Mohenjo Daro: The story of a city

Only 10% of Mohenjo Daro has been excavated. The rest still waits to be discovered

The young woman looked out of the narrow slit in wall that served as a window in her house. She saw the sun rising over the brick city and the far off fields of wheat and barley, signaling to her to start her day. She stepped out of her brick house and used her favourite earthenware jar to get some water out of the well. The jar had been made by her sister, who had painted pictures of animals and geometrical designs on it. She washed her face and hands, not paying attention to the dirty water flowing into the drain outside the living area. Later, she will go down to the Great Bath before heading towards the temple for the evening prayers.

According to our current calendar, the year is 2600 BC. The name of the city has been lost to time but centuries later, denizens of the same area will call it Mohenjo Daro - City of the Dead. The young woman knows that she has to help her household harvest wheat and barley and store it in the large central granary, like the other families do. They will trade with other, similar cities, in the north and east. People, who will come much later, will call all of these cities the Harappan or the Indus Valley Civilization.

The citizens of this urban economic center have come a long way from their pastoral lives 500–1,000 years ago. The young woman has heard stories of how her ancestors planted crops; formed early villages in the area; and how some of them spread out to the north and east, settling there in similar urban centers. There are other rivers there but for her and her people, the Sindhu River will forever remain the source of life.

People come here from the west as well and she has heard stories of great civilizations there too. She wonders what their cities are like. She does not know that hers is the largest of what will eventually be known as the ancient world and that this city will share mention in history along with Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.

As she continues with her daily rituals, she is blissfully unaware of the fact that in a few centuries her city will no longer be the urban hub it is. Ruins of the brick walls and roads will be all that remain and it will become what it would eventually be known as – Mohenjo Daro, City of the Dead.

Mohenjo Daro, a thriving city and economic hub, formed a part of the Harappan Civilization (or Indus Valley Civilization) from 2600 BC to 1900 BC. Harappa; its twin in Punjab and other cities traversing western India, together formed the Indus Valley Civilization, covering the size of Western Europe. The period from 1900 BC to 1300 BC saw the decline of the cities. This picture is of what is known as the “college”.

(Photo: Samina Naz)

The Indus Valley Civilization was the largest of the four ancient civilizations, which included Mesopotamia, Egypt and China. Experts undertaking research in India now believe that the civilization is 8,000 years old, 2,500 older than previously thought, predating Mesopotamia and Egypt. At this time, they probably formed pastoral, early farming village communities. They were widely dispersed, spreading from Balochistan, Afghanistan, Sindh, Punjab through to Western India. The round structure at the top of the mound in the picture is a later addition. A Buddhist Stupa built over the original temple, where Shiva or Agni were probably worshipped.

Tragically, while we have extensive information about the other civilizations because we were able to decipher the languages, we have had no such luck here, even though we have found scripts written on pottery, seals and amulets. Only 10% of Mohenjo Daro has been excavated. A lot more still waits to be discovered, like underneath the mound in this picture.

Discovered in 1911, excavations began in Mohenjo Daro in 1922 and a treasure trove of pottery, seals and other artifacts were discovered, which point to craft technology, trade and economic expansion. Evidence suggests that the city was ruled through trade and religion, because there is no evidence of warfare or conquests. The rulers may very well have been merchants, property owners or religious leaders. This picture is of the market place, which had shops etc.

The brick houses, wells, drains, granaries and baths indicate that people from many different classes and occupations lived together in a grid like city, whose architecture and urban planning was not seen anywhere else in the ancient world. The left picture shows a well as part of a house; on the right is the Great Bath, probably used for religious purposes.

The picture on the top is of a street separating houses and the one on the bottom is of one of the main roads.

Our history books told us that the Aryans descended from the Central Asian mountains and decimated the earlier civilization around 1500 BC but new evidence suggests that this was unlikely. It is more probable that climate change caused droughts due to drying up of rivers and hiatus in monsoon, which led to the city’s abandonment and a migration towards the west. Other evidence (again from India) shows that people continued to survive even after the climate changed because they used shifting crop patterns, planting wheat and barley during heavy monsoons and millet and rice in the declining phase. This resulted in de-urbanization because large storage spaces were no longer needed and smaller home based crop processing and storage systems were used.

Sadly, as is always the tradition in Pakistan, we are more prone to words of glory than to action. And this is why Mohenjo Daro has been neglected for decades. No excavation has taken place and certainly, no concrete preservation has been authorized. Most of the recent information we have about the Harappans, is from excavation and research being done in India.

A glimmer of hope has just shone through, however. A Mohenjo Daro conference was held on the site, from February 9-11, organized by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities, Pakistan. One hopes that this will lead the way towards further excavation and preservation of this, our most profound heritage.

*All photos by the author, unless indicated otherwise

Saima Baig is a Karachi-based environmental economist, climate change consultant and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter

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