Mound 4 looks as unimpressive as it sounds, a small rise with plastic waste and garbage strewn along the three-minute walk to the top. Hundreds of pucca houses have been built on it, complete with cowsheds, the cattle contentedly chewing fodder, the men flaked out on cots in the verandahs, sleeping off the summer afternoon, women heard from inside houses but not seen. Appearances, though, are misleading. Under the sprawling settlement on Mound 4, say archaeologists, is the site of an at least 5,500 year-old human settlement, an important centre of the Harappan Civilisation in the Indus Valley, one that they claim could unlock the mysteries of the people of ancient India. Among the many questions it hopes to answer is an enduring one: who were the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation?
With a total of seven, or possibly nine, such mounds, Rakhigarhi, comprising the twin villages of Rakhi Khas and Rakhi Shahpur, in Hansi tehsil of Haryana’s Hisar district, 160 km from Delhi, is regarded as one of the two big Harappan settlements located in India — the other is Dholavaria in Gujarat.
In recent years, Indian archaeologists studying Rakhigarhi have begun to estimate its size as at least 350 acres, describing it as the largest Harappan site yet, bigger than Harappa in Sahiwal and Mohenjo-daro in Sindh, the two Pakistani Harappan centres that have been the face of the Indus Valley Civilisation.
In the mid-’90s, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) notified some of the land in Rakhigarhi, and four mounds are now categorised as “protected” sites. “The significance of Rakhigarhi is that this is the biggest now in terms of size of the settlement. It was thought that Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan was the biggest site so far. It is spread over 300 hectares but this is spread over 500 hectares,” says Vasant Shinde, professor of South Asian Archaeology at the Deccan College Post Graduate and Research Institute in Pune.
Shinde, who has been carrying out excavations at the site with financial and logistics support from the Haryana government over the last two years, estimates Rakhigarhi’s antiquity as more than 7,000 years, going back to 5,500 BC, a period described by archaeologists as “early Harappan”. The settlement’s life span, Shinde said, included all Harappan phases — the early; the “mature”, or the Harappan civilisation phase from 2,600 BC to 2,000 BC; and the “late Harappan” in 1,500 BC, when it began to decline.
From March to May, working with over 150 villagers, Shinde and his team of archaeologists from the Deccan College, carried out excavations at Rakhigarhi for the second consecutive year. At Mound 7, likely a burial site, where the team found five skeletons in 2015, another 39 skeletal remains were dug up this year.
“We are not trying to understand the Harappan burial customs as a lot is known about that already. What we are trying to understand, instead, are the basic questions. Like there is a lot of controversy surrounding who the Harappan people were. Were they locals or outsiders?” he says. The most important question is the possibility of finding out “whether the modern population are descendants of Harappan people,” he adds. A DNA test is the only way to do that and there is good news on that front.
“We have found what has not been found at any other Harappan excavation site before — a DNA extraction from the skeletal remains,” says Shinde, describing it as one of the biggest breakthroughs in Harappan research, “The important aspect that we are working, on which has never been done before, is the facial reconstruction of the Harappan people. The South Koreans have developed a software in which if we feed the DNA data along with the morphological features, like measurements of bones, it can help us reconstruct the face. For the first time, we will be able to see what Harappans looked like, the colour of their skin, their eyes and so on.”
The lab in Seoul has sent the reports of the tests, but Shinde says they can’t be made public yet. He, along with his team, have tied up with top universities for cross-verification of the data. “Their experts will come down to Hyderabad in July and confirm the data and reports that we have received. Once that is done, we will apply for the data to be published in a world-reputed journal and only after that will we reveal it to the media and rest of the world,” he says.
Haryana’s excellent roads make access to Rakhigarhi easy. From the smooth highway to a slip road, through a smaller road between fields lined with tall eucalyptus, where the wheat has recently been harvested and the dry soil awaits rain and the next crop, is a short distance to the place that could change what we know about ancient India. On the mounds between and around them, and inward, is the village of Rakhi Shahpur, and next to it, Rakhi Khas, with a combined population of about 20,000 people.
Mound 7, where the bodies were found, is a private field and does not have ASI protection yet. After the excavation, carried out with the permission of the owner, it has gone back to being a field and has been tilled for the next crop. On Mound 2, signs of the excavation that Shinde and his team undertook earlier this year are still visible. A 10 ftx40 ft area, where there was a dig has been covered, first with a black plastic sheet and then with layers of mud.
“This way the layer that we have dug remains protected. We only have to lift the plastic off when the digging resumes,” says CA Chaliya, the district archaeological officer from Hisar.
Chaliya is well known in the village. The Haryana government’s archaeology department is funding the excavation. He is in charge of logistics, including hiring villagers to work at the dig. Through the season, the dig employed 100 to 150 people daily. Two women from the village, faces covered with their dupattas, joined the tour of the mound. “There should be more excavations in Rakhigarhi. It has been good for the village. Lots of people got jobs at the site for two or three months,” says Bateri, one of the women, “but still, some complain because they were not employed every day”.
To keep the peace in the village, as well as earn everyone’s goodwill, Chaliya says he rotates the jobs between sets of villagers, paying them each Rs 350 per day. “But we cannot employ 500 people a day, that’s not the kind of work we do here,” he says.
Rakhigarhi’s goodwill, says Shinde, is crucial to the study of the site. At first, the residents were opposed to the excavations because of the restrictions it placed on them. After continuous interaction with the villagers, explaining to them the importance of what lay beneath their land, and the potential it had for tourism and other development, Shinde says the villagers came around.
“We do not feel the need for any security on the site anymore, thanks to the villagers. Whenever we go for excavations, they have a house ready for us and get us whatever we need. It’s a great working relationship and they are active stakeholders now,”
The villagers agree, mostly. “Our village has become famous. That is good for us,” says Bhupinder Singh. His father Surinder Singh’s home, complete with a cowshed and a well in the yard, doubled as a guest house for some members of the team during the excavation.
Shinde said the team would not carry out more excavations at the site for the next one year. The Haryana government is also planning a museum at the site and has identified land for it. “We want to preserve the site and protect whatever we excavate, preserve the remains so that we can develop the site from tourism point of view. People should know, they should be able to imagine what it was to walk through the Harappan streets,” he says.
The Harappan or the Indus Valley Civilisation, occurring in the Bronze Age, had a geographic spread greater than any contemporaneous civilisation. The Mesopotamian Civilisation in present-day Iraq, which began in 5,000 BCE and flourished between 3,500 BCE and 2,500 BCE, and with which the Indus Valley inhabitants had trade links, was located between two rivers — the Tigris and the Euphrates. The Nile Valley Civilisation grew at about the same time along the river, after which it is named in present-day Egypt.
Remains of the Indus Valley Civilisation have been found as far out in the west as present-day Iran, present-day Afghanistan to the north, Uttar Pradesh to the east, and Maharashtra to the south. Since the discovery of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in 1922, over 1,000 Harappan sites have been discovered across India and Pakistan.
The loss of the two major Harappan sites to Pakistan spurred archaeologists of a divided and newly independent India to find sites of the ancient civilisation within the new borders of the country. The endeavour yielded hundreds of sites in present-day Punjab and Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Among them, the discovery of Rakhigarhi in Haryana and Dholavaria in Gujarat are considered the most significant.
The excavations at Rakhigarhi have revealed all the features of a typical Harappan settlement, says Banani Bhattacharya, deputy-director of Haryana’s archaeology department: a well-planned city with nearly two-metre-wide roads, brick-lined drains, pottery, terracotta statues, weights, bronze artifacts, combs, needles and terracotta seals; beads, tools, and, of course, the human remains.
Shinde said the first priority was to study the history of each mound to understand the sequencing. “We have also found very thick habitation deposit, almost a 22-metre deposit. That indicates a very intensive and extensive human activity at the site,” he says. The findings at Rakhigarhi suggest it may have played an important role in the contacts with Mesopotamia. The site could, says Shinde, provide clues about the relations of the Harappan people with their contemporaries, and the nature of these interactions.
For a site of its presumed importance, Rakhigarhi has not yet set the world of archaeology on fire. The wider world of Harappan scholars had adopted a wait-and-watch approach to the discoveries at Rakhigarhi. Jaya Menon, professor and head of the history department at Shiv Nadar University’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, says, as one of a handful of large Harappan settlements, Rakhigarhi “may well have been at the centre of a sub-region within the Greater Indus Valley”. But, Menon, who is also an archaeologist, cautioned that as an assessment of its size had been made on the basis of a surface survey, “it is better to wait for more detailed work, involving a systematic survey combined with excavation”.
International scholars did not initially pay much attention, says Shinde, “but after they came to know of our concentration on different aspects and the DNA extraction, there is a big buzz around it now.”
The findings could prove to be contentious. Scholarship on ancient India has been bitterly divided between those who believe that the post-Harappan Vedic civilisation was brought to the region by migrating peoples (the invasion theory has long stopped being taken seriously), and those who believe it was indigenous and has a link to the Harappan civilisation. One of the big fights in Harappan academia has been over the horse — Hindutva-leaning scholars have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to demonstrate that the animal, which finds extensive mention in the Vedas, was present in the Indus Valley Civilisation, while others have pointed out that it came with the waves of migration from the West.
“More recently,” says Menon, “it has become the fashion to study skeletons of roughly the late-Harappan and post-Harappan phases to see if there is any genetic change. The reason for doing so revolves around the issue of the homeland of the Aryans. Archaeologists studying genetic information have tried to show that there is no genetic change just when they would expect it to come, at about 1,500 BCE (the start of the Vedic period)”.
However, she says such archaeologists had found no genetic change in skeletal remains of populations during the last 5,000 years, even though it is established that historically-known peoples, such as the Kushanas, came into the subcontinent and made it their home. “At the same time,” she says, “it should be mentioned that there probably was no mass migration of people.” Instead, she says, it was more likely there were “periodic movements of small groups of mobile peoples” into the region, who also probably brought in a new language, Sanskrit.
Shinde says, at the moment, trying to establish a link between the Vedic period and the Indus Valley Civilisation is not the focus of his work. But he did not rule out the effort either, saying that, with the help of Sanskrit scholars at Deccan College, there is a plan for “a later stage” to “synchronise” the archaeological data with available literary data.
“But to be clear, we are not here to establish a linkage. We are confident that this research will give some answers on whether Harappan culture was related to Hinduism, in either a clear yes or no,” he says. “When we took up the site, we were clear that we didn’t want to do the same excavations of bones, structures, pottery etc. We were clear that we wanted to understand who the Harappan people were, how their culture developed, how they declined and whether climatic conditions played a role, and how the Saraswati disappeared,” he says, in a reference to the river mentioned in the Rig Veda, and whose existence, too, is a matter of contention for scholars. “When we started work, we knew it was for the long haul,” he says.
Among the finds at Rakhigarhi earlier this year, according to the Haryana archaeological department, were a couple of big bones, tentatively identified as those of two large mammals — the rhinoceros and the elephant. If proved, say the officials, it would show there was plenty of water in the vicinity, perhaps even swampy lands.
Rakhigarhi is located in the Ghaggar river basin. Ghaggar is a seasonal river that begins in Himachal Pradesh and flows through Haryana, one of its tributaries becoming the Hakra in Pakistan. Those who believe that the Saraswati mentioned in the Rig Veda is no mythical river and actually existed in ancient India, also believe that it flowed on the same path as the present-day Ghaggar. The BJP-run Haryana government has sunk Rs 500 million to find the “lost” river, beginning with excavations in Yamuna Nagar and the Saraswati Heritage Development Board.
Civilisations have been named after the rivers along which they came up. Thus, the earliest Harappan discoveries were named after the river Indus, in whose basin they were found. With so many new Harappan finds, many of them in the Ghaggar-Hakra basin, and hotly contested historical questions about ancient India, including over the origins of the Vedic culture, the discovery of Rakhigarhi has given rise to suggestions that the name Saraswati Valley Civilisation should be considered. It does not have many takers yet.
“Renaming the civilisation on that basis is not reasonable, especially since Mohenjo-daro on the Indus from many points of view remains an exceptional Harappan settlement with features not found at any other Harappan site. The term ‘Saraswati Valley Civilisation’ has its votaries but they by no means encompass the entire body of Harappan scholars. Much more work needs to be done at Rakhigarhi before we can compare it to other Harappan settlements,” said Menon of Shiv Nadar University.
What seems to be accepted, though, is that there was a river, a precursor to today’s Ghaggar, on the plains of which the Harappan settlements rose, their decline beginning with the drying up of the water body.
For the people of today’s Rakhigarhi, the irony in the discovery of an ancient settlement along a presumed river in the two villages that they now inhabit, combined with the frenzied search for the lost Saraswati, is that today, they have no water.
“We have to draw drinking water from tubewells in the fields,” says Bhupinder Singh. “We have sunk tubewells to irrigate our fields. The government gives us power to run them in the night. That’s when we fetch our water. We take plastic cans and bring them back on our bikes”.
In Rakhi Khas, 21-year-old Sandeep, the recently elected sarpanch, has drawn a pipe, at his own expense, from the tubewell in his field to some 250 houses in Rakhi Khas. “That is our only lifeline right now,” says Pardeep, his uncle.
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