Searching for clues as to why we first imploded

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Dec 15, 2013

Is it engrained in our genes that we tend to implode? Of recent I have been exploring the role of Lahore in the Harappan and pre-Harappan ages, and it seems the picture of implosion vaguely emerges as a possibility. Naturally empirical data just does not exist, but the outline is very much there.

To be honest theories that suggest failure because of genetic configurations have never appealed to me. It is a scientific impossibility. But then if history is any measure of the way we have weaved our way through time, it seems we repeat our own downfall again and again, with immediate events providing the triggers for such implosion.

Sadly, in a newspaper column brevity is critical. So let me stick to the basics. Let me go back to the pre-Harappan age, to an age we can term as the ‘Sohan Age’. With the help of the movement of pottery discovered thanks to archaeological digs, and its quality as discovered from different sites, and Ms Shehrezade Alam is an expert in this, we see different qualities of ‘red pottery’ emerging depending on the site. Here carbon dating is the determinant.

Lest I get carried away, let me halt and describe, very briefly, of the role of the melting ices. In the sub-continent South India and the coast of Sindh and Balochistan were the first areas where planned agriculture appeared. As the world emerged out of the ice age, it melted at the topics first.

This is the reason Kot Diji and other sites in Balochistan show us the first planned cities. The Indus Valley Civilisation was being born, and it was to be a few thousand years later that the Gangetic Age appeared. It makes me sad, if anger is not a better word, for current Indian scholars tend to show ancient events as being more ‘eastward’ than they really were. History is written to suit current realities. Our ‘mullah’ discourse assists their bigots so that both the bigots have their way. But that is a story I will dwell on some other time.

We thus see planned cities emerging first in the south west, moving slowly northwards with Mohenjo Daro, and then Harappa and then Taxila, not to mention the thousands of other sites that are emerging as the exploratory sciences take their course.

From red pottery we see a black and white pottery. This scholar Piggott terms as ‘Zhob Pottery’, and then we see the emergence of pink and white pottery known as ‘Quetta Culture’.

Here the influence of the Oxus and Turkmenistan is clear, and the role of trade and industry come to the fore. Mind you in this time period the Iranian versions came in red and yellow versions.

But it was at Harappa that the peak of the planned city with its exquisite pottery emerges. Mind you the one and only dig undertaken inside the Lahore Fort was in 1952 and it produced such pottery at a depth of only 50 feet. No excavation since then has ever taken place.

But then a sudden change can be seen with the outer perimeters of all of ancient sites having unplanned streets, badly designed drainage, fewer baths and well and the location of brick kilns dangerously near the cities. The samples of pottery discovered also show a decline in quality. What went wrong? This is the question that needs to be answered by our researchers, scholars and experts, for in it lies what is wrong with us today.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler came to the conclusion that there was an ‘explosive happening’. The great Austrian ethnologist and archaeologist Robert Heine-Geldern also explains this as a ‘sudden happening’. I am certainly no expert, but what I am trying to determine is that the clue lies in the manner in which we understand the only written histories that emerged after that age, they being the ‘Mahabharata’ and the ‘Vedas’.

The scientific evidence that pottery provides definitely adds to our understanding, of this there is no doubt. Besides the detailed battles described, we have stories charting the decline of the Kurus, or if we see this very happening in dialectic terms of contradictions, then a picture of slow unraveling of the process is much clearer.

As society progressed from nomadic to a more planned sedentary way of life, the tyranny of the rulers can be clearly seen. Planned villages grew in size for larger urban centres to emerge.

This is the point at which we have to examine as to what exactly went wrong. It would be a mistake, a mistake Wheeler and Heine-Geldern both made, to presume that some violent external force led to a decline.

The fact remains that an inferior version of that very tradition, or let us assume rural folk heading to big cities in search of opportunities, grew to a critical mass where that very sophisticated tradition was over-whelmed.

This can be seen from the manner in which the outer peripheries of all the ancient cities of the Indus Valley were allowed to develop. This is no conjecture, but is there to be seen as they have been excavated.

Proof of this overwhelming fact can be seen from the hymns that exist in the ‘Rig-Vedas’ where the poet claims, in one example among many, and I quote: “This is our land, and the land of our forefathers, and of their forefathers, and our ways must surely prevail over the tyranny of the castes”. What better proof, if one is needed at all, to show that the emerging forces led by Sudas emerged victorious. But then Transadasyu of the Purus overcame him. Mind you the Purus and Bharatas were primarily rural based, and they managed to merge and form the new ruling classes of the Punjab.

Here another basic fact is indisputable, and that is that the retreating forces of the Brahmins saw the Indus Valley dwellers as not quite pure Hindus. Let me quote from the Vedas: “The more west you go the worse off they get. Imagine the same family having a Brahmin, a Kshatriya, and all the other lowly castes within the same family.

They are best shunned.” The egalitarian nature of the Punjabis and the Pakhtoons still holds true today, for as you go westward, the more egalitarian they get.

The point of this whole discourse, and I could not bring it to be more brief, is that the Indus Valley Civilisation did not decline because of any external force, but because it imploded due to a lack of education and rule of law. Given these conditions, it would not be a surprise if increasingly unhygienic living conditions led to the outbreak of disease, probably plague, for in the ‘Mahabharata’ mention of such an occurrence is repeatedly made. Such conditions accelerated by declining economic opportunity and even a complete breakdown of law and order could have led to what happened to an entire civilisation. The people returned to their villages. This is how the ‘Mahabharata’ concludes in a stirring hymn.

If what I propose is correct, then there is a need for us to study what is happening to us today. Has Lahore become unmanageable? Have health facilities declined? Has educational quality faltered, become confused and our mother tongue ignored? Does the tyranny of the ruler prevail? I leave the reader to reach her or his own conclusion.




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