe the delicate ruins of a civilisation that lasted for more than a thousand years, now attracting tourists and history lovers alike from all around the world.

The story of the discovery of Mohenjo Daro goes back to 1918 when archaeologists heard about a Buddhist stupa. It was later revealed that it was not just a stupa that they had discovered, but a well-planned urban centre around 5,000 years old, buried under thick layers of soil and neglect.

In 1920 an important report was submitted by a young Bengali officer of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) named Rakhal Das (RD) Banerji who spent nearly two years investigating the ruins of the city. Instead of being honoured for this exploration, however, he was suppressed by Sir John Marshall, the ASI director-general. Banerji later submitted several important reports but Marshall took them as the genesis of Indus Valley civilisation. Marshall was the longest-serving head of ASI and contributed immensely but it was Bannerji who really investigated the ruins.

Today in history books, the discovery of the Harappan civilisation’s ruins is hugely credited to Marshall.

A giant replica of The King Priest.

In the 1920s the explorations of Mohenjo Daro totally changed the narrative of the Indian history. Archaeologists were expecting to discover architecture on the lines of the Gandhara civilisation but the ruins turned out to be of a city not older than 5,000 years.

Mohenjo Daro is a Sindhi word meaning Mound of the Dead Men. In Sindhi folklore, stories about the civilization existed long before the site’s excavation. The city was apparently one of the most developed in the world in its time - a centre of trade, culture and knowledge.

The mysteries of Mohenjo Daro include the excavations and deciphering of the Harappan Script: the seals with 6-8 alphabetic signs. Around 250 Harappan seals have been found from the cities of the Harappan civilisation containing 450 signs and logosyllabic text. American archaeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer believes that the text was for the elite and ruling class and not for laymen. It is a bilingual text unlike texts from other contemporary bronze civilisations of that era. It appears to be a token of merchants, or possibly connected to the produce from the countryside which was taken to and from the far west.

Amongst the many remains of the Harappan culture, including toys, earthen wears, musical instruments, games, the most puzzling are the seals. These are small, flat, square objects with pictorial motifs, mainly male deities, unicorn, bull and elephant. The inscriptions on Harappan seals remain undeciphered and hold the promise of interesting information when they can be finally read.

Indus Valley civilisation thrived because Harappans were peaceful people. No weapons were excavated from the sites of the great civilisation. They mainly focused on trade rather than conquests.

The cities of Mohenjo Daro, Harappa, and other sites in the Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat maintained surplus produce of the country. They constructed granaries found in both cities. The major source of income was the profit from a flourishing trade, both within the northern and western areas of the subcontinent and between the people of the subcontinent and those of the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia.

There are many theories about the decline of this great civilisation. The strong argument is drought or epidemic rather than violent death. However, according to Indian journalist Tony Joseph, the Harappan people did not disappear due to drought or some other natural calamity. He believes that Harappans abandoned the area and spread out to greener pastures carrying their language, culture and practices with them.

A giant replica of The Priest King is installed at the site. The seated male sculpture is perhaps the most powerful depiction of Indus Valley civilisation. The original statue is at the National Museum, Karachi.

At the time of Simla Agreement in 1972, the then president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had requested the then Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, to return the Priest King and Bronze figurine of The Dancing Girl to Pakistan as per international laws. Bhutto who hailed from Larkana located close to Mohenjo-Daro was aware of the historical significance of both the statues. It is stated that when given a choice between The Priest King and The Dancing Girl, Bhutto chose The Priest King for Pakistan.

The Harappan culture witnessed its zenith between 2600 BC and in 1900 BC also known as the Mature Harappan period.

An educational institution at Moenjo Daro.

At Mohenjo Daro an exciting place is the Mohenjo Daro Museum. It is the only museum of its kind in Pakistan not only because it has the largest collection of artefacts from the Indus Valley civilisation but also because it is an eco-friendly museum. It has no electricity for curations. It has been designed masterfully to have direct sunlight exposure. Tens of thousands of artefacts discovered at the site; ranging from copper, stone tools, jewellery pieces, beautiful beads of lapis lazuli, red carnelian, agate stones to figures of yogis, dancers, priests, shells, pottery, weights and toys are placed in the museum.

All major Harappan cities demonstrate high levels of urban planning in the mature Harappan age from 2600- 1900 BCE. The carefully planned lanes and streets link east with west and north with south. Planned brick-lined cities, the world’s first indoor toilets and a proper sewerage system, show that Harrapans were a highly civilised people. They wore soft cotton clothing and were peaceful Utopians. There are no other examples of such well-planned cities from that time.

In all cities of the Harrapan civilisation, there was no concept of building giant palaces and worship places. There was also no concept of slavery.

The cities show evidence of an advanced sense of civic planning and organisation. Each city was divided into a citadel, where essential institutions of the city were located, and a lower city consisting of the residential area.

According to some historians, the population of Mohenjo Daro, even in its heyday, was not more than 40,000 people. The people grew wheat, maize and other crops and used spices in their foods. The South Asians obsession with spices starts from the Harappan age.

Signboards in Mohenjo Daro are written either in (poor) English or in Sindhi, which poses a difficulty for tourists.

Mohenjo Daro has also served as a political tool for Bhuttos. In 2014 when Bilawal Bhutto started his political career, a Sindh Festival was organized amid crumbling architecture.

In recent years steps have been taken by the provincial government for the promotion and preservation of heritage sites. In 2014, the long-awaited Dry Core Drilling began at the site. In 2018, a 5,000-year-old drainage system was reactivated to protect the site from further decay. More recently an International Conference on the Harappan script was organised.

Indus Valley civilisation thrived because Harappans were peaceful people. No weapons were excavated from the sites of the great civilisation. They mainly focused on trade rather than conquest.

The loss of Mohenjo Daro will not only be the biggest cultural and historical loss for Pakistan but also for the whole world. It is a symbol of the region’s rich past and pride of the country. The Dancing Girl replica is installed at the site showing the glory of the lost city, and that of a country where dance is often linked to vulgarity.

The writer tweets @Ammad_Alee

Mohenjo Daro, still an enigma