colonial rulers of India. Indeed, the Indus civilisation remained altogether invisible until the 1920s. Ever since, scholars — such as the indefatigable Indologist Asko Parpola — have been trying to elucidate its mysteries, including the meanings encoded in its undeciphered writing system, and thereby to elevate this most significant of ‘lost’ civilisations to the position it deserves, both in the history of South Asia and that of the world. Archaeologists have identified well over a thousand settlements belonging to the Indus civilisation’s ‘Mature’ phase (2600-1900 BC), of which fewer than 10% have been excavated. They cover at least 800,000 square kilometres of what in 1947 became Pakistan and India, an area approximately a quarter of the size of western Europe, with an original population of around one million people (the same as that of ancient Rome at its height). This was the most extensive urban culture of its time, about twice the size of its equivalent in Mesopotamia or Egypt. Most Indus settlements were villages, but some were towns and at least five were substantial cities. The two largest cities, Mohenjo-daro (a Unesco World Heritage Site) and Harappa, located some 600 kilometres apart beside the Indus river and one of its many tributaries, were comparable with cities such as Ur in Mesopotamia and Memphis in Egypt. However, these cities, despite their excellent brick-built construction, do not boast pyramids, palaces, temples, statues, and graves or hoards of gold like those found in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Their grandest building, the so-called Great Bath at Mohenjo-daro, is the world’s earliest public water-tank, with two wide staircases on the north and south leading down to a brick floor at a maximum depth of 2.4 metres, made watertight by a thick layer of bitumen. Though technically impressive for its time, the Great Bath was totally unadorned by carving or painting, at least so far as we know. Yet, Indus society, fed by crops watered by the great river and its many tributaries flowing from the Himalayas, was remarkably productive and sophisticated in other ways. The Indus dwellers constructed ocean-going merchant ships that sailed as far as the Persian Gulf and the river-based cities of Mesopotamia, where Indus jewellery, weights, inscribed seals, and other objects have been excavated, dating back to around 2500 BC. Mesopotamian cuneiform inscriptions refer to the Indus region by the name Meluhha, the precise meaning of which is unknown. The Indus cities’ advanced drainage and sanitation was two millennia ahead of that of the Roman Empire; besides the Great Bath, they included magnificent circular wells, elaborate drains running beneath corbelled arches and the world’s first-known toilets, sited among well-planned streets, generally laid out in the cardinal directions.
“This was the most extensive urban culture of its time.”
The Past | April/May 2021