Rakhigarhi (Inde): The lost world of Hisar’s Mohenjo-daro

The unusual mounds in a Hisar village attracted attention a century back, though it was much later that Rakhigarhi’s Harappan link was recorded. Considered the Indus valley civilisation’s largest human settlement, the site, where four skeletons were excavated recently, however faces irreparable loss and neglect rather than the expected bevy of excitement.

Deepender Deswal
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As archaeologists unfold the layers and turn the earth over at Rakhigarhi, 45 km from Hisar, the new findings are not only startling but also call for quick preservation efforts.

Nine mounds of Rakhigarhi village sit atop a huge slice of ancient Indian history — a human settlement spread well over 300 hectares dating back close to 5,000 years. Excavation led to its being described as the biggest of the nearly 2,000 sites of the Harappan era or the Indus village civilisation in the subcontinent. The Rakhigarhi site is considered bigger even than Mohenjo-daro, now in Pakistan. That, sadly, seems to be no big deal. Though the Archaeological Survey of India has declared mound numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and parts of 4 as protected area and deployed a watchman, Haryana Archaeology Department’s Deputy Director Ranvir Singh says it is still owned by the village panchayat as the ASI has not acquired it. Mounds 6, 7, 8 and 9 remain under private ownership of farmers, who plough the land for a living. 

Superintending archaeologist, Chandigarh circle, GN Srivastava, says there are several encumbrances in notifying the sites. “It features in UNESCO’s tentative list of proposed world heritage status sites, but encroachments on archaeological sites and monuments is a big issue in Haryana,” he adds. Global Heritage Fund, an international organisation working for the protection of endangered sites in the developing world, has included Rakhigarhi among Asia’s 10 most significant archaeological sites facing irreparable loss and destruction. “It is one of the largest and oldest Indus sites in the world, which is facing threat due to development pressures, insufficient management and looting,” it says. 

Dr Amarendra Nath, former Director (Archaeology) of ASI, who carried out excavations at Rakhigarhi from 1997 to 2000, stresses the need for preservation, but adds: “We are not like Europe and America. They try to protect sites by preparing heritage plans and have specific laws and bylaws. Though we also have such bylaws, it’s not possible to implement it in a place like Rakhigarhi. The panchayat is the local body which is not capable to protect and preserve such kind of sites.” The vagaries of nature and encroachments, he says, are almost uncontrollable and result in damage. There needs to be an administrative will to mend things at the government level. The locals are the stakeholders at such sites and their cooperation is a prerequisite,” Dr Nath maintains. Though a Punjab and Haryana High Court order of  2008 had directed the ASI to remove all encroachments from the ancient or protected monuments, including Rakhigarhi, and submit a report on a petition filed by Munshi Ram, a resident of Batala town in Punjab, the case is lingering with the affected persons (encroachers) getting the orders stayed. Dr Nath says it is difficult to dislocate residents even if they are offered a well-laid-out colony. “There is also no policy to rehabilitate people sitting atop these sites. It’s but natural for them to start utilising the open space for putting cow dung cakes, tying their cattle.”

Villagers like Vazir Singh Sirohi, the sarpanches of twin villages Rakhi Khas and Rakhi Shahpur, Rajbir Malik and Rajbir Sheoran, and panch Dharampal Singh have been developing the site and lobbying with the state government for its preservation for many years. Rajbir’s son Dinesh Singh says 80 per cent of mound 6 — a residential site — and 7, a burial site where human skeletons were unearthed recently, have been destroyed due to cultivation and lifting of soil. “Though some villagers recover antiquities while ploughing, we ensure nobody destroys the site. Some people own the articles but don’t indulge in illegal trade,” he claims. A good part of the site has also been destroyed by soil erosion and illegal sand lifting. Vazir Singh, whose contribution to the excavation process has been immense, says successive governments have ignored the site. “A museum is a must. Archaeologists and residents are in possession of a huge volume of artefacts. The village would figure on the world tourism map only if the government is forthcoming,” he adds. 

Haryana recently decided to preserve the site, with Director General of the Archaeology and Museum Department Ashok Khemka and ASI regional director TR Sharma inspecting the site. A tourist centre could be in the works, but nothing’s final.

Dated history of Rakhigarhi

Rakhigarhi’s historicity was noticed a century back, when the Survey of India mentioned the mounds in 1915. In 1969, Prof Suraj Bhan for the first time recorded the mature Harappan traditions in town planning, architecture, art and craft in a part of the site that was excavated. It was in 1997 that Dr Amarendra Nath, then Director (Archaeology) of the Archaeological Survey of India, started work at this site.

Last year, two more mounds were discovered. Till then, the archaeological remains spread across 300 hectares made Mohenjo-daro the biggest Harappan site, followed by Harappa, also in Pakistan. Dholavira in Gujarat was the biggest site in India.  As archaeologists unfold the layers and turn the earth over at Rakhigarhi, new facts and findings are emerging that establish it as the largest town of the Harappan era. The ancient city had flourished along the banks of Drishadvati river, a tributary of the Saraswati. It is being termed a cosmopolitan city and a hub of trade and culture during the Harappan civilisation that extended over vast areas in the northwest of the subcontinent. 

The site has gained prominence in view of its large size and the volume of antiquities and other startling facts that came up during the excavations, indicating it to be the most important of its time.   Of the nine mounds, those numbering 1 to 6 are residential localities. Mound 7 is a cemetery, from where four human skeletons were dug out recently. The ASI has got carbon dating done of mounds 1, 2 and 6, which establishes the preformative age of 5,640 years Before Present (BP), and 5,440 (BP) from samples from mound number 6. Excavations prove the existence of wheat, barley in the mature Harappan era and seeds of “bathua” in the early Harappan period.

Dr Nath, who carried out the excavation  from 1997 through 2000, claimed in his report to the ASI last year that Rakhigarhi made a substantial contribution in scientific and technical fields. He wrote: “The Harappans must have prepared a blueprint of the proposed town before providing all the civil amenities. The neatly laid out platforms, streets, drains, the provision of public wells, the separation of industrial area, houses in rows, erection of fortifications, walls in uniform width, and above all, the construction of a granary and religious podium suggest careful planning and efficient execution with precision.” The most interesting feature of the Harappan civilisation, he says, is its homogeneity — the uniform products of artistes that can be found in all cities and towns throughout the vast territory which came under its influence. “Rakhigarhi occupants produced tools, weapons and ornaments conforming to the standard in the Indus valley. The recovery of intaglio, seals, cubical stones, parallel-sided blades, gemstones, copper implements and earthware similar to Mohenjo-daro and Harappa is significant,” says the report.  Commerce as an idea also existed. The archaeologists are excited that the site still remains largely unexplored and it would take time to touch the virgin soil. Pune’s Deccan College, along with the Haryana Archaeological Department, had resumed excavation in January. They have decided to embark on excavation on a larger scale from next year. Dr Vasant Shinde, Vice-Chancellor of Deccan College and director of the excavation project, says many archaeologists from the US and Cambridge University have enquired about the site.

Mound of the Dead’

The ancient city of Mohenjo-daro (Mound of the Dead in Sindhi) sits on elevated ground in Larkana district of Sindh province in Pakistan. It’s spread out over 300 hectares on a series of mounds, which experts say grew as people kept building platforms for houses. The Indus valley civilisation emerged close to 5,000  years ago and thrived for a millennium. The occupants were skilled urban planners, with a bathing area and drainage system in every house. The wealth is evident in artefacts. The Indus river changing course probably resulted in the decline of the civilisation.

Korean expertise to the aid

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  • Enthused over the recovery of four skeletons in Rakhigarhi, archaeologists hope forensic scientists will reconstruct the DNA extracted from bones to help decipher the history and origin of the human settlement. Pune’s Deccan College in collaboration with the Haryana Archaeology Department and Seoul National University, South Korea, have been carrying out excavation at the site since January 23. A forensic team from Seoul will arrive in July to process the sampling of the skeletons for obtaining the DNA. Prof Nilesh Jadhav, co-director of the project, along with his team of research scholars — Yogesh Yadav, Malavika Chatterjee and Shalmali Mali — recovered the skeletons at mound 7 in Rakhigarhi.

  • The skeletons of two adult males, a female and a child have been found. With the help of forensic experts, we will try to reconstruct their DNA. We tried doing it with the help of a Japanese anthropologist five years ago, when a Harappan-era graveyard was discovered at Farmana village in Rohtak , but failed. Now, scientists from South Korea, equipped with advanced technology, will attempt to reconstruct the DNA,” says Prof Jadhav.

  • Ranvir Singh, deputy director, Haryana Archaeology Department, says 70 skeletons were recovered at the Farmana site, but they could not extract their DNA because the remains were damaged due to the presence of calcium in the soil. “The soil at Rakhigarhi is sandy so the skeletons are better preserved.”

  • The findings conclude that the disposal of the dead became an elaborate practice. The ASI report reads: “A higher number of earthenware was noted in female burials. Offerings were made of dish-on-stand, bowl-on-stand, goblet, beaker, globular jars, medium and miniature vases, dishes and basin, while the male dead were offered limited items.” However, the grave-pit of another female, which yielded no ornaments, indicated that widows or unmarried women were deprived of such adornments.

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