TWIN CITIES - The discovery that added 2,000 years to Indian history

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  • Published 7.10.05

Finding Forgotten Cities: How the Indus Civilization was Discovered By Nayanjot Lahiri, Permanent Black, Rs 750

It is difficult to believe today that even in the early twenties of the last century, recorded Indian history was said to have begun with the Vedic Age around 1200 BC. One archaeological discovery changed all this and pushed back the frontiers of Indian history by at least 2,000 years.

The announcement that the Indus Valley Civilization had been discovered was made in 1924 by John Marshall, the then director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India. The discoveries were hailed as similar in scale to the discovery of Troy by Heinrich Schliemann, and of Minoan Crete by Arthur Evans. The discoveries announced by Marshall added a new dimension to the Indian and world civilization.

Nayanjot Lahiri, a trained archaeologist herself, tells the story of how the civilization came to be discovered. Her research is detailed and the documents she mines have never been used before. She has a great story to tell and she tells it well, with a wealth of fact and interpretation. Written from an archaeologist?s viewpoint, there was always the danger of the book descending into too many technical details. Lahiri avoids this and has produced a book that is enjoyable.

The ruins in Harrappa ? one of the principle sites of the Indus civilization ? were visited and described by 19th century British explorers and some of them even guessed that underneath the mound lay the relics of an ancient city. The first archaeologist to visit Harrappa was Alexander Cunningham who began the first excavations there in 1872. Cunningham discovered that some of the bricks from the ruins had been carried away to provide ballast for the railway lines being laid to link Multan to Lahore. Cunningham, as Lahiri explains, saw his excavations through a Buddhist grid. Thus he saw the artefacts and the seals he unearthed as going back to Buddhist times. He was unaware of the full significance of the past he had delved into. A proper excavation of Harrappa had to wait till 1921 upto which date it ?teetered on the verge of being excavated?.

Before excavations at Harrappa could proceed apace, news came that Rakhaldas Banerji, a historian and archaeologist from Calcutta, had discovered in Mohenjo-daro in Sind seals similar to those found in Harrappa. From the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, or mound of the dead, Banerji had retrieved what can only be described as a treasure. He had found and recognized seals of the Harrappa type. By the early Twenties, it was clear that archaeologists in India, led by Marshall, were poised to make a major breakthrough.

It fell to Marshall, of course, to string together the findings of the two sites, and he was forced to confront ?a range of cultural congruences between the two sites?. The seals were similar; the bricks were identical; there were clay bangles of the same kind in both places. He wrote, ?this forgotten civilization, of which the excavations of Harrappa and Mohenjo-daro have now given us a first glimpse, was developed in the Indus valley itself, and just as distinctive of that region as the civilization of the Pharraohs was distinctive of the Nile?There is no reason to assume that the culture of this region [i.e. the Indus Valley] was imported from other lands, or its character was profoundly modified by outside influences.?

Marshall?s initial conclusions were remarkably perceptive and accurate. In many ways, Lahiri?s book is a tribute to Marshall and his achievements. But the book also brings to life the careers of such early pioneers of Indian archaeology as Banerji and Daya Ram Sahni. She has also rescued from obscurity the work of the Italian, Luigi Pio Tessitori, to whom history owes the first findings of Kalibangan in Rajasthan, another important site of the Indus Valley Civilization.

What happened in history is often a mystery. Lahiri enlightens us on how what happened in prehistoric India became a part of known history.