Arts Illustrated

July 6, 2020

Underground realities

The ancient city of Harappa of the Indus Valley Civilisation brings out its magnificence not through opulence or majestic monuments but through its understated brilliance of a city perfectly planned and imagined

Suzanne McNeill

Our arrival in the ancient city of Varanasi was challenging. The taxi driver who picked us up at the airport knew approximately where our riverbank haveli was located, but had no idea how to actually get us there. Navigating the maze of alleys and passageways that lay between the main road and Shivala Ghat demanded the homing instincts of a carrier pigeon and, anyway, the narrow, twisting streets would not accommodate his car. Defeated, and feeling cheated of a full fare, he eventually relinquished us and our copious amounts of luggage to a bicycle-rickshaw driver, who piled everything onto the passenger seat, insisted I perch on top of it all, and decorously wheeled us to our destination.

Centuries of organic growth, punctuated by periods of religious iconoclasm and reconstruction, have left their mark on Varanasi’s built environment, and the sustainability of the city’s infrastructure has been the subject of several academic studies in recent years. The discovery, during the 1920s, of the remains of an even more ancient city that stretched for miles beneath the dusty plains of west Punjab (in modern-day Pakistan) was an archaeological find that defied belief, not only in terms of its antiquity, but because the remains of the city showed a mastery of built space that was both subtle and visionary, a far cry from the labyrinthine warrens that characterise the older parts of the subcontinent’s teeming cities.

Harappa of the Indus Valley Civilisation

Archaeological discoveries of copper and bronze tools alongside traditional stone blades and implements had hinted that a form of urban life had begun to develop in India from the end of the 4th millennium BCE. Now it was apparent that the developments had come to flower in the first of India’s great civilisations, the Indus Valley Civilisation, from around 2,700 BCE. The city, which was called Harappa after a nearby village, was one of a number of major urban centres situated within the Indus river basin, and it had a central role in a territory that spread for 500,000 square miles, from the coasts of the Arabian Sea as far as the Himalayan foothills.

The floodplains of the Indus valley produced fine, fertile soils and agriculturalists settled and grew cereals in abundance. Their surplus crops generated wealth. Craft industries flourished, and fostered trade. The settlements became cities that housed thousands of people and a sophisticated urban life developed – excavations have yielded ceramics and jewellery, measuring weights and tokens, and a script of 400 characters that is yet to be deciphered. More impressive yet, however, is the built environment – the streets, buildings and their supporting infrastructure – that characterised Harappa.

Harappa of the Indus Valley Civilisation

The city was divided into two parts, one upper, one lower. Within the lower town were the residential streets, paved and clearly laid out at right angles in a uniform grid pattern like a modern city, with north-south streets intersected by east-west lanes. The road widths were standardised – the major boulevards are typically twice as wide as the side lanes and residential alleys – and it is suggested that the generous widths may have been dictated by the dimensions of the ox-drawn wheeled wagons that were also a Harappan innovation (one street still bore the rut marks of passing traffic), perhaps the world’s first example of traffic planning.

Water management was a major feature of Harappa. Houses either had their own water wells or water was delivered directly using an elaborate hydraulic system. Drinking water was kept separate from waste water, and the system also supplied water for irrigation and managed storm waters, channelling them away to the reservoirs around the city. Drains, which began from rooms designated as ‘bathrooms’ within the dwellings, fed waste water through a system of sewer lines that ran below the streets, each capped with stone inspection traps.

Harappa was protected by massive walls but the lack of evidence of any war-like activity or even weapons suggests that the walls were most likely built to protect the residents from floods. A commanding citadel, situated on an elevated mound above the lower city, was more heavily fortified. It may have been built to reinforce status or to intimidate potential attackers, or as a symbol of power and dominance over the surrounding countryside. If so, it was remarkably successful for a period of 1,000 years.

ancient city

Alongside the citadel are the remains of a great public waterproofed tank or bath, but the largest structure found in Harappa is believed to be a granary – provisioning a city with a population estimated at 30,000 required enormous storage capacities. The granary consisted of 12 units arranged in two rows of six rooms each, with air ducts to allow fresh air to flow, and divided by a central passage. Associated with the granary were circular brick working floors – discoveries of chaff from wheat and barley indicates that they were used for threshing grain – and they were located near the ancient river bank, suggesting that the grain may have been shipped to the city by barge.

In fact, the importance of trade to Harappa has been underlined by the discovery of numerous balance weights. These are cut from stone in the shape of cubes and polished, and the units increase in a scale of standardised gradations, from about half a gram to over 11 kilograms. Weights of the same period, calibrated to the Harappan standard, have been found at distant trading centres in Mesopotamia and Central Asia.

The standardisation of weights, bricks, grid plans and building styles was a feature of a homogeneous culture that spread across several hundred ‘Harappan’ sites of the Indus Valley Civilisation, a uniformity that has been described as impressive but also obsessive, and, in one account, a little dull. Archaeologists have found no grand monument to a particular ruler or structures that celebrate military might or adherence to a religious theocracy, and nothing of the ostentatious displays of wealth of later empires. Indeed, the dun-coloured rows of footings and foundations, the dusty thoroughfares and raised platforms contain little that catches the eye. So, perhaps, we should look to that obsessive standardisation to explain the distinctive character of Harappan society.Historians speculate that this tells us something of the nature of authority at this time: that the state was organised in a co-operative way for the greater good, not for the enhancement of the elite.

Of course, the material available to the city’s builders, had they wanted to build grandiose monuments, was limited. The region lacked stone, and timber was valued as fuel. Instead, the art of the Harappans resided in the little artefacts they created. Discoveries of small terracotta figures with round breasts and wide hips suggest they celebrated fertility. Craftsmen used diamonds to drill uniform holes through beads and precious stones, which were strung into necklaces and earrings.

A remarkable discovery from another city is the bronze statuette of the ‘dancing girl’, a unique figure of a young woman who stands confidently, hand on hip, head held high. The most common finds in Harappa, however, are small, square seals made of steatite – thousands have now been recovered. Carved in reverse with pictorial symbols and script, and depicting many different creatures – bulls, rhinoceros, elephants, antelopes and a single-horned ox – the seals would have been used as stamps to leave an image in wax, perhaps in this trading empire to mark a commodity or seal a transaction. They can be considered as the first art objects in India.

Harappa survived for 1,000 years, but then disappeared, almost without trace. Historians linked this with the arrival of the Aryan settlers but new theories point, ironically enough given the precocious water management systems of this most planned of cities, to twin problems of water deprivation and inundation. The shifting course of the Indus River left the city and its farmlands without water, causing its civil life to collapse, whilst floods obliterated the cities of the plain under layers of mud and alluvium.

Harappa of the Indus Valley Civilisation

The Pink City of Jaipur is often cited as India’s first planned city. Founded in 1727 by Jai Singh II, it was built to a grid pattern in accordance with the principles of the ancient treatise on Hindu architecture called the Vastu Shastra that describes principles of design, layout and spatial geometry. Jai Singh chose a flat site skirted by hills on three sides for defence (and a ready supply of building material). River courses were dammed and re-routed to supply water to the canals that channelled through the new city. The main thoroughfare was built along the site’s slight ridge, making best use of the topography to ensure that water drained away on either side. This was crossed by roads at right angles, dividing the town into nine equal-sized blocks or wards, further bisected by lanes and alleys. The width of the streets and lanes were fixed at standardised intervals. The principles that shaped Jai Singh’s showcase city were probably formed at the same time that Harappa was established. I cannot recall any difficulty finding our hotel!


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