Which civilisation as ancient and extensive as those of Egypt and Mesopotamia featured drainage and town-planning comparable with those of modern times, a sophisticated naval export trade to Mesopotamia, an absence of weapons and warfare, an exquisitely beautiful but undeciphered writing system — and may have been the origin of one of the modern world’s leading religions, Hinduism? Answer: the incomparable Indus civilisation, first excavated by British and Indian archaeologists 100 years ago, during the British Raj.
Perhaps the most famous statement about it is the opening paragraph of an article in the Illustrated London News published in 1924 by John Marshall, director general of the Archaeological Survey of India: ‘Not often has it been given to archaeologists, as it was given to [Heinrich] Schliemann at Tiryns and Mycenae, or to [Aurel] Stein in the deserts of Turkestan, to light upon the remains of a long-forgotten civilisation. It looks, however, at this moment, as if we are on the threshold of such a discovery in the plains of the Indus.’
Subsequent Indus excavations certainly made an impression on the art historian Kenneth Clark. In Civilisation, Clark’s 1969 study of western civilisation based on his pioneering television documentary series, he observed: ‘Three or four times in history man has made a leap forward that would have been unthinkable under ordinary evolutionary conditions. One such time was about the year 3000 BC, when quite suddenly civilisation appeared, not only in Egypt and Mesopotamia but also in the Indus valley; another was in the 6th century BC, when there was not only the miracle of Ionia and Greece ... but also in India a spiritual enlightenment that has perhaps never been equalled.’ Ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia are familiar to the world, because of their art, architecture, and royal burials and extensive references in Greek and Roman literature. So, of course, are the glories of classical Greece and, perhaps less so, the spirituality of Buddhist India and the theology of early Hinduism recorded in the Vedic literature, which was composed in the period 1500-500 BC. Not so familiar, however, is the civilisation that appeared in the Indus valley in the first half of the third millennium BC. Lost and found The Indus civilisation was, in its unique way, as extraordinary as those of Mesopotamia and Egypt. But it disappeared around 1800 BC and left no direct legacy in the Indian subcontinent. Neither Alexander the Great, who invaded India from the north-west in the 4th century BC, nor Asoka, the great, Buddhist-oriented emperor who ruled most of the subcontinent in the 3rd century, was even dimly aware of the Indus civilisation; nor were the Arab, Mughal, and European
The Past | April/May 2021