By Monidipa Dey,
A recent piece of news, which has gone mostly unnoticed, yet can hold significant future implications in the field of archaeology, was the reopening of the Rakhigarhi site excavations in Haryana. During the early 20th century, when Indian history had no archeological records of the period between Stone age and the historic period (termed as the Dark Age), the sudden discovery of the Bronze age Harappan Culture came as a revolutionary find, which pushed back India’s antiquity by nearly 2000 years at one go. After decades of debates and many further discoveries it is now an established fact that the Harappan civilisation comprised of a number of varying indigenous cultural identities with many regional urban centers, such as Rakhigarhi, Dholavira, Mohenjo Daro, etc. These flourishing urban centres were backed by smaller agriculture based rural settlements and craftsmen establishments that provided for the economy of this Bronze age Culture, which was largely trade based, both domestic and international.
Among the 2000 sites excavated, Mohenjo daro (300 hectares) was considered the largest site from the Harappan culture, until April 2012. It was at this time under Professor Vasant Shinde a team of researchers and archeologists started fresh excavations, and after mapping the site soon found that it is larger than the Mohenjo Daro. Earlier Amarendra Nath (1997-1998, 2001) had conducted preliminary excavations on the site and reported a cluster of seven mounds, which he marked as RGR-1 to RGR-7, in close proximity to the current village of Rakhigarhi, covering a total area of about 105 ha. By 2020, the total number of mounds in Rakhigarhi amounted to 11, and the site size is now said to cover 550 hectares (5.5 km), of which only 5% has been excavated. As Prof Vasant Shinde, in charge of the 2016 excavations had said in an interview, “the scientific data collected on the basis of the excavations here have strongly pointed that Rakhigarhi, a metropolis, was perhaps the capital of its times about 5,000 years ago. We have collected evidences of massive manufacturing and trade activities in this town, which revealed the economic organisation and the foreign links of people here. They had trade links with people in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Baluchistan and even Afghanistan. The city flourished during the early Harappan era dating back to around 3,300 BCE and existed till 2000 BCE… So much material is available here that it would take 100 years to complete the study on uninhabited mounds on the outskirts of the village.”
Once a thriving Bronze era urban centre, Rakhigarhi is now a small village, and the site is situated at the centre of the Ghaggar-Hakra basin (in the valley of the now dry course of the Drishadvati River, a tributary of the Saraswati River), in the Narnaund Tehsil of Hissar district, Haryana. The excavations had started again on 1oth September 2021 from mound number one, a residential site in the Harappan times; however the license has expired on 30th September as was reported.
Importance of Rakhigarhi in the study of the Harappan Culture
Back in 2008 the Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and the Cambridge University in collaboration had undertaken a monumental project work that unearthed a large network of ancient habitations near Rakhigarhi. This project uncovered 127 sites spanning a long period in history, starting from the proto-historic early Harappan era settlements to early medieval (13th century) period. There are 182 archeological sites spread across the basin of Haryana’s largest seasonal river, the Ghaggar, and it was a monumental find in the sense that 125 of the discovered sites were unknown.
As Ravindra Nath Singh (department of ancient Indian history, culture and archaeology at BHU, and a project leader) said in an interview (interview source: Livemint, 2013), “In 2009, we excavated at Masudpur, which is 12km from Rakhigarhi, and discovered 13 sites that date back to the Early Harappan phase …It is highly likely that these sites fell under the socio-economic and political catchment area of Rakhigarhi.” Previous to this find, India had the Harappan sites mostly from the mature phase, while Pakistan had many sites dating from the early phase, giving rise to the theory that the Indus-Saraswati civilization took birth in the area which is now known as Pakistan, and later spread eastward towards to what is now India. In the context of these 2008 monumental findings near Rakhigarhi, Prof. Shinde said in his interview (interview source: Livemint, 2013) that “the evidence suggests possibly the opposite…We’ve got a few sites now in Haryana which date all the way back to 6000 BCE, and it’s evident that this area was one of the first places in the world where humans graduated from a nomadic hunting-gathering lifestyle to settled agricultural communities.”
Furthermore, carbon-dating tests on the artefacts (charcoal and shell bangles) found at the Bhirrana site in Haryana date back to nearly 7380 BCE, and similar to Rakhigarhi, Bhirrana too had settlements from the early phase of the Harappan culture (the pre-Harappan phase) to the late Harappan phase. There were some more significant discoveries, and the most noteworthy among them were the finding of burnt rice near the site, which date back to 4000 BCE (dispelling another myth that rice came from China to India sometime in 2500 BCE).
The current state of the Rakhigarhi site
The site, despite its historical significance, faces many issues, the gravest one being that of security. The Harappan mounds, including the protected ones, are encroached upon by modern structures, while some of the mounds are being used as cowsheds. RGR-4 to RGR-5, two large mounds, have village establishments (Rakhikhas and Rakhi Shahpur) on them, making RGR-5 inaccessible and RGR-4 only partly accessible for excavations. Besides land erosion, illegal encroachments, and illegal sand mining, a general tendency of the locals to not co-operate with the archeological teams stemming from a fear of loss of homes has caused many damages to this important pre-proto historic site. There have been reports of reckless hunting at the site for priceless antiquities, which sell at millions of dollars in the global antique market; and coupled with a lack of official protection, there have been reports of unscrupulous elements vandalizing the site and plundering it for treasure. The villagers have reportedly said that for many years the antiquities (such as, clay figurines and toys, terracotta items, copper objects, shells, semi-precious stones, beads, etc.) that were recovered from the site during ploughing and tilling have been sold for a mere trifle.
The importance of Haryana as the likely cradle of the Indian civilization cannot be overlooked, and needs greater attention from the concerned authorities. More researches must be conducted on the sites, and arrangements must be made for protecting them. It is also essential that public awareness be raised on the importance of these sites, and people made to understand as why it is necessary to protect such sites.
(The author is a well-known travel, heritage and history writer. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)